As I returned from the Progress political weekend, a mini-Twitter storm seemed to have blown up among other Labour party members who haven’t joined Progress, objecting to the event as secretive (which was odd, given that pretty much the entire thing was tweeted, but anyway). One meme being used was actually quite a witty one, as great Labour figures of the past had their speeches ever so slightly altered to accord with what was judged to be ‘the Progress line’. Though as I say, some of these were quite funny, they represent the kinder end of a stick used to beat Progress and other moderates and modernisers in the party – that in some way we are an alien force, injected into Labour by Tony Blair and Peter Mandelson, and entirely cut off from the history of the labour movement.
Those who attended the excellent break-out session on Labour history led by Luke Akehurst at the weekend would be able to cut that historical untruth off at the knees: Luke argues persuasively that the broad church of the Labour party has always had what might be called a ‘Progress tradition’, and that it has not simply been grudgingly accepted, but has often led the party in terms of both personalities and policies.
With a keen eye for entertaining anecdotes and an impressive depth of knowledge, Luke took us on a swift but engaging gallop through Labour history, pointing up parts of our tradition that the Hard Left would often rather ignore. He started with the indigenous British tradition of ethical socialism, exemplified by Robert Owen, and pointed out that Labour owed far more to such ideas than to the influence of Marxism. The party was called Labour in part to make clear that it was not a ‘socialist’ party – socialists were part of the coalition, but they were not everything, and the practical, hard-headed realism of the trade union leaders was a far more important contributing factor to the emergence of the party. Even when socialism was formally added to the party’s constitution in 1918, as Clause IV, the great figures of the party continued to build Labour as a national not a sectional party, leading Herbert Morrison to leave his safe Labour seat in Hackney to campaign for Lewisham in 1945, in the conviction that if Labour couldn’t win in the suburbs, it wasn’t ever going to form a government anyway. The search for the centre-ground and the insistence Labour must occupy it to win is as old as the party.
Morrison’s conviction paid off and the government he became a part of also drew on the enormous talents of Ernest Bevin, trade union leader and outstanding wartime minister of labour, who Luke keenly pointed out was busy founding Nato while Bevan founded the NHS: the commitment to a strong working partnership with America as part of a sensible and practical defence policy is far older and far deeper in the labour movement than many acknowledge.
Luke also took the time to highlight that evidence of New Labour’s ‘control freakery’ pales in comparison to the disciplinary machinery of the immediate postwar period: over half of Labour’s MPs broke the whip at some point under Blair or Brown – absolutely every single one of them would have been thrown from the party under Attlee, where a single infraction against the whip cost you party membership. Bevan, having built the health service, found himself out of Labour for two years for such a crime.
There was more – Luke guided us through the arid period of opposition under Hugh Gaitskell, the party riven by arguments about nationalisation and nuclear disarmament, reminding us that the Labour party since 2010 has, much to the credit of all its leading figures, avoided forming the circular firing squad of the past. In an overview of the 1980s, Luke took the time to praise Tony Benn as a man genuinely committed to parliamentary democracy, but pointed out that many of those who followed in the wake of the Bennite challenge were neither democrats nor even committed to Labour – Militant was an entirely separate political party with a revolutionary ideology which cynically and parasitically entered into the Labour party to try to take it over.
Overall, Luke’s presentation makes clear both how wrong-headed and how unfair the attempts to call on the history of the Labour movement to delegitimise modernisers, including Progress, are: Morrison, Bevin, Healey, Crosland, Blair, Brown are obviously all distinct figures in the party’s history, none of them agreed entirely with the others (indeed, no Labour dispute will ever trump the antipathy between Morrison and Bevin: a friend once told Bevin that Morrison claimed to be his own worst enemy, ‘Not while I’m alive, he ain’t’, responded Bevin) – but all these leading Labour figures would find a place at any Progress meeting: these men were Labour to their core while also prepared to face the reality of the world around them and adapt Labour’s policy and processes to that reality, while still delivering for the working people of Britain. Just like Progress is today.
John Blake is chair of Labour Teachers
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