Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Owning the past

Labour’s ‘modernisers’ must be willing to look to the past in order to build for the future, writes Progress deputy editor Conor Pope

In their feature for this month’s Progress magazine, Ben Shimshon and Cordelia Hay lay out a few rules for progressives to start winning again in 2017, following the 2016 omnicock-up. One of the pieces of advice, in particular, struck a chord: get a change back message.

They contend that both of the big electoral upsets of the year were, to an extent, fairly standard ‘change’ campaigns – with one shared subversion to the successful norm: they were about reversing change. Donald Trump’s ‘make America great again’ slogan rested on the pivotal ‘again’, while Vote Leave’s ‘take back control’ needed the ‘back’ in order to chime with the disenfranchised ‘left behinds’ they needed to reach. As Shimshon and Hay write: ‘These little qualifiers offered a nostalgic inflection that softened these change messages. They reflected that, for many, the decades of constant change that have accompanied globalisation, technological advance and the onward march of ‘progressive’ politics have been a disorientating and marginalising experience.’

For many of us, this is a disconcerting idea. So much of our success comes from moving things forward: we do, after all, think of ourselves ‘progressive’. From the ‘now win the peace’ posters in the 1945 campaign, to Harold Wilson’s ‘white heat’ of the technological revolution, to the entire founding premise on which New Labour was built; it was all about the next, not the last.

Now, it seems it is as much about owning the past as owning the future.

But that reminds me of the reason that Jess Phillips gave to Jacob Rees-Mogg during the 2015 Labour leadership contest for not voting for Liz Kendall. She said that ‘Kendall[‘s leadership campaign] harks back to the past just as much as Jeremy Corbyn. It’s just a more recent past.’ Back, not forward.

I know that comment gave Progress chair Alison McGovern pause for thought too. How could the candidate of the ‘modernisers’ in the party not be seen to be forward-looking?

While that is a problem – and moderate socialists and social democrats have a huge problem working out a vision for the present, let alone the future – it is only part of our difficulties.

What we learned from Richard Carr’s excellent long essay (also in the latest issue of Progress) was the truth of Corbyn’s ideological history, not the one that has helped him win such support. He is light on actual policy – we are yet to see anything concrete stuff on policy implementation – but he is big on messaging, and he has owned the past. More importantly, for many, he has owned Labour’s past.

This is something I have written about previously, and is a failing of our own side. The victor writes the past and New Labour wrote itself out of much it. It had to be iconoclastic to win, by setting itself apart from ‘old Labour’.

But we know that New Labour was, in fact, very much in the vein of many Labour traditions. Recently, I came across a copy of the young Fabians magazine, Anticipations, from 1996. In an interview with Denis Healey, the ex-chancellor (who had first stood for parliament in 1945) argued that ‘[Clement] Attlee would agree with everything Tony [Blair] is doing’. It is a point my colleague Jerome Neil has also touched on recently.

It is something we must contend with if we are to win again. Should the hard-left manage to pass the McDonnell amendment at conference, we could be more likely to see Corbyn willing to stand down and one of his few ideological allies in the parliamentary Labour party receive his blessing. Then we will find out how much of his support depends solely on him, or whether the hard-left has put in place the infrastructure and a strong enough narrative to win without him.

We should always look to own the future – but I think as progressives that will always be something we aim for anyway. It is just that without owning the past, we will fail.


Conor Pope is deputy editor at Progress. He tweets at @conorpope



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Conor Pope

is deputy editor at Progress


  • My mum told me that you were that progressive in 1951 that you wanted to keep rationing and it cost you that election.

  • The real weak spot of the Attlee Government, for all its tremendous domestic achievements, was its awful foreign policy, the catastrophic consequences of which are still being played out. Notice that no one is ever a fan both of its domestic and its foreign policy. That never, ever happens.

    As for Healey, look up Diego Garcia, and also remember that he introduced to monetarism to Britain. That did not begin in 1979.

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