What is the purpose of the Labour Party?

In the run up to the 2021 Labour Party Conference, we publish this blog by Jacob Ecclestone who is a member of South Norfolk Labour Party. He was also Deputy General Secretary of the National Union of Journalists from 1980 – 1997 and worked for 17 years writing for The Times in the pre Murdoch days.

He asks the question on which so many of us have been pondering? Will the Conference provide any answers? And these are some of the questions that will also be considered at the Labour Left for Socialism event about which we posted here.

What is the purpose of the Labour Party? What does it exist to do?

Such questions may seem odd, particularly coming from someone who has cast a vote in the last 16 general elections, but the growing crisis around Keir Starmer’s leadership means that the demand for answers will become insistent.

The lack of clarity around what Labour wants to achieve has been reflected in its electoral decline over more than 40 years. In the six general elections between 1950 and 1966 – when it was out of power for all but three of those years – Labour won an average of 46.1 per cent of all votes cast. In the six general elections since 2001 it won an average of 34.5 per cent – and this figure would have been even lower had it not been for the fillip of 2017 when support for the party jumped to 40 per cent.

Time and again, the Labour Party has failed to win the support of working people simply because it was not clear about what it wanted to achieve in government – and voters can detect this uncertainty of purpose. Even when it was in government, Labour showed weakness, a lack of grip on the levers of political power. The consequences of this incoherence about ends have been twofold. First, internal differences have constantly threatened to pull the party apart; second, in trying to avoid such splits the leadership has nearly always played for safety – preferring compromise to principle while making vacuous calls for “party unity”.

Since the parliamentary leadership of the party almost always stands well to the right of the membership at large, many ordinary members become disheartened, disillusioned and eventually leave. In the rare periods when the party is led by someone “left” (Foot or Corbyn), it is the right-wing Labour MPs who show their disapproval and march off to set up new (short lived) parties

Traditionally the leadership of the party has disguised this intellectual emptiness, this lack of political purpose, by adopting the posture and appearance of strong control. Today, we have Keir Starmer and David Evans using the same techniques of suspensions, expulsions and withdrawing the whip that have been tried, tested and failed under their predecessors.

Jeremy Corbyn’s support for the people of Palestine and his principled opposition to Israeli apartheid may have cost him the party whip, but he stands in good company: Nye Bevan was expelled for opposing Labour’s policy of “non-intervention” in the Spanish civil war and Stafford Cripps was expelled for advocating a “popular front” to resist fascism in collaboration with the Liberals, Communists and even anti appeasement Tories. In the early ’60s, Hugh Gaitskell withdrew the whip from Michael Foot because he voted against increased military spending.

The pattern is obvious: cautious, right wing leaders want to appear tough by silencing left-wing dissent within the party. Because they cannot openly admit to being intolerant of radical and socialist ideas – that would not square with claims to being a democratic party – they fall back on tawdry, bureaucratic procedures. Leadership of this sort is designed to win media approval – from Murdoch’s attack dogs on the Sun and The Times to the more refined but equally reactionary journalists at the BBC and Guardian. Approval is invariably given.

Underlying this sense of uncertainty about what Labour stands for (other than PR-rubbish about “fairness “and “equality of opportunity”) is the deep-seated failure to develop a political programme which has been discussed and sifted and argued over by the members themselves. Time and again, Labour Party manifestos look as if they have been cobbled together at the last minute – and mostly they have. The consequence of this failure to prepare for government, not over a few weeks but over years, is that political ideas and policies are never given the chance to take root in the population at large.

An example of this failure of vision came at this year’s women’s conference when several constituencies called for reforms to make social care free at the point of use. Thangam Debonnaire – Labour’s Shadow Leader of the House – ridiculed the idea, terrified that the conference might adopt a proposal which would require the party to justify tax increases. The proposal was dropped. Two months later we have Boris Johnson pushing through a tax increase to pay for improved social care with the Parliamentary Labour Party left floundering.

Anyone trying to understand what the Labour Party exists to do will not find its constitutional rules of any help. The first purpose is to “organise and maintain” a political party; the second (stripping out the waffle about making “communities stronger”) is to get party members elected “at all levels of the democratic process”, and the third commits the party to “give effect to…… the principles approved by party conference.” This last is qualified by the weasel phrase “as far as may be practicable”. For some reason, the rules do not say who decides what is practicable or not, but experience suggests that it is the party leader and the small coterie of MPs who flutter around him seeking preferment.

Oblivious to the irony, Tony Blair began his campaign to redefine the purpose of the party by asserting that Clause IV of the constitution – which had been adopted in 1918 – did not clearly set out the party’s means and ends. In 1995 the party was persuaded to scrap such old fashioned socialist nonsense as “the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange”. Instead, Labour would create “a community in which power, wealth and opportunity are in the hands of the many not the few.” A laudable aim, no doubt, though no-one has so far produced any ideas, much less a programme, of how this might be achieved.

What is certain is that Labour governments held power for 13 years after the party adopted these words and yet neither Blair nor Gordon Brown, made any serious effort to remove “power, wealth and opportunity” from the hands of the few.

Indeed, what many people will recall of the Blair years is Peter Mandelson, one of his key “thinkers”, saying that “New Labour is intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich.”

This remark exposed how far Labour’s moral vision had become blurred,. Compare Mandelson’s words with those of R.H. Tawney who, half a century earlier, had declared: “The revolt of the ordinary man and woman against Capitalism had its source…… in the straightforward hatred of a system which stunts personality and corrupts human relations by permitting the use of man by man as an instrument of pecuniary gain.”

If politics is about the way in which society is organised, about who rules and for what ends, then the Tories – who know precisely what their party exists to do – have had it more or less all their own way for the last 250 years. We have had the Labour Party for more than a century, but Britain today is still largely run by – and in the interests of – a small number of grotesquely wealthy and powerful people with backgrounds in commerce, industry, finance and land.

Year by year, the gulf between rich and poor grows wider, child poverty and homelessness increase, the health of the nation declines, social care disintegrates …. Meanwhile, after a brief flowering of hope under Corbyn’s leadership, the Labour Party is once again run by people who lack any ideology, principle or even the ability to organise as an opposition.

So, how are the opening questions to be answered? To be of real value, the answers must come from the members and they must be worked out and developed over time in a systematic and organised manner. The process must start now and be bottom up not top down. Here – as a starter – are five suggestions for the sort of policies the Labour Party should adopt and campaign around before the next general election.

  1. A wealth tax and a 100 % tax rate on all inherited wealth over £250,000.
  2. All primary and secondary education to be returned to local authority control and all public schools abolished.
  3. All social care services to be integrated into the NHS (free at the point of use) and commercial involvement in the NHS to be prohibited.
  4. A programme to build 200,000 social housing units a year with local authorities encouraged to set up their own direct labour schemes
  5. A commitment to de-commission all Britain’s nuclear weapons within one year of taking office.

Comments (19)

  • michael levine says:

    Item1 seems to have consequences. Say a man dies. his wife or children are living in a house worth more than £250,000. They are made homeless.
    Better to have progressive income tax. With high rates for income over
    a threshold to be determined with consideration inflation.

  • Paul Seligman says:

    While there is plenty of good stuff here, the 100% tax rate on inherited wealth hasn’t been thought through. If the state will confiscate any inheritance over 250k, why would anyone be allowed to ever accumulate more than that by any other means? Why shouldn’t children inherit a house, most of which will be worth more than that? (Average UK house is 256k). And in what imaginary world would such a policy get more than a handful of votes in the UK?

    I’m fine to debate greater taxes on inherited wealth or any other form of income, earned or unearned. But let’s get real.

  • Brian Warshaw says:

    I’ll go alone with first five policy decisions from the bottom to the top. Having originally joined the Party in 1959, it wasn’t until Corbyn was elected leader that I thought we had a chance of achieving a move towards socialism. But it didn’t, and I won’t see it in my lifetime.

  • Mary Davies says:

    Excellent article.

    6. Climate change ssolutions.

  • Linda says:

    I agree with the author that we have a crisis of authority within Labour, the MPs seeing themselves as being part of the boss class in the party instead of being simply equal partners with the membership, CLPs, councillors and affiliates. The MPs’ inflated views of their position within the party helped those disloyal and vicious towards Corbyn justify to themselves and others what they were doing.

    The only way to encourage closer, more communicative, more mutually respectful relationships between the very important Labour MPs “tail” and the even more important rest of the party’s “dog”, I feel, is to work towards the local Labour membership having automatic right to recall their MP whenever a specific fraction is angry enough to do so.

    Such recalls would be Armageddon for both sides – at worst they’ll trigger by-elections. To avoid such unwanted developments, both sides hopefully will work consistently for good relationships between them and for high standards of performance from both MP and hi / her local backers.

    Labour’s finances and bad blood may now be sufficiently dire to force the above unwanted changes on the MPs. Many of them know they’ll lose their seats next time round unless they can re-enthuse the parts of the membership and affiliate organisations currently voting with their feet.

  • Don’t disagree with your five points. Seem pretty basic social democratic demands.
    Why is Labour worse now than before? There is this obsess with Israel/Palestine.. but that’s been around since the 1940s.

  • Eddie Dougall says:

    Well done, Jacob, an excellent contribution to the struggle to bring socialism to the Labour party.

  • Miriam Yagud says:

    Excellent analysis of where Labour is now.
    Thankyou Jacob
    This comment resonated for me,
    ‘Underlying this sense of uncertainty about what Labour stands for (other than PR-rubbish about “fairness “and “equality of opportunity”) is the deep-seated failure to develop a political programme which has been discussed and sifted and argued over by the members themselves.’
    When I joined Labour 6 years ago I was shocked at the almost total absence of political content and discussion between members.
    Bureaucratic processes and an obsession with procedures dominate the limited time and space when members meet. In defence of this political culture, many make the argument that a political party builds for elections…getting elected and getting the vote out, is the work of a political party, not discussing politics or “being a talking shop ” as many refer to it.
    This resistance to learning and strengthening core principles and values enables the leadership and PLP to resist action for genuine redistribution of wealth and power, loses enthusiasm of members and is exactly why Labour is hollowed out of meaning and dominated by zombie members

  • Andre Heal says:

    As a previously committed member since my youth, I ended my membership because of Blair. Jacob has here touched the very nub of truth and reality. I salute his ability to see the wood for the trees.

  • Hamish Coubrough says:

    Brilliant. I can’t find anything to disagree with here. This says what we are and type of society we want to create.

  • J Mark Dodds says:

    Thanks for writing such an accessible and detailed piece that’s so refreshing to read it gives me hope for the future of Labour, having resigned my membership when Corbyn was vilified by The Labour Party.

  • Dave Hansell says:

    timely and relevant question. The basic problem being that means and ends have become confused leading to a situation in which the predominant natural default position and approach is that the Labour Party has become the ends rather than the means.

    One feature of this being a dogmatic insistence that the only route to non Tory ‘salvation’ is via the Labour Party which insists it has an automatic right to a monopoly gatekeeping position. ‘Salvation’ can only be achieved through us.

    This results in the assumption that simply voting for Labour candidates will automatically result in improvements to society as an article of faith rather considering what the policy ends and objectives should be that the Party exists to achieve.

    As a consequence energies are concentrated on the organisation, it’s bureaucracy and hierarchy rather than what it exits for. The objective becomes the organisation. Machine politics which attracts managerialist careerists capable only of coping (to cope means to manage and should not be confused with leadership which is an entirely different and, in terms of those attracted by machine politics, alien concept).

    This leads to what is familiar to many employed in any organisation from whatever sector (including third/community sector): the problem of hierarchy. Where ideas and initiatives from below are considered to be a threat because in a hierarchy those with the pips on the shoulder (and those who are hoping for the pips on the shoulder) consider they are where they are because they know best.

    As a consequence the choice is invariably between being right or being in control and, again invariably, the copers choose control to maintain the hierarchy and career path which is now the ends rather than simply the means.

  • Nick Elvidge says:

    a consensus everywhere seems to be emerging that equality and democracy are the real answers to our multiple existential crises’

  • Ron Kempshall says:

    A great assessment of the Labour party and where we should be. I was disillusioned with the Party under Blair but renewed my membership when a breath of socialism emerged under Jeremy Corbyn. We must return to socialist policies as you suggested, but must include the youth of today !

  • steve mitchell says:

    One of my most precious possessions is the two volume biography of Nye Bevan. It is a story that reveals Nyes’ constant battle with the Right. He was threatened with expulsion on several occasions . The last being on 1955. He was hated by both right wing MPs and trades union leaders. He remarked at the time that that to be a socialist in the Labour Party meant you had to keep quiet. Around the same time he told his friends that if the Party had been under Gaitskell in 1945 the NHS would never have been created. Bevan ,in my opinion is the greatest minister ever ,in peacetime. No other minster has left such a indelible mark on British life. If the Right could treat such a man ,a political giant, then no one is safe, Throughout its existence the Labour Party has been plagued by powerful members who are not socialists ,nor have they ever been socialists of any stripe. Yet is says distinctly on every membership card the Labour Party is a democratic socialist party.

  • Naomi Wayne says:

    I was surprised and disappointed to read the proposal for seizing property over £250k. It suggests a disturbing ignorance of the proportion of the population who are now fully invested in being part of a ‘house-owning democracy’. I have no problem with a wealth tax and with a sensibly pitched property tax, but not a policy which millions of existing Labour supporters will reject.

    The other policies are fine, but there is one huge omission. Labour must abandon its arrogant and narcissistic view that it is ‘entitled’ to left and working class votes and that other non Tory parties are taking ‘Labour votes’. The best way to confront this self-absorption is to take a huge democratic step and come out in favour of PR. At a stroke, that would demonstrate how Labour is on the side of those millions of voters whose votes are ‘wasted’ under FPTP, and would deny minority Tory governments the freedom to wreck and destroy.

  • Annie Singh says:

    Want to read more

  • Theresa Mason says:

    Wow. Brilliant! I’ve left the Labour party twice in the last 30 years. First over Clause 28 and then again when Jeremy Cornyn was hounded out. I welcome this kind of discussion and the proposals at the end. There have to be radical changes to make the Labour party relevant and viable.

    Thank you Jacob

  • Richard Purdie says:

    Yet again, the failures of Labour are to be remedied by buying in to a small raft of policy ‘suggestions’. Lack of clear policy is not , as this JVL article suggests, the underlying problem. That problem is easily stated: where does the power lie to win helpful reforms under capitalism ( and , ultimately, to dispose of it altogether? )
    To that question, Labour, whether kissing the monarch’s backside or conversely singing the ‘Red Flag’, has no answer. In the long postwar boom, it could have some traction, because some limited reforms could be wrested from the system. In the unending crisis of late capitalism, none are to be had, no matter whether the flagbearer is named Tsipras in Greece or Corbyn in the UK. Therein lies both the irrelevance and impotence of Labour politics, and the urgent need of a revolutionary socialist alternative.

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