Sunday, December 12, 2010

Liberals and Labour 101

Throughout its history, the Labour Party has usually been thought of as being left wing or centre-left in its politics. Officially, it has maintained the stance of being a socialist party ever since its inception, currently describing itself as a "democratic socialist party". Nonetheless, throughout its history, it has been criticised by other leftist commentators and historians for not being truly socialist in its policies, instead supporting anti-socialist stances such as capitalism and neo-colonialism. The Marxist historians Tony Cliff and Donny Gluckstein for instance described it as a "capitalist workers' party" which "defends the interests of capitalism (particularly when in government) but has the mass support of workers.".
Historically the party was broadly in favour of socialism, as set out in Clause Four of the original party constitution, and advocated socialist policies such as public ownership of key industries, government intervention in the economy, redistribution of wealth, increased rights for workers, the welfare state, publicly-funded healthcare and education. Beginning in the late-1980s under the leadership of Neil Kinnock, and subsequently under John Smith and Tony Blair, the party moved away from socialist positions and adopted free market policies, leading many observers to describe the Labour Party as Social Democratic or Third Way, rather than democratic socialist.
Party electoral manifestos have not contained the term socialism since 1992, when the original Clause Four was abolished. The new version states:
"The Labour Party is a democratic socialist party. It believes that by the strength of our common endeavour we achieve more than we achieve alone, so as to create for each of us the means to realise our true potential and for all of us a community in which power, wealth and opportunity are in the hands of the many, not the few, where the rights we enjoy reflect the duties we owe, and where we live together, freely, in a spirit of solidarity, tolerance and respect.

This is a very slick piece of editing. The Labour Party in Britain began as an amalgam of various left wing groups, none of which could win on its own. After a famous legal dispute in which a labour strike was defeated, the court decided the labour organization had to pay damages to the company for disrupting business during the strike. This was the fire that ignited the Labour movement, not the tracts or street speeches about the oppression of the proletariat.

Labour has survived in the UK by backing away from “Clause Four” which philosophically favors doctrinaire socialism. The replacement clause is a fuzzy-wuzzy quasi-communitarian clause that disfavors extreme concentration of wealth. The Labour party has moved from being the main party of socialism in the UK to being a moderate, anti-plutocratic party. This movement, “New Labour,” has made it the majority party in Parliament for a record period of time, 1995 to 2010.

Labour was a third party that gradually outmaneuvered the Liberal Party from the beginning of the twentieth century into the 1930s. Whether this success is attributable to the vehemence and clarity of being a party speaking for the workers or the blundering and establishment reputation of the Liberal party is not clear to me. In either case, Labour is the primary party of the left in the UK, the party of pacifism and redistribution. I would contend that pacifism in the face of the two world wars kept “Old Labour” from ever obtaining power long enough and strong enough to effect the complete redistribution of wealth that the party platform called for. The extensive redistribution that was accomplished, especially under Clement Atlee and Harold Wilson, was enough to create a stagnant economy that became the reason Margaret Thatcher was so successful politically from 1979 to 1990 as Prime Minister. We could say that modern Labour is a successful response to Thatcherism, itself a realistic implementation of the philosophy of F.A. von Hayek as well as prosecution of the Cold War to actual outright victory instead of permanent stalemate.

In the UK, there has been an increasingly fuzzy message from the left going up against a remarkable clear philosophy from the right. The result has been a successful pro-capitalist revolution of the Labour party, a conservative movement that has stopped losing and a significant but not overwhelming growth of the third-place Liberal party.

What we're looking for in this blog is a clear presentation of principles and ideas from the left (to match what has been discussed from the right and the libertarians). But British politics are so full of adjustments and compromises that it is difficult to get to a clear statement about the left's philosophy, consistently, in the UK. Methodism and Marxism were important in the formulation of Labour and the left. It was litigation that made them politically significant. It was a movement to the center that brought them to power in the modern era.

I think we can say that Labour has been consistently willing to form coalitions and consistently against plutocracy. Perhaps we can add that Labour has been chipping away at Magna Carta (including the repeal in 1969 under Harold Wilson except for paragraphs 1, 9, and 29) and has shown a deaf ear to individual rights and privacy under Tony Blair.

But this is not enough to reveal the central faith of the British left, the sudden temper and confrontationalism seen in Parliamentary discussions. A faith is there but will have to be discovered through other methods than sheer political and textual analysis.

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