The concept of Old Labour is vague, but comforting. It conjures up images of a time when values weren’t compromised. A time when the party knew what, and most importantly, who it stood for.
Sustaining this legend requires a number of instances of racism at the core of Labour policy in both foreign and domestic spheres to be ignored, and a gross misunderstanding of Clause IV. Many who do understand the history of the party will ignore parts they find uncomfortable, for factional reasons. In other instances, they simply cannot see beyond the idealised, transformative and moral party they believe Labour to have always been. Very few politicians or commentators explicitly endorse a complete return to the ideals of Old Labour. However, they do buy into much of the surrounding mythology – which has at its heart the idea that the party was truly socialist and uncomplicatedly virtuous until the advent of New Labour.
Old Labour has, in recent times, been presented as the pure set of values betrayed by New Labour and Tony Blair – with Iraq, PFI and the rewriting of Clause IV. Most recently, Jon Lansman stated in a series of tweets that Tony Blair was “in the wrong party,” and “a Tory”. Lansman was able to make these claims despite having described Blair’s predecessor, and Gordon Brown’s mentor, John Smith as “the tragic lost leader we should have had in 1997.” Lansman’s analysis highlights the amorphous nature of Old Labour’s use as a confused factional device, but all wings of the party are happy to wheel out the betrayal narrative. Similar accusations are levelled at Jeremy Corbyn, incidentally once one of Smith’s strongest critics, from those on the right of the party. Their perception of Corbyn and his allies is that they are as alien to the Labour tradition as is Blair in Lansman’s view. Corbynism is seen as a movement riddled with Trots, Stalinists and everything in between. What seems to unite all factions is a commitment to a party that never truly existed.
The myth of Old Labour and the accusations of betrayal existed long before the New Labour project. Tony Benn defended Labour’s crushing loss in 1983 by saying “For the first time since 1945, a party with an openly socialist policy has received the support of over eight and a half million people. This is a remarkable development.” This comment came from an overtly factional position, seeking to paint the left as the sole custodians of the socialist tradition within the party and the true children of 1945. The Attlee government is the founding myth of Old Labour. In 2016, at the Durham Miners’ Gala, leftwing veteran Dennis Skinner claimed that a Jeremy Corbyn-led Labour government “would be like 1945 all over again”. The common narrative surrounding the two post-war governments, however, erases the failures of both the Attlee government and the lacklustre post-war ideas of Skinner’s own tradition, as seen in Ken Loach’s “The Spirit of’45”.
During this time, the Labour left favoured overall control of the economy through centralised public ownership as a first priority, ignoring the fact that most of these nationalisations simply left most of the same managers in place. These nationalisations were not undertaken by the Labour government out of socialist aspiration; the left had, much like the right of the party, bought into the notions of the People’s War and the People’s Victory but in doing so they abandoned their raison d’être. As the historian David Edgerton argues, this was not socialism, but nationalism. “The nationalism of Labour and the left is plain to see, if one is willing to see it”. On resigning from the Labour government in 1951, the leader of the left, Aneurin Bevan, claimed that ‘This great nation’ had, by the end of 1950 ‘assumed the moral leadership of the world.’” This was the same nation and the same government that had forcibly removed half a million Malayan peasants from their homes and interned them in guarded camps referred to as “New Villages”, as part of the Briggs Plan during the Malayan Emergency of 1950. It is easier for contemporary politicians to claim ownership of a sanitised image of 45-51 than to actually engage with its reality.
The roots of Corbyn’s foreign policy outlook can be seen in the post-war positions taken by the Labour left, with their initial support of NATO giving way to a commitment to the idea of Britain as a neutral third force in international politics after 1951. The idealistic attraction of such a position is clear, but it could fundamentally only have been achieved and maintained by clinging onto the last vestiges of Empire, which the left rightly would have deemed unacceptable. Post-war delusion had fuelled a wave of nationalism within the Labour Party and the left was not immune from it, as Bevan’s remarks demonstrated.
While many may believe the modern Labour Party to be firmly an anti-racist one, it’s beyond doubt that this was far from the case for Old Labour. The actions and attitudes of past Labour governments and politicians on race are ignored completely or explained away by many in the party today. Diane Abbott’s still prescient analysis of Blue Labour best reflects the way the concept of Old Labour is approached by many politicians and commentators.
The Commonwealth Immigration Act of 1968 is the foremost example of the duplicitous nature of Labour’s attitude towards race during the 60s. On the face of it, Labour passed two Race Relations Acts and Harold Wilson had branded Peter Griffiths a “parliamentary leper,” for the now infamous “If you want a n****r for a neighbour vote Liberal or Labour,” literature distributed during the 1964 general election in Smethwick. However, the Immigration Act was in effect a whites-only policy, which barred two hundred thousand Asians in Kenya from entry to Britain, despite the fact most of them held British passports. Writing in the New Statesman 20 years ago, Mark Lattimer stated that before the notorious “Rivers of Blood” speech, “…the Labour government had already done more to catalyse racial prejudice than Powell’s rhetoric ever could.” The only opposition within the government came from Commonwealth secretary of state George Thomson, as Barbara Castle had apparently (per Anthony Crosland’s recollections) fallen asleep in the key meeting. The Immigration Act was a complete repudiation of the Race Relations Acts, and of the image of itself that Labour had tried to convey to the British public.
This policy was far from an isolated incident for Old Labour. During the Labour government of the late 1970s, at least eighty women were subjected to “virginity tests” upon trying to enter Britain. In one instance, a woman was offered £500 “in recognition of the distress she had been caused” on the proviso that she agreed “not to initiate any proceedings against the Home Office.” Far from assuming moral leadership of the world, Labour and Britain were implementing racist immigration policies and bribing abuse victims not to sue the government.
The neverending battles surrounding Clause IV are another example of Labour’s failure to reconcile itself fully with its own past. Prior to the rewrite of Clause IV in 1995, Labour was never referred to as socialist in any official capacity. Both incarnations of Clause IV are better seen as reflections of the dominant forces in the party at the time than they are emblematic of a real aspiration to socialism (as the 1918 version is often lauded) or as a barrier to it (as the 1995 rewrite is often decried). The rewriting of Clause IV is seen by the left as symbolic of the party’s commitment to socialism being trashed by Blair. However, that doesn’t reflect reality. Old Labour, by any reasonable definition, was no more truly socialist than New Labour. Edgerton argues “Once we ditch the assumption that we need to think of Labour as either liberal or socialist, we can begin to note the extraordinary importance of nationalism in its programme.” He goes on to argue Labour had no distinctive plan for the economy beyond the nationalisation of the coal industry and coal-using sectors post-war. This transitioned into intervention and support of private enterprise as part of an industrial strategy based on a hoped-for partnership. The socialist tradition bought into the economic nationalism of Tony Benn’s Alternative Economic Strategy, the last gasp of the logic of 1945 Labourism, in effect becoming party policy in the 1983 manifesto. Old Labour’s vague founding principles had given rise to policy proposals that reflected the longing for a nonexistent past that, as in 45-51, placed the British nation above any tangible commitment to socialism.
The Labour Party’s perception of itself is messy and confused. The 45-51 governments are idealised and sanitised by all wings of the party, with the left of the party desperately trying to claim ownership of the “spirit of 1945”. Claims of ideological ownership to 45-51 from the right of the party are more focused on Attlee as a politician than the policies and make-up of the Labour governments. Labour did not assume ‘the moral leadership of the world’ while interning Malayan peasants in guarded camps. It is impossible to entirely divorce the post-war Labour government’s nationalism from the racist policies of Labour governments in the 1960s and 1970s. The party’s collective need to present itself as being on the “right side of history” means that acknowledgement of these truths is rare. Blue Labour, who have concocted their own mythology presenting social conservatism as the dominant tradition within the Labour party before Tony Blair, are a prime example of why a misplaced loyalty to an idealised history is dangerous.
There will always be elements within the party intent on fighting yesterday’s battles, but a reckoning with these harsh realities is essential for any hopes of a Labour party that aspires to be pluralistic. David Edgerton’s work is helpful in understanding the economic nationalism of Old Labour, and Steven Fielding’s work on 45-51 provides much needed clarity on the defining myths of Labour history. We need a revisionist view of Labour, New and Old, after the fashion of the recent re-assessment of Winston Churchill. Romanticising Old Labour for factional purposes or out of sheer ignorance will damn many in the party to repeat the same mistakes; believing they can practise a ‘good’ kind of nationalism or simply ignoring the racism at the very core of previous Labour policy. Discourse on how the party can learn from its past must be based on a true representation, not one sanitised or clouded by sentiment. Labour’s past is not and should not be a blueprint for its future.