If/when Labour gets in …

Ross McKibbin argues the case for confrontation as opposed to consensus

How should Labour govern? This is a question it is still reasonable to ask, though as the election gets ever closer and Labour’s lead gets ever smaller, it might answer itself. Still, it is a question to which Tony Blair has given much thought; and so should we. All social democratic parties, of which the British Labour Party probably is still one, are torn between two possible forms of political action, which are, in turn, dependent on two possible ‘models’ of society. One model sees group relationships, particularly if groups are called ‘classes’, as essentially conflictual; the other sees them as essentially harmonious. Over time, the second, in all such parties, has become increasingly dominant, though the first has not lost all ideological power. Throughout its history the Labour Party has oscillated nervously between the two; and not simply for tactical reasons. Both models have, from its beginning, been fully represented within the Party’s ideological tradition. The first regards Labour as standing for and responsible to an industrial working class organised by its own institutions, particularly the trade unions. It endows that class, rather as Marxism does, with a unique, possibly predetermined, place in human development but sees it, nonetheless, as surrounded by those who will resist to the end attacks on their privileges or, this being Britain, their incompetence. ‘Socialism’, to the extent that the word is used, therefore implies conflict.

It is also, however, a party with a markedly consensual rhetoric, one which defines socialism as anything but conflictual. This definition sees the Party as the bearer of ‘progress’, economic, technological and social, and is easily elided into the notion that the Labour Party is the party of ‘modernisation’: it thus represents a kind of British Saint-Simonianism. Such progress, it argues, is in the interests of everyone; the Labour Party does what the older parties, through inertia or the force of vested interest, are no longer able to do. As defined by someone like Ramsay MacDonald this is what constitutes ‘socialism’ – a process by which society inevitably evolves into collective forms of life – and in MacDonald’s case it did not even require a working-class party to further it. This kind of socialism allows that there are scroungers and parasites at the very top and bottom of the social heap who, being anti-social, are excluded from society – but there are not many of them. Hence, the function of the Labour Party is to convince society that it is in society’s interest as a whole to support both Labour and progress. If there is social conflict it is because the ‘losers’ misunderstand the outcome: like everyone else, they are really ‘winners’.

In practice, of course, these ‘models’ are not alternative forms of action. Both are, so to speak, true, and in any democracy political parties, like democratic societies as a whole, are under immense pressure not to adopt one model exclusively; they are, particularly, under pressure not to adopt the conflictual model exclusively. It is right that they should be under such pressure. In a democracy it is best to win the support of as many as you can, and conflict for the sake of conflict is uncivilised and dangerous. And highly partisan policies, like those followed by recent Conservative Governments, can do immense social damage. It is thus not surprising that Tony Blair’s ‘socialism’ is strongly consensual. The explicit appeals to British business, the emphasis on modernisation via education and technology, the reluctance to concede any particular privilege to Labour’s traditional constituency, the overarching concept of ‘community’, a self-evidently inclusive idea which is almost incompatible with class or social conflict – all are generated by a rhetoric of social harmony and commonality of interest and endeavour. This is a bold and admirable enterprise plainly worth trying. Were this a better and more rationally organised society it would probably be unnecessary to do anything else. There is much, however, in recent British history which suggests that a ‘progressive’ consensus can be procured only with difficulty and that a party whose one strategy is consensual is in for real trouble. Why?

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