Why does Labour never know what it’s got till it’s (long) gone?
Were the Blair-Brown governments a reheated version of 1980s Toryism? This was the suggestion made last week by Labour MP Zarah Sultana, a member of the party’s new intake. Her maiden speech called for an end to “40 years of Thatcherism.”
Sultana’s words were rightly mocked by the centre left. New Labour was, it is true, too timid. But the idea that Thatcher would have passed even a handful of the progressive measures delivered between 1997 and 2010 does not remotely stand up to scrutiny.
Yet to point this out — as defenders of the last Labour government do — is to shout down a well. Sultana was voicing a belief which is hard-wired into the Corbynite mindset. Her ‘Golden Era’ version of history is an article of faith for the populist left.
This has been upholstered, since 2010, by economic buzzwords like “neoliberal”, by theories about a shifting “Overton Window”, and by documentaries like Spirit of ’45. In policy terms it found its articulation in the ‘Lexit’ idea — a protectionist proposal, intended to hold the globalised modern world at bay.
A good example is Margaret Thatcher’s boast that New Labour was her “greatest achievement.” This is routinely repeated by the populist left, as evidence that 1997–2010 Labour was continuity Conservatism. However, Cameron’s “heir to Blair” claim — an acknowledgement that he would have to focus on public investment and social justice to win again — is somehow treated as further proof that Labour became ‘Tory lite’.
So, what instinct do these Golden Era narratives tap into? Why would left-wingers hanker for the years of the Black and White Minstrels, the lunatic asylum, the all-female typing pool and the secondary modern — when abortion was illegal and only a privileged 3% went to university? Their analysis goes far beyond the accurate observation that globalisation has made inequality and big business much harder to tame. It imagines a surge towards greed and bigotry on every front. “Unchallenged by craven Labour,” George Monbiot wrote in 2014, “Britain slides towards ever more selfishness.”
To understand this thinking, we could do worse than rewind to 1954, when the New Statesman wrote that the Attlee governments had “contributed almost nothing new or imaginative to the pool of ideas with which men seek to illuminate human nature.” Whilst there, we might cast an eye over Ralph Miliband’s view that the 1945–51 governments sought merely to “improve the efficiency of a capitalist economy.”
And then we would do well to return to a present day in which Corbyn fans sport t-shirts asking “What would Clem do?” or drink from mugs proclaiming “Labour: I preferred their early work.”
You can observe a similar rehabilitation with the reputation of Harold Wilson. And even figures like Keir Hardie were, at the time, more pragmatic than we now imagine.
In other words, the left’s sense of decline derives more from a dissatisfaction with the present than from a substantive reading of the past. There has never been a point when left-liberal values manifested themselves, on every issue, without compromise. The views of Zarah Sultana and others rely on the myopic idea of an original socialism which did this.
This Eden-like recollection is a quest for something pure; for a spirit which was authentic and true; for an age of real and meaningful struggle. Consequentially, it is a benchmark against which modern life can never quite match up. The business of governing — and the compromises that come with it — are always a disappointment compared to the unchallenged socialist roar which the populist left imagines.
Hence, when Labour supporters finally get what we want — an opportunity to govern the country and change things — we find the experience dull and underwhelming. We attack those who wield power as sellouts, unfit to speak the name of their red-blooded forefathers — not realising how precious our position is until it is long gone.
This is not to suggest that everything is moving in a progressive direction — nor to deny that economic inequality has risen dramatically since the 1970s. The growing inter-connectedness between countries — as well as changes in the values of the population — has both given to and taken away from the left. De-industrialisation and rising regional inequality are massive negative aspects of this, which much be tackled.
But the Golden Era myth of original socialism is, nevertheless, a wild goose chase. It prevents an honest evaluation of where society has changed for better and worse — and how the left can respond. It finds nothing positive or inspiring in the modern world. It undermines egalitarian progress, trashing the only Labour governments which the public remembers. And, as we are now seeing, it ultimately hands the baton to the right, and makes the decline narrative self-fulfilling.
Chris Clarke is the author of Warring Fictions: left populism and its defining myths (Policy Network and Rowman and Littlefield). He tweets at @WarringFictions.