Has Labour ever been a socialist party?

Before we can argue as to whether or not the Labour party has ever been a socialist party, we need to fully understand what socialism as an ideology is. Socialism is defined as being a political and economic theory of common ownership, democratic control and free access to goods and services where production is solely for use, not profit. Socialism is seen to have 3 core values; collectivism, equal opportunity and social justice. Traditionally, socialists aim to move the now market based society into an egalitarian system and want wealth to be evenly spread, and power to be in the hands of the people, not a select few. (Berki, 1975) Nevertheless, there are various forms of socialism which derive from the traditional definition that have been used in policy and manifestos by various leaders of the Labour party.

To answer this question, it is essential to look back into the past of the Labour party in order to analyse whether or not the party has ever been truly socialist. Symbolically, the Labour Parties motif was a red flag up until the 1987 general election. After the French revolution of 1789-1799, this was seen to represent communism and proletarian revolution advocating the interests of the working class and less fortunate in society. (Statesman, 2016) The Labour Party was formed largely by trade unionists and socialists in 1900 by the Trade Union Congress as a parliamentary pressure group called the ‘Labour Representation Committee’. Before this, the working class had no independent representation. (History of the Labour Party, 2017) This, is seen to be why the party has or has had close ties with trade unionists through common interests regarding workers’ rights and the redistribution of income and wealth which is again closely shared with socialism and its three core values. In the wake of the Bolshevik revolution and ahead of the First World War a Labour Party constitution was agreed upon in 1918 which shared socialist ideology as a compromise but was never formed to be an exclusively socialist party.

Equally, if not more importantly, is the argument of the parties economic policies. At the end of the Second World War, Winston Churchill called an election for the end of July 1945. Voters called for an end to wartime austerity and a document which was very influential in creating the welfare state, the 1942 Beveridge report, offered assurance to voters and dramatically helped the election cause for the Labour Party. Labour won 47.8% of the vote and hence won leadership, putting the Conservatives into opposition for the next 6 years.(BBC, 1997) Churchill’s deputy Clement Attlee assumed the position of Prime Minister and began to implement legislation such as the 1944 Education Act which allowed free compulsory secondary education for everyone. Much of Labours past and present economic policies are based around the works of John Maynard Keynes whom was a British economist that believed government intervention is the best way to stimulate the economy. This would be through fiscal expenditure and an example of this would be the NHS. On the 5th of July 1948 a major welfare reform was established; the National Health Service. This provided completely free healthcare for everyone and was done for the benefit of all citizens, meaning that the less wealthy could have access to adequate healthcare regardless of their income. However, this did not prove to be as much a success as first thought, the financial burden on the government was high and in 1951 Hugh Gaitskell (the then, Chancellor of the Exchequer) ‘was obliged to reintroduce charges for NHS false teeth and glasses’. (Brown, 2001)

‘The Labour Party is a Socialist Party, and proud of it. Its ultimate purpose at home is the establishment of the Socialist Commonwealth of Great Britain – free, democratic, efficient, progressive, public-spirited, its material resources organised in the service of the British people.’ (British labour party election manifesto, 1945 [Archive], 2012) This extract from the 1945 Labour Party manifesto was the start of the governmental process of Nationalization. Also written within the manifesto was the promise to nationalize and regulate the fuel, power, inland transport, iron and steel industries. This was in order to stop the use of monopoly price extortion, modernize production methods, improve health and safety standards, and make markets more allocatively and productively efficient. Getting the right goods to the right people and increasing productivity would mean that the people who need the good or service would obtain it and high productivity would shift supply out, decreasing price, making the good or service more affordable to consumers thus increasing consumer surplus and maximizing utility. This helps to meet the socialist aim of production being solely for use, not for profit. Therefore, Nationalization as an economic policy ties with the socialist view of social ownership and democratic control of the means of production so it is fair to argue that at this point in time, the Labour party were trying to meet socialist objectives and shift into a more egalitarian society. However, in order to shift the economy into a complete egalitarian society all of the means of production must be nationalized. So consequently it cannot be argued that the 1945 government of Clement Attlee was socialist, however made more of a strive than any Labour government to date.

‘Socialism as I understand it means to apply a sense of purpose to our national life: economic purpose, social purpose, moral purpose…’ (Warde, 1982) Harold Wilson did not view socialism as the ideology it is and is seen by many to be. He believed in social decency and did not seem to be weighed down by any ideology. The Huddersfield Examiner reported that he ‘supported backbench MPs in liberalizing laws on censorship, divorce, abortion, and homosexuality, and he abolished capital punishment.’ (Atkinson, 2014) This exhibits common traits traditionally shared with socialist ideology on the grounds of social justice and equal opportunity. This was also reflected through his work in attempting to stop discrimination against women and ethnic minorities and with the creation of the Open University. However, while Wilson met two of the three core values of socialism, he did not strive for collectivism like his predecessors. He didn’t seek to implement a fully egalitarian society with production solely for use, and according to the historian and biographer, Ben Pimlott, ‘while Wilson had strong egalitarian feelings about race, the other issues did not interest him greatly’ (Harris, 2014). Overall, Wilson was more liberal than socialist. He believed in morality and equality over a regime which seeked to drastically change society, even though he was the leader of a party which at the time, still had Clause 4 in their constitution and socialist ideology at its roots. The Wilson era was at the forefront of a declining economy with a balance of payments deficit and high unemployment, therefore it is hard to say if he would have strived to achieve socialist goals but that would be doubtful.

The poor economic position of the early 1990’s following the ‘Black Wednesday’ humiliation paved the way for a Labour government. The Blair government of 1997-2007 created abundant change within the parties’ ideology and shifted the party into a more central position along the political spectrum. This was done for two main reasons; to attract more voters from both the working and middle class, and due to the fact he believed himself to be a revisionist socialist. This meant that he, as party leader, wanted to modify capitalism as opposed to abolishing it completely.  (Hickson, 2004) This was to be done through the welfare state, acting as a mechanism to redistribute wealth. The idea of changing the whole market based economy created a large amount of uncertainty among businesses which is seen to be a large factor as to why businessmen have traditionally voted for Conservative governments. Additionally, it would create a mass divide internally within the party as there would be disagreement around how to set the conditions for a more egalitarian society. The process would be lengthy, strenuous and come with large levels of opposition. Blair then scrapped the fourth clause in 1996 signifying what (at the time) was and by many still is thought to be the end of the Labour Parties representation of a socialist party. It would not be coherent to claim that the party is a socialist party from this time period when they had gone back on their explicit commitment to socialism through Clause 4 of the Labour constitution. He stated ‘My kind of socialism is a set of values based on notions of social justice […] Socialism as a rigid form of economic determinism has ended, and rightly’ (Rich Hoffman’s Blog – the control of net neutrality: Third way economics reinvented – February 14, 2015 16: 00, 2015) Therefore, ultimately, the Labour Party under Tony Blair was not socialist at all, in fact, a move towards a more centrist position suggests the opposite. Is it plausible to suggest that the party was and arguably is more interested in power than fundamental beliefs?

Jeremy Corbyn has been at the forefront of national media, both print and online, for the past year. He classes himself as a ‘democratic socialist’, favouring the national ownership of only some industries, such as the railways. And like Clement Attlee, using Keynesian fiscal policy to stimulate the economy. Corbyn is more of a reformist than a socialist, wishing to implement what are thought to be socialist policies to coincide with a regulated market-based economy. Corbyn plans for a £500bn investment bank in order to help the UK economy recover and rebuild industries that have been neglected.  He pledged a ‘Socialism for the 21st century’ in September 2016 which shows that he has a modern interpretation as to what it is to be socialist, sharing some socialist ideals while leaving out the big flaws of an egalitarian society. (Watts, 2016) The issue Corbyn faces, however, is the hypocrisy and internal divide within his party: 63 MPs such as Owen Smith and Angela Eagle resigned due to party differences in 2016 and a party at war with each other does not win the votes of the public. Jeremy Corbyn therefore has not strived to achieve collectivism, however has backed views and policies aiming to achieve social justice and equal opportunity. Therefore he is moderately socialist, but as stated above, more of a democratic socialist.

In summary, the Labour Party ultimately has never made a big enough strive to support the view that they are a traditionally socialist party. The 1945 Labour government implemented broadly socialist policies of nationalization and Keynesian spending to create a welfare state but have however, since then, only idealized a socialist run-regime. A political party cannot say they follow the socialist regime if they do not strive to meet the core values of the ideology. But Corbyns idea of a 21st Century Socialism has proved to be popular with Labour Party voters. As it stands, the current Labour party support constitutional reform such as devolution, however remain divided between redistribution of market wealth and increased state control of the market. Corbyns ‘socialist’ policies cannot coincide with a capitalist market economy and remain loyal to the fundamental values and ideology of socialism. Although, his re-election as party leader paves the way for new era, possibly a return to radical left policies and structural reform? Corbyn is in a position now where he could try to appease MPs and some voters through holding back on his radical views, but as rebellious as he has previously been through the Blair governments this does not seem likely. Especially with the internal party divide as wide as it currently is. Looking back at whether the Labour Party is a socialist party, it is hard to say. Now there are so many types of Socialism it isn’t easy to determine whether or not a party actually is socialist anymore, therefore as far as the Labour party is concerned, no, it has never been and likely never will be a traditionally socialist party. But have a slightly moderate form of socialism ideology within their policies.


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