Prisoners of the Past: Nostalgia and the Post-War Labour Party

Whether it’s the collective imagery of Dunkirk, 1945, Thatcherism or the Iraq War, our political discourse remains wedded to the imagery of the past. The stories we tell ourselves are the glue that hold us together. But as Richard Jobson’s new book argues, it is also holding us back. 

CONTENTS

1. Introduction – Labour, nostalgia and ‘nostalgia-identity’
2. Revisionism and the battle over clause IV – 1951-63
3. White heat and the Labour party 1963-70
4. Labour’s alternative economic strategy 1970-83
5. Reinventing the Labour party 1983-92
6. The New Labour era 1992-2010
7. Back to the past? 2010 to the present
8. Conclusion

 

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Radical: If the Labour gift shop is anything to go by, Nye Bevan is the only MP to currently match Corbyn’s appeal in Labour

 

To understand the state of British politics we must first understand the stories we have told ourselves. The Brexit vote – whilst wrapped up in mantra of looking to the future – was a nod to the history of Britain ‘doing it alone’. It should come as no surprise that David Davis continually invoked Churchillian spirit at every opportunity. Labour are just as guilty; romanticising the post-war Attlee government at the expense of everything else that has happened in the party ever since. To some it is pure nostalgia. To others it is a belief that a collective memory can guide future decisions.

Historically – compared to the Tories – Labour have endured a difficult relationship with their past. In Labour the nostalgia consists of a collective narrative of the underdog; from the birth of the trade union movement to the defeat of Churchill, creation of the NHS and the miners strike, the stories consist of an establishment being fought in the name of progress. It is why Jeremy Corbyn – and to a lesser extent Ed Miliband – enjoyed success when pitching themselves against hierarchy. It makes Richard Jobson’s analysis of nostalgia a timely intervention into current Labour discourse.

Jobson uses the opening chapter to disect the various theoretical strands of nostalgia. Much of the focus is between the reflective and restorative. Reflective uses the past to shape the current debate while restorative yearns to restore the past in current settings. Britain’s post-war premiers have all looked to grasp the narrative of the past in differing ways; Thatcher’s Victorian family values and ‘stiff upper lip’; Major’s image of ‘long sunny afternoons playing cricket’; Blair’s emphasis on the value of hard-work and Brown’s ‘moral compass’ – influenced by his upbringing in the Methodist church.

For successive Labour leaders, the battle with their own party has defined their tenure. Whether it is Kinnock vs the Bennites, Blair vs the old left, Brown vs Blair or the more recent efforts of Ed Miliband and Jeremy Corbyn to dismantle the New Labour years, competing factions are continually seeking the ownership of nostalgia. It has filtered down to the grassroots level where activists seek to claim moral ownership of the past:

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The divide has led to the accusation that the past is being re-written to suit political aims. Two of Jeremy Corbyn’s high-profile supporters have been dragged into this recently. Owen Jones claimed: “the Labour leadership (in the 1980s) dragged its feet supporting LGBTQ rights, including originally expressing support for Section 28; and Paul Mason: “For the first time in the history of the UK as a global power there is a possibility of a Labour government that represents the workers, poor and embodies internationalism. That’s quite a big thing if you not used to it.” In the white-heat of the activist battle, Jobson concludes that it is “Labour’s nostalgia that has provided the emotional adhesive that has held the party together” yet “constrains the party’s political development.”

In this tradition, the current leadership are following Blair’s early 90s path. Jobson’s book argues that the New Labour project was built on a feeling of ‘anti-nostalgia’, pointing to an early Blair interview where he condemned Labour’s long history of a ‘lurch into nostalgia’. In this respect the New Labour project had the ‘end of history’ approach to politics. In 1999 Blair predicted that “the 21st century will not be about the battle between capitalism and socialism but between the forces of progress and the forces of conservatism.” In the same speech Blair claimed that “Keir Hardie would have been proud..And wouldn’t Clem Attlee and Ernie Bevin have applauded (the government response) in Kosovo.” For Blair, Labour’s success was built on tough decision-making rather than misty-eyed notions of solidarity.

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Despite condemning the nostalgia within Labour, Blair claimed Hardie, Attlee and Bevin would have been proud of his action in Kosovo.

Ironically, it is now the key architects of New Labour – Blair, Campbell, Mandelson – who have invoked nostalgia for the administration they oversaw. It is only Gordon Brown – from the Big Four – who has openly discussed the depth of Labour’s shortcomings whilst in office and supported aspects of the Corbyn programme. This conflict has divided the party into two broad – somewhat crude – camps; the ‘Moderates’ and ‘Corbynistas’. The mods invoke nostalgia for the ‘politics of government’ and the Blair policies that led to three consecutive victories. The Corbyn wing of the party pursue ideological purity, which is more in line with the traditions of the suffragette, trade union and Bennite movements of the past.

Both wings claim ownership of the 1945 Attlee government. For the moderates it represents a pragmatic approach to governance, away from dogma and entrenched ideology. Blair has argued that Attlee was not left-wing but “exactly at the centre of the day…especially after the 1930s when a coalition government began mapping out policies like the NHS.” . For the ‘Corbynistas’, Attlee represents the high tide of socialism – where the commanding heights of the economy were brought into public ownership. Their poster boy is Nye Bevan – the architect of the NHS – who’s quotes have taken on a new lease of life. Tellingly Bevan is the only politician in Labour’s history worthy of his own merchandise in the party shop, where a £3 poster can be bought alongside the Corbyn inspired merch.

The enduring image of Bevan rests on his ability, as Henry Drucker observed, to talk of the “very strong obligation to those who have struggled before them”. Corbyn himself has referenced various Labour icons; from Keir Hardie to Clement Attlee to Ellen Wilkinson to mobilise his supporters. At the 2017 Labour conference, Corbyn – arguably at the height of his powers – took the opportunity to reminisce about Margaret Bondfield: “her story is a reminder of the decisive role women have played in the Labour Party from its foundation, and that Labour has always been about making change by working together and standing up for others.”

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Socialists gather annually at the Wigan Diggers Festival to celebrate a key Bennite influence

In this context, Corbyn continues the tradition of the Bennite movement, that has so often been cited as his key influence. Jobson argues that the Benn took his influence from those outside the party; the Diggers, Suffragettes, Chartists and Luddites. Benn once cited Gerard Winstanley – a 17th century digger – as his hero, and socialists gather every year at the Wigan Diggers Festival to celebrate his life. The nod to the external influences still resonates today, with key left-wing influencer Paul Mason stating that Corbyn’s “biggest challenge is to maintain Labour as an alliance of social democrats, left-liberals, old-style Bennite socialists and radical leftists.”

Framing the party history in this way adds to the collective narrative of Labour betrayal. The left cite the Taff Vale case in 1901, the party’s lack of solidarity with the 1926 General Strike, Ramsay MacDonald’s decision to join the National Government in 1931, Callaghan’s rejection of the ATS (seen as paving the way for Thatcherism), the creation of the SDP, the miners defeat and the accession of ‘Tory-light’ Kinnock, Blair and Brown to leadership as the true history of the Labour Party.

From this, the Corbyn leadership – and its key media supporters – argue that the current leadership is a radical break with recent history. But Jobson questions whether it is that radical at all. It is arguably as radical as the Harold Wilson administration of the 1960s in terms of a policy and much less so than the Benn and Foot proposals of the 70s and 80s. Jobson argues that it was the Kinnock era that looked to break with Labour tradition the most: “pursuing the most forward-looking agenda that has been adopted since 1951”.

So how do we create a shared narrative of the past to renew the Labour Party for the future? If we look at the most successful Labour leaders, they have won when they have modernised; in 1945, 1964 and 1997. But Attlee, Wilson and Blair were never meant to be prime ministers. All assumed the mantle through unforeseen circumstance; Attlee as a stop-gap following the resignation of Lansbury; Wilson following the death of Hugh Gaitskell and Blair in the aftermath of John Smith’s death. Following each shock the new leader was able to unite the party in pursuit of government. It remains to be seen whether Corbyn can reach Number 10 with a divided party – with differing interpretations of history – alongside him.

Nostalgia and the post-war Labour Party: Prisoners of the past (Manchester Press): Richard Jobson – http://www.manchesteruniversitypress.co.uk/9781526113306/

 

 

 

 

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