“Following an inconclusive December election and six weeks of confusion, speculation and negotiation, Britain’s first Labour government took office a century ago, on 22 January 1924.
“Yet there have only been six Labour Prime Ministers: Ramsey MacDonald, Clement Attlee, Harold Wilson, Jim Callaghan, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. Only three, Atlee, Wilson and Blair, won a majority at a general election.
“Despite many extraordinary achievements, including the introduction of the welfare state and the National Health Service (NHS), Labour has only held power for a total of 33 years. Why has Labour underperformed in British politics? Why has the party often struggled to win elections and then hold on to power?”
That is the question at the heart of this new work from Labour MP John Cruddas (pictured above), published 100 years on from that first Labour government – and at the start of a year in which many will be hoping for another one, with a general election due no later than January 2025.
The ‘origin story’ of the party makes clear it has always been made up of many different strands – a ‘broad church’.
“Labour has remained a brittle coalition of sectional interests, societies and, after 1918, members”. The party, he continues, “has always contained various liberal, Marxist, socialist, religious, national, regional and assorted municipal elements.
“It has offered a home to thinkers and theories, those more concerned with factional battles and position, others with cold electoral calculation. Each has retained their own sense of political purpose in a party without a formal ideology or identity.”
Cruddas lights on how the party has always had a “sense of history – that history is on the side of the party – [it] has helped hold Labour together at moments of crisis. Yet it also constrains Labour through sentimental attachment and an idealised sense of its past.”
In terms of ideology, he sees three “competing theories of justice” within the party’s ideological history: economics of distributional justice (‘who gets what and how’ in effect), freedom (from equal pay to the Human Rights Act) and virtue (what is needed to create a good society).
On a century of party leaders, Cruddas cites Clement Attlee, John Smith and Tony Blair as having best represented all three of these – though of the latter, he concludes that later New Labour chose “remedial cash transfers to the poor under the misplaced belief in unending growth”.
Of current leader, Keir Starmer, the author asserts that the party’s industrial polices and his pledges on greater worker democracy hark back to Labour’s ideology under Harold Wilson.
But on the coming election (at which he himself is standing down as an MP) he notes: “Labour seems content for the coming election to amount to a referendum on the performance of the governing Conservatives, rather than a choice between competing visions of politics and justice”, urging Starmer to create a narrative of “national renewal” – that “virtue”.
It’s a dense read, but an invaluable one in terms of understanding Labour’s history – and not least so in what is likely to be a general election year.
Thanks to publisher Polity Books, two UNISON members can win a copy. To get yourself in the hat, answer the following question: Who was the first leader of the Labour Party?
Email your answer to firstname.lastname@example.org by 5pm on Friday 16 February. Please include your name and address and label the email ‘Book competition’. Good luck.
A Century of Labour by John Cruddas is published by Polity Books and is out now in hardback.