Interpreting the Labour Party: Approaches to Labour Politics and History

By John Callaghan; Steven Fielding et al. | Go to book overview

1

Understanding Labour's
ideological trajectory

Nick Randall

The Labour Party is habitually considered the most ideologically inclined of all British political parties, and ideological struggle has been endemic within the party since its foundation. It is no surprise, therefore, that studies of the party have endeavoured to understand why Labour's ideology has shifted repeatedly throughout its history. This chapter considers those efforts.

A large and varied literature is available to explain Labour's ideological movements. Many works address the Labour Party itself. Others examine ideological change in parties in general. Yet others analyse change in social democratic parties in particular. To assess all three strands in the literature requires the application of some form of classification. At the risk of oversimplification, the approach adopted here will be to classify works according to the principal explanatory strategies they adopt. Five strategies are identified and outlined: materialist; ideational; electoral; institutional; and those which synthesise some or all of these four. The five strategies are assessed, and the chapter concludes by outlining an alternative model of Labour's ideological dynamics that might be usefully applied to the study of the New Labour.


Outlines of explanatory strategies

Materialist strategies

The first set of explanatory strategies proposes that Labour's ideological shifts are a product of economic and social determinants. Here three main strands of analysis emerge.

The first strand focuses on the pressure of capitalist interests. Claims that Labour's ideological movements are responses to the structural power of capitalist interests have appealed particularly to Marxist scholars such as Miliband (1972) and Panitch (1976), but are best developed by Coates (see chapter 5 of this collection, by David Coates and Leo Panitch). For Coates (1975: 154), 'the major blockage on the ability of the Labour Party to reform capitalism into socialism by the Parliamentary process, or even to sustain major programmes of social reform, comes from the institutions and representatives of corporate capital'. Forced to

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