Interpreting the Labour Party: Approaches to Labour Politics and History

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

co-operate with capitalist interests that control production, investment and employment decisions, Labour governments 'have been clawed to death by the opposition of organised capital' and have surrendered their radical ambitions (Coates 1996: 71). It has also been argued that this structural power of capitalist interests extends to ideological shifts during Labour's periods of opposition. Thus Wickham-Jones (1995) claims that anxiety over business antagonism prompted Labour to pro-actively moderate its economic strategy after 1989.

The second strand focuses on changes in the character of capitalism. The linking of ideological movement to changes in the character of capitalism has a distinguished lineage. Eduard Bernstein, a German socialist, claimed at the end of the nineteenth century that prosperity had curbed capitalism's propensity to generate crisis, and brought the proletariat material advances that drew it away from revolutionary ambitions (see Bernstein 1961). These trends, coupled with growth of the middle classes, Bernstein concluded, required social democrats to moderate their ideological appeals.

Similar arguments recur in relation to Labour. For Crosland (1963: 63) capitalism had been transformed by the mid-1950s, demanding 'an explicit admission that many of the old dreams are either dead or realised'. Prosperity had remedied the abuses and inefficiencies of the capitalist system. In addition full employment, the transfer of economic power to the State, trade unions and managers rendered the ideological totems of the past redundant. Nationalisation and material redistribution were anachronisms; creating genuine social equality and a classless society should become Labour's new mission.

Such claims also re-emerged in later years. Writing in 1989, the authors of New Times argued that 'much of the labour and democratic movement still rests upon a world which is fast disintegrating beneath its feet. It still lives in the last house of a terrace which is slowly being demolished and redeveloped' (Hall and Jacques 1989: 24). On this account an epochal shift from Fordism to post-Fordism was generating a new economic, social, political and cultural order which necessitated ideological renovation of Labourism. But most arguments of this genre thereafter were typically more pessimistic, proposing that changes in capitalism created new and fundamental constraints upon social democracy. For Smith (1994) such transformations of the economic environment drastically limited Labour's ideological options. Similarly, Crouch (1997) viewed ideological revision as inescapable given the redundancy of demand management and Fordist production, the internationalisation of capital and the emergence of new occupational groups. John Gray, however, provided the most vivid exposition of how the new international economy impelled ideological change. For Gray (1996: 32), '[e]conomic globalisation removes, or weakens, the policy levers whereby social democratic governments sought to bring about social solidarity and egalitarian distribution', prohibiting full employment through deficit financing, constraining redistribution via taxation and restricting welfare state expenditures.

A third materialist explanatory strategy focuses on changes in the class structure, in particular changes in the class composition of the British electorate and their electoral implications for Labour. For Hobsbawm (1981), the 'forward march

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