Interpreting the Labour Party: Approaches to Labour Politics and History

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

2

'What kind of people are you?' Labour, the
people and the 'new political history'

Lawrence Black

Like their subject, historians of Labour have tended to be attached to tradition and sceptical of novelty – in short, rather conservative. Newer tendencies are nonetheless evident. These result, in part, from changes in Labour. New Labour's constitutional reforms, its engagement with issues of national identity and communication skills have been concurrent with recent work on the party's past in such areas (Chadwick 1999; Ward 1998; Wring forthcoming). These historiographical shifts have been accompanied in terms of method by what for the past decade or so has been known as the 'new political history'. This embraces work associated with the 'linguistic turn' and more generally a rethinking of the category of 'the political' (Lawrence 1998: chapter 3; Stedman Jones 1983a).

These developments have raised numerous questions about established ways of understanding Labour's history. It questions the extent to which politics can be seen as the upshot of social forces – an assumption familiar in studies relating Labour's fortunes and character to (primarily) the industrial working class, one famously advanced in Eric Hobsbawm's essay 'The forward march of labour halted?' (Hobsbawm 1981). This 'electoral sociology' approach is evident in arguments about the growth of class politics as an ingredient in Labour's rise, notably in work by McKibbin, Hobsbawm (Kirk 1991) and Laybourn (1995). It features, too, in debates about Labour's 'decline' since the 1950s, in political science literature about class dealignment, fragmentation of values and the diminished size of the working class. Common to both are the ideas that voters' attitudes are essentially shaped by economic and social structures, that they are politically socialised by those structures and that successful parties must respond to such developments (Hindess 1971).

Balancing this stress on the influence of social and economic change has been a recent emphasis on political factors – party, policies and ideas. Curtice (1994: 41–2) has argued that the British party system was in important ways immune to social change and that 'rather than the helpless plaything of sociological forces, post-war British politics has been vitally shaped by political choices'. Labour's early growth, post-war difficulties and renewal as New Labour were, then, much more of its own making. By this model voters made an 'instrumental' or 'rational choice'

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