Interpreting the Labour Party: Approaches to Labour Politics and History

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

3

'Labourism' and the New Left

Madeleine Davis

This chapter assesses the contribution made to analysis of the Labour Party and labour history by thinkers of the British New Left. In part constituted in opposition to old left tendencies, including Labour, the British New Left took an independent, broadly Marxist, position. Its thinkers thus offered theoretically informed analyses of the party and its role – mainly, as will be seen, in terms of the category labourism – that were highly critical. They were preoccupied in particular with the question of whether the Labour Party and movement could be the carrier of socialist ideas and policies, and, for the most part, concluded that it could not. Despite this, New Left activists and thinkers were at various times involved in practical political interventions which were aimed at pushing the party in a leftward direction. At other times (or even simultaneously) New Left intellectuals insisted on the need for the creation of a new political vehicle, leftward of Labour, and in competition with it. Yet attempts to create such a vehicle were only halfheartedly pursued. Overall, then, it must be said at the outset that the New Left displayed a profound ambivalence in its attitude to Labour. Despite the prevalence of analyses which were inclined to view the Labour Party's role as functional for the maintenance of British capitalism, and the Party as in some senses a positive obstacle to change in a leftward direction, the New Left in its various manifestations remained unable to offer any resolution of the strategic political problem posed for socialists by the party's existence and pre-eminence among the organisations of the Left.

What must also be noted from the outset is that, given the ideological trajectory the Labour Party has followed, and the balance of its electoral fortunes during the period in question (from 1956 to the present), New Left interpretations of Labour have been somewhat marginal in political terms. Yet, notwithstanding these caveats, New Left critiques have furnished us with insights which continue to offer a fruitful avenue for explanation and analysis of New Labour and the contemporary British political scene. What is enduringly distinctive and valuable about New Left critiques of Labour and labourism is that they have sought to place analysis of the party, its history and its role within the broadest possible context. Also crucial has been the theoretical context – writers of the New Left have been concerned to

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