Interpreting the Labour Party: Approaches to Labour Politics and History

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

5

The continuing relevance of the
Milibandian perspective

David Coates and Leo Panitch

The belief in the effective transformation of the Labour Party into an instrument of
socialist politics is the most crippling of illusions to which socialists in Britain have
been prone… To say that the Labour Party is the party of the working class is…
important…but it affords no answer to the point at issue, namely that a socialist
party is needed in Britain, and that the Labour Party is not it, and it will not be turned
into it. To say that it is a party of the working class is, on this view, to open the discus-
sion, not to conclude it. It might be otherwise if there was any likelihood that the
Labour Party could be turned into a socialist formation; but that is precisely the prem-
ise which must, on a realistic view, be precluded. (Miliband 1976: 128, 130)

Labourism…a theory and practice which accepted the possibility of social change
within the existing framework of society; which rejected the revolutionary violence and
action implicit in Chartist ideas of physical force; and which increasingly recognized
the working of political democracy of the parliamentary variety as the practical means
of achieving its own aims and objectives. (Saville 1973: 215; see also Saville 1988: 14)

The legacy of Ralph Miliband's writings on the Labour Party has been, and remains, both an important and a controversial one. It is also one that is much caricatured by critics unfamiliar with its central theses. Indeed, too often in collections of essays on New Labour these days, lazy throwaway lines discourage serious readers from exploring its complexity and continuing importance. So, for example, in the essays gathered to mark the Labour Party's centenary (Brivati and Heffernan 2000), the works to be discussed here were dismissed by Ben Pimlott as the 'we wuz robbed' school of party history (Jefferys 2000: 68); and even the more careful Robert Taylor reported that in the work inspired by the writings of Miliband 'trade unions were portrayed as a formidable, defensive barrier to Labour's Socialist advance, supposedly holding back the masses from commitment to a militant socialism' (Taylor 2000:10). But neither characterisation, though perhaps appropriate to many others, is either accurate or just in respect of Miliband; and, indeed, one reason why this chapter may be of lasting value is that it will demonstrate that impropriety.

For there is a distinctively Milibandian perspective within the historiography of the Labour Party. The content and complexity of that perspective has grown over

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