Interpreting the Labour Party: Approaches to Labour Politics and History

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

9

The Progressive Dilemma and the social
democratic perspective

Steven Fielding and Declan McHugh

The object of this chapter is to consider the notion of the 'progressive dilemma' as outlined by David Marquand in his collection of essays of the same name (Marquand 1999). Marquand sought to explain Labour's historically poor electoral performance by focusing on the party's inability to unite a sufficient number of working-class and middle-class voters in a sustained anti-Conservative coalition. As will be explained in more detail later, he believed Labour's attachment to the trade unions was too close and prevented the party making a strong appeal to those outside the labour movement.

Marquand was by no means the first academic to alight on this as possible cause of Labour's disappointing electoral performance (for example, see Stedman Jones 1983). However, the particular means by which he explained Labour's failure enjoyed a unique purchase among students of the Party, as well as those most responsible for the creation of 'New' Labour. Many of Tony Blair's early speeches delivered as leader owed more than a little to Marquand's perspective. One of the 'New' Labour leader's closest advisers, Phillip Gould, even used it to justify the policy and organisational changes fostered by Neil Kinnock and Blair since 1983 (Gould 1998: 1–17). Despite Marquand's own reservations about 'New' Labour, the perspective outlined in The Progressive Dilemma obviously resonated with those pursuing what Blair described during the 2001 election campaign as a 'radical, modern, social democratic' agenda. Indeed, as Marquand (1997: 78–9) conceded after Labour's 1997 landslide victory, 'modernisers' like Blair had gone some way to resolving his 'dilemma'.

The Progressive Dilemma is here taken as the exemplar of a wider 'social democratic' interpretation of the Labour Party. There are, in truth, few historical accounts that explicitly employ this form of analysis – but only because it is such an insidious a part of many leading authorities' 'common-sense' view of the party (see in particular, Crewe and King 1995: 3–26 and Williams 1979). Marquand's work is worthy of close attention, not the least because he is rare in foregrounding many of that tradition's most significant assumptions and he employs them in a particularly lucid manner.

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