Further to my earlier post Maybe this is really at the root of the split in the Labour Party?, Adam Buckham pointed out that I had omitted to discuss political principles in the first draft of the piece. I then rewrote it to refer to the concept of political principles but feel I’d like to explore that idea a bit further.
Being ‘principled’ is a personal moral trait akin to ‘integrity’. It means having
Political principles are fundamental, primary, or general laws or truths from which others are derived. They are for a political party the distinct,
So having to have a set of underlying ‘political principles’ is not unique to the Labour Party, it is a necessary characteristic of ALL political parties. Supporting a political party is not, or perhaps more accurately, should not, be like supporting a football club. People are in theory, supposed to support political parties because, after due consideration, they have decided that a particular party most closely reflects their political views and aspirations.
If their own political views or aspirations change or those of the party do, then if that change is significant enough then it will no longer be appropriate for the individual to remain in that party.
This is NOT true about disagreements over specific policies or even left v right splits. Principles are open to interpretation and there will always be a spectrum of opinion in any party on how the principles are to interpreted and acted upon in the real world. BUT no political parties principles are infinitely flexible and at some point a line may be crossed and individuals or the party itself have changed so much that they are no longer guided by the same principles.
Similarly, individuals from across the political spectrum can be ‘principled’. I personally admire conservative commentator and Daily Mail columnist, Peter Oborne for example. I disagree profoundly with his underlying political philosophy, and with most of what he says about specific issues. But I do believe that his opinions are well intended, informed, considered and sincere. I believe that he says what he believes and believes what he says.
Principles Of The Labour Party?
So now let me think about the principles that underly the policy making of the Labour Party.
For the sake of the argument I’d say some of the principles that underpin the Labour Party might include (but not be limited to):
- To defend labour (workers) against unfair exploitation by capital
- To fight for the fair distribution of excess value created by workers
- To protect the rights of labour to defend itself from exploitation by capital through strong trade unions
- To fight for the redistribution of wealth in order to provide a contributory welfare scheme (Pensions, NHS, Social Services)
- To fight for the highest standard of education for all
- To fight for equality of opportunity regardless of class, race or creed
- To fight to ensure that all citizens are educated and informed well enough to participate meaningfully in the democratic process
- To deal openly and honestly with the population.
- To fight to bring about an end to inherited power, wealth and privilege
- To fight to create a commonwealth of resources and infrastructure (nationalised power, water and transport)
- Working with other nations for the benefit of all peoples.
- The avoidance of armed conflict wherever possible.
It seems to me that if a person doesn’t believe in those principles, or something very much like them, then they shouldn’t be in the Labour Party.
It also seems self-evident to me that if we cannot persuade the public to believe in these principles either, then so be it. Because regardless of what the general public or the electorate think, these ARE the values and principles of the Labour Party that will underpin policy making. They can be presented in different ways to make them more appealing but ultimately they are why the Party was formed in 1908 and they are still why it exists today.
The Party does NOT exist to simply provide the public with ‘what it wants’ or to provide career opportunities for professional politicians.
Political Principles & New Labour
I would suggest that the New Labour project was an attempt to form an entirely new political party but using the finance, party machinery and membership lists of the Labour Party. New Labour wasn’t an ‘evolving’ of the Party to take into account a changing world; New Labour was an attempt to sever the new party form the ‘shackles’ of the democratic socialist principles that underpinned the party for 100 years and to effectively create a new social democratic centrist party.
Indeed, New Labour’s central proposition was that the ‘principles’ upon which the Labour Party had been founded were not only no longer relevant, they were also no longer attractive to the majority of the electorate and to maintain allegiance to those principles would mean the Labour Party could never again win a general election.
Now someone like me would obviously challenge those assumptions for a start, but even if I accept them for the sake of argument, I am still left with the question as to why professional politicians with a centrist social democratic philosophy would chose a democratic socialist party to pursue their political ambitions?
Even back in the 60’s and 70’s when most of the New Labour establishment entered politics, we already had a centrist social democratic political party in the UK, it was called the Liberal Party.
Of course for a professional politician driven by ambition to be in government and hold the ‘great offices of state’, the Liberal Party was of no use because even by the 1950’s it was already only a minor player in what had become effectively a two party system.
But after the 1982 general election these ambitious professional politicians decided that ‘Old’ Labour was also no longer a vehicle that would propel them into the history books either. So they set about turning it into a party that they thought could get elected and thus fulfil their career ambitions.
It took them a further 15 years to do it though because the vast majority of members had joined the Labour Party because of its ‘political principles’ and fought tooth and nail to try to preserve them. So it took 15 years for the ‘reformers’ to drag the democratic socialist Labour Party kicking and screaming further and further to the right until it became the centrist social democratic ‘New’ Labour Party that they thought would secure their entry into government.
When the party finally won a general election again in 1997 it was claimed that this was evidence that from now on only a centrist social democratic ‘New’ Labour could win an election in post-Thatcher Britain. And indeed New Labour then won again in 2001 and 2005 and the matter seemed to be settled.
I would argue that New Labour did not in fact have ‘political principles’ (and certainly not the ones outlined above), on the contrary New Labour now spoke of ‘values’. And the advantage of these ‘values’ is that they were so vague, and so ‘nice’ that no one from any part of the political spectrum could really object to them, and more importantly for the Party machine they were infinitely flexible and could be applied respectively to any policy that the Party machine had decided would win the Party votes and thus propel the professional politicians and their advisors and apparatchiks into government.
The problem was that all three of the main political parties had recognised that in our ‘first past the post’ system elections are decided by a very small number of ‘floating voters’ who by definition are neither committed to the left or the right nor well informed about politics (more on this here). And so the Conservatives, Labour and the LibDems were all now crowded into this very narrow centrist social democratic territory. This left millions of people on both the left and the right effectively disenfranchised.
UKIP arose to serve the aspirations of ‘real’ conservatives on the right but on the left there was very little. Very recently Left Unity was an attempt to find a voice for the millions of disenfranchised left of centre former Labour voters, but without trade union money the party was never going to have the resources to seriously challenge the centrist social democratic agenda.
And then through a ‘mistake’ by Margaret Becket in voting to allow Corbyn into the Labour leadership election, a focus emerged for disenfranchised left of centre former Labour voters AND the leftists who had bravely stayed within the Labour Party and the political world turned upside down.
The vitriol and invective expressed by members of the same political party to each other over Syria, Trident, public spending and the rest, aren’t really arguments about policy. They are arguments about what the Labour Party is; about who decides policy and what, if any, are the underlying political principles that guide Labour Party policy making.