The future of the left since 1884

A radical England

Regardless of where you sit in the Labour party, it is difficult to look back on the leadership contest and feel a sense of pride. No one can say that this debate has constructively healed bitter divisions. In fact, we...


Regardless of where you sit in the Labour party, it is difficult to look back on the leadership contest and feel a sense of pride. No one can say that this debate has constructively healed bitter divisions. In fact, we have managed to become more divided and it remains unclear where exactly the party is heading.

But Labour’s problems go far beyond the current debate and relate to issues that have beset for the left for decades. Politics on the left has become ever more dominated by abstract discussion, vague promises and meaningless categories. Saying that we are anti-austerity is not a coherent political platform and yet the chanting goes on. We need to create ideas and plans that open the prospect of practical action so that people across the country can work together to bring about the change they desire. Rediscovering an authentic English socialism is one way to guide the future of progressive politics in this country.

Until the last quarter of the 20th century, four key themes ran through a distinctly English tradition of socialist thinking. Freedom was celebrated so individuals could choose their own course in life against the ‘dull uniformity’ all too often produced by modern capitalism; it was their freedom which socialists thought allowed people to work together to create a jointly-recognised common good. Democracy emerged out of England’s vigorous forms of dissent and offered a radical challenge to elites monopolising power. It then provided the means for people to coordinate their actions in contrast to the chaos produced by competitive individualism. Tradition – local and national – rooted the politics of socialism within the lives of particular communities. It also offered a sense of what needed protecting and a guide to future action. Empiricism was the national idiom of our socialism, a vernacular that spoke of everyday life in terms accessible to all.

From communists to pro-American cold warriors, figures across the left, evoked these themes. The Marxist historian EP Thompson notably defended an “English idiom” against the suggestion from some on the academic left that “paltry English empiricism” and “distrust of reason” deprived the country of progressive thought. Thompson was fiercely critical of the idea – still rife on the academic left today – that politics can only be radical if it spoke the flash language of abstract theory. His most famous work The Making of the English Working Class unearthed traditions of radicalism that merged working class consciousness and an older critique of ‘old corruption’, the combined power of a state run by the rich and the big capitalists of their day. Instead of bemoaning the narrow-mindedness of their compatriots, Thompson thought socialists should recover rich radical languages from their past, to help identify the specific networks of power that linked government and business in their own times.

For much of the 20th century, socialism has aimed to direct the productive forces of the national economy in the interests of the community at large. But it did so with a non-revolutionary form of politics that emphasised the reconciliation of groups and interests who otherwise would have been rivals. In practice, as Thompson puts it, “each assertion of working-class influence … involved them as partners (even if antagonistic partners) in the running of the machine”. Our problem now is that too many do not feel they are partners within the machine. The demise of a national political conversation has something to do with that. The rediscovery of the themes from England’s socialist idiom might help restore a sense of involvement within our polity and economy. It wouldn’t provide a simple blueprint. But mining its varied seams would provide examples and language to help rebuild a left that can appeal across the divisions in our party, but more importantly also talk to the people outside of it.

Too often on the left the solutions we offer are abstract, yet muddled. Dogmatic, but unclear. Complex without speaking to the complexities of everyday life. We, in England, have forgotten ways of thinking and doing politics which are rich, radical and potentially very useful now. Rediscovering English socialism is not an effort to mobilise nostalgia or merely engage the cultural proclivities of those ‘left behind’ by globalisation. It offers the outline of a political project suited for a time when elites are questioned and people are demanding greater participation in political action. Bourgeois or working class, metropolitan or rural, rediscovering the vernacular idioms of the English left offers a path over the seemingly unbridgeable gulfs that have opened up within our society, never mind our party.

Image: Walt Jabsco


Jon Wilson

Jon Wilson teaches history at King's College London where he’s also academic lead for Widening Participation. He was a Labour councillor in Waltham Forest, and is active in Greenwich and Woolwich.


Tom Kelsey

Tom Kelsey is a historian at King's College London. His PhD is on science in post-war British politics.


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