The future of the left since 1884

Can Labour win?

Keir Starmer should take a leaf out of Tony Crosland’s book by building a Labour programme fit for the future, writes Paul Richards.


Long read

In the spring of 1960, the 42-year-old Anthony Crosland MP, a member of the Fabian Society executive, gave a lecture in London to the Fabians, taking as his title Can Labour Win? The talk was subsequently produced as a Fabian pamphlet and sent to the Fabian membership.

What are the similarities and differences between the situation facing the Labour party in 1960 and 2020, and how can Tony Crosland’s arguments and approaches help a Labour party led by Keir Starmer construct a modern, values-led programme capable of answering the great questions of the age and simultaneously gaining electoral support? The question for us today, 60 years on, is can Labour win?

When he gave his Fabian lecture, Tony Crosland, the MP for Grimsby, was at the height of his intellectual powers. Four years earlier he had published The Future of Socialism, an explicit attempt to revise British socialism away from its ideological quasi-Marxist attachment to state ownership, and to reposition Labour as a party driven by socialist values, applied anew in each generation. Crosland, in a party deeply distrustful of intellectuals, was the closest Labour came.

The difference between the arguments in The Future of Socialism in 1956, and his Fabian pamphlet four years later, aside from depth and length, was the fact of the 1959 general election. This was the Conservatives’ third election victory in a row, and as Crosland pointed out: “The Party has now suffered a humiliation unprecedented in the annals of British democratic politics, namely, of losing seats at four successive General Elections.”

The question he posed was more than academic; it was existential. The following year Richard Rose, Mark Abrams and Rita Hinden published a Penguin special called Must Labour Lose? which concluded that unless Labour modernised in light of changing attitudes, aspirations, class identification and relative affluence, the answer was yes. The book’s blurb stated: “Unless the Labour Party has a fighting chance to win elections, the country may be governed indefinitely without an essential feature of parliamentary democracy – an alternative government in the House of Commons.” Then, as now, Labour’s ability to form governments, and its very existence as a party of government, was in serious doubt.

In 1959 the Conservatives led by Harold MacMillan won a majority of 100, gaining 20 seats taking its total to 365. Hugh Gaitskell led the party to an overall loss of 19 seats, resulting in 258 Labour MPs. Labour won 43.9 per cent of the popular vote. However, as we know from Labour’s 2017 defeat, percentage of the vote is irrelevant and meaningless if the other side wins more votes and more seats. The Tories won 49.4 per cent of the vote, and 1,534,703 more ballots than Labour. This, remember, was a much more binary electoral system, with only six Liberals, and zero Plaid Cymru, SNP, Sinn Fein, Ulster Unionists or Greens. The 1959 election was a zero-sum game, without the complexities of today’s multi-party system.

Crosland based his argument that Labour had to change and modernise in the light of defeat in two factors, one theological, the second psephological. First, he started his pamphlet with a rehearsal of what he saw as 10 ‘basic socialist values’. These can be read in full online, but in essence they are: an over-riding concern with social welfare, equal distribution of wealth, classlessness, a non-elite system of education, diffusion of economic power, the substitution of co-operation for competition in social and economic relations, disarmament and the ‘rule of law’ over nationalism, racial equality both at home and abroad, an increase in economic growth, and a belief in parliamentary democracy, with the rights of liberty of the individual against the state, police, private or public bureaucracy, or ‘organised intolerance of any kind.’

He argued that ”No one can call himself a socialist who does not assent to the basic values.” This in itself falls into the trap of confusing ends and means (the greatest misdemeanour that can befall socialism, according to Crosland), because Crosland’s own identification of fundamental values, whilst progressive and laudable, belongs to its own time and circumstance.

He was writing against the backdrop of a growing economy and greater prosperity, with an uncontested welfare state and publicly owned utilities and corporations, a rigid class system, and before the rightful influence of the second wave of feminism, the rise of concerns about climate change, or the politics of race, gender, disability or sexuality which would emerge more fully in the following decades.

When revisionists revised Clause IV in the mid-90s, these issues were embedded into Labour’s stated aims and values, in language that would have been largely incomprehensible in 1959. As a great Fabian Tony Wright described at the time:

“The battle of ideas was now not only central to the party but driven from the top. The Blairite revolution, converting socialism into ‘social-ism’ and constructing a liberal communitarianism anchored in a broad intellectual inheritance of the left centre, succeeded where the putative revisionism of a generation earlier had failed. The means and ends of socialism had finally been disentangled, not through evasion or obfuscation but through a direct and explicit process of theoretical reconstruction.”

However, this conviction that British socialism was a series of ethics, or values, which could be applied to changing social and economic situations, rather than a rigid set of ‘demands’ or manifesto policies, is Crosland’s greatest insight for us today. This revisionist approach means that Labour can never become wedded to redundant ideas and ossify as society evolves around us. The application of traditional values in modern settings, as John Prescott put it, is what has guided Labour into election-winning strategies in 1945, 1997, and under Harold Wilson four years after Crosland’s pamphlet in 1964 (and again more convincingly in 1966).

The opposite approach, namely imbuing certain policies with nearreligious significance, which cannot be challenged for fear of heresy, is what led Labour into the doldrums in the worst electoral calamities of 1983 and 2019. There are those today who wish to stitch Labour’s 2019 manifesto into Labour’s fabric, like an indelible tattoo, regardless of its popularity or efficacy, and ignorant of its relevance in our pandemic-stricken world.

Crosland dismantled this latter approach in his pamphlet, drawing on an essay by Max Weber, Politics as a Vocation. Weber distinguished the ethic of ultimate ends and the ethic of responsibility, and Crosland characterised the ethic of ultimate ends as she or he who:

“Has no interest in political power; for he takes no interest in, or responsibility for, the consequences of his actions – even when they fall on other people than himself … political tactics, reconciliation, compromise, an order of priorities, a choice between objectives – these have no place in his system.”

Crosland decried those socialists who ‘would remain in opposition for 30 years rather than risk one tittle of his doctrinal purity’ rather than consider their responsibility for their actions ‘on British old-age pensioners or the inhabitants of Nyasaland’. We can make the same charge stick on those today who do not see their own role, by keeping Labour out of office, in the poverty of pensioners or reductions in overseas aid.

I mentioned earlier that Crosland’s argument was anchored in two approaches, one theological, the second psephological, and to this second one we must now turn. As Dick Leonard noted in a collection of essays to commemorate Crosland after his death in 1977:

“Crosland himself retained a consistent interest in the attitudes and behaviour of voters. He read and mastered, as Can Labour Win? made clear, all the earlier literature on the subject and he took a lively interest in opinion poll data at all times – not just when an election was pending.”

This belief in, and understanding of, the science of voter behaviour marked Crosland out as a man of modernity within Labour circles. The science of opinion polling and understanding of voting behaviour was relatively new, and some of the methods were pioneered in commercial advertising, marketing and public relations. As such there was a deep suspicion of these techniques. This same suspicion was encountered in the 1980s when Peter Mandelson, Philip Gould, Deborah Mattinson and others attempted to professionalise Labour’s relationships with the voters and it has survived in some parts of the Labour movement.

The group ruling the Labour party between 2015 and 2019, and their acolytes, certainly espoused a total disregard for opinion polls and survey evidence in a manner and with a  force that would have been immediately recognisable to Tony Crosland. Instead of measuring results from election data or stated voter intentions, they measured attendances at rallies or numbers of social media shares and built their political platform on those shaky foundations. The question for Keir Starmer is whether to repeat that mistake, or to use the insights gleaned from modern methods of political science to inform his understanding, decisions and Labour’s direction.

Again, we must learn from Crosland’s broad approach not his specific remedy. For example, in Can Labour Win? he states that all voting studies agree that political attitudes are primarily correlated with social class: ‘Most middleclass people vote Conservative, most working-class people vote Labour.’ In Crosland’s time, the political scientist Peter Pulzer stated that: ‘Class is the basis of British party politics; all else is embellishment and detail’. Crosland, with some prescience, had identified that in the future voters would behave more like consumers ‘more fluid and open to rational persuasion.’

By the time of the 2019 general election, the class position was reversed. More working-class people (in the C2DE category of skilled workers, semi-skilled and unskilled manual workers, and the unemployed) voted Conservative than Labour. Labour’s own membership, now at a new peak under Starmer, is overwhelmingly middleclass, unlike in Crosland’s time. The research of Tim Bale and colleagues shows that by 2017, 77 per cent of Labour members were ABC1 (managers, professionals and administrators), compared to 60 per cent of the population.

Across the former industrial areas of the North East, North West, Yorkshire and the Midlands, places like Crosland’s own seat of Grimsby, and a roll-call of ‘safe’ Labour seats fell to the Tories. Crosland’s socialism was rooted in a political map, where Labour’s strength and values derived from the communities of Bassetlaw, Blyth, Bishop Auckland, Bolsover, Wakefield, Workington, Durham and Sedgefield, all lost to the Tories in 2019.

Starmer’s socialism must therefore be based on the new realities of modern Britain, where age, education, sex, aspiration, and social attitudes are stronger determinants of voting behaviour than social class and occupation. The Durham Miners’ Gala may be a nice day out – and one which teaches us a great deal about our industrial past – but it informs us very little about future elections. Crosland’s key insight is that election-winning strategy must be based on scientific research not on what Crosland called ‘whim or hunch’.

Having established his approach, Crosland addresses the question of how Labour may win again. For someone so keen to establish himself as an intellectual, his first piece of advice seems lightweight: ‘We manifestly need to change the image of the party: in terms of issues, attitudes and the underlying class identification.’ He is keen on better, more professional public relations and advertising. He is clear, though, this is not at the expense of principle: ‘No  one suggests that we should give up our African policy, or promise lavish tax concessions, merely because these might be the popular things to do.’ This was a side-swipe at Gaitskell who had pledged in the election campaign ‘no  tax rises’ despite Labour’s stated policy. This is helpful to a nascent ‘Starmerism’ – unpopular, or repellent, aspects of Labour’s recent positions and public face can be safely jettisoned without endangering Labour’s core principles. Indeed, in the case of antisemitism, ejecting those with anti-Jewish views is a reassertion of Labour’s true values, not an abandonment of them.

For Crosland, the main drags on Labour’s performance were the confusion over nationalisation. For example, sugar and cement were targets for state control in Labour’s programme in 1950, but not in 1955 or 1959, chemicals were on the list in 1955 but not 1950 and 1959, and ‘insurance, meat wholesaling, machine tools, mining machinery aircraft and electrical engineering have all made transient appearances at different times.’ Crosland is not against state control of certain industries, but only if the policy is ‘carefully argued and consistently propagated and not … tossed into the programme at the last minute with no convincing explanation.’ This last error was unfortunately repeated at the 2019 election, with a similar result in the minds of the voters.

Crosland also cites the impression that Labour in 1959 was seen as an enemy of progress and affluence – indeed ‘anti-prosperity’. Labour must always recognise that aspiration is a core component of people’s make-up, and not antipathetic to socialist values. Neil Kinnock reminded the 1987 Labour conference of the words of Ron Todd, the leader of the Transport & General Workers Union:

“What do you say to a docker who earns £400 a week, owns his house, a new car, a microwave and a video, as well as a small place near Marbella? You do not say ‘let me take you out of your misery, brother’.”

Tony Blair told the 1996 conference the story of the voter he encountered in the Midlands, polishing his Ford Sierra. He was a ‘self-employed electrician, Dad always voted Labour. He used to vote Labour, he said, but he bought his own home, he had set up his own business, he was doing quite nicely, so he said I’ve become a Tory.’ Blair explained it thus: “His instincts were to get on in life, and he thought our instincts were to stop him.”

Hazel Blears, in an essay for the Fabian Society in 2007, quoted Ernest Bevin: “It’s inherent in the working class to want a better deal for your children than your parents or grandparents had.” At its best, Labour has understood this need to get on and do well. Harold Wilson managed to harness the aspirational spirit of his times by the 1964 election, and was rewarded with electoral victory. In 2019, however, Labour gave the impression of a  narrow class-based approach, disapproving of social mobility and critical of success. Starmer needs to show that he gets modern society and people’s desire to get on and do well. He will be helped in this task by his own working-class-lad-done-well backstory, with a knighthood to prove it.

Perhaps the greatest difference between the challenges facing Crosland and Starmer is the state of the economy. Crosland was grappling with the challenge of rising standards, a blurring of class distinctions, and a new salience of status over the alleviation of material want. The times were a-changing, at least for some. This required “an ethical, idealistic appeal, such as a true Socialist party should always make” which might prove “more in tune with the temper of the country”.

Starmer, by contrast, must construct a popular programme in the midst of the climate emergency, technological disruption, mass unemployment and a pandemic. This stark contrast is perhaps the most important reason to listen to the voice of Crosland, echoing down the decades. Because, although on the surface views formulated before Love Me Do, never mind before the internet, may seem utterly irrelevant, the crucial gift Crosland bestows is an understanding that socialist values can be reapplied regardless of context or circumstance. Values are what give us an enduring appeal, transcendent of time and place. As long as we do not fix on particular personalities or policies (as some are now proposing), Labour can prosper.

Crosland said if Labour in the early 1960s could modernise as a ‘progressive, national and social-democratic Party’ it might win again, and so it proved. Faced with a similarly-sized Tory majority, after a comparable length of time in opposition, as the one faced by Crosland’s generation, Keir Starmer must again forge an electoral strategy based on psephological evidence, imbued with modernity, in tune with society and rooted in socialist values. If Starmer ignores and marginalises the siren voices, and reaches deep into Labour’s true egalitarian, libertarian and communitarian values, there is no reason why he cannot succeed.

Paul Richards

Paul Richards is a writer and former chair of the Fabian Society


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