C. Murphy: Futures of Socialism

Futures of Socialism. ‘Modernisation', the Labour Party, and the British Left, 1973–1997

Murphy, Colm
Modern British Histories
X, 316 S.
CHF 139.00
Reviewed for H-Soz-Kult by
Stefan Berger, Institut für soziale Bewegungen, Ruhr-Universität Bochum

The long years of Conservative rule in the United Kingdom between 1979 and 1997 were years in which the Labour leadership, starting with Neil Kinnock, came to argue that one of the preconditions for Labour to be able to become a party of government once again, was the “modernization” of the party and its policies over a wide range of policy areas. This is also the trope at the centre of Colin Murphy’s book which traces those debates surrounding the search for the modernization of Britain that took place, above all, in left-of-centre think tanks and journals, including Charter 88, the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR), The New Statesman, New Socialist and Marxism Today as well as among Members of Parliament, Labour Party activists and intellectuals. Given that the modernizing agenda is today widely associated with New Labour and its figureheads, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, it may come as a surprise to see that the figures populating the pages of Murphy’s book are quite different and come, not exclusively, but more often than not, from the party’s left wing. Beatrix Campbell, Bryan Gould, Paul Hirst and Stuart Holland are just some of the Labour Party activists that figure prominently in Murphy’s book.

The first part of the book consists of two chapters that deal with the long good-bye from the framework of the nation state that had been so dear to the Labour Party for so long. Many Labour Party politicians since 1900 had been representatives of what could be dubbed, loosely following Joseph Stalin, “socialism in one country” ideas – focusing on the building of the New Jerusalem within the United Kingdom without any concern or reference to anywhere else. Reformers within the Labour Party, Murphy shows, thought it was high time that the party took note of the consequences of Europeanization and globalization. Within a global capitalist world order, modern socialists had to think about ways in which social equality could be aligned to ideas of the market. Notions of industrial democracy and stakeholder capitalism became prominent concepts of such re-alignment that moved the party away from being identified with social engineering through nation-state action.

The second part of the book deals with Labour Party reformers seeking ways to modernize the party’s exclusive orientation towards a male industrial working class. A modernized socialism would be, they argued, one alert to the intersectionality of progressive identities, including those of gender and race. A multi-cultural and cosmopolitan Britain came to be the rallying cry of an identity politics that won increasing support among Labour stalwarts, not the least within the Greater London Council (GLC) under Ken Livingstone. However, New Labour remained wary of such identity politics, especially where it concerned minority rights, as its stakeholder groups told it that these issues were not vote winners.

The third part of the book looks at the development of new ideas surrounding the British constitution (or rather the absence of it), and economic strategies with which to bring the “sick man of Europe” of the 1960s and 1970s into the 21st century amidst visions of “cool Britannia”. The rethinking of the “Alternative Economic Strategy” of the 1970s led to a championing of diverse strategies and ideas from employee share ownership to new forms of industrial democracy at the workplace.

What is largely absent from Murphy’s book is how the modernization agenda did not only include various policy areas but also the party itself: Finding a new relationship with the trade union movement, abolishing the (in)famous Clause Four of the Labour Party constitution, and forging a party fit for a media democracy are just three of the landmark developments that saw a Labour Party emerge in the 1990s that had little in common with the party that had existed in the 1960s and 1970s.

The 1970s mark the starting point of Murphy’s book as a decade of industrial turmoil and economic decline – a decade that could be presented by Thatcherism as a dark foil against which her governments would thrive to make Britain great again, by fighting enemies outside (like Argentina or the European Union) and within (like the trade unions), and by whipping up nationalism and xenophobia as well as encouraging a move towards traditional values of family and self-help in order to replace the welfare state. It is a common misperception of much of the public debate surrounding the emergence of New Labour that it amounted to the neoliberalization of the Labour Party. Murphy’s book is, above all, a reminder that the roots of New Labour were far more complex than this.

The resounding election defeats of the 1980s taught Labour that it could no longer stand on the platform it had so successfully stood on in the decades after the Second World War: the promise of a better life for the working people of Britain through well-paid industrial jobs, a welfare state for all and an education system that would not benefit only the privileged few but the great mass of the population. State-led forms of social engineering, taxation and a close alliance with the powerful trade union movement were the pillars on which this traditional understanding of Labour rested. The 1980s and 1990s, Murphy shows, were decades in which much of this old understanding of the Labour Party was rethought. A plethora of new ideas emerged, many of which are already forgotten today, and they formed the new platform on which “New Labour” came to stand. However, as Murphy also underlines, this new platform did not look so different from the old one, for some of the key planks in that platform had remained the same, such as the commitment to the redistribution of wealth, to the welfare state, to providing greater opportunities for those towards the lower end of the social spectrum in Britain. Only the concepts and ideas with which these aims were to be achieved looked different. Hence, anyone interested in the remaking of socialism in the neoliberal age, in Britain and elsewhere, will benefit enormously from reading this erudite and well-written account of how the Labour Party was “modernized” but not “neoliberalized” during the 1980s and 1990s.

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