Labour: Traditions and Future

By Mark Isson

It is apparent that the Marxist left needs to organise within the Labour Party. However, Marxists can’t even get through the door before being told that we don’t belong, apparently, we have no place in the Labour tradition. This argument of a Labour tradition upon which left-wing politics must be based which excludes Marxists is flawed in two ways, not only does the Labour tradition not exclude Marxists but basing future politics on a myth, as will be shown, of a truly socialist Labour Party is ridiculous and only confines the left in Labour.

The Labour tradition, if it is to be found anywhere, will be found in the first manifestos of Labour when it was still called the Labour Representation Committee. The 1900 manifesto was less than 200 words, in such a concise form, the most crucial ideas and policies of the Labour tradition must be found. (Dale, 2000, p. 5.) Instead of even Attlee-style politics, radical demands for ‘Abolition of the Standing Army, and the Establishment of a Citizen Force’ and ‘The People to decide on Peace or War’ are found. (Dale, 2000, p. 9.) The manifesto makes it clear that the goal of this is to emancipate ‘labour from the Domination of Capitalism’. (Ibid.) Few would not call these policies radical, many would consider them to be eccentric daydreams even, ideas not at the core of the Labour tradition, but yet here they are, one of the very first promises of Labour is a radical policy articulated clearer and more openly than some revolutionary groups today do! This was not isolated to one manifesto, in 1910 the manifesto recognises a ‘right to work'(Ibid., p. 13.), against the idea that work was a gift from the employer to be kindly given when the capitalist decides that the worker is allowed to live. In 1922, when the Labour Party became a potential party of government (Ibid., p. 5.), Labour still promised radical things, claiming that it ‘supports every effort to make Ireland united’. (Ibid., p. 19.) Compare this to the programme of the Blairites and left-bureaucrats, the retention of the standing army and capitalist state, the idea of socialism simply as a better negotiating position for the working class and the continued Westminster domination of the rest of the country. It is clear then that even if this tradition is only radical and not Marxist, the current Labour Party strays so far from these roots that Marxists have just as much of a right to decide on the future of Labour as the Blairites do. The instant response to these ideas is simply that anyone holding these views is unelectable, but in 1900, with only 15 candidates, Labour got 1.8% of the vote (Ibid., p. 9), in 1910, 7.6% (Ibid., p. 12.) and in 1922, 29.5% (Ibid., p.19.). It would be unfair to not note that practical electoral success, in terms of seats, occurred for multiple reasons and not simply the popularity of radical ideas alone, but nonetheless, these ideas were openly spread and were deemed electable by Labour voters across the country.

The next response is that these ideas weren’t alive in the Labour tradition, but this isn’t the case. At a grassroots level, the semi-Marxist SDF was crucial in putting Socialism on the agenda across the country and most importantly, in its areas of strongest support, London and Lancashire. (Thorpe, 2015, p. 16.) Labour Marxists were influential in spreading their ideas in the Labour Party and labour movement with significant influence far beyond its numbers, long before the days of Militant. (Foote, 2001, p. 25.) Marxism is not a new force in Labour suddenly trying to seize control, it is intertwined with the history of Labour. This history is best concisely summed up by Andrew Thorpe, ‘There always were radical socialists, even revolutionaries, within the Labour party’ (Thorpe, 2015, p. 289.). However, this argument only offers Marxists the right to simply exist within Labour by appealing to a tradition which is far more complex than the radical elements shown previously.

Labour has always ideologically and socially been a contradictory formation. Despite those praising Old Labour, there is no clearly socialist history to grasp onto beyond the radical policies already outlined and as will later be shown, this would require a break from Labour tradition. Even with a formal commitment to socialism, Labour spent little time thinking about how this society would come about or even how it would be organised, showing little serious commitment to the ideas debated today. (Ibid.) Conference had refused to recognise class war and would not commit itself to any kind of socialism which was clearly defined. (Ibid., pp. 15-16.) Contradictions are apparent in 1922, when Shapurji Saklatvala, a member of the CPGB, received the official endorsement of the Labour Party whilst promising to follow all the rules and practices of Labour Party. (Cole,1978, p. 144.) In short, a radical was elected as a radical and had to act as if he were a moderate. The Labour Party’s entrance into the First International also shows this, with Kautsky supporting their entrance on the basis that whilst Labour practised class war, they refused to admit they did. (Ibid., p. 6.) The only way Labour could be seen of as properly socialist was to admit that it was a contradiction, one which gives just as much right for non-socialists to claim Labour’s tradition and shatters the myth that Labour has an ideologically pure socialist tradition to reclaim. Even events conceived of as restricted to the era of New Labour, such as the attack on Clause IV, had already been attempted by Gaitskell in the 1950s. (Thorpe, 2015, p. 155.) Therefore, it is clear Old Labour had the same ideological struggles between left and right as Labour does today. The Labour Party executive even made it clear at one point that any united action with the Communist Party or communists was incompatible with being a member of the Labour Party, a policy which would seem to make even Momentum outside of the Labour tradition to those who hold up the idea of a socialist Old Labour! (Cole,1978, p. 348.) This contradictory nature is also apparent in the class nature of the Labour Party. Tom Forester makes it clear that the ‘Labour Party has always had a disproportionate percentage of middle class people in parliamentary leadership’ (Forester, 1976, p. 68.), citing Guttsman he claims by 1929, a time which most would perceive as belong to Old Labour, only 60% of their MPs were from a working class background. (Ibid.) This is obviously at odds with the claim that Labour must be ‘reclaimed’ by the working class, whilst starting with strong working class representation, even under Old Labour, Labour had been in a continual state of decline for working class parliamentary representation. The first Labour PM, Ramsay MacDonald even sought more middle class members to the party to make it more respectable. (Ibid., p. 70.) In almost direct contrast to the disproportionate influence of Marxists in the Labour Party, the middle class Fabians exerted influenced far out of proportion to their membership numbers. (Ibid.) This shows that Labour’s past offers no wholly socialist or working-class to act as a guide to present politics. The only way to claim a socialist Labour tradition is to break with another part of Labour tradition, its anti-socialist tradition. Instead of squabbling over the past, the left should recognise that the future they want, with a working class Labour Party, socialist economics and policy and a clear ideological stance cannot be won by worshipping the past. We must solve the contradiction of Labour and offer a new future for it. Some of the most important victories for the left in Labour were won by bold moves such as these, such as the introduction of Clause IV 18 years after the Labour Party’s creation. (Thorpe, 2015, p. 155.)

It is on this note that I would like to present new ideas for the demands and ideas socialists in Labour should put forward. Instead of a return to Clause IV, which denies workers agency as the means of production are secured ‘for’ (, 2017) workers and confuses nationalisation with working class control of the means of production, socialists should call for a new Clause IV, which commits Labour to securing the means of production through working class organisation, clearly states the opposition of the Labour Party to capitalism and stands in solidarity with the struggle of workers across the world, promoting an internationalist socialism. Marxists must also put forward their criticism of Keynesian economics, by clearly explaining how the current economic situation was caused by capitalism, not individual greedy bankers, but a system based on the exploitation of the working class. This will also require challenging notions that institutions like the NHS are a model for how socialism will be organised, with a clear criticism of the idea that working class ownership of the means of production is the same as nationalisation and even the notion that class is simply based on income rather than relationship to the means of production. This ideological clarification should accompany work towards restructuring the Labour Party to make it a genuinely working class party. At present, Labour and its tradition offer a place for Blairites and Marxists to conflict, it is our current task to move beyond appealing to tradition to create a genuinely socialist Labour Party offering genuine solutions for the future!


Cole, G. (1978). A history of the labour party from 1914. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Dale, I. (2000). Labour Party general election manifestos, 1900-1997. London: Routledge.

Foote, G. (2001). The Labour Party’s political thought. 3rd ed. Basingstoke: Palgrave.

Forester, T. (1976). The Labour Party and the working class. London: Heinemann. (2017). Old Clause Four | IV | Four | original | first. [online] Available at: [Accessed 6 Nov. 2017].

Thorpe, A. (2015). A history of the British Labour Party. 3rd ed. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

  • Show Comments

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

comment *

  • name *

  • email *

  • website *

You May Also Like

A Critique of Universal Basic Income

  By Paul Cockshott Introduction The left movement is still stuck in a post-Soviet ...

Launch Statement

“The old world is dying and the new world is struggling to be born, ...