It is good to be able to explore again the pattern of constraints likely to beset a Labour Government.footnote1 For a long time now, such concerns have been definitely off our collective agendas because of the string of heavy electoral defeats for Labour. The bulk of the uk Left spent the 1980s discussing not how to use power but how to win it: how to create a bloc of electoral forces sufficiently large to bring an end to Thatcherism. We all read Eric Hobsbawm, struggled with the possibility that the Forward March of Labour had well and truly Halted, and contemplated the politics of electoral pacts. Yet that seems for the moment now to be behind us. It seems that realistically we can begin to anticipate again the arrival of Labour in power; and, because we can, it is time to go back to literatures and arguments prevalent on the Left in the 1960s and 1970s, literatures concerned with the aspirations of incoming Labour governments and with the barriers likely to be erected in their path. Of course, here as elsewhere, the past is never a perfect guide to the future. Some at least of the barriers awaiting a Blair government will be new ones—in form certainly, even in basic character—but I suspect that most will not. For in a very real sense we already know much of what will constrain an incoming Labour Government, because we also know what constrained Labour governments in the past. So in order not to be overly-surprised when the constraints come, and in order to avoid the temptation then to re-invent the wheel, this is an opportune moment to look back, and to consider again what happens to Labour governments whenever they try to rule uk capital.

Looking back at the record of the Labour Party as a political force in the uk since 1900, the over-riding impression that we need to keep before us is that of weakness and fragility. We need to remember how regularly hopes have been created only to be dashed, promises made only to be broken, agendas set never to be sustained. We need to remember how previous generations of Labour politicians—both in opposition and in power—tended to fall short of even the most modest aims of the people sustaining them; and we need to contemplate at least the possibility that a Blair-led Labour government will disappoint its supporters in a similar way. Amid the understandable pleasure, for many on the Left, at the prospect of a Conservative electoral defeat at last, we need to keep a very tight grip on any creeping sense of euphoria. For there are very good reasons to anticipate that the performance of New Labour in power will actually be poorer even than that of the Labour governments which preceded it. These reasons are rooted ultimately in underlying continuities in Labour politics which the term ‘New Labour’ serves only to obscure. Such continuities are, at one and the same time, electoral and governmental in character.

In electoral terms, it is striking how much assistance from external events and forces the Labour Party has always needed to create an electoral bloc sufficiently substantial to give it parliamentary power. It is also striking just how quickly that bloc has then eroded. After all, it took two world wars and a massive capitalist depression to wean sufficiently large numbers of uk workers away from an electoral loyalty to Liberalism and Conservatism, to give Labour its first (and still its largest) parliamentary majority in 1945. It then took another thirteen years of Conservative mismanagement and anachronistic fustiness to enable Harold Wilson fleetingly to reconstitute the width of that electoral bloc in 1966; and in neither instance did Labour manage to retain over the long term the majority it had so gratuitously won.

For in each case Labour was largely the passive recipient of electoral swings. Its own politics never normally possessed sufficient magnetic force to redraw the shape of electoral Britain by the power of its own programme and possibilities alone. The forces shaping that electoral map were largely external to Labour and beyond its control. They came (and the Labour Party flourished); they went (and the Labour Party was unable to prevent their going). It is true, of course, that the Labour Party did slowly build up its core vote by its own organizational and ideological efforts: defeating the Communist Party for the loyalty (by 1945) of the majority of unionized workers. But its capacity as a party to sweep up the bulk of the unorganized working class (in 1945) and of the new white collar and managerial strata in the private sector (in 1966), was largely not of its doing. Admittedly, it promised full employment and welfare to woo the first in 1945; and it promised industrial modernization to woo the second in 1966. But in each case Labour was incapable of preventing the erosion of its electoral support beyond a reliable core: and since 1966 (and especially 1979), as we know to our cost, the Party has also seen its core vote dramatically erode. Labour is now the party of public-sector workers (both proletarian and semi-professional), not of the organized working class in total, and is having to win back the votes of skilled workers in private industry—votes that, between 1945 and 1966, it briefly but unambiguously came to think of as its own.

This electoral fragility was, on the surface, the product of a particular pattern of performance in government. But it was also, in a deeper way, the product of the relationship that Labour politicians habitually establish with their own electorate, whether in government or not. Labour has never established what we could call—in a Gramscian sense—a hegemonic relationship with its own electoral base; and it certainly is not doing so now. Even in its heyday the Labour Party never created an extensive and sophisticated socialist universe—of newspapers, clubs, communities and institutions—within which to fuse itself to its people.footnote2 It never created a labour movement in anything other than name. Instead of consolidating a strong class movement behind it, to sustain its radicalism in office, the Labour Party in the past was satisfied merely to establish an episodic and ephemeral relationship between itself and its people, a relationship wholly mediated through the pursuit and registering of the vote. And, even as an electoral machine, the Party’s presence at grass-roots level has lain (and continues to lie) dormant between elections, only swinging into frenetic activity in the run-up to election day. In those moments it has always insisted—certainly by implication and often explicitly—that the whole task of the Left should be reduced to door-knocking and vote-catching. But the very fact that the Labour Party in the vast majority of its constituencies has not crossed any doors since the last election, tends to mean that fewer doors open to it, and that doors open to it with increasing indifference, except in circumstances of Tory crisis that the Labour Party itself can do little to precipitatefootnote3. Not surprisingly then, Labour majorities when they come tend to be accidental rather than created, and invariably prove to be as tenuous as they are fortuitous.

I will return to the question of hegemonic politics—to the issue of the stability, commitment and meaning of the Labour vote—in the last section of this article; but let me add now that the electoral fragility of Labour since 1966 has been massively reinforced by the under-performance of Labour in power. Labour Governments hitherto—even when they have had parliamentary majorities—have fallen into a regular and a depressing mould; and indeed have done so on a declining trajectory—in the sense that the performance of each majority Labour government to date has been, in retrospect, less satisfactory than the one before. A brief résumé of the overall performance of each post-war Labour government makes that very clear.

The Attlee Government—inheriting as it did an extensive wartime planning machine and a culture of cooperation and planning, and facing a momentarily discredited (and briefly less self-confident) capitalist class—did extend public ownership, create welfare institutions and maintain full-employment. However, even it was blown off course by financial crises from 1947. It retreated rapidly from planning and controls towards the end of its tenure in office, and experienced growing difficulties with wage restraint and incomes policy by 1951. But at least Attlee left office with the Party’s massive popular vote intact, robbed of power in the end, not by the defection of supporters, but by the vagaries of the uk electoral system.