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How Labour Governs conference report

By Polly Bowerman

The history of the Labour Party as the second party of the British state has been defined by the success and failures of its ability to transform itself, to reflect, challenge and build on the status quo. Chameleon-like across 100 years, meeting the needs of an ever-changing, often elitist, British society, Labour must now prioritise the clear definition of its role in the 21st century for new generations who, in a digital, future-facing age, do not necessarily set store by the Labour of 100 or even twenty years ago.

The conference ‘How Labour Governs’ assessed the foundations on which a future Labour government will build by inviting leading Labour historians, political philosophers and policy specialists to analyse what Labour has meant across the most important departments of government. Its aim was to explore what the statecraft of an incoming Labour government could look like. Those at the forefront of Labour’s experience in government put their latest thinking on the record and in dialogue with the work of their peers, examining a wide range of themes, from the wider world to the economy. The ambitious programme consisted of parallel strands, meaning this report gives a snapshot of the talks I opted to attend in line with my research interests. The panel A sessions are represented here but the panel B strand covered Labour and the Constitution in the morning session and Labour and the Economy in the afternoon.

Following a welcome by Professor Rohan McWilliam, the morning session split into two panels. I opted to attend ‘Labour and the Wider World’. Dr Jonathan Davis launched this session with his paper, ‘From Soviet recognition to the ethical foreign policy: what did internationalism mean to Labour in power?’. Taking David Lammy’s recent party conference speech on Labour as the party of internationalism, Davis explored how, though internationalism remains central to Labour’s political being, questions remain as to how this will influence the next Labour government. Underlying this is the recognition that Labour must prove itself as a responsible party of government, supporting national interests as well as the class interests which historically defined the socialist tradition. Such modern internationalism, Davis argues, was evidenced in Robin Cook’s balancing of foreign and domestic policy with the blending of national interest and realpolitik. Reasserting the UK’s global position through a similarly clear-cut view on internationalism’s meaning within government will be a major priority for Labour. Only by such diplomatic measures will the levers of trade and military prowess be effectively brought into line and prestige demonstrated.

Richard Carr, Richard Johnson and Jonathan Davis chairing a panel at the how Labour Governs conference

Dr Richard Carr, Dr Richard Johnson and Dr Jonathan Davies giving their paper

Dr Richard Johnson’s talk, ‘Out and Into the World: Decolonisation, Development, & Euroscepticism in the 1960s-70s Labour Governments’, took Minister of Overseas Development Judith Hart’s career as the litmus test for the treatment of Eurosceptics and Europhiles across the party’s 1960s-70s governments. This analysis was closely braided with the dilemma posed for those intending to govern as socialists in managing overseas development with Hart fighting to keep a degree of separation from the Foreign Office and avoid her department becoming a feature for the ‘good times’. While Whitehall civil servants may not be able to force issues, left-wing Cabinet members such as Hart felt the full effect of efforts to bounce MPs into position early in their office. Little trust was forthcoming from traditional Labour leaders such as Wilson, with accusations of Hart acting as a Soviet spy leading to a threatened removal from Cabinet. Treasury control and sexist treatment point to historic failures to establish a comprehensive, cross-party approach to aid and its intersection with Europe. Of relevance here is that Labour’s position on Europe will come in for new questioning regarding the Irish border.

Discussion at this session focused on how Labour would manage the transition to ethical foreign policy given Cook’s record in prioritising this over Blair’s embrace of capitalism. Where a future Labour government should sit in straddling the New and Old Left depends on your assessment of the success of New Labour and the importance placed on Cabinet cohesion. Starmer’s grasp on foreign policy and how he wields this pragmatically as leader will be central over the coming years. The outcomes remain unpredictable with Starmer holding no keen ties with tradition.

David Edgerton’s keynote, ‘A Declinist with a Purpose: Harold Wilson and the Politics of Production’, provided a startling, humorous account of one of Labour’s most contentious leaders. ‘No narrow siloes’ was the clarion call as Labour faced policy reforms in war and welfare, technology and national identity. Such pivots require historians to talk to economists. Edgerton attributes Wilson’s erasure from the Labour pantheon on production to the phenomenon where Labour’s post-war consensus on the welfare state and its rejection of Beveridge in the 1960s and 1970s were wiped from the national political psyche with the post-1979 revisions of Thatcher and the subsequent New Labour years. Edgerton makes a compelling case for reappraising the success of Wilson’s productivism, arguing that his intellectual ambitions to change British capitalism produced losing election results that were actually much the same as Blair’s winning 1997 vote. Wilson achieved this by appealing to audiences to make change for a new Britain, a legacy which stands up to history in demonstrating government adeptness in influencing private companies for the national interest. Crucially, drawing lines between essential and unessential industry enabled investment in the Commonwealth. Post-1966, the Industrial Expansion Act signalled Labour ‘picking winners’ in British business in measures which foreshadowed the popular economic nationalism of New Labour. This is explicitly tied to the rejection of Beveridgian austerity welfare. Dubbed ‘the Left discovers shopping’, a productivist Starmer government should put anti-consumerism in modern perspective by combining entrepreneurship with research and development. This builds the will and means to make Labour a party of business.

Adrian Smith began the ‘Labour in Government’ panel with ‘Labour and the Military: Dealing with the chiefs of staff (1929-2024)’. The work of journalist Tom Wintringham weaves through Smith’s analysis of the Ministry of Defence (as of 1947), and before this, Labour’s first two government of 1924 and 1929-31. Ramsay MacDonald’s appointment is seen as the crux in appeasing Labour-military relations and defining Labour as a party of modernity with Brigadier Lord Thomson serving as Secretary of State for Air under his close friend MacDonald. A.V. Alexander’s relationship with Attlee and Churchill contributed to the creation of NATO and an abiding respect between senior military personnel and Labour ministers with active wartime service which defined the military-government dynamic until the 1997 election of New Labour. George Robertson, Secretary of State for Defence at the time of the Strategic Defence review (1997-99), is viewed by Smith as the last impressive Labour figure to hold the role (despite inadequate Treasury procurement funding). Except for Ben Wallace, recent Secretaries of State for Defence have not combined sufficient competence, intellectual muscle and deep military knowledge. This is the vital combination which Starmer’s government must seek out to allow the MoD long term and secure procurement. Civil-military relations demand genuine contributions rather than the glamorous, exorbitant projects of old.

Jonathan Portes’ talk on ‘New Labour and new Britons - immigration policy under Labour 1997-2010’ gave a lucid insight into emerging policy developments. This was a timely discussion considering sweeping interest in National Archives releases on Labour’s immigration policy. Anchoring late 20th century developments in the Nationality Act 1948 and the Commonwealth Immigrants Act 1968, Portes explored three possible theories for the streamlining and liberalisation of work permits. ‘Statist neoliberalism’ is placed in contention with ‘Great Replacement’ and ‘Events’. The 2004 Asylum and Immigration Act, lacking the necessary transitional controls, is believed to have led to Brexit. Yet Portes emphasises that we should instead focus on how public opinion in the period largely chimed with government action. Only the 2008 financial crash saw a fall back. The contemporary takeaway was the applicability of immigration expert Erica Consterdine’s 2020 ‘Parties matter but institutions live on: Labour’s legacy on Conservative immigration policy and the neoliberal consensus’, to political and economic policy and strategy at the time. Here Consterdine argues developments in 2004 sprung from neoliberal belief in the primacy of labour market flexibility, driven by Labour’s ideological globalisation drive. This is consistent with Portes’ ‘statist neoliberalism’ theory. Thus, Portes rebuffs the ‘Great replacement’ theories currently gaining in conservative and reformist parties. ‘Events’ is factored in with the 2000s a time of benign economic conditions resulting in ‘enough critical mass’ to put measures through. That Blair and Brown were in accordance here was arguably the catalyst whereas antagonism caused delay to other agendas.

Glen O'Hara giving talk at How Labour Governs conference

Glen O'Hara

Lyndsey Jenkins’ talk, ‘‘If we did not raise these simple issues, nobody will’: Labour women’s campaigns from the backbenches during the Wilson administrations’ illuminated how, up until 1997, Labour had governed without women in mind. Part of a post-war phenomenon reflected in electoral performance, the 1980s brought the return of women to Labour to combat Thatcherism. This resonates today, with more female Labour MPs than male since the last general election. Yet Jenkins warns against the tendency to view women’s history in waves defined by the top levels of Labour party and the Conservatives. From this follows the rebuttal of women’s politics as a backwater best avoided by ambitious women. Utilising the career of Lena Jaeger, it is demonstrated that female backbenchers held a broad conception of social justice which included race and gender discrimination deserving of greater critical attention. Joyce Butler’s achievement of the Sex Discrimination Act 1975, following its 1972 introduction by a man, is a prime example. Much work remains to equip a party which historically discouraged women from coalition work in addressing these issues. Indeed, action by male Labour MPs may be the antidote to this.

Charles Clarke’s keynote ‘The Political Challenges facing Labour in Government’ analysed the conditions that will apply for a change of government. Clarke’s premise is that substantive changes in government are rare in UK political, not to mention Labour, history. Strategic action in government will thus be required given there is no reliance on a secure majority. Competence is vital. The economy comes first on this agenda, with Rachel Reeves and Keir Starmer indicating they can project the confidence achieved between 1994-2008 under Blair and Brown. Future Labour governments can’t rule out paying more tax: a sensible tactic given the importance of action on the NHS and crime. Gaining public trust here will be a matter of quality leadership combining personalities to bring together potential Cabinet competitors. Achieving this via the National Policy forum, away from the media glare of the NEC, is key to addressing the intellectually and politically difficult issues which impact public framing. Politicisation of the civil service means cultivating strong leaders here too. Within Labour’s traditional remit, social care and housing for young people with planning tie-in will connect with younger voters. Linking back to principles of statecraft, Clarke’s highly pragmatic analysis calls for Labour to govern not through the interpretation of the world but by realising changes through a strong narrative on what a Labour government is for.

This conference achieved it aims in assessing Labour’s political creativity in varied and often unexpected ways. Labour is a vital part of understanding the UK’s political culture and its shifting role in the world. Yet the party can never be analysed in isolation with the public services and opposition it must challenge, analyse and convince. In the 21st century this will be no small feat as the rapid pace of world events tests the limits and capability of Labour’s ideological spectrum. When party leadership aligns these forces, Labour has the power to tackle difficult and painful policy areas which mark out its skill to the electorate.

Polly Bowerman is a PhD student at ARU working on the impact of early 1990s backchannel diplomacy aimed at achieving ceasefire and recognised peace in the Northern Irish Troubles on Labour’s relationship with the Republic of Ireland. Focused on the 1990 – 1998 period, her work assesses the impact of Labour’s ideological U-turn and strategic shift to bipartisanship regarding Ireland on its handling of intelligence groundwork laid out by Major’s cabinet. This unprecedented backchannel provided Labour with the opportunity, on which it capitalised, to demonstrate its finesse in handling one of the most secret but crucial areas of any modern global government. Her work recognises the impact of the Republic, downplayed at the time but increasingly recognised in recent years, in avoiding a breakdown in negotiation with the Provisional IRA and Sinn Féin.