Question 7: What are the myths Labour lives by?


This produced some strong responses. Jon Lawrence (Exeter and author of the article on 'The Myths Labour Lives by' that inspired this question) noted that the Prime Minister's first name is Keir (named after Keir Hardie, founder of the party). evidence of the way supporters feel the weight of the party's history. For Tony Taylor (Sheffield Hallam) Labour is always in search of a usable past.

Several historians noted that Labour regards itself as the party of the working class: a myth that it lives by. Historically, it was founded as the political representative of organised labour in the form of trade unions. This connection still exists although the party since Blair has been more meritocratic and aspirational. In its modern form it has been shaped by middle-class graduates. Christopher Massey noted that it abandoned Clause 4 (which committed Labour to nationalisation) under Blair. The clause that replaced it focused more on equality of opportunity than outcome. At the same time, Chris Wrigley (Nottingham) notes that it is a myth that the working class are always reliable Labour voters. This has never been true.

A number pointed to the record of the Attlee government and the Spirit of 1945 which continues to animate the party. In particular, the identity of Labour as the party that created the National Health Service is central to its ethos. Malcolm Petrie observes that the 1945 government is the only one that really appeals to both left and right of the party. The focus on the 1945 government is also a problem according to Tony Taylor as it sets an 'impossibly high benchmark' leading to all subsequent governments being viewed as failures.

This has created the myth, identified by Patrick Diamond (Queen Mary) 'that a Labour government with a large parliamentary majority can transform the country single-handedly'. This myth 'ignores the fact that radical social reforms usually require the mobilisation of political support far beyond the Labour party. And that very often governments are responding to structural changes in the economy and society that are already well underway'. In any case, as a number of historians noted, even the Attlee government built on the reforms of previous Liberal and Conservative governments, notably the inheritance of the New Liberalism. Colm Murphy points to the selective memory at play in discussions where the 1945 government was principally about welfare and the 1960s Wilson government was mainly about social liberalism. Historians show that neither claim is precisely true but they serve a modern construction of the past which all sides of the Labour Party buy into.

Robin Bunce (Homerton and co-author of a biography of Diane Abbott) points out another enduring issue is the myth that 'the Conservative party is the better steward of the economy'. Even though this is arguable it is often difficult to challenge and it shapes the way Labour has presented its economic offer. Another governing assumption, as Richard Johnson points out, is that 'a left-wing manifesto is always a vote loser'. The guiding assumption is that Labour can only win from the centre. Other historians also registered the way in which the post 1997 Labour party is shaped by the belief that voters worry about Labour's propensity to tax and spend. It should be noted that historians listed these as myths. It was less clear whether they are true or not.

More broadly, Glen O'Hara contends that Labour is preoccupied with its own sense of virtue (which is poured into forms of public provision and humanitarian causes). It does therefore come as a shock to supporters when other people do not view them as virtuous. Labour party history can productively be seen as a series of contests over virtue.

Clement Attlee and George VI

Image: Attlee with GeorgeVI HU 59486.jpg. Original image by British Government, available on Wikimedia Commons, public domain.