Question 10: Any other comments that might be helpful in thinking about how Labour’s past might shape its future?


A number of historians responded that Labour is often selective in its use of its history and that it is frequently deployed for political purposes. Starmer's party is presenting itself as a party that has 'changed' (mainly from the Corbyn years). It therefore seems (on the surface) to owe little to earlier iterations of the party. There are also arguments amongst historians about whether Labour in the Blair and Starmer eras is really the same party as it was up to the 1990s. Some believe that the older version of Labour came to an end in the early 1990s (the contrast between 'Old' and 'New' Labour). A rather different party replaced it. Others see continuity. This division is likely to be a continuing faultline both in histories of Labour but also in wider political discussion.

One recurrent pattern, historians observe, is that once a Labour government comes to an end (and indeed beforehand) it is accused of betrayal. The Tories tend not to do this (although the post-2024 election discussion may prove an exception). Starmer's government needs to reassure supporters that it is propelled by Labour values. Here the mantra of 'Country First – Party second', whilst commonsensical and attractive in many respects, can have its problems. Supporters who go out to canvas and champion the party need to feel they are working for a government that is progressive and that shares their belief system. On the present moment, John Callaghan (Salford) argues that 'unlike 1924, 1931 or 1945 there is no conviction that the left has an alternative vision of society and policies that can make it a reality'.

Lisa Nandy speaking into microphone under Labour banner

There is now a major task (not entirely new) of defeating right wing populism in Britain and abroad. This came up in several responses to the survey. The response needs to be done by delivering benefits that ordinary people can actually see. In particular, Robin Bunce argues that 'Labour will have to surpass its existing achievements by delivering for Black and Asian people, women, queer folk, people who have traditionally had a marginal position in British public life, and in the Labour party'. Jonathan Davis argues that the response will involve a stronger role for the state which will contrast with the orthodoxy of the last forty years. A number of historians emphasised the importance of the trade union link, viewing it not only as an important vehicle for stability but also for seeing off the appeal of Reform UK. John Callaghan makes the point that the failure of Labour since the 1990s to seriously address inequalities of income and region has produced the feeling that the parties are 'all the same'.

There was some disagreement amongst historians over whether Britain is essentially a Conservative country that is occasionally run by the Labour Party. Some felt this to be true in their comments whilst others strongly disagreed. It will be intriguing to see how Starmer's government answers this question. The approach in the election campaign suggests that it inclines to the view that the conservatism of the electorate is a fact of life that has to be engaged with.

Image: Lisa Nandy, 2016 Labour Party Conference.jpg (cropped). Original image by Rwendland, available on Wikimedia Commons under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.