Question 8: Has Labour ever been truly socialist in government?


A lot turns on how one defines socialism. A number of historians quoted Herbert Morrison’s argument that 'socialism is what a Labour government does'. It confirms the view that the party has never been doctrinaire or ideological. Indeed, its ideology is best described (as some historians do) as 'Labourism' rather than 'Socialism'. Other historians view Labour as social democratic in essence. Daniel Pitt (Sheffield) views the ideology of Labour as complex, made up of a variety of elements: 'conservatism, trade unionism, social democracy and modern liberalism'. Andrew Seaton (UCL) also observes that these ideologies have never been fixed but are adapted and revised in different historical circumstances.

Stephen Brooke argues that 'The 1945 government came closest to fulfilling the commitments in its own manifesto that were explicitly democratic socialist' but later governments had to hide socialist moves through forms of governance that were not explicitly socialist. The focus of the Wilson and Blair governments on education and on child poverty (see below) might be viewed as part of this process. New Labour practised mild forms of redistribution by stealth and depoliticised some economic levers (such as making the Bank of England independent). On the whole, historians tended to feel Labour has not been truly socialist. Instead, from the 1950s, Labour has broadly subscribed to Tony Crosland’s revisionism in The Future of Socialism (1956) that nationalisation was less important as a vehicle for socialism than the promotion of equality (see How effective has Labour been in promoting social equality?).

Anenurin Bevan at the bedside of a patient in hospital

Image: Anenurin Bevan, Minister of Health, on the first day of the National Health Service, 5 July 1948 at Park Hospital, Davyhulme, near Manchester (14465908720).jpg (cropped). Original image by University of Liverpool Faculty of Health & Life Sciences, available on Wikimedia Commons under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.