What Should The Labour Party’s Relationship To The Past Be?

Will Barber-Taylor discusses the Labour Party's relationship to its own past in wake of the new BBC Blair and Brown documentary.

The recent BBC Two documentary series Blair and Brown: The New Labour Revolution has reignited debate over how people in the Labour Party view their own party’s collective past. For many it has reaffirmed their belief in New Labour. For others it has served as a means of castigating it main players once again.

What the documentary does highlight is that the Labour Party has a difficult and complex relationship with its past. Each various faction of the Labour Party likes to mythologise and demean particular figures in order to form a coherent narrative.

So, whilst both sides will view Clement Attlee as a figure beyond reproach from thence on battle lines are draw. Jeremy Corbyn and Tony Blair are cast as hero and villain and vice versa dependent on which side you are subscribed to. Harold Wilson is often quietly forgotten about.

This of course is not a historian’s approach to history but one that is built upon a particular objective from particular parts of the party. Leaving these aside for the moment, how should the modern Labour Party relate to its own past? Should it even consider the past?

The Labour Party’s three most significant wins have been when it has not represented the past or tradition but the future and progress. 1945, 1964 and 1997 stand out as flash points in British political memory because they are times when Labour cut through.

Each of those elections focussed on the future rather than the past. In his 1996 Labour Party conference speech Tony Blair explicitly said, “Forget the past”.

And yet, and in particular since 1945, the Labour Party has been consumed by its connection to its own past. This is self-evident not only in how much of the politics of the 1980s war between left and right still contributes to the daily discourse within Labour Party circles but also how often policies of the past are highlighted today.

This is not to dismiss a policy like nationalisation but rather to contextualize the difference between how the public viewed it both in 1945 and today. In 1945 nationalisation sounded new, it sounded exciting. In 2021 nationalisation, whilst still appealing to a great many people, has an equal amount of historical baggage to it.

Therefore, how should the Labour Party view its own past? Should it think about it at all or does considering the past seem too self-indulgent? Surely, given that Labour’s four most significant wins in terms of seats (1945, 1966, 1997 and 2001) focussed more on the present and future than the past, this is what the party should do – reject its past and focus on the present and future?

This is of course partly true. The Labour Party should be the party of the future and define itself as a party that is marching onwards, looking to the future, seeing a new dawn breaking on the horizon. This doesn’t mean however that the Labour Party should entirely reject its past.

Rather, Labour’s problem is that in regard to its own history it often dwells too much on individuals and not achievements. The cult of personality exists in all political parties, and it is ultimately a corrosive and often self-defeating aspect of our political system. We have all seen fights over whether particular individuals are truly Labour or not; we’ve all seen arguments over people’s place in Labour’s history.

What this often negates is the scale of Labour’s list of achievements in government. The policies that have been enacted by Labour whilst in power have changed lives and dramatically improved the United Kingdom for everyone. The minimum wage, the National Health Service, Sure Start, the decriminalisation of homosexuality and abortion, devolved administrations for Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales, the list is endless.

This part of Labour’s history shouldn’t be ignored. We need to focus on these policies and remind the public of them. It should be integral to our campaign at any future election. We not only have to inform people of what good we will do if we get elected but the good that we have done in the past, the scale of change that Labour has enacted.

The Labour Party cannot at the next election or any future election act as if its connection to government and the past is totally distant. We must celebrate the real and significant achievements of the last Labour government without becoming submerged in the quagmire of arguments over personalities.

Whilst Blair and Brown: The New Labour Revolution rights focusses on the central players in the New Labour years in order to tell its story this does not mean we should follow it exactly when discussing Labour’s contribution to British government. Rather we should focus on the policies that were implemented rather than the personalities that ensured their introduction.

Labour’s relationship with its past should be based on the good it has done in the past, not whether one Prime Minister or one MP is good or bad or whether one faction agrees with them or not. What’s the point in that when we are trying to prove our fitness for government? The past should inspire us and teach us what has been successful, but it should never hold us back or define us.

The point of Labour is to advance, not to stay back thinking on the past. It may be more comfortable for some members to dwell on the past and relive past glories but that doesn’t help the people who have been inflicted with twelve years of Conservative government. It won’t make anything better for them and it is their futures that we should all be focussed on improving.


Will Barber Taylor is a member of the Labour Party and a writer who is currently reading History at the University of Warwick. He tweets at @WBarberTaylor.

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