Spirit of ‘45? Yes, but it’s 2013

Recreating Old Labourism is not only the last thing Miliband has in mind, but would now be impossible, even if that were what he sought to achieve.

David Osler is a London-based journalist and writer

In the context, quoting two of the ghosts of Labour past might not be entirely appropriate. But Tony Blair’s recent ‘comfort zone’ attack on Ed Miliband puts one in mind of the jibe Clement Attlee famously directed at Harold Laski; a period of silence on Blair’s part would be welcome.

Recreating Old Labourism is not only the last thing Miliband has in mind, but would now be impossible, even if that were what he sought to achieve.

What appears to have irked the PR man for Kazakhstan is Miliband’s correct insistence that Britain needs to reach a post-Thatcher settlement. Somehow our erstwhile moderniser seems to have developed a bit of a downer on modernisation since leaving office.

Miliband deserves the space and the support to help him articulate policies that are both as radical as the situation demands and capable of securing mass electoral support.

The usual suspects could serve this effort best by not painting every deviation from a script penned almost a generation ago as one-way ticket to a second Winter of Discontent.

It is worth noting that very concept of Old Labourism is very much a Blairite invention, deliberately designed as a retrograde designation.

Those who opposed the rewording of Clause Four could thus be painted as cloth cap wearing whippet owners who maintained shrines to Kier Hardie in their living rooms. And in truth, the left was hardly reticent to be pidgeonholed.

The spirit of ’45?

To this day, Labour’s principle leftwing pressure group, the Labour Representation Committee – of which I am a member – names itself after a title used by the first Labour MPs in the early 1900s, while its logo essentially reproduces an enamel lapel badge discontinued in the Kinnock period.

Meanwhile, film director Ken Loach used the release of his recent documentary about the Attlee government to call for the launch of an Old Labour-style new party. The title of the film? The Spirit of ’45.

The extent to which zeitgeists can be recaptured is surely open for debate. But as any self-professed Marxist will instantly recognise, the balance of social forces that make any given transformational project viable cannot simply be conjured at will from the Vasty Deep.

One obvious reason is the extent of the social change that has resulted from the systematic favouritism shown towards finance capital rather than manufacturing under Thatcher, Major, Blair, Brown and Cameron alike.

Today’s labour movement

Don’t get me wrong. Whatever the findings of the latest half-baked pop quiz sociology masquerading as academic research, the working class is still there and still makes up the absolute majority of British population.

But it is unarguably very different from the working class that those of us who grew up in blue collar households in the 1960s and 1970s remember.

In particular, it is far more atomised than the one Loach celebrates. Gone is the cohesion once induced by large workplaces and single industries – or even single employers – dominating entire towns.

Despite all that nonsensical ‘Labour’s union paymasters’ scaremongering served up in the rightwing press, the institutional arrangements by which union delegates made up majorities at general management committees, decided policy and selected Labour candidates, long ago disappeared.

Without the conveyor belt provided by a unified labour movement, the sort of young women and men who – like me – were automatically drawn towards the Labour Party Young Socialists are more likely to get involved with UK Uncut or the Occupy movement. Many would not spit on the Labour Party if it were on fire.

With the disappearance of this social base, the organisational models and ideological frameworks available to the twentieth century left are no long there. Whatever happens next, it will not be a case of Back to the Future, to cite another famous film director.

In sum, this is not 1945. Nor is it the Blairite year zero of 1994. This is 2013. Dusting off old manifestoes is not enough. As history books tell us one Labour leader once said, the task is to find a way forward, not back.

Like this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.