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MONTHLY BLOG 56, MORE POST-ELECTION MEDITATIONS: ON CHANGING THE LABOUR PARTY’S NAME

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2015)

Raising questions about the name of a proud political party with over a century of history behind it makes one appreciate all over again the force of continuity (or it can also be called inertia) in history.1  That’s because most people, when invited to consider whether Britain’s Labour Party is rightly named, just stare in surprise. That response comes particularly strongly from the cadres of committed party members, but also from individuals among the wider public as well.

After all, ‘Labour’ is a well established brand name. It can obviously be argued therefore that it’s folly to shed a known moniker in favour of the unknown. There are plenty of examples of commercial rebrandings which have flopped disastrously. Just Google on that topic. Some companies have even rebranded and then had to reverse the rebranding when faced with howls of public rejection.3

It must also be admitted that earlier suggestions of different names for the Labour Party don’t have a great track record. For example, I was interested to learn that in 1959 Douglas Jay, Battersea’s long-serving MP from 1946 to 1983, had proposed the ‘Reform Party’ as a moderate alternative. It seems to have been an isolated suggestion. And, at any rate, it was met with a resounding silence.
2015-8 No1 What's in a name
As a name, ‘Reform’ had a certain period, even Whiggish, charm. It was predicated on the assumption that Labour was the party of change and the Conservatives the party of resistance to change. But that’s too simplistic. According to circumstances, it can be the Conservatives who propose innovations (as now in the Cameron government’s expressed desire to shrink the state) while assorted groups on the Left campaign to prevent specific changes (as in campaigns to Stop this! or to Save that!).

For Labour, a truly serious crisis of identity occurred in 1981. The so-called Gang of Four and their supporters seceded to found the new Social Democratic Party. Their chosen name remains a well-known one across continental Europe for the parliamentary Left. But in Britain, after the initial flurry, their cause and their nomenclature didn’t resonate with the electorate. In 1988 the majority of the SDP merged with the Liberals. The new joint force was initially named as ‘Social and Liberal Democrats’, to be summarised as ‘Democrats’ – in a nod this time to American political nomenclature. But their own members strenuously objected. So in 1989 they adopted instead the compromise ‘Liberal Democrats’, generating a political force which has since then boomed and now (2015) fallen into disarray.

There are several morals from these case-histories. One is that changing a party’s name may bring initial success but can’t automatically be relied upon to last. (That point is obvious but worth stating). Another is that changing nomenclature is an emotional and politically freighted task, which, if ’twere done, ’twere best done by incremental adaptation, emerging from broad discussion. That’s why it’s equally obvious that, whatever individuals may or may not propose, successful innovations will emerge and survive within political movements as a whole, in the wider context of the changing political scene.

Certainly it was his policy of adaptive gradualism which gave Tony Blair an initial success with ‘New Labour’. The mantra began as a conference slogan in 1994. It was then promoted into a positive manifesto in 1996, offering New Labour: New Life for Britain. The revised name cleverly linked continuity with the fresh appeal of novelty and a modified political agenda.7  Had it not been for the unsuccessful aftermath of the Anglo-American-allied invasion of Iraq in March 2003 (without having declared war), the terminology might still be alive and kicking. Yet today it has lost clarity of meaning and thus credibility – and is hardly used, even within the Labour Party.

Why then is it worth reconsidering the question of names? Some activists within the Labour movement have reproved me. They argue that the important thing is to campaign first – and then think about political branding afterwards. But in my view the two are the same. Campaigning without a clear message is nearly as bad as renaming a party in a campaign vacuum.

Today, there’s plenty of scope for a rethink on the Left – that is, not just within the Labour Party. Lots of people are expressing interest, in conversations and in the press. Personally, I’d like to see a political alliance, if not a formal merger, between Labour plus the Greens, the Liberal Democrats, and left-wingers in the Scottish and Welsh Nats. It might not be called a Popular Front but that’s what it would be.

But, whether that ever happens or not, it’s still useful for Labour to rethink its name and mission. It’s not clear today who or what it stands for. One commentator, from the cultural Left, had recently dubbed Labour’s name as ‘a great grey millstone’ around the party’s neck, with the clear implication that it is impeding a fundamental rethink.8

Not only is the term socially partial rather than inclusive – but it’s not even clear precisely which part of British society it’s supposed to embrace. And, to make things electorally even worse, whichever sections of voters are intended to be the chief beneficiaries of Labour’s policies, they generally don’t vote for Labour in sufficient numbers to make the positives of the name outweigh the negatives.

Indeed, paradoxically, some senior Conservatives are today toying with claiming themselves to be the ‘workers’ party’,9  trying to ensure that Labour gets stuck with the implication of constituting the ‘shirkers’ party’, just supporting those on benefits. Of course, such a dichotomy is wildly over-simplified. Many people receiving state benefits are actually in work; many others, who receive financial aid from the state (eg. in the form of mortgage relief or tax relief on ISAs) don’t consider their own arrangement as ‘benefits’.

Sometimes, however, some leading Labour politicians appear to talk as though they see their role chiefly as constituting last-resort helpers of all of society’s failures and losers. Such an assumption is not only rather patronising – but it is seriously misleading, as well as electorally unappealing, even to the traditional working class, let alone to the self-employed and to swathes of the middle class.

Labour needs a much better name to express its progressive commitment to creating a fairer, freer, more egalitarian, more socially cohesive, more culturally inclusive, more tolerant, healthier, happier, and more ambitious Britain – for all the people, including the young. It may be a new name or a compound of the old name with a new adjective. I have heard various thoughts – Progressives? Progressive Labour? People’s Party? – but it’s for everyone to decide.

So I predict that a new or amended name/campaign will emerge within the broad Labour movement – or else the electorate will make the decision for Labour by choosing other parties. What’s in a name? As always: Plenty!
2015-8 No2 Labour's rose by an amended name

Could it be Labour’s Rose by an amended Name?

1  See PJC, ‘Why is the Formidable Power of Continuity so often Overlooked?’ BLOG/2 (Nov. 2010).

2  See PJC, Post-Election Meditations: Should the Labour Party Change its Name?’ BLOG/55 (July 2015).

3 See e.g. Mallory Russell, Business Insider (March 2012): http://www.businessinsider.com/14-brands-that-had-to-reverse-their-horrible-attempts-at-rebranding.

4 Ex inf. Mary Jay, Douglas Jay’s widow, with thanks for this reference.

5 This historic name appears on the Labour Party’s website but is hardly ever used. For the wider history of Europe’s Social Democratic parties, many now facing electoral problems, see C. Pierson, Hard Choices: Social Democracy in the Twenty-First Century (Cambridge, 2001).

6 I.M. Crewe and A.S. King, SDP: The Birth, Life and Death of the Social Democratic Party (Oxford, 1995).

7 See F. Faucher-King and P. Le Galès, The New Labour Experiment: Change and Reform under Blair and Brown, transl. G. Elliott (Stanford, CA., 2010).

8 John Harris, ‘Who Should Labour Speak for Now?’ The Guardian, 13 July 2015, p. 23.

9 New Conservative deputy chairman MP Rob Halfon interviewed in The Sun, 18 May 2015.

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MONTHLY BLOG 54, POST-ELECTION SPECIAL: ON LOSING? 1

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2015)

Losing is not fun. That is, losing in a cause that means a lot to you, both intellectually and emotionally. In fact, it’s grim. Coping with defeat feels a bit like coping with a death. Again, there are deaths and deaths. Losing in a cause that means a lot feels very like coping with the unexpected death of someone close. So the first and unavoidable response is to grieve, rather grimly.

This BLOG arises from my personal feelings about Labour’s loss in Battersea at the General Election on 7 May 2015. It’s a short report, because grieving makes me feel distinctly brisk. For the record, we had a lively campaign. But we lost with a perceptible swing from Labour to the Conservatives, alongside a (predicted) heavy fall in Liberal Democrat votes, and a weak but not negligible showing for the Greens and UKIP.2

By the way, since the election I have attended a Wandsworth civic event where I bumped into Jane Ellison, Battersea’s Tory MP who was duly returned, and congratulated her. She was gracious (not hard when victorious but better than gloating). Jane Ellison also commented on the amount of venomous personal abuse that she had encountered via Twitter during the campaign. I was disgusted to hear that. I’d already heard of some personal abuse in the Twittersphere being directed at Will Martindale, the Labour candidate; and afterwards I learned that he too had received many unpleasant personal accusations, mostly made anonymously. That doubly depressing news made me feel even grimmer. It’s a tough baptism for all people in the public spotlight and especially tough on the electoral losers, who don’t have the consolation of victory at the polls. This half-hidden dimension to the electoral struggle made me appreciate yet again the dangers of anonymity and the civic advantages in open declarations of political allegiance, as was the norm in the pre-1872 practice of open voting.3

Anyway, after a public loss, the next task is to get on with all the business which follows. Clearing out the campaign headquarters comes high on the list. It’s a bit macabre but best done quickly. Undelivered leaflets seem especially sad, registering obsolete hopes. But it’s essential to keep an archive for our own record.

There’s also an amazing quantity of personal junk which accumulates in places where hundreds of strangers pop in to help. Lost umbrellas and bags are relatively explicable. But who leaves a vanity case with hundreds of lipsticks? Who leaves a sack of old clothing? Did some canvasser arrive fully dressed and leave starkers?

Perhaps it’s symbolic of rebirth after trauma? Certainly that would fit with the third stage, since, after grimly grieving and clearing the decks, it’s time for a major rethink. I now feel more brisk than grim. We’ve already had some meetings and more are planned, to assess what happened and where we should go next. Happily, large numbers have continued to attend. The feelings of outrage at the inequalities and unfairness of life in Battersea, which motivated many of Labour’s canvassers, have not gone away. And why would they? The extremes of wealth and poverty, side by side, remain stark. One of the Wandsworth foodbanks, run by dedicated volunteers in St Mark’s Church on Battersea Rise, helps a regular stream of desperate guests,4 while on the Thames riverfront a series of soulless ‘ghost towns’ of empty flats,5 held by absentee investors and potential money-launderers,6  mock the concept of community.

I have my own suggestion (in which I am not alone): I think that the Labour Party needs to update its language and its name. As part of that, I also favour a re-alliance of the progressive Left: Labour, plus Liberal Democrats, plus Greens. As it happens, the votes of all these parties would not have ousted the Conservative candidate from the Battersea seat. But the (re)birth of a progressive, redistributive, co-operative, green and libertarian centre-left is still the best long-term answer, for British political and cultural life as a whole. It has been much discussed over the years. But now’s the time, fellow Britons: political leaders and grass-roots alike. We should follow the pithy message from the Swedish-American Labour activist Joe Hill: ‘Don’t mourn; but organise’7 … with a new popular front.
2015-6 No1 Joe Hill

Swedish-American Labour activist Joe Hill: don’t mourn but organise (song 1930).

1 With comradely sympathy for Will Martindale (Battersea Labour candidate), Sean Lawless (BLP organiser) and the hundreds of Labour campaigners in the constituency.

2 Battersea’s votes, in a turnout of 67.1%, went to: Jane ELLISON (Conservative) 26,730 – up 5.0% from 2010; Will MARTINDALE (Labour) 18,792 – up 1.7%; Luke TAYLOR (LibDem) 2,241 – down 10.3%; Joe STUART (Green) 1,682; and Christopher HOWE (UKIP) 1,586.

3 But there were good reasons for adopting the secret ballot: see PJC, ‘What’s Wrong with the Old Practice of Open Voting? Standing Up to be Counted’ BLOG no 53 (May 2015).

4 Project seeded by the Trussell Trust: see www.wandsworth.foodbank.org.uk.

5 See Vauxhall Society (July 2013), www.vauxhallcivicsociety.org.uk/2013/07/: for viewpoint of Peter Rees, City of London chief planning officer, that under current redevelopment plans Vauxhall will be getting a ‘ghost town’ which would need no more than a ‘single-decker bus once an hour’, not the projected Northern Line [tube] Extension

6 Zoe Dare Hall, ‘Prime London and the Threat of Money Laundering’, 3 June 2015, in The London Magazine: reported in www.harrodsestates.com/news/361/prime-london.

7 Joel Hagglund, known as Joe Hill (1879-1915), hymned in ‘I dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night’ (lyrics Alfred Hayes c.1930; music Earl Robinson 1936), a song especially loved by my father Tony Corfield, a lifelong activist in trade-unionism and adult education.

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