The Use of History in the 2018 Labour Conference

Written by Chris Spencer

Image: Photograph of the 2018 Labour Conference,, accessed 21 October 2018.

Keynote speeches at this year’s Labour Party conference were especially notable for their use of history. Speeches were littered with anniversaries that, supposedly, socialists should celebrate. The centenary of female suffrage in Britain was an unsurprisingly consistent feature, but then there was John McDonnell’s vague allusion to the Parliamentarians of the seventeenth century as ‘our predecessors’, and Emily Thornberry’s recounting of the International Brigade’s plight in the Spanish Civil War, which she used to thread together her entire speech. Her point was to draw a parallel between the 1930s and our own time, conveying that again today there is a heroic cause against nationalism and fascism, a narrative that appeals to many left-wing activists. Socialist adherents have always blended strife in separate regions and periods into a linear, universal struggle which justifies socialism. However, we are seeing British Labour politicians implicate these ideas more fervently and conspicuously than at any recent time. History has an important role for any political party in articulating the experiences of the people it wants the support of. But is Labour getting its history right in accordance with who it needs to convince?

    History plays a pronounced role for Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell in justifying his policies for Britain, particularly in the matter of nationalising utilities. At the conference, he reaffirmed his belief that Clause IV principles ‘are as relevant now as they were back then’ in 1918, when this clause committing Labour to collectivising industry was added to the Party’s constitution. Clause IV was removed in 1995. McDonnell’s historical parallel has a specific historical implication; it suggests the problems of that time are fundamentally the same as today, and that therefore the same solutions are warranted. The problem is that this is never true in history.

    By drawing a parallel to 1918, McDonnell avoids having to justify the policy by circumstances today and people’s standards. These are not the same as the standards of 1918. The manifestation of collectivisation then was largely a political manoeuvre to align Labour policy with its voter-base; unionised industrial workers who saw public ownership as a pathway to better wages and working conditions. Today, on the other hand, public ownership is largely proposed as a remedy to the high costs of living. Opinion polls suggest that nationalising utilities and the railway has significant support, but crucially, with the expectation that services should improve and prices go down, not nationalisation for its own sake. The cost and quality of services is the concern of people today, who are far more likely think as consumers than as industrial workers. The circumstances are different, which means the solutions to problems have to be too, especially as there is no assurance that bills will be cheaper if utilities are nationalised. This demonstrates the problem with McDonnell’s historical parallel. A policy which is justified by the reasons from a century ago risks being disconnected from what the public expects today.

    As is always the case with history, while the circumstances are never the same as the present, there is much that can be learned. The manifestation of Clause IV in 1918 was a reflection of Labour’s then engagement with the grievances of industrial workers whose support was essential in Labour’s bid for government. Again, Labour has to engage with the grievances and aspirations of people today in order to reach power. This is not just an issue of policy, it is an issue of narrative as well. Significantly, the public decides how to vote by listening to the kind of language which is spoken in politics. We are tuned most to the narratives which reflect how the world looks from where we are standing – how we live our lives, where we are from – this strongly arises from people’s conceptions and experiences of the past.

    Labour’s fundamental problem has arisen from this; recent debates in our politics have conditioned Labour in such a way that, you could say, its narrative transmitter has altered position. As a consequence, many people have found that they have been ‘tuned out’ of the language Labour speaks. Others have ‘tuned in’ as well – younger, more cosmopolitan elements of society who place value on higher degrees of openness socially and politically – however, the 2017 election and polling since has shown their support is not enough to decisively beat the Conservatives, even when that party is politically weak.

    The matter is highly associated with location. Research shows that Labour dominates in the big cities and its support in wealthier smaller towns and rural areas in England has grown. But in medium-sized and larger towns across Britain, Labour’s message isn’t getting through. Speeches at Labour Conference skirted around this issue, but a Labour Party Political Broadcast (PPB) released on the final day showed the first signs of Labour dealing with this problem. The PPB features scenes from the town of Mansfield, Nottinghamshire – a former Labour stronghold which Labour conceded to the Conservatives in 2017 – a town where 71 percent backed Brexit. It features little detail of Labour policy, but captures a tangible sense of loss in Mansfield and towns like it, stirringly stating ‘these streets were once full of spirits and held a proud community’. It is populist, yet it does powerfully reflect the sense of marginalisation that exists in the kinds of towns where Labour has been struggling. Crucially, it also reflects the strong place-based perceptions of community and identity that exists in much of Britain. It is probably not something which the wealthier cosmopolitan cohort of Labour supporters would identity with – for whom identity with place tends to be more fluid – but nothing is expressed in a way which would obviously discomfort those supporters.

    This expression of marginalisation and loss in place-based communities is important. In the EU referendum, that sense of marginalisation was imputed onto Britain as a nation, and Brexit became a way of bringing community back. In 2014, in Scotland’s less affluent urban areas, a similar sense endured to produce a higher impetus behind Scottish independence. Labour was not aligned with these sentiments in either debate.

    If Labour is going to win an election, it’s narrative needs to follow this trend and involve the stories of the kinds of communities it has lost the ear of. This should prompt Labour politicians in the kind of historical language they use. It must relate to communities and their perceptions of how over time politics and economics have affected them to produce the kinds of experiences people have now – in jobs, housing or family life. It may be edifying to draw parallels between yourself and ‘heroic’ plights of the past, but ultimately people will not see the ideological battle-lines of the Spanish Civil War or the English Civil War reflected in their communities. Secondly, Labour has to prioritise the policies most likely to bring tangible benefits that the public can relate to. What will not be acceptable to these voters and communities, are policies which pour money into solutions justified by twentieth century socialist history, but bring only theoretical benefits to people today.

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