Andrew Crines outlines the need for divisions within the Labour Party as a means of promoting oratory.
The Labour Party was a divided party since its inception in 1906. It was a confederation of groups interested in the promotion of workers’ rights – such groups included the Social Democratic Federation, the Trade Unions, and the remnants of the ILP. It can be no surprise that it was subjected to defeat and division over the following decades. Without spending too much time lingering on history, the expulsion of Ramsay Macdonald, the emergence of the Gaitskellite/Bevanite axis, and the incursion of the radical left kept the Labour Party ideologically divided. In this context leading elites emerged to articulate various interpretations of labourism. For example Wilson’s arguments in the immediate aftermath of securing the leadership enabled him to present an alternative to the defeats of the 1950s. Michael Foot’s leadership was an attempt to attack the radical left by reaffirming the moderate left. In a nutshell, this was a history of defeat and division in which strong orators stepped forward to lead the party.
So, why is this important today? Put simply the New Labour project removed all ideological divisions by imprinting a set idea of what post-Thatcher Labourism would stand for. This enabled Blair to win three elections, however the effect on the party was dramatic. Without divisions, few orators stepped forward to articulate an ideological case. The party had Blair, so why would it need anyone else? Blair’s oratory is highly impressive, and through that he was able to set out his alternative vision of pragmatic labourism in the period running up to his first victory. Put simply there was no need for a Bevan, Gaitskell, or Foot because the party was united behind Blair and the Third Way. Remnants such as Scargill and Galloway removed themselves from the party, reducing division further.
This reduction of division, and with it the need to argue alternative ideological understandings of contemporary Labour has transformed the texture of the party to a professionalised, polished form of communication. The dryness of political professionalism lacks the momentum of ideological division because there is no counter-argument with which to compare it against. Ed Miliband’s Labour Party is One Party for One Nation. There is no alterative vision for Labourism. The lack of the alternative means no one needs to articulate it, thereby reducing further Labour’s capacity to grow its next generation of orators. This damaging impact on Labour will lower the expectations of the electorate, thereby reducing its appeal.
On first look this unity may appear to be ideal. The party can present a vision to the electorate without the distractions of debate or counter-argument. However this has historically been an important technique of labour renewal, and with it new leading figures emerged through the party to elite level. Without those divisions, the party risks becoming ideologically stale and rooted to elites who have little or no communication skills.
The remedy to this will mean encouraging divisions within the party again. Granted, those advocating continued unity would rightly argue such divisions may risk defeat. This is true. However that is the nature of politics. The Gaitskellites and Bevanites had two very different positions on how democratic socialism could and should be achieved. Such divisions enable future leading elites to grow their communication skills through making counter arguments, internal and external debates, and of course the media. This also enables orators to test the appeal of their ideology by measuring audience reactions.
Thus, the biggest problem facing contemporary Labour is it has forgotten how to be constructively divided. It has lost its passion because it has lost its ability to debate. Labour oratory needs division, and the present unity could be problematic for demonstrating the relevance of labourism in the post-New Labour world.
Andrew Crines is a Teaching Fellow at the University of Leeds, and the co-editor of three volumes on oratory. Labour Orators from Bevan to Miliband and Conservative Orators from Baldwin to Cameron (both Manchester University Press) will be released early 2015. The third volume is on Democratic Party oratory and will appear the following year through Palgrave.