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Labour centenary Tuesday, 22 February, 2000, 13:57 GMT
Shirley Williams: Bedrock concepts eroded
Shirley Williams
Williams: Labour philosophy "is not as clear as it was"
Formerly a minister under James Callaghan, Shirley Williams was one of the "Gang of Four" who broke away to found the Social Democratic Party in 1981. She then joined the Liberal Democrats and has sat in the House of Lords since 1992 as a Liberal Democrat life peer.
Writing for BBC News Online, she says that it is no longer clear what Labour's philosophy is.


The Labour Party's birth was a reflection of the class structured society where the coming of the adult male franchise in 1884 brought with it the possibility of giving a political voice to what was, by then, the industrial working class.

This new class did not find an adequate expression through the Liberal Party, so quite quickly there was pressure to start a new party, which was specifically a democratic socialist party that stemmed partly from the Fabian tradition and the trade unions, although there was also a Marxist strand.

What worries me about New Labour, which in many ways is an interesting and impressive party, is its dedication to the concept of the redistribution of income and wealth is much less clear than it used to be

Marxism's influence was off-set by the influence of Christian socialism, so what you got was a very British kind of democratic socialism, which was supportive of democratic institutions and was not revolutionary, but dependent on incremental reform working.

That reform was shaken by the MacDonald governments and the depression, where, for a short time, it looked like there would be a strong impetus behind the more revolutionary tradition of socialism. But the war came in time to offset that to some extent by creating jobs.

After the war, when there was potential for revolutionary feeling, you got the relative success of the Attlee government.

Decline of old Labour

There then emerged a crisis for the Labour Party in the 1960s and 70s, associated with the completion of the first industrial revolution and its replacement by a second, post-industrial revolution with the coming of more skilled jobs, white collar jobs, service jobs and the running down of manufacturing industry.

Labour then had no choice but to take a great leap to catch up with the way the technology and industrial change was going. They left it late.

It had left Labour with its real, natural electoral, base being eroded, so whether or not Tony Blair had come there would have had to be a major re-placement of the party somewhere near the occupational centre, somewhere they could begin to attract the many thousands of people who had become middle class.

But did it have to change as far as it has?

Philosophy unclear

What worries me about New Labour, which in many ways is an interesting and impressive party, is its dedication to the concept of the redistribution of income and wealth is much less clear than it used to be.

As a country we are very unequal; not as bad as the United States, but much worse than the rest of Europe

What was once the bedrock was the concept there should be not complete equality, but not huge extremes in inequality. As a country we are very unequal; not as bad as the United States, but much worse than the rest of Europe.

So it's not as clear as it was, what the basic philosophy of the Labour Party is.

I would see a democratic socialist party as one that would have a commitment to a degree of distribution and would include global distribution.

It would be recognition that if the gap between rich and poor has grown in Britain then the gap between rich and poor globally has grown out of all possible justification.

So the big issue we will see in the future is how we face up to this.

Liberal Democrats are different in a sense that they do have a commitment to some redistribution of wealth and income, but they also have powerful commitment to human rights and civil liberties.

It is not clear to me yet whether that is shared by New Labour. It is certainly shared by some individuals, but the relatively strong conservative line taken on things like penal policy and the policy towards asylum speakers, suggest there are differences between us.

See also:

22 Feb 00 | Labour centenary
22 Feb 00 | Labour centenary
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