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120 years on, Blair gets it wrong again on what the Labour Party is about

Three-time prime minister Tony Blair has a rather strange view of the Labour Party’s foundation — that it should not have happened. Socialist historian KEITH FLETT reports

IT WAS the 120th anniversary of the foundation of the Labour Representation Committee (LRC) at the end of February. In 1900 delegates from trade unions and left-wing parties met on February 26 and 27 in the Memorial Hall in Farringdon Street.

The building has long since been replaced by an office block — but a plaque remains. Former Labour leader Tony Blair used the occasion to make a speech, partly about labour history and mostly about where he thinks “progressive” or centre-left opinion should go in the next 10 years.

“Who cares what Blair thinks?” is surely the reaction of most socialists.

The answer is: Rupert Murdoch, since the speech made at Kings College London on February 20 (2020) was in conjunction with the Times.

A further point might well be, “what does Blair know or care about the history of the Labour Party?” After all he was famously the Labour leader who could not be bothered to show up at Durham Miners’ Galas.

For someone who, as he reminded us, was elected three times as a Labour prime minister, Blair has a rather strange view of the Labour Party’s foundation, namely — it should not have happened.

He does not support any concept of independent working-class politics — which is what one of Labour’s original affiliates, the Independent Labour Party stood for — let alone socialism.

He continues to argue that the departure of Labour supporters and representatives from the Liberal Party, the start of which process the LRC represented, was a mistake.

Yet when one examines what the LRC conference actually represented it does seem rather like the broad coalition of forces that Blair approves of.

The conference was held after a motion at the 1899 TUC and numbers of trade unionists attended, as did representatives of the ILP.  Also there was Britain’s first Marxist Party, the Social Democratic Federation, although ultimately it stayed out.

The conference represented a wide strand of working-class politics rooted in the workplace. It was not of course an activists’ party in terms of how the LRC was set up, but the ILP did represent a local activist tradition.

What of Blair’s complaint that a progressive liberal tradition was discarded?

He claimed in his Kings College speech that: “We must correct the defect from birth, which separated the liberal reforming traditions of Lloyd George, Beveridge and Keynes from the Labour ones of Keir Hardie, Attlee, Bevin and Bevan.”

The historical record suggests something rather different. Writing in 1965 the socialist historian EP Thompson noted that “most of the intellectuals who had an important influence on the British labour movement between 1920 and 1945 were…social reformers within a liberal tradition (J A Hobson, Beveridge…).”

He went on to add that ethical socialists and those influenced by Marxist ideas also made their impact.

When it came to key areas like the economy, education and the welfare state Attlee’s government was significantly influenced by the work of liberals like Beveridge and Keynes.

When Blair claim to name the great Labour prime ministers he mentioned Harold Wilson and himself (of course). Attlee featured as an also-ran a few sentences further on.

Fortunately while Blair’s influence in the media remains significant, in the labour movement and the left he is, as even he recognises, quite marginal.

On the other hand that meeting of the LRC a century ago stands, up to a point, as template for socialist organisation now. The link between the trade unions and a wide range of the left was arguably made too much at the top and not enough at the grassroots but the link itself remains key.

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