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Reading Miliband’s “The Sickness of Labourism” after 50 years

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There simply isn’t enough wind in present-day Labourism to fill the political sails of another Labour administration.

While Papa Miliband had already concluded this in 1960 (even before that), Miliband sons are busy filling the political sails of the Labour Party, which papa had declared to be a “sick party”, with something else.

Ralph Miliband’s decent commentary on the Labour defeat in 1959 in the first issue of NLR, “The Sickness of Labourism”, must be distributed to the new Labour leadership. In this article, he started with a quote from Tawney (1932):

“The Labour Party is hesitant in action, because divided in mind. It does not achieve what it could because it does not know what it wants”.

Miliband considered it to be a mild judgement in 1960. For him, things had further changed within the Labour Party. This hesitation and ambiguity might have existed on the part of the Party itself, however, its leadership knew what it was aiming for.

“It is true that leaders reflect tendencies. But there are times when leaders can powerfully re-inforce tendencies and greatly help to give them sharp political content. To ignore this in relation to the recent history of the Labour Party is to fall into the crassest kind of determinism.”

It was in the 1944 annual conference that the rank and file could force the leadership to the nationalisation programme for the last time, and,

In an historical perspective, the achievements of the Labour administrations of 1945—51 may well come to be seen as the maximum expression of Labourism in action.

His comments on the Tories too are astute:

The Tory Party has always been a much more complicated and sensitive animal than Labour has made allowance for. It has been, is and will remain, the main political expression of ruling class power—the party of property and privilege. It is also (and in this it really differs from the Labour Party) the political repository of much civilised savagery; a high proportion of its activist rank and file, as indeed of its parliamentary representation, can safely be relied on to express, publicly, but even more, privately, views and opinions which often seem to be part of the domain of psychopathology rather than of politics.

Were this all, the Tory Party would not be the most successful conservative Party in the world; indeed, it would long have ceased to occupy a significant place in political life.

But this is not all. The Tory Party is a deeply class-conscious party, much more so than the Labour Party, and its class-consciousness includes an awareness, however reluctant, however delayed its effects, that if the essentials of the social system it serves are to be preserved, some concessions have to be made to the pressures of the democracy. Thus the Tory Party adjusted itself to an extended suffrage, to trade union growth, to welfare services, to the emergence of the Labour Party as Opposition and as Government, to State intervention in economic affairs, even to the nationalisation of public utilities. It is now well advanced in the process of adapting itself to a mean, half-hearted, messy kind of labourism.

This flexibility at least helps to explain why a substantial proportion of the Tory Party’s electoral clientéle and of its support in the country has always included masses of people who had neither power, nor property, nor privilege.

Well, with hindsight, the state of the Labour Party as described by Miliband in 1960 resembles much of the parliamentarian left in India.

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Written by Pratyush Chandra

December 29, 2010 at 2:14 am

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