How should Labour govern? This is a question it is still reasonable to ask, though as the election gets ever closer and Labour's lead gets ever smaller, it might answer itself. Still, it is a question to which Tony Blair has given much thought; and so should we. All social democratic parties, of which the British Labour Party probably is still one, are torn between two possible forms of political action, which are, in turn, dependent on two possible 'models' of society. One model sees group relationships, particularly if groups are called 'classes', as essentially conflictual; the other sees them as essentially harmonious. Over time, the second, in all such parties, has become increasingly dominant, though the first has not lost all ideological power. Throughout its history the Labour Party has oscillated nervously between the two; and not simply for tactical reasons. Both models have, from its beginning, been fully represented within the Party's ideological tradition. The first regards Labour as standing for and responsible to an industrial working class organised by its own institutions, particularly the trade unions. It endows that class, rather as Marxism does, with a unique, possibly predetermined, place in human development but sees it, nonetheless, as surrounded by those who will resist to the end attacks on their privileges or, this being Britain, their incompetence. 'Socialism', to the extent that the word is used, therefore implies conflict.
LRB 22 February 1996 | PDF Download