Labour’s faustian bargain

by Elias Blum

Labour’s manifesto on the economy, taxes, public services and social spending is pretty impressive. But Labour still has three big blind spots: Brexit, constitutional issues, and Scotland.

The Labour Party made a strategic bargain with the British establishment in the inter-war period. Labour would be allowed to operate freely as a legitimate political party, would be able to campaign and even to get into office without the establishment stepping in to stop it by force, and would be allowed to make remedial reforms to social and economic policies. In return, Labour agreed to play by the rules of the British establishment: that meant accepting the monarchy, repudiating Irish and Scottish independence, upholding the empire (and later the nuclear deterrent), and defending the existing institutions of the British state, including the bastions of elite power in the army, bureaucracy, BBC and state church.

In other words, the establishment allowed Labour to join them, displacing the Liberals, in return for an agreement that Labour would play constitutional and imperial politics only by the establishment’s own rules. In so doing, they allowed reform within the system, without allowing the system itself to be effectively challenged. This carried the UK through the long 20th century without a revolution or state-breakdown – in itself no small achievement, and a sign of wisdom in comparison to those countries where the establishment sided with far right repressive movements to kill social democracy by force. By the standards of the 1920s and 1930s, it was a sensible deal all round.

But it’s a threadbare bargain and it looks less and less tenable with each passing year. The lid cannot be kept on constitutional politics forever.