A CENTURY AGO this week, the first Labour government took office. This administration lasted for nine months and Labour was not really to establish itself as a parliamentary force for another couple of decades
This should not surprise anyone. Power arranges matters for its own survival. However, though this was a short lived government, Labour had proved it could be effective in bringing about change for working people, building council houses, planning better schools and improving benefits and pensions. The political landscape had been changed.
In 1924, the distinction between capital and labour was clearer than it is today and the Russian revolution was only seven years in the past. The influence of these two factors have survived into our own times. There are still plenty of ill-informed people who can be spooked by mutterings about ‘Commies’ and ‘Bolshies’, perceiving any questioning of the vast inequalities of wealth and therefore of power and influence, between those who have generational wealth and those who have only their labour to sell, as dangerous, divisive and rooted in envy.
One hundred years on, it is worth looking what has changed and what has remained. We no longer have what Ramsay McDonald’s contemporaries would have recognised as an ‘industrial proletariat’ – arguably because we have a much changed and diminished concept of both industry and class, neither of which now serve as clear indicators of poverty or deprivation. We still have a strong strand in the media that is ready to attack individuals and organisations who seek to challenge the comfortable and complacent. It is not surprising that it was the Daily Mail who published the Zinoviev letter just days before the general election of 1924.
Class war is as destructive and futile as any other form of warfare. Its categories fuel venom but do nothing to heal its casualties. A plumber may easily earn more than a doctor; the average day rate of most teachers is lower than that of a builder. These are all essential occupations and comparisons should be seen neither to denigrate nor exalt. But they do serve to suggest questions about the manner in which past metrics are not only pointless, but obscure injustice and inequality.
In 2015, Rachel Reeves, then Shadow Work and pensions Secretary, displayed a shocking inability to comprehend how much society has changed when she announced that Labour is “not the party of people on benefits”. She went on to say “We don’t want to be seen, and we’re not, [as] the party to represent those who are out of work.”
It seemed that Ms Reeves was unable to look beyond her party’s name to its purpose. I have read nothing in the intervening nine years to indicate that the woman who is now Shadow Chancellor has changed her views, nor that the current Labour front bench may dissent from those views.
Ignoring those who are unable to work through age, disability, or chronic sickness is both callous and blinkered: if Labour is to have a future distinct from that of the discredited Conservative administrations of the last 14 years, it must think deeply about its purpose and its duty to those who bear the heaviest burdens of today’s inequalities.
Richard Tawney described that purpose thus: “While… natural endowments differ profoundly, it is the mark of a civilised society to aim at eliminating such inequalities as have their source, not in individual differences, but in its own organisation.” Harold Wilson believed that “the Labour Party is a moral crusade or it is nothing.” An Irish saying runs “it is in the shelter of each other that the people live”.
As Labour enters its second century, it should have these maxims at its heart and must examine every policy formulation and enactment with a simple question: does this increase or decrease inequality?
© Jill Segger (England) is a freelance writer who contributes to the Church Times, The Catholic Herald, Tribune, The Friend and Reform, among other publications. Her acclaimed book Words Out of Silence was published by Ekklesia in 2019. She is an active member of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts. Jill became an honorary associate director in 2010 and is now Ekklesia’s Contributing Editor. She is also a musician and has been a composer. Her recent columns are available here and her pre-2021 articles can be found here. You can follow Jill on Twitter: @quakerpen