Starmer's task: to achieve greater clarity about his political purpose.

AuthorDiamond, Patrick

The role of ideas and ideology in the Labour Party's internal world has long been the subject of debate, at moments reflecting a prevailing mood that is uncivil and fractious. Ideological dispute has seemingly shaped and amplified the civil wars that have periodically engulfed the party. After Labour's electoral defeat and departure from government in 1951, the parliamentarian Richard Crossman wrote that the achievements of that post-war administration 'seemed to have exhausted the content of British socialism'. (1) Yet the task of determining 'where next' for Labour was unlikely to be a straightforward process, Crossman acknowledged, since the need for clarity about the party's ideological objectives was barely recognised across the party. Crossman reflected:

How can the Labour Party regain its sense of direction? My contention, in this essay, is that it cannot be done so long as politicians are content to rely on their 'hunch' and empirical experience. The Labour Party has lost its way not only because it lacks a map of the new country it is crossing, but because it thinks maps unnecessary for experienced travellers. (2) It was not merely that Labour was struggling to comprehend the shape of the 'New Britain' that was emerging in the aftermath of the Second World War, but that many in the party felt that having a coherent ideological identity and purpose was quite unnecessary. After all, in the evocative phrase attributed to Herbert Morrison, the leading technocratic politician of the post-war governments, 'Socialism is what a Labour government does'. Many believed the Labour Party performed best where it eschewed the theoretical orientation of the European continental socialist and social democratic parties in Germany and France, embracing a practical, empirical and pragmatic perspective more in keeping with the non-doctrinaire spirit of the British political tradition. This basic dichotomy between pragmatism and theory continues to animate the debate about Labour's strategy in the present day. (3)

Starmer's 'ideological quietism'

In that context, an influential critique is emerging of Labour's current leader, Sir Keir Starmer: namely that he is eschewing ideological purpose and direction in favour of tactical and short-term opposition politics. It has been noted in a recent and influential contribution by Professor Eunice Goes that Starmer is tacitly embracing 'ideological quietism'. (4) This term was first used by Katherine Dommett in an article examining the rhetoric of post-war political leaders in Britain. 'Quietism' refers to the act of 'subduing or lessening an idea', and 'hence emphasises the possibility that actors can depict ideology in a way that lessens its apparent significance'. Dommett highlighted three distinctive approaches to achieving ideological quietism: '[by] avoiding indicators of ideology... [including] direct references to ideology or ideological traditions; by moving away from any reference to abstract concepts; and by encouraging a decline in ideational conflict'. Yet, as Dommett pointed out, 'such changes do not belie the ongoing significance of ideology to individuals within parties'. (5) In relation to the Labour Party in the Blair era, for example, the leadership, 'shed its previous rhetorical tropes, engaging in a form of ideological quietism by emphasising values and ideals rather than ideological traditions' (pi19). Blair in particular fought to underline Labour's commitment to 'eternal values', transcending the traditional ideological cleavage between left and right that was the hallmark of his 'third way' approach to politics. He sought to blunt the edges of ideological conflict in the party.

Of course, as Dommett noted, 'ideological quietism' does not mean the absence of ideology from either a party's internal discourse or its political goals. The pursuit of quietism may affirm the rhetorical claims and strategies of politicians, yet it does not reflect the reality of...

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