The party has a life of its own: Labour's Doctrine and Ethos.

Author:Pike, Karl
Position:Essay

To understand the sources of division within the Labour party, we need to understand the importance of 'ethos' as well as of doctrine, ideology, or policy. In fact, the party is more divided by ethos than it is by doctrine. Many on both 'left' and 'right' of the party want doctrinal renewal. Such renewal, focused on ideas like community organising, offers many potential ways to bridge these divides in 'ethos'.

The Labour Party 'has a life of its own,' Henry Drucker argued in his classic Doctrine and Ethos in the Labour Party (1979). This was a point political scientists had 'acknowledged without taking sufficiently seriously'. (1) Many political commentators, observers and members of the Labour Party will instinctively comprehend Drucker's concept of Labour's 'ethos': the traditions, beliefs and folk memories which Drucker believed helped bind, motivate and animate Labour people. Explanations such as 'the party won't wear it' or 'that will divide the party' are saturated in an understanding of what it is to be Labour--or more importantly, what it is to be a certain kind of Labour.

Today, greater comprehension of Labour's ethos would deepen our understanding of party transformation, reform or stasis. Through a fresh analysis of existing literature, internal party documents, and interviews with Labour politicians and activists from the past three decades, this article analyses the main fault lines in understandings of Labour's ethos. Tentatively, it will suggest options to build bridges between what at first sight can appear to be antagonistic factions in an increasingly divided party. (2) Theoretical and doctrinal renewal, for example, can unite the radical left and social democratic revisionist tendencies. The belief in community organising and of Labour becoming more firmly rooted in place was a major thrust of David Miliband's 2010 leadership pitch, and at least a part of Ed Miliband's party reform. This thinking is entirely compatible with Momentum's interest in 'collective organising... directed and controlled by those directly affected by decisions'. (3)

How can we understand ethos?

Last autumn's Labour Party leadership contest revealed much of importance, even though the final result was unsurprising. Owen Smith's challenge to Jeremy Corbyn presented a policy platform that, had Smith been victorious and led Labour into a general election, would have been further to the left than any manifesto since 1987. Smith's candidacy was characterised as 'man-for-man policy marking on the left wing'. (4) Yet hostility at hustings, the preponderance of attention given to Smith's past employers, and the focus on Smith's previous 'New Labour' rhetoric demonstrated why his attempt to unseat Corbyn was doomed: the challenge and the response to it were not doctrinal, but driven by different interpretations of Labour's ethos. Attempting to convince the membership--including recent arrivals--of left-wing doctrinal machismo missed the point--that Smith did not appear to be 'their kind of Left'. Corbyn's leadership, which prior to the general election had been criticised for doctrinal confusion, vapidity and incoherence when it came to policy, is a potent force as a particular kind of representation of Labour's ethos--though Corbyn's is far from the only kind of ethos within the Labour movement.

Comprehending the traditions, myths, folk memories and beliefs that comprise Labour's ethos (which is often subject to differing interpretations), is aided by Raymond Williams' work on culture. Williams suggested people were shaped by what he called a 'structure of feeling'. This was 'as firm and definite as "structure" suggests, yet it operates in the most delicate and least tangible parts of our activity'. (5) Similarly, ethos is something both structural and constitutive, providing the lifeblood of institutions and actors, yet with the capacity to interact and change over time as new generations arrive with their own understandings and perceptions of ethos.

More recent work has sought to show how 'a particular perspective is influential for the way some people think about politics'. (6) In Katherine Cramer's work on 'rural consciousness' and politics in Wisconsin in the United States, she seeks to demonstrate how 'rural consciousness'--which includes, among other things, 'fundamentally distinct values and lifestyles'--affects how people think about politics. (7) A similar way of thinking is required to understand Labour people's perceptions of ethos and how it affects their decision-making, and so the political direction of the Labour Party.

Expanding Drucker's concept of ethos

Drucker emphasised that unlike doctrine, 'an ethos is not so hard-and-fast nor so easy to describe. By the ethos of the party I have in mind what an earlier age might have called the spirit of the party; its traditions and habits, its feel. The ethos is not explicit, it is not laid down in the rules'. (8)

Drucker's work offers some illustrative behaviours which represent Labour's shared ethos, though he also shows how there have been different interpretations of that ethos--interpretations which have led to disagreements, antagonisms and divides over the last century. The four illustrative traits--which Drucker makes clear are by no means an exhaustive list--include Labour's reluctance to sack its leaders, the sacrifice the movement expects from its leaders and employees, a peculiar attitude to money (the tendency to hoard it), and a strong belief in formal rules. The racking up of party debt in the noughties suggests that Drucker's third behaviour may no longer be so common. However, the others still have some relevance today; particularly the first, which members of the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) believe helps explain much of the support for Corbyn among older and more established party members.

There are also several conflicts or paradoxes written into Labour's ethos. The parliamentary paradox, Drucker contends, comprises suspicion of parliament and government alongside an avowed acceptance of parliamentary sovereignty. That is to say, the Labour party is committed to parliamentary action, yet also has within its ethos a suspicion that questions fundamentally whether parliamentary democracy enables a gradual shift to socialism or blocks the radical movement necessary to bring it about. There is evidence of this tussle in the minds of Labour politicians throughout the party's history. Often those on the Left of the party...

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