No party in Britain has a more romantic history than the Labour Party. It is a thread in British society that goes back to the Diggers and the Levellers of the Civil War, continues through the struggles of the Trade Unionists and the Chartists and in which the founding of a socialist party to represent working people is the culmination of centuries of idealism. It is a story that no PR man could invent and which only the hardest of hearts could not find some sympathy with.
That of course was all a long time ago, but the Labour Party’s track record in the last century and this one has plenty of achievements. The welfare state and especially the National Health Service were conceived and implemented by the Labour Party and it is inconceivable that they would be safer in any other party’s hands.
Labour governments never completely lose sight of the fact that they represent working people. It has continually come up with policies that distribute wealth from the better off to the worse off. Child Benefit is a deceptively simple example. It is paid to everyone so attracts no stigma and is cheap and easy to administer. To the wealthiest households it is simply a partial rebate of their income tax, but to a low income family this money paid directly to the mothers must have brightened the lives of millions of children over the years.
Giving out lollipops cannot be the basis of long term success for a political party, and the ability of the Labour Party to win election so often is based not just on the goodies it provides. The party has always been committed to financial prudence and has a good record of keeping the economy on a sound footing. There has always been a strand in the Labour Party that advocates more adventurous, and consequently more risky, economic policies. This has never succeeded in getting its policies put into practice, but it always makes voting Labour feel a rather more radical thing to do than it actually is.
While Labour has always been conflicted to some extent about its basically conservative economic approach, it has always managed to keep up with growing social liberalism. This is reflected in its being the party that is most likely to select working class, women and ethnic minority candidates. This is no doubt motivated more by idealism than anything else, but I think it has had the beneficial unintended consequence of giving Labour governments a wider pool of talent to choose from. This might explain why Labour seems to produce a slightly better general standard of minister than the Conservatives manage.
Social progress, equality and economic competence and a track record of delivering them is a tough act to beat, so it isn’t surprising that Labour still has the most active party membership and widest geographical spread of support of any British political party, and remains the one that any party aspiring to form a government has to beat.