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2nd October 2016

Can Labour sell ‘21st Century Socialism’?

As Jeremy Corbyn remains triumphant as Labour leader, Barney Weston ponders why socialism is such a dirty word

The British image from a foreign point of view may include things such as speaking in posh accents, sipping tea, and the bowler hat. Even Channel 4 recently finished airing the second season of Very British Problems, in which the British “capacity for social awkwardness”, amongst topics, was discussed. Yet, in regards to politics, we have typically been seen as a beacon of freedom of expression.

Although the U.S. is also often cited as a beacon of freedom of expression (take a look at its constitution), there are some taboo concepts. In particular, thanks mostly to the Cold War, post-war America seems to hate anything to do with the left-wing. Their politics is relatively right-wing in comparison to ours.

In the United States, the words ‘communism’ and ‘socialism’ are avoided in the mainstream. For example, Hillary Clinton was recently asked by MSNBC’s Hardball host Chris Matthews what the difference was between a socialist and a Democrat. Clinton replied, “I can tell you what I am. I am a progressive Democrat.” Matthews then asked, “How is that different to a socialist?” Clinton evaded answering.

New Labour’s ‘third way’ embraced socialism’s taboo. Under Tony Blair, the word ‘socialism’ was not in regular public use, out of concern that the word would remind the British electorate of the strongly left-wing political strategy of Labour in the early 1980s under Michael Foot. (In a similar manner, communism’s taboo in the U.K . is arguably reflected by the country’s lack of a communist party.) At most, New Labour redefined socialism. Blair once said: “My kind of socialism is a set of values based on notions of social justice […] Socialism as a rigid form of economic determinism has ended, and rightly.”

At the end of his speech last Tuesday, Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell addressed this, attempting to turn the word into something to be proud of, concluding: “In this party you no longer have to whisper it, it’s called socialism.”

Personally, I was quite shocked when I heard this. This prompted me to ask prominent members of the Labour Party if they considered themselves socialists, as a way of a) testing how united the Labour Party under Corbyn is, and b) addressing a previous taboo.

I asked BBC journalists Vicki Young and Peter Henley for advice on the question, and whether they thought it was a bit interrogative. They didn’t think so. So it was to my surprise when Lord John Prescott, deputy PM from 1997-2007, said to me: “Well is that all you’re talking about on his speech. The economy […] that’s the trouble. Are you gonna be a journalist? You don’t bloody think […] Good luck!”

What surprised me was that Vicki told me that asking Prescott would be pointless. “Of course he’ll say yes,” she told me. Was the party as united as I had thought? Was Prescott angered at what was happening to the party, deliberately turning away from the—what he would call—progress that he oversaw as deputy PM? Or was he just angry at a student journalist for wasting his time?

Liz Kendall, who ran against Corbyn in last year’s leadership election, didn’t have time to comment. She thought I was a fan and posed for a selfie before I told her I was writing for The Mancunion.

Tom Watson, deputy leader of the Labour Party, and someone who apparently read The Mancunion when he studied at Hull, replied: “Of course I would. I’ve been a socialist all my life and I’ll be mentioning socialism in my speech tomorrow.”

Although Watson’s speech referenced McDonnell’s speech in regards to Labour being, “a market-socialist party,” and although he referred to the Labour Party as, “our historic socialist party”, he also spoke of the benefits of the Blair and Brown governments. In fact, he stated that under those governments, “from the sunny uplands of increasing prosperity, social democratic government started to feel normal to the people of Britain.” Was Watson’s definition of socialism more in line with that of Blair and Brown? Can we describe Watson as a socialist, in the sense of how Clinton describes herself as a progressive democrat?

At least Hilary Benn, ex-shadow foreign secretary, when asked if he would describe himself as a socialist, replied: “Of course. We all are.” Good for him.

These politicians must have their own definitions in regards to what kind of socialist they are. Yet, it is Corbyn who will set this definition for the Labour Party. And it is this definition that the country will vote on at the next general election. In his closing speech of the Labour Conference, Corbyn decided to quote Bill Shankley to describe what his kind of socialism is: “The socialism I believe in is everybody working for the same goal and everybody having a share in the rewards. That’s how I see football, that’s how I see life.”

The fleshing out of policy surrounding that quote will define what kind of socialist Corbyn is, beyond his 10 point programme. A Labour Party that seems united and committed to socialism under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership may be able to break the taboo surrounding socialism, and then sell it to the country.

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