The moral economy of the Labour Party: a note

In Uncategorized on August 18, 2016 by kmflett

The moral economy of the Labour Party


As a trade unionist who spends a good deal of time trying to make sure the union has the maximum number of members, Labour’s attitude to those who have recently joined the Party seems to me  somewhat cavalier.

They may have thought they should get a vote in the latest Labour leadership contest, but it was decided otherwise, and what they thought about that didn’t seem to be a priority.

The matter ended up in the Courts which is another matter. In general I think the labour movement does best to keep away from judges.

A lawyer tweeted me that the Labour Party had broken its contract with members. If you think the Labour Party is in fact a plc perhaps so. It is indicative however of a wider issue where the market economy we have to deal with everyday becomes a market society. Here absolutely everything is governed by the commercial and the ideas of profit and loss.

Except that it isn’t really.

Paul Mason has an interesting piece in The Guardian (16.8) which as usual I’m far from fully agreeing with, about the differences between Michael Foot and Jeremy Corbyn.

He argues that Foot became leader of the Labour Party as the attitudes of Thatcherism were becoming widespread in society.  It was not favourable ground for the left politically, even if industrial battles were won, at least until 1984/5.

By contrast Corbyn is leader when a large number are moving away from the market austerity ideas of post-Thatcherism and looking for a political alternative.

Whatever your view of Corbyn as a leader (at least he has a beard) he is on fertile ground in terms of where the political zeitgeist is moving.

Mason suggests that the left is after not so much industrial power (though some of us still are) but what E.P Thompson called a moral economy.

That is a society where other things than profit and the market are the priorities.

The moral economy Thompson wrote about in eighteenth century England he described thus ‘ a popular consensus as to what were legitimate and what were illegitimate practices in marketing, milling, baking etc.. an outrage to these moral assumptions.. was the usual occasion for direct action’

Were judges involved at all in this? They certainly were and intervened from time to time to remind those who transgressed that a moral economy existed and should be observed. That is they simply tried to make sure that popular custom and will were actually the things that mattered most on the day.

It might be recalled that Harold Wilson’s early involvement with War on Want termed the Labour Party a ‘moral crusade’. It was not necessarily all that left-wing and certainly not revolutionary but it did suggest that there are other values than those of the market worth pursuing.


3 Responses to “The moral economy of the Labour Party: a note”

  1. Education now seems valued purely in relation to subsequent earning. In 70s education was considered a good in itself.

  2. I am puzzled by your claim (and Mason’s) that “industrial battles were won, at least until 1984/5.” Could you give us some examples?? The steel strike may have won a wage increase – but it was followed by massive job losses. The Stockport Messenger dispute was scarcely a triumph. I find Tony Cliff’s account of a “downturn” which began at the end of the seventies (and which explained Bennism in terms of industrial weakness) rather more convincing than Mason’s rather hazy recollections of his adolescence in Workers’ Power.

  3. Clearly Im in the camp of Cliff not Mason but I think the point is not that industrial disputes were particularly successful in the first half of the 1980s but that the left thought they could be. The defeat of the miners changed that- in a range of ways

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