Marxism or Methodism? For Labour’s Centrist Vanguard, It Was Neither

by Aaron Bastani

22 September 2020

Victoria Jones/Reuters

One of the phrases most likely to emerge in any discussion of the Labour party’s history is how its origins owe “more to Methodism than Marx” – a catchy formulation attributed to Harold Wilson. While nearly always a self-comforting slogan, uttered primarily by those ignorant of both political history and Marxism, it is also true – albeit not quite so simplistic.

Keir Hardie, who founded the Labour party, was a Methodist preacher who stated that socialism is more “an affair of the heart than of the intellect”. The Tolpuddle Martyrs, the forebears of modern trade unionism, were also Methodists, with their leader, George Loveless, a Wesleyan preacher. Britain’s first overtly socialist organisation wasn’t the Fabian Society or Social Democratic Federation, but the Christian Guild of St Matthew, founded in 1877.

This, of course, should not erase the very real influence of Marxism on the Labour party. Hardie himself wrote a book titled Karl Marx: The Man and his Message. In 1948, to celebrate the centenary of The Communist Manifesto, Labour published a new edition of Marx’s famous pamphlet with an introduction by Harold Laski. Nye Bevan, the driving force behind the creation of the NHS, even declared that in so far as he possessed any political training at all, it had been in Marxism.

All of which begs a question – to which lineage do the likes of Tom Watson, Michael Dugher and Chris Leslie owe their politics? Can we see in these former MPs a commitment to Methodism, or to Marxism? To the ethereal world of ethical impulse, or the material one of analytical rigour?

As of last week, Watson is on a five-figure retainer for online betting giant Flutter, parent company of Paddy Power and worth some £19bn. Michael Dugher, the former MP for Barnsley East, is now chief executive of the Betting and Gaming Council. Chris Leslie, meanwhile, is CEO of the Credit Services Association – the trade association for Britain’s debt collectors – a fitting job given the former Nottingham MP opposed rent controls in parliament while being a landlord himself

For the Christian socialists of yesteryear, man was condemned to live by the sweat of his brow – an imperative to work for money rather than earn it through landlordism or usury. It was for this reason that Hardie himself declared socialism would “abolish the landlord class”. Leslie, by contrast, seeks to defend such interests. His role dovetails rather poetically with those of Watson and Dugher: if a gambling addiction breaks you financially, the bailiffs championed by the one-time shadow chancellor will come and take away your possessions.

Then there is Angela Smith, who having left parliamentary politics via Change UK is now a non-executive director at Portsmouth Water. Writing for the Times in 2018, Smith quoted a report by the Social Market Foundation which estimated that Labour’s plans for water nationalisation would cost an extraordinary £90bn. Perhaps unsurprisingly, however, it quickly turned out that such crushing research had been commissioned by private water companies. At the same time, Smith was chairwoman of the all-party water group – an MPs’ group funded almost entirely by the water industry.

How did these individuals, on the side of the betting companies, bailiffs and privateers, become the moral conscience of the British centre? What does it say about the substance of today’s so-called moderate politics that such figures were repeatedly presented as embodying ‘real’ Labour values – contra not only Jeremy Corbyn but much of the party’s membership – when they were in fact an assortment of carpetbaggers, hoodwinkers and commercial guns for hire? 

What would Hardie, so often mentioned by people attacking the socialist left, have made of Chuka Umunna and Luciana Berger choosing to work for Edelman, a consultancy renowned for union-busting astroturf campaigns? What would George Loveless have thought of that same company providing ‘crisis communications management’ for News Corporation after a News of the World journalist had hacked the voicemails of a murdered schoolgirl? Loveless, along with his five ‘co-conspirators’, were exiled to the Australian colonies for the crime of ‘unlawful oaths’ – in other words, forming a trade union. The likes of Edelman are the successors of those who determined they should be transported.

I say all of this not to demand a return to moral pietism in politics – though many parliamentarians appear to find ideas such as duty, responsibility and even the truth rather alien – but to question the foundation on which the likes of Watson, Dugher and Leslie base their commitments. It clearly isn’t the ethical socialism of the early 20th century, and it most certainly isn’t Marxism – a subject about which they have learned little and forgotten even more. So what is it? What is the substrate on which these plucky, principled rebels sought to stem the tide these last five years? The sad answer is nothing at all beyond egoism and self-promotion, their inspiration more House of Cards than people’s parliament. The only difference between these ex-MPs and Frank Underwood is that the former’s Machiavellian deceptions almost always fail.

The British left owes more to Methodism than Marxism, it’s true. Even Corbyn himself – a pillar of the ‘new left’ inside the party – is a teetotaler, embodying the values of a temperance movement which has long since disappeared. Yet it also owes much to Marx, from the Social Democratic Foundation to Shapurji Saklatvala, a communist and Labour’s first BAME MP; from Bevan, Stafford Cripps and Tribune magazine through to Harold Laski and Ralph Miliband. Personally I think today’s left would do well to acknowledge both parts of its inheritance – Methodism and Marx – acknowledging that, as Clement Attlee said ahead of the 1945 election, socialism’s appeal is “not to the lower, but the highest instincts of the human race”. In any case, either perspective can inform a perfectly coherent worldview, allowing the individual to not only make sense of contemporary challenges like inequality, climate change, housing and social care, but to also do something about them. Even the most fervent atheist can’t help but be impressed by the role faith organisations have played in addressing food poverty since 2010.

But this is lost on the likes of Watson, Dugher and Leslie, individuals who – despite the misplaced sycophancy of much of the media, particularly the liberal press – were driven by neither ethical impulse nor analytical insight. In this respect, their new roles represent the sorry conclusion of a politics of pure expediency, something which, during the New Labour years, frequently led to lofty elevation. Now, however, it appears to mean you are left out in the cold, clutching for a corporate payday no matter how odious the industry. One illuminating tale, at least, as a dark winter closes in.

Aaron Bastani is a Novara Media contributing editor and co-founder.

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