Self-acclaimed socialist Keir Starmer with shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves (Photo: flickr/Keir Starmer)

Asked last week if he is a socialist, Labour leader Keir Starmer had a surprising answer.

“I would describe myself as a socialist,” he said. “I describe myself as a progressive.” It was a bewildering thing to hear.

Starmer had spent the first days of his election campaign emphasising just how much the party had changed since socialist Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership.

And less than 24 hours later he was to showcase a letter in the Times newspaper signed by 120 bosses declaring they now supported Labour.

But he felt no embarrassment at very confidently declaring himself a socialist.

His shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves wasn’t so comfortable with that. Asked if she too was a socialist, she stopped short and called herself a social democrat instead.

For a few hours the question of Labour’s relationship to socialism became part of mainstream political discussion.

Labour has always chosen consciously not to call itself socialist. And when its politicians have felt the need to pay it lip service, they’ve been able to stretch and pull its meaning into whatever suits them at the time.

From the very beginning, Labour’s founders fretted over how harmful it would be for people to see their party as socialist—for the same reasons Starmer and Reeves quibble over it now.

The Independent Labour Party—a forerunner of the party today—decided against calling itself the Socialist Labour Party.

It was an electoral decision. The party’s founder Keir Hardie argued that the “question of questions” was how many people they could get elected to parliament— not whether they’d been elected as socialists. Likewise, when Labour itself was founded in 1900 its first conference decided against any reference to socialism in its constitution.

Even “clause 4”—now yearned for by the left as the Labour’s long since ditched commitment to socialism— flinched from using the word.

Adopted by the party in 1918 it committed Labour to “common ownership of the means of production” and “popular administration and control of each industry and service”.

But for its authors it was an attempt to present Labour as an alternative to the wave of socialist revolutions sweeping Europe.

Behind all this was the idea held by Labour’s leaders that there’s no irreconcilable difference in the interests of those at the top of society and the mass of people at the bottom.

Socialism for them is about the careful management of society through parliament for the benefit of all.

Starmer’s description of socialism is strikingly similar to that of Labour’s founders over 100 years ago.

Last week he said it was about “always putting country first”. Ramsay MacDonald, Labour’s first prime minister, said “socialism is not class consciousness but community consciousness”. There have been times when Labour’s leaders have adapted what they mean by socialism to fit the needs of the bosses’ economy.

In the early 1950s Labour scaled back its plans to nationalise industry so much that commentators at the time saw little difference between it and the Conservatives.

Decades later, as Labour chose to accommodate to the world ushered in by Margaret Thatcher, its leaders strove to ditch clause 4.

Neil Kinnock led an aborted attempt in the 1980s to replace “ideological socialism” with an “ethical socialism” that would “employ the machine of market competition”.

Tony Blair eventually did away with it altogether in 1995.

Last week one of Blair’s acolytes Wes Streeting called himself a “democratic socialist”. But his version of socialism means handing more NHS contracts to private firms.

Just like now, Labour’s supposed path to socialism has meant telling its supporters not to hope for too much on the basis that the economy demands it.

Socialism is always a far off promise for Labour, something we can have when the economy is better, but rarely something it will strive for now.

So maybe it isn’t so surprising after all that Starmer feels he can describe himself as a socialist. Maybe he even genuinely considers himself to be one.

But the bosses know what his “socialism” means—and they know they have nothing to fear from it.

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