Labour Pains: About the Project

The Labour Pains website is part of a unique ongoing collaboration between the People’s History Museum (PHM) in Manchester and the Department of History at the University of Sheffield. It is intended as a new type of historical, political and educational resource, incorporating an expanding online catalogue of material drawn from the Labour Party’s Official Archives at the PHM; original scholarship, commentary and discussion, as well as an interactive timeline plotting the key events and developments in Labour Party history, from its foundation at the beginning of the twentieth century to the present day.

As historians, archivists and curators all concerned, in various ways, with the history of the Labour Party, we believe passionately in the power of the past to both inform and augment contemporary political debates and understandings. At the same time, we also recognise the pressures on modern-day political leaders and policy makers to keep their focus on more immediately tangible political and social issues and concerns; indeed, forced to compete for attention with the rather more urgent claims of political journalists, commentators, tweeters, bloggers, think tanks, pressure groups, activists and campaigners, historians can often find themselves pushed to the back of the queue.

Rather than seeking to assert any particular claim to authority, we believe that all the above groups and individuals have potentially valuable things to say to one another, but that in today’s increasingly febrile and fragmented public sphere such conversations can often struggle even to begin. As it is, the lifespan of most political commentary only seems to be as good as the latest tweet; at the same time, much historical analysis and interpretation remains confined to obscure and difficult-to-access journals and periodicals, or else sparsely populated conference rooms; meanwhile, politicians and policy makers, obliged as they are to deal in more concrete, day-to-day political and social ‘realities’, may be apt to feel that those who opt to barrack and bray from the sidelines can ultimately have very little to offer in the way of practical guidance or instruction.

The ensuing gap between history and politics, and related narrowness and ‘short-termism’ of so many of our contemporary political preoccupations and discussions, undoubtedly, impoverishes us all; it is a gap, however, which might also be considered to have had a particularly deleterious effect on the constitutional identity and remit of the Labour Party itself. Indeed, for all their apparent utopian idealism, the founders of the Labour Party always took it as read that the emergence of a new, more egalitarian, society would be unlikely to occur without the experience of some considerable birth pangs along the way (though they perhaps underestimated quite how protracted, or, indeed, quite how painful these would subsequently prove to be); as such, they also recognised how crucial maintaining a sense of historical perspective may prove to be to an organisation that was not only a prospective party of government, but also a wider social movement. Over a century after the Labour Party’s foundation, we are in a better position to assess the meaning and significance of some of these historic ‘labour pains’, as well as to consider what kind of twenty-first century political party or movement they might now be yielding.

The Labour Pains project launches at a time of unprecedented constitutional turbulence and division, both inside the parliamentary Labour Party and out: ‘Brexit’, environmental change, mass migration and population displacement, global terrorism, the future of the United Kingdom’s place in the world – indeed, the future of the United Kingdom itself; these are just some of the issues that now appear to be rendering most of the political roadmaps of the twentieth century obsolete. Yet even those who regard the urgency and complexity of our contemporary sociopolitical challenges as reasons to abandon wholesale the programmes and prospectuses of the past would do well to remember that ‘progress’, much like its opposite, can only be accurately measured if one has a realistic sense of what it is we might be progressing, or, indeed, lapsing, from. In launching this site we aim to assist towards such understandings; in time, we hope that Labour Pains will come to serve as a central resource for politicians, policy makers, journalists, historians, students, or anyone else concerned with the past, present or future of progressive politics in Britain, and the wider world.