A party divided again and again

What's Left? Labour Britain and the Socialist Tradition
February 19, 1999

There is now a steady flow of studies of the Labour Party. They come in a variety of forms. Some tap fresh sources, others offer new interpretations. Finally there are the books for a lay audience, written in an accessible style and without footnotes and references. What's Left? falls into this category. It is a well-written, thoughtful work with little originality and no piercing new insights. Much of it is a familiar recitation of the main events in Labour's history. It is primarily a narrative account of the evolution of the labour movement that largely ignores the institutional, cultural or structural forces that have shaped its development.

A tendency towards simplification is, in part, a function of the book's organisation. It is primarily a survey of Labour's origins and formation. Three-quarters of it deals with events before 1939. More attention is given to the 1929-31 Labour government than to any subsequent one. This reflects one of its themes: Labour's history is largely the unravelling of tensions and contradictions evident at its birth. The party, David Powell argues, was founded on a contradiction: "How can a party rooted in dissent ever become the party of government?" It has been perpetually riven between "purists for whom there could be no compromises with capitalism and pragmatists for whom there could be no alternative to compromise". Usually, it abandoned radicalism to convince the electorate of its fitness to govern. But in so doing the "party leadership not only sacrificed much of its own credibility but sapped the raison d'etre of the party itself".

Much of the narrative revolves around these themes. But they are too one-dimensional to bear the weight of interpretation placed on them. Few significant players were either "pragmatists" or "purists". Substitute for these concepts the terms right and left. The terms represent points on a (moving) spectrum rather than alternatives. It is only rarely that the party was polarised - and, as happened with the left in the early 1980s, unity on the wings is so tenuous that it soon crumbles.

There are a number of useful reminders from the past: for instance of the left's long hostility to union voting power in conference. Though the book will not set off ripples in the scholarly community, it is not without value. Discussion of the party is now largely framed in terms of the dichotomy new Labour/old Labour. It is as if the complex evolution of the party can be encapsulated in a soundbite. This might appeal to those who think of the past in schematic terms - ideal types as substitutes for history. But even a brief dip into a study such as What's Left? demonstrates its shallowness. Bevan and Gaitskell, Castle and Crosland - all "old Labour"?

To the extent that accounts such as these can bridge scholarly discussion of Labour on the one hand and political discourse on the other, they provide a useful service.

Eric Shaw is senior lecturer in politics, University of Stirling.

What's Left? Labour Britain and the Socialist Tradition

Author - David Powell
ISBN - 0 7206 1041 9
Publisher - Peter Owen
Price - £22.50
Pages - 300

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