Deserving more

Generating Socialism - The Labour Party Since 1945 - The Labour Party - The People's Party
March 21, 1997

The Labour party will celebrate the centenary of its founding in 2000. Along with the forecasts of its success in the 1997 election, this has led to a rush of histories of the party. The need for a good history is succinctly demonstrated by Tony Blair in the first words of his introduction to The People's Party.

"From the crusade for votes for all men and women to the introduction of free education and health care, Labour has been there, speaking for the majority of the people and their aspirations for a better life." In fact, widespread male suffrage and state-funded education preceded the foundation of the Labour party. Universal male suffrage was introduced by the Lloyd George coalition in 1918, along with women's suffrage. There was opposition to the latter among some Labour leaders who felt (correctly, on the whole) that women would be more likely to vote Conservative than men. Only health care, free at the point of delivery, was a Labour innovation. Whether Labour speaks for the majority of the people is also somewhat in question when the majority of the people do not vote Labour: there have been only two governments, in 1945 and 1966, where the party had an effective majority.

But this illustrated book does a good job of telling the bare history lucidly for a school or lay readership. Written by a Labour MP and a prospective parliamentary candidate, it is far from impartial about disputes within the party. As all these books show in different ways, the disputes are not a side-show to the "onward march of Labour", they are at the very heart of it.

When the Labour party (at this time called the Labour Representation Committee) was founded in February 1900 by the trade unions and three socialist societies, the battle lines were already in place. Votes were taken on whether the party should be socialist, concentrating only on "class war" issues; and whether it should be represented only by working-class MPs. Both votes were lost by the more left-wing faction, and to a large extent that encapsulates the history of the Labour party in the all but 100 years since.

Steven Fielding, for the Documents in Contemporary History series, quotes from those over the years who have wanted to revert to the party's fundamental moral principles; and those others who wished to recraft the party to reflect a changed world. The latter, from the Gaitskellites to the present-day "modernisers", pointed at the unions and nationalisation for the failure of the party. The moralists complained, like Tribune in 1959, that Labour makes "less and less of a challenge to the unjust society; gives the Tories more and more of their fundamental case", leaving voters with no compelling reason to abandon the Conservatives for a party which had only lately come round to conservative thinking.

This book, aimed at academics and students of recent political history, has the usual quotations from the diaries of Benn, Castle and Crossman and the memoirs of Wilson, but much more interesting are the gleanings from local archives. It is strangely comforting to read the minutes of the tea-and-chat meetings of the West Toxteth women's section in 1959; less entertaining to observe Bedford Labour party general management committee on new Commonwealth immigration: "this black menace had ruined our towns".

It is salutary to see Bill Rodgers, later a founder of the SDP, defending the trade union block vote, which in the 1950s and 1960s was in the possession of the party's right wing. The right started feeling queasy about the unions only when left-wing influence increased in some of the large ones. Some long-standing social democrats, like Christopher Mayhew, had identified a key fault line in Labour thinking years before others did: "We aim rightly at the creation of a classless society," he wrote in 1969, "but how far can this be achieved by a party which in practice gets its main support from a particular class?" One answer is that class values endure even when economic circumstances change, for at least one generation. Labour's fortunes held in the 1970s because, although British society became more middle class and the traditional working class dwindled, the young retained the class loyalties of their parents and on the whole stayed with Labour. Thus the party activists of the 1970s were the university-educated children of the old working class who had transmuted their values of solidarity and militancy into the terms of the middle-class professions to which they now belonged.

As we approach the present, this book shows just how hard it is to steer a path through contemporary history on subjects which are still matters of controversy. Steven Fielding writes: "In the early 1980s some members called for Labour to identify more closely with oppressed minorities - such as gays, the inner-city poor and ethnic groups - and leave to the Conservatives the task of garnering the skilled workers and the middle class." It was in fact young middle-class members who were calling for the Labour party to widen its appeal in this way; and no one to my knowledge has ever suggested leaving part of the electorate to the Conservatives. This remark, about a crucial division in the Labour party, is clearly something Fielding believes to be true, but how does he know it? The only time he references a similar remark it is to an interview in which Ken Livingstone said the minorities and the poor had to be represented, "as well as the interests of the organised working class in skilled trade unions." This sounds like broadening the party's appeal base, not narrowing it.

In the academically weightiest book here, Eric Shaw focuses on key stages in the evolution between "old" and "new" Labour. Shaw rejects the usual criticism of old Labour as being suspicious of market forces, fond of taxation and moored to a collectivist model of economic development. Rather, he says, what distinguished old Labour was traditionalism, the extent to which in making key choices their calculations were influenced by "principles derived from the established and highly traditional national culture." In a stimulating thesis Shaw argues that after 1947 neither planning nor public ownership played a significant role in Labour's economic strategy, which was increasingly Keynesian. Labour's decisions, moreover, were constricted by a view of British interests and identity which put great store on the maintenance of the UK as a world power: giving precedence to the defence of the pound over growth and social reform, and committing a small nation to an arms budget which befitted a large one.

"New" Labour on the other hand, is a more centralised, tightly managed and voter-orientated party with similarities to the mainstream of western European social democracy, whose principal offer to the people is to manage capitalism more efficiently and humanely than the Conservatives. Critically, Shaw maintains, "new" Labour has abandoned Keynesian social democracy to arrive at an economic policy virtually indistinguishable from that of the Conservatives. Shaw's case is elegantly argued, and he makes some points which deserve emphasis, for example that the record of the 1974-79 governments was by no means as poor as is commonly portrayed whether measured by growth, inflation, the balance of payments or the exchange rate. He might also have said that, though the period is popularly characterised as one of industrial strife, many times more days were lost in strikes in the following five years of Thatcher's rule.

There have always been two Labour parties, one organised at Westminster and forming the opposition or government of the day; and the other based in the country at large, whose members attended the meetings and knocked on doors to garner votes. The most fresh and entertaining of these books, an oral history, records the experiences of these grass-roots members.

Generating Socialism is scornful of "New Labour with its spin doctors, gimmicks and soundbites", though not all its voices are as severe as that of the Ilford woman's father who told her a socialist had no right to be thinking of buying a house: "Damn good municipal housing. That's what you want. That's what you've got to strive for, my girl." A Holborn woman remarks: "The Co-op was so dreary, the underwear was unspeakably horrible and the hats were unbelievably dreadful. I used to go and do all my shopping there."

These reminiscences make clear quite how much the party was a faith rather than a set of political premises. They would sing Jerusalem at the start of a meeting and The Red Flag at the end, children would attend Sunday Schools where they would learn such socialist commandments as "Love learning, which is the food of the mind" and "Be a friend to the weak and love justice." The blissful dawn of electoral victory in 1945 was greeted like the second coming. A London woman said: "It was just amazing, it was a dream come true. England arise, the long long night is over. We were going to come out of our slums and we were going to have all the wonderful, decent things that everybody should have . . . it just seemed as if the millennium had been reached." They were good people, and one cannot help feeling they deserved better than the compromises of grimy political reality.

Jad Adams is the author of Tony Benn: A Biography.

Generating Socialism: Recollections of Life in the Labour Party

Author - Daniel Weinbren
ISBN - 0 7509 1193 X
Publisher - Sutton
Price - £17.99
Pages - 250

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