Labour-saving devices

Reinventing the Left - The Labour Party Since 1979:
March 24, 1995

One of the central features of Eric Shaw's enjoyable and engaging book about Labour since 1979 is the evolutionary nature of change within the party in the last decade. Radical discontinuities have been few and far between, despite the efforts of the media to recount developments in such a fashion.

Take, for example, the policy review carried out after Labour's defeat in 1987. The results of the review, published in May 1989, were presented as a distinct recasting of the party's existing undertakings. Certainly the review contained some comprehensive developments: most obviously in the abandonment of unilateralism as the basis for Labour's defence policy (although this outcome had been presaged for some time by disputes within the party over the issue).

Much of the rest of the new programme was less original. Many of the policies Labour laid out either repeated existing commitments or represented minor modifications to earlier proposals made by the party between 1983 and 1987. Most of the industrial strategy had been outlined in Labour's 1987 election manifesto, which contained pledges for a national investment bank, regional development agencies, investment in training and an agency for technology, British Enterprise. These undertakings were repeated in one form or another in the review.

By contrast to the policy review, the statement of aims and values produced by Neil Kinnock and Roy Hattersley in 1988 was innovative. Left-wingers feared it would be used as a principled commitment that would determine the contents of the policy review. In the event, such was the extent of its lukewarm reception and the vagueness of its content that little more was heard of it. It had negligible impact on Labour policy or the party more generally (an outcome Tony Blair has no doubt noted in his determination to press for constitutional reform).

Acknowledging the evolutionary form that much development in the party has taken since 1983 does not mean concluding that Labour has stagnated. Widespread and comprehensive changes have resulted in a metamorphosis of the party. Such changes have been gradual and incremental. Some were unintended and unplanned by those responsible for them and many went unnoticed at the time. While ostensibly profound decisions have turned out to be relatively unimportant, much less advertised and seemingly incidental developments have turned out to be of considerable significance.

In The Labour Party Since 1979 Eric Shaw repeatedly emphasises the gradual nature of Labour's transformation from the crisis of 1983. He closely examines changes to the party's structure and campaigning strategy as well as to its policy proposals. Whatever Kinnock's intentions were, Shaw stresses the difficulties of forcing through abrupt changes to party policy and structures. He notes the continuities of much of the policy review, arguing that it built on changes that had already occurred. Shaw highlights 1985 as a crucial year in the Kinnock leadership: it was in this year that Kinnock was able to take full control of the party's National Executive Committee and that important changes were made to Labour's campaigning strategy. Shaw details some of the developments that took place to Labour after 1989, though tends to underestimate their importance. The decision to endorse the Exchange Rate Mechanism does not get the analysis it warrants. The result is an exceptionally useful and informative book based on extensive interviews with key participants and access to some important internal party papers. It is the most complete and authoritative account so far produced of Labour's journey since 1983 back from the brink of dissolution into a regionalised party far removed from the competition for power.

It is a pity, given such strengths, that the book has little to say about Labour's coming to terms with electoral defeat in 1992. The Smith leadership of the party receives no detailed analysis, and the debate between modernisers and traditionalists is addressed only briefly without being placed in its political context.

There are more general weaknesses. At times his arguments are rather fragmented and disjointed, a problem not helped by a noticeably ponderous writing style. Too much of the book is focused on the party's campaigning strategy, and other equally important aspects of Labour politics are neglected. There is little, for example, on the decline of Labour's left, the nature of internal elections within the party, and the relationship of the trade unions with Labour. While he provides a persuasive portrait of the party's overall transformation, Shaw's analysis of Labour's electoral strategy is less convincing. His claim that the party needed to construct an identity with which to win over voters lacks necessary detail.

One reason that Shaw's account of Labour's electoral crisis is incomplete is possibly because it is too focused on the internal problems and choices of the party. An analysis of some of the external problems to confront left-wing politics is to be found in the contributions to Reinventing the Left. This volume, coming out of the leftwing thinktank the Institute for Public Policy Research, examines the external factors that have contributed to the crisis of Labour politics, especially the rise of globalisation and the decline of the nation-state on which previous left models were based. More than that, the volume goes on to consider what the left should do in such circumstances.

The result is a collection of essays exploring the kind of issues and policies that might regenerate the radical project. Like so many books of this kind, the quality of contributions is extremely varied both in substance and style. Unlike many edited collections, the shorter comments sections, where individuals respond briefly to longer contributions, are as engaging and as original as the rest of the book. Overall, interesting ideas emerge about such matters as the kind of economic strategy the Left should adopt, the necessity of radical changes to welfare state commitments and the parallels between social democracy and environmentalism. Some of the other ideas are less original: the idea that governments and markets gain most from working together will surprise few on the left.

The volume is not helped by an obscure opening chapter by Anthony Giddens. Unlike his admirable recent essays on Labour politics in the New Statesman and Society, Giddens's contribution is stark, sweeping and laden with jargon. Concepts such as "social reflexivity" and "generative politics" are introduced without any detailed explanation or discussion. Such terminology, that borders on sloganising, will do little to win over doubters and, as a result, the chapter will be largely preaching to the converted.

Aside from the problems of jargon (that crop up throughout the book), it is not apparent what kind of impact a book like this one will have on Labour politics. The shadow chancellor, Gordon Brown, provides a useful overview of his commitment to individualism and communities, similar to his speeches on the "new economics" that he began two years ago. Many of the other chapters remain unresolved in their direct policy implications and some important problems of radical politics are unaddressed. Several of the respondents note a failure to tackle conflicts of interest in society that must arise in developing detailed policy proposals.

Joel Rogers and Wolfgang Streeck provide an illuminating account of what a socialist supply-side strategy might look like, echoing many of the concerns that have dominated Labour Party documents in the past decade (for example, the need for state help with training). They claim that a leftwing government needs "the capacity and competence to make capitalism an offer it cannot refuse" and conclude with a call for the introduction of works councils. Capitalism in the United Kingdom is a long way from accepting anything like works councils: many capitalists demonstrated considerable hostility towards Labour's moderate programme at the last election. Rogers and Streeck do not have a convincing answer as to how a left government could introduce such reforms without resorting to imposition.

Such criticism should not detract from the theoretical value and interest of much of the discussion. In defence of such abstract arguments it can be pointed out that the left needs to debate and work ideas through if it is to come up with original and relevant proposals. But more attention should also be given to the problems of persuading a Labour Party that evolves so gradually to pick up on and advocate such arguments. The left must not ignore the kind of problems outlined by Shaw in his analysis of the constraints of Labour politics.

Mark Wickham-Jones is a lecturer in politics, University of Bristol.

Reinventing the Left

Author - David Miliband
ISBN - 0 7456 1390X and 1391 8
Publisher - Polity Press
Price - £45.00 and £11.95
Pages - 254pp

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