Jesus beats Marx for Labour politicians

Click to follow
The Independent Online
THE BIBLE has overtaken Karl Marx in the affections of Labour MPs. According to a new survey, Tony Blair's emphasis on 'ethical socialism' is not just a public relations stunt: in sharp contrast to their predecessors in the Seventies, the Labour MPs of the Nineties have been influenced more by the Bible than by Das Kapital or the Communist Manifesto.

The survey was carried out by Steve Platt, editor of the left-wing weekly, New Statesman and Society. The full details will be published on Friday, when the magazine relaunches, with the aim of adding 10,000 to its present circulation of around 20,000 within 15 months.

Mr Platt's questions, to which 85 MPs replied, were similar to those posed by the radical journalist W T Stead to the first Labour intake in 1906. He asked the MPs which books or authors had most influenced their beliefs. The Bible was mentioned more often than any other source except John Ruskin; only two MPs mentioned Marx. The result gave rise to the often-repeated claim that Labour owes more to Methodism than to Marx.

When the survey was repeated in 1962, however, Marx had narrowly overtaken the Bible. By 1975, the position was almost exactly reversed from the beginning of the century: Marx had soared to the top of the table while the Bible was mentioned by only four out of 100 MPs who replied.

Now, though Marx is the fourth most popular author, the Bible narrowly beats him to third place. And the atheist George Bernard Shaw, who headed the table in 1962 and came third in 1975, only just makes the top group now.

Top of the table in 1994 is Robert Tressell, the Anglo-Irish signwriter and housepainter who wrote the semi-autobiographical novel The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists about the struggles of working men in Hastings, Sussex. The book was published in 1914, three years after his death in a Liverpool workhouse at the age of 40 from tuberculosis.

'It all suggests that Labour MPs are now very much attracted to people who have a moral basis to their thinking, a sense of what's right and wrong,' Mr Platt said. 'R H Tawney is still near the top and he was very much a moralist. But George Bernard Shaw, H G Wells, G D H Cole - the whole Fabian tradition - have almost disappeared. They were attached to the idea that the state was the principal vehicle for change - that was the reason for their early love affair with the Soviet Union.

'They took Labour away from its radical Christian Socialist base towards Marxism. In my view, the love affair with the state - with managerial socialism - was the worst thing that happened to the left in Britain. My hope is that Blair will make it possible to bring about change.'

If it were not for older MPs, Shaw - mentioned by 32 out of the 110 MPs who replied in 1962 - would not even make the top set now. He was mentioned by only one MP born since 1945. Tressell, by contrast, was mentioned by one in three of the younger MPs, against only one in 10 of those born before 1945. J K Galbraith and John Steinbeck are also more popular among the younger MPs than among the older ones.

From Stead's original list only the Bible and Dickens got more than one mention apiece in Mr Platt's survey. Nobody mentioned Ruskin, Carlyle, Scott or Bunyan. Henry George, the American who wrote Progress and Poverty, the most talked-about left-wing book of the 1870s, is almost forgotten.

The new heroes of 1994 include George Orwell. Not a single Labour MP mentioned him in 1962 - because, says Mr Platt, he was then seen as a right-wing writer.

Mr Platt also asked the MPs which contemporary figures influenced them at the early stages of their political careers. Aneurin Bevan came top overall, mentioned by more than one in five MPs. Barbara Castle and Tony Benn, however, came equal top among the women. Harold Wilson, Tony Benn, Michael Foot, John Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Che Guevara and Ho Chi Minh also did well. But Hugh Gaitskell, one of the heroes of 1975, did not rate a single mention in 1994.

What is striking about this list, and the MPs' responses to other questions, says Mr Platt, is the low rating given to 'intellectuals'. Anthony Crosland and Harold Laski, once prominent Labour theorists, are no longer an influence, particularly among younger MPs. Asked if intellectuals had made a significant contribution to the Labour Party, one in five said they had not, against one in 20 in 1975.

'The left now lacks intellectual self-confidence,' Mr Platt said. 'It has cultivated a kind of anti-intellectualism. But ethics on their own aren't enough. If you don't have some idea of how society works, of how to bring about change, you might as well be the Archbishop of Canterbury.'

The revamped New Statesman and Society - it will have a new design and new sections - will provide a forum for the thinking that is presently missing on the left, Mr Platt says. 'There is a huge untapped reservoir of radicalism, shown in things like anti-racist protests and the demonstrations about the Criminal Justice Bill. The mainstream press, as well as the mainstream parties, aren't picking this up.' He promises more news analysis, as well as a weekly essay in which thinkers such as Eric Hobsbawm, Anthony Giddens and Ralf Dahrendorf will attempt a re-definition of the left.

(Photographs and table omitted)