You're all invited this time

THE PEOPLE'S PARTY: The History of the Labour Party by Tony Wright & Matt Carter Introduction by Tony Blair, Thames and Hudson pounds 18.95/pounds 12.95

Ben Pimlott
Sunday 23 October 2011 07:56

"The people's flag is palest pink," goes the old refrain, "it's not as red as you might think." This lavishly illustrated and well-timed history, by a practising politician and an aspiring one, is partly an exercise in reassurance. There is nothing, they seem to be saying, to be frightened of: contrary to myth, Labour Party history contains no episode of horny-handed extremism. Rather, the values of New Labour are rooted in its heritage. Nevertheless, The People's Party is not (or not just) a campaign book. Though even more succinct than Henry Pelling's positively Attleeian A Short History of the Labour Party (first published when Tony Blair was eight and now in its eleventh edition), it could replace it as the standard guide.

The problem in writing an institutional biography of this kind is what to leave out. Wright and Carter have mainly followed the Pelling prescription of sticking to facts, avoiding a plethora of detail, making brisk judgements, and keeping up the narrative flow.

The story is one of rags to riches - humble beginnings to high office or (as the title of one early Labour memoir put it) Workshop to War Cabinet. When Pelling first wrote, he did so at a slightly different point in the political cycle to Wright and Carter: in 1961, modernising and reunited Labour was emerging from a long period of oppositional fractiousness, but victory was not yet in sight. Hence the story of Labour's rising tide of success had a Bunyanesque quality: achievements were matched by setbacks on the rocky road, with the end uncertain. By contrast Wright and Carter, passionate New Labourites, are able to be more upbeat: though conscious of past mistakes and frank about them, their interpretation is distinctly Whiggish. Obstacles are challenges, and the party has shown a capacity to bounce back.

The tale certainly has heroic (as well as picaresque) qualities. Though Labour, as Blair puts it in his Introduction, is "a young party, not quite a century old" - much younger than the other two parties - its youth has been full of surprises. When the Labour Representation Committee was set up in a smoke-filled meeting-house in the Farringdon Road in 1900 by a motley band of trade unionists and agitators, few of the founders imagined that they were doing more than creating a pressure group for the union movement.

Nobody saw it as the liberator of India, the founder of the health service, the builder of the welfare state - or as the vehicle of the political hopes of half the nation. The LRC had even less commitment to socialism than New Labour, and none at all to the achievement of national power. Yet within 22 years (not much longer than the Thatcher-Major period) it had permanently displaced the Liberals as the main party of opposition, and two years later it was in government.

The reason for this triumphant progress (like the reason for Labour's 1945 landslide) remains mysterious: was it the timeliness and rationality of the message, or what Beatrice Webb once called a "slow underground social upheaval, moving independently of leaders or organisations"? The authors might have made more of an attempt to answer this question, because an associated one - why working-class people stick with Labour - has a contemporary relevance.

They play down the "socialist" Clause IV of the 1918 Party Constitution as a factor, suggesting that the commitment to public ownership was less important than the establishment of Labour as a mass-membership party; and they point out that the wording of the original clause referred only to the common ownership of "the means of production" - "distribution and exchange" were not added until 1928. Another critical feature of the Clause was that it extended the party's embrace to the middle classes, by seeking to appeal to workers "by hand and by brain". After this, they claim, "Labour was on its way to becoming a people's party."

The authors are gentle in their interpretation of the 1931 "betrayal" crisis, when King George was able to split the Labour Party down the middle by asking a Labour premier, Ramsay MacDonald, to become, in effect, a Tory one. They also depart significantly from traditional accounts in their judgement of the 1930s, "Labour's darkest hour", when the party seemed in danger of being eclipsed. Pelling called his chapter on this episode "The General Council's Party", arguing that after 1931 the trade unions moved in, and were responsible for an eventual recovery of stolid good sense that paved the way for 1945. Wright and Carter, by contrast, emphasise the role of middle-class Fabian intellectuals, especially the Old Etonian Hugh Dalton, in equipping Labour both with a more sophisticated domestic policy and a credible foreign one - advances which helped to make the party's leaders serious partners in the Churchill coalition, and bold contenders in the end-of-war election.

This is history with a function: such a reinterpretation allows comparison both with the early 1960s and the early 1990s. At each moment of threatened oblivion, according to this version, the intellectuals galloped to the rescue, reviving and updating a flagging ideology, and preparing the ground for a renewed bout of achievement in office.

Chipping away at myth continues in the post-war chapters. The authors usefully remind us that even the greatest leaders had their problems, and that the comrades were seldom grateful at the time for what they did. Thus Clement Attlee - top deity in the modern Labour Party's pantheon - was considered so inadequate in 1947 that leading colleagues tried to dump him. Later in the book, Nye Bevan's "naked into conference chamber", anti-unilateralist speech is pointedly highlighted, lest anybody forget that Labour's greatest firebrand thought the ban-the-bomb movement "an emotional spasm".

There is high praise for the "lost leader", Hugh Gaitskell, and a remarkable degree of rehabilitation for Harold Wilson, the compromiser and moderator whose "white heat of the technological revolution" prefigured New Labour, and who, in the ideological 1980s, was conventionally reviled by both Labour left and Labour right. The authors acknowledge the political difficulties that post-election devaluation would have entailed in 1964. Though the decision to opt instead for deflation undermined the Labour government's economic programme, the social one - including legislation on race, equal rights, divorce, homosexual acts, abortion - remained, and the authors point to its enduring legacy.

As we face an election that could turn out to be the biggest landslide since the war, it is interesting to recall how comparatively uncertain were the results of other "watershed" elections a short time before they took place: as the authors point out, six months before the 1979 poll, Jim Callaghan was 5 per cent ahead of Margaret Thatcher; and a year before Mrs Thatcher's victory in 1983, she herself appeared to be the first candidate for annihilation. In 1997, Labour has been leading by a mile for years. Still, Blair should not be too sanguine about the benefits of a big majority: not only Thatcher, but Wilson also found it a mixed blessing. The authors quote his prophetic reply following his 1966 victory to a question about his golfing handicap: "up from 3 to 97".

As the book moves into recent times it becomes more overtly political. Due credit is given to Neil Kinnock for pulling the party back from the brink. Peter Mandelson is praised for swapping a red flag for a red rose and for his role as mastermind in 1987, when Labour "won the campaign" but, alas, not the election. In their account of the 1992 election, the authors mention the John Smith shadow Budget, and the notorious Sheffield rally, as causes of defeat - though not the much more serious mistake of that campaign, namely Labour's calculated refusal to say anything about anything, in the false hope that what looked like an over-ripe plum would simply drop into its lap.

Smith, the second "lost leader", is normally ranked high on the Labour Olympus: here he gets a mixed reception. He does get a pat on the back for Labour Party constitutional changes, which the authors rightly argue produced the biggest shift in power in the Labour Party since 1918, but he is also criticised as Leader for showing a "reluctance to lead from the front, a weakness that some found irritating".

The book climaxes appropriately on the Blair leadership, the replacement of Clause IV socialism with the language of "opportunity, responsibility, fairness and trust", and a hoped-for "rebirth of the nation". Thus a party that has long striven to be mainstream and respectable, yet has shown a chronic tendency to be self-indulgent and dissembling, finally comes of age. The moral is to tell the truth at all times. "Let us say what we mean and mean what we say," the current Leader is quoted as saying.

There are a handful of minor mistakes: MacDonald was elected chairman, not "chair", of the Labour Party in 1922 (PC hadn't been invented); Labour was not out of power for "a generation" after 1951, but for only 13 years; Dalton's Budget leak appeared in the London Evening Star in the middle of his speech, not before it; and the Labour Party's Plant committee on electoral systems was set up by Neil Kinnock in 1991, not by John Smith after the 1992 election. There is also a dog that doesn't bark: Labour as the party of labour. The authors say less than they might about Labour's traditional constituency, or the social glue that used to attach industrial and working-class Britain to the party, preserving it from extinction in dark times.

What does the future hold? If Labour owes some of its current popularity among middle-market voters to its newly achieved distance from the trade unions, as well as to its anti-tax-and-spend pledge, what will happen to the old proletarian loyalists? In the short run, they have nowhere to go electorally. In the long run they have to have a reason to stick with a party that no longer believes in economic distribution. Let's hope for a new edition of this fine book, published in 2002, which shows how the Blair Cabinet succeeded in finding one.

Ben Pimlott is the author of 'Frustrate Their Knavish Tricks: Writings on Biography, History and Politics' (HarperCollins) and a former chairman of the Fabian Society.

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