Six books to help make sense of 6th May

After the morning following the calamity of the polling day before, Mark Perryman goes in search of some reading to explain Labour’s retreat

Hartlepool a disaster but the ‘Preston Model’ wins big.  Next to no advance in Scotland while Welsh Labour have their best Assembly elections ever.  ‘Red Wall’: almost universally poor results but a clutch of ‘Blue Wall’ seats looking increasingly vulnerable. Failed badly in West Midlands Mayoral election but win well the West Yorkshire one.  Meltdown of Labour vote in Liverpool Mayoral election fails to materialise, Burnham wins big, Tory Tees Valley Mayor even bigger. Beyond the headlines there’s a lot to make sense of here. 

I’m no psephologist; for that kind of analysis I rely on the peerless Paula Surridge,  so in the hope of making some sense of all this I hunted down a clutch of new books full of ideas on Labour’s past, present  and what looks increasingly likely, future, predicament.

The Dignity of Labour is the debut book from the MP Jon Cruddas who way back in 2007 electrified the deputy leadership campaign  in a way that was a kind of portent of Ed Miliband defeating his brother three years later and then, of course, of Corbyn. Since then he’s been relatively quiet, flirting with the emergence of ‘Blue Labour’ thinking.

This book is set to change all that and become a key text for rebuilding Labour’s fractured electoral coalition. Rather unfairly framed by many commentators  as the ‘old left’ versus all the new, bright, young radical thinking on Labour’s rather fraying left fringe, instead this book adds a perspective rooted in workplace culture and organising which complements more than contradicts Jon’s new generation peers.  In the aftermath of 6tn May, such is the kind of axis round which a fruitful response can prosper.

Of course, much attention is being paid to Labour’s support, or lack of, in the so-called ‘Red Wall’ seats. Last Thursday suggests that rather than regaining these at the next election, even more could be lost.  What is the cause of this fracturing of Labour’s traditional core vote: geography, class, or politics? Or a mixture of all three? 

Tom Hazeldine’s The Northern Question  locates some answers within the parameters of what he describes as a ‘divided country’, a division produced out of a political class’s decision to prioritise financialisation over production, London and the south-east over the north,  a cause that can hardly be attributed to ‘long Corbyn’, but to decades of political neglect.

There were success stories on Thursday – not nearly enough to suggest a big enough recovery to win a Genera l Election – but if we don’t learn lessons from these successes then any kind of recovery will never happen. In Paint your Town Red, Matthew Brown and Rhian E. Jones have compiled the details of the ‘Preston Model’ in an easy-to-read format that serves as an activists’ Community Wealth Building how-to guide.  Matthew is the city’s Labour council leader. The model he helped pioneer in Preston has managed to reverse decades of privatisation, outsourcing and the ghost-towning of High Street shopping, via a highly localised socialism.  This book tells Preston’s story but crucially how other towns and cities, north, and south, could adapt the lessons to their own circumstances, if the political will is there to do so. 

On a macro level, in the midst of all the talk of how ‘Bidenomics’ could serve as the template for a much-needed post-pandemic Labour vision, an invaluable source for ideas is the posthumously published Robin Murray : Selected Writings, skilfully edited by Michael Rustin.

Robin was that rare thing in an economist, macro in vision, micro in practical application, able to communicate both to the studiously non-economist in a manner that informed and inspired. Much missed, this collection ranges over Robin’s key essays and a wonderful variety of lesser known ones. If Biden isn’t to be the limit of our ambition to follow, this book is key to how we can take Bidenomics as a starting point and not the sum total. 

Two dominant themes of the past five years or so have been populism and pasokification.  Johnson is squeezing Labour via the former while in numerous places it is obvious that the Greens are producing the latter effect, posing a more radical, attractive alternative to Sir Keir..  Left Populism in Europe by Marina Prentoulis is a very welcome argument that the left is most successful when synthesising both a left version of populism and a radicalisation of social-democracy.  The differing rates of failure of Corbyn, Syriza and Podemos are due to not successfully combining the two.

And my number one selection of these six books for a pick-me-up read?  Jeremy Gilbert’s Twenty-First Century Socialism.  A short read, it can be dusted off in one day of the post-elections recovery, almost a manifesto though not of the kind the Leader of the Opposition’s Office are likely to be publishing anytime soon. This is a book in the good old tradition of having interpreted the world, to change it.  It encompasses the meaning of capitalism, the promise of socialism, the ideas for a programme of transformational politics and a strategy for how to achieve them.  In the search for hope this provides just the kind of map we need.   

Please note no links in this review are to Amazon. If buying from corporate tax dodgers can be avoided, please do so.  

Mark Perryman is a member of Lewes CLP. His latest book Corbynism from Below is available from here