Ten Top Reads for Labour Party Conference

As Labour Conference gathers in Brighton, Mark Perryman picks his top ten books that seek to describe what the party’s future might look like.

Red Knight: Michael Ashcroft

Red Knight: The Unauthorised Biography of Sir Keir Starmer | Michael Ashcroft

Keir Starmer has been a Labour MP for a remarkably short time before becoming Labour leader, a shade under five years. Jeremy Corbyn 32 years, Gordon Brown 24 years, Tony Blair 11 years. Ed Miliband the same five years, but Ed had previously been a Labour Party special adviser and knew the Labour Party inside out.  Plus as Director of Public Prosecutions, for Keir any such involvement in Labour would have been precluded.

Experience doesn’t necessarily mean better, or worse, but the lack of much in the way of Keir’s Labour backstory makes for political biographer Michael Ashcroft very hard work. Despite that Red Knight: The Unauthorised Biography of Sir Keir Starmer contains more than most us know about Keir. Thrust into a position, his short period active in Labour let alone at Westminster, has left him dangerously exposed to simply going with the flow. ‘Captain Hindsight’ is an effective barb, or as it is turning out, worse. 

Always Red: Len McCluskey 

Always Red

Len McCluskey’s autobiography Always Red bids farewell as he stands down as a major figure in Labour politics since 2010 when he was first elected Unite General Secretary. Len was a power broker in internal party politics of the old school who became Jeremy Corbyn’s most significant ally. The first third of the book reveals the story of the man behind the machinations, a picture that hardly featured in the way he projected himself as a political operator, which is a shame. The remainder of the book is his insider’s account of Labour under Miliband, Corbyn and Starmer, an unashamedly partisan story of how a trade union operates inside Labour. It’s a mode of operating that his successor, Sharon Graham, won the General Secretary election on a platform of replacing. How that plays out will be crucial to the immediate future of Labour, and trade union, politics. 

Grace Blakeley: Futures of Socialism – The Pandemic and the Post-Corbyn Era  

There are few who doubt that December 12th 2019 was a serious setback Labour for Labour. It led directly to Keir becoming leader. That December defeat and the reasons for it will surely feature right across the conference debates. As a guide edited by Grace Blakeley, Futures of Socialism:  The Pandemic and the Post-Corbyn Era, is the definitive Corbynite interpretation of 2019 combining a belief that Corbynism must persist while not sparing any political blushes for what went wrong.

Leo Panitch and Colin Leys: Searching for Socialism – The Project of the Labour New Left from Benn to Corbyn

Many of the contributors to Grace’s book would cite the late Leo Panitch as their single most important intellectual influence. His final book, co-written with Colin Leys, Searching for Socialism : The Project of the Labour New Left from Benn to Corbyn,  will be a set text amongst a pessimistic left for  a considerable time to come.

Ed Miliband: Go Big – How to Fix the World

Go Big : How to Fix the World by Ed Miliband is a welcome attempt to fuse a kind of holistic anti-capitalism with the Parliamentary Socialism Ed’s father Ralph was such a renowned critic of.  An unworkable combination? Yes, too often it has proved to be, though the originality and cheerfulness of Ed’s ideas are a most welcome effort to convince it doesn’t have to be.

Cynthia Cruz: The Melancholia of Class – A Manifesto for the Working Class

The ‘Red Wall’ is typified by the shelled-out communities, particularly former coalfield communities, of a deindustrialised northern England, communities which in many ways represent a defeat for what they once were. Cynthia Cruz’s The Melancholia of Class : A Manifesto for the Working Class  makes a hugely original case for such defeat as a contest between class assimilation versus class annihilation.  The interesting part of her argument is that this contest serves to produce a working class culture that is fundamentally melancholic, which for Labour translates into lost votes.   

Amelia Horgan: Lost in Work – Escaping Capitalism

Increasingly writers on the left are problematising the inescapable centrality of work, not only to our everyday lives but the future society socialism promises. A manifesto for such a politics is provided by Amelia Horgan with Lost in Work: Escaping Capitalism.  Jobification, slackers, resistance, play – it’s a very different agenda to labouring under the illusion that employment is the best that a good society can aspire to provide.

David Renton – Labour’s Antisemitism Crisis: What the Left  Got Wrong and How to Learn from It

The definitive work for me on this most vexatious of subjects  is Labour’s Antisemitism Crisis: What the Left Got Wrong and How to Learn from It by the longstanding left wing writer on fascism and anti-fascism, David Renton.  Definitive in scope, politics and writing style this is a hugely impressive piece of writing and puts the Keir Starmer era Labour Party’s own pitiful efforts at antisemitism training to shame. Sadly the same regime in all likelihood will ban David from speaking at Labour meetings on the subject because he doesn’t appear on some approved list to do so.

In the face of all that, David’s book demands the widest possible platforms and readership. What a disappointment then it has come out from an academic publisher with their usual unimaginative cover and high price. No criticism of Routledge intended, well done for publishing it, but this book’s audience stretches way beyond academia. Hopefully a more attractively packaged and reasonably priced second edition will be on its way soonest: in the meantime readers should grab a copy as soon as they can.                 

Janine Booth – Unprecedented Rhymes: Verses versus the Virus

Janine Booth, poetic ranter with a socialist-feminist tendency, labour historian, RMT activist, member of Lewes CLP just down the road from Brighton, one of her CLP’s conference delegates, pioneer of the Spoaken Word night in the town. Her latest poetry collection Unprecedented Rhymes: Verses versus the Virus is bang up to date with Covid poems and poignant, the apparent absence of iambic pentameters notwithstanding.

Stuart Hall – The Hard Road to Renewal: Thatcherism and the Crisis of the Left 

***Top pick!***

This is my number one book to help read the 2021 Labour Conference and guide our ideological way through the debates at The World Transformed. It was first published in 1988 following Kinnock’s 1987 General Election defeat, the party’s third in succession. Since 2005, Labour has managed to chalk up four more, a sobering thought, and a half.  Now reissued Stuart Hall’s The Hard Road to Renewal: Thatcherism and the Crisis of the Left consists of his hugely original essays from these earlier years of defeat and non-recovery. Highly readable, the connections from past to present are uncanny. Readers who make them will be prepared for a road that may be hard but full of possibility. What better take home from Brighton ’21 could there possible be?

Note No links in this review are to Amazon, if you can avoid giving money to billionaire tax-dodgers who profit from their employees’ low wages and poor working conditions please do.

Mark Perryman’s latest book is Corbynism from Below   He is a member of Lewes CLP and co-founder of the self-styled ‘sporting outfitters of intellectual distinction’ aka Philosophy Football.

Main image: The Broadway book collection. Author: Diksha Mhaskar, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

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