Revising Labour’s history

Mike Phipps reviews Rethinking Labour’s Past, edited by Nathan Yeowell, published by Bloomsbury

“Who controls the past controls the future,” George Orwell famously said in his dystopian novel 1984. That may have something to do with the purpose of this collection of often disappointing essays about the Labour Party.

There is a clear need on the part of the faction currently dominating Labour to reclaim the Party’s past in a way that marginalises the left. From this standpoint, the unassailable achievements of the Attlee government in particular need to be recontextualised.

This leads to some quite startling assertions. Ken Loach, for example, who made the documentary The Spirit of 45, which tried to capture the mood for radical change in the immediate post-war period, is bizarrely accused of “playing down his hard-line politics so the movie might appeal to as wide an audience on the left s possible” and of “manipulation”, resulting in “a view of 1945 seen through the prism of visceral far-left sentiment.” Steven Fielding’s contribution to this collection is keen to bury any idea of continuity between Attlee’s achievements and the popular policies of the Corbyn project, overemphasising Attlee’s “conventional patriotism” as the key to his success.

Harold Wilson also gets a makeover in Glen O’Hara’s chapter, for legislation that laid “the foundation stones of a more civilized society on crime and justice, race relations and equal pay.” Yet notwithstanding these liberal achievements, it remains difficult to see Wilson as anything other than a treacherous opportunist who caved into capital and attacked the trade unions at the first whiff of a crisis. O’Hara’s search for a more positive gloss can’t explain Labour’s sudden electoral defeat in 1970 – against all expectations, yet a sign of how much support it had lost among its traditional base.

Even more puzzling is the reassessment of Neil Kinnock by Jonathan Davies and Rohan McWilliam. Brushing aside the view that Kinnock was an intellectual lightweight and electoral failure who capitalised on his left wing reputation to move the Party rightwards, the authors hail the longest serving Leader of the Opposition of the 20th century for his ‘success’ in transforming the Labour Party and challenging “the left’s suspicion of affluence”.

This is not a picture many Labour Party socialists will recognise, even if, from a Blairite perspective, Kinnock’s conception of an “enabling state” was pretty indistinguishable from the “market state” of Third Way neorevisionism. Not only should we not see these innovations as a sign of success: the fact that Kinnock’s conceptual updates did not resonate with voters may also suggest that too much significance has been attached to Blair’s ‘modernisation’ as a factor in his own electoral victories.

There are some interesting chapters here, however, including Robin Bunce and Samara Linton’s on the struggle for Black Sections in the Party against the obdurate opposition of the leadership of Neil Kinnock and his Deputy Roy Hattersley.

Another is Colm Murphy’s reassessment of Labour’s 1983 election manifesto, which looks beyond Labour’s disastrous campaign, to explore the intellectual creativity behind the Alternative Economic Strategy. In 1983, as today, “Labour’s right was intellectually marginal.”

But a chapter on Foreign Aid and Labour’s ‘ethical identity’, by Charlotte Lydia Riley, overlooks some important inconvenient issues. In particular it glosses over the way the Department for International Development’s priorities were distorted by Tony Blair’s need for some PR success over the reconstruction of Iraq following the catastrophic 2003 invasion.

No attempt to revise Labour’s history could be complete without a chapter on Blair himself. The submission here by Andrew Hindmoor and Karl Pike is subtle: it agrees with the widespread condemnation Blair faced over Iraq, but mainly as a way of sidestepping any evaluation of the enormity of the crime. Then having established that they are not uncritical supporters, they go on to give Blair a favourable report on a range of contested domestic policies, in particular his privatisation of core services, while endorsing his misleading rhetoric, for example about “choice” in the NHS.

Overall, this is a problematic collection of essays. Many contributors still seem mesmerised by the glitter of Blair’s rise but cannot really explain their dissatisfaction with the performance of New Labour in office.

Frontbencher Nick Thomas-Symond’s Conclusion that “All three, post-war election-winning Labour leaders captured the zeitgeist of their age” ultimately tells us nothing. The reality is more complex.

Labour’s 1983 defeat, for example, coincided with a fall in support for Thatcher and the emergence of the SDP-Liberal Alliance. But nine years on, that Alliance was no longer a threat, yet after a decade of supposed modernisation, Neil Kinnock could not stop the Tories from getting a record vote in the 1992 election.

Meanwhile Jeremy Corbyn’s huge surge in public popularity and Labour’s greatly increased vote in 2017 are too awkward to mention. It’s far easier to ignore this and write off his leadership with the platitudinous observation that radical policies cannot win. That leaves us waiting for someone who can “capture the zeitgeist”, at least in their rhetoric, if nothing else. It’s hardly a strategy.

Mike Phipps’ book For the Many: Preparing Labour for Power was published by OR Books in 2018. His new book Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow: The Labour Party after Jeremy Corbyn (OR Books, 2022) can be ordered here.

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