Sunday, 5 September 2010

Speak for Britain!

This is a history of the British Labour Party by historian Martin Pugh, and very readable it is.  It was published earlier this year, and like all histories it is of its time, ie now.  This is probably why so much here is so familiar.  I am sure there are many aspects of the Labour Party in its earlier years that would not be at all familiar now, but Pugh does not write about those.  He notes that Labour won elections in Bradford and West Ham in 1898 and promptly initiated a minimum wage and an eight-hour day for council employees, with two weeks' annual holiday.  "Such successes gave Labour a pronounced municipal character and demonstrated how municipal work could reinforce parliamentary campaigns" (p.53).  Quite.  And true for other parties too, notably the Tories.  When a party loses its councillors and thus its municipal base, not much is left.  This at least shows us that it has always been thus for Labour.

In the early years of ILP candidates "candidatures had too often been essentially propagandist, designed to ventilate the need for independent labour representation rather than trying to get candidates elected.". You only have to look at the current leadership election to see that not that much has changed there either.  In 1906 Labour got 29 MPs.  Winston Churchill, then a Liberal, denounced Labour, by whom he meant Labour Representation Commmittee candidates in Scotland at the time, as "an obscure gang of malignant wirepullers", which sounds like the Labour Group in Reading for most of its history, and many others of its ilk, and is surely a phrase, like so many of old Winston's, that would bear reuse.  There were some terrific candidates, now forgotten, like Victor Grayson, much followed by young mill girls during his election campaign, who seemed a hopeless case.  But he interrupted one of his speeches, to say "I've changed my hairstyle, ladies.  Do you like it?". He won by 153 votes.

Pugh makes much of the links between Labour and Conservatism in the early twentieth century, and refers to many candidates and MPs as "Tory-socialists", including Stafford Cripps, who joined Labour from the Tories.  He says, plausibly, that the First World War revived the links between Labour and Conservatism that "proved to be of crucial electoral importance in helping the party to adapt to the patriotism, monarchism and imperialism in the working-class communities" (p.124).  The Socialist National Defence Committee even suggested that in wartime conscientious objectors were comparable with blacklegs during a strike.  In November 1917 a group including four Tory MPs authored a document recognising the principle of state intervention in industries of national importance (p. 127).  In 1919 Labour made huge municipal gains in London, launching both Clem Attlee and Herbert Morrison on their political trajectories.  On Morrison he says "For him, Labour's route to government lay through discrediting propaganda about extremism by accepting convention and using the Establishment" (p.150).  Morrison's grandson Peter Mandelson's book 'The Third Man' reveals that the family was not close, that he did not learn political wisdom at his grandfather's knee, and that his mother, Morrison's daughter, learned of her father's death from a  newsflash.  And yet...

Pugh believes that Ramsay MacDonald was the right leader for the party at the time, and that he was convincing on foreign policy as Labour leaders have rarely been.  He doesn't think the defeat of 1924 had anything to do with the Zinoviev letter, or rather the Daily Mail story about it, but that the Tories were bound to win because they had dropped their support for protectionism.  He believes that MacDonald squeezed the Liberals so hard that they were third, and out of government, for the foreseeable future.  He was writing this book not long before the 2010 general election, and not even he, along with the rest of us, could foresee the Liberals in government, although with hindsight that, like so much in 
politics, seems inevitable.  He explodes some of the received wisdom in today's Labour circles, noting that "most Labour MPs gave little support to the General Strike and professed to regard it as doomed" (p. 206).  He reminds us that the General Strike lasted just NINE DAYS, although the miners were out for a further six months.  All this is immensely valuable stuff, and looks at Labour Party history through a different prism, and as such makes this book necessary.  However.  As we shall see.

The Labour Party was patriotic in wartime, as we have seen with the First, and this was true too in the Second.  The party moved out of the wartime coalition in October 1944 following a decision of the NEC that it would fight the coming general election alone.  The unexpected landslide followed, despite the fact that after the 1945 party conference Harold Laski wrote to Attlee, advising him of the "general view" that "the continuance of your leadership is a grave handicap to our hopes of victory in the coming election" to which Attlee replied "Thank you for your letter, contents of which have been noted." (p. 291).

Attlee was, Pugh says, probably rightly, never able to make people feel good about the government.  I can remember some of this, though Mr Churchill was back in No. 10 by the time I was born, from my own grandparents' conversations on what was for them a recent memory.

Attlee went to the country in October 1951, a bit early for a PM with a majority of six, allegedly because the King was about to tour Australia and New Zealand (for six months!) and Attlee thought there should not be a political crisis while he was gone (p. 314).  By this stage in the book I was beginning to get seriously annoyed with the author's, or his editor's, failure to use commas, sometimes to the extent of rendering some sentences and paragraphs downright confusing.  Anyway, the 1952 party conference was a bad-tempered affair, with the chairman, Sir Will Lawther, on the right of the party, trying to control the delegates by shouting "shut yer gob" at them.  How I wish I had been there.

In places the book makes references to long-ago events with a conscious effort to point up supposed parallels with today.  This, on Suez: "its long-term political impact was... limited.  The deep disillusionment it caused among many educated people gave momentum to the Liberal revival" (p. 398-9).  And in others it brings out statements and attitudes which are simply quaint - Richard Crossman, identified as on the left of the party, said in 1960 (p. 331) that Labour "should refuse in any way to come to terms with the affluent society", and Harold Wilson, responding to Gaitskell's wish to remove Clause 4, said "We were being asked to take Genesis out of the Bible". (p. 333).  Gaitskell died in January 1963.  When Harold Wilson got the leadership he said "I am running a Bolshevik revolution with a Tsarist shadow cabinet" - at least, that is what he told the left.

Some of the 1960s issues, in that decade of supposed freedom and social change, are worth remembering, as they are still close to us now.  In 1964 in Smethwick,, where Peter Griffiths, a working-class Tory (everyone called Griffiths is working class) beat Labour's posh bloke Patrick Gordon Walker, the Labour Club operated a colour bar.  I suppose it is significant that it felt it needed to.  And Wilson's support for the US, short of actually sending troops to Vietnam, he says alienated a generation of politically aware youth.  No it didn't actually.  The hippie ideals did that, sending hundreds of people if not thousands to live in tents in Wales.  In 1966 after all the Labour majority was 97.  By 1970, after In Place of Strife, ministers felt they had come through the worst.  Edwsard Heath, Pugh says, offered "a principled alternative to Wilsonian opportunism." (p.361).  That is not how I remember it.  Nor do I remember the three-day week, in December 1973, as devastating the country.  It was a damp squib, and largely unobserved in any case. Nor do I agree with Pugh that in the first 1974 election (the first general election I voted in) the voters disliked Labour but disliked Heath more.  I think they just didn't care about Labour, but they did actively dislike Heath.  Wilson kept it together despite everything at this time - probably not even Tony Blair could have done better.  Astoundingly, Pugh refers, in the same sentence (p. 367) to Wilson's "fourth election success" and to "Labour's problems unresolved".  We still see this nonsense today, as if winning elections was some kind of Bad Thing.  When Wilson resigned, a Yorkshire MP, canvassed in the Commons tea room on Roy Jenkins' behalf, said "Nay lad, we're all Labour here".

Pugh is interesting on the subject of selection and deselection of MPs.  Reg Prentice of course went Tory (having previously been supported by Robin Cook and Betty Boothroyd among others).  Sir Arthur Irvine, who had represented Liverpool Edge Hill for 30 years, was deselected and then died suddenly, causing a by-election and a Liberal victory, while the successor to Reg Prentice resigned because the local party in Newham thought him not left-wing enough and he did not want to be pushed.  It was in 1979 that party conference approved mandatory reselection of MPs, with a wave of deselections following, including such as Fred Mulley, a former cabinet minister, and Ben Ford, replaced in Bradford North by Pat Wall after "two years of intimidation and abuse" (p. 382).

And now we come to Tony Blair, who firsg emerges in this book as part of a "team of modernisers" around Neil Kinnock, first I heard of such a thing.  Tony, he says, was "lucky to win the nomination at Sedgefield" (p. 406).  Oh yeah?  He didn't work for it, lobby for it, get it stitched up, nothing like that?  Just lucky?  Sigh.  Pugh is not exactly la Blairite.  He doesn't have to be of course.  But, Lord save us "President Bush's war" (p. 421)?  He even insults the readers by saying the Tories would have won in 2005 if they had opposed the Iraq war.  How exactly?  The vast majority of Tory MPs supported and voted for the war (as I did, with some pride, in case you wer wondering) and would have been seen as turncoats, hypocrites or worse, but in any case, in 2005, after the war, and with Tony as prime minister, there was a Labour majority of 66.  Get out of that one.

So, an entertaining read most of the time, a readable gallop through Labour Party history, and completely wrong on present-day British politics.  7/10, could do better.



Augustus Carp said...

Sounds like an interesting book. Not sure that I agree with you about the Tories and local government, though....for most of the 20th century, Conservatism in the boroughs and shires was the natural state of things, and the elected representatives would have been Tory/Conservative, but in a fairly non-party political way. The Conservative Party establishment never gave local representation much thought ... but there again, they probably didn't need to. I would suggest that local government became much more important to the success of the Liberal Party/ Lib Dems, particularly after the "Community Politics" resolution at Eastbourne in 1970.

Sir Arthur Irvine was a former Liberal MP, and a great mate of Jo Grimond's, but the reason the Liberals won the Edge Hill by election was entirely because of their work in local government - in view of the aftermath of the Lib Lab Pact by that time, in any other by election they would have been destroyed.

Loved the Roy Jenkins anecdote - classic!

Anonymous said...

Then douse yourself in his favourite tipple, six bottles of claret at a go and shut up.

jane said...

now now

dreamingspire said...

Jane, why did you stand for parliament?

jane said...

same reason as most people do, because I thought I could make a difference in that role

Jonny said...

Interesting - I shall now read the book. Two little points: The transition from LRC to Independent Labour Party was more of a break for the movement than the book (by your report) seems to suggest. There were considerable (sorry for this) labour pains during the birth. Second, never forget that the Tory slogan at Smethwick was "If you want a nigger for a neighbour, vote Labour."

jane said...

yes, the book does not make much of that transition - and yes, I do remember the slogan,just was not very comfortable about reproducing it, especially as I am old enough to remember the approving remarks about it heard in (fairly) polite society - though I was not uncomfortable enough about it to block your comment.

Anonymous said...

And why is anyone ever a banker/teacher/actor/priest/council worker/IT technician???

Biggest reason for any job choice should be because the person is attracted to the nature of the work and thinks that their particular skill-set is suited to it.

Oh - and most people are also rather interested in the salary/working conditions etc. WHy should the job of
MP be any different? People do not usually say - why did you decide to work on an oil rig/ be an architect etc. The job of an MP is just that - a job. It is not a 'calling' or a 'vocation' and people who think it is usually do the job very badly. And yes, I can supply a list in response to that observation....