A History of the Labour party that is consistently honest is hard to find. In my own articles on Labour history, I hoped to convey the need for a view of Labour history that is not only without sentiment, but truly honest about the party’s past; the guiding principle being that if it made for uncomfortable reading as a supporter of the Labour party, then the article had served its purpose.
Nathan Yeowell, director of Progressive Britain (formerly Progress) and the editor of Rethinking Labour’s Past, seemed to share this view stating in The Times, “It is not only anti-intellectual to cherry-pick bits of history to support your world view, it also serves to diminish Labour’s prospects of re-forging a governing project.”
Yeowell goes on to state that it is his book which will challenge the tendency within Labour history which constructs golden ages. Unfortunately, this promise of bold iconoclasm would go unfulfilled by Rethinking Labour’s Past.
The book attempts to present neither a linear or comprehensive history of the Labour party to be rethought, merely sixteen individual essays, split into five parts, written by academics (bookended by a foreword by Rachel Reeves and a conclusion by Nick Thomas-Symonds) on a range of subjects from New Labour to the Sheffield bus service of the 1980s.
For the first two parts, history is consistently restated rather than rethought. On subjects that are well documented and discussed among historians, the book fails on both of its own self-defined aims: rethink Labour’s history to understand and win power. What is the reader to understand that they didn’t before reading a chapter arguing Harold Wilson deserves a second look? Labour have had a thirteen year period of sustained government and twelve years in the political wilderness since the publication of Ben Pimlott’s biography of Wilson in 1993, which makes exactly the same point Glen O’Hara does in Rethinking.
It’s not that this book doesn’t challenge its reader, but that it hasn’t seemed to challenge many of its writers to produce work up to the task it sets up. While Steven Fielding has produced genuinely iconoclastic work on the 1945 Labour government, his chapter arguing that Attlee and Jeremy Corbyn have little in common was a wasted opportunity to engage with the present day party and how it engages with the myths of the 1945 government.
Nowhere is this lethargy of spirit more evident than in the book’s “reassessment” of Neil Kinnock, witten by Jonathan Davis and Rohan McWilliam. The chapter presents the exact version of history from The Wilderness Years documentaries as novel. The reader is to believe not only that Neil Kinnock saved the Labour party, but that no one else possibly could’ve done it – the writers go on to compare Kinnock to Mikhail Gorbachev as leaders who were “denied the chance to see through the consequences of their ideological rethinking”. To say this may be inflating Kinnock’s place in history would be an understatement.
The book’s problems go further than simply not doing what it says on the tin in terms of rethinking. At times it presents some sentimental versions of Labour history of its own. For example, in the chapter on Anthony Crosland in the seventies by Patrick Diamond, Diamond states that “Crosland was adamant that disquiet about immigration reflected pervasive insecurity and economic anxiety. If the leadership were perceived as indifferent to the adversities of working-class communities, an opening would be created for Powellite extremism.” The actual immigration policies of the Wilson and Callaghan governments, of which Crosland was a cabinet member and eventually Foreign Secretary, didn’t practice indifference, but outright racism and abject cruelty.
Nathan Yeowell understands this, in his piece for the Times he stated that he “Point[s] out to those who view the 1970s as social-democrat nirvana that 90 per cent of 18-year-olds did not go to university, and the Black and White Minstrel Show was watched by over 20 million people”. So it is frankly baffling that the context of the time in which Crosland held his views wasn’t made clear beyond the absurd suggestion of them being some sort of bulwark against “Powellite extremism”.
The biggest disappointment of the book however is not any specific gripe with the content, but the fact that its genuinely good essays are overshadowed by such unimaginative analysis. In one of the book’s better chapters, Robin Bunce and Samara Linton on Race and the left, present the argument that Neil Kinnock was a roadblock in the selection of Black and Asian parliamentary candidates for the 1987 general election. A few hundred pages later Kinnock is lauded for the election of these very MPs as a personal vindication of his leadership. These lapses do not come across as pluralistic disagreement, because for the most part, the chapters are entirely disconnected from one another and other chapters are rarely called back upon.
It is oversights such as this that are particularly harmful to the genuinely good chapters – mainly from part three, which contains essays ranging from the Sheffield bus service in the 1980s to Labour’s approach to foreign aid. In a more cohesive project, these chapters would’ve got the attention they deserve for offering fresh insights into little discussed areas of Labour history. Instead they languish in the shadow of the chapters which fail to take on their “big” subjects (i.e. Blair, Attlee, Wilson, New Labour etc).
One example of a chapter which lives up to billing is Colm Murphy’s What did the 1983 Manifesto ever do for us? In it he presents a cautionary tale about the pitfalls of the lazy factionalism which stereotypes the ideas of other traditions in the labour movement. Equally good and genuinely sagacious is Nick Garland’s (who has published work for The Social Review) chapter on the decline of community politics in postwar Britain.
Yeowell proudly hails from the same tradition as Wes Streeting who was quoted as saying Labour “should drag a sacred cow of our party to the town market place and slaughter it until we are up to our knees in blood”. I often found myself wanting to read the version of Labour history that would lay out what these sacred cows were and why they needed to be dispensed with, instead of a largely forgettable retelling of Labour history interspersed with some genuinely fascinating takes that were unfortunately too few and far between.
Rethinking doesn’t have to mean simply listing the Things We Forgot To Remember about a person or event in Labour history, but it should mean more than simply restating what is already known for no discernible reason. The book continually struggled to win the argument for the relevance of many of its subjects and in turn, the justification for its own existence. Rethinking the Labour party’s past is important, not because it offers a blueprint for victory – but because if the Labour party is to avoid the same mistakes of previous governments, an honest and unsentimental view of itself is essential. A collection of essays which take on and rethink Labour history, both big and small, is a great idea for a book. Unfortunately it remains that, a great idea.