Divergent views on the Labour Party

Issue: 162

Donny Gluckstein

A review of David Morgan (ed), The Labour Party in Historical Perspective (Socialist History Society, 2018), £6

This collection of essays ranges over a vast field of Labour Party history. This is both a strength and a weakness. Though it offers some fascinating insights into particular areas, the collection fails to cohere, something exacerbated by the divergence of its contributors’ politics, which range from Labour to the Communist Party and Socialist Workers Party.

Willie Thompson’s opening survey of Labour’s development offers an overall critique. It concludes that today “social democratic solutions, while they may be tried as the only accessible ones in the circumstances, will not prove to be adequate. That is something which the Labour Party will have to discover” (p11). Agreed.

Graham Taylor’s chapter on “The Origins of Jeremy Corbyn” is the most relevant to contemporary politics. It suggests that Labour has had “a drift to the right interrupted by a sudden left-wing correction” on seven occasions—1892, 1914, 1932, 1960, 1972, 1980 and 2015. Jeremy Corbyn is just the latest manifestation of the “corrections”. Taylor links corrections to leaders with “ethical” authority like Keir Hardie, George Lansbury, Nye Bevan and Tony Benn. This is unconvincing. The ebb and flow of class struggle and class confidence and the balance between Westminster politics and the situation in society are far more important than individual leaders. Furthermore, the term “correction” is problematic as (probably unintentionally) it implies a true path that the party accidentally deviates from. Taylor notes that “none of the left-wing prophets became a prime minister” (p24), yet he thinks: “It is not beyond possibility that one day some such correction may achieve Corbyn’s dream of a socialist society” (p25). Later chapters give local studies of Labour in West Yorkshire, Liverpool and Oxford.

Dave Lyddon’s chapter: “The Labour Party and the Law on Strikes” begins with the 1901 Taff Vale judgement which threatened union funds. Unions turned to backing the weak Labour Representation Committee so that, transformed into a real party, it could neutralise the judgement in parliament. Lyddon carefully traces Labour’s transition from opposing state interference in union matters to proposing it (for example with Barbara Castle’s white paper In Place of Strife) and refusing to change Tory anti-union laws. His final sentence is moot: “Can Labour, when next in government, reduce the intervention of the courts, start to restore trade unions’ freedom to strike and, in the process, return to one of its founding purposes?” (p86).

“The Forgotten Career of Leonard Woolf” ends the book. Better known as the husband of Virginia, Woolf advised Labour on international affairs. Light is shed on the nature of Labour’s political theory. While indirect working class influence provided some material grounding for Labour’s reformism, the role of the British state on the world stage was left to figures like Woolf, who drew upon an eclectic mix of sources. He maintained an “abiding faith in the new liberalism that had emerged as a progressive alternative to the older laissez-faire liberalism” and was “a champion of freedom of speech, freedom of thought, of common-sense and reason” (p91).

Donny Gluckstein is a member of the SWP in Edinburgh and a trade union activist in the EIS. He is one of the authors of The Labour Party: A Marxist History (3rd edition, 2019, Bookmarks).