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Response to Review no. 189

Geoffrey Foote’s review of Labour’s First Century distorts the book’s aims and misrepresents its contents. The reason is clear enough. Foote concludes his review by noting his own ‘lack of political sympathy with the book’s aims’. The self-styled Bennite champion of ‘Old Labour’ reconstructs Labour’s First Century as a defence and celebration of New Labour’s blind commitment to electoral success, so that he can express his distaste for a changing political and scholarly world. He boldly states that this ‘New Labour’ work is orchestrated by some ‘younger historians’ (Tiratsoo, Fielding, Lawrence and Tanner) whose use of ‘deconstructionist’ language is part of the iconic mindset of a ‘new generation’ of scholars. The ‘friends of Nick Tiratsoo’ (who are made to sound like a criminal organisation) are aided and abetted by some ‘solid’ but less exciting – because less ideological – contributions (‘solid’ being the term Foote applies to chapters by Jose Harris, Miles Taylor, Jim Tomlinson and Pat Thane).

In reality, and as other reviews indicate, Labour’s First Century is an unusually cohesive edited collection, a balanced thematic assessment of a century of Labour’s history, containing work by a team of established authorities, many new insights and a significant amount of new research. Whilst the contributions certainly have much in common, the book reflects neither the views of New Labour political figures on the party’s past, nor a single ‘ideological’ or conceptual viewpoint. To see it as such derides a serious academic assessment of the party’s first century, and belittles the effort made by everyone concerned. The book contains fresh assessments of ‘classic’ historiographical concerns (such as Labour policy on the economy and welfare, or accounts of its popular support and relations with the trade unions). It also contains chapters on less familiar themes, such as British Labour seen in comparative perspective (Stefan Berger), Labour and gender (Martin Francis), Labour and the constitution (Miles Taylor) and Jon Lawrence on the party’s own mobilising myths. Foote pays no attention to this unusual feature of the collection – indeed, Berger’s piece does not even get a mention. Nor does he stop here. Fielding’s challenging and original account of New Labour’s construction of the past and of its ideological origins has also been much praised in other reviews. It notes the way that New Labour has positioned itself ideologically, arguing that this reflects both ideological continuities and a regard for the political needs of the moment. Foote attacks this piece for not defining the ideological content of strands within the Labour party. Yet Harris’ highly original chapter on the ideological content of strands within the Labour party is attacked for not showing how ideology was structured by the political context! It would seem that anyone who asserts there is a moderate Labour ideological tradition worthy of study is damned whatever approach they adopt. Serious academic work merits serious academic criticism, not a political diatribe.

Foote’s own politics and predilections seem to prevent him seeing or accepting as reasonable what is written on the page. A few examples of his numerous misinterpretations and curious reasoning will have to suffice. Tanner’s carefully researched chapter on the party’s membership is seen as less reliable that Foote’s own experiences of politics in Barrow Labour party and the Oxford University Labour Club. Only such individual testimony, he argues, can produce information on the arguments at ward and constituency level that were the meet and drink of Labour politics (ignoring the fact that works based on oral testimony are cited, whilst examples of such conflicts are given on pages 280 and 298 of the book by both Tanner and Tiratsoo, using precisely the sources that Foote derides). Likewise, Reid is said to claim that ‘Clause 4 was unimportant’, when he in fact claimed that its significance for the nature of the party in 1918 was less important than the reality of trade union power. Taylor is said to argue that New Labour’s attitude to constitutional reform is limited by the fact that it has played a major part in constructing that constitution. Yet he makes no explain the party’s attitude in such terms. Indeed such an analysis would be absurd given that constitutional reform (notably in Wales and Scotland) has been a feature of Blair’s government, despite Labour’s past role in constructing the old Westminster system and Labour’s historic support for centralised governance. Francis is apparently blinded to the fact that men and women within the Labour party did not necessarily identify themselves in terms of gender – blinded apparently by his commitment to feminist thinking. In fact such issues are discussed at length (e.g. pp. 199-206). We could continue, but will necessarily focus more on Foote’s depiction of the book and its contents than on the individually irritating aspects of his comments.

Foote’s main grouse is that Labour’s First Century follows a ‘New Labour’ agenda (whatever that might be). Tanner (for example) apparently ‘hails the denial of participation to the Left’ following the reform of party machinery by party leaders since Kinnock in a manner that ‘is so characteristic of New Labour’. In fact Tanner’s chapter argues that the exclusion of most party members from internal discussion throughout the party’s history has been a repeated managerial mistake that has unnecessarily alienated a section of the constituency left. He criticises Labour and New Labour party managers for sustaining a culture of exclusion. True, Tanner has the temerity to suggest that at points in Labour’s history – notably in London and Liverpool during the 1980s – a small and unrepresentative section of the left denied participation to Labour members and supported an undemocratic internal party structure. But a sharp line is drawn between such people and the bulk of Labour’s activists (a point he has reinforced elsewhere). 1

Foote has no interest in observing continuities between New Labour and Labour in the past, seeking to argue that New Labour is a break from all genuine Labour traditions. To this end he attacks Fielding, Harris, Howe and Tomlinson for noting continuities between the policies of Blair and his predecessors, and offers a rare pat on the back to Thane for expressing a ‘real concern with the shift in attitude to welfare and poverty expressed by New Labour’. In fact Thane expresses a far more positive view on New Labour policy than Foote indicates, arguing that in the period from 1997 to 1999 there was ‘substance behind the soundbites’. She also notes that New Labour’s preference for work over welfare as a means of addressing poverty is as old as the party itself.

There is no disparity between Thane’s chapter and those attacked by Foote. All offer a measured analysis of continuities and changes, not just between ‘New’ and ‘Old’ Labour, but across a century of Labour’s history. None are uncritical of New Labour. However, as outlined in the editor’s introduction, all evaluate Labour not against the standards of people who wanted it to be a different type of party, but ‘against its own aims and values, and against what might reasonably have been achieved’. Rather than castigate Labour for its failure to be a radical socialist force, as Foote and others have done in the past, individual chapters look at the party’s aims and the constraining circumstances before reaching their conclusions. This naturally leads to a less polemic and often more positive assessment, both of Labour in the past and in the present. It is this which Foote chooses to construct as New Labour loyalism.

Foote does not comment on this clearly stated common aim and strategy; he just ignores it. Instead we are given an alternative version of the book’s approach. Foote tells us that within the collection, the ‘Friends of Nick Tiratsoo’ provide intellectually exciting (because political and theoretical) but ultimately misguided accounts. The remaining essays ‘are interesting and informative, but lack the intellectual thrust of any coherent intellectual project’. In fact this division is a nonsense. The ‘Friends of Nick Tiratsoo’ are an unlikely school (and although flattered, have to admit that they cannot really be called a ‘younger generation’ of historians). Nor are they united by a single ‘deconstructionist’ language that separates them from the other contributors to the volume. Lawrence’s work is not ‘deconstructionist’ at all according to James Vernon’s recent comments in Reviews in History.2 Lawrence draws a clear line between his own work and Tanner’s, whilst Tanner places his own work within a framework as much influenced by political science as postmodernism.3 The idea that this ‘school’ has a different agenda from others in the book is also odd. Lawrence has collaborated on several theoretical works with Miles Taylor (who Foote places in his ‘solid’ but less theoretically coherent category).4 Tiratsoo and Fielding, theoretically aware but frequently critical of postmodernism, are lumped in with Lawrence and Tanner, but separated from Tiratsoo’s longstanding collaborator and co-author, Jim Tomlinson, by Foote’s attempt to see this book as the product of a new generation, a new historical approach and a new political commitment.5 The individual politics and intellectual motivations of the many disparate contributors vary considerably. Whilst there is a good deal of shared and consistent argument between the essays, this was the product of careful planning, discussion and a shared distaste for the polemically nonsensical view of Labour politics developed by people like Geoffrey Foote.

Dr Foote’s evaluation of the overall tone of Labour’s First Century is confused and confusing. He praises the book for not repeating the ‘simplified hurrah-patriotism’ of books written for the party’s fiftieth centenary. Yet he also bemoans the fact that unlike those studies, we have nothing to celebrate and ‘merely praise the fact that Labour is in touch with public opinion to the extent that it wins elections’. Of course, the book does nothing of the sort. It is Dr Foote who sees Labour at the end of the century as a party in moral decline, abandoning its roots in the pursuit of electoral success. By contrast, Labour’s First Century finds much to praise both in Labour’s past and in its present. Electoral success is hardly singled out as the first aim of the party. The book certainly and rightly seeks to explain the party’s electoral fortunes, especially in the chapter by Nick Tiratsoo. In this respect Tiratsoo (like Tanner) it is deeply critical of the party’s past errors and institutional and ideological weaknesses. Tiratsoo seeks to explain why the party has never gained two consecutive and substantial electoral majorities, and why no party until Blair’s looked capable of doing this. He recognises the significance of changes under Blair, their uniqueness within Labour’s history, and the fact that hitherto the party had often been out of step with, and even dismissive of, the interests of the broader electorate. Realities are realities. Historians (and sensible political animals) have to face them. Labour’s First Century did just that. Now that Blair has won his historic second full term, but with a strikingly low level of popular support and enthusiasm, the need to understand the strengths and weaknesses of New Labour’s political appeal is more apparent than ever. The approach adopted in Labour’s First Century is far more likely to produce this than the ostrich-like denial practised by Dr Foote.

Despite Foote’s comments, Labour’s First Century is no celebration of pragmatism or of New Labour. It contains a critical but measured celebration of Labour’s achievements, not just in the last few years but across the whole of the party’s history. In that respect it consistently identifies and evaluates a moderate tradition, and a tradition of achievement – assessed against its own criteria. This book identifies (p.5) ‘thinkers and leaders’ who were ‘more thoughtful, more intellectually coherent and consistent, more dedicated’ that they are often portrayed. Likewise, the ‘party’s policies are shown to be more rational, more practical, more reasonable and sometimes more effective’. But the book does not suggest that virtue has been found only amongst party moderates. As the introduction to Labour’s First Century states, Labour party members have generally been ‘engaged in public service because of a cause in which they believe and for little tangible reward . . . The desire for socialist change has united more than it has divided; it has produced a record which contains more success than failure, including policies which have vastly improved the lot of those Labour exists to serve.’ Of course, Geoffrey Foote is entitled to hold a different opinion. However, using Labour’s First Century as a means to berate new trends in history and politics, and resorting to both sloppy reasoning and distortion of the text in the process, is no way to conduct a necessary debate over the history or current politics of the Labour party.

Notes

1. Duncan Tanner, ‘Facing the New Challenge: Labour and politics 1970-2000’, in D. Tanner, C Williams and D Hopkin (eds.), The Labour party in Wales 1900-2000 (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2000), 285.

2. James Vernon, review of Jon Lawrence, Speaking for the People (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), Reviews in History.

3. Jon Lawrence, ‘The complexities of English Progressivism: Wolverhampton politics in the early twentieth century’, Midland History 24 (1999) 147-66; Duncan Tanner, Political change and the Labour party 1900-18 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), 10-16.

4. For example, Jon Lawrence and Miles Taylor, ‘The poverty of protest: Gareth Stedman Jones and the politics of language: a reply’, Social History 18 (1993), 1-15.

5. For example, Nick Tiratsoo and James Tomlinson, Industrial efficiency and state intervention: Labour 1939-51 (London: Routledge, 1993); The Conservatives and industrial efficiency 1951-64: thirteen wasted years? (London: Routledge, 1998).