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Response to Review of A History of the Labour Party

I am extremely grateful for Christopher Massey’s very fair-minded and positive review of the fourth edition of my History of the British Labour Party. His own background, both as an able academic historian and as a local Labour councillor in north-eastern England, make him a voice well worth listening to, while the detail with which he sums up the book’s main arguments is truly impressive. I have, in particular, noted his points of correction around steel nationalisation, a subject where his expertise far outstrips my own. In relation to the move away from the left in the 1980s, I think we are both right, in a sense. He is correct to stress the shifts that took place in 1985–6; it clearly took the defeat of the Miners’ Strike and increasing mainstream Labour exasperation with the hard left (Militant, but not only Militant) to really crack things open in a big way. But I would still maintain that the change had started earlier, under the leadership of Foot.

Massey makes the point that it would have been interesting to have seen what the book would have looked like if it had been completed a few months later, following the May 2015 election defeat and the election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the party that September. Of course, there has to be some cut-off point; the publishers were keen to see the book out in time for the election, and I was happy enough to make it so. In the run-up to the election, I struggled to find anything other than the opinion polls that suggested that the election might not be a rerun of 1992: an outwardly hubristic, but internally fractious, Labour leadership unable to land punches on a government that was quietly delivering a degree of economic recovery, with the result a narrow but nonetheless sufficient parliamentary majority for the Conservatives. Because the polls seemed broadly uniformly directed towards a hung parliament, however, it still came as a shock when the fact, let alone the scale, of Labour’s defeat became apparent. In retrospect, as Tim Bale has shown, the party was a maelstrom of competing views under Ed Miliband, and never clearly articulated an alternative. It also grossly underestimated the political nous and cunning of its opponents, and especially the Chancellor, George Osborne. The paucity of the Labour leadership’s approach was never so clearly seen as in its dismal performance during the Scottish independence referendum, in the light of which Labour’s losses in that country in 2015 can hardly be deemed a surprise.

The election of Jeremy Corbyn was utterly unpredictable even in the immediate aftermath of defeat. The fourth edition of my book does not mention him once. Lest this be seen as some egregious omission on my part, he occurs only twice – both times as one of a list of left-wingers, rather than in his own right – in the autobiography of my fellow north-east Derbyshire native, Dennis Skinner, published in September 2014. However, it was not unpredictable that there would be something of a swing to the left: as Massey’s review shows, I outline similar movements in the early 1930s, 1950s, 1970s and 1980s. A long period in office which had ended in some disappointment, a lack of a clear forward direction from the centre-right, and (except in the early 1950s) a broad political context which could be characterised as what would once have been called a ‘crisis of capitalism’, all created fertile ground for such a movement. What was perhaps most interesting about 2015, though, was the fact that the Labour establishment had so marginalised dissent that, for many people, Corbyn’s arguments sounded like new ideas when they were freely articulated in the context of the leadership election: so we were presented with a slightly odd situation in which a person who had been an MP for 32 years could appear to be something of a breath of fresh air to the body politic. His election has aroused a frenzy of denunciation from some parts of the party, and in the wider media. Yet, at the same time, he has captured the imagination of many people, with a serious bounce in party membership as a consequence. He is, as things stand, a polarising politician. Time will tell whether he is able to start to unite the party under his leadership and around a series of policies which, while drawing broad support from the Labour party, will also have a more leftwards tinge than we have seen for more than three decades.

Labour’s future is unclear, as it was in 1932, 1952, or 1982. Each of those swings leftwards ended with the party’s traditional centre-tight hegemony reasserted. It is by no means unreasonable to expect that the same will happen this time. But if that is to be the case, the centre-right will need to move beyond its current rather tedious and repetitive denunciations of Corbyn – or of their particular bĂȘte noire, John McDonnell – to offer a credible plan for the recovery and exercise of power. That was what the likes of Hugh Dalton and Herbert Morrison did in the 1930s, what Hugh Gaitskell and Tony Crosland did in the 1950s, and what Neil Kinnock and Roy Hattersley did in the 1980s. With one seat in Scotland, and hardly any seats in southern England outside London, there is a lot to be done. It is by no means obvious to many people at the moment that the best way forward is to retrench to the positions that led to defeat in 2010 and 2015. Christopher Massey suggests that a fifth edition of my book should be contemplated, and naturally I share that view: but I wonder, at the same time, when we will have reached a position anything like stable enough for it to be written.