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Two books that Labour's next leader must read

Labour must avoid suffering its own strange death. 

The one thing that the candidates for the Labour leadership are not short of is advice. And I can’t resist asking them to take one essential step.  That is to read two books.

The first is The Strange Death of Liberal England by George Dangerfield. The second is Austerity Britain (1945-51) by David Kynaston.

The first is eminently readable and a perceptive reflection on how a political party can detach itself from the political, economic, social and cultural trends on which its success was based.

The second, which is much longer and more impenetrable, has some unwelcome home truths for all of us who have a rosy view of what we have often portrayed as the solidarity and mutuality of the immediate post-war years. Taking Mass Observation as the source for the snapshot of genuine attitudes at the time, Kynaston is able to avoid the pitfalls of modern opinion pollsters by getting into the thoughtful diary entries of literally tens of thousands of men and women musing on what they really felt rather than what they thought others would want them to say.

Dangerfield’s book has a great deal to teach modern social democrats not just here but across the developed world, where, unfortunately, left of centre politics is very much on the back foot.

The Tories have traditionally been much better at understanding the need to adapt albeit reluctantly, to the changing world they face. Hence David Cameron’s drives to adjust the Tories’ approach to major social changes in attitude and lifestyle.

Of course, their underlying raison d'etre of facilitating the operation of the free market economy and the protection of those with wealth privilege and power has not deserted them. But a knowledge and a keen ability to track the fears and ambitions of those from whom they seek votes, has been in marked contrast of the failure to do so of Labour over its 115 year life.

As Kynaston shows and those with any grasp of history know, the “working class Tory” has been a phenomena from which our opponents have been able to draw support. It was after all the collapse of the semi-skilled and unskilled vote that lost Labour the 1951 election although they commanded a slightly greater percentage of the popular vote. The emerging middle class were the ones who stuck with and appreciated the most, the achievements of the 1945 Government and it has to be said, did not share the overwhelming hopelessness, weariness and resentment that so many erstwhile Labour supporters experienced in that difficult time.

Whilst getting on for three quarters of voters profile themselves as “middle class”, David Cameron’s drive for “blue collar conservatism” is not just a play for Ukip voters but a reflection of the historic appeal to those, who sometimes paternalistically, metropolitan Labour supporters have presumed will be instinctively on-board.

So, understanding your opponent, their basic appeal, and yes their ability from 2005 onwards to  recover from the devastating defeat of 1997 is a prerequisite not just to winning the Labour leadership but for winning a future general election.

Without a debate which reflects hard-headedly on the contradiction of what wins internally might lose externally, Labour would really be doomed to a prolonged period as an ever resentful and bewildered opposition.

Since the departure of Tony Blair as Prime Minister in 2007 I have attended far too many meetings in which a phenomenal achievement of winning three full terms in office for the Labour Party has been disparaged as though it were tantamount to betrayal. Whilst that underlying feeling still exists, there is a danger that the Labour Party will have to go through yet another defeat to get the message that was last seen and understood in the post 1992 period.

In my own efforts to initiate a debate back in 2011 I published pamphlet to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the book by my old tutor Sir Professor Bernard Crick entitled “In Defence of Politics” revisiting the themes in that book, I endeavoured to raise some of the issues which are becoming predominant in the debate about the future of Labour.

If we are to answer the question “what is Labour for?” it might be helpful to start a debate about the nature of our democracy. The engagement of men and women in the decisions that are taken locally and globally which affect their lives and how the Party might be a driving force, not only for a different style of politics but for a fundamental change in the way in which in a highly complex world is understood and therefore how our democracy should work.

Ironically the reversal of Labour’s previous stance of opposing a referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union offers an opportunity to engage in a meaningful debate about Britain’s place in a global economy where decisions are taken like it or not, way beyond the national Parliament in Westminster (never mind the devolved legislatures in Edinburgh or Cardiff). If the Labour Party’s contest for leader can be turned into a springboard for genuine engagement with the British people through the European Referendum and our response to global forces together with how to reinvigorate a new participative democracy, there is just a chance we might address the future rather than the past. Britain in 20 years’ time rather than Labour twenty years past and avoiding Austerity Britain in 2015 turning into the Strange Death of Labour Britain in 2020!


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Jeremy Corbyn challenged by Labour MPs to sack Ken Livingstone from defence review

Former mayor of London criticised at PLP meeting over comments on 7 July bombings. 

After Jeremy Corbyn's decision to give Labour MPs a free vote over air strikes in Syria, tonight's Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) meeting was less fractious than it could have been. But one grandee was still moved to declare that the "ferocity" of the attacks on the leader made it the most "uplifting" he had attended.

Margaret Beckett, the former foreign secretary, told the meeting: "We cannot unite the party if the leader's office is determined to divide us." Several MPs said afterwards that many of those who shared Corbyn's opposition to air strikes believed he had mishandled the process by appealing to MPs over the heads of the shadow cabinet and then to members. David Winnick declared that those who favoured military action faced a "shakedown" and deselection by Momentum activists. "It is completely unacceptable. They are a party within a party," he said of the Corbyn-aligned group. The "huge applause" for Hilary Benn, who favours intervention, far outweighed that for the leader, I'm told. 

There was also loud agreement when Jack Dromey condemned Ken Livingstone for blaming Tony Blair's invasion of Iraq for the 7 July 2005 bombings. Along with Angela Smith MP, Dromey demanded that Livingstone be sacked as the co-chair of Labour's defence review. Significantly, Benn said aftewards that he agreed with every word Dromey had said. Corbyn's office has previously said that it is up to the NEC, not the leader, whether the former London mayor holds the position. In reference to 7 July, an aide repeated Corbyn's statement that he preferred to "remember the brilliant words Ken used after 7/7". 

As on previous occasions, MPs complained that the leader failed to answer the questions that were put to him. A shadow minister told me that he "dodged" one on whether he believed the UK should end air strikes against Isis in Iraq. In reference to Syria, a Corbyn aide said afterwards that "There was significant support for the leader. There was a wide debate, with people speaking on both sides of the arguments." After David Cameron's decision to call a vote on air strikes for Wednesday, leaving only a day for debate, the number of Labour MPs backing intervention is likely to fall. One shadow minister told me that as few as 40-50 may back the government, though most expect the total to be closer to the original figure of 99. 

At the end of another remarkable day in Labour's history, a Corbyn aide concluded: "It was always going to be a bumpy ride when you have a leader who was elected by a large number outside parliament but whose support in the PLP is quite limited. There are a small number who find it hard to come to terms with that result."

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.