Speak for Britain! A New History of the Labour Party

With Labour hauling itself back from the brink of electoral catastrophe, Martin Pugh's history of the party could hardly have been more timely. There are no fireworks in his Speak for Britain! - the turmoil and heartache that have marked Labour's astonishing progress from marginal sect to governing party barely appear. Yet there are riches beneath the surface.

Pugh's treatment of Labour's early years makes nonsense of what the late historian Denis Brogan once called the "mandate of heaven" theory of Labour history - the assumption that Labour was bound, sooner or later, to displace the Liberals as the main anti-Conservative party in the state. He shows that its achievement was far from inevitable: that character and contingency had more to do with it than fate. Had Lloyd George not split the Liberal Party in 1916, or seemed bent on war with Turkey in 1922, Labour's breakthrough might have been indefinitely postponed. But for Herbert Morrison's organising ability, the London Labour Party might never have become a formidable election-winning machine; but for Ramsay MacDonald's combination of soaring oratory and tactical skill, he might not have displaced Lloyd George as "the man of the people" when opinion turned against the postwar coalition.

More intriguingly, Pugh also shows that, in any case, Labour was not just the heir of liberalism and the Liberal Party. It also drew on a long line of working-class Toryism: a rollicking, rambunctious, fiercely patriotic and earthy tradition, at odds both with the preachy nonconformist conscience that saturated the culture of provincial liberalism and with the patronising, "we-know-best" preconceptions of metropolitan intellectuals. Working-class Tories were against the "lily-livered Methodists" excoriated by the arch-Tory socialist Robert Blatchford, whose Merrie England (1893) was perhaps the single most effective work of socialist propaganda published in Britain before the First World War. They were for cakes and ale, and they could see no reason why the working man should not bet on the horses or enjoy his pint.

“Church, beer, Tory," respectable Liberals and self-improving socialists used to sneer. Pugh shows that there has also been a submerged strand of "church, beer, Labour" (though without much of the first) in the political culture of the British working class - and that, without it, Labour would have found it even harder than it did to be anything more than an appendage and client of the Liberal Party. The railwaymen's leader J H Thomas, with his trademark cigar and uninhibited enjoyment of the good things in life, was as potent a symbol of the early Labour movement as the lantern-jawed hero of Red Clydeside, James Maxton, or the teetotal lay preacher Arthur Henderson. In more recent times, George Brown, David Blunkett and John Reid have come from the Thomas stable. Even Ernest Bevin, the greatest trade-union leader in British history, had at least a touch of working-class Toryism about him, not least in his astonishing consumption of alcohol.

Another great strength of Pugh's account is his focus on the low politics of constituency organisation, trade-union affiliation and rank-and-file activity that helps to explain the extraordinarily variegated character of the party on the ground. Labour was never the party of the working class - not, at any rate, if the working class is seen as the proletariat of Marx's imagination. Not surprisingly: in Marxist terms, Britain has never had a working class. It has had a number of different working classes, spawned by the sporadic and unsystematic evolution of its industries.

As a result, the Labour movement was an extraordinary patchwork quilt, defying logic and making nonsense of tidy generalisations. Moderation in some places went hand in hand with militancy in others. Generous idealism coexisted with narrow sectionalism. Some local parties were remarkably active and politically adventurous. Others were sunk in parochial torpor. The name "Labour Party" conjured up an image of working-class solidarity and organisational efficiency. Image and reality could not have been further apart. The working classes were never solidly Labour. Had they been, the Conservatives would never have won an election after the suffrage was extended in 1918. And though the Labour machine was quite impressive in some places, it barely existed in others. Just as the Holy Roman Empire was neither holy nor Roman, nor even an empire, the Labour Party was neither truly labour-based nor truly a party.

Pugh is less comfortable with doctrines and values, but his account sheds unexpected light on the confusions and paradoxes that have
always marked them. He rightly insists that the notorious Clause Four of Labour's 1918 constitution, committing it to "common ownership" of the means of production, was more a symbol of its new-found determination to break with its Lib-Lab past than a signpost to future practice. Clause Four was a brilliant fudge - the brainchild of that master fudger, Sidney Webb. It meant everything or nothing, according to taste. To J H Thomas, it meant nothing. To Ramsay MacDonald, it meant a kind of nirvana, located in a far-distant future. To Herbert Morrison, it meant a quiverful of publicly owned corporations, managed and operated as if they were privately owned. To the authors of the party's 1945 election manifesto, Let Us Face the Future, it meant a stepping stone to a planned economy. To Ernest Bevin, in at least some of his moods, it meant worker participation in the running of industry. To almost all Labour people, it meant an economy driven by the public interest instead of by private greed.
Behind these ambiguities lay a deeper one.

To most of its votaries, socialism was not primarily a system of economics. It was an ideal, an ethic, a set of values; central to it was the third term in the revolutionary triad liberté, égalité, fraternité. But how widely did brotherhood extend? How could the value of fraternity, or community, or solidarity, be realised in a world where trade unions had to screw the highest price they could get for their members' labour power out of a distinctly unfraternal market, and where the norms of community and solidarity had little purchase?

At first, these ambiguities and confusions scarcely mattered. Labour formed only two governments between the wars, neither of which had a majority. Nasty questions about the meaning of its socialist ethic and its commitment to public ownership did not arise.
But after 1945 they forced themselves on to the agenda of practical politics, with disconcerting results. Labour fought the 1945 election on
the double ticket of extensive nationalisation and economic planning. The party honoured its commitment to nationalisation, but trade-union opposition to a long-term wages policy made economic planning unfeasible. In another masterly exercise in fudging, the government redefined planning to mean Keynesian economic management.

Solidarity, it turned out, had rather narrow limits. The unions were willing to accept a temporary wage freeze at a time of economic crisis, but they baulked at a permanent wages policy. With trivial variations, this was also the story of the Wilson government of the 1960s and
(in spades) the disastrous Wilson-Callaghan administration of the 1970s.

Against that background, the triumphs and traumas of the past 13 years fall into place. Devolution in Scotland and Wales, the innovative settlement of the Irish question and the Human Rights Act testify to the enduring vitality of Labour's liberal inheritance. The Iraq war, the infringements of civil liberties of the past ten years and the growth of the database state prove that the party's working-class Tory inheritance is also alive and well. But that is not quite the end of the story. During the bubble years of the late 1990s and early 2000s, greed triumphed over solidarity. Now that the bubble has burst, solidarity may be coming into its own again. If so, and if Labour can catch that tide, the dream encapsulated in Pugh's title may yet have a new lease of life

This article first appeared in the 05 April 2010 issue of the New Statesman, GOD