House party

<strong>Men Who Made Labour</strong>

Edited by Alan Haworth and Dianne Hayter <em>Routledge, 273pp

In February 1906, 29 men walked into the House of Commons committee room 12. It was the first meeting of the Parliamentary Labour Party, but you don't get a sense, reading the minutes, that these MPs felt they were marching with history. Each was more concerned with getting his way on the immediate practical decisions - who was to lead them, how would they operate?

It must have seemed a good idea for the Labour Party to celebrate its centenary by publishing a collection of short biographies of these men, each written by the Labour MP now in the seat they occupied. But politicians do not always make good writers or reliable historians. And because these seats are largely Labour strongholds, they tend to be held by senior members of the party. Patricia Hewitt, Charles Clarke, Jack Straw and Ruth Kelly are all painfully aware that their every word may be turned against them, which does not encourage lively and interesting writing.

Hewitt has been the bravest, mounting a sturdy defence of Ramsay MacDonald, who as prime minister in 1931 deserted and almost destroyed the party he had helped to create. It's brave because she is writing at a time when the parallel between MacDonald and Tony Blair is becoming increasingly hard to ignore. Hewitt is right to say that, had MacDonald died in the 1920s, his reputation today would be high; and right to point to his electoral pact with the Liberal chief whip Herbert Gladstone as the moment that made the breakthrough possible. I think she is wrong to call MacDonald's 1931 desertion "a mistake" and to suggest that he did it only out of duty to the king, who asked him to form a national government: there is plenty of evidence that, throughout 1930 and 1931, MacDonald was becoming discontented with the constraints of being a Labour prime minister, and longed to lead a "government of all the talents". She also becomes mealy-mouthed when facing what Diane Abbott has called the "Ramsay MacBlair" argument. "Wilson, Callaghan, Kinnock and Blair have all been accused by their critics of being 'the new MacDonald'," she writes blandly. The first three no doubt faced a few sneers along these lines, but it is only in the case of Blair that the argument has carried force.

One of the best contributions is Tony Lloyd's profile of the now unjustly forgotten J R Clynes. It was only by a whisker that Clynes was defeated by MacDonald for the party leadership in 1922. Some of his supporters failed to make the vote - there is a story that they were in a taxi whose driver lost his way. A majority of five gave the leadership - and hence, two years later, the keys to 10 Downing Street - to MacDonald. Ironically, the crucial factor in the surprise result was the support given to MacDonald by the left. Soon they were bitterly regretting that vote, and fought MacDonald unremittingly during Labour's 1929-31 government. They would have been a lot happier under Clynes, whose definition of Labour's role Lloyd quotes: "To champion oppressed humanity . . . and to teach them that gold cannot be eaten or drunk, or even turned into happiness."

Clynes, like all the 29, was a poor man of the working class. Reading this book, you can hardly fail to be struck by the difference between the social profile of the first PLP and that of today's. In an appendix, the book reminds us of the short 1906 Labour manifesto: "The House of Commons is supposed to be the people's House, and yet the people are not there." It is arguable whether they are there today, 100 years on.

This article first appeared in the 19 June 2006 issue of the New Statesman, Can America go green?