Book Review from the November 2011 issue of the Socialist Standard
Speak for Britain! A New History of the Labour Party. By Martin Pugh (Vintage) £9.99.
It’s not often that an entry in a book’s index gives rise to a chuckle, but that’s the case here. Under ‘Thatcher, Margaret’, the index lists a few page references and then states, ‘see also Blair, Tony’.
In fact Pugh clearly has it in for Blair, regarding him as an essentially Conservative figure. ‘When he announced his intention of becoming an MP friends laughed and asked: “Really, which party?”’. He was easily impressed by strong personalities, not just Thatcher but also George W Bush and Rupert Murdoch. Blair was also keen to ingratiate himself with others, and in 1982 he wrote to the then Labour leader, Michael Foot, saying, ‘I came to Socialism through Marxism’ (not that he has a clue about either).
Pugh has a point when he says that it is not really so odd for Labour to have been led by a Conservative, for ex-Tories had previously played a prominent role in the Party (such as Clement Attlee and Stafford Cripps). Tories and Labour agreed originally on issues such as protectionism, empire and alcohol, where Liberals took a different view. An internal Labour report of 1955 accepted ‘the absence of clearly defined differences between the parties’.
Unfortunately, Pugh gives too much emphasis to questions of leadership, claiming that the Labour Party has tended to choose the wrong leaders and then retain them for far too long. He uses the word ‘socialism’ a lot but never defines it, though he is no doubt correct in saying that Clause IV of the Labour constitution, with its commitment to nationalisation, was of largely symbolic value. Even Harold Wilson opposed its removal when Hugh Gaitskell tried to do away with it in 1959, though of course Blair achieved this in 1995.
Overall, Pugh gives a good factual picture of the Labour Party’s history, including its backing for wars and the British Empire, and its preparedness to undermine strikes. It is odd, however, that he says virtually nothing about the actual formation of the Labour Party out of the Labour Representation Committee in 1906.