The Future of the Labour Party

Barbara Wootton

  • Healey’s Eye by Denis Healey
    Cape, 191 pp, £7.95, September 1980, ISBN 0 224 01793 4
  • The Role of the Trade Unions: The Granada Guildhall Lectures by James Prior, Tony Benn and Lionel Murray
    Granada, 96 pp, £1.00, August 1980, ISBN 0 586 05386 7
  • Rank and File by Hugh Jenkins
    Croom Helm, 179 pp, £9.95, September 1980, ISBN 0 7099 0331 6
  • The Tragedy of Labour by Stephen Haseler
    Blackwell, 249 pp, £7.95, September 1980, ISBN 0 631 11341 X
  • Labour into the Eighties edited by David Bell
    Croom Helm, 168 pp, £9.95, September 1980, ISBN 0 7099 0443 6

Here is a miscellany of books, written before the 1980 Party Conference by authors who have some concern about the future of the Labour Party. Healey’s is a magnificent picture-book strung on a slender autobiographical thread, which he describes as being ‘partly about photography, partly about the world and partly about me’. Although he has included some political anecdotes, the book makes no claim to be a serious discussion of his party’s future, but it does reveal attractive aspects of the author’s personality and interests probably not hitherto widely recognised.

In the Granada Lectures each contributor says just what one would expect him to say. Len Murray reviews the relations between the unions and governments (of either colour) and offers moderate but constructive proposals for the future, while James Prior, also in moderate terms, outlines his view of the role of the unions and describes those changes in the relevant law which are the objective of his own legislative programme. Tony Benn’s contribution is distinguished by its unique style, which reads more like notes for a lecture than the finished article. In a series of short, staccato paragraphs, not obviously linked to any developing theme, he outlines his (not wholly uncritical) view of the structure and functions of the unions in the modern world. I should have thought that this presentation would have been difficult to listen to, but apparently not so, as in thanking him from the chair, Sir Monty Finniston’s first comment was that the lecturer ‘had lived up to his reputation as a political orator’. But nowhere in this lecture does Benn give a hint of the revolutionary, anti-democratic policies which his enemies so readily ascribe to him. On the contrary, he expresses much concern about the threat to democracy inherent in the growth of bureaucracy, both inside the unions themselves and in the nationalised industries; and he concludes that, in the light of its own history, ‘its support for the Chartists and others’, the trade-union movement is not likely to seek the ‘overthrow of a government freely elected’.

Hugh Jenkins, who was Labour MP for Putney for fifteen years till the 1979 Election, has recorded interviews with twenty of his Labour constituents (among them Hugh Stephenson, Business Editor of the Times, and Labour’s recent convert, Peter Hain), adding a prologue and epilogue of his own. This original enterprise is certainly illuminating in its revelation of the reasons why a handful of ordinary people with varied experience belong to, and in many cases are active in, the Labour Party. Their objectives are generally modest and in no case are they revolutionary. A good deal of disillusion is expressed about past Labour governments, but present conflicts within the party do not seem to cause much worry. As one contributor puts it, some of us ‘are concerned to try to make capitalism work humanely’ and some are ‘determined to introduce the new socialist society’. Differences are matters of ‘time rather than of objective’: ‘We all want socialism some time, but some are more impatient than others.’

Stephen Haseler’s approach is very different: no grass-roots research for him. He was active in support of the Social Democratic Alliance, which, he claims, attracted considerable publicity in the mid-Seventies for its ‘robust condemnation of left-wing excesses’. But without offering any evidence, and in spite of the party’s 1918 Constitution or the 1945 Election (to which he makes only a passing reference), he insists that the mass of working-class voters are not, and never were, interested in socialism. In a vitriolic obituary he asserts that ‘hardly anyone who joins the party or works within it does so any longer as part of a commitment to a cause greater than their own individual interest.’ Nor is the Labour machine ‘untainted by corruption’: a ‘number of powerful élites and individuals feed off the Labour machine and in return lend it support’, while ‘at local level Labour becomes further detached from its roots amongst manual workers and their families.’ To all this the party’s right wing is said to respond with speeches of ‘bone-cracking dullness’ compounded with a ‘monumental complacency’ and an ‘incapacity to tap deep feelings within the community, to command authority, awe or respect’.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

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