Thanks to the Fels-Naptha Soap King

Miles Taylor

  • George Lansbury: At the Heart of Old Labour by John Shepherd
    Oxford, 407 pp, £35.00, September 2002, ISBN 0 19 820164 8

Hollesley Bay Prison in Suffolk is an unlikely spiritual home for English socialism. Britain’s most easterly lock-up, its seaside location, stud-farm and dairy have earned it the nickname ‘Holiday Bay’, and, given such luxury, it seems unsurprising that Jeffrey Archer is now seeing out his stretch there. Almost a hundred years ago, however, Hollesley Bay was one of the labour ‘colonies’ set up by the Poor Law guardians of Poplar in London’s East End, who sought to ease the Poor Law crisis in the capital by relocating unemployed men and their families to the coast. The inspiration behind the scheme was George Lansbury, the subject of John Shepherd’s biography, a book as meticulous as it is generous. It is nonetheless timely: just as the prison service has brown-filled this pleasant site, so, too, New Labour has trampled on the radical socialism of which Lansbury was one of the finest exponents. Despite having a historian for Chancellor and assorted chroniclers of the Party’s history on its back benches, the present Government is strangely nervous about its past. Lansbury – socialist mayor, militant Suffragette, republican, pacifist and sometime theosophist – is the sort of awkward elderly relative most families might prefer to forget; he has been the only Labour Party leader to lack a definitive biography. Shepherd has now provided one, and in it describes wonderfully well the world Old Labour made and New Labour has lost.

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[*] MacDonald’s Party: Labour Identities and Crisis 1922-31 (Oxford, 452 pp., £55, September 2002, 0 19 820304 7).