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From old to new Labour.

New Labour's Past. James E. Cronin. Longman. ix + 497 pages. [pounds sterling]25.00. ISBN 0-582-43827-6.

If the writing of contemporary history is to be more than journalism with academic pretensions then it requires certain obvious features to be present. Apart from a sound grasp of the available public and, where possible, private literatures and a convincing story or thesis to relate or expound, it also requires some connection with the people who were or are involved in the creation of the history that is being discussed. When these are managed effectively--as, for example, in the work of Peter Hennessey--then new and interesting interpretations and understandings of the recent past can be gained. When they are less successfully fulfilled the result is frustration for the reader, at the very least, and an absence of enlightenment at the worst.

The book being reviewed here is concerned with the change from 'old' to 'new' in the Labour Party from the 1950s to the early 2000s. The essential argument is that the Labour Party had to change itself to escape from the failures of the past (although how the creation of the welfare state can be seen to be a 'failure' is a mystery)--particularly the perceived stultifying effects of the Trade Union connection on Party policy--and that this change had to be a top-down one imposed by a brave leadership on a Party that was at least reluctant if not positively antipathetic. The focus is largely on internal manoeuvrings at the apex of the Party, deals with largely endogenous explanations of change, and is based upon particular sets of understandings of both the Labour Party and recent political history that are highly debatable. It starts with the early claim that 'old Labour's failures were endemic'. Whilst this is presented as the view of the 'modernisers' within the Labour Party rather than being necessarily the author's own, it soon becomes apparent that there is actually little difference between the two. The implicit acceptance of this 'modernising' position means that a great deal of the post-war history of the Labour Party is given a particular slant that fits in with the presupposition that the Party was 'failing' and that these failures were purely the result of the Party's internal structure, management style and identity.

This approach provides a structuralist thesis for examination that unfortunately neglects most of the contextualising understanding that such approaches normally require for them to make sense. Thus it would appear that most of the 1983 election result can be explained by the way in which the Left had dominated the Party machinery and imposed a backward-looking manifesto based on class-war assumptions that was out of tune with British society. Admittedly the Falklands War had some effect on public opinion but this is seen as relatively minor compared with the consequences of factional in-fighting within the Party itself and the failure of the Party to change itself. The difficulty with this approach is that by concentrating so fully on the structuralist position there is an almost total neglect of, for example, what the Conservative manifesto itself had to offer to the electorate, and the psephological implications of the Falklands war. As numerous books and articles from political science have pointed out, both of these were significant factors over and above the failings of the Labour Party in explaining this election.

The failings of the basic premise of the argument that is being advanced does not mean that this book is totally without merit. The detail of the debates within the Labour Party is reasonably thorough and provides a decent starting-point for understanding the basic positions that were adopted on all sides. The concentration on the internal dynamics of the Party does, however, vitiate much of this detail. The abstraction of these debates from the ideological shifts within society that were a part and parcel of the commodification of the relationship between the state and citizens which began in the 1970s serves to leave a great deal out of the analysis and weakens the impact of the case that is being made. Overall this is a deeply flawed book that has moments of interest within it.
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Author:Gray, Clive
Publication:Contemporary Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Nov 1, 2004
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