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3.3 out of 5 stars11
3.3 out of 5 stars
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on 30 March 2013
Pugh is pretty clear in his Preface that many Labour Party insiders were never going to like his account, but having read it, I suspect that's because the truth hurts. He's a smart commentator who dutifully covers the whole history of the party, and is willing to do the number crunching of election results and membership numbers necessary to give a balanced account, but also really tries to pull out some continuities and surprising characteristics of the organisation.

In particular, he shows how there has always been a tension between socialist and conservative (with a small 'c') elements in the party, and how this tension has effected issues like foreign policy, equal opportunities, and economic policy. Pugh skewers the party for being unwilling or intellectually unable to offer any alternative to Thatcherite economics from the late-'80s onwards. He also demonstrates a tendency for the Party to pick the wrong leaders at the wrong times, and illustrates repeatedly how the Parliamentary Party has always been a very different beast to the grass roots membership.

As well as this ability to pull out broad themes, Pugh's attention to the personal characteristics of various Labour figures is where the book really excels. He's great on the origins of the organisation in the Edwardian era and the sometimes quite unconventional attitudes of Hardie and MacDonald, and very good at untangling the disputes and infighting of the '70s and '80s, giving sharp pen portraits of politicians like Harold Wilson, Michael Foot, and Tony Benn along the way. This is brought to life by fantastically chosen quotes. My copy ended up full of pencil underlinings.

Much of the criticism of the book has focussed on his account of more recent times. Admittedly, his account is almost polemic at times about the failure of Labour to represent a real alternative post-Thatcher, and he's scathing about Blair, who comes across as a political opportunist with almost no principles. I suppose your opinion of this history will depend in large part on whether you buy into his account or not. To me, it seemed convincing, and it was a fantastically entertaining read. Five stars may be at odds with some other reviews here, but I felt it was a book with a long list of positives and nothing I could really pick out that I'd fault it for.
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on 5 June 2011
Previously possessing only a rough knowledge of Labour Party history, I found Pugh's book an excellent one which explored the development of the movement from its inception from the late Victorian period through to just before Brown's 2010 defeat. Word for word, the book tends to afford greater coverage to the first half of Labour history: this suited me as I am (probably like most people) stronger on post-WWII Labour Party history.

An enduring theme throughout the book is the tension between Labour's patriotic, semi-capitalist conservatism and more radical socialistic impulses. What is striking is how throughout Labour's history it has effectively embraced the former. The party of the last decade or so chimes with this historical trend in its embrace of the capitalist model.

One of the noticeable features of the book for me is Pugh's relatively cursory treatment of the party in the past decade or two. Does this simple fact simply reflect how little there really is to say about the modern Labour Party in terms of distinctive policies and ideas? As for Blair, Pugh cleverly attempts to understand him through a brief examination of his father Leo. What emerges is a slighly muddled, very conservative polictial opportunist. Fascinating.
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on 26 April 2011
At a time when the long term future of the Labour Party is in some doubt- this is a timely , well- written book- scholarly yet accesible to the general reader.I particularly liked the research the author had done on local Labour parties. He shows clearly that during the fevered Bevanite split of the 1950s- much of this took place in the hot-house atmosphere of Westminster and the media and that on the ground the Labour Party remained much more united and stronger than it was given credit for.
Pugh also turns the conventional wisdom about previous Labour figures on its head.He argues (correctly ,I think, in each case)-that
-Attlee was overrated as a leader- a good administrator in government but a poor politician.He badly bungled the dates for the 1950 and 1951 elections and condemned Labour to 13 years in opposition.
that Herbert Morrison is an under-rated figure- who built Labours local base in London in the 1930s and if he had been PM would have timed the 1950 election correctly.
- Harold Wilson was a far better leader than Hugh Gaitskell. Gaitskell was politically inept and would have lost the 1964 election ,which Wilson narrowly won.
-Jim Callaghan was a dud from the start and his government would have ended badly whatever happened.
Pughs verdict on Blair and Brown is scathing and richly deserved
An up-date on the 2010 election analyses the result and asseses the chance of a Labour recovery- lets hope we can have a new edition where Pugh looks at Ed Millibands election and his leadership!
This book is highly recommended.
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on 3 June 2012
I really enjoyed the first 13 chapters of this book, particularly as it offers a new perspective of the Labour Party as not only the heirs of the Liberal Party, but also of the Conservative Party. Pugh spends most of this book pointing out that Labour have been electorally successful only when combining socialism with Tory patriotism. This was reinforced by many Labourites being conservative, but also former Conservatives.

Yet, when he gets to his final chapter on New Labour and Tony Blair, Pugh does not follow this through. Rather, he criticises Blair for his conservatism. He treats Blair as an aberration rather than, as his own analysis should suggest, a major continuity with Labour's past. It is extraordinary that he criticises David Blunket's time as home secretary, when the latter'svconcern for crime, which majorly affects working class communities, is consistent with an authoritarian streak running throughout Labour history. Furthermore, Pugh bemoans Blair's Victorian moralism, whilst simultaneously claiming that Roy Jenkin's liberalism was a rarity for the party! Whilst Pugh is right to criticise the severity of New Labour's anti-crime agenda, it fits perfectly with this notion that the working classes are themselves quite authoritarian, patriotic and anti-immigration. A point which Pugh hammers home in the early chapters of his history. This was exactly the agenda New Labour pursued when in power, and the kind of Toryism which Pugh identifies with Labour from its inception. Pugh fails to apply this analysis to New Labour.

So what of the socialist part of Tory Socialism? Pugh largely ignores this too. He is right to bemoan New Labour's economic policy as one which aped Thatcherism, and that its own intellectual coffers were empty by the time it gained power. However, there are two things I would say about this. Pre-1940s Labour were economically orthodox, whilst the Labour Government itself abandoned Keynesianism in the late 1970s. Hence Blair did not instigate this intellectual debasement. Labour more often than not have pursued a Tory economy policy. It was Old Labour that abandoned Keynesianism not New. When Labour did attempt to pursue an alternative strategy in 1983, the party got hammered in the general election. What New Labour did do, and Pugh singularly fails to mention, is massively increase public spending on health, education and welfare, and did in fact achieve some redistribution. To ignore this is very poor indeed. One could argue that whilst pursing a Tory economic, foreign and judicial policy, New Labour social policy did as much if not more to achieve progressive values than at any point in Labour history - because they were able to use the gains of economic growth to this end. Furthermore, Pugh overlooks the fact that under Brown, New Labour pursued a deficit spending strategy in a bid to mitigate the worst elements of the 2008 recession, and nationalised part of the banking system.

There are other elements of Pugh's criticism of Blair which irk, such as the latter's rather lukewarm towards constitutional reform. This has been true of Labour throughout its history, something which Pugh himself points out!

Pugh's analysis of where Labour are currently demonstrates the problems with bringing history right up to date. Pugh's notion that it was New Labour's right wing credentials which has created multi-party politics in today's Britain is nonsense. In terms of actually voting, the share of the vote won by Labour and Tory has steadily declined since the 1960s. The British electorate keeps voting in a multi-party way, but the electoral system keeps delivering single party government. What we saw in 1997 and onwards was progressive voters voting tactically so as to remove the Tories. This is why Labour and Lib Dems won so many seats. This probably continued up to 2005, but to a lesser extent. Pugh also suggests that Labour's poor performance in local elections in the last decade has hollowed the party out and doesn't auger well for the future. But this was not surprising after 13 years in government. Indeed, in the 2012 local elections, Labour began to make a recovery.

And finally, to suggest Labour are now in long term decline as they will suffer the most under multi-party politics is a little premature. The emergence of the Tory-Lib Dem coalition creates a large slice of doubt in such an analysis. If Labour reaps the benefit by winning the votes of disaffected Lib Dems, this will simply not be the case. And besides, you can't simultaneously criticise Blair for not changing the electoral system and bemoan the onset of multi-party politics!

This is a very good history of Labour and well worth reading. Just a pity that the chapter on New Labour does not follow the logic of the rest of the book.
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on 12 June 2011
Having read the excellent history of the tory party by Alan Clark I wanted something similar covering the Labour party. This was not the book I wanted. Pugh skips over most of the eighties and nineties and seems to go from 1979 to 1997 in the space of a few pages while the pre-war period is overflowing with names and events. Not much in the way of detail on internal politics and the jockeying for position in the Kinnock era or after John Smiths death or even after 1997 and the Brown/Blair struggles. If you have read the other reviews and the summary on this page then you have pretty much all the interesting information this book contains.
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on 28 October 2010
This is an outstanding overview of the Labour Party up to 1997. It also serves as a fascinating insight into the wider political landscape of the UK. Extremely well written, it is an easy read that manages to provide extensive detail without ever becoming tedious.
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on 4 September 2013
Not for everyone, in fact only for those with a wish to learn about the people and societies which led to the evolution of the 1945 labour government which has framed our lives in the second half of the 20th century.
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on 25 August 2015
Despite the 2 stars reating I have to say that I enjoyed this book, and I do feel guilty about the low rating. However I do feel it was justified.

Whilst I enjoyed reading it the major problem with the book is that it skirts when Labour is actually in government-even the historic 1945 Government is only given a handful of pages where Pugh dismisses Attlee as being a 'manager' rather than an effective PM. Whilst Pugh analysis throughout is good and detailed the book fails to explore Labour's time in government. I knew that the book was devoted to Labour's early years but the problem was that I didn't learn anything that important apart from the struggle between the urban socialists and the more industrial 'Tory-Socialists'. Whilst the book explores key themes and ideas of the Edwardian period it's ashame that 200 pages are devoted to 1900-1924 whilst 150 pages are given to 1924-2007 when a lot more happened for labour.

Pugh analysis of New Labour is marred by the fact that as it's more recent History his own political views clearly taint his otherwise sound analysis. Pages before Pugh would praise Kinnock for his reforms of the party in the 1980's to become electable but he bemoans Blair for the same actions. The overall venom and tone towards Blair stands out because he remains civil to other unpopular labour characters like Gaitskell, Benn and Lanski. Describing Blair as 'feminine' whilst attacking him for his lack of political history or loyalty seems strange. The political aspect of his criticisms towards Blair are simply petty-his whole argument is that Blair is a conservative who didn't challenge the Conservatives. Considering that Blair repealed section 28, introduced adoption for same sex couples and civil partnerships whilst increasing public spending in schools and hospitals it seems strange to attack Blair for achievements that are profoundly labour
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Pugh's hisotry is plodding and is, which no book on history shouyld be, uninteresting. For Pugh, every time Labour is in power, it is a sell-out. Atlee was poor, Wilson lost it. Blair was awful. He is not willing to understand or to engage with New Labour at all - he's sees NL as abandoning party ideals rather than making them count in a modern, globalised world. You cannot call the achievements of New Labour 'meagre' whether you are pro or anti. Massive improvements to the NHS (people used to regularly die waiting to see a doctor - the take up of private care fell during the years of New Labour - why pay when the NHS can see you just as quickly?). Huge investment in schools with improving standards (in 1990s, parents had to pay for text books and many schools were not fit for purpose). But this is not a place for an assessment of New Labour. The book does not even mention the setting up of the NHS and the Welfare state in any detail under Atlee, perhaps Labour's finest achievements. This is a book that hangs together facts with an uncompelling narrative - and in the end, it may not actually be worth buying.
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on 29 October 2010
At a time when a former recent Lab PM has produced his own autobiography. Pugh's book comes out at an interesting time. I have not read it fully yet, only having got to the end of chapter 3. I am not sure if he has his facts correct regarding the initial founding of the ILP. Other works show the meeting toook place at Firth's Temperence Hotel, Westgate, Bradford. This is a minor point after three chapters. However, Pgh is a Tory, so it is good to see a book written on the subject other than by one of the Labour 'academic faithful'. Recommended.
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