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A good history, with a poor ending
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.