As I write, Labour is tearing itself apart - again. It is nothing new. We have been there before and this book will give you some idea as to why. Labour has always been a broad church, as the saying goes, but sometimes its various worshipers have been at loggerheads with one another. This book describes the to and fro in the battle of ideas, analysing key progressive figures, from Lloyd George, Asquith, the Labour giants like Bevin and Bevan, and through to Blair, where the story ends in 1999.
The book is insightful and the pen portraits the key personalities involved are acute and entertaining. The problem is that the book fails to explain what the 'progressive dilemma' is, in any detail. We know that there has always been a tension between sticking to your principles and getting elected. For some reason, in this country, this dilemma has been particularly acute for Liberal and then Labour politicians. This the book fails to explain - or perhaps it does, but the explanation is lost among the tendency to waffle and a too self-consciously clever style. It also assumes you know a lot about the various sub-species of Labour factions and tendencies. Ideas are discussed at great length, as are the shortcomings of the men who elaborated them, but not nearly enough attention is given to relating these ideas to evolving social and political realities in 20th Century Britain.
The fact is, most people do not give a damn about politics or ideas. They demand much from politicians and not enough from themselves. The phrase, 'No good deed goes unpunished' might have been coined for progressive politicians. The lot of a politician is an unhappy one, but it is especially unhappy for progressive ones, who are the ones most dedicated to public service. But why is it so unhappy? Part of the answer must lie in the nature of the people politicians serve but this is overlooked. This is a major omission. Progressive politicians have to get elected. Why has this been so difficult?
Therefore, if you are seeking to understand why Labour's travails seem to be perennial, with each phase of peace, like the stupor of the Blair years, preparation for the next bout of civil war, then this book will expand your frame of reference. But it won't give you much idea of how the so-called dilemma can be resolved. Finer minds than my own - and Marquand's - have failed to resolve this problem. Nor will it give you much sense of what that dilemma looks like today.
The irony is that someone has laid out this dilemma bare, in lucid prose, and that is the young firebrand, Owen Jones, in his article addressed to Corbyn's supporters. If you want to understand what this dilemma means in today's terms, then go there. He addresses the tough questions that this book does not - questions that have been asked for decades.
David Marquand offers the reader a chance to follow through a lucid, detailed and thought provoking account of some of the Labour Party's finest thinkers. From the fall of Asquith's Liberal Party and the fragmentation and dispersal of liberal thinkers; their uneasy inclusion within the Labour Party; to eventually 'The Blair Paradox' and New Labourism, Marquand illustrates the events and the individuals involved with skill, insight and wit. With regret almost tangibly emanating from the page in describing the short but intensely bright intellectual and theoretical zenith of Richard Crossman, to David Owen telling a leading SDP feminist that 'What this party needs is balls', the reader is brought almost face-to-face with the people and their roles in the largely tragic situation of progressive thought and practice in the Twentieth Century. Marquand can himself be understood as a 'progressive', a liberal thinker who abhors the fundamentalist and introspective manner of mechanistic interpretations of society and of the individuals who comprise it. He is anathema to some because of his rejection of that doctrine and dogma, but also to others because of his decision to join the Social Democratic Party after Labour in the 1980s moved ever nearer towards adopting a position close to fundamental Marxism. For those wanting an explanation for the continual self-mutilation by the Labour Party and a reason for the seeming indomitability of Thatcherism masquerading as political thought, he offers the thoughtful exposition that the conflict between the conservative and exclusionary ideals of Socialism continually frustrate the more inclusive and responsive ideals of Social Democracy. It is the unhappy and argumentative cohabitation of Socialism and Social Democracy in the Labour Party, along with the over simplification that comes from a 'left v. right' explanation of political value and thought, that has hamstrung the British progressive movement. The Labour Party was set up not as a free-standing political party but as the direct embodiment of working class interests. Marquand therefore argues that whilst there have been other European Social Democratic parties, in Britain there has only been the singular representation of working class interests that has excluded both liberals and Liberals from joining the Labour Party; and ultimately failing both the working class and liberal progressives both electorally and intellectually. For Marquand, the success of New Labour at the polls in 1997 (and now 2001) shows not that there has been successful 'modernisation' of the Labour Party, but that Blair and his acolytes have successfully convinced people that progression is constant, it is inevitable and that ultimately only they have the method and ability to achieve it. This style of thinking attempts to argue that through a revision of the progressive movement it is now embodied in the 'modernisation' movement. This, the final chapters argue, take no regard for the historical and social context that precede it. With the proud exaltations of being 'free of ideology' the New Labour movement faces the problem of being, ultimately, substanceless in form and principle. It is not progressive to be elected on the understanding that you are not the person who is being thrown out. That only leads to a drifting, formlessness and ad hoc gesture politics and government. Marquand, who is better placed than most to analyse the events that have shaken and shaped the progressive argument, in the end calls for the progressive, social democratic argument to be taken up again, to be placed in its rightful historical context. He argues for battles to be fought against the small-mindedness and greed of neo-liberals but also against the fundamentalist forces inside the far-left that speak of mechanics, inevitability and the seductive charm of guaranteed progress. The legacy - but also to their eternal detriment - of Thatcherism, neo-liberalism and laisser-faire economics is that they claim that there is no real society, whilst in the process of destroying it. On this understanding market forces should be left to distribute their brutalisation and subjugation equally and impartially to all, disregarding those in the safety of privilege, advantage, power and wealth. Capitalism and market forces do not have to be the master of society and of people, Marquand argues, though at the moment they are understood as such, given justification and explanation through the quasi-religion of the worst sort of economics. It is therefore essential to provide substance to social democracy 'because it [is] the most obvious port in which to shelter from the neo-capitalist storm'. It is this challenge that he lays at the feet of all Social Democrat progressives and a good way of beginning to answer is by reading this book.