Uncut Review: New Labour’s Old Roots, edited by Patrick Diamond

by Jonathan Todd

“This is the culmination of a long period in which the voice of moderate opinion in the Labour Party has been drowned by the clamour of an active and articulate minority”. Reading Atul Hatwal recently on Uncut on the monstering of Blairites and humouring of leftists, this feels a commentary on our times. But it comes from the Campaign for Democratic Socialism’s (CDS) 1962 manifesto.

As Patrick Diamond notes in the newly updated version of New Labour’s Old Roots, which he edits, CDS was “formed in response to the need for a more organised centre-right in the party at parliamentary and constituency level”. This paints CDS as a proto Progress. But I was intrigued to discover from Diamond’s research that CDS was backed by an elderly R. H. Tawney, irreproachable Labour royalty.

If Tawney, who did as much as anyone to have Labour dance to the equality beat, supported CDS then it cannot have been akin to the insubstantial, narrow caste that Progress is sometimes characterised as. Involved with this is the implication, which Diamond challenges, that New Labour has only shallow roots in the party.

“The key argument of the collection,” he writes, “is that New Labour is less of an historical aberration than its critics alleged; rather it is possible to trace a ‘common heritage’ between New Labour and earlier modernising traditions in the party … There was a shared commitment to ‘conscience and reform’, underpinned by the ideal of national renewal and the creation of a ‘New Britain’ which animated Labour’s victories in 1929, 1945, 1964 and 1997; as such, New Labour should be seen as, ‘part of a revisionist thread of British social democratic politics’ (Driver and Martell, 2006: 23).”

I first met Diamond at a Fabian Society conference in Grimsby on Tony Crosland. The keynote speaker that day, soon after the 2005 general election, was Ed Miliband. While Ed’s brother, David, revered Crosland during a Newsnight interview as part of the 2010 Labour leadership election, Ed’s presence in Grimsby reflected an earlier pitch to associate himself with Crosland.

In her biography of her husband, Susan Crosland recalls his selection as Labour’s PPC in Grimsby. “On the selection day Tony Crosland arrived in Grimsby for the first time. His supporters asked Alderman Franklin in his business role to provide lunch at Franklins’ café … Upstairs was a room where Crosland supporters could come and meet him.”

What Melanie Onn, last year selected as only Labour’s second Grimsby PPC since Crosland, following the long tenure of Austin Mitchell, thinks of this is unknown. Doubtless Onn’s path to being PPC, like all such in winnable seats, was less gilded than Crosland’s. We might wonder, therefore, what Crosland, a figure from a lost era, has to teach us.

Diamond reminds us, however, that “Crosland’s The Future of Socialism constituted the most articulate synthesis of social democratic thought in the post-war period”. It is with this rich heritage that both Miliband brothers wanted to align themselves. Where they, perhaps, differed is in their extent of sympathy for an argument that Diamond revisits and rejects: “that the Labour Party of Crosland and Gaitskell was animated by a radical egalitarian commitment that was wholly absent from Blair and Brown’s contemporary project (Brivati, 1996).” Both Ed and David saw themselves as keepers of Crosland’s flame but appeared to diverge on the degree to which they considered Blair and Brown to also be so.

Crosland endured similar brickbats to those later thrown at Blair and Brown. For example, Diamond notes, “Tribune greeted The Future of Socialism’s publication with the headline ‘Socialism? How Dare He Use the Word!” Because socialism, according to Tribune, meant public ownership. But to Crosland, consistent with Tawney, it meant equality. And public ownership was one means among several to that end.

In the latest edition of Progress magazine, Diamond reviews a new book by Peter Hain, Back to the Future of Socialism. “Hain is audacious in aligning his own revisionism with that of the great post war theoretician, Anthony Crosland,” Diamond begins. “His political confidence and élan are admirable; whether they are really in tune with the spirit of the age remains to be seen,” he concludes.

As between Ed and David, it may be that near history is more contentious than distant. But, as Tribune‘s reaction to The Future of Socialism and the perceived necessity of CDS, in which Crosland was active, attest, this older history was once contentious.

The fairest way to read this history is as a variety of attempts to recast for their times the fundamental Labour offering. Hindsight may expose flaws in these attempts. But they were attempts sincerely made from shared motivations. Labour will continue to need thinkers and activists inspired by these motivations, who should be reassured that they stand on the shoulders of the giants that Diamond charts.

This includes chapters on the obvious luminaries of British revisionist socialism – not just Crosland, Gaitskell and Tawney but Denis Healey, Roy Jenkins and Hugh Dalton. In addition, and arguably most intriguingly, there are chapters on lesser known figures, including, E. F. M. Durbin, J. P. Mackintosh and David Marquand.

When Patrick asked for my address, I was gratefully anticipating something to mark the recent arrival of my daughter. He had another kind of treat in mind.

Jonathan Todd is Deputy Editor of Labour Uncut     

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2 Responses to “Uncut Review: New Labour’s Old Roots, edited by Patrick Diamond”

  1. paul barker says:

    All mildly interesting but you fail to mention The big shift of the last 2 decades -The Far-Lefts capture of most of the major Unions. The Unions were always Labours anchor, restraining the enthusiasms of the activists, thats all gone now. The only way that Centrists can ever recapture dominance is if some of The big Unions pull out altogether; in which case Labour would be bankrupt.

  2. The problem for New Labour apologists like Todd is you can’t rewrite history without someone pointing out the obvious inconsistencies in their stories. To tie New Labour to earlier times and a “radical egalitarian commitment” forming the base of their social democratic beliefs cannot be shown when we look closely at those thirteen years of Blair/Brown governments.

    Their problem is that equality is measurable, maybe not that accurately, but enough to disprove this argument. The trite, and often quoted, statement by Mandelson on having no problem with the filthy rich as long as they pay their taxes points towards where it all went so wrong. You see that measurability of modern social inequality is the Gini coefficient of income after tax. From the post-war years through to the early seventies it showed a gradual closing of the gap between the richest and poorest. The Thatcher/Keith Joseph adoption of neoliberal economics reversed this trend very much for the worse.

    New Labour had the chance to turn the tide by using among other things the tax system, but the data shows they didn’t use the opportunity they were given to do this. There was no real improvement in the Gini coefficient. It’s a disservice to the likes of Crossland to grant New Labour inheritance rights to their ideas.

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