Tuesday, 11 February 2020

Comment: Labour leaders and labour history

[From LSHG Newsletter No. 69 Spring 2020] 

Labour leaders and labour history 

The current Labour leadership contest has highlighted an issue that is not brought up that much - Labour leaders and their knowledge of labour history.

Rebecca Long Bailey raised the far from uncontroversial idea of progressive patriotism, something that has been discussed on the left since at least the Falklands War. She did give an historical example of the American Civil War but the history of British workers’ attitudes to it is not a simple one.

Keir Starmer wrote a piece for the Guardian about making a case for moral socialism without managing even a nod to Harold Wilson’s phrase that Labour is a moral crusade or it is nothing (associated with the origins of War on Want). Starmer however also managed to tweet on the 165th anniversary of the birth of Eleanor Marx (16 January). His background makes it difficult to call his knowledge of labour history.
https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/j an/15/labour-socialism-values-election-economicmodel.

While Jeremy Corbyn, like Tony Benn, has an abiding interest in history he is not by any means an historian. One Labour leader who was definitely in that category was Tony Blair. A university librarian once told me that, before he was leader, Blair had to give a speech involving a mention of the Webbs. He had no idea who they were and turned up to borrow a book on them.

Blair however was the anti-history leader. If New Labour was to be really ‘new’ it could by definition keep on banging on about the past. Blair did go as far  though as to unveil the statue of Harold Wilson outside Huddersfield station.

Wilson himself operated in the framework of a slightly different Labour politics. He was not one to miss a Durham Miners’ Gala, or to call out Communists, or those like trade unionist John Prescott, who he thought were.

As a socialist historian I think its useful for Labour leaders to know something of Labour and labour history. Perhaps being leader should require a test on the matter. It’s probably too much to hope they’d learn from it but certainly a critical awareness of recent labour history and the way Labour has reacted to and handled electoral defeats in the past 50 years would not go amiss.

Keith Flett

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