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LHRU Book Review: 'Futures of Socialism'

Futures of Socialism book cover

Colm Murphy, Futures of Socialism: ‘Modernisation’, the Labour Party and the British Left, 1973-1997 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003) £85

Reviewed by Professor Rohan McWilliam

The first biography of Tony Blair was written by Jon Sopel in 1995 and was tellingly sub-titled ‘the Moderniser’. Tony Blair and Gordon Brown’s New Labour rescued their party from the electoral failure of Old Labour (their version) and offered an accommodation with Thatcherite neo-liberalism and thus a lurch to the right (their critics’ version). What the different versions agree on is that Blair and Brown represented the only game in town when it came to Labour modernisation. In a major new study, Colm Murphy (Queen Mary University of London) offers a powerfully revisionist view: modernisation (both as a term and as a project) was certainly not owned by New Labour. The roots of Labour’s modernisation emerged from debates on the left from the 1970s through to the 1990s. In this spirit, he highlights the importance of key players such as the MPs Stuart Holland and Bryan Gould as well as political thinkers like Beatrix Campbell and Paul Hirst. Murphy also explores institutions like the Labour Co-Ordinating Committee and left- wing periodicals such as Marxism Today and the New Socialist. Rather than urging a simple message of ‘back to 1945’ (though there was that element), many left-wing figures insisted on the importance of modernisation, which meant taking account of the way that the economy and social structure had changed since Attlee. Futures of Socialism asks us to take seriously the complexities of left wing thought in the period when Labour was largely in the wilderness (apart from the 1974-1979 government). The approach is thoroughly convincing (and the present reviewer notes that it happily aligns with his own memories of what was going on from the mid-1980s onwards).

Modernisation for many on the left in the 1970s centred around the construction of the Alternative Economic Strategy (AES) which we associate with figures such as Tony Benn. This was an attempt to develop a new form of left-wing policy as Tony Crosland’s The Future of Socialism (1956), which had influenced the Wilson governments of the 1960s, no longer seemed equipped to deal with the problems that Britain was facing. The AES essentially argued for a siege economy based on import controls, nationalisation of banks as well as leading companies, taxes on wealth and departure from the European Union. This never became Labour policy, though, in retrospect, it influenced figures such as Jeremy Corbyn. The AES quickly came in the 1980s to feel out of date. The failure of Mitterand’s nation-based policies in France did not help. Many former proponents of the AES (like Frances Morrell) became critical of it in the name of modernisation.

Others sought to move on from Crosland in different ways. Stuart Holland argued that globalisation had changed economic calculations with the rise of multi-national companies which rendered Keynesian approaches based on demand management at a national level redundant. He looked to the European Union as a counter-weight to international capital. Others (such as Bryan Gould, himself heavily euro-sceptic) began to consider alternative forms of employee share ownership and industrial democracy. Socialism in his view meant the diffusion and decentralisation of economic power rather than simple nationalisation. Feminists such as Anna Coote argued for modernisation, noting that the Labour Party’s trade union identity was strongly masculine and women were often excluded. The modern economy was increasingly being driven by female labour meaning that the party looked out of step. Other thinkers such as Stuart Hall and Paul Gilroy insisted that the party had failed to take account of race and the fact that the ethnic make up of Britain was changing as it became a multi-cultural society. Hence there were demands both for women’s sections and black sections to be incorporated into the Labour Party’s structures. These arguments, it should be noted, shaped the approach of Ken Livingstone’s GLC in the early 1980s so they were not marginal.

The left of the 1980s, however, increasingly focused on constitutional reform, arguing that the country’s political structures were archaic. For movements like Charter 88, this required getting rid of the House of Lords (and, some suggested, the monarchy), devolving power and changing the electoral system. Modernisers, such as the writers associated with Marxism Today, argued that Britain in the 1980s was shaped by post-Fordism. The world of manufacturing (employing the kind of assembly line techniques associated with US car maker Henry Ford) was being replaced by an economy shaped by deindustrialisation and the rise of service industries. This was the essence of their ‘New Times’ analysis, a significant attempt to modernise political thinking.

What policies flowed from this? Some focused on trying to repair the manufacturing base so as to get employment levels back to where they were in the 1950s. An alternative approach (and one that New Labour picked up on) was to focus on ‘human capital’. This accepted that the old industries were in decline and argued that the state should provide better scientific research, education and training to help the nation develop new forms of business. The model was the development state on the (then) West German model. Bryan Gould, for example, in the late 1980s sought to work with British Telecom to create a national broad-band fibre optic cable network. This certainly felt modern but, Murphy argues, the ‘human capital’ approach had fundamental costs that are now apparent. It led to many former industrial communities feeling left behind (a state of affairs that manifested itself in the 2016 EU referendum and the consequent collapse of the Red Wall in 2019).

New Labour was, Murphy accepts, selective in what it took from left-wing debates but they did, for example, shape the creation of the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly after 1997. The investment in education showed off the ‘human capital’ approach. It is true that New Labour approach to gender and race was tentative but its policy makers always assumed that Britain was moving in a feminist direction. Moreover, in office, they recognised institutional racism and promoted multi-culturalism.

Murphy is critical of the view that New Labour was a sell-out to neo-liberalism. Whilst he concedes that the party’s policies became more market-driven, he argues that the state remained an important element in Blair and Brown’s approach. Policies such as the minimum wage, Sure Start, increased public expenditure and opposition to global poverty had a strong social democratic imprint. More discussion, I thought, needed to be devoted to the way the left responded to privatisation, which was, after all, the signature Thatcherite policy. Many Labour MPs came to feel by the 1990s that these privatisations were not only irreversible but were successful in delivering services. We might note that time has moved on and these privatisations (for example, water) no longer seem to be working so well but the context of the 1990s was different. Another key player who needed more discussion was Bill Clinton. Many on the left were fascinated by the rise of Clinton’s New Democrats which suggested a third way in politics might be possible. Murphy’s book is very much about MPs, policy makers and intellectuals. There is now room for exploring how these different debates went down at the party’s grass roots and amongst ordinary people interested in politics. How aware were party members about the nuances and complexities of the debates that Murphy charts? My hunch is there was some awareness. I can remember a lot of Marxism Today and Labour Co-Ordinating Committee conferences where there was vigorous discussion of these themes. But did this translate into public awareness more broadly? In particular, constitutional reform, including proportional representation, is really a ‘chattering classes’ issue (a phrase which we should bring back and which I am glad to see that Murphy uses at one point). It was just not something that animated huge numbers of voters.

I was also struck by how few references there were to Jeremy Corbyn in the book which suggests just how much of an outlier he was in Labour politics during the 1980s and 1990s. Too often the current political discussion suggests that Labour has to be either Blairite or Corbynite. This book shows these are not the only choices and the left has usually enjoyed a far wider and richer range of views. If this book has a message for the present moment, this is it.

Colm Murphy has written a landmark book which explains why the modern Labour Party has taken the form it has done with strong implications for the present. No one who cares about Labour in the age of Corbyn and Starmer can afford to miss this book. It is a shame then that it currently is held back by its rather un-socialist price. Paperback please, Cambridge University Press. Until then, order it from your library.

Rohan McWilliam is Professor of Modern British History at Anglia Ruskin University, Cambridge, and co-director of the Labour History Research Unit. If you have any comments on this review, email [email protected].