Speech, Applause, Speech

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Review of 'Old Labour to New', Greg Rosen, Politico's £30

This book claims to be a history of Labour but is more like TV shows called 'The Hundred Greatest Films, Love Songs', etc. It is a compendium of the 'Hundred Greatest Labour Party Speeches'. As a reference work for the rhetorical prowess of prominent Labour figures from Keir Hardie onwards it is unsurpassed. All the classics are there - Nye Bevan in full flow, Wilson calling up the 'white heat of the technological revolution,' Kinnock at his most verbose - and not just as soundbites but full renditions, sometimes occupying three or four closely typed pages.

However, that is as far as the book goes. Passages linking the speeches do little more than explain the immediate context, providing potted biographies of the protagonists and describing the immediate issues discussed. Overarching analysis is sorely lacking. Indeed, the narrative structure of the book mitigates against it, as Labour's 105-year lifespan is dealt with in no less than 67 chapters.

The key question is not asked: 'What is the relation between Labour speeches and Labour practice?' In Rosen's view speeches created and shaped Labour. They are its history. In reality they reflect Labour's role in wider society rather than form it. Labour acted as a mouthpiece for the aspirations of ordinary people - hence the lofty and inspiring language. However, the support thus gained was used to try and 'work the system' of parliament. But parliament is exquisitely designed to blunt and negate the workers' interests wherever possible and to serve big business. So rhetoric never matches delivery. A sequence of party speeches that does not thoroughly investigate this relationship is deficient.

The book's first section is an even-handed presentation of early left/right debates, but this gives way to a partisan right wing emphasis. It loses the breadth that made the first half useful (even if one did not agree with his outlook). Thus a chapter on the 1984-85 miners' strike opens, 'Uneconomic coal mines had been closing in Britain for decades. For some this was something to welcome.' The strike, we are told, was not defeated but simply 'dragged on, before petering out in a welter of mutual recrimination'. Rosen recycles Blair's TUC speech, which insisted that 'Saddam has a nuclear weapons programme', and instead of mentioning that this was patently untrue, simply says that, although 'Blair had faced a hard-bitten and sceptical audience, as he finished they rose to him in a 50 second standing ovation'.

The author aims to show that the much-vaunted substitution of 'Old Labour' by 'New Labour' is an over-simplification. He succeeds, though not as planned. In portraying a history of the battle between left and right the book unwittingly shows that every Labour prime minister has danced to the capitalist tune, whether it be Ramsay MacDonald during the Wall Street Crash period, Harold Wilson in the crisis of the late 1960s and 1970s, or Blair in the current neo-liberal phase. And after a Labour government falls comes the backlash, and a turn to the left, just in time for the next government to dash the hopes.

Most frustrating of all is Rosen's superficial treatment of the book's main theme - Old Labour to New. The element of continuity? People used to complain about cronyism, now they moan about an Islington elite, and so on.

There never was a 'golden age of Old Labour' and 'New Labour' is a continuation. But at what point does quantitative degeneration - the rightward moves, the embracing of big business ideology - become a qualitative change? Are tentative steps towards trade union disaffiliation and the emergence of new political forces with a parliamentary foothold, such as the Scottish Socialist Party or Respect, signs of the ending of historic links between the organised working class and the Labour Party? These are big questions that are not easy to answer. Indeed only the political practice of the left can answer them. But one would expect a book with that title, and 500 pages to play with, to at least address them.