Foxhunting may have been banned years ago, but the Conservatives’ other favourite bloodsport – tearing lumps out of each other – has continued unabated. From the ousting of Margaret Thatcher to this summer’s toppling of Boris Johnson and the bitter leadership contest between Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak which followed, Tory party infighting has marked our politics, and our country, for decades. Yet the Conservatives themselves seem to emerge relatively unscathed from their feuding come election time, while to the electorate Labour has too often looked like the house most divided.
Patrick Diamond and the late Giles Radice, in their fascinating history of Labour’s civil wars, offer us some clues at to why Labour, a party with a rich and complex tradition, might have suffered more damage from its internal wranglings than its opponents. They trace the story of some of the most bitter disputes within the party, starting with Ramsay MacDonald and ending with Jeremy Corbyn – and give some useful pointers on how we might prevent history repeating itself.
Diamond and Radice suggest that Labour is particularly prone to internal conflict, both because of its institutional structure, with trade unions, parliamentarians and members all holding sway, and because its ideology has been contested by, as they put it, everyone from prophets to pragmatists and fundamentalists to revisionists. Throw in personality politics – Bevan and Gaitskell or Blair and then Corbyn – and you have a recipe for trouble.
The result is that over the party’s history, Labour leaders have had to grapple not just with developing a policy offer to put before the British people, but with quelling the internal wrangling which throws their electoral chances off course.
Once it has covered the key battles of the past, the book moves on to setting out a way forward.
Diamond and Radice, both avowed revisionists, rightly argue for a pluralist approach, condemning both the ‘unhealthy antipathy to internal debate and disagreement’ of the New Labour era and the ‘conservatism and inertia’ of the Corbyn years. At a time when we desperately need a Labour government, those on both sides still engaging in factional struggles would do well to heed their message.
A period little touched on in Diamond and Radice’s book is Neil Kinnock’s time as Labour leader and the contribution he made, after yet more internal strife, to Labour’s eventual return to power. The collection of essays edited by Kevin Hickson provides not just a reassessment of Kinnock’s record, but a welcome addition to thinking about the party’s present and future. For, as some of the contributions show, there are significant similarities between then and now: questions over patriotism, nationhood and devolution and soul-searching over our relationship with Europe, for example. A broad array of contributors, including Charles Clarke, Patrick Wintour, Dianne Hayter and Jon Lansman, are featured, with John Redwood chipping in with an unsurprisingly somewhat graceless chapter. There is a particularly entertaining look at Kinnock’s engagement with popular culture, including his appearance in a promo video for a Tracey Ullman single, a collaboration which, we are told “did neither of the participants any favours”. And there’s a whole chapter devoted to Kinnock’s struggles with Militant.
But perhaps the most revealing part of the book is Anthony Seldon’s write-up of a conversation with Kinnock. In the interview, the former Labour leader talks of how he tried to reshape the party, right down to arguing over the length of the stem of the rose which became the party’s new logo. He tells of run-ins with Thatcher and Scargill – and an attempted coup by Donald Dewar in favour of John Smith (who apparently declined to get involved). Yet another example of the internal discord which has so marked Labour’s history.
Kinnock says his overriding aim was to make the Labour party relevant again, but regrets that he could not go faster, sooner. As he puts it: “I’m not naturally a nasty bastard, but I was enough of a nasty bastard to do what was necessary. I just would have liked to have done it more quickly.”
Labour’s Civil Wars: How Infighting has Kept the Left from Power (and What can be Done About it)
Patrick Diamond and Giles Radice
Neil Kinnock: Saving the Labour Party?
Kevin Hickson (ed)