Welcome to My Adventures in Second-hand Bookshops, episode one.* This week’s book is a forbidding-looking thing that I recently bought from a fine establishment in Broadstairs, Kent. A grey and bespectacled James Callaghan reaches out from its cover. A long list of authors appears above the words “on the fall of the Labour Government”. And the title has all the charm, with some of the force, of an ice-pick to the skull. What. Went. Wrong.
This is a collection of essays that was published, on behalf of the Institute for Workers’ Control, in the near aftermath of Labour’s defeat in 1979. It was edited by that redoubtable left-winger, and later Member of the European Parliament, Ken Coates. There were three serving MPs – Frank Field, Stuart Holland and Michael Meacher – among its contributors. A new edition was published in 2008.
So, what did go wrong? A variety of authors means a variety of answers – from Meacher’s complaints against the civil service (“this present power system requires a very radical overhaul”) to Coates’ disquiet at the proliferation of quangos (“quangos commonly represent feeble concessions to vast areas of need”) – although some common arguments do emerge. The main one is that the Callaghan administration of 1976-1979, if not the Wilson one of 1974-76, betrayed the promises that Labour had made earlier in the decade. In particular, the promise of full employment.
The authors seem to take sadistic – or is it masochistic? – pleasure in citing the figures. At the start of 1974, the number unemployed people was around half-a-million. By the time Margaret Thatcher took over, in March 1979, it was over a million, and rising. A charitable observer might put this down to economic events, but Coates & Co. weren’t feeling especially charitable. In an essay entitled “The Abandonment of Full Employment”, Francis Cripps and Frances Morrell write:
“The Labour Cabinet argued that they were forced to abandon full employment because of international circumstances beyond their control. We believe that high unemployment was a foreseeable and foreseen outcome of the policies they stood for and that they consciously chose to implement those policies instead of others which could have sustained full employment.”
These claims can be disputed by political historians. What can’t be disputed is the mercilessness and meticulousness of the writing in What Went Wrong. It’s typified by Field’s essay, which takes four of his party’s previous commitments – to combat poverty, to reduce the numbers on means-tests, to narrow the gap between rich and poor, and to help children – and tests them against the available statistics. His conclusion? That Labour failed on all four counts. In the style of his co-authors, he adds, “these failures cannot be explained away entirely by the collapse of the 1974/9 Labour Government’s economic strategy.”
Bear in mind, Field was first elected to the Commons that year. Here was a box-fresh MP not just criticising his party’s record in Government, but criticising them where it hurts: right in the anti-poverty policies. Would a new Labour MP dare do that nowadays? Most would be scared of the retweetable reaction. “Labour newbie trashes own party #fail.”
The current situation – with Labour’s new leader to be revealed later today – explains why I picked up a copy of What Went Wrong in the first place, and why I’ve been fanning through it during the past week. Back in 1979 and going into 1980, Labour responded to Thatcher’s majority by putting Michael Foot in charge. Is that how they’re responding to Cameron’s majority now? Or are they doing something different? I don’t care to say. Making comparisons with the past is a dangerous hobby, and ought always be done with caution.
But this single collection of essays still says something about how politics has changed in the meantime. It was printed in the eighteen-month period from Callaghan’s defeat in the general election to Foot’s victory in the leadership election. A year-and-a-half! That gave Labour MPs a lot of opportunity for reflection and for writing detailed studies of their party’s condition, something that is denied to them now. Miliband was gone a matter of hours after this year’s election result. His successor will be installed four months later. Harriet Harman is always there for the awkward in-between bit.
This is how leadership elections work today: they are rushed affairs, even when, as now, they sure don’t feel like it. Candidates announce their intentions in all the time that it takes for them to contrive a basic message. Their supporters then get on with flooding the Internet with comment pieces and blog-posts. Learning from mistakes? Nah. This process doesn’t even allow time to determine what those mistakes were. That task is left to the psephologists, who work too slowly.
Labour have honed this terrible craft into an artform. Gordon Brown’s coronation as leader, back in 2007, was their great exhibition. That was when they should have asked why the election-winning machine of Tony Blair had only secured a fifth of all possible votes – less than the Conservatives achieved in 2010 – two years previously. That was then they should have interrogated themselves. Instead they ushered Gordon on to the throne unchallenged, and have remained stuck in the old paradigms of Blairism and Brownism ever since.
Which brings us to Corbyn. His supporters would claim that he is, in himself, a response to the mistakes of the past. The truth is that he’s an all-too-inadequate one. “Blair!” is not a rigorous answer to the question of how Labour failed in 2010 and 2015. Nor is “Bush” or “Oil!” or “Neo-liberalism!” They’re nothing more than hashtags in the wind.
Recognising mistakes – properly recognising them, and correcting them – is an underappreciated skill in politics, but its rewards are bountiful. Just ask George Osborne. His dreadful Budget of 2012 didn’t finish him; it made him. After then, the Chancellor’s operation became more rigorous and the Chancellor himself became more rounded. The term “full employment” is now more likely to be discovered in one of his speeches than in a collection of essays by Labour authors.
Perhaps every party should publish a book called What Went Wrong, every year. The prescriptions may not be the right ones, but at least prescriptions would be made. Better that than complacency.
*All future episodes have been cancelled.