In 1952, a political book appeared in the shops.
It wasn’t red, or orange, or purple. Neil Kinnock recalls, aged 10, that “a main display window in the Tredegar Industrial and Co-operative Society was crammed with the maroon and black of the first-edition cover.” It was In Place of Fear by Aneurin Bevan. I own a hardback first edition, as seen by the young Kinnock; a softback given to me by Ruth Turner in 1989; a new 1961 hardback edition, presented by Jennie Lee to Lena Jeger; and, I’m afraid, about four other copies picked up over the years.
If you haven’t read it, you should. It contains some of the best political writing on the left: passionate, opinionated, colourful prose, of the kind I imagine Bevan speaking in person. It contains the best description I’ve read of parliament (which should be the first thing every Labour MP reads on arrival), and some brilliant descriptions of the nature of Socialism. The policy prescriptions are out-of-date, but the values underlying them are vibrant. Whilst Crosland was dry and analytical, Bevan was poetic. Crosland grudgingly admitted that In Place of Fear was “the most widely-read Socialist book of the period”. At the time you could be a Bevanite or a Croslandite, but with the distance of time, it is possible for us to appreciate both contributions to the ongoing debate about Socialism.
Bevan’s book stirred great controversies. Some hated its simplicities and left-wingery. Others treated it like Holy Writ. Barbara Castle named her industrial relations white paper In Place of Strife after it. But I can find no evidence anywhere that anyone suggested it shouldn’t be published.
The reaction to the announcement that a bunch of us are publishing a series of essays on the future of progressive politics, under the title the Purple Book, has bordered on hysterical. Rachel Sylvester in the Times had the story this morning, and all day the places where these things are discussed have been buzzing. Some have been focussed on the colour purple. The colour purple has so many meanings, that you can take your pick. The modernisers’ group Progress, which is pulling together the contributions, says it is the colour you get when you mix red and blue. It’s also the colour of imperial Rome, the suffragettes, Cadbury’s Dairy Milk, the Yes2Av campaign, and Silk Cut.
So unless the book is a conspiracy by chain-smoking, chocoholic, feminist, Latin-speaking electoral reformers, I wouldn’t read too much into the colour scheme. The title has echoes of the Liberal Democrats’ Orange Book, which was produced by the pro-Tory clique who took over the party of Grimmond and Lloyd George. But it also echoes the Red Papers for Scotland, which included essays by Gordon Brown and Robin Cook, Chairman Mao’s Little Red Book, the Yellow Book by Lloyd George on conquering unemployment, Muammar al-Gaddafi’s Green Book, and many other colourful-sounding political works.
There’s talk of a Blairite plot. When is there not? Nearly 30 years after he was elected to parliament, Tony Blair still dominates debates about the future.
I was first called a ‘Blairite’ in 1994. Before that, I was called a Kinnockite, often by the same people. Labels like this have no positive use; they are only valuable to those who wish to box people – and their arguments – in. The range of writers in the Purple Book, including shadow ministers and MPs elected in 2010, prove that this is about the future, about how Labour wins, about how Ed Miliband can be a reforming Prime Minister. The world is different from the one in which Blair and Brown invented New Labour. Britain is different, after 13 years of a Labour government, and will be again after five years of this rotten coalition. The British people are different. In 1994, when New Labour appeared at the party conference, no-one used the internet, unless they were an academic or scientist. When Blair used the phrase ‘information superhighway’ in his 1995 conference speech, few knew what he was on about. The old policies are dead and buried. The Purple Book is not about replaying the old tunes. Those with a hankering for nostalgia can wave a union jack on 29th April. Today’s Labour Party has no use for them.
The debate about what Labour should do in office is urgent and pressing. The role of the modern state, moving to a low-carbon economy, tackling international criminal gangs, modernising the NHS, ensuring that the schools leave no-one behind, rebuilding the communities fractured by globalisaiton and under pressure from mass migration, creating cities that people want to live in, reconnecting politics and the people: these are the issues that Labour must address. This will be the red meat of the Purple Book.
Aneurin Bevan used to say ‘this is my truth – now tell me yours’. To all the critics of the idea of a Purple Book, before even a word has been published, I say: this is our truth, now tell us yours.