Under lockdown and looking to fill spare time by reading books about the Labour Party? Below is a list of my recommendations. And before you shout “but I already saw his list of books on Labour First”, this isn’t quite the same one. LabourList readers are presumably a more eclectic bunch than Labour First supporters, so I’ve been a bit more heterodox in my selection here.
Having said that, they are books that I’ve personally enjoyed, not books that it’s politically expected by any bit of the party to read. If I haven’t enjoyed reading it, it ain’t here. Unfortunately, there’s a lack of demographic diversity in both the subjects and authors of the historical books I’ve listed, for the sad reason that until all-women shortlists were brought in for parliamentary selections in the 1990s, Labour’s structures were dominated by white men. Nan Sloane has addressed the previously often unrecorded role of women in the party’s history in The Women in the Room: Labour’s Forgotten History.
Everything I’ve listed is available for to buy online if you search for the title and author. Some of the books are only available second hand, which means the prices can oscillate wildly.
To start, my favourite book ever about the Labour Party, for its brilliant writing, levels of obscure detail, and the way it evokes the impact of individual personalities – some not so famous – on key decisions, is Faces of Labour by Andy McSmith. Published in 1992, it is a collection of short portraits of Neil Kinnock, Militant leader Ted Grant, Tyneside trade unionist Jim Murray (you need to read it to find out his crucial role), David Blunkett, Clare Short, Peter Mandelson and Tony Blair.
I love this format of multiple biographies in one book, which brings me to a series of books by 1980s Shadow Education Secretary Giles Radice. They are each a set of parallel biographies of senior Labour figures, their contemporaries and the relationships, alliances and tensions between them. Read all three, and you get a good introduction to Labour in power in each of the three periods 1945-1951, 1964-1979 and 1997-2010. The Tortoise and the Hares looks at how Clement Attlee outmanoeuvred the flashier Ernest Bevin, Stafford Cripps, Hugh Dalton and Herbert Morrison. Friends & Rivals looks at Anthony Crosland, Roy Jenkins and Denis Healey. Trio looks at Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and Peter Mandelson.
For a general overview of the history of the party, don’t be put off by the title of Greg Rosen’s Old Labour to New – The Dreams That Inspired, the Battles That Divided. It covers the whole history of the party until 2005 through the medium of quoting chunks of speeches and debates from Labour Party conferences. This works – it brings to life some of the great set pieces very well.
Rosen’s other massive tome is the Dictionary of Labour Biography that he edited in 2001. It brings together short essay biographies of more than 300 people. It’s imperfect – there’s some bias in which people got in and which didn’t – and I’m ashamed of my own rather immature and unfair chapter on Diane Abbott in it (Diane, if you are reading this, I’ll write a fairer biography of you one day!). But despite these shortcomings, it’s a good stab at something that was needed.
I’m not a great fan of political autobiographies, as most of them are written to settle scores or self-justify, and most politicians aren’t great writers. Four that are worth reading are Denis Healey’s The Time of My Life, which covers his extensive cultural hinterland as well as his political life, Roy Hattersley’s anecdote-rich Who goes home? Scenes from a Political Life, Mo Mowlam’s Momentum (about her, not the post-2015 organisation of that name), and Betty Boothroyd’s The Autobiography, which doesn’t reveal much about her time as Speaker but has fascinating stuff about her stint on Labour’s national executive committee in the 1980s.
There are some must-read books about the soon-to-be-over Corbyn era. Protest and Power – The Battle for the Labour Party by David Kogan was published in February 2019. It covers the internal history of the party from the rise of the Bennites, through their 30 years in the wilderness, to their triumph. It’s very accurate, easy to read, and includes inside-track information from Jon Lansman, a personal friend of Kogan.
Corbynism: A Critical Approach by the Bristol Uni academics Matt Bolton and Frederick Harry Pitts is a Marxist critique of Corbynism’s conspiratorial analysis of capitalism. The Left’s Jewish Problem – Jeremy Corbyn, Israel and Anti-semitism by Dave Rich is the authoritative explainer of Labour’s antisemitism scandal. Rosa Prince’s Comrade Corbyn is the best biography of him so far, somewhere in between Alex Nunns’ hagiography and Tom Bower’s hatchet job.
For our most recent period in government, Anthony Seldon has written authoritative histories based on extensive interviews with key figures: Blair, Blair Unbound and Brown at 10, the last co-written with Guy Lodge.
The Harold Wilson and Jim Callaghan era was particularly well-documented as so many of the key players around the cabinet table – Tony Benn, Barbara Castle and Richard Crossman – were keeping daily diaries and went on to publish them. Benn’s is quite something: the story of a career-minded centrist with a flair for media relations and a tricky issue of giving up the hereditary peerage he had inherited, who becomes interested in Marxist theory as a kind of mid-life crisis in his 40s and ends up as the iconic figure of the hard left.
Better than all the diaries by front-rank politicians are adviser Bernard Donoughue’s Downing Street Diary: Volume 1 – With Harold Wilson in No. 10 and Downing Street Diary: Volume 2 – With James Callaghan in No. 10 and his The Heat of the Kitchen: an autobiography.
The modern-day diarist worth reading is Chris Mullin. His vantage point, reflected in the modest titles of his three volumes (A View from the Foothills, Decline & Fall and A Walk-On Part), was that of a marginalised Bennite backbencher and junior minister in the Blair years, but he’s a great writer who had a ringside seat.
To understand the roots of the current I belong to in the Labour Party – the ‘Old Labour’, pre-Blair right – you need to read John Golding’s Hammer of the Left, about his battles on the NEC against Benn, alongside Diane Hayter’s more academic history Fightback!: Labour’s Traditional Right in the 1970s and 1980s.
The Blairite narrative is best told by Philip Gould’s The Unfinished Revolution: How New Labour Changed British Politics Forever and Peter Mandelson’s The Third Man.
For the history of the Tribunite soft left, I would go with Michael Foot’s two-volume Aneurin Bevan: A Biography (there’s also an abridged single volume version), Anne Perkins’ Red Queen: The Authorized Biography of Barbara Castle, Michael Foot – A Life by Kenneth O Morgan, and Robin Cook by John Kampfner.
I doubt people now think of Neil Kinnock as soft left, but that’s where he started. I love Robert Harris’ 1984 book on Kinnock’s early life and rise to the leadership, The Making of Neil Kinnock.
For the hard left, Tony Benn’s diaries are the must-read, but for snap shots of how what we now think of as Corbynites viewed the rest of the party, try Defeat from the Jaws of Victory, Richard Heffernan and Mike Marqusee’s blistering critique of the Kinnock years, the soft left Labour Co-ordinating Committee (LCC), Labour Students and everyone else to their right, and Liz Davies’ Through the Looking Glass: A Dissenter Inside New Labour, the story of being blocked from being candidate for Leeds North East and her subsequent election to the NEC at the height of Blairism.
100 Years of Labour by Graham Bash and Andrew Fisher is the history of the party as the hard left see it, distilled into just 73 pages. Ken Livingstone’s first, 1987, go at an autobiography, If Voting Changed Anything they’d Abolish It, covers the rise of the London municipal left in the boroughs and Greater London Council.
The SDP breakaway has produced some good books, which need to be read for an understanding of why splitting from Labour is never a great idea; to get your head round the emotional and political turmoil of the people who did it; and because their earlier personal stories while they were Labour politicians are also interesting. I would recommend Shirley Williams’ Climbing the Bookshelves, Bill Rodgers’ Fourth Among Equals and the authoritative history of the SDP SDP: The Birth, Life, and Death of the Social Democratic Party by Ivor Crewe and Anthony King.
The fight between the Kinnock leadership and Militant has inspired two great books: Militant by Michael Crick, and Witchfinder General: A Political Odyssey by former party director of organisation Joyce Gould. Literally the worst book, for sheer turgid style, I have ever read is The Rise of Militant by Peter Taaffe. Whoever taught the guys in Labour Briefing to write great ranting polemics didn’t do it for the Millies.
I also have an interest in the party infighting of the 1950s and early 1960s (you don’t?), so would recommend Brian Brivati’s Hugh Gaitskell. If you can find a copy, try The Road to Brighton Pier by Leslie Hunter, which covers the Bevanite insurgency against the old guard figures from the 1945 government in the early ‘50s.
You can get a grasp on most of the early history of Labour through David Marquand’s Ramsay MacDonald as the man who both built the party up until 1929 and almost destroyed it in 1931. Alan Bullock’s Ernest Bevin and Herbert Morrison, Portrait of a Politician by Bernard Donoughue and George Jones give you the life stories of the two giants of the Attlee era party right, who detested each other. One’s pre-parliamentary life involved the creation of the mighty TGWU union, and the other built London Labour and ran the London County Council.
There are multiple good biographies of Attlee (John Bew, Francis Beckett, Kenneth Harris and Nick Thomas-Symonds), Wilson (Ben Pimlott – whose Hugh Dalton is also great, and Philip Ziegler) and Blair (the Seldon books mentioned above and John Rentoul).
If you have particularly strong bookshelves, and a geeky interest in Labour Party procedure, Lewis Minkin’s three heavy volumes are the ones to aspire to reading: The Labour Party Conference – A Study in Intra-Party Democracy (1978), The Contentious Alliance – Trade Unions and the Labour Party (1992), and The Blair Supremacy – A Study in the Politics of Labour’s Party Management (2014).
Finally, ideas and ideology. This is when you realise people in Labour have spent so much time fighting each other, very little time has been expended on actually coming up with explanations of how existing society works or how to change it or to what society we might be aspiring.
On the right of the party, the key revisionist social democratic text is Tony Crosland’s 1956 The Future of Socialism. Roy Hattersley had a good stab at an update to this philosophy with Choose Freedom: The Future for Democratic Socialism in 1987. Anthony Giddens provided the heavyweight intellectual heft behind New Labour, with The Third Way: The Renewal of Social Democracy.
On the left of the party, Tony Benn’s ideological/policy books Arguments for Socialism and Arguments for Democracy sold bucket loads in the 1970s. I was going to say they hadn’t stood the test of time as they are arguments for mass nationalisation, a siege economy, and leaving the Common Market. Oh. They are mercifully short, but I have a soft spot on a personal if not a political level for Benn, so a signed copy of Arguments for Socialism that he inscribed to my very Bennite auntie Olive has a pride of place on my shelves. Rather more profound as a critique of mainstream Labourism is Ralph Miliband’s Parliamentary Socialism: A Study in the Politics of Labour.
If you can get through all of those recommendations by the end of the lockdown, congratulations.