By Keith Flett
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The Less Things Change…

This article is over 17 years, 9 months old
Review of 'New Labour, Old Labour', editors Anthony Seldon and Kevin Hickson, Routledge £19.99
Issue 284

This book is a series of essays on aspects of the Labour governments of 1974-79, led first by Harold Wilson and then from 1976 by Jim Callaghan. For those readers old enough to recall the 1970s, many omissions will be spotted. There is, for example, no mention of the epic Grunwick dispute for union rights in north west London or, even more surprisingly, of the rise of the National Front and the opposition that stopped it. For those readers not old enough to remember the 1970s, there is more than enough narrative here to provide a guide.

Few of the authors have a political perspective that is even close to the traditions of Socialist Review, but even allowing for this, and the omissions noted above, the book can be read with interest. It seeks to provide some comparison of the Old Labour governments of the 1970s and the New Labour government since 1997. In a concluding chapter Peter Riddell points out that there have been some continuities, such as a focus on getting a minimum wage and banning foxhunting. He also suggests that there are marked breaks – in the attitude to the unions and to the market – which make New Labour further to the right even than the former benchmark for such a position of the early 1960s Labour leader Hugh Gaitskell.

In a useful chapter Jim Tomlinson draws attention to how it is has suited both New Labour and modern Tory mythology to see the 1974-79 governments as failures, when the economic situation they faced – of the post-1974 oil crisis of economic decline and high inflation – was common across Europe.

Elsewhere Robert Taylor suggests that the Wilson/Callaghan government in fact had some useful achievements around safety and equal pay legislation to its name. Taylor focuses on the Social Contract between the government and the unions, dubbed the ‘Social Contrick’ by critics at the time, which sought to control prices and wage rises. It is hardly mentioned in the book, but by the ‘Winter of Discontent’ of 1979, this had come to mean an attempt to cap wage rises to 5 percent with inflation running at 8 to 10 percent. He also underlines the influence that the Communist Party had on Labour policy through its strength in the official structures of various unions and its opposition to the Social Contract. The CPGB did formally oppose the policy, but in practice policed it, a point Taylor does not quite get around to making. The consequences for the left were disastrous.

All this material is interesting enough, but secondary to a theme that runs throughout the book, and particularly in the contribution of former MP Stuart Holland, which is to remind us of a world that we have lost. This is the world of the National Enterprise Board, originally designed to handle the nationalisation of the top 25 British companies, of planning agreements with many more companies, of government help for leading worker co-operatives and of the alternative economic strategy, focused on import controls and greater state direction of investment. All this was backed up by a powerful Labour left with Tony Benn, after 1974, industry minister.

The strategy did not work of course, depending on your view either because it was sabotaged by the Labour right or because it is simply not possible to reform capitalism piecemeal out of existence. However, the idea that the public sector is much better at running things than the private and that the market cannot be left to decide is one heard so little in official British politics today that it is simply mind-boggling to read this book and discover or recall that such ideas were centre stage 30 years ago, and that a Labour Party that espoused them won two elections in 1974.

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