This volume is part history, part journalism, and by no means all the figures covered are dead! It is a huge 660-page work of reference with several hundred entries. It boasts some very well known contributors, including John Monks on former TUC general secretary Vic Feather and Gordon Brown on Red Clydesider James Maxton. However much readers of Socialist Review will disagree with many of the assessments made, it is guaranteed that they will exert a peculiar fascination, and occasionally horror, on the reader.
Historically the selection is idiosyncratic but wide ranging. Some of the founders of British Marxism such as Henry Hyndman and William Morris merit an entry. The great pre-1914 revolutionary socialist Victor Grayson’s life is summarised by his biographer David, now Lord, Clark. There are also names that older readers will recall from the specifically Labour Party past, such as Patrick Gordon Walker who lost Smethwick for Labour in the 1964 general election to a Tory who campaigned on the slogan ‘If you want a nigger for your neighbour, vote Labour.’ However, most who had the temerity to sign up with the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) from 1920 onwards are excluded. Even more seriously, rank and file activists and women are almost entirely absent. This book does suggest a British labour movement that is white and male, which is far from an accurate historical picture.
When we turn to the selection for those who are still alive or who have only recently departed, the room for argument about who deserves an entry and who does not gets even greater. For example, Will Hutton may be an interesting writer, but does he have any place in a Dictionary of Labour Biography? Where figures of the left do get a mention, such as Arthur Scargill, the tone is often one of condescension. In some cases, for example David Lammy on Bernie Grant, there is an unfortunate attempt to rewrite principled socialists of the past into a New Labour present.
On the other hand here you will find biographical details of many of the key lieutenants of New Labour and Blairism. If you ever wondered what the backgrounds of the recently resigned Scottish first minister or general secretary of the Labour Party, Henry McLeish and Margaret McDonagh respectively, were, the details are here. There are many others, including Cherie Booth, Charles Clarke and Clare Short. In short, as a guide to the new enemies of the left the book is absolutely indispensable. There are also entries for a range of trade union leaders, from former miners’ leaders such as AJ Cook, dating from the General Strike period of the 1920s, to Joe Gormley, the miners’ leader in the 1970s, to the current leader of the GMB, John Edmonds.
Those with even a passing acquaintance with the past and present history of the British labour movement, and in particular the British Labour Party, will find themselves drawn to this book and to argument over the entries. It is not really a book for academic reference, but something to argue about over a coffee or a pint. Or at least it would be were it not so damn heavy!
Finally, it should be said that anyone who is seeking a genuine historical Dictionary of Labour Biography, covering radicals, socialists, communists and others, should consult the ten volumes published under that name and edited by John Saville and Joyce Bellamy.
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