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International Socialism, Winter 1961


Henry Collins

Party History


From International Socialism (1st series), No.7, Winter 1961, p.29.
Thanks to Ted Crawford & the late Will Fancy.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


A Short History off the Labour Party
Henry Pelling
Macmillan. 21s.

Dr. Pelling can be congratulated for his courage and, up to a point, success, in compressing the history of the Labour Party into 130 pages. Political analysis is impossible with such limited scope, and it is not seriously attempted.

None of the information in the book is new, though some of the events recounted will bear repetition. This is particularly true of the secret agreement between Herbert Gladstone and Ramsay MacDonald, in 1903, which enabled the recently formed Labour Representation Committee to put up candidates for election without, as a rule, facing Liberal opposition. There was a strong Liberal, anti-Socialist element in the Labour Party from its inception and it is still very much with us.

An interesting fact emerging from the narrative and bearing on recent controversy is the extent to which the Parliamentary Labour Party, for most of its history, has been subordinate to outside bodies. In 1911 the Parliamentary Party was opposed to taking office in the Asquith coalition, but was over-ruled in a joint meeting with the National Executive. The same thing happened in reverse at the end of the First World War, when the Parliamentary Party favoured remaining in the Government but was pulled out bodily by the National Executive. In 1931 the vacillations of the Parliamentary Party in face of the crisis were only ended by the decisive intervention of the TUC and, in particular, of Ernest Bevin. Throughout the 1930s, as Dr. Pelling brings out, the main force in determining policy was the TUC, acting occasionally through the National Council of Labour. The policy-making autonomy of the Parliamentary Labour Party is, in fact, a comparatively recent invention.

Dr. Pelling’s treatment of the first 20 years of Labour Party history is competent and assured. Over the next 20 years his grip falters perceptibly. For the last period, the years 1940 to 1960, he is at times downright misleading. There is the occasional slip – the 1944 White Paper, for example, did not commit post-war governments to the maintenance of ‘full employment’. (p.92) More serious is the writer’s scarcely concealed bias in his description of recent developments. He hardly makes overt comments, but uses emotionally toned language to express opinions. Mr Gaitskell’s assault on Clause Four was an example of ‘positive leadership’ (p.106), while the unilateralist majority at Scarborough consisted of CND plus an assortment ‘ranging from out-and-out pacifist and Communist sympathisers to a more opportunistic group ...’ (p.121)

Useful as an introduction, the Short History is of dubious value as a description of the present, or as a guide to the future.

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