Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Ages of Reform: Dawns and Downfalls of the British Left

Kenneth O Morgan is long established as the Grand Old Man of Labour history. This readable collection of essays and lectures captures his imaginative sympathy with the broader Liberal and Labour traditions that have existed since the beginning of the modern political age.

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The book would be perfectly timed in a parallel universe. In an introduction penned before May’s election, the author declares he would be ‘perfectly content’ were it ‘to throw up some form of Progressive co-partnership or even a rainbow coalition of the liberal-left’. Perhaps the actual events of 2010 may better reflect the ‘dawns and downfalls’ of Morgan’s subtitle. The Tory embrace of the great Welsh radical David Lloyd George and Labour’s missionary Ramsay MacDonald were rather more unlikely than a Cameron-Clegg alliance. Keir Hardie didn’t trust the Liberals, yet each of his political advances depended on alliances with them, and his cause was set back whenever those relationships broke down.

His chapters stand alone but Morgan highlights key continuities across a century and a half. Whatever its shortcomings, the 1832 Reform Act was the start of a common thread – from the Chartists, Hardie to the Bevanites – which set the British left on the political route to emancipation. Ralph Miliband railing against inevitable class betrayal of parliamentary socialism produced few concrete advances to the welfare settlement of New Liberal and Labour gradualism.

New Labour appeared allergic to history, seeing it as a problem for a party which had lost more often than it won. But ‘year zero New Labour’ cut Labour’s plural, revisionist traditions off from their own historical roots – with occasional exceptions to celebrate the 1945 landslide and the NHS, those resonant triumphs of Popular Old Labour. Morgan, a sympathetic biographer of Jim Callaghan and Michael Foot, would prefer balanced obituaries of Old Labour’s final years but is clear that ‘attempts to rehabilitate the Wilson-Callaghan governments, let alone pay them homage, cannot be more than a marginal success’. Labour’s renewal might well revive lost Labour traditions, which predate the welfare state. Morgan’s essays provide a good starting point for those who believe that a political tradition can know its own history without becoming trapped in it.

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Sunder Katwala

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