Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Labour's nearly heroes

Newer Labour lists his Labour heroes and asks me to do the same. His five are Robin Cook, Nye Bevan, Barbara Castle, Neil Kinnock and Tony Benn. He's missing Clement Attlee from that list, but apart from that there isn't much to disagree with.

So instead, here are three forgotten 'nearly heroes' of the Labour Party. All three gave decades of service to making Britain a kinder, more decent and socially just place than it was otherwise have been, yet all are remembered for what they did wrong, not what they did right:

1. Ramsay MacDonald. More so than Keir Hardie, MacDonald was the first great strategist of the Labour Party. He was instrumental in taking Labour from 2 MPs to being in government in less than a quarter of a century. For decades, he ran rings round the Liberal Party and helped ensure the destruction of the Liberals as a party of government. He was also a socialist and a man of principle who opposed the First World War. He is vilified because he chose to work with the Tories to try to solve a financial crisis of unprecedented severity, rather than resign and let the Tories make the cuts as they saw fit, as he was urged to by more left-wing comrades.

2. George Lansbury. Like David Davis, Lansbury resigned his parliamentary seat to fight an election on a single issue - the right of women to have the vote. Unlike David Davis, this was not a stunt (Lansbury lost that election, though was later re-elected). He was prepared to defy unjust laws - he was imprisoned for 'sedition' in supporting women's suffrage and led the Poplar Rates Rebellion against unfair local taxes which meant that people in the poorest part of London saw their money given to other, wealthier areas. Both causes were eventually successful, and were just two examples of his unwavering commitment to working-class people, particularly in the East End of London.

After Labour's catastrophic election defeat in 1931, Lansbury became its leader and began the task of rebuilding the party. A lifelong pacifist, Lansbury is not remembered as one of Labour's true greats because late in life, his efforts to avoid war led him to meet with world leaders including Hitler and Mussolini to urge peace.

3. Michael Foot. One of Labour's greatest orators, Foot has been on the right side of every foreign policy issue from appeasement to the Falklands, nuclear disarmament to Iraq. A best selling author and journalist, he has a 'hinterland' which so many politicians lack. A rebellious left-wing backbench MP in the 1950s and 1960s, he was also a great parliamentarian who as Deputy Leader did as much as anyone to keep the Labour government going after it lost its overall majority in the 1970s.

But what Foot is remembered for is none of this, but for taking on the impossible job of being Labour leader in 1980, and having to cope with far more difficulties than any leader before or since.

Politics is a rough old business, as the examples of these three 'nearly heroes' shows. But Labour's greatest heroes aren't its leaders, whether the ones who get remembered for the good that they did, or the ones that don't. Throughout its history, Labour hasn't just been a political party but a movement.

So my nomination for greatest Labour hero is to the 'unknown activist' - to the local councillor who everyone knows and goes to for help and advice; to the trade union rep who gets a fair deal for fellow workers; to the campaigner who works tirelessly to stick up for the most disadvantaged; and to the members and activists whose contribution to keeping the party going in good times and bad doesn't get the praise that it should do.


At 10:10 pm , Blogger Miller 2.0 said...

This is an interesting and well rounded take.

I particularly agree that the party was unmanageable in the early eighties.


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