Saturday, 07 October 2023 17:54

Top Ten Books (and a T-shirt) for Understanding Labour Party Conference 2023

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Top Ten Books (and a T-shirt) for Understanding Labour Party Conference 2023

Mark Perryman offers a 'how to read guide' to the last Labour conference before the 2024 General Election

All things Keir, bright, shiny and new in Liverpool after an unlucky, for the many very unlucky thirteen years of the Tories in power. Well perhaps not that new, not if we allow history to get a peep in to the proceedings. Here are ten books to help us do precisely that.

1. Richard Toye: Age of Hope: Labour, 1945 and the Birth of Modern Britain

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If Labourism was a religion the source of its faith would be Attlee and all things 1945 – the NHS, the welfare state, comprehensive education and the nationalisation of coal, gas and electricity. It was a faith that helped establish a post-war consensus until 1979, when Thatcherism brought it all to a shuddering end, and never restored since. Richard Toye offers no hagiography of the 'Spirit of '45', rather an historical context of what came before, what came after, and leaves us thinking about the extent Labour can restore what has been lost.

Available from Bloomsbury Continuum here

2.  John Williams: Red Men Reborn: From John Houlding to Jürgen Klopp

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The north-south divide of party conferences used to be the alternating duopoly of Blackpool/Brighton, now the former for Labour replaced by Liverpool, which with the greatest respect to Evertonians is a 'red' city. For a less conventional start to conference revisit the survival of Bill Shankly's 'The socialism I believe in is everyone working for each other, everyone having a share of the rewards. It's the way I see football, the way I see life' (product placement alert, these are words proudly worn on a Philosophy Football Shankly T-shirt) in this otherwise entirely modernised club. A lesson for Labour? Read John Williams' superb social history of Liverpool FC to see if any lessons can be learnt.

Available from Pitch publishing here 

3. Shabna Begum: From Sylhet to Spitalfields: Bengali Squatters in 1970s East London

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The 1970s saw institutionalised racism in (mainly Labour controlled) council housing, while on the streets a revived East London fascism developed in the shape of the National Front. Caught in between was a Bengali community from which emerged a squatters’ movement barely acknowledged by more conventional histories of both the area and the period. Shabna Begum challenges such an omission and begs the question when watching the 2023 Labour conference proceedings – do such omissions remain today?

Available from Lawrence Wishart here      

4. Lynne Segal: Making Trouble:  Life and Politics

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Another take on the 1970s and omission is provided by Lynne Segal's autobiographical account of the period.  Wilson vs Heath, Thorpe getting a look-in, two great Miners' Strikes,  the 3-Day week, the vote to join the Common Market, the Vietnam war, the emergence out of all this of Thatcherism. While on the margins the growth of social movements, most potently feminism, never enough to transform the mainstream yet with too much of a potency to ignore, however some tried. To achieve such weight in the 2020's there are some awkward lessons to be learnt from this most splendid read.

Available from Verso Books here  

5. Anthony Broxton: Hope & Glory: Rugby League in Thatcher's Britain

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Perhaps it is a little unfair to judge Labourism's relationship with popular culture via the deliberations of Labour Party Conference. But as the single biggest gathering of party members in one place I'd argue it's as good a place to start as any. Compare what we hear in the set-piece speeches from Keir and senior Shadow Cabinet members with Anthony Braxton's innovative account of Thatcherism, resistance and Rugby League. Or tour the fringe in search of anything like Anthony's grasp of class, popular culture and politics. No joy? Read this book for a sense of what Labour is missing out on. 

Available from Pitch Publishing here 

6. Ed Gillett: Party Lines: Dance Music and the Making of Modern Britain

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Or how about music and dance? Ed Gillett charts a movement of resistance and change that existed almost entirely outside of the party political. Labourism is surely the weaker for not finding the means to engage, and be changed by such an engagement. In part this is generational, Ed's book centres on the radical potential of 1990s dance music, the era of illegal raves, huge open-air gatherings and the 1994 Criminal Justice Act. But several decades on the fear remains that in Keir's dash for respectability the gap between party and parties will simply widen to turn into mutual hostility. What a waste.

Available from Picador here  

7. Alwyn Turner: All In It Together: England in the Early 21st Century

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Alwyn Turner is the unrivalled historian of late twentieth century Britain with Crisis? What Crisis? Britain in the 1970s followed by Rejoice! Rejoice! Britain in the 1980s and concluding with A Classless Society: Britain in the 1990s.  It’s a splendid trilogy, though reading one's youthful teens through to thirtysomethings as history is enough to make baby boomers feel old. Now it's the turn of millennials to start feeling the same way as Alwyn turns his attention to the Blair, Brown and Cameron years. Under the influence of Blair this period as primer for Keir at Number Ten? We won't have too long to find out.

Available from Profile Books here

8. David Broder: Eric Canepa and Haris Golemis (Eds) Facing the State: Left Analyses and Perspectives

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The days of 'Pasokification’, an  analysis pioneered by James Doran, appear to be long gone. In the 2010's Syriza, Die Linke, Podemos, Bloco, Rifandazione and Mélenchon challenged European social democratic parties from the Left. Without proportional representation this is a forlorn task in Britain, instead such a challenge came from within Labour – Corbynism. The annual Transform Europe! collection brings together writings and ideas from what remains of this challenge across the continent. The standout essay is from these shores – Hilary Wainwright on the greening of socially useful production. An absolutely vital argument in the face of trade union sectionalism that resists just such a change, aided and abetted, despite Ed Miliband's best efforts, by an over-cautious Labour leadership.

Available from Merlin Press here

9. Marral Shamshiri and Sorcha Thomson (Eds): She Who Struggles: Revolutionary Women Who Shaped The World

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Ellen Wilkinson, Barbara Castle, Audrey Wise, Harriet Harman, Mo Mowlam, Diane Abbott, Angela Rayner and plenty more from where that lot came. Part and parcel of Labour's past, present and future too? With Keir in the space of twelve months expected to be Prime Minister, and a whopping majority enough to virtually guarantee two terms, barring some kind of upset the next Labour leadership election could be a decade away. The long wait for Labour, unlike the Tories, Lib Dems and Greens, to have a woman leader continues. Would this change the party entirely? No. But neither is this absence irrelevant. For an idea of what a difference women can make to movements, She Who Struggles will inform and inspire in huge measure. 

Available from Pluto Books here

10. Colm Murphy: Futures of Socialism: 'Modernisation’, the Labour Party and the British Left, 1973-1997

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For my top pick Colm Murphy's impressive account of Labour's transformation out of the lows of a crushingly disappointing end to being in government, followed by years and years of defeat (sounds familiar?) cannot be faulted. Was Blairism a self-fulfilling prophecy after Michael Foot and Neil Kinnock’s failings, plus the Bennite retreat? Not at all, this book is no 1990s tribute act, rather the debates and alternatives are carefully tracked.

One plea though to author and publisher. This book has a sizeable potential readership from a broad spectrum across Labour and beyond. It should be being snapped up in Liverpool by delegates but is only available as an £85 (!) hardback edition designed for university libraries. When will academic publishers ever escape from their crushing lack of ambition? Let’s have a mass market paperback edition soon, please.

Available from Cambridge University Press here

Note: No links in this review are to Amazon. Please avoid buying from a tax-dodging platform which exploits their low paid workers.

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Bill Shankly 'socialism' T-shirt available from Philosophy Football

Mark Perryman is the organiser of Mission Possible: A Festival of Ideas for the Next Labour Government – details and tickets here

Read 739 times Last modified on Saturday, 07 October 2023 18:27