Interpreting the Labour Party: Approaches to Labour Politics and History

By John Callaghan; Steven Fielding et al. | Go to book overview

Introduction

John Callaghan, Steven Fielding and Steve Ludlam

Interpreting the Labour Party is an attempt to take stock of how some of the British Labour Party's leading interpreters have analysed their subject, deriving as they do from contrasting political, theoretical, disciplinary and methodological backgrounds. The book explores their often-hidden assumptions and subjects them to critical evaluation. In introducing this collection, we position the various chapters within a wider context and draw out some of their most striking implications.

It is important to remind ourselves from the outset that all students of the Labour Party – including the authors of this Introduction and those reading it adhere to some prior analytical-interpretive framework deriving from diverse theoretical positions. This is not something for which anyone should be criticised, for as E. H. Carr stated many years ago (1964), without some such intellectual setting the apparently highly potent 'fact' can have no meaning. It could be argued, indeed, that 'the facts' themselves are often the product of persuasive theories and interpretive arguments. While these propositions might seem uncontroversial when stated in general terms, once applied to a particular subject, in which analysts have invested much time and energy, their implications can arouse controversy. For if scholars are able to agree on certain 'facts', few of them are willing to concede without a fight that their reading of those facts is in any way flawed.

The study of the Labour Party is especially prone to interpretive dispute because it is inherently politicised. Many of those who have written about Labour – for example, Henry Pelling – have at one time or another been party members who identified with one or other of its ideological factions. A number have belonged to groupings, usually, like Perry Anderson and Tom Nairn, to Labour's Left, which have hoped to replace the party in the affections of the working class. More than a few of them – like Ralph Miliband and David Marquand – have been, at different periods in their lives, on both sides of the fence. Those writing from such committed positions have sometimes conceived of the party in teleological terms. That is, they thought it to be an ineluctable force whose destiny was to fulfil a historic mission, the nature of which could be anything from narrowly electoral to broadly anti-systemic. Such an approach is less obvious today, when so few believe in the prospect of establishing a social democratic – let alone a socialist – Britain. Indeed,

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