Interpreting the Labour Party: Approaches to Labour Politics and History

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

8

Ross McKibbin: class cultures,
the trade unions and the Labour Party

John Callaghan

The work of the historian is always a complex and heterogeneous aggregate of theories, narrative, interpretation and analysis. Such originality as it possesses lies more often than not in the distinctive pattern which the historian gives to the components of his or her work, rather than the components themselves, many of which may be found elsewhere. The three books by Ross McKibbin which form the focus of this chapter raise interesting questions for the study of the Labour Party largely because of this type of originality in which familiar elements are given novel interpretation and arrangement. These studies are linked but they do not represent a systematic investigation of my subject matter; there are too many discontinuities for that in McKibbin's lines of enquiry: questions raised in relation to the years 1880–1914, for example, are simply dropped for the period 1918–50. Nevertheless a more or less coherent picture emerges of Labour's history in the first half of the twentieth century.

It is an account of the Labour Party that is intimately related to the social history of the working class. The main explanation of Labour's politics, achievements and limitations which emerges from McKibbin's work is grounded in the culture of its principal constituency – the British working class – rather than the party's leadership, organisation and programme. Though the first of his studies – The Evolution of the Labour Party (1974) – is an institutional history of the party, McKibbin was already persuaded that political action is the result of social and cultural attitudes which are not primarily political. Politics itself is said to play only a subordinate and inarticulate part in people's lives. The general thesis of this book – an implicit theory of British society – attributes both the rise of the Labour Party in the years up to 1924 and the slow attrition on the part of the Liberal Party to the growth of 'an acutely developed working class consciousness'. But it is a class consciousness which obstructed the spread of socialism and excluded Labour from many areas of working-class life. Though the Labour Party remained ideologically vague until at least the end of its third decade, according to McKibbin, it was unable to become the sort of catch-all 'people's party' which some of its leaders desired. It remained a class party.

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