Review of Labour Lives by Andy McSmith (Verso, £16) and What Needs to Change by Giles Radice (ed) (Harper Collins, £9.99), Tribune, 13 September 1996
Andy McSmith, Observer political correspondent, biographer of John Smith and one-time Walworth Road press officer, has written a timely book, using the format of Lytton Strachey’s Eminent Victorians, on seven people he sees as figures whose stories epitomise the life and times of the Labour Party in the past decade or so.
It’s not a collection of biographies of the shadow cabinet or even of the most powerful figures in “New Labour”. Tony Blair, Peter Mandelson, Clare Short and David Blunkett are four of the seven, but the others are Neil Kinnock, Ted Grant (the leader of Militant) and the late Jim Murray, a working-class Tyneside socialist and engineering union activist whose main claim to fame in the world of high Labour politics is as the man who swung the block vote of the Amalgamated Union of Engineering Workers behind mandatory reselection of Labour MPs back in 1979.
Of course, it’s possible to quibble with McSmith’s choice of characters. Some will undoubtedly bemoan the absence of various obvious high-profile movers and shakers: Gordon Brown, John Edmonds, Roy Hattersley, Ken Livingstone, Margaret Beckett or whoever. My own feeling, however, is that he has erred on the side of the predictable. The best piece in the book by a long chalk is that on Murray; the least gripping are those on Kinnock, Blair and Mandelson, where McSmith covers a lot of familiar ground.
But this is a small point. McSmith has an extraordinary feel for the subtleties of Labour politics, and he manages to write about them without ever getting bogged down in tedious minutiae. Throughout, his fondness for the people and causes of “Old Labour” is apparent – but, for all his antipathy to the culture of glitz and spin that characterises the party under Blair, he stops well short of sentimentalism for the good old days when Labour appeared incapable of ever winning an election again. All in all, it’s an excellent read, the most insightful book yet published on Labour’s cultural revolution since the 1983 general election.
By contrast, What Needs to Change, now published in paperback, is a disappointment. A collection of essays edited by Giles Radice with an introduction by Blair, it has its moments – indeed, just about every contribution is competently argued if not stylishly written – but never quite catches fire. The problem is that almost all its authors, from Patricia Hewitt on the family through Frank Field on the welfare state to David Marquand on community and the left, are summarising arguments that they have made more forcefully elsewhere.
If in the past couple of years you’ve been reading the thoughts of the best-known figures of the British centre-left intelligentsia in the papers, What Needs to Change will have few surprises for you. If, on the other hand, you’ve just returned to Britain after a long spell away without even the Guardian Weekly, you’ll be able to catch up with the minimum of inconvenience. For me, the only intriguing thing about this plodding collection is that the one truly iconoclastic piece – by Geoff Mulgan on reinventing democracy – is by the contributor closest to Blair. Weird.