After finishing ‘Ten Years in the Death of the Labour Party’ I followed my usual routine on finishing a book or film, I Googled it to check out the online discussion. I quickly found some very scathing reviews from readers given it short shrift. Here is a sample of the comments:
‘Tripe from a fan of Thatcher’s favourite son’
‘Imagine going to the (admittedly minimal) effort of writing this book, then having subsequent events expose everything contained within as the uninformed bilge that it is but having to go ahead and publish it anyway.’
And my absolute favourite:
‘Very poorly written and had no desire to read this.’
Oh dear, has poor old Tom Harris written a stinker? No, it’s the childish comments from Corby’s embittered online mob of course! They haven’t read the book, but they know it criticises their dear leader and so they needn’t read it to know it’s terrible. They will of course question the premise of the book by citing Corbyn’s 2017 election ‘success’ but they are missing the point. Perhaps they’d understand if they read the book.
For a start, Labour lost the election. More importantly, Harris’ main point is that the Labour Party he believes in – the Party of Attlee, Wilson and Blair – is dying. He repeatedly presses home that his objection to Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party is not just his electability, but a matter or principle and morality. I would argue that week by week this view is vindicated.
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But let’s get down to brass tacks here, is the book any good? Yes, it is, I very much enjoyed reading it and I recommend it to anyone interested in British politics. After reading around a third of it I remember thinking it was the kind of enjoyably readable prose that one could easily finish within a couple of sittings. Due to my two young children devouring so much of what used to be leisure time, this was actually impossible, but the compliment still stands.
Essentially, it’s a fairly straightforward but informed and authoritative recent history of the Labour Party’s descent into Far-Left populism, it’s a great read for people who have followed the situation closely and an even better analysis for those who haven’t. This is an important book which is only going to become more important over time as we look back in wonder at this strange, unstable period in British politics and consider the rupture and extremist takeover of a mainstream centre-Left Party.
It’s strange how quickly something as bizarre and unexpected as Jeremy Corbyn’s takeover of the Labour Party can become the new normal. ‘Ten Years in the Death of the Labour Party’ successfully reminds its readers of just how abnormal it is. The analysis of those small, pivotal moments that changed the course of events irrevocably makes one think of how different things could’ve been. What a folly the whole idea of ‘lending votes’ to ‘extend the debate’ now seems.
‘If just two of those thirty-six MPs had declined to support Corbyn the future history of the Labour Party would be very different’
Tom Harris traces the roots of Labour’s decay back ten years to Gordon Brown’s decision to not hold an election, which he identifies as the key moment in Labour’s descent into Corbynism. There’s no doubt Brown bottling it when he could’ve won, which would have likely resulted in David Cameron being ousted, was crucial because it led directly to the 2010 defeat and the rise of Ed Miliband.
I do feel that Tom Harris, being heavily invested in New Labour, skips over their economic record. He does correctly identify the effectiveness of the Conservative campaign to undermine Labour’s economic credibility through a ‘concerted effort to blame Labour entirely for the creation of the £156bn structural deficit’. By creating a clearly disingenuous link between Labour and the global financial crisis, they managed to make the public see Labour as a risk.
However, there is no doubt that the narrative that George Osborne promoted of Labour’s failure to ‘failure to fix the rood when the sun was shining’ was founded upon truth. Gordon Brown increased the size of the state from 36.6% in the year 2000 to 50.2% in 2010 (half of which came before the economic crisis), a faster increase than any other country in the world.
From about 2002 tax revenues fell short of spending. Throughout the “boom” years, the Labour government consistently made optimistic and unrealistic forecasts for tax revenue and fell short every year. From 2002 they ran a budget deficit between 2.5 and 3.5% of GDP, thus the national debt was rising when most other major economies were wisely paying off theirs.
This failure tarnished Labour’s record and provided the Conservatives with a stick to beat them with, which they did, for five years, undermining Miliband all the way and culminating in a 2015 majority win for the first time since 1992 based upon campaigning on the economy. The author skips over this, which is unsurprising as he was an MP throughout. This is the only flaw I read in an otherwise compelling analysis.
The central thesis that ‘Brown begat Miliband begat Corbyn’ is argued clearly and convincingly with Miliband identified as the biggest culprit. Poor old Ed does not get off lightly, being justifiably targeted for some very severe criticism. While Brown had tried to steer Labour further leftwards, Miliband took this further, laying the ground for the future transformation. In an unknowingly prescient comment at a Labour conference, a trade union delegate said to Neil Kinnock excitedly, ‘Neil, we’ve got our party back!’
We are entertainingly talked through the litany of Miliband’s mistakes and misjudgements, from the changing of the rules that facilitated the Far Left takeover, to his opportunistic opposition to Syrian intervention, right up to the bizarre spectacle of the Ed Stone, which inspired this marvellous bit of prose: “If success has many fathers and failure is an orphan, then the ‘Ed stone’ was a bastard child whose birth certificate had been shredded before being incinerated.”
The narrative then moves on to Corbyn’s takeover, his shaky early days while the moderates still opposed him and his every media appearance was marred by his ‘aggressive and defensive’ and petty and childish behaviour, right up to his better than expected election performance, a disaster for the Labour Party that Harris so obviously loves.
This is a thoughtful and lucid read suitable for anyone from the hardcore political nerd to the general reader wanting to know more about the domestic political scene.
Ten Years in The Death of The Labour Party by Tom Harris, Biteback Publishing £6.50