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A History of the British Labour Party


 Andrew Thorpe


 British Studies Series

Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015 (First Edition, 1997)

Paperback. x+412 p. ISBN 978-1137409829. £19.99


 Reviewed by Emma Bell

Université de Savoie Mont-Blanc (Chambéry)



This is the fourth edition of Andrew Thorpe’s comprehensive history of the British Labour Party, tracing its early origins in late nineteenth-century trade unionism and socialism through its rise to second-party status and on to its transformation into New Labour. This new edition includes a final chapter focusing on the challenges facing the party after the departure of Tony Blair in 2007 and discussing its prospects in the 2015 general election. Thorpe writes in a clear and accessible manner, ensuring that his work will appeal not only to students of political history but also to a much wider audience seeking to understand the changing fortunes of the Labour Party. He provides a number of useful appendixes and a detailed guide to further reading for those interested in delving further. Nonetheless, Thorpe assumes that his readership is already in possession of some background knowledge, making this book less suitable as a basic introductory text to British political history.

Thorpe chooses to adopt a chronological approach to his analysis of the Labour Party’s history, an approach which he admits may mask some broader themes. However, he attempts to tease these themes out in the conclusion to the book and, in any case, they tend to emerge quite naturally themselves. Most notably, perhaps, are those concerning Labour’s key alliances and affiliations, particularly with the trade unions but also with key sections of the electorate; the party’s record in government; its internal divisions; and its key beliefs. In analysing these themes, Thorpe provides a concise overview of the key historiographical debates and challenges a number of commonly-held assumptions. With regard to Labour’s relationship with the trade unions, he follows most historians in noting the fractious nature of this relationship, particularly in the 1970s, but he is careful to avoid exaggeration and refutes claims that ‘divorce’ between the two parties was ever likely. He also provides a balanced view of Labour’s record in government. Whilst the Attlee governments are presented as ‘Labour’s most successful period in office’, Thorpe does highlight the limitations of a number of policies, noting the failure of a coordinated policy on nationalisation that could successfully create a mixed economy, the limitations of national insurance, the ‘unimpressive’ house-building programme, the timidity shown with regard to constitutional reform and the lack of innovation in education policy. Similarly, whilst picking up on many criticisms of the Blair governments, Thorpe concedes that they ‘did bring real improvements to the lives of many people’. It is largely Thorpe’s focus on the context in which various different governments operated which enables him to provide a balanced and realistic analysis. He argues, for example, that, far from having failed, the Labour governments of 1974-79 actually achieved much in an extremely difficult economic and social context, in many ways leaving the country better off than it was in 1990.

It is also Thorpe’s focus on the wider context which helps to explain another central theme which emerges from this book: the Labour Party’s lack of radicalism. From its inception, Thorpe argues that the party was essentially on the defensive, committed to moderate, consensual reform rather than any form of revolutionary programme. He highlights the party’s lack of radicalism in its post-war nationalisation programme, in its commitment to maintaining Britain’s great power status, even after the retreat from India, and in its failure to do more to combat racial discrimination in the 1960s. He demolishes popular myths concerning Labour’s leftward drift in the 1980s, suggesting that ‘in retrospect what is most striking about Labour’s “swing to the left” at this time is not its extent but its limitations’ [214]. Although radical left-wing elements were always active within the party, they never succeeded it taking it over, as the election of the moderate, reforming Neil Kinnock to the party leadership in 1983 was to demonstrate. Radicalism was ultimately constrained by political expediency as the party felt it had to bow to popular opinion and the shifting of the centre ground, especially after the 1980s.

Thorpe’s analysis certainly has contemporary relevance. It suggests that we should be wary of exaggerating Labour’s apparent leftward drift under Jeremy Corbyn or of claiming that his victory will make the party unelectable. Then, as now, the drift to the left is perhaps less significant than it may appear and, as in 1983, Labour’s future success or failure will be dictated by a number of contextual factors. Thorpe places great emphasis on the economy as a factor which can help explain the success or failure of the party (and thus any radical programme) more than any other. Indeed, at the end of his final chapter, he predicts that an economic recovery under a Conservative-led government post-2015 would have serious negative consequences for Labour. There may be some truth in this, especially if Labour continues to fail to successfully refute the narrative according to which it was the excessive spending of the Blair governments that was primarily responsible for the financial crisis of 2008 and the subsequent recession. Paradoxically, should the economy decline in the next five years, this may also place Labour at an electoral disadvantage since, as Thorpe points out at several points in his book, its whole programme of social progress has always been predicated on a sound economy. Perhaps then, if any lessons are to be learned from the history of the British Labour Party, it is that Labour needs to spend the next five years fundamentally rethinking its economic policy. Yet, it needs to go further. As Thorpe highlights (but regrettably does not discuss in detail), the party has often failed at being democratic in terms of taking the opinions of its members into account. As a result, some of the most radical and original thinking has tended to be marginalised. To move forward, it must therefore reconnect with its base, particularly with women and the young, and build a genuinely popular, grassroots movement.


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