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'A sorry story of ambition and vanity': Lord Robertson reviews 'Labour’s Civil Wars'

Gordon Brown and Tony Blair, April 2005 | Alamy

3 min read

Patrick Diamond and Giles Radice’s vivid account of Labour’s many civil wars should make sobering reading for the current crop of feuding Conservative MPs

I read this captivating book during the Tory leadership campaign – a remarkable civil war itself and inside the governing party of the country. It is as serious and as self-damaging as the Labour wars outlined by Patrick Diamond and the late Giles Radice. The participants in the Tory conflict therefore would be well-advised to read and absorb the lessons outlined in this book. 

It is true, as is recounted by the authors, that the Conservative Party used to do its civil wars in monochrome while Labour did them in technicolour. The seminal battles – between Ramsay MacDonald and his colleagues; between Aneurin Bevan and Hugh Gaitskill; Gordon Brown and Tony Blair; and Jeremy Corbyn and common sense – were big picture confrontations. They defined eras and did immense damage to the prospect of Labour winning and keeping power.

The Tory Party, until the spasms of Europe and this most recent brawl, has buried its ideological schisms with ruthless self-discipline. It has, in contrast to Labour, been a model of suppressed antagonisms and, as a consequence, has achieved and retained power and government.

The former Labour MP and peer Giles Radice (disclosure, he was one of my oldest friends) had already, in a series of acclaimed books, had great fun in painting in words the powerful people who have defined and dominated Labour’s past. Here, with Diamond, the way in which Labour splits and battles – both personal and political – have kept it out of power are skilfully explored. It is a sorry story of egos, ambition, vanity and arrogance.

Of course, it was always portrayed as strategically ideological, but in essence it was down to endless and bruising tactical manoeuvring. However, this important and compelling book goes beyond describing Labour’s historical inability, up to Tony Blair, to produce an election-winning and uniting narrative appealing to the British people. It charts a new route for a social democratic programme to change that history of electoral boom and bust.

They skilfully explore the way in which Labour splits have kept it out of power

In this analysis lies the appeal for the warring factions of the Tory Party. After the chunks they knocked off each other in the longest suicide campaign since Labour’s 1983 programme, they should reflect on this quote: “Factions of the right and the left were locked in an eternal struggle, a fight to the political death in which there could be only one victor. That is the true meaning of political civil war.”

This book is not content with historical accounts – vivid and illuminating as they are – but is boldly intent on using the platform to articulate a programme for the future. It is written by social democrats – that strain so often under siege in Labour, but the only one likely to appeal to the British people. Optimistic and practical policies for a better future are outlined convincingly. 

Civil war, as history tells us, leaves only casualties and uncertainty. Consigning them to history, a clear vision of a fairer more prosperous country, and how to achieve it, is for any party the only way to gain – and keep – power.

Lord Robertson of Port Ellen is a Labour peer

Labour’s Civil Wars: How infighting has kept the left from power (and what can be done about it)
Written by: Patrick Diamond & Giles Radice
Publisher: Haus Publishing

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