Understanding the Wilderness: The Tides of History Library

The question of ‘Must Labour Lose’ has been central to the thoughts of historians of the Labour Party for much of the post-war period. Applied to the party’s successive defeats in the 1950s and 1980s, it has now returned as a key question as the party grapples with another historic identity crisis.

Labour’s ‘Wilderness Years’ (1979-1997) remains a divisive topic within the party.  To Labour’s ‘modernisers’, the 1980s was the time when the party lost touch with ‘the people’ by failing to understand factors such as the growth of affluence, mass consumerism, individualism and home-ownership of Thatcher’s Britain.

To the Labour Left, the 1980s marks the turning point in our history; when the party capitulated to the forces of neoliberalism. The period is now used as a reference point to understand contemporary political issues; from the decline of community in Labour  ‘heartlands’ to the vote to leave the European Union.

As I have received many requests for book recommendations on this period, I have put together a list of the best ones from across the spectrum of debate. It should hopefully act as an accompaniment to the list of documentaries I posted at the turn of the year.

Part One: Must Labour Lose? Understanding the Labour Party’s Culture

There has been a great amount of work done on the culture of the party and attempts to understand the irrationality of its history. Scholars have developed ideas about party mythologies – the stories and the symbols – that make up its culture and how this, in turn, shapes its future. In contrast to the Conservative Party, Labour has a tendency to create myths about its betrayals rather than its successes in Government. Here are the key texts exploring this argument:

Doctrine and Ethos in the Labour Party H.F Drucker (1979)


In 1979 Drucker broke new ground with his study of the Labour Party. He argued that Labour was as influenced by history, sentimentality, mythology and tradition as much as any unified ideology and socialist doctrine. In doing so he defined Labour’s ‘ethos’. A key line is his observation that the ‘the Labour Party has and needs a strong sense of its own past and of the past of the Labour movement. The sense of its past is so central to its ethos that it plays a crucial role in defining what the party is about to those in it’ (Drucker, 1979: 25).

Nostalgia and the Post-War Labour Party by Richard Jobson (2017)


Forty years on from Drucker’s work, Richard Jobson has provided a modern interpretation, studying the role of nostalgia on the post-war history of the party. He examines the impact of nostalgia on successive Labour figures – from Bevan and Benn to Blair and Corbyn. His central conclusion that Labour’s nostalgia not only sustains its activist base but defines its identity.

However, as outlined through an examination of the key battles in the party’s history, the past can restrict it from modernising to the demands of the modern electorate and the ‘ordinary’ non-political voter.

‘Labour: The Myths It has Lived by’ by Jon Lawrence In Labour’s First Century (2000)


Jon Lawrence’s work explores the mythologies that make up the culture of the party. He has categorised Labour’s ‘shared stories’ as a form of mythology which ‘take on a life of their own within the collective identity and historical consciousness of party activists’.

These stories have thus enabled party members to sustain continuity as society changes around them. The sense of history, traditions and mythology can be viewed as a barrier to change as well as a positive way of holding the party together and giving it a collective identity.

‘What kind of people are you?’ Labour, the people and the ‘new political history’ by Lawrence Black in Interpreting the Labour Party (2001)


Firstly I would recommend picking up this book as each chapter is a worthwhile exploration on methods to understand the party.

For the purposes of this list turn to Lawrence Black’s chapter on ‘What Kind of People are you?’ which focuses on the ‘New Political History’.

Here Lawrence Black explores the relationship between Labour expectations of ‘the people’ and ‘the people’ as they truly are. A key observation is how Labour MPs have formed ‘expressions of disappointment in the people, for their failure to live up to the vision and hope socialists had of them’.

Interpreting the Labour Party – OAPENwww.oapen.org › download

Remaking the Labour Party, From Gaitskell to Blair by Tudor Jones (1996)


Remaking the Labour Party examines the revisionist thought in the Labour Party from the Gaitskell era up to Tony Blair’s Clause Four revision in 1995. His focus is on the mythologies and symbolism that surrounds the issue of public ownership – something worth revisiting in the wake of its return as the central symbol of the Corbyn project.

New Labour’s Pasts: The Labour Party and its Discontents by James Cronin (2004)


Cronin’s book adds to this field by evaluating how New Labour remained gripped by its own past. A key argument is an idea that the party has historically refused ‘to obey logic’ and have been ‘fiercely resistant to critique and renewal’. This, he argues, is due to it being  ‘more than just a political party…it is a way of thinking and feeling’ underpinned by ‘an intense set of loyalties and antipathies’.

The Labour Governments 1964-1970: Labour and Cultural Change by Steven Fielding


Whilst this book deals specifically with the Wilson Government, it explores many of the eternal challenges the party faces when dealing with social and cultural change. Fielding does what many academics fail to do and place Labour within the cultural environment of its age. He instead establishes ‘the extent to which Labour was a cultural entity as much as…the television soap opera Coronation Street, Anthony Burgess’s novel The Clockwork Orange, the pop group Herman’s Hermits and Manchester United Football Club’.

See also; The Political Culture of the Left in Affluent Britain, 1951–64 by Lawrence Black; The People’s Flag and the Union Jack: An Alternative History of Britain and the Labour Party by Gerry Hassan and Eric Shaw; The Labour Party since 1945 by Eric Shaw; The Language of Progressive Politics by Emily Robinson (2017)

Part Two: The Wilderness Years – Countdown to Thatcherism

Labour’s Wilderness Years began in 1979 following the fall of the Callaghan Government and the breakdown in relations between the Government and the trade unions.

These books provide a good account of the politics of the late 1970s and some of the context to Thatcher’s popularity at the dawn of the 1980s.

The Politics of the Labour Party by Dennis Kavanagh (1982)


Written at the height of Labour’s last crisis – with the SDP breaking away and Benn challenging Healey for the Deputy Leadership – this book examines the challenges facing the party in the early 1980s.

Chapters deal with the last Labour Government, the rise of backbench and left-wing dissent as well as the changing nature of party leadership. Contributors included Robert Mackenzie, Colin Crouch and Dennis Kavanagh as they answer the question: are Labour still the worker’s party?

See also; Labour in Power? A Study of the Labour Government 1974-79 by David Coates (1980); New Labour, Old Labour: The Wilson and Callaghan Governments, 1974-1979; The Future of Social Democracy by Paterson and Thomas

Michael Foot/James Callaghan by Kenneth O’Morgan (1997/2007)


Kenneth O Morgan’s biographical accounts of Michael Foot and James Callaghan outline the final years of the Labour Government as it grappled with a Hung Parliament, Scottish Devolution, the Lib-Lab Pact, the IMF crisis and the increasing discontent on the backbenches.

See also; Time and Chance by James Callaghan; Conflicts of Interest (1977-1980) by Tony Benn 

The Writing on the Wall: Britain in the Seventies by Phillip Whitehead (1985)


Phillip Whitehead was a Labour MP who provided one of the first general accounts of the 1970s. This work was based on extensive interviews with former Labour ministers and trade unionists, for a Channel 4 television series. Many of the historical arguments about Britain being ungovernable in the 1970s stem from the interviews in this book.

See also; Crisis? What Crisis? Britain in the 1970s by Alwyn W.Turner; Seasons in the Sun: The Battle for Britain, 1974-1979 by Dominic Sandbrook

The Winter of Discontent: Myth, Memory and History by Tara Martin Lopez (2014)


To understand the rise of Margaret Thatcher scholars are looking at how she ‘narrated the crisis’ of the 1970s. The industrial strife that culminated in the Winter of Discontent was a key narrative that shaped attacks on Labour in the 1980s and the 1990s.  Lopez – building on the work of Colin Hay – re-examines how some of the mythologies developed and became part of everyday life.

See also; Narrating Crisis: The discursive construction of the Winter of Discontent by Colin Hay (1996); Reassessing 1970s Britain by Black, Pemberton and Thane (2013); Crisis, What Crisis? by John Shepherd 

Part Three: Labour and the Left in the 1980s

The Battle for the Labour Party by David and Maurice Kogan. 1982


The Battle for the Labour Party was first published in 1981 and was referenced by Tony Benn as ‘a valuable guide to the developments within the Labour party at this time’. The book covers the period between 1973 and 1982 as the party increasingly divided between left and right over constitutional issues. There are also a number of other great books which examine the rise of the left during this period below.

See also; The House the Left Built: Inside Labour Policy Making 1970-1975’, by Michael Hatfield; Labour: A Tale of Two Parties by Hilary Wainwright; Labour at the Crossroads by Geoff Hodgson 1981; The Rise and Fall of the Labour Left by Patrick Seyd 1987; The Battle for Bermondsey by Peter Tatchell, 1983

The Politics of Thatcherism by Jaques and Hall (1983)


Stuart Hall coined the term ‘Thatcherism’ in January 1979 before she had even entered Downing Street. In this collection of essays, from Marxism Today, Hall identified the left and the trade union movement as creating the conditions for the changes in voting behaviour. The book outlines how it could navigate the new political landscape through environmental issues, LGBT rights and wider embracing of multiculturism

See also; New Times by Stuart Hall and Martin Jacques, (1989)

Arguments for Socialism/Democracy by Tony Benn (1979)


Much of the Corbynite language has its origins within the Bennite arguments of the 1980s – whether it is on leaving the EEC, tackling the media or reforming the House of Lords.

These two books remain the best insight into Benn’s strategic thinking. In the late seventies, Benn stood as the radical alternative to Margaret Thatcher as Britain moved away from the post-war settlement. In  ‘Arguments for Socialism’, Benn put forward an ‘alternative economic strategy’.

The key takeaway lines are his writings on Europe, which were adopted by the Brexit campaigners since 2016. Benn argued: ‘the Labour Party must ask what effect all this power will have on the nature of our democracy’

See also; Parliamentary Socialism/Class War Conservatism by Ralph Miliband; The Labour Movement in Britain by John Saville (1988); The Labour Party and the Struggle for Socialism by David Coates (1975)

Labour and the Left in the 1980s (ed) Davis and McWilliam 


This volume of essays – which I discussed here – is the first retrospective history of the left within the Thatcher decade. Scholars such as Eric Shaw, Martin Farr and Richard Carr explore aspects of left-wing culture; from the political leadership, economic alternatives, LGBT rights, the miners’ strike and Militant.

See also; Gay men and the left in post-war Britain: How the personal got political by Lucy Robinson.

Part Four: The Political Culture of Thatcher’s Britain

‘Margaret Thatcher and the decline of class politics’ by Jon Lawrence and Florence Sutcliffe-Braithwaite in Making Thatcher’s Britain (2006)


This is one of the best books to understand the Thatcher era. In particular, Lawrence and Sutcliffe-Braithwaite re-examine the methods behind her narratives and situate it within the culture of the 1970s. They outline how Britain was influenced by languages of class warfare – from the Likely Lads to the Marxist left – and how Thatcher worked to neutralise this. A key text to understanding her success at creating narratives and how she later influenced the rhetorical style of New Labour.

See also; New Times revisited: Britain in the 1980s in Contemporary British History; Thatcher by E.H.H Green (2006)

Promised You A Miracle: Why 1980-82 Made Modern Britain by Andy Beckett (2016)


Beckett explores the critical early period of Thatcher’s premiership – identifying it as the period which still defines modern Britain. The early 1980s were a period of great division and concern about the decline of the British economy. Through the battles of the two years, he argues Britain emerged as a more ruthless and corporate country that has remained that way ever since. A quality read.

See also; Mrs Thatcher’s Revolution – the Ending of the Socialist Era by Peter Jenkins (1988); Rejoice! Rejoice! Britain in the 1980s by Alwyn.W Turner; Who Dares Wins: Britain 1979-1982 by Dominic Sandbrook (2019); Inside Story: Politics, Intrigue and Treachery from Thatcher to Brexit by Philip Webster (2016); The Changing Anatomy of Britain by Anthony Sampson (1982)

Part Five: The Fightback: Labour and the Right in the 1980s

Fightback!: Labour’s Traditional Right in the 1970s and 1980s


The most comprehensive insider account of the battles on the Labour right to wrestle back control of the party from the Bennites. Hayter – who initially did the book as her PhD – draws on extensive interviews with the key players and uses private papers to explain the strategic thinking of the moderates.

She pinpoints the role of the trade unions and the St Ermin’s Group in working to win back control of the National Executive Committee, expel Militant and introduce One-Member-One-Vote.

Labour Rebuilt by Colin Hughes and Patrick Wintour (1990)


Written in 1990 after Labour’s third electoral defeat in a row, it outlines the modernisation process and policy review undertaken by Neil Kinnock. It details how the party changed its communication programme, its unilateralist defence policy and relationship with the rank and file of the party.

See also; Labour’s Renewal?: The Policy Review and Beyond by Gerard Taylor (1997); The Labour Party Since 1979: Crisis and Transformation by Eric Shaw (1994)

Hammer of the Left by John Golding (Re-issued 2016)


Golding provides a visceral account of his battle to beat the ‘Militant trots’ within the Militant tendency.

Whilst written in an informal, partisan and combative style, it remains a great source for the factional battles which defined the 1980s

See also; Militant by Michael Crick (Re-issued 2016); Four Years in the Death of the Labour Party by Austin Mitchell (1983)

Defeat from the Jaws of Victory: Inside Kinnock’s Labour Party by Richard Heffernan and Mike Marqusee (1992)


Published in the aftermath of Labour’s 1992 defeat, this is perhaps the most critical take of the Kinnock leadership. Heffernan and Marqusee depict a party that sold out all – the miners, the working class and the left – in a bid for power that never came. Their account, based on ‘insider’ sources, argues that Kinnock killed the party’s ‘democratic structures, stripped it of any trace of radical policy, and purged it of hundreds of dissident members’.

Designer Politics: How Elections are Won by Margaret Scammell (1995)


This was the first book to offer a serious examination of the 1980s/90s phenomenon of political marketing in Britain. Focussing on the techniques employed by Margaret Thatcher, Neil Kinnock and then Tony Blair, it highlights the influential role of the image-makers within the parties.

On a broader level, It explores how Britain’s political culture is shaped by advertising and attempts to better understand the role of political spin and the ‘Americanisation’ of politics. A hugely important book outlining the changes that occurred in Labour’s image in the 1980s.

See also; From Soapbox to Soundbite: Party Political Campaigning in Britain since 1945 by Martin Rosenbaum (1997); Political Marketing and British Political Parties by Lees-Marshment, Jennifer (2001); The Politics of Marketing the Labour Party by Dominic Wring (2005); Mad Men and Bad Men by Sam Delaney (2015)

Kinnock: The Authorised Biography by Martin Westlake


Kinnock never wrote his autobiography, once claiming that ‘only the winners write them’. Instead, there are a number of good biographies – notably Robert Harris on his early years – but Westlake’s draws on Kinnock’s papers to present the fullest account of his leadership. Chapters dealing with the miners’ strike, Militant and the run-up to the 1992 election are well worth a read.

SDP: The Birth, Life and Death of the Social Democratic Party by Ivor Crewe and Anthony King (1995)


This is the definitive book on the breakaway of the SDP in the early 1980s. Based on unique access to the SDP’s archive it analyses in detail the reasons for its early success – the Warrington by-election that shook Labour – and its ultimate demise after the failure to convert votes into seats in 1983

See also; The Rebirth of Britain (ed) by Wayland Kennet (1982); Politics is for People by Shirley Williams (1980); The Progressive Dilemma by David Marquand (1999); Roy Jenkins by John Campbell (2015); Time to Declare by David Owen (1991)

John Smith: A Life by Andy McSmith (1994)


McSmith’s book on John Smith remains a key text to understanding the politics of the early 1990s and ‘what might have been’ had Smith lived. Written with the full co-operation of John Smith, it takes in his full life but also reveals some of the contemporary battles Smith faced as he geared Labour up for the 1997 election. It reveals the tensions between his camp and the ‘modernisers’ Blair and Brown at the end of his tenure as leader.

Faces of Labour: The Inside Story by Andy McSmith (1997)


Faces of Labour focuses on the individuals behind the emergence of New Labour. McSmith – a former press officer of the party – describes the transition from the left to the centre.

Contains biographies of the key players – such as Tony Blair, Peter Mandelson, John Prescott, Robin Cook and Clare Short. Also examines the role of Militant and the left’s obsession with the party rulebook.

See also: Safety First: The Making of New Labour by Paul Anderson (1997)

Part Six: New Labour’s Revolution

The Unfinished Revolution by Philip Gould (2011 feat Blair introduction)


The definitive story of New Labour from its birth in the wreckage of the 1983 landslide defeat to Margaret Thatcher to its election defeat of 2010. It outlines in detail the strategic thinking behind the project and the environment within which it is was created. The key takeaway is Gould’s desire in the 1980s to speak to ‘ordinary people’ – those lost in the ‘Land that Labour Lost’ – after the emergence of Thatcherism.

Blair opens the revised edition with an analysis of the end of New Labour; ‘the notion we lost over Iraq and light financial regulation fits uneasily with the election of a Tory government committed to both’.

He goes on to warn Labour not to get too comfortable in opposition:

‘To begin with, opposition has a certain appeal.  After you learn its tricks – especially how to clamber aboard bandwagons and accelerate them – it can even have the illusion of actual power.  You can set the agenda…and generally have a good time of it.  But it always is an illusion of power, not the real thing.  After a time it palls, and then, if you are serious about politics, it grates and irritates.’

Worth a revisit in the wake of the December disaster.

See also; Philip Gould: An Unfinished Life by Dennis Kavanagh (2011); Class, politics, and the decline of deference in England, 1968-2000 by Florence Sutcliffe-Braithwaite; The Rise of New Labour by Heath. Jowell and Curtice (2001)

What Needs to Change: New Visions for Britain by Giles Radice (feat Tony Blair) (1996)


Released in 1996, ‘What needs to Change’ gives a good insight into the ideas that were floating around New Labour as it approached the 1997 election. Featuring essays from Yvette Cooper, Denis Healey, Giles Radice, Peter Hennessy, David Marquand, Michael Young and Tony Blair.

Blair’s comments on patriotism are worth revisiting in the wake of the 2019 result; ‘it was always short-sighted for the Labour Party to allow the Conservatives to wrap themselves in the national flag’

See also; The Blair Revolution: Can New Labour Deliver? by Peter Mandelson and Roger Liddle (1996); The State We’re In by Will Hutton (1995); A Class Act: The Myth of Britain’s Classless Society by Andrew Adonis & Stephen Pollard (1997)

Campbell Diaries: Volume One by Alastair Campbell (1994-97)


Prelude to Power covers the period from May 1994 to May 1997 when Blair came to power. Central to Campbell’s entries are a restless desire to get on top of the media agenda and neutralise the attacks from the right-wing press. Despite holding a mammoth opinion poll lead throughout, Campbell projects a leadership team that is continually unsatisfied and restless with their position in the country.

Talking to a Brick Wall by Deborah Mattinson (2010)


Mattinson was a central figure in the modernisation of the party as it increasingly framed its message around focus groups and opinion polling. Not only does it offer an insight into the methodology, it surveys Labour’s image problems during the 1980s.

A key takeaway is a desire for Labour to find a policy that summed up its ethos in a way that Right to Buy had done for Thatcher. Arguably, it never did find the policy that still defines it.

Blair by Anthony Seldon (2003)


Seldon’s book is a fascinating insight into the people that shaped Tony Blair’s political outlook. It interchanges between Blair’s biography, the key moments in his political career and the personalities of the people that surrounded him. Chapters on Alastair Campbell, Philip Gould and Peter Mandelson are particularly insightful.

See also; Blair by John Rentoul (2001); A Journey by Tony Blair (2006)

The Last Party: Britpop, Blair and the Demise of English Rock by John Harris (2003)


One, often overlooked, aspect of the New Labour years is the way in which it managed to tap in to the poular culture and ‘zeitgiest’ of the age. John Harris – once of the NME and now of the Guradian – chronciles the rise and fall of Britpop against the backdrop of New Labour. Harris captures the appetite for change – and tells the story of how the Union Jack became the symbol of cool for a short period in the middle of the 90s.

A Classless Society: Britain in the 1990s by Alwyn. W. Turner (2013)


Opening with John Major’s ‘classless society’ and ending with the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001, Turner wrote the first popular history of the 1990s. He fuses the the heavy politics – of single parents, sleaze, Diana’s death and Peace in Northern Ireland – within the culture – of lads, girl power. football and celebrity – to study the New Britain which Labour found itself in charge of at the turn of the century. An essential read to understand the popular culture within which Blair oriented the New Labour project.

Popular Newspapers, the Labour Party and British Politics by James Thomas (2005)


Popular Newspapers, the Labour Party and British Politics assesses the post-war history of the party’s relationship with the media. Thomas outlines the arguments made by Labour politicians in relation to press bias and focusses on the issues that each leader has faced. Provides a good historical context to New Labour’s approach to the media.

See also; Packaging Politics: Political Communications in Britain’s Media Democracy by Frankin (2004); The Powers Behind The Prime Minister by Dennis Kavanagh and Anthony Seldon (2000); Sultans of Spin: The Media and the New Labour Government by Nicholas Jones (1999)

And finally….a lesson from history

The Strange Death of Liberal England by George Dangerfield (1935)

This book has been a pre-requisite for history students since its release eight-five years ago. Dangerfield shows how the Liberal Party declined – in the aftermath of their 1906 landslide – into the abyss, never to return. Dangerfield depicts a party that was built for one social order and could not adapt to a modern one. The demands of the 20th century – of the suffragette movement, trade union rights and Irish independence – clashed with a Labour Party that began to capture the working-class vote.

A reminder for any political student that no party has a divine right to exist, and a failure to be on the right side of contemporary events can be fatal.


If there are any other books worthy of an addition to this list please contact me.

I am sure it will be expanded and revised as Labour navigates its next decade on the sidelines.

Happy Reading to you all.

2 thoughts on “Understanding the Wilderness: The Tides of History Library

  1. Pingback: The Likely Lad: A Harold Wilson Box Set – Anthony Broxton

  2. Pingback: British Politics: The Best of the BBC Radio Archives – Anthony Broxton

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