Euroscepticism has a long tradition in the Labour Party. Leaders from the party’s right, left and centre – be it Hugh Gaitskell, Michael Foot, Neil Kinnock or Jeremy Corbyn – have at various points campaigned against British membership of the EEC/EU.
Historically, Labour worked to accommodate both sides of the European debate in its coalition of MPs and Euroscepticism was not confined to the hard-left. Denis Healey, for instance, was initially an anti-marketer before later defining himself a ‘euro-agnostic’. Brian Walden – once seen as a great hope for the right of the party – was also a committed leaver. When he died in 2019 his wife reported that ‘his biggest regret would be not seeing Brexit happen’.
Of all the figures associated with this strand of Euroscepticism, it is Peter Shore who has emerged as the historical poster boy for Labour Leave. Footage of Shore’s address to the Oxford Union – dubbed ‘the greatest speech ever by The Express – has been repurposed for the modern age: as a ‘prophetic’ call to arms, championing a progressive Britain outside of Europe. It was Shore – rather than Benn, Foot or Castle – that Vote Leave centred their final tweet of the 2016 referendum campaign around.
Since the vote there has been a renewed interest in his political life, which has led to a new biography – Peter Shore: Labour’s Forgotten Patriot – written by a group of historians who organised the Labour Leave campaign.
Revisiting the life and times of Shore gives us an opportunity to look at his politics beyond the opposition to the EEC which he is now most remembered for.
The book takes in his time as a researcher at Transport House and his early days as a protégé of Wilson. Most relevant for contemporary students however are his battles within the Labour Party. Shore was never afraid of taking on the party, challenging its mythologies and urging it to move closer to where the electorate sat.
The Great Betrayal
During the 1981 deputy leadership contest, Shore – as Shadow Chancellor – emerged as one of the most high profile critics of Tony Benn and the Militant tendency. He had little time for the ‘betrayal’ theory of Labour history which underpinned the left’s criticism of the Wilson/Callaghan government.
Shore criticised the ‘deliberately poisoned and aggravated sense of betrayal’ and accused the left of the party of being in ‘a state of delirium’ having ‘pursued and assaulted itself’ after Thatcher’s victory.
In taking up the fight against Benn, he risked alienating himself from the grassroots of the party. Shore would warn them that ‘the ultimate betrayal is to trick and deceive our party and our own people to promise what we cannot deliver’. It is hard to imagine a Shadow Chancellor (and future leadership candidate) today picking a fight with the membership of the party. Indeed, whilst Benn’s stock was rising, Shore mocked his self-adulation:
‘just as there are villains, there must also be a hero. A man on a white horse, a sea-green incorruptible…of single-minded faith, purpose and resolution’.
Looking back, Shore stands out as a fearless disposer of hard-truths. In New Labour-Esque language, Shore declared in the early 1980s, that Labour ‘must apply democratic socialism to the problems of today and tomorrow – not yesterday’ – to a membership that was still wedded to a nostalgia for the economic model of 1945.
When he stood for the leadership in 1983 he was perhaps ahead of its time in recognising the scale of reform needed: ‘We suffered not a defeat but a disaster. If we do not face this fact, if we hide our heads in the sand, still worse disasters befall us’
As the authors note, Shore ‘made an intellectual case for the increase of conventional forces and the maintenance of nuclear weapons – a position that he realised was unpopular within the party’.
While Neil Kinnock played it safe, Shore called for a hard dose of ‘realism’:
‘I do not want a party poisoned by feuds and hatreds, misled by the clap-trap of demagogues injured and distracted by those who have no faith in the party itself nor in the democracy which our predecessors fought to create’.
Shore recognised that Labour ‘must reach the new society’ and that it had failed to ‘tune in’ to the concerns felt by the ‘new earning classes’ – who had done well out of Thatcherite policies such as Right to Buy. Above all, Shore called for a culture change:
‘a Labour Party that is tolerant of difference, eager for debate but united by a real sense of comradeship and shared purpose. Only such a Labour Party can win back the majority of the British people’
As he predicted, worse disasters would befall the party as it navigated a long fourteen years in opposition. And while Shore was never likely to become the leader of the party his observations on the culture of the party remain as relevant today as they did in the early 1980s.
If the party is to recover from the electoral failings of the past decade, it will need to convince voters that it understands why so many have turned away. More than ever, it perhaps needs some home truths on how far it has fallen in the hearts and minds of the lifelong Labour voters – in the Workington’s, Leigh’s and Blyth Valley’s – that once formed the bedrock of its heartland vote.
Revisiting the life and times of Peter Shore can hopefully begin the long process of rehabilitation.
Peter Shore Labour’s Forgotten Patriot, by Kevin Hickson, Jasper Miles, and Harry Taylor,is published by Biteback, priced £25