Scott Cresswell finds Denis MacShanes’s book a thought-provoking mixture of history and memoir
It should remain and always be a worrying thought for British progressives, social democrats, and democratic socialists that the Labour Party rarely wins general elections.
Since June 1970, there have only been eighteen years of Labour government: 1974-79, 1997-2010. Countless numbers of progressives enter politics to campaign and achieve social and economic justice for all. They either achieve office or fail to. Denis MacShane falls somewhere in the middle.
Denis MacShane served as MP for Rotherham from 1994 to 2012, much of it under New Labour’s period of government. His book poses a question that is all-too complex to answer thoroughly in 300 pages, but MacShane focuses on his time in politics and the challenges experienced by Labour. Starting from 1970, MacShane takes us on a guided tour of fifty years of disappointment, but with unforgettable sparkles of victory along the way. MacShane’s pre-political life as a trade unionist and a journalist describes a political journey that many on the left travelled through; he began as a Bennite and ended a Blairite.
The first two decades or so are an outsider’s account of the Thatcherite revolution and experienced first-hand the resistance of the trade unions. The red meat of the book begins with MacShane’s successful by-election win in 1994. His recollection of his time as an MP is flooded with more than just entertaining anecdotes such as brief run-ins with Edward Heath and Diane Abbott. By 1997, Labour had been out of power for eighteen years and, as Tony Blair himself later confessed, expectations were too high, especially with a landslide majority of 179 seats. MacShane’s frustrations with government and its slowness end with disillusionment, particularly when Gordon Brown becomes Prime Minister. However, like Alastair Campbell’s diaries, MacShane’s first-hand experience in government will be advantageous when looking back.
MacShane’s post-government life takes us on another journey altogether: an unpleasant battle with the BNP after the expenses scandal in 2009. Although an outsider again, MacShane’s reaction to the Corbyn era and the 2010s, in general, is one of understandable dismay. “I just felt sad”, MacShane writes about the result of the EU referendum in 2016 as if all hope of a brighter future quickly depleted into deep darkness. It really brings home what the book is about. Labour wasted much of the 1980s fighting amongst themselves. The 2010s will remain the greatest decade of waste in Labour’s history.
The roots of Labour’s ongoing problems lie far back, but MacShane’s starting point of 1970 is fitting. Harold Wilson’s failure to win in 1970 against Heath’s Tories marked the beginning of a long era of decline for Labour. If you’re looking for the reasons why then MacShane doesn’t provide many answers. The book’s format is excellent, but some important areas of history that plagued Labour for years afterwards are scarcely mentioned, if at all. The 1975 EEC referendum is a prime example, as is the glancing over of the downfall of James Callaghan’s government.
While reflections on the past don’t exactly lead to deep analysis on what causes Labour’s electoral woes, MacShane’s most intriguing role in the book is one of a teacher. Scattered throughout, MacShane lists fifty two lessons for his party, along with twelve steps to make them electable once again. Naturally, you’ll agree and disagree with some points, but MacShane’s ideas are certainly thought-provoking, and Keir Starmer would do well to think about some of them.
Must Labour Always Lose is a compelling memoir merged with a simple yet profound history of the Labour Party. MacShane’s writing is engaging and personal, especially on his experience in government from 2001 to 2005. However, a serious examination of Labour’s problems is occasional, and MacShane’s overall judgement on the question posed by his book remains very cloudy.
Scott Cresswell is a commentator and writer of political history and current affairs. Currently a student at Middlesex University. Uses Twitter (@ScottCresswell8) whenever he remembers it exists. His website is https://scottpcresswell.co.uk