REVIEW: Patrick Diamond and Giles Radice, Labour’s Civil Wars (London: Haus Publishing Ltd, 2022)

Open Labour member Lewis Young PhD looks at recent literary approaches to factionalism in the Labour Party and asks whether it’s possible to ever tackle factionalism.

It is perhaps unsurprising that the Labour Party, itself the child of “factions” be they trade unions, Fabians, socialists or others, is often beset by factionalism. The problem Giles Radice and Patrick Diamond posit in their new book Labour’s Civil Wars: How infighting has kept the left from power (and what can be done to about it) is that Labour’s factional battles, unlike those in the Conservative Party, tend to leave much harder-to-heal splits in their wake than those experienced by the Conservatives. These splits, and the party’s inability to heal them, keep the party from power.

Does factionalism cause damage to Labour more than the Conservatives? History suggests so, with Labour only holding office for 31 years since its founding in 1900, and the authors present a fairly comprehensive run-down of the factional issues that have plagued the party in both government and (as more likely to occur) in opposition. Starting with Ramsay MacDonald, the first Labour Prime Minister, we move through to the opposition years of the 1950s, the advent of “Bennism” in from the latter Wilson premiership to the mid-1980s, to the Blair-Brown battles, and ending with the most recent factional battles: the Corbyn years and Keir Starmer’s own battles with sections of the party.

Left versus Right is a key theme here, although the authors are keen to present it as more nuanced than this simple binary view, and there is a focus too on the splits within the Labour Right itself. This is perhaps no surprise given the author’s own backgrounds, with Patrick Diamond a former adviser to Blair and Brown and the late Giles Radice a former Labour MP who firmly sat in the “moderniser” wing of the party. Both would be considered “Labour Right” by any standard and have clearly looked at these factional battles with a certain lens. The authors argues that unity – but not just unity – is the way to victory, but unity needs to come in stages: first the unity of the Labour Right to take on the Left of the party, then unity of the party itself (although ideally under the leadership of the Right is the suggestion one gets when reading Labour’s Civil Wars).

As a new history of the Labour Party this is a decent run-down of events. I’m not sure it offers much new in the way of sources or interpretation, and I would have also liked an exploration of the early factionalism of the party, but the focus of the book is primarily on the Parliamentary Labour Party and so is somewhat restrictive in its remit. It is readable and extensive and is a worthwhile addition to Labour Party historiography.

As a treatise on what Labour needs to do to avoid – or at the very least, transcend – factionalism, I think Labour’s Civil Wars is sadly lacking. The authors claim that the book provides a “key insight” into what Labour must do to win: “face up to its differences, embracing a plurality of centre-left traditions to win the battle of ideas”, celebrate and channel internal debate, and present not only a united front but also a distinctive and coherent message. It’s hard to disagree with any of this, but I’m just not sure how new an insight this truly is.

The problem I think is that there is no real answer to factionalism other than managing it and minimising the potential damage factionalism can cause to Labour’s electoral prospects. We should read Labour’s Civil Wars to understand how party leaders past and present have sought to tackle factionalism in their time, and perhaps use these as a blueprint to understand what Labour needs to do as we move ever closer to a general election in the present. But don’t expect to come out of reading Labour’s Civil Wars with the answer to tackling factionalism once and for all.


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