Saturday, 12 March 2016

Labour and Public History in South London

Alf Dubs unveils plaque to Fred Knee

Explanatory Note. This is an extended version of the talk I gave at the Ruskin College Public History Discussion Group on 29 January 2005. It was on my former website which I have not renewed because of problems with keeping it up-dated. I have been asked ensure that the content is still accessible which is why this piece and several that will follow are posted here. It went on the site in February 2007 following a week which saw several stories showing the contemporary importance of history and the public debate that it generates:
• the Holocaust memorial events
• the Tory Party’s proposals for changes to the history curriculum
• Seamus Milne’s article in the Guardian reminding us of the debit side of colonialism written in response to Gordon Brown’s praise of the Empire.

Whatever ‘Public History’ is, we see that ‘History’ is ‘Public’

The title for this talk was chosen many months ago for inclusion in the programme. As I began to draft what I was going to say I was drawn to look more closely at the concept of ‘Public History’. What I want to share is some observations partly born out of frustration and confusion on a number of issues which seem to me to relate to both Labour and Public History, observations which are in their formative stage. These stem from my active involvement in matters historical over the last nearly 30 years.

Although I graduated with a history degree in 1969 I did not become actively involved in Labour History until my wife Ann persuaded Battersea Labour Party to commemorate the 50th Anniversary of the General Strike in 1976 with an exhibition and a discussion by some of the activists of the time. This led to the formation of the Battersea & Wandsworth Labour & Social History Group, later re-named Wandsworth History Workshop. This in turn led to my involvement in the short-lived South London Record journal which managed 4 issues.

My interests since have broadened to Wandsworth as a whole, Black and Asian heritage, friendly societies, mutual self-help collective organisations, freemasonry, Settlements and Social Action Centres, public spaces, the importance of particular buildings, aspects of sport, and the political uses of song, Paul Robeson in the UK, the Battersea background to and Settlement involvement in the formation of the Workers’ Education Association, philantrophy in setting up public services, and the social justice role of faith organisations.
Like most of non-professional historians I make a miniscule contribution, and reach very small audiences. But I think there is an accumulative effect, through sharing information and ideas, and supporting the development of interests and activity by others, who in turn reach a wider audience. For example, following debate within Labour Heritage, the Labour Party linked history group, Dan Weinbren ran an initiative to set up a London Labour History network. Out of this came the Labour History Oral Project culminating in Dan’s book ‘Generating Socialism’. I organised a South London Labour & Co-operative History Conference. One of the themes was the history of friendly societies. This was because Roger Logan, another non-professional Battersea historian and member of the Ancient Order of Foresters, had challenged me on why labour history ignored them. These were two of the strands that led to Dan taking the initiative, with the support of a number of people like myself, in establishing the Friendly Societies Research Group in 1999.

Labour History

Over the years my conception of labour history has changed. It is much more multi-faceted that I realised in 1976. There are lots of specialist histories: the working class in general; the labour movement as a whole; the individual political organisations such as the Labour Party and the former Communist Party; and other forms of organisation, including certain types of friendly societies, the trade unions and the co-operatives; workplace, community, women, leisure, etc, and of course individual members.

Obviously historians have to specialise, but specialisation can lead to fragmentation, to forgetting that each specialism only gives a partial picture, to delusions that your own specialism is more important than others, for being lost in trees, failing to see the shape of the wood and the changes it is undergoing.

It is not unfair to say that for a long time labour historians were obsessed with the organised movement: the political organisations, the trade unions and the co-operatives. They concentrated on men. They neglected the wider working class, its other organisations and interests, its cultural life. A key component of this neglect was the treatment of friendly societies as a footnote even though they had bigger memberships than trade unions and trade unions started as such societies.

I frequently have found myself frustrated reading books on labour history. They often ignore the importance of the local bases of national activists. Movements and organisations with large scale followings are essentially made up of supporters at local level. Leaders usually cannot emerge nationally without a local base. That local base is provided by activists and supporters. Yet the work carried out at local level, of trying to understand those local bases often seems to be regarded as irrelevant. For instance, I see the same old hostile arguments trotted out about John Burns accepting a post in the Liberal Government from 1906, usually based on the critiques of his SDF opponents at the time, totally ignoring the support for his action within the broader labour movement in Battersea, and welcomed at the time by the TUC. I do not see how John Burns can be understood without understanding his local base and his relationship with it, especially given that the newly constituted reformist-revolutionary alliance Battersea Trades Council & Labour Party under the 1918 Constitution wanted him as one of its prospective Parliamentary candidates for the Khaki Election. He declined because he refused to accept the discipline of the Parliamentary Labour Party.
Labour historians seem to have lost their way; they have lost a sense of purpose. There are a number of reasons for this.

Labour history may have gathered strength in the 1960s, but it did so at a time when the labour movement itself was setting in place a fundamental change in its organisational structure. It separated off the Trades Councils from the Labour Parties. As the years have gone by the links at local level between Parties and trade unions got weaker and weaker to the point where many activists, lacking a historical understanding or practical experience of the link, succumbed to anti-union attacks.

Triggered by Thatcherism's success Eric Hobsbawm's The Forward March of Labour Halted? debate set in motion a strong wave of negativeness and hopelessness among many activists, especially in the Communist Party. The Communist Party journal Marxism Today, which had published many fine pieces of labour history, turned its back on history and stopped publishing such articles. Martin Jacques, the Editor, failed to give me a justification for this when I wrote to him at the time. An intellectual industry was born telling us that socialism and the labour movement were dead and Thatcherism was triumphant. This reaction contributed to her success.

The death of the Communist Party sparked off a lively historical debate about its influence. This has allowed us to look back and ponder what the labour movement might have been like nationally and at local level if it had not organisationally fractured in the early 1920s. Some of the product of such history may be regarded by some in derogatory terms as archaeology, but archaeology is precisely what is needed. It has been 'archaeological' digging that gave us labour, working class, feminist and black history. The main job still facing labour historians is the archaeological digging at the level of the locality.

Labour history has become 'safe' to study. It no longer engages with the practice of creating its own next phase. It is safely locked inside obscure and expensive journals and books. It does not know how to communicate to a mass audience.

By the mid-1990s some of the movement organisations themselves seemed to care little about their own history and stopped encouraging their members to have some knowledge about it. This has been particularly the case with the national Labour Party. A debate was started at the May AGM 1996 of Labour Heritage about its role and whether it should continue to exist. My argument that it should continue won the day.

Labour Party History

Within Labour History there is the specialism of Labour Party history. The anti-historical and centralist tendencies of New Labour are in contradiction to the positive elements of its message: its talk about decentralisation of power, of local and central government partnership, of valuing the role of local government, of involving people, of creating a participative democracy and of re-building community. These positive aspects of the New Labour project are devalued by the Party’s failure to celebrate its own history and its members historic contribution.

A Party not rooted in an understanding and valuing of its past risks sliding into being a populist Party reacting to the changing whims of manipulated public opinion. Until the invasion of Iraq was this not what New Labour had become?

It is from this perspective that I considered that it was right to respond positively to NEC member Diane Hayter’s suggestion that the 100th Anniversary of the change of the name of the Labour Representation Committee to the Labour Party should be celebrated in 2006. Labour Heritage’s Committee, of which I was Secretary accepted this, and has been advocating that the Anniversary provides CLPs with the opportunity to reflect on the way Labour has developed, and to celebrate their local histories and contributions. I hope to make my own small contribution with a more detailed study of Battersea Labour Party than I was able to do for its 80th Anniversary.

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