Political Leadership in the labour movement: a homage to the provinces

In Uncategorized on May 23, 2016 by kmflett

Political Leadership in the labour movement: a homage to the provinces


It might well be that politics would run a bit better if politicians thrust into the Whitehall limelight had previous experience of running something (Editorial, 21 May). New Labour might well have understood better how to actually change things if Tony Blair had run a city administration beforehand, for example. EP Thompson, in his essay Homage to Tom Maguire, made the point that the labour movement in the later 19th century was built precisely not in London trade union HQs but in those “shadowy parts” known as the provinces where leaders had to prove themselves in practice to win support and power.

Keith Flett


The Guardian 23rd May 2016

The left, wondering when it might next be in Office in central London has taken, not for the first time in the last 125 years or so, to wondering whether regional power bases might be a better way forward. Andy Burnham has announced his decision to run for Mayor of Manchester. Sadiq Khan has a won a huge mandate as London Mayor and Marvin Rees has done the same. In Wales Labour continues to run the Welsh Government as a minority administration.

All these positions provide real power with the chance to do things that (one hopes) can make life a little bit better for ordinary people. Not, unfortunately, revolutionary stuff but important.

Scale that up to Westminster and it all gets a lot bigger and a lot harder. If you’ve never had any experience of how to change things even a little bit, how it is done, and what obstacles there are, it can be difficult.

This is my point about Blair and New Labour above. One wonders if Blair had had regional experience he might have persisted more effectively with his domestic agenda rather getting frustrated and then distracted by launching wars abroad.

The point about where power in the labour movement has been historically was made by EP Thompson in his 1960 essay Homage to Tom Maguire. Maguire was an ILP activist who died too young.

It appeared in Essays in Labour History, but is quite difficult to come by now (it was recently reprinted in the collection EP Thompson and the Making of the New Left edited by Cal Winslow).

Thompson makes the point that ‘provincial events are seen as shadowy incidents or unaccountable spontaneous upheavals on the periphery of the national scene’. But, Thompson counters ‘the ILP  grew from the bottom up, its origins were in the shadowy parts known as ‘the provinces’.

Thompson was no huge fan of London, but argued that from the 1950s it had irreversibly won out over the provinces in terms of political power. Recent events underline that this was wrong, Thompson the political activist had fed back into Thompson the historian on the point.

Moreover since 1960 there is an argument that what is known as the ‘Westminster bubble’ means that parts of London itself are now seen as ‘provincial’. The quite regular pieces looking at what goes on in Jeremy Corbyn’s Islington North or Tottenham where I’m writing this underline the point




One Response to “Political Leadership in the labour movement: a homage to the provinces”

  1. Dear Mr. Flett,

    As one beard to another, this is a good point, well made.

    Sadly, however, you choose to ignore the reality of Blair and his coterie, especially Straw and Beckett. These people were never going to be deflected from advancing themselves … über alles. Dare I use that phrase, in such a well-mannered blog?

    Anyway, the point is that these people were never in a bubble, but were deliberate entryists. The same operation was performed on the Liberal Democrats, with equally disastrous results.

    If you think carefully, it may even help explain the actions and motivations of people like Laura Kuenssberg …

    More importantly, I am enjoying your blog very much. Thank you. 🙂

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