Crosland, Jenkins and Healey were the reforming leaders Labour never had. They ruined each other's chances of saving the party from its wilderness yearsby Dick Leonard / October 20, 2002 / Leave a comment
Book: Friends and Rivals Author: Giles Radice Price: Little, Brown ?20
In the 1960s and 1970s the Labour Party had in its ranks three supremely gifted figures, each of whom was dedicated to modernising the party and freeing it from the doctrinaire commitment to nationalisation which was sapping its popular appeal. If any one of them had succeeded in becoming party leader, something approaching the New Labour transformation would have occurred a generation earlier, to the immense benefit of party and nation.
This is the theme of Giles Radice’s brilliant triple biography of Tony Crosland, Roy Jenkins and Denis Healey, and the unspoken conclusion is that it would have been better if only one of them had existed-in which case his success would have been assured. The consequence of the rivalries of these three friends, he argues, was that each of them in turn helped to stymie the ambitions of the others, ceding the leadership to other contenders less committed to reform. The result was 18 years of Tory rule-an interlude which blighted Radice’s own prospects of a ministerial career. An MP for 28 years until last year, when he was elevated to the Lords, he was just too junior to be included in Callaghan’s government in 1976-79 and just too old when Blair formed his team in 1997.
The story starts in Oxford in the late 1930s, when the three young men were leading figures in the University Labour Club, from which Crosland and Jenkins later organised a breakaway Democratic Socialist Club, when it was captured by a communist faction led by Healey. It was a time of exceptional political mobilisation among undergraduates against the background of the Spanish civil war and the growing Nazi threat culminating in Munich, the Moscow trials and the Nazi-Soviet pact. All three-together with Ted Heath (an anti-Munich Tory)-took part in the famous Oxford by-election in October 1938 when a “popular front” candidate narrowly failed to defeat the pro-Munich Quintin Hogg.
If their formative years had not been spent in such a politicised atmosphere, it seems doubtful whether either Crosland or Healey would have been attracted to a political career. Both could easily have anticipated a rapid rise up the academic ladder and might well have ended up as Vice-Chancellors or heads of Oxbridge colleges. Jenkins, whose father, Arthur, was a miners’ MP and PPS to Clement Attlee, had already set his heart…