Football, faith and Fabianism: what books by the new frontbenchers tell us about the way Labour will govern

When the Conservatives started to shapeshift into their current ethno-nationalist, gerontophilic, free-market-fundamentalist form, we had to learn our way around its new disciples, and did so reading Britannia Unchained. We were right to, because that book is crazy, and Liz Truss – well, we all remember Liz Truss.

There is no like-for-like bible of Labour frontbench thought, but many members of the new cabinet have committed their views to paper. Only a couple of these books operate as blueprints for a policy environment (Ed Miliband’s Go Big, Lisa Nandy’s All In; Emily Thornberry’s pamphlet The Age of Trump); others are biographies (Nick Thomas-Symonds’s Harold Wilson) and autobiographies (Wes Streeting’s One Boy, Two Bills and a Fry Up); cultural theory (David Lammy’s Tribes); feminist-leaning listicles (Yvette Cooper’s She Speaks, Rachel Reeves’s The Women Who Made Modern Economics), and miscellany (Ian Murray’s This Is Our Story).

While these are all quite different enterprises, it is usually possible to establish, to a varying degree of detail, each politician’s own origin story, and how it informs their beliefs, which then feeds into what they think a better society would look like. Most of them give a sense of where the nation, sometimes the world, stands now, whose fault that is, and where the next most pressing perils are coming from.

Bland … Rachel Reeves. Photograph: Murdo MacLeod/The Guardian

Keir Starmer, John Healey, Liz Kendall and Anneliese Dodds have all written books on policy, some of them substantial, but none in any way personal. They don’t meet our requirements of revelation, but it would be rude not to mention they exist.

In the 2010s, Nandy came off as part of the left-folk tradition – small is beautiful, local is ethical, Wigan is Valhalla – and her time as shadow foreign secretary shows. She is now trenchantly internationalist, always looking outwards to solve problems – from climate change to criminal networks. She has a useful positivity and affinity with new technologies (carbon capture and storage in Silicon Valley) and new movements (net zero pledges from local councils in the UK), and she will juxtapose global trends towards authoritarianism with a can-do council leader in Oldham in such a way that fosters optimism, not a screaming hurtle towards the abyss. So that’s impressive.

There is a hopelessly confused section on populism, in which Podemos, a grassroots Spanish leftwing movement defined and set apart by its pluralism, is bagged together with the far right’s Marine Le Pen (because people like them?); and Jeremy Corbyn is a populist because he said “the media can be a little biased”, while the Daily Mail is populist because it called judges “enemies of the people”.

It’s possible Nandy was merely performing the anti-Corbyn ritual that has become increasingly necessary for Labour’s high command since the book’s publication in 2022. My heart sank when Nandy segued from the wealth concentration of late capitalism: “As power has shifted to a privileged few, often overseas, it has opened up a democratic deficit, which is felt most acutely in some parts of Britain where communities have changed dramatically in recent decades” – to her diagnosis: “To understand it, you have to start with one of the biggest changes of recent decades: ageing.” I mean, sure, we are ageing. But how that gets us on to a more equal footing with global billionaires is anyone’s guess.

On the fence … David Lammy. Photograph: Steven May/Alamy

Miliband is possibly the most optimistic and certainly the most fearless. He’s not afraid to examine ideas such as universal basic income – in quite academic terms, mind, evaluating comparative studies internationally – that would be far too radical for the party, and he’s clear-sighted on disasters including the housing crisis (prescription: mass social stock built by the state, sharpish) and hedge funds having a stake in the care sector (prescription: get hedge funds out of the care sector). He leans hard towards Scandinavian social democratic models, and has a belief in pro-social businesses as a force for good that may feel a bit 2010s but is almost touching.

Thornberry’s essay conjures simpler times in a more ominous way: writing in 2017, she is appalled by Theresa May’s hand-holding with Donald Trump: “The real question is how close do we want to be to [Trump]? Do we want to be close if it means cosying up to Putin? Or denying climate change? If it means a new nuclear arms race? Or scrapping the Iran deal? If it means all those things and more, then the postwar era of Britain and America operating in lockstep on foreign policy will be in severe jeopardy.” It’s impossible to imagine a lockstep with Trump 2.0, more autocratic and pugilistic than ever, so that question’s moot.

Thornberry comes down on the side of universal human rights, multilateralism and the strength of international institutions, which seemed pretty blah at the time. Seven years on, human rights having become a fresh open wound in our national politics, multilateral foreign policy is observable only insofar as nations seem to have lost their clarity, agency and authority at more or less the same time.

Reeves, you’ll remember, got stick for her book when it was discovered that a researcher had plagiarised a section, which flags a couple of things – first, this is not a very personal work, you cannot clearly hear Reeves’s voice in it; second, it has a distinctive Wiki-flavour, a great deal of biographical information across a large number of female lives, not all of it judiciously chosen. A lot of her revealed beliefs are quite bland – she’s committed to equal pay, to equality generally, she opposes hardship, she did her A-levels in the portable building of a state school ground down by Thatcherism. She makes the economic case for better health and childcare, as you’d expect her to; she’s a Fabian, not a Marxist (you know what the Fabians say: never see a market you don’t want to regulate, never see a piece of regulation you don’t want to add to).

Faith … Wes Streeting outside the flat he grew up in Stepney, London. Photograph: David Levene/The Guardian

I laughed out loud at the section on what she learned from Rosa Luxemburg: that there should be a windfall tax on big oil and gas companies, and the tax loopholes used by non-doms and private equity should be closed. The Spartacist wouldn’t disagree with any of that but I’m not sure, when she said on the brink of death – “Tomorrow the revolution will rise up again, clashing its weapons and to your horror it will proclaim with trumpets blazing: I was, I am, I shall be!” – that she had tax on her mind.

Reeves is, however, a convincing industrial strategist – and while this puts her at odds with green economists past (Elinor Ostrom) and present (Kate Raworth), whom she describes with respect – this does not end with the cosying up to business that many have found dispiriting; rather, she sees the state as an agent of industrial renewal.

Cooper’s She Speaks is another necklace of women strung together by their gender, for which we should blame publishers more than MPs. It’s an anthology of speeches, each with a short introduction, and it is politically anodyne, celebrating Thatcher for “self-belief and determination” (shame about the neoliberalism), and May for being “brave” (shame about the hostile environment).

One revealing thing (apart from that Cooper has seen Made in Dagenham, the musical, three times, which surely speaks to a commitment to trade unionism you might not necessarily guess) is Cooper’s own speech in 2015 on refugees, an impassioned plea for empathy and humanity as central to our national identity. She has had her wings clipped lately, forced into a cruelty-lite position on policies such as the Bibby Stockholm; so it is useful to remember where her instincts lie.

Wings clipped … Yvette Cooper. Photograph: Leon Neal/Getty Images

Tribes is Lammy’s first book since Out of the Ashes, which followed the London riots of 2011, and he’s moved a world away from that assertive, family-first social conservatism, to this much more searching and interesting dive into the country that made him and which he hopes to make. The book considers multiculturalism from personal, political, institutional and social perspectives, in an inquiry into national belonging and cohesion.

Lammy has a habit of hopping on to the fence when things get sticky – so he’ll describe the ideological battle between Trevor Phillips, who famously said that multiculturalism had failed, and Stuart Hall, who rebutted that – but he won’t actually plant his flag in the ground. He is absolutely trenchant, though, on injustices such as the Windrush scandal; a galvanising voice against racism.

It would be unfair even to open Murray’s This Is Our Story without acknowledging that, for people who like this kind of thing – Hearts, the football club – this is the kind of thing they like. Murray is a very loyal man, presumably in politics as well as sport; it’s not a quality you can turn on and off.

One has to read One Boy, Two Bills and a Fry Up with the same caveat. Streeting defines, fiercely, the working-class sensibility as pragmatic and non-ideological. You could argue that to characterise one class as sharing a unified politics is itself quite classist, but he would call you woke (probably). “I wonder what 11-year-old Wes would have thought if he’d been told that, almost 20 years later, he would attend the same church as a member of parliament?”, he writes. I pass that on to note nothing but his strong faith.

If there is anything drawing together these works, beyond a core belief that societies do better when they are more equal, it’s a belief that creative, benign social democracy is still both possible and sufficient, even to the most profound and unknown challenges that the climate crisis might throw at us. In Labour’s hyper-cautious environment, this is probably the boldest and most concrete, if quite general, of their claims. Let’s hope they’re right.

The Guardian