Labour battles over its own history hoping for ‘1945 and all that’

In the popular imagination, leftwing activists usually sport T-shirts celebrating Che Guevara, the photogenic Cuban revolutionary. But for a few years now, campaigners on the UK Labour party’s left have favoured a quieter hero. Clothing, tote bags and mugs now bear the balding, mustachioed face of Clement Attlee, Britain’s postwar prime minister. The slogan? “What would Clement do?”

In the austerity years since 2010, it became a rallying cry for more spending — and a revolution in social policy akin to that after the 1945 election, when Labour established the welfare state and the NHS. Attlee defeated Winston Churchill by promising a new political settlement after the trauma of war.

Now, party leader Keir Starmer hopes to capitalise on the faltering post-pandemic leadership of Boris Johnson — a similarly flamboyant prime minister, fond of evoking the Churchill spirit. And Labour is in a tussle with itself about how to define and then emulate Attlee’s success.

Starmer lays claim to Attlee’s mantle, describing the need to rebuild Britain after the pandemic as a “call to arms” like 1945. Supporters say his slightly downbeat air, comparable to Attlee’s dour persona, could actually be an electoral asset. Think of the contrast with Johnson, they say, a whirling dervish of chaos. A competent lawyer with experience of running a large public sector organisation as Director of Public Prosecutions, can be sold as unflashy and effective — just like “Citizen Clem”, who George Orwell compared to a dead fish, such was his lack of charisma.

The attempt to push the idea of Starmer as Clem reborn was on show again this week when he addressed the CBI. “He’s a serious leader for serious times,” says shadow home secretary, Nick Thomas-Symonds, also a historian and biographer of Attlee and other major Labour figures.

But after years of Jeremy Corbyn supporters citing Attlee to support extensive renationalisation — the T-shirt boom coincided with Labour’s shift to the left — the historical analogy is complicated. Starmer must signal a new direction (“the mindset has changed,” he told the CBI), while snatching back the mythology of 1945 for his own, more moderate agenda.

Political historian Steven Fielding, a professor at Nottingham university whose research uncovered the bullish market in Attlee merchandise, points out a key difficulty for the current leadership: 1945’s Labour win has turned out to be “a unique moment of consensus within the party”. 

After running domestic policy in the wartime coalition, Labour’s factions united around the direction of travel, says Fielding, if not on the extent of it. (Unity broke down a few years later; Fielding points out that Labour’s civil war hasn’t really stopped since.) The manifesto plans for socialised medicine, for nationalised industries “were long in gestation, and . . . proven to be viable during the war”.

In a forthcoming book reassessing the party’s history, Fielding traces the wrangling between various wings of Labour over who gets to mythologise its success in 1945. He warns it will be hard to recreate the conditions for a Labour victory — Covid-19, albeit a disaster for some sections of society, has, like the 2008 financial crisis, proved not to be “the world turned upside down”.

Thomas-Symonds insists that “people want change” after “a period of collective national sacrifice” when inequalities deepened. “I struggle to believe that the pandemic won’t change society,” he says, citing “very, very clear parallels” between Churchill’s defeat after the war and Johnson’s chances of defenestration once the Covid-19 crisis recedes.

But Fielding warns that Labour’s manifesto in 1945 was based on cross-party co-operation, most notably the Beveridge report, written by a Liberal. The war “did drag even the most implacable High Tories down this path”, says Fielding — they saw the need for big government during the conflict. Solidarity between people of all backgrounds flung together in factories and the armed services isn’t comparable, he adds, to “coming outside on a Thursday night to clap and going back in again”.

Without policies built on broader support, references to Attlee from subsequent leaders remain, in Fielding’s words, “rousing, if vague”. 

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