According to Simon Heffer, those aspiring to lead the Labour party are ‘not even fighting the last election, but rather the one in 1945’. Heffer, an infamous reactionary, cited Clement Attlee’s victory to establish Labour’s irrelevance to 2015. To his eyes, Labour’s victory occurred in a very different country, one that ‘still had a substantial working class [and] low living standards’.
Heffer’s Sunday Telegraph readers might agree that Britain today lacks class division and poverty. But he is certainly wrong about Labour’s aspirant leaders. For while the 70th anniversary of Attlee’s epoch-making triumph is almost upon us, their references to 1945 have been sparse and banal. Liz Kendall has mentioned the election, but merely to claim Labour ‘only succeeded when we have faced up to fundamental challenges’ while Yvette Cooper referred to Attlee’s win to argue the party was successful only when it ‘owned the future’.
If Labour has plans to mark the anniversary, it is keeping them well hidden. For a party once famous for its sense of history this is a peculiar development: what has happened?
When Attlee’s victory was announced on July 27th 1945, Labour figures looked to the past to make sense of their present. Many saw it as the culmination of an evolutionary process, with Labour the legatee of a political tradition beginning with Magna Carta. As Harold Laski wrote in 1943: to win power the party ‘need only re-energise ancient values’. This meant 1945 was seen to be part of an irreversible progress. So, even defeat in 1951 did not dismay many members: it merely showed them Labour had to remain true to the tradition which had found its ultimate manifestation six years before. In order to go forward, Labour only needed to look back.
Under the weight of three election defeats Hugh Gaitskell challenged this perspective, telling the party’s 1959 conference: ‘it is no use waving the banner of a by-gone age’. Labour needed to become forward-looking: hence his successor Harold Wilson’s embrace of ‘the white heat of technological change’. It was during another prolonged period of opposition that saw the rise of New Labour. If Gaitskell started transforming Labour’s attitude to the past then Tony Blair completed it. New Labour was – as the name implied – self-consciously, enthusiastically, ideologically ‘modern’.
To Blair the past was a foreign country, they did things badly there. So, while in 1995 he claimed to ‘honour the generation of 1945’ he was not bound by them. Highlighting the ‘enduring values of 1945’, Blair cherry picked those he found most convenient. This meant emphasising ‘economic modernisation’ and individual ‘freedom’ while stressing that Attlee’s programme relied on ideas produced by Liberals. In this way Blair argued New Labour was doing the work of Attlee, even as he abandoned the state collectivism with which the Attlee government is conventionally associated.
If some caviled at Blair’s audacity, by 2010 even critics of New Labour had their issues with Attlee. Blue Labour’s Maurice Glasman argued that by creating a centralized state, 1945 triggered the demise of working-class mutualism and co-operation. ‘Red’ Ed Miliband was impressed by such views and hardly invoked 1945 while leader. In fact on one of the few occasions he referred to Attlee it was to incorporate him into the ‘spirit of One Nation’. Miliband told the 2012 Labour conference of his admiration for Disraeli’s ‘vision of Britain coming together to overcome the challenges we faced. Disraeli called it “One Nation”. “One Nation”. We heard the phrase again as the country came together to defeat fascism. And we heard it again as Clement Attlee’s Labour government rebuilt Britain after the war.’ If claiming a Conservative concept for his party was astute politics, it meant Miliband presented one of Labour’s greatest moments as Disraeli’s Little Echo.
If Labour now appears afraid to say much about 1945, for fear of being seen as ‘anti-business’, Attlee hasn’t quite disappeared. Ken Loach’s 2013 documentary The Spirit of ’45, argued that Labour won because it was proudly ‘socialist’ and that state collectivism remains relevant to our times. Loach backed Left Unity in 2015, none of whose 10 candidates received more than 1.8 per cent of votes cast, so some might think Labour wise to avoid embracing his contentious view of 1945. However, other memories of the Attlee era live on, in TV and film dramas that revisit the period. Series like Foyle’s War show 1945 as a time of hope in the future, albeit one tempered by doses cynicism. Yet even while it had a pop at planning – if only suggest it was a cover for private greed - the series shows Labour as genuinely interested in improving people’s lives, a force for progressive change. In these difficult days for the party, Labour might try to associate itself with such goodwill for one of its few moments of popularity.
A version of this post first appeared on The Staggers blog.
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