It’s 75 years to the day that Clement Attlee became Labour’s first prime minister to lead a majority government. And what a government. The NHS, the expansion of the welfare state, building a million affordable homes, argued for our independent nuclear deterrent, supported the formation of NATO and brought education to millions. Not bad for a one term government, was it?
Attlee understood, as did two of his successors as Labour leader, Harold Wilson and Tony Blair, that in order to change the lives of working people, to bring about fairness and equality, the party had to win power. It could do so by putting forward an ambitious and positive programme of policies. Labour in opposition might be sufficient to please the chattering educated middle classes for whom it mattered not a jot whether it won an election but for millions of working people Labour in opposition failed those very people. It still does today.
Labour’s disastrous decade of opposition began in 2010 when Gordon Brown lost the general election to a scarcely more popular Conservative party in which some Liberal Democrats were first given jobs and later, by way of thanks, honours. (Sir Nick Clegg, Sir Vince Cable, Sir Danny Alexander, Sir Ed Davey, Sir Norman Lamb, Sir Steve Webb, Sir Nick Harvey, Jo Swinson CBE – you get the general idea.) Thanks to UNITE leader Len McCluskey, Labour managed to elect the wrong Miliband as its new leader, putting Ed in position rather than his far more talented brother David. Miliband, E, inevitably lost the 2015 despite five years of austerity heavy Tory rule and Labour reacted by losing its collective mind, putting an elderly backbench crank called Jeremy Corbyn in charge, a man who had never had an original idea in his life and possessed a closet full of skeletons, many of whom were unpleasant terrorists and racists.
Predictably, Corbyn ‘led’ Labour to defeat in 2017 before leading the party to its worst electoral hammering since 1935 just two years later. There were a number of reasons why Labour lost, the presence of Corbyn being the main one. An unbelievable wish list of slogans replaced serious policies and no one believed Labour. We were told by the friends of Corbyn that although Labour was annihilated, its policies were very popular. So popular that Boris Johnson was returned to Downing Street with a massive majority. Great.
The middle class chatterers who now ran Labour seemed to have no interest or understanding the lives of working people who just wanted their lives to be better. Corbyn was not talking to them, he was talking to his big city, well-educated chums. He made no effort to reach out to the centre ground where elections are always won. And therein lies the issue.
In order to win, Labour needs not only to attract votes from its declining heartlands, it needs to attract those who are essentially liberal Conservatives. However, this does not mean Labour needs to go to the electorate with a limp manifesto offering little more than a tinker around the edges. For instance, even the hard right of the Tory Party has been vociferous in its support for one key aspect of socialism during the COVID-19 pandemic: the National Health Service. Plus, the hard line hard right chancellor Rishi Sunak has been handing out free money to save millions of people from being unable to put bread on the table. When it suits the Tories – even a government as right wing as this one – they can embrace state intervention with the best of them. Labour’s job is to show that the state can be important in other areas.
Johnson and his organ grinder Dominic Cummings talk of ‘levelling up’ the country, even though they have no intention of making the country more fair and equal, of giving people more influence to control their lives. Labour must do that but mean it. That will, eventually, mean addressing things like private education, private health and gross inequality of wealth. And it will have to. The big failing of Tony Blair’s governments – and they remain the best governments of my lifetime – were that the changes they made were reversible. It took a decade to pare back Labour’s improvements to the NHS, to turn state education into an underfunded backwater, to make it increasingly impossible for young people to get on the housing ladder, to increase poverty and the use of food banks. All these things are surely unacceptable in a compassionate society, aren’t they?
The status quo cannot be part of Labour’s future machinations. Labour need not frighten the horses but it does need to offer something substantial, an offer to the British people of permanent change. Change that does not stifle enterprise and ambition, but spreads it throughout society. That it’s fine for people to succeed – who would want their children not to do better than them? – and it’s also fine to ensure that those with the broadest shoulders contribute the most. There need be no ‘left behind’.
Keir Starmer has four years to come up with that offer to the British people. It will need to be radical and it will need to represent fundamental change. And he will need to take people with him, not merely offer a take or leave it Corbynite wish list.
I do not believe Starmer, or any other leader, can win an election whilst the cult of Corbyn remains strong. Sooner or later, the wreckers of the hard will need to be confronted and, I have to be honest, offered a one way ticket out of the Labour Party. There are numerous crank parties on the ultra left fringes upon which they can wreak their own kind of havoc. Let’s start by proscribing Momentum, Jon Lansman’s party within a party, along with all its members. The likes of Jeremy Corbyn, Diane Abbott, Richard Burgon and the like, along with trade union barons like Len McCluskey, believe only in the purity of opposition. If that is all they have to offer, I am sure the SWP will greet them with open arms.
I don’t believe Starmer will be the tinkerman of British politics. I don’t know for sure how he will take the party further but I do anticipate a greater role for the state, decentralising the power of Dominic Cummings’ government to enable people to make more decisions locally about the things that affect them and a change to a gentler, more caring world in which every woman and man has the opportunity to make the best of their talents and where the old and vulnerable are provided with care and dignity.
‘Another future is possible,’ said Starmer when running to become Labour leader. It’s up to him and his team to show what that future can be and how Labour can be trusted to deliver it. The well of trust ran dry under Corbyn. And if Labour’s magic Grandpa is still out there, rebelling, ranting at rallies to his cult following, Boris Johnson and Dominic Cummings will be laughing all the way to the ballot box.