Labour has to free itself from the shackles of its own invented histories

To reinvent itself under Keir Starmer, the party needs a much richer understanding of its past

April 05, 2020
Rebecca Long-Bailey, Keir Starmer and Lisa Nandy speaking during a leadership hustings event  in Brighton. Photo:  Matt Crossick/Matt Crossick/Empics Entertainment
Rebecca Long-Bailey, Keir Starmer and Lisa Nandy speaking during a leadership hustings event in Brighton. Photo: Matt Crossick/Matt Crossick/Empics Entertainment

British politics, not least Labour politics, has an intimate relationship to history. But it’s often a version of history that never really happened. In order to generate fresh thinking about policy—something sadly lacking in the leadership contest won by Keir Starmer yesterday—Labour has to free itself from the shackles of its own invented histories. An intelligent and respectful politics of the left needs a richer account of what Labour has proposed and what has actually taken place.

The standard history goes like this. Labour’s greatest triumph by far followed from the 1945 election. Clement Attlee’s Labour created the welfare state. It generated a new consensus, called the post-war settlement. From then on things decayed. Harold Wilson gave us the modernising white heat, which soon fizzled out leaving only a few embers glowing. Wilson returned in 1974 and with James Callaghan gave us more “tax and spend” and the “winter of discontent.” Poor old Michael Foot left the “longest suicide note in history.” Tony Blair under New Labour gave the party, according to taste, unprecedented sequential electoral success, or betrayed nearly everything Labour had stood for.

In political debates about Labour history, then, there are only three positive reference points: a great reforming state welfarist 1945 programme, a techno-enthusiastic 1960s programme, and a policy-lite 1997 programme. And at first sight that looks like, from both sides of the argument, what the choices are today: back to 1945, or to 1997 minimalism, both perhaps with a dash of the white heat. Indeed Blair, in a recent speech full of incantations about a technological revolution, denounced Jeremy Corbyn’s policy agenda as “hopelessly out of date” in its focus on the state, and argued in effect for a return to 1997.

But these reference points are too often little more than clichés, with little bearing on what Labour policy actually was. Ken Loach’s film The Spirit of ’45 told the story of a creation of a welfare state where there had been none. Corbyn compared the possibilities of the 2019 election with those of 1945, evoking the creation of the NHS. In fact, health and social services (the term welfare state in the modern sense did not exist) barely figured in the party’s 1945 manifesto. What Labour did, once it was in office, was significant, but it did not create the welfare state, or even public medicine. It reformed and extended a Tory working-class welfare state from 80 per cent to nearly 100 per cent of the population. In doing so it made important advances, but it also entrenched the regressive Beveridgean poll tax and its concomitant low benefits. For all, rather than for the many, one might say. It was the universalism of the new welfare system (not least in health) and the new methods of delivery, the increases in some benefits, which were important, not the supposed creation of a system where there had been none.

In fact 1997 was a deeply welfarist moment. Indeed, only recently both Gordon Brown and Blair have argued that Labour’s whole tradition was to create and sustain a welfare safety net. Labour was welfare. But there had been another important welfarist moment: the 1959 manifesto, the high point of revisionism under Hugh Gaitskell. Under the revisionists, and New Labour, the underlying argument was that capitalism, including British capitalism, was doing just fine—what was needed was a tax and welfare system to make up for its limited deficiencies. Tax and spend was the policy, even though New Labour associated it with Old Labour (again illustrating how misleading the standard histories are). In fact, even if one looks at tax as a proportion of GDP, peak tax, measured as tax and national insurance as a percentage of GDP, came not in the Labour 1970s, but in 1981/82 and 1984/85 under the Tories. Spending as a percentage of GDP, excluding investment, also peaked under the Tories, in 1981/2. Incidentally the real industrial “winter of discontent” came in 1979-80, under the Tories.

In fact, for most of Labour’s history, it has downplayed welfare. Its manifestos promoted it as the party of social and economic transformation, not welfare. The 1945 manifesto, “Let us Face the Future,” claimed that that “the nation needs a tremendous overhaul, a great programme of modernisation”—and promise to bring that about by “keeping a firm constructive hand on our whole productive machinery.” This this spirit was present in most election programmes until the 1990s. It was revived, probably without recognition that this was a core Labour tradition, in the 2019 manifesto, with its promise of a Green Industrial Revolution destined to transform national infrastructures. Here was a commitment to putting the collective national interest ahead of private interests, and the 1964 spirit of the transformation of (private) business though modern technology, in a radically new context. Indeed, the 2019 manifesto was decidedly non-welfarist, except in relation to housing and tuition fees. There was no proposed transformation of the welfare state, no return to benefit levels of the past. There was merely a much-needed rejection of recent cruel gaps, caps and clawbacks and a proposed halting of Universal Credit until a better system was found.

It is also worth noting how much less radical the 2019 manifesto was in crucial respects. Compared to the nationalisation programme of 1945, the one proposed in 2019 was a minnow. The party did not propose nationalisation of manufacturing—whereas in 1945 iron and steel was included, and in the 1970s, aerospace and shipbuilding were to be added to the many already nationalised manufacturing sectors. In proposing to nationalise broadband the party followed the precedent set in 1868 for the telegraph and 1912 for the telephone, not that of 1945. In 2019 it endorsed the Trident replacement, whereas in 1983 it was deeply hostile to nuclear weapons. In 1983 it produced a pro-Brexit manifesto, in 2019 it wanted the closest possible relationship with the EU. That 1983 manifesto was by the way not only very long, but also very thoughtful. It was a serious plan for transforming the British economy.

Labour’s past is a resource, an important one, for the party. But too often the usually recalled history does not do justice to the variety of Labour’s policies, politics and practices, which were never fixed in time, nor easily understood on the usually defined left-right axis. To reinvent itself, as either a radical or a conservative force, it needs not only a better grip on the present but a much richer, more practical understanding of its past. One way or another it looks as if the future will require not merely welfarism but economic transformation, and in this respect it has been Old Labour which saw the future first.


David Edgerton is author of The Rise and Fall of the British Nation: A Twentieth-Century History (Penguin). This article was originally published on his blog