To reinvent itself under Keir Starmer, the party needs a much richer understanding of its pastby David Edgerton / April 5, 2020 / Leave a comment
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speech full of incantations about a technological revolution, denounced Jeremy Corbyn’s policy agenda as “hopelessly out of date” in its focus on the state, and argued in effect for a return to 1997.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…