Former Labour MP Ian Lucas explores what Keir Starmer can learn from the three most historic Labour victories in modern British politics
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1945, 1997, and perhaps 1964, are resonant dates in British political history; the dates when conventional political gravity was defied and a Labour government came to power.
What can Keir Starmer and the party he leads today learn from past victories?
They all announced the end of long periods of Conservative political hegemony, in addition to the unique political environment created by the end of war in Europe in 1945.
Each time, the Conservatives appeared tired, perhaps exhausted, at a stage in their own political journey when they were associated more with the past than the future – a path guaranteed to lead to political defeat. That Labour could benefit from a similar atmosphere in today is self-evident and Rishi Sunak’s most pressing task is to paint a picture of what the future of the country he leads will be like under more Conservative rule.
The need for such a vision is, in the political conventions of British politics, necessary but not sufficient. More difficult is to identify what Keir Starmer’s Labour actually has to do to emulate those three post-Second World War Labour leaders who went on to lead the country: Clement Attlee, Harold Wilson and Tony Blair.
Labour in 1945 had, of course, the benefit and experience of ministers who had served in government, led by Clement Attlee as Deputy Prime Minister and Ernest Bevin, who had played an important role on the Home Front. This blunted the traditional Conservative attack that Labour would ‘frighten the horses’ and threaten stability. When Churchill suggested that Labour would introduce a British ‘gestapo’, it appeared ridiculous, even desperate.
Labour’s progressive agenda benefitted not only from socialist support, but from the work of the Beveridge Commission, proposing a novel “welfare state”. Overall, there was a sense that the Conservative era of the 1930s had passed and that “winning the peace” – to coin a Labour election slogan – was best delivered by a party that looked forward to change.
The historic achievements of the 1945 Labour Government were undermined politically by a developing division within the party; a signal to an electorate increasingly disaffected by post-war rationing and austerity that Labour’s grip on power was slipping. This, in the end, allowed Churchill’s return at the start of the long Conservative domination in the 1950s. In opposition, Labour’s divisions intensified, ensuring two further defeats.
Harold Wilson, who had helped compose Labour’s winning agenda in 1945, working on Beveridge, learned the importance of party unity, which led him to victory in 1964 – as well as his guiding vision as Prime Minister. It is often overlooked, but he achieved four general election victories (though three of them were very marginal). That they are undervalued is perhaps due to Labour’s failure in government to deliver the technological revolution Wilson had promised.
In the end, the party’s time in power ended in 1979 when the Callaghan Government collapsed in industrial strife and the Thatcher years began. A harsher medicine of economic and industrial reform was administered and the post-war settlement was discarded.
Tony Blair inherited the Thatcher legacy and, chastened by Labour’s shattering defeat in 1992, he and Gordon Brown never really challenged its fundamentals. Rail and the public utilities were not renationalised and moves to privatise selected state services (such as Royal Mail) were taken forward by Brown’s dominating Treasury, which administered a centralised approach to government regional investment.
It was only under Brown as Prime Minister – too late – that Labour began to introduce the economic reform required in response to the 2008 financial crisis, focusing once more on the manufacturing sector through its ‘New Industry, New Jobs’ strategy and benefitting from a Keynesian approach with, for example, cuts in VAT.
The austerity ushered in by the Conservative-led coalition after 2010 parched the shoots of recovery and ensured a return to the Thatcherite inheritance in the public and private sector. The outcome is the collapse in confidence in the public sector we see today, reminiscent of that which Labour faced in 1997.
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Blair’s success in restoring public belief in the NHS surely offers lessons for Starmer who would, I believe, do well to dispense with Blair’s doctrinaire commitment to the private sector administration of rail and water, where time has highlighted the failures of Thatcher’s approach.
Equally, the long-term decline of UK manufacturing accelerated by Thatcher’s destruction of our industrial base in the 1980s was not addressed sufficiently in the first decade following 1997, with echoes of Wilson’s omissions; and the agenda carried forward following 2008 of partnership of state, workers and the private sector offers a template to Jonathan Reynolds and his business team who have been engaging intensively with the private sector in opposition.
Most distinctively, however, Starmer faces a collapse in confidence in politics itself. There is widespread doubt that any government can change our country for the better. That this is owed primarily to the corruption of the Conservative years makes Starmer’s task no easier.
Uniquely, for an incoming Labour prime minister, fundamental constitutional change is required. Today’s transformed world requires reform of a rotten House of Lords, aggressive devolution across the UK, including England itself, and a reassessment of how democracy can work for all of us.
If 2024 is to be another historic year of victory for Labour, it needs to offer – as it has done in the past – hope, a perceived united approach, and an air of determined competence. But Keir Starmer must also restore confidence in politics itself; that government can be a force for good that can improve people’s lives. It’s a considerable task ahead.
Ian Lucas was Labour MP for Wrexham from 2001 to 2019, and a member of Parliament’s Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) Committee from 2017 to 2019, during its inquiry into disinformation and fake news. He is the author of ‘Digital Gangsters: The Inside Story of How Greed, Lies and Technology Broke Democracy’
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