The Spirit of '45 reminds us of the importance of political myths

Tales of what might have been and what may be to come are a powerful and resonant part of the left's appeal.

In his book Election ’45: Reflections on the revolution in Britain, which marked the 50th anniversary of the 1945 Labour government, Austin Mitchell recounts an anecdote about a 20 year-old Tony Benn. Too young to actually vote, he instead spent the campaign driving a Labour candidate around central London. On bumping into a taxi one day, Benn, never knowingly without something to say, took to the loudhailer. "You have just been struck by the Labour candidate," he announced, "and everybody cheered – they were so excited."

Such are the tales, myths even, surrounding Labour and 1945, as a grateful Britain apparently flocked to the polls to vote for socialism. Ken Loach is the latest teller of this tale in his new film, The Spirit of ‘45, recounting the massive achievements of the post-war Labour government, which included the creation of the NHS, welfare stateand full employment.

However, the polemical documentary has come in for criticism over Loach’s tendency to be economical with the facts. The historian Steven Fielding upbraided him in the Guardian last week for offering a rose-tinted version of history: "Described as a 'celebration', Loach uses his vision of the past to make blatantly contemporary political points…I fear that Loach's version of 1945 is more imagined than real: it is, for want of a better word, propaganda", he wrote.

Elected on a wave of popular enthusiasm for social and economic change, 1945 was always a chimera. In as much as it was a call for Labour measures (heavily influenced, of course, by the work of avowed liberals John Maynard Keynes and Sir William Beveridge) it was also a call for Tory men, with many hoping Churchill would remain as Prime Minister after the war.

The timeline is also instructive here. Swept to power with a majority of 145 in 1945, Labour only just held on in 1950 with a majority of five, before succumbing to the Tories just a year later. The spirit of ‘45 might have seen lasting social and economic changes, but it certainly did not usher in an age of political dominance for Labour and the left: the party was out of office for the next 13 years.

As Fielding puts it: "Loach's film should therefore be better called The Myth of '45, for it peddles a fantasy, albeit one that provides comfort during these hard times for some on the left."

None of this is to deprecate Loach’s fine film, far less the massive achievements of the Labour government, both real and embellished. Myths play an important part in our politics, serving as shorthand for big, ungainly ideas; helping inspire, provoke and, crucially, motivate voters. The promise of a better tomorrow remains essential in galvanising the voting public behind a cause.

And the left likes it myths; from the Attlee government’s pledge to build a "New Jerusalem" through to Tony Blair’s promise of "New Labour, New Britain". Grandiose claims abound, whether it was Harold Wilson boasting in 1965 that Labour had become "the natural party of government" or Gordon Brown’s oft-repeated promise of "no more boom and bust". Myths can also serve as powerful warnings too. How may variants have there been on the "1000 days/ one month/ 24 hours to save the NHS" theme?

But it’s the governing bit that usually causes problems for the left’s myth-makers."You campaign in poetry, you govern in prose" as former New York Governor Mario Cuomo famously put it. When things don’t quite live up to the romantic billing, the left has a problem sustaining itself in power, as even the sainted Attlee found out.

Labour’s 1974 manifesto, which pledged to enact a "fundamental and irreversible shift in the balance of power and wealth in favour of working people and their families" was abandoned after just two years when IMF-imposed austerity measures, (amid the chaos of 1970’s economic stagflation) scuttled the government’s lofty ambitions. But the killing of a political dream quickly darkens into cries of betrayal. A sense that Labour had capitulated in the face of economic orthodoxy led directly to the fratricidal mayhem of the early 1980s when the party’s myth-making soared to stratospheric heights of implausibility.

It’s not just the preserve of the left though. Scottish, Welsh and Irish nationalism hold to their enduring myths too. Tales of what might have been and what may be to come are a powerful and resonant part of their appeal to voters’ emotions. As, indeed, is UKIP’s retro island myth of sepia-toned Great Britain bestriding the globe as a sovereign power. Chancellor George Osborne’s own myth-making prowess was on display in the Budget as he breezily accounted for the continued failure of his 'expansionary fiscal contraction' model.

For Ed Miliband, the risk in meeting the public’s desire for a better tomorrow is that it becomes a casual promise that it will be delivered. The most dangerous mythfor him is that a Labour government would not be taking an axe to public spending right now. It would - although the party’s framing of its own approach remains a work in (painfully slow) progress. However the big problem for Labour begins after it wins in 2015; with another three years of austerity already pencilled in. Ambiguity now may lead to howls of anguish later as dreams go unfulfilled.

Governing in prose, it turns out, is not much fun.

Clement Attlee waves to well-wishers outside Transport House in London after the Labour Party's victory in the 1945 general election. Photograph: Getty Images.

Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut.

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John McDonnell interview: "We’re going to destroy Osborne’s credibility"

The shadow chancellor on the Spending Review, Jeremy Corbyn's leadership and why trade unions will have to break the law. 

When I interviewed John McDonnell in March, before the general election, he predicted that Labour would be the largest party and confessed to a “sneaking feeling that we could win a small majority – because I think the Tory vote is really soft”. As the long-standing chair of the Socialist Campaign Group, McDonnell anticipated leading the resistance inside Labour to any spending cuts made by Ed Miliband. Eight months later, he is indeed campaigning against austerity – but as shadow chancellor against a Conservative majority government.

I meet McDonnell in his new Westminster office in Norman Shaw South, a short walk down the corridor from that of his close friend and greatest ally, Jeremy Corbyn. The day before George Osborne delivers his Spending Review and Autumn Statement, his desk is cluttered with economic papers in preparation for his response.

“The message we’re trying to get across is that this concept of the Tories’ having a ‘long-term economic plan’ is an absolute myth and they’re in chaos, really in chaos on many fronts,” he tells me. McDonnell points to the revolt against cuts to tax credits and policing, and the social care crisis, as evidence that Osborne’s programme is unravelling. On health, he says: “He’s trying to dig out money as best as he can for the NHS, he’s announced the frontloading of some of it, but that simply covers the deficits that there are. Behind that, he’s looking for £22bn of savings, so this winter the NHS is going to be in crisis again.”

Asked what Labour’s equivalent is to the Tories’ undeniably effective “long-term economic plan” message, he said: “I don’t think we’re going to get into one-liners in that way. We’ll be more sophisticated in the way that we communicate. We’re going to have an intelligent and a mature economic debate. If I hear again that they’re going to ‘fix the roof while the sun shines’ I will throw up. It’s nauseating, isn’t it? It reduces debate, intellectual debate, economic debate, to the lowest level of a slogan. That’s why we’re in the mess we are.”

Having abandoned his original support for the Chancellor’s fiscal charter, which mandated a budget surplus by 2020, McDonnell makes an unashamed case for borrowing to invest. “The biggest failure of the last five years under Osborne is the failure to invest,” he says. “Borrowing at the moment is at its cheapest level, but in addition to that I’m not even sure we’ll need to borrow great amounts, because we can get more efficient spending in terms of government spending. If we can address the tax cuts that have gone ahead, particularly around corporation tax, that will give us the resources to actually start paying again in terms of investment.”

He promises a “line-by-line budget review” when I ask whether there are any areas in which he believes spending should be reduced. “My background is hard-nosed bureaucrat . . . we’ll be looking at where we can shift expenditure into more productive areas.”

From 1982 until 1985, John McDonnell, who is 64, was chair of finance at the Greater London Council under Ken Livingstone. After vowing to defy the Thatcher government’s rate-capping policy he was sacked by Livingstone, who accused him of manipulating figures for political purposes. “We’re going to look like the biggest fucking liars since Goebbels,” the future mayor of London told him. McDonnell, who later described Livingstone’s account as “complete fiction”, has since resolved his differences with the man now co-chairing Labour’s defence review.

After his election as the MP for Hayes and Harlington in 1997, McDonnell achieved renown as one of New Labour’s most vociferous opponents, rebelling with a frequency rivalled only by Corbyn. His appointment as shadow chancellor was the most divisive of the Labour leader’s reshuffle. “People like Jeremy even if they don’t agree with him. People don’t like John,” one MP told me at the time. Mindful of this, McDonnell has sought to transform his image. He has apologised for his past praise of the IRA and for joking about assassinating Margaret Thatcher, rebranding himself as a “boring bank manager”. But there are moments when his more radical side surfaces.

He told me that he supports workers breaking the law if the trade union bill, which would limit the right to strike, is passed. “It’s inevitable, I think it’s inevitable. If the bill is introduced in its existing form and is used against any particular trade unionist or trade union, I think it’s inevitable that people will resist. We established our rights by campaigning against unjust laws and taking the risk if necessary. I think that’s inevitable and I’ll support them.”

“Chaos” might be how McDonnell describes Osborne’s position but the same term is now daily applied to Labour. The party is riven over air strikes in Syria and the renewal of Trident and MPs are ever more scornful of Corbyn’s leadership.

While Corbyn has so far refused to offer Labour MPs a free vote on Syria, McDonnell says that he favours one and would oppose military action. “My position on wars has always been that it’s a moral issue and therefore I veer towards free votes . . . We’re waiting for Cameron’s statement; we’ll analyse that, there’ll be a discussion in shadow cabinet and in the PLP [Parliamentary Labour Party] and then we’ll make a decision. I’m still in a situation where I’ve expressed the view that I’m opposed to the bombing campaign or engagement. I think the history of the UK involvement in the Middle East has been a disaster, to say the least . . .This isn’t like the Second World War where you have a military campaign – you defeat the enemy, you sign a peace agreement and that’s it – this is asymmetric warfare. In addition to the risks that are in the battlefield there’s a risk in every community in our land as a result of it.”

Would he want any of the 14 former shadow cabinet members who refused to serve under Corbyn to return? “All of them, we’re trying to get them all back. We’ve got Yvette [Cooper] helping us on a review we’re doing about the economy and women . . . It’s an open door policy, I’m trying to meet them all over these next few weeks.”

Livingstone, a member of Labour’s National Executive Committee, recently called for Simon Danczuk, who revealed details of a private meeting with Corbyn in the Mail on Sunday, and Frank Field, who told me that MPs should run as independents if deselected, to be disciplined. But McDonnell takes a more conciliatory line. “With Simon [Danczuk] in particular and the others, it’s just a matter of saying look at the long-term interests of the party. People don’t vote for a divided party. They’ll accept, though, that within a party you can have democratic debate. As I said time and time again, don’t mistake democracy for division. It’s the way in which you express those different views that are important. All I’m saying is let people express their views, let’s have democratic engagement but please don’t personalise this. I think there’s a reaction within the community, not just the party, against personalised politics. It’s not Jeremy’s style, he never responds in that way. It’s unfortunate but we’ll get through it. It’s just minor elements of it, that’s all.”

McDonnell disavows moves by some in Momentum, the Corbyn-aligned group, to deselect critical MPs. “What we’re not into is deselecting people, what we want to try and do is make sure that everyone’s involved in a democratic engagement process, simple as that.

“So I’ve said time and time again, this isn’t about deselection or whatever. But at the same what we’re trying to say to everybody is even if you disagree, treat each other with respect. At the height of the debates around tuition fees and the Iraq war, even though we had heated disagreements we always treated each other with mutual respect and I think we’ve got to adhere to that. Anyone who’s not doing that just lets themselves down, that’s not the culture of the Labour Party.”

In private, the 90 per cent of MPs who did not support Corbyn’s leadership bid speak often of how and when he could be removed. One point of debate is whether, under the current rules, the Labour leader would automatically make the ballot if challenged or be forced to re-seek nominations. McDonnell is emphatic that the former is the case: “Oh yeah, that’s the rule, yeah.”

McDonnell’s recent media performances have been praised by MPs, and he is spoken of by some on the left as a possible replacement if Corbyn is removed or stands down before 2020. His speech to the PLP on 23 November was described to me by one shadow minister as a “leadership bid”. But McDonnell rules out standing in any future contest. “No, no, I’ve tried twice [in 2007 and 2010], I’m not going to try again, there’s no way I would.”

Despite opinion polls showing Labour as much as 15 points behind the Conservatives, McDonnell insists that the party can win in 2020. “Oh definitely, yeah, you’ll see that. I think this next year’s going to be pivotal for us. We’re going to destroy Osborne’s credibility over the next six months. But more importantly than that, we can’t just be a negative party . . . we’re going to present a positive view of what Labour’s future will be and the future of the economy.

“Over the next 18 months, we’ll be in a situation where we’ve destroyed the Tories’ economic reputation and we’ve built up our own but we’ll do it in a visionary way that presents people with a real alternative.”  

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.