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 and a former special adviser at the Northern Ireland office. 

Getty
Show Hide image

Don't blame Jeremy Corbyn - polls show only Tory voters could have kept us in the EU

Despite deep divisions in the Labour Party, it's the Tory voters who let Remain down. 

The Labour Party was already having enough difficulty keeping itself together without a referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union coming along. The party was reeling from the election of a leader who was not only well to the left of most of his parliamentary colleagues but also did not obviously have the personal skills needed to do the job. However, the referendum on the EU compounded the party’s difficulties by exposing another fissure - between its traditional white working class supporters and its public sector socially liberal middle class ones (including the vast bulk of its parliamentary party). In combination the two divisions threaten to tear the party part.

Elections in the UK are usually about the left and right of politics, whether the government should do a little more or a little less. On this Labour’s working and middle class supporters tend to be at one with each other. They all, albeit to varying degrees, want the state to do more, to curb the excesses of the capitalist market and produce more equitable outcomes. So long as political conflict focuses on this issue they are a viable electoral coalition.

However, the EU referendum was not about the size and the role of the British state. It was about what Britain’s relationship should be with an intergovernmental organisation that epitomises one of the major social and economic phenomena of our time, globalisation. This phenomenon has had significant economic and cultural consequences, including, not least, substantial flows of migrants in search of work in an internationalised labour market. 

Young graduates vs working class pensioners

Among young university graduates this development is regarded as an opportunity rather than a problem. It is the kind of world in which they have grown up. They have acquired the skills required to compete in the global market place. Indeed, they may well become migrants themselves, deploying their valued skills in Berlin or Barcelona. Meanwhile the experience of university, in which international students are often commonplace, has led them to embrace the cultural diversity that immigration brings.

This world looks very different to many an older white working class voter, who left school at the earliest possible opportunity. They are used to a world in which everyone speaks the same language and shares a common set of cultural values.  As a result, the relatively high levels of immigration that the UK has experienced in recent years is regarded as a threat. They want back the country in which they grew up and in which they once felt comfortable. Meanwhile, they suspect that the inflow of migrants helps explain why they have seen little if any increase in their living standards.

With questions of immigration and identity at its core, the referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU inevitably cut across Labour’s electoral coalition. Those with different educational experiences voted very differently. According to a large poll conducted on polling day by Lord Ashcroft, graduates and those still in education voted in favour of remaining in the EU by 59 per cent to 41 per cent, while those whose educational experience did not extend beyond secondary school voted by 65 per cent to 35 per cent to leave. Similarly, in their on the day exercise YouGov found that graduates voted in favour of Remain by 68 per cent to 32 per cent, while those whose highest qualification is a GCSE or its equivalent voted by 70 per cent to 30 per cent in favour of Leave. The party’s middle class supporters were in a very different place on this issue than their more working class ones.

White voters vs ethnic minorities

Just to compound Labour’s difficulties, there was a clear ethnic division in the referendum too. Those from an ethnic minority background, who have never shown much inclination to back UKIP, seemingly found the Leave side’s emphasis on reducing immigration relatively unattractive. Lord Ashcroft estimates that only 32 per cent of those from an ethnic minority background voted to Leave, compared with 53 per cent of those who regard themselves as ‘white’. Consequently, another part of Labour’s electoral coalition, Britain’s ethnic minority population, were also on the other side of the referendum divide from the party’s traditional white working class base.

Against this backdrop it was, in truth, hardly surprising that the highest level of support for Leave was in predominantly working class local authority areas in the North and Midlands of England where Labour tends to be relatively strong.  In the 2014 European Parliament election, Labour won on average 28 per cent of the vote in those local authority areas where less than 22 per cent have a degree, whereas the party won just 20 per cent in areas where more than 32 per cent are graduates. Now in the referendum, on average Leave won as much as 64 per cent of the vote in those places that fall into the former group, but as little as 42 per cent in the latter. A t the same time, no less than 71 of the 90 local authority areas in England and Wales with fewest graduates are in the North of England and the Midlands, whereas just 13 of the 83 areas with most graduates do so.

In short, the principal explanation for the fact that Leave did so well in the West Midlands (59 per cent), the East Midlands (59 per cent), the North East (58 per cent), and in Yorkshire & Humberside (58 per cent) in particular lies in the demography of Leave support and of those regions rather than in any particular failings on the part of the Labour party. Indeed, once we have taken the demographic character of an area into account, if anything Remain tended to do rather better the stronger Labour was locally. For example, amongst those council areas in England and Wales with relatively few graduates Leave won 62 per cent of the vote on average in places where Labour won over 25 per cent of the vote in 2014, compared with 67 per cent where Labour won less than 15 per cent.

Meanwhile, it was, of course, the other parts of its coalition, the socially liberal middle class and the country’s ethnic minority population, that ensured that London was the one part of England and Wales that did vote decisively in favour of remaining  (by 60 per cent to 40 per cent).  No less than 24 of the 33 council areas in the capital have a population in which over 32 per cent are graduates, while no less than 27 of the 41 most ethnically diverse parts of England and Wales are located in the capital. Again demography was crucial.

Corbyn not to blame

Against this backdrop it was hardly surprising that across Britain as a whole only around two-thirds (63 per cent according to Lord Ashcroft, 65 per cent as estimated by YouGov) of those who voted Labour in 2015 voted to remain in the EU. The party was never likely to achieve much more than this. And at least the party’s coalition did not fracture as badly as the one that backed David Cameron a year ago; well under half (42 per cent according to Lord Ashcroft, 39 per cent, YouGov) of those who voted Conservative in 2015 voted to remain. The real source of the Remain side’s difficulties was the failure of David Cameron to bring his own voters on board.

Yet it is Jeremy Corbyn who is taking the blame for the inside much of the Labour party for the Remain side’s failure, as the party’s pre-existing division about his leadership interacts with the division made manifest by the referendum. Of course, MPs are entitled to make their own judgement about Mr Corbyn’s capabilities for the job, a judgement that his performance in the referendum appears to have reinforced and which they may feel has become more pressing given that the outcome of the referendum makes an early general election more likely. But in truth there is little in the pattern of the results of the referendum to suggest that Mr Corbyn was personally responsible for Remain’s defeat. The referendum outcome looks more like a pretext for `an attempt to secure Mr Corbyn’s removal than a reason.

However, the referendum does raise questions for all wings of the Labour party, including above all its parliamentary party in which middle class graduates predominate. As we have argued before, unless the party can persuade the less well-off in Britain that social democracy can tame the tiger of globalised capitalism so that their interests and concerns – cultural as well as economic – can be met, it is at risk of losing their support. We have already in Scotland how the politics of identity can cause much of Labour’s working class support to melt away, and there is a risk that a similar politics could have the same effect in England should UKIP be able to sustain a post-referendum purpose and appeal. 

Certainly, there was little in the Remain side’s case – as espoused by Labour as well as the Conservatives – that met those concerns. There was, in truth, no answer on how to deal with immigration, while there was little attempt to explain how the UK’s membership of the EU could be used to advance the economic interests of the less well of. Instead the only reason offered for voting to remain was the allegedly deleterious consequences of leaving. Telling working class people that they have to put up with the consequences of globalisation is simply not good enough. Labour needs to take note – whoever leads it.
            
John Curtice is professor of politics at Strathclyde University and a columnist for IPPR’s journal Juncture