History shows why the Tories should be wary of branding Labour as 'socialist'

The party abandoned the practice in 1959 when some voters believed 'Labour' and 'Socialist' were different parties.

Painting Ed Miliband as an unreconstructed socialist will get the Tory party nowhere warned legendary ad man and former Conservative party chairman Maurice Saatchi in the Mail on Sunday the other day.

According to Saatchi's analysis, we "went off socialism" in the 1980s because "it didn’t produce any money…it didn’t create wealth for its citizens." The pendulum duly swung the other way, with people embracing Thatcherite popular capitalism. "But now we have gone off that too," he says, because it "seems to produce too much worship of the golden calf. So now we don’t know what we like."

An astute surfer of the political zeitgeist, Saatchi’s warning is prescient when you consider that more than four out of five voters feel energy suppliers "maximise profits at the expense of customers".

Undeterred by such warnings, the Conservative frontbench can barely contain its glee at Ed Miliband disinterring the term 'socialism' to define his politics. Earlier this year at Prime Minister’s Questions, David Cameron even referred to Miliband as a "champagne socialist", to predictable guffawing from his own side.

But this is not the first time the Tories have tried this tactic. Back in the 1950s they were at it, demonising socialism as part of a strategy dreamed up by one of Saatchi’s predecessors as party chairman, Lord Woolton.

A brilliant fundraiser and party organiser, Woolton increased Conservative membership from 1.2 million in 1947 to 2.1 million by June 1948 and was an early advocate of political rebranding, favouring renaming the Conservatives as the Union Party. The idea didn’t catch on, but as the great Conservative historian Robert Blake notes in his seminal work The Conservative Party from Peel to Thatcher:

…the next best thing to changing the name of one’s own party favourably is to change that of one’s opponents unfavourably. He [Woolton] declared henceforth in speech and writing Conservatives should never use the word 'Labour' with its suggestions of honest British toil, but always substitute 'Socialist' with its alien, doctrinaire overtones.

However, this audacious strategy contained a central flaw, one which David Cameron might do well to remember. As Blake points out:

This practice was dropped in 1959 when some voters were found who believed 'Labour' and 'Socialist' to be different parties.

Conservative delegates next to a spoof Ed Miliband-themed pub at the party's conference in Manchester last month. 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

Commons Confidential: What happened at Tom Watson's birthday party?

Finances, fair and foul – and why Keir Starmer is doing the time warp.

Keir Starmer’s comrades mutter that a London seat is an albatross around the neck of the ambitious shadow Brexit secretary. He has a decent political CV: he was named after Labour’s first MP, Keir Hardie; he has a working-class background; he was the legal champion of the McLibel Two; he had a stint as director of public prosecutions. The knighthood is trickier, which is presumably why he rarely uses the title.

The consensus is that Labour will seek a leader from the north or the Midlands when Islington’s Jeremy Corbyn jumps or is pushed under a bus. Starmer, a highly rated frontbencher, is phlegmatic as he navigates the treacherous Brexit waters. “I keep hoping we wake up and it’s January 2016,” he told a Westminster gathering, “and we can have another run. Don’t we all?” Perhaps not everybody. Labour Remoaners grumble that Corbyn and particularly John McDonnell sound increasingly Brexitastic.

To Tom Watson’s 50th birthday bash at the Rivoli Ballroom in south London, an intact 1950s barrel-vaulted hall generous with the velvet. Ed Balls choreographed the “Gangnam Style” moves, and the Brockley venue hadn’t welcomed so many politicos since Tony Blair’s final Clause IV rally 22 years ago. Corbyn was uninvited, as the boogying deputy leader put the “party” back into the Labour Party. The thirsty guests slurped the free bar, repaying Watson for 30 years of failing to buy a drink.

One of Westminster’s dining rooms was booked for a “Decent Chaps Lunch” by Labour’s Warley warrior, John Spellar. In another room, the Tory peer David Willetts hosted a Christmas reception on behalf of the National Centre for Universities and Business. In mid-January. That’s either very tardy or very, very early.

The Labour Party’s general secretary, Iain McNicol, is a financial maestro, having cleared the £25m debt that the party inherited from the Blair-Brown era. Now I hear that he has squirrelled away a £6m war chest as insurance against Theresa May gambling on an early election. Wisely, the party isn’t relying on Momentum’s fractious footsloggers.

The word in Strangers’ Bar is that the Welsh MP Stephen Kinnock held his own £200-a-head fundraiser in London. Either the financial future of the Aberavon Labour Party is assured, or he fancies a tilt at the top job.

Dry January helped me recall a Labour frontbencher explaining why he never goes into the Commons chamber after a skinful: “I was sitting alongside a colleague clearly refreshed by a liquid lunch. He intervened and made a perfectly sensible point without slurring. Unfortunately, he stood up 20 minutes later and repeated the same point, word for word.”

Kevin Maguire is the associate editor (politics) of the Daily Mirror

Kevin Maguire is Associate Editor (Politics) on the Daily Mirror and author of our Commons Confidential column on the high politics and low life in Westminster. An award-winning journalist, he is in frequent demand on television and radio and co-authored a book on great parliamentary scandals. He was formerly Chief Reporter on the Guardian and Labour Correspondent on the Daily Telegraph.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era