One of the first great political broadcasters: Clement Attlee in 1950. Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty Images
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Clement Attlee, the original Ed Miliband

Attlee had an image. A wise man, he made his image rather like the real thing – quiet, cricket-loving, terse, a suburban bank manager – and it resonated with the times.

Clement Attlee: the Inevitable Prime Minister
Michael Jago
Biteback, 400pp, £25

Does anyone still need to be convinced that Clement Attlee was not “a modest little man with plenty to be modest about”? The phrase is commonly attributed to Winston Churchill, but Churchill knew a formidable politician when he saw one: it was actually coined by the left-wing journalist Claud Cockburn.

If there is anyone left who holds that view, Michael Jago’s new book powerfully refutes it. It also conclusively jettisons the idea that he became prime minister by accident, that the job was supposed to go to someone larger and noisier – Herbert Morrison or Hugh Dalton or Ernest Bevin – but fell into Little Clem’s hands by mistake. His premiership was much less accidental than that of Harold Wilson or Tony Blair, who probably would never have made it to Downing Street without the early and unexpected death of their predecessors as Labour leader Hugh Gaitskell and John Smith.

Today, neither of these views has much of a following. You now hear them only in the most dedicated Blairite circles, where contempt for Attlee is still mandatory. A more commonly held view today is that the achievements of the 1945 Labour government were really down to the large personalities surrounding Attlee. Jago has little time for that, either. He shows that none of the other possible leaders – Bevin, Dalton, Morrison, Stafford Cripps – could have led as successful a government as Attlee led.

Three out of four isn’t bad, but I wish Jago had nailed the one myth that still has wide currency. He falls for the current conventional wisdom that Attlee, modest, shy in company, lacking in charisma, deeply private, could never be prime minister in today’s savage political environment.

But why not? Because they need an image? Prime ministers have needed an image at least since universal suffrage: think of the calm, reassuring, pipe-smoking Stanley Baldwin, or the unflappable, patrician Harold Macmillan. Attlee had an image. A wise man, he made his image rather like the real thing – quiet, cricket-loving, terse, a suburban bank manager – and it resonated with the times.

Because prime ministers need to be good broadcasters? Attlee was one of the first great political broadcasters, as Jago shows. He had a radio manner as well suited for the first years of peace as Churchill’s was for the desperate years of war. Because they need to understand the media? Prime ministers employ people to do that. Attlee employed Francis Williams and wisely let him get on with it, refusing to obsess about the viciously hostile press coverage he inevitably got. Williams understood the media so that his employer didn’t have to. As a 21st-century PM Attlee would have had to learn a few different tricks, of course, but he could have coped.

The question matters if you think, as I do, that Ed Miliband is a potential Clement Attlee figure. He, too, is physically not large and looks commonplace and a little geeky. And he, like Attlee, is a quiet, private man with a decision-making process like a steel trap, which is why we and the Americans are not bombing Syria and why the bosses at News International are sticking pins into a wax model of him.

Jago, like all previous Attlee biographers (including myself), has struggled with this privacy of Attlee’s. The man seems to have felt no need to unburden himself. There are two collections of private letters: a lifelong correspondence with his elder brother Tom and those written late in life to his American friend Patricia Beck. Tom and Patricia kept the letters they received; Clem burned their replies. Within an hour of the sudden and early death of his wife, Violet, he burned all the letters he had sent her. He was determined to starve Jago and me of our natural sustenance.

Jago has nonetheless produced a thoughtful and readable biography, and has made his own contribution to the Attlee canon with new research and insights. His chapter on the Second World War gives Attlee, perhaps for the first time, his proper role as the essential partner to Churchill, and the Labour leader who used the war to pave the way for a peacetime Labour government.

He is also very good on Prime Minister Attlee’s relationship with the security services (Jago’s previous book is a life of “Jack” Bingham, the spy who was John le Carré’s model for George Smiley) though it is odd that a chapter entitled “From Lord Haw-Haw to Burgess and Maclean” contains not a single mention of Lord Haw-Haw. He offers a detailed account of how India attained independence, as well as excellent descriptions of the twists and turns of Attlee’s relationships with the United States, the Soviet Union and Palestine.

However, he seems to have much less interest in the creation of the welfare state, covering it in a few paragraphs tacked on as an afterthought. As most people consider that to be the great achievement of the Attlee government, it makes for a curiously unbalanced book. The slaying of Beveridge’s five giant evils by building the National Health Service and the benefits system, and implementing the Education Act 1944, is surely at the heart of Attlee’s life and legacy.

Francis Beckett’s most recent book is “What Did the Baby Boomers Ever Do For Us?” (Biteback, £12.99)

This article first appeared in the 11 June 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The last World Cup

Photo: Getty
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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.