Clement Attlee and Ernest Bevin arrive at Potsdam shortly after the 1945 election. Photo: Harry Truman Library.
Show Hide image

Why has Labour forgotten its past?

The anniversary of Labour's first majority has passed unnoticed in Labour circles. Why?

According to Simon Heffer, those aspiring to lead the Labour party are ‘not even fighting the last election, but rather the one in 1945’.

Heffer, an infamous reactionary, cited Clement Attlee’s victory to establish Labour’s irrelevance to 2015. To his eyes, Labour’s victory occurred in a very different country, one that ‘still had a substantial working class [and] low living standards’.

Some of Heffer’s readers might agree that Britain today lacks class division and poverty. But he is certainly wrong about Labour’s aspirant leaders. For while the 70th anniversary of Attlee’s epoch-making triumph is almost upon us, their references to 1945 have been sparse and banal.

Liz Kendall has mentioned the election, but merely to claim Labour ‘only succeeded when we have faced up to fundamental challenges’ while Yvette Cooper referred to Attlee’s win to argue the party was successful only when it ‘owned the future’.

If Labour has plans to mark the anniversary, it is keeping them well hidden. For a party once famous for its sense of history this is a peculiar development: what has happened?

When Attlee’s victory was announced on July 27 1945, Labour figures looked to the past to make sense of their present. Many saw it as the culmination of an evolutionary process, with Labour the legatee of a political tradition beginning with Magna Carta. As Harold Laski wrote in 1943: to win power the party “need only re-energise ancient values”. This meant 1945 was seen to be part of an irreversible progress. So, even defeat in 1951 did not dismay many members: it merely showed them Labour had to remain true to the tradition which had found its ultimate manifestation six years before. In order to go forward, Labour only needed to look back.

Under the weight of three election defeats Hugh Gaitskell challenged this perspective, telling the party’s 1959 conference: “it is no use waving the banner of a by-gone age”. Labour needed to become forward-looking: hence his successor Harold Wilson’s embrace of ‘the white heat of technological change’. It was during another prolonged period of opposition that saw the rise of New Labour.  If Gaitskell started transforming Labour’s attitude to the past then Tony Blair completed it. New Labour was – as the name implied – self-consciously, enthusiastically, ideologically ‘modern’.

To Blair the past was a foreign country, they did things badly there. So, while in 1995 he claimed to ‘honour the generation of 1945’ he was not bound by them. Highlighting the ‘enduring values of 1945’, Blair cherry picked those he found most convenient. This meant emphasising ‘economic modernisation’ and individual ‘freedom’ while stressing that Attlee’s programme relied on ideas produced by Liberals. In this way Blair argued New Labour was doing the work of Attlee, even as he abandoned the state collectivism with which the Attlee government is conventionally associated.

If some caviled at Blair’s audacity, by 2010 even critics of New Labour had their issues with Attlee. Blue Labour’s Maurice Glasman argued that by creating a centralized state, 1945 triggered the demise of working-class mutualism and co-operation. ‘Red’ Ed Miliband was impressed by such views and hardly invoked 1945 while leader. In fact on one of the few occasions he referred to Attlee it was to incorporate him into the ‘spirit of One Nation’. Miliband told the 2012 Labour conference of his admiration for Disraeli’s ‘vision of Britain coming together to overcome the challenges we faced. Disraeli called it “One Nation”. “One Nation”. We heard the phrase again as the country came together to defeat fascism. And we heard it again as Clement Attlee’s Labour government rebuilt Britain after the war.’ If claiming a Conservative concept for his party was astute politics, it meant Miliband presented one of Labour’s greatest moments as Disraeli’s Little Echo.

If Labour now appears afraid to say much about 1945, for fear of being seen as ‘anti-business’, Attlee hasn’t quite disappeared. Ken Loach’s 2013 documentary The Spirit of ’45, argued that Labour won because it was proudly ‘socialist’ and that state collectivism remains relevant to our times. Loach backed Left Unity in 2015, none of whose 10 candidates received more than 1.8 per cent of votes cast, so some might think Labour wise to avoid embracing his contentious view of 1945. However, other memories of the Attlee era live on, in TV and film dramas that revisit the period. Series like Foyle’s War show 1945 as a time of hope in the future, albeit one tempered by doses cynicism. Yet even while it had a pop at planning – if only suggest it was a cover for private greed - the series shows Labour as genuinely interested in improving people’s lives, a force for progressive change. In these difficult days for the party, Labour might try to associate itself with such goodwill for one of its few moments of popularity.

Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.