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.

Getty
Show Hide image

Our union backed Brexit, but that doesn't mean scrapping freedom of movement

We can only improve the lives of our members, like those planning stike action at McDonalds, through solidarity.

The campaign to defend and extend free movement – highlighted by the launch of the Labour Campaign for Free Movement this month – is being seen in some circles as a back door strategy to re-run the EU referendum. If that was truly the case, then I don't think Unions like mine (the BFAWU) would be involved, especially as we campaigned to leave the EU ourselves.

In stark contrast to the rhetoric used by many sections of the Leave campaign, our argument wasn’t driven by fear and paranoia about migrant workers. A good number of the BFAWU’s membership is made up of workers not just from the EU, but from all corners of the world. They make a positive contribution to the industry that we represent. These people make a far larger and important contribution to our society and our communities than the wealthy Brexiteers, who sought to do nothing other than de-humanise them, cheered along by a rabid, right-wing press. 

Those who are calling for end to freedom of movement fail to realise that it’s people, rather than land and borders that makes the world we live in. Division works only in the interest of those that want to hold power, control, influence and wealth. Unfortunately, despite a rich history in terms of where division leads us, a good chunk of the UK population still falls for it. We believe that those who live and work here or in other countries should have their skills recognised and enjoy the same rights as those born in that country, including the democratic right to vote. 

Workers born outside of the UK contribute more than £328 million to the UK economy every day. Our NHS depends on their labour in order to keep it running; the leisure and hospitality industries depend on them in order to function; the food industry (including farming to a degree) is often propped up by their work.

The real architects of our misery and hardship reside in Westminster. It is they who introduced legislation designed to allow bosses to act with impunity and pay poverty wages. The only way we can really improve our lives is not as some would have you believe, by blaming other poor workers from other countries, it is through standing together in solidarity. By organising and combining that we become stronger as our fabulous members are showing through their decision to ballot for strike action in McDonalds.

Our members in McDonalds are both born in the UK and outside the UK, and where the bosses have separated groups of workers by pitting certain nationalities against each other, the workers organised have stood together and fought to win change for all, even organising themed social events to welcome each other in the face of the bosses ‘attempts to create divisions in the workplace.

Our union has held the long term view that we should have a planned economy with an ability to own and control the means of production. Our members saw the EU as a gravy train, working in the interests of wealthy elites and industrial scale tax avoidance. They felt that leaving the EU would give the UK the best opportunity to renationalise our key industries and begin a programme of manufacturing on a scale that would allow us to be self-sufficient and independent while enjoying solid trading relationships with other countries. Obviously, a key component in terms of facilitating this is continued freedom of movement.

Many of our members come from communities that voted to leave the EU. They are a reflection of real life that the movers and shakers in both the Leave and Remain campaigns took for granted. We weren’t surprised by the outcome of the EU referendum; after decades of politicians heaping blame on the EU for everything from the shape of fruit to personal hardship, what else could we possibly expect? However, we cannot allow migrant labour to remain as a political football to give succour to the prejudices of the uninformed. Given the same rights and freedoms as UK citizens, foreign workers have the ability to ensure that the UK actually makes a success of Brexit, one that benefits the many, rather than the few.

Ian Hodon is President of the Bakers and Allied Food Workers Union and founding signatory of the Labour Campaign for Free Movement.