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

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The tale of Battersea power station shows how affordable housing is lost

Initially, the developers promised 636 affordable homes. Now, they have reduced the number to 386. 

It’s the most predictable trick in the big book of property development. A developer signs an agreement with a local council promising to provide a barely acceptable level of barely affordable housing, then slashes these commitments at the first, second and third signs of trouble. It’s happened all over the country, from Hastings to Cumbria. But it happens most often in London, and most recently of all at Battersea power station, the Thames landmark and long-time London ruin which I wrote about in my 2016 book, Up In Smoke: The Failed Dreams of Battersea Power Station. For decades, the power station was one of London’s most popular buildings but now it represents some of the most depressing aspects of the capital’s attempts at regeneration. Almost in shame, the building itself has started to disappear from view behind a curtain of ugly gold-and-glass apartments aimed squarely at the international rich. The Battersea power station development is costing around £9bn. There will be around 4,200 flats, an office for Apple and a new Tube station. But only 386 of the new flats will be considered affordable

What makes the Battersea power station development worse is the developer’s argument for why there are so few affordable homes, which runs something like this. The bottom is falling out of the luxury homes market because too many are being built, which means developers can no longer afford to build the sort of homes that people actually want. It’s yet another sign of the failure of the housing market to provide what is most needed. But it also highlights the delusion of politicians who still seem to believe that property developers are going to provide the answers to one of the most pressing problems in politics.

A Malaysian consortium acquired the power station in 2012 and initially promised to build 517 affordable units, which then rose to 636. This was pretty meagre, but with four developers having already failed to develop the site, it was enough to satisfy Wandsworth council. By the time I wrote Up In Smoke, this had been reduced back to 565 units – around 15 per cent of the total number of new flats. Now the developers want to build only 386 affordable homes – around 9 per cent of the final residential offering, which includes expensive flats bought by the likes of Sting and Bear Grylls. 

The developers say this is because of escalating costs and the technical challenges of restoring the power station – but it’s also the case that the entire Nine Elms area between Battersea and Vauxhall is experiencing a glut of similar property, which is driving down prices. They want to focus instead on paying for the new Northern Line extension that joins the power station to Kennington. The slashing of affordable housing can be done without need for a new planning application or public consultation by using a “deed of variation”. It also means Mayor Sadiq Khan can’t do much more than write to Wandsworth urging the council to reject the new scheme. There’s little chance of that. Conservative Wandsworth has been committed to a developer-led solution to the power station for three decades and in that time has perfected the art of rolling over, despite several excruciating, and occasionally hilarious, disappointments.

The Battersea power station situation also highlights the sophistry developers will use to excuse any decision. When I interviewed Rob Tincknell, the developer’s chief executive, in 2014, he boasted it was the developer’s commitment to paying for the Northern Line extension (NLE) that was allowing the already limited amount of affordable housing to be built in the first place. Without the NLE, he insisted, they would never be able to build this number of affordable units. “The important point to note is that the NLE project allows the development density in the district of Nine Elms to nearly double,” he said. “Therefore, without the NLE the density at Battersea would be about half and even if there was a higher level of affordable, say 30 per cent, it would be a percentage of a lower figure and therefore the city wouldn’t get any more affordable than they do now.”

Now the argument is reversed. Because the developer has to pay for the transport infrastructure, they can’t afford to build as much affordable housing. Smart hey?

It’s not entirely hopeless. Wandsworth may yet reject the plan, while the developers say they hope to restore the missing 250 units at the end of the build.

But I wouldn’t hold your breath.

This is a version of a blog post which originally appeared here.

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