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1 October 2023

To turn or not to turn?

In his new book, the former New Statesman political editor identifies the defining moments when Britain changed.

By Steve Richards

Is the UK on the edge of a historic turning point? Some readers will laugh or perhaps fume that the question is posed in relation to an approaching election that a cautious Labour Party is expected to win. In the nervy pre-election period the differences between the two main parties appear to be narrow and there are many elections when power switches hands and what follows is timid or bewildered continuity rather than deep-seated change.

Nonetheless, every few decades an election heralds a recognisably new era, where old assumptions are turned on their heads and previously fashionable orthodoxies become outdated. The forces that bring about such change go well beyond the characters of leaders and the pitch they make to win votes.

Since the Second World War, two general elections have proved to be striking turning points: the Labour landslide in 1945 and the Conservatives’ counter-revolution that followed their victory in 1979. In both cases the stormy contexts – economic crises, social unrest, political instability, the emergence of new ideas – were at least as significant in bringing about change. Consider the turbulent backgrounds against which those two governments made their moves and note the context in which the next election will take place.

In 1945 the Labour government had the space to act partly because a consensus of sorts had formed around new responsibilities for the state. The Beveridge Report published in 1942 was emblematic, demanding a new approach to the provision of health, welfare, housing and employment. The report secured cross-party support, albeit vaguely. The wartime coalition issued a statement in response to Beveridge committing to “publicly organised and regulated health services”.

The commitment raised a thousand questions but the direction of travel was clear. The state had a bigger role to play. To take another example of many, it was the Conservative education secretary, Rab Butler, who in 1944 passed an act raising the school leaving age to 15, and which broke the dominance of church schools. The Conservatives were moving tentatively towards embracing a more active state, seeking to meet the demand for governments to do more that had gathered force over decades.

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Something similar happened in reverse during the build-up to 1979. As with the current mood in the UK, there was a pervasive sense that nothing worked after a decade of economic crises and industrial unrest. To some extent the outgoing Labour prime minister, James Callaghan, created space for Margaret Thatcher as she put her case for monetarism.

At the Labour conference in 1976, Callaghan declared that “you can’t spend your way out of recession”. His speech was widely seen as a turning point in modern British politics away from the traditional economic policies and instruments of the postwar consensus. For some, his words were the death throes of Keynesian social democracy. It was not Callaghan’s intention to endorse the free-market right’s attachment to a rigid form of monetarism, but as she was arguing for tough constraints on public spending he appeared to be moving in her ideological direction. Already Thatcher was winning the battle of ideas. During the 1979 election the soon-to-be-defeated Callaghan noted a “sea change”. The tides were moving away from Labour and there was nothing he could do about it.

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In the build-up to next year’s general election, polls suggest there is a similar broad consensus that nothing works in a dysfunctional UK. There are inevitable disagreements about how the country has got into such a mess, but a Conservative voter or MP is as likely to despair about the state of the nation as those supporting other parties.

The current housing crisis is not as deep as it was in 1945, but it has echoes of that era. A chronic shortage of affordable accommodation is causing huge social and economic problems. Nurses, teachers, and those who work in the leisure sector cannot afford to rent in some towns. They will not be able to do so until more affordable homes are built. Housing will be a significant issue at the next election for the first time in several decades.

The privatisations hailed as a triumph in the 1980s and 1990s are now the cause for some of raging anger. Even the Conservative-supporting Times campaigns against the water companies pumping sewage into rivers and the sea. Trains do not run reliably because the structure is so unwieldy that no one is responsible or accountable. The energy market has been exposed as a misnomer: there is no effective market. These are no longer contentious assertions; few Tories would disagree with them.

The early austerity measures of David Cameron and George Osborne, considered at the time as “centrist”, led to inevitable dark consequences: an NHS that cannot remotely meet the scale of demand; no plan for much-promised social care provision; crumbling buildings; unreliable and expensive trains. Conservative MPs and those who led their party complain about the consequences of austerity now almost as much as Labour. Boris Johnson pretended he never supported it in the first place. Theresa May declared the “end of austerity” as her leadership wobbled.

For much of the last 13 years Labour leaders have struggled to find a language to explain their opposition to “balancing the books”, or “wiping out the deficit” as Osborne used to put it. It was Theresa May and Johnson who moved erratically with the changing tides. May hailed “the good the state can do” while Johnson’s 2019 election manifesto included pledges to introduce social care and to “level up”, while building homes and hospitals. Johnson described himself as “Rooseveltian” in his approval of public spending. Their moves leftward were little to do with their personalities and more a recognition that they were leading in an era in which active government was seen as a virtue rather than a sin.

But the character of a leader matters too. I know of no one who would argue that personality alone determines the course of events. To do so would be absurd. Indeed, prime ministers in the UK are nowhere near as powerful as they appear to be. But it would be equally foolish to overlook entirely the importance of political will in bringing about change in the UK. That coalition statement issued after Beveridge left many gaps. The pledge went as far as stating that patients would be able to “obtain, easily and readily, the whole range of medical advice and attention”. What did that mean in practice? It took the Labour government to turn a vague wartime consensus into the NHS. Similarly, the response to the crises of the 1970s might have been very different if it were not for Thatcher’s assertive populism. Perhaps there could have even been a grown-up debate about the role of the modern state after the failures of corporatism in the 1970s. It took Thatcher to define the response to the chaos of that decade by arguing that “freedom” would arise by releasing people from the shackles of the state. Who is against “freedom”? Not known as a communicator, Clement Attlee astutely made “freedom” a Labour issue in 1945. No other Labour leader has succeeded in doing so, although Neil Kinnock made a valiant effort in the 1980s.

Now it is Keir Starmer who must discover the will and guile to make the most of the sea change upon us. What the Labour leader is saying in these pre-election months is only a partial guide as to what will follow. His focus on imprecise but ubiquitous terms such as “reform” sheds limited light. No opposition leader declares: “If elected prime minister I will be against reform.” In some respects Starmer is following the New Labour caution of 1997, fearful that spending pledges are seen as a threat rather than a source of hope, sticking to Conservative tax-and-spend plans, offering no analysis as to why a lot of the privatisations have been costly failures or daring to say too much on Brexit, the defining policy issue of recent years. Part of his pitch is in essence: “This castle is rotten to the core. We plan to change the ash trays.”

But reassurance, if such caution reassures, is not the only theme. Labour proposes fairly radical plans for green energy, constitutional reform, employment rights, an industrial strategy, and has “missions” – largely incremental and cautious, although with declared objectives – to revive the NHS and promote opportunities in education while growing the economy.

 The ambitious and the incremental form a programme calibrated to win an election. Given the voters’ hunger to live in a country where “things do work” the safer course for Starmer is to be much more daring in power. Voters are unlikely to display the patience that gave New Labour a lot of time after 1997 to address the steep decline in public services. It was not until its second term that Tony Blair and Gordon Brown resolved the issue of chronic underfunding in the NHS. They did so at a point when even the Daily Mail was campaigning for higher levels of investment and when the celebrity Labour peer Robert Winston, despairing of the hospital treatment receive by his mother, declared: “The truth is that our services are much the worst in Europe.” The NHS is in a more dire state now.

The alternative for Starmer to moving with the tide, to act with radical verve, is to be washed away by the torrent of events. This was the fate after his election victory in 1970 of Edward Heath – a far more experienced leader than Starmer, a successful reforming minister and chief whip during the trauma of the Suez Crisis in 1956. Heath faced industrial turmoil and economic crises, made much worse by the quadrupling of oil prices in 1973. Soon he lost a sense on the domestic front as to who he was and what he was for and against. He was out of office by early 1974. Starmer might be more fortunate, but he might not be.

When the UK reached various turning points in recent decades it often failed to turn. In terms of elections, 1945 and 1979 are unusual in that, for good or bad, the UK changed strikingly in the years that followed. If he wins next year, Keir Starmer can be a change-maker, appearing at least to direct the course of events, or risk being overwhelmed – the fate of all three prime ministers in the 1970s.

To turn or not to turn? Given the current economic gloom, the troubled state of public services and the UK’s weakened international standing, it is not really a choice at all.

Steve Richards’ latest book is “Turning Points: Crisis and Change in Modern Britain, from 1945 to Truss” (Macmillan)

[See also: Tories are eyeing a spring general election]

This article appears in the 04 Oct 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Labour in Power