Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

The conditions for Labour's previous successes are falling apart. Where do we go from here?

This summer saw our Labour Party engaged in another lengthy period of introspection, culminating in the re-election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader thanks in large part to the transformation of our membership base since last spring. For those who haven’t read it, Ian Warren’s piece in Newsweek on why Owen Smith’s campaign was probably doomed by the circumstances of its birth rather than by the specifics of its execution is very much worth a read, not least because it offers a telling set of clues to the challenge we will face at the next general election. Whenever it comes, we will find that the electorate – or at least the elements of the electorate whose support is most necessary for us to win an overall majority – do not merely judge us on our values, policies, or competence as we might like them to do, but through other frames beyond our control. They will consider our fitness for office, our relevance to their concerns, and the image that we project – deliberately or otherwise. Insurgent campaigns, especially those run from opposition, are often interpreted by the public in a way that is difficult to predict. That will be a huge challenge for us all, whether we backed Jeremy or Owen, and combined with where we are electorally, a very daunting prospect.

Lest we forget, last May was a disaster. We did not just lose: we were smashed. All but one of our MPs gone in Scotland, with little sign of a recovery so far. We could be out for a decade – at least. 2015 was, I fear, the 1983 of my generation. Notwithstanding future boundary changes, to win a working majority of fifteen next time means making a hundred or so gains in England and Wales. Nobody has achieved that, except Tony Blair, since Britain moved to one-adult-one-vote. We should not kid ourselves that a victory on that scale is remotely straightforward, no matter how fervently we might hope for it or whoever the leader is. It's worth briefly revisiting what happened, unhappy as it was. We did after all win a handful of seats from the Tories in England: a few in London, plus another small handful outside – Hove, Dewsbury, Wirral West, Wolverhampton, City of Chester. Both inside and outside the M25, the seats we gained have much in common. Most of them are rich in either the liberal middle classes or in ethnic minority communities, Not to put too fine a point on it, people who don’t read the Guardian or the Mirror were not convinced by our message. Labour has a problem.

More depressing even than the paucity of gains is the fact that they were almost matched by our losses to the Tories. Many of the seats we had hoped and expected to gain instead saw Tory majorities increase sharply. To lose Bolton West, Vale of Clwyd, Gower and Morley and Outwood, to be down to only Southampton Test and Hove on the south coast is a disaster far beyond 2010. Our vote was concentrated ever more heavily in the seats we already held: above all in places where young, liberal, urban communities live cheek by jowl with large ethnic minority communities – places like Hackney, Islington, and Walthamstow. I make no criticism of Labour's pre-election organisational focus on trying to win seats quite unlike those, which might have given us a Labour government had we won them. It was our political failing that we had a message, a leader, and a set of policies which proved totally inadequate to winning over a plurality of the British people. We are still desperately far from changing that today: a recent poll had us no fewer than eighteen points behind the Tories. Sometimes it seems almost unbelievable that less than a decade ago there were Labour governments in London and Edinburgh as well as Cardiff.

How did all this come to pass? Alastair Campbell's latest volume of diaries offers a powerful reminder of both the strengths and achievements of Labour in government, and the mistakes or missed opportunities that all governments come to rue. Reading Gordon Brown’s remark from February 2005 that “we have not changed the country as much as we could or should” and his prescient observation about media obsessions - “how easy it is for the Tories to make immigration the issue, and we help them” - made me reflect on quite how much has changed and how insightful those observations remain, despite all the water that has flowed under the bridge since that spring almost twelve years ago when last we won power. It seems an age ago now. It is striking quite how little we have done in that time to address those changes; how little we have done to engage with the changing world since then and to shape our wider political discourse. The social and cultural background to how we seek support and contest elections, never mind the shape and structure of our economy, has altered beyond recognition.

Perhaps we should cast our minds back further, to the end of our last prolonged electoral malaise, and ponder how different that world was. I remember the Britain of 1997: I joined Labour as a teenager not long after, watching as Tony Blair changed our party and our country. It was a world where along with most other people, I didn't have an email address. It was a world without social media. It was a world where mobile phones were largely a novelty and you communicated with relatives and ordered items with letters and cheques and stamps. The newspapers were in black and white and had mass readerships, and there were just four channels on most people’s televisions. The concept of a national conversation had a degree of reality it has now almost certainly lost.

It was a world where everyone of pensionable age, and plenty who were younger, remembered the Second World War. I grew up listening to my grandfather's experiences of serving in that war and how it shaped the beliefs of those fortunate enough to return home. There remained a strong belief in the notion of personal sacrifices for a greater collective future and plenty of people whose experience of those sacrifices had been all too real. Much of that was still true even in 2005, the last time we won an election. The social media echo chamber didn’t exist. We couldn’t avoid listening to the electorate, no-one expressed their outrage on Twitter, or was reassured by Facebook that their friends all felt the same way; and the touchscreen smartphone in my hand and the tablet on which I'm writing this article were only glints in Steve Jobs’ eye.

That world has gone forever. As well as having lost manufacturing industries from town after town, ours is now a much more culturally fragmented society, with fewer people listening to what passes for any form of national conversation. Social media echo chambers are both symptom and cause of that change. More people now spend more time talking and listening to voices with which they agree, less exposed to opinions at variance with their own, less aware of their differences with others and less tolerant of political differences, even as they become in many respects more socially tolerant. The changes in the economic basis of our society have also driven that steady push towards a disintegrating polity.  The period since 1997 has seen slowly falling trade union membership, an ongoing decline in skilled manufacturing jobs, and the coming revolution (of which the long march has only begun) whereby skilled “white collar” jobs are lost to automation and smartphone technology. To a degree that worries me, the industrial and economic foundations of our collectivist traditions – the successful Labour and trade union politics of the last two centuries, from the Tolpuddle Martyrs to Tony Blair – seems to be giving way very fast to a different economy for which we are politically ill-prepared.

Earlier this year, Faisal Islam remarked that the Labour Party was a coalition between Hull and Hampstead, and that that coalition was breaking. I think that captures our problem really well, and I think the causes of that fracture lie in the economic and cultural changes since last we won power. To understand how we might address these changes requires an analysis of both what the people of Hull (or Sunderland, or Stoke, or the Rhondda) and Hampstead (or Islington, or Cambridge) have in common, and also what separates them.

At root, what people in Hull and Hampstead have in common – or had in common – and what unites both those areas in returning Labour MPs, is that a plurality of the electorate believes in a more equal society. They want decent public services, high quality schools for all children, and a first-rate health service. They accept and welcome a role for collective action – for government – in creating that fairer society. The electorate in those places also trusts Labour to deliver that agenda with competence, as every Labour government over the last century has done.

No matter how much we might wish it otherwise, the continuum stretching from left to right is an inadequate description of the political dynamics in our country at the moment. If we didn’t already know it, the referendum was a pretty clear message. My own home city of Sunderland, where I grew up and which I have had the privilege of representing for six years, sent three Labour MPs to Westminster last year, re-elected its Labour council in May, and delivered a resounding ‘Leave’ vote in June. The same story was repeated in many Labour strongholds across Britain. By contrast, almost every borough in London voted to stay and inner-city Labour strongholds like Camden and Lambeth did so by thumping margins. What is going on? How is economic and cultural change driving this divide?

It is worth mentioning at this juncture that Britain is not exactly alone in facing these challenges, nor is the British left the only movement dealing with this sort of tension within the existing party system. Donald Trump’s victory in the U.S. presidential election would appear in part down to the failure of the Democratic Party to motivate its traditional base in crucial swing states like Ohio, Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania. A quick look at every one of the major economies in Europe does not reveal a continent with electorally successful social democratic parties maintaining commanding poll leads. While we do well to examine ourselves to understand our problems, we should also be informed by what has happened elsewhere and – equally pertinently – what has not. So while Gordon Brown might have had a fair point that we had not done as much to transform Britain as we could have done, we should not beat ourselves up too much. This was, sadly, a general failing of social democracy in Europe and the United States. Even where our sister parties continue to govern, as in France, the polls do not give hope that situation will long continue. Similar to the outcome of the EU referendum in this country, the situation in the rest of Europe gives us a clear view of the difficulty that is tearing our support, if not yet our Party, apart. It is hard not to look at the rise of the FN in France, the AfD in Germany, or even of Podemos in Spain or Syriza in Greece, without seeing patterns across our continent.

One of the best assessments I have read recently on what is happening to our politics is an article on the bifurcation of our politics that Will Jennings and Gerry Stoker published in the Political Quarterly in March this year. Using terminology I find a little objectionable but with characteristics I can recognise, they identify two ‘Englands’: one that is (in their words not mine) “inward-looking, relatively illiberal, negative about the EU and immigration, nostalgic and more English in its identity”, and another which is (again their words not mine) “global in outlook, liberal and more plural in its sense of identity”.

To me, their key insight is that in both these Englands there is a battle between right and left for electoral success, and that in that first England, the Labour Party lost far too much ground to the Tories and UKIP in 2015. Ever since, we have made ourselves more and more a party at home on the left side of the second England rather than in both. The former Labour voters who live in that first England – the people who are sometimes described as the “left behind” – are the voters for whom we need to have a strong set of messages and to whose concerns we must be most alive. They are the people for whom we must craft a message that also carries the Labour vote in the second England, thereby forging and sustaining a governing majority to take us back to power and keep us there. As Jennings & Stoker put it: “In majoritarian systems such as the UK’s, the challenge for party elites is to build an electoral coalition that straddles the divides created by the bifurcation of politics.” I should also say that though they talk about England, I think a lot of their analysis is true for Wales as well. Scotland, as ever, poses a very different set of challenges.

My view is that the bifurcation has been driven by the rapid hollowing out of our economic model that has sustained social democratic movements since the coming of the industrial revolution. Too many cities like Sunderland have lost most of their manufacturing industries, with too little hope of the large numbers of jobs they provided ever returning. At the same time London, Edinburgh and other cities built on less tangible industries thrive and attract migrants from across the world. That is great, but it also opens up a sharp gap between places where being an economy open to Europe and the world is obviously a good idea, and places where that advantage is rather less apparent to people. A combination of free trade and automation means the sorts of work that once employed miners, dockers, millworkers and shipbuilders in my constituency and in every major city in Britain haven't just moved to China, Malaysia or wherever, they've also moved from people to machines. They aren't ever coming back, because lots of them aren’t done by people in Malaysia either, but by robots. Let us not forget, all that said, that many of those jobs were hard and dangerous. The reality that my son will probably never work down a coalmine, and that my daughter will probably not leave school to work in a textile mill at fifteen is one I welcome, even as I worry about what jobs there will be and what their future will hold.

I am repeatedly struck by the startling lack of serious thought in the wider Labour Party about how we engage with these changes, and with the people left behind by them. We lack as a movement a clear picture of how we frame our politics and present our values for an age where the economy is transforming and the social and political divides are shifting. That’s not to say there haven’t been efforts to understand this process, but too often they have been woefully inadequate. We've seen various manifestations of communitarian reinvention, from ‘community organising’ to 'Blue Labour' – all variations on a common premise that it is possible to deal with cultural and industrial change by wishing it hadn’t happened, an effort to pass off nostalgia as political strategy. Elegiac lyricism about a vanished world of large unionised workplaces full of men doing semiskilled jobs, shared cultural experiences, shared religious affiliation, and tight community links does not amount to a plausible programme for government. That world has gone, it isn't coming back, and hankering for the past isn't what any of us were elected to do. And to go back to that horrible morning of 8 May 2015, no evidence I have ever seen suggests that nostalgia is the route to victory in Nuneaton.

We shouldn’t be surprised by that. Thirty-five years ago, Lord Dahrendorf famously pilloried the SDP for offering “a better yesterday”. That is what too much of our offer has been in recent years, and what almost all of it has been in recent months. We will repeal Tory legislation – excellent, but what will go in its place? We will restore manufacturing industry as a larger component of a rebalanced British economy – how, when governments of all sorts have been wrestling with this for decades? We will, according to some colleagues, reduce immigration sharply – and what will that do to the economy? We are still offering the electors of Nuneaton nothing but the slogans and solutions of times long past.

We've also seen an extraordinary fascination among Labour colleagues with talking about “Englishness”. It is true that many of the people in the so-called “left behind” group are people who would probably describe themselves as English rather than British, but I am wholly unconvinced that the way to reconnect with these voters is to talk about Englishness all the time. To diagnose a political problem, or to point to a feature of its manifestation, is not in any sense to identify the means by which to resolve it. Talking about the Chartists or fiddling with our Rulebook is not the high road to the New Jerusalem, and I am completely unconvinced that simply wrapping ourselves in the Cross of St George will get us very far in Nuneaton either.

Another blind alley is electoral reform. First, it isn’t going to happen – at least not in a way that helps us for as long as there’s a Tory government – so let’s not waste our time calling for it. We need to face up to the fact that we lost the general election. Fiddling with the electoral system so that losers become winners is pathetic, looks pathetic, and distracts us from the changes we need to achieve. Every moment that the British people hear us talking about electoral reform is a moment we are not heard talking about the things that matter to voters and their families: the economy, jobs, the NHS, schools. We clearly failed to cut through to electors on these issues last May. Let’s not make it harder for ourselves by banging on self-indulgently about AV and STV, d’Hondt and MMP, when we could be talking about issues that most people have actually heard of.

Partly perhaps because power in Parliament seems so far away, we’ve also seen a new embrace of devolution and the concept of localism. Localism is too often a trap for anyone who calls themselves a socialist or a social democrat. In the US the same movement is called “states’ rights”, and everyone knows why certain states want certain rights returned to them rather than controlled centrally. In the US, few of a leftish persuasion would find convincing the idea that power is always best exercised and controlled locally, closest to the citizen. They have seen where that leads. Here in Britain the trap can be set because the pitfalls are less obvious and our history less scarred, but they remain pitfalls all the same. Most obviously, localism too often means devolving responsibility without power.

Metro mayors and combined authorities provide an excellent illustration of that trap. The Tories are now devolving power over the NHS in Greater Manchester to the local Combined Authority and its directly elected mayor. It is my strong suspicion that George Osborne knew exactly what he was doing when he invented this constitutional novelty: he was doing over the Labour Party. I have sat through enough Health Questions in the Commons where every criticism of the government is deflected with an answer along the lines of “In Wales…”. The Tories are going to create a small Labour-controlled NHS in the heart of England, run separately from the rest of the country. Responsibility for administering it will rest with the Labour Party, yet decisions on the overall level of funding from general taxation will continue to rest with the Conservative Party in Westminster. So Labour will endure responsibility without power, and the Tories will enjoy power without responsibility. What could possibly go wrong? I wish Andy Burnham every success, but I fear the Tories have not merely set him up to fail, they have set up that failure to be a fable for all England.

There is another and more insidious set of traps in localism. A powerful government in Whitehall can take on major companies that seek to defraud the people, can build a National Health Service, can reform our schools. Take these powers away from the centre and they may be more local, but they are also lesser. For one thing, they are easier to chip away at. Yvette Cooper led a brave if doomed fight this time last year to resist the devolution and fragmentation of the legal framework for abortion rights within Britain. As she said at the time: “We are stronger if we stand together to defend them against those who want to turn back the clock, rather than leaving each other to face the heat of the campaign alone.” The powers that Labour councils seek to take from the central state are – as they see it – about improving services locally. But you can bet that any number of Tory councils would love there to be regional or even council-specific Minimum Wages, not a National Minimum Wage. On occasions when HMRC bothers investigating rather than excusing tax evasion, they at least have the resources to do a decent job of it. If further elements of taxation are devolved to local level, don’t bet on that always being the case. If you care about effective, equitable and efficient public services, cutting them into council-sized chunks is not the obvious way to achieve economies of scale, let alone to ensure their responsiveness to democratically elected governments.

There’s also a politics to all this which we shouldn’t forget. If people in places where we are never going to control the council locally are going to vote Labour at Westminster elections, we need to give them a reason to do so. If we want people to vote Labour, we should not be advocating for an incoming Labour government to relinquish at once the remaining levers it has to make everyone’s lives better. A Labour government should not be limiting its ambitions for improvement to the lives of people who happen to have a Labour council or a Labour combined authority. Political power is there to be used to achieve positive change, not to be handed back to local Tories on a misguided point of principle, not least because – as we all know – the notion that people only vote in local elections on local issues and never as a way of kicking the incumbent government is at best optimistic.

If none of these arguments persuade you that promising to devolve power to local government is simply another electoral blind alley for us, I recommend looking at what the voters think. The TUC commissioned one such study immediately after the election, and their website allows you to compare the interests of swing voters who considered voting Labour and ended up voting Tory with the interests of the broader electorate. The people we need to win over to form a government again – people who voted Tory having thought about voting Labour – are even less interested in what we say about devolution than the population in general.

Not one of these approaches to our travails is remotely good enough. None of them acknowledge the world in which we currently live, let alone that which we will live in after Brexit – whatever that ends up meaning – or ask what a Labour government is for in such a world. Let me take immigration as an example, as much as anything else because most political arguments seem to these days.

Given the city in which I grew up, perhaps it’s inevitable that my political analysis is shaped by the fortunes of the manufacturing industry. But this also means that I am extremely reluctant to endorse solutions to our problems that might sound popular but which I believe would bring economic ruin to my constituents. We are lucky – we still have manufacturing industries. The Nissan plant has a productivity record which is the envy of the sector and of which everyone in Sunderland, and indeed the wider region, is rightly proud. So solutions which might win elections but destroy industries and livelihoods thereafter are no solutions at all. Nowhere has this been clearer to me of late than the issue of free movement and immigration. Nissan is one of the north-east’s iconic employers, a huge manufacturing plant supporting supply chains across the region. Access to the single market has been central to the success of the automotive sector in a Sunderland and across our country, yet it is already all too clear that Europe isn't going allow us free movement of goods without free movement of people. I wholeheartedly welcome Nissan’s recent decision to continue investing in Sunderland, but we shouldn't imagine the issues have gone away. Any form of Brexit that imperils single market access puts at risk the livelihoods of thousands of the people I represent.

Movement across continents and the world is now extremely straightforward. The real terms cost of getting on a plane to Spain or Italy, never mind Poland, Hungary or Egypt, has gone through the floor. Migration is here to stay. Across swathes of the world, war and unrest creates wave after wave of refugees, making their way to the relative safety of Europe. The destructive and long-running civil war in Syria, which is sliding slowly towards a proxy war between Russia, Iran, and the West, is only the beginning. Yet the refusal of almost every European country to either intervene effectively in Syria or to admit refugees in adequate numbers – not even economic migrants but people fleeing for their lives – has hampered EU decision-making to a degree to which those who wish Europe and its institutions ill could only have dreamed. What is more, it has changed the conversation about free movement across the continent. Today, migration has a salience and unpopularity that has hardly been known for generations.

I take the view that the right decisions for Britain’s future are not invariably the ones that are immediately and universally popular. If they were, all politicians would be redundant. Sometimes things that are true are deeply unpopular, and sometimes things that are popular would be catastrophic as policy choices. That to me is why we are a representative democracy rather than one governed by referendum after referendum. I also believe that as politicians we have a moral responsibility to tell the truth. On immigration, the facts – as Jonathan Portes of the NIESR frequently and untiringly points out – are clear. Free movement of people within the EU is, overall, good for Britain. Not because it widens our cultural experience, although it undoubtedly does and that is a good thing. Not because it is a price worth paying for single market access, although it may well be and for my constituency single market access is very important. Not because I don't care about the transitional effects when suddenly more people are living in an area than existing public services can support, because I do, very much. But because immigration into Britain has boosted our economy year after year and thus raised the standard of living for people in this country. It makes people in our country and in my constituency wealthier on average than they would otherwise be, and it makes working people – for whom Labour was founded and exists – better off. We should have no compunction about telling those simple truths.

If we pretend things that are true aren’t so, and pretend that seductively popular options which would actually damage us are without downsides, we deserve to get in trouble. The fastest way to lose trust is to be found out in deceit, and once we lose that trust, we will then find it very hard to gain the support we need to change what can and should be changed. It’s easy for those who don’t believe in government: they have nothing to lose from a diminution of faith in politics and politicians. As Labour politicians we have everything to lose: we have a double responsibility.

So to the point: the ‘lump of labour’, the notion that there are a finite number of jobs to go round, is a long-known fallacy. Those who pretend otherwise or deny that finding should be treated with the same bemused contempt as Douglas Carswell when he claimed the tides were driven mainly by the sun. The problems we face in Britain today do not result from the inadequacy of immigration controls. The reason it's difficult to get a GP appointment in Sunderland is because the government has wrecked the health service through chaotic reorganisations and haven't trained nearly enough family doctors. It is not because there are tens of thousands of recent arrivals in Sunderland from central Europe who are disproportionately unhealthy, because that simply isn't true. The reason Hetton School in my constituency has spent most of the last few years falling down is because the Tories cancelled the rebuilding in 2010, not because Hungarian workers were able to claim benefits when they fell ill from the day they started working here a decade ago. There is something horribly un-socialist about blaming people for the consequences of political decisions of a right wing government. That is the politics of populism not socialism, the politics of easy answers rather than right answers.

It is also, to return the concern I expressed earlier, the politics of shredding apart the left-wing coalition of the two Englands. If you want an issue on which Labour voters in Hull and in Hampstead probably don’t agree, it’s immigration. Simple political common sense – as Gordon Brown observed all those years ago – tells us that we should not be banging on about an issue which divides our own potential support in two, nor encouraging and enabling others to do so. The more we ourselves frame our politics in a way which divides our support, the less surprised we should be when we are almost twenty points behind in the polls. At the last election, half of Labour’s possible support was horrified that we were selling mugs branded “Controls on immigration”, while the other half simply did not believe that, if immigration was a major issue, Ed Miliband was the answer. In truth, both sides had a point, and experience elsewhere in Europe tells us that social democratic parties that make a point of talking about immigration while in opposition do not by and large spring back into power. The lesson is clear: if the divide in our politics is indeed between the two Englands, and we have put ourselves on the side of one of them, then the Referendum result tells us who is going to win. If the divide in politics is twofold – both the two Englands and left-right, then we cannot be restricted to one corner. We have to win for the left and centre in both Englands. Repeatedly reminding the electorate of issues which split Hull from Hampstead even within the core Labour coalition is completely counterproductive, not least because there are plenty of people willing to move onto patches of what was once our political territory. The obvious one has been UKIP, but Theresa May’s conference pitch on the power of government to do good was an audacious bid to park a lot of tanks on a very poorly defended lawn.

Since there are various blind alleys, and since I don’t think emulating Ukip’s stances on immigration would be either right or expedient, what should we do, and what should we emphasise? Part of that is, or should be, an empirical question. Nigel Stanley at the TUC wrote a fascinating article a few years ago on George Lakoff’s work on framing, and how the polling that the TUC had conducted could and should inform the choice of language we use about the welfare state in Britain. The results themselves are extremely interesting – for example, we should talk about “national insurance” instead of “benefits” or “social security” – but actually the work in itself is just as important. This is interesting on three levels. First, because despite how cheap polling now is, public discussion on the left of how we should frame our language is too often sorely lacking in empirical content, making up with moral indignation and baseless assertion what it lacks in demonstrable truth. Second, because the polling they carried out also looked at how best to change the way people saw these issues so as to make them more likely to support the sort of policies Labour would be likely to advocate. Finally, because the results were usable, although whether Labour actually used them to inform our messaging ahead of 2015 I do not know. I do know that the further work the TUC did following the 2015 election, to which I referred earlier, on what swing electors thought about the issues that matter, is both fascinating and chastening. Too much of our debate is trapped in an arrogant belief that what we think matters to swing voters, or what we find interesting to talk about, is what actually matters to them, even when the data disproving that stares us in the face. One thing that this data does tell us is that “having decent messages for people on middle incomes” and “being trusted to run the economy” mattered noticeably more to those who considered voting for us but in the end chose not to than they did for the rest of the population. Englishness, not so much.

Another large part is necessarily less empirical, but still needs to be grounded in the reality of where we are. It is about engaging with the world as it will be when we are next on the threshold of power, and not as we dimly remember it from the 1980s or even the 2000s. Tom Watson’s speech at conference was excellent, and in particular his commission on the future of work is really important. Done properly, their work could inform much of how we move Labour politics to look – as we said  in 2005 – forward not back. As a party, we have a habit of determined navel-gazing, focusing on internal organisational issues in which the electorate has no interest. What was so refreshing about Tom’s speech was his determination to move past that and straight back onto the territory of government. I’d add schools and the NHS as two issues where in the last few years we have simply not had a coherent policy that properly engages with where we will be by the time of the next election. Solemn vows to repeal the Health and Social Care Act cheer up the delegates at Conference, but repealing legislation that by 2020 will be almost a decade old and the basis for how the NHS operates is a recipe for total chaos, not sustained improvement. We also need to be more serious about reviewing how the health service works. Do we spend enough on preventative care and on public health? If we targeted that work better, could we save money more quickly? Does the government make proper use of the vast quantities of health data that it collects to drive improvements in NHS operation and resource allocation? How do we connect up the budgets so that managers of acute services for preventable ill-health find it in their interests to fund prevention work? If we want to reduce the role of the private sector in the NHS, what are the criteria by which we should go about doing that? There was remarkably little about any of this at Conference this year, and yet the NHS is an issue which – handled well – could mobilise and unite the left of both Englands.

On transport, to take another issue, we must reach beyond a comfort zone commitment to rail renationalisation – which is good, but won't in itself solve very much – to address questions about what the purpose of renationalising will be, and how we would balance funding transport improvements. And what of those voters, including in my own constituency, who don't enjoy easy access to rail services and rarely get on a train?

As for schools, the catastrophically stupid Tory policy of bringing back grammar schools has distracted us from having a coherent position on the wider situation. The reality is that well over half of state secondary schools are now academies outside local authority control. Tristram Hunt did some good work in the run up to 2015 on how we could put in place a new framework for driving up standards and intervening, but we should engage with the probability that the vast majority of schools by 2020 will be outside the power of local authorities, with governing bodies that are smaller, less representative, and – for good or ill – much more professionalised. That creates opportunities as well as problems. It’s worth remembering that the Dedicated Schools Grant was introduced by the last Labour government to stop Tory councils siphoning off money we wanted spent on schools to pay for their own pet projects. If school funding is now more directly driven by central government than it was twenty years ago that means greater power for an incoming Labour government to effect change fast. What should schools be teaching that they aren’t now? What sorts of skills might we want people to learn at school that we don’t now? The current fads for coding and (to a lesser extent) Mandarin don’t seem to reflect a serious consideration of how best we can use limited hours in the school day to give our people either a better education or a competitive edge in the trading world of the future. What can we learn from the success of The London Challenge to improve schools across the county? Again, talking about schools – as with talking about the need to improve all public services delivered by the state – is a way of uniting the left of both Englands: shared concerns about the distribution of social goods that unite us, rather than opening cultural gaps that divide us. We need to show both a degree of intellectual seriousness about the issues, and a laser-like focus on how we shape and refine our language to turn those issues into victory.

To me, therefore, what the next few months and years need to show from Labour isn’t simply or necessarily about supporting Jeremy or maintaining a semblance of unity or a particular policy platform. What we need to do is to look as forensically as we can at the changes that have actually happened in Britain since we last won a general election in 2005 – a time before Twitter, iPhones, Brexit, same sex marriage, the Trade Union Act, the rise of the Scottish National Party – and decide what a Labour government might do differently when it returns to power. We need to formulate a policy agenda that is more practical and more redistributive of power, wealth and opportunity than simply “repeal Tory legislation”. This could allow us to frame the debate again as one between collective action and its absence, not between the two Englands of Jennings and Stoker. And having formulated that clear sense of how the Britain of 2020 would be run differently between 2020 and 2025 by Labour, we need to work out how to persuade the electorate of that – to work out exactly how we should communicate our promises. Mass rallies of the true believers and shared content from The Canary or the Independent are definitely not the answer, even if it turns out that can be part of winning a leadership election. The question is one on that should be driven by evidence: what framing and what language best allows us to present our messages? What beliefs do the electorate already have about us that need defusing, or at least acknowledging before we can say our piece? What parts of what the Tories say about us are things the electors believe, or at least find plausible, and also think are damaging?

All of these questions have answers we find by commissioning research, by talking to electors on the phone and on the doorstep, and not by introspection. We would do well to encourage those who have funds, and will spend them on helping the Labour Party even if not on supporting the leadership, to look at a whole host of questions on how we frame issues and what language we use. We need to understand how and where that can actually be effective from opposition, and where we are pushing uselessly at firmly closed doors. We need to understand on which issues we can make the best progress in taking votes off the right in both Hampstead and in Hull, and how we can hold together Hampstead and Hull when different forces try to take each away from us. It is time for Labour’s debate on our future to move from self-indulgence, arm waving, and affirmation to discipline, analysis, and evidence. We’re only going to get one shot at winning the next general election and securing the Labour government that Britain needs, and we need – need desperately – to get it right.

Bridget Phillipson is Labour MP for Houghton and Sunderland South.

Show Hide image

Einstein’s monsters: what the Cold War films of the 1980s can teach us

Amid the paranoia of the eighties, film-makers attempted to convey the terrifying reality of a nuclear attack. Now in this new age of anxiety we are returning to their prophetic visions

On 1 December 2017, Hawaii’s nuclear war siren network was tested for the first time since the Cold War. Then, on 13 January, a message was sent to that state’s mobile phone networks warning of an incoming ballistic attack (38 long minutes later, this was corrected). On 25 January, the Doomsday Clock was put forward to two minutes to midnight by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, and on 2 February, the US Government published its Nuclear Posture Review, proposing a new arsenal of tactical weapons.

In the space of a few months, the West was transported back to a time that until recently seemed impossibly distant – a time when a new American president was expanding his military ambitions, and a British prime minister was doing anything in her power to galvanise that special relationship.

To grow up in the early 1980s was to grow up with a cloud, one that lifted suddenly into a toroidal fireball usually seen in stock footage or shuddery animation. It was also to grow up with a sound that had been familiar in Britain 40 years earlier: a low wail, rising and descending, like a wounded wolf’s howl. Another eerie sound lingers in the mind from this time: the calm, clipped vowels of a male announcer, advising how to build shelters, avoid fallout, and wrap up your dead loved ones in polythene, bury them, and tag their bodies.

These elements came together in Richard Taylor Cartoon Films’ Protect and Survive series, a collection of public information films made for the government’s Central Office of Information in 1975. They first leaked in 1980, inspiring two groundbreaking British films: a two-hour BBC docudrama that has only been shown three times by the broadcaster, Threads (1984), and a 90-minute animated film about an elderly couple following government advice before, during and after the bomb, called When The Wind Blows (1986).

Threads begins with a close-up of a spider weaving its web, and a voiceover telling us that “everything connects”. We cut to a young couple, middle-class Ruth and working-class Jimmy, heavy-petting in a car in the Peak District; she gets pregnant, and their families nervously meet. The warm hum of TV and radio news forms a comforting haze in the background, until its contents pulse through.

A schoolgirl slowly downs her milk and looks at her wireless. A pub landlord changes a TV channel but his punters want to hear more about Iran. A teenager runs into a shop to tell Mam to come home: the Russians and Americans have started fighting. Forty-six excruciatingly tense minutes into Mick Jackson and Barry Hines’s film, it comes: sirens, upturned buggies, urine down trouser legs, a soft swell of volatile gases above Sheffield. Blasts. Flames. Winds. Silence.

In January, a mass-watching of Threads, hashtagged #ThreadDread on Twitter, was led by Julie McDowall, a journalist and nuclear threat expert campaigning for the BBC to show it for the first time since 2003. The US secretary of state George Shultz saw the film when it aired on CNN in 1985, and it is alleged that it affected the Reagan’s government’s attitude to nuclear war. Jimmy Murakami’s adaptation of Raymond Briggs’ graphic novel When the Wind Blows was brought up by Lord Jenkins of Putney in the House of Lords: he asked Baroness Hooper for an assurance that it would not be banned from being shown in schools. The work of the visual imagination can be powerful; brutal enough to make a difference. 

 The 1984 BBC film Threads was unflinching in its depiction of the horror caused by nuclear fallout after a bomb falls in Sheffield. Credit: AF archive/ Alamy

The Protect and Survive films that had a huge impact on popular culture were only shown twice on British TV: first on 10 March 1980, on the Panorama episode, “If The Bomb Drops” – and once again on a shop’s TV screens in the first section of Threads (the films were declassified in 2005, and are now available on DVD). “They have never been seen before and won’t be seen again until nuclear war is imminent,” explained Panorama’s fresh-faced 29-year-old presenter, Jeremy Paxman. “Their advice is intended to be reassuring.”

Reassurance was the reason that the veteran voiceover artist Patrick Allen was chosen to be their narrator; he was best known at the time for a Barratt Homes TV advert, where he is filmed grinning from a helicopter. (In 1984, he recorded less reassuring lines for a 12-inch mix of Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s No 1 hit “Two Tribes” in a pointed Protect and Survive style: “I am the last voice you will ever hear,” Allen says. “Do not be alarmed.”)

The BBC Radiophonic Workshop’s Roger Limb wrote the series’ electronic theme, which involved two melodies at high and low pitches, coming together – like people, he says. He handed over his tape to the films’ producer, Bruce Parsons in an alley, such was the secrecy required. It is the films’ visual language, however, that remains their most haunting element. They feature a white, cardboard house against a wall of sky-blue, with two faceless parents holding their children’s hands for a logo. The animator Roger McIntosh, then 27, designed this and the film’s mushroom cloud, and remembers signing the Official Secrets Act. “Having a simple style was essential, so the films couldn’t be seen to be entertainment,” he says. “They had to be understood by all audiences, at all levels of education.”

There was a terrifying flipside to that innocent, familiar world. “Their instructions seemed absolutely pointless, to be honest with you,” McIntosh adds. “But, in the face of Armageddon… well, it was a job.”

The editor of Panorama in 1980, Roger Bolton, was shocked when he first saw the films. Now the presenter of Radio 4’s listener programme, Feedback, he remembers visiting the US in late 1979, and realising the impact expanding international defence programmes would have on the UK, which disbanded its civil defence corps in 1968. Panorama’s producer, David Darlow, convinced a local government commissioner to leak the Protect and Survive films to him; Bolton knew broadcasting them was a gamble. “But these films’ instructions were ludicrous. I knew the military would think them ludicrous. So I didn’t ask permission – I just put them out.”

 After broadcast, remarkably, there were few repercussions, although Darlow claims his name was blackened in intelligence circles. The Protect and Survive booklets, which the documentary claimed would take four weeks to produce in the immediate wake of a nuclear threat, were also printed up later that year, and sold, to those who could afford them, for 50p.

But attitudes towards the government were changing, Bolton says. “We have to remember this was only 35 years after the Second World War. People in government were older then, and still believed in the power of authority in wartime. But we were children of the Sixties. We knew we had to question everything.” The economic and political volatility of Britain in 1970s contributed to this mood, and Bolton’s young team rode with the spirit of the times.

“We were very young, and doubtless very arrogant, back then. But with the BBC’s resources, as they were then, at our disposal, if the basic question, ‘Should we do this?’ came up…” He laughs. “Well, we did this.”

 Jim consults his Protect and Survive pamphlet in When the Wind Blows (1986). Credit: AF archive/ Alamy

Across the Atlantic, in his Los Angeles sunroom, Mick Jackson is remembering his days as a BBC documentary maker too. He reads the handwritten letter framed on its wall, dated 24 September 1984, from the then leader of the opposition, Neil Kinnock:

Dear Michael Jackson and Barry Hines,

I’d like to thank you and everyone involved in the making of Threads for your important and impressive work. The story must be told time and time again until the idea of using nuclear weapons is pushed into past history. Don’t, by the way, be troubled by the possibility that some people might be inured to the real thing by seeing horrifying films. The dangers of complacency are much greater than
any risks of knowledge.

Neil Kinnock

“Great rhythmic phrase at the end,” Jackson says, proudly. “Very Kinnock-like.”

 Now a Hollywood director – the Whitney Houston/Kevin Costner blockbuster, The Bodyguard, and the David Irving biopic Denial are on his CV – Jackson began his career making science programmes. An electronic engineering graduate who “changed his mind and then went to film school”, he joined the BBC in 1965, soon after it had decided not to broadcast Peter Watkins’s The War Game, the first film to depict brutally the effects of a nuclear bomb (it was shown in cinemas instead and won the 1966 Oscar for Best Documentary).

“There was a real sense of shame pervading the BBC about that decision,” says Jackson. It had wanted to share the responsibility for broadcasting the film with the Home Office, he explains; the Cabinet Secretary at the time, Burke Trend, said the government “would be relieved” if the BBC didn’t transmit. “That was a clever move. The War Game obviously had a political agenda. And that’s also a problem, obviously, for the BBC.”

After the Panorama special, however, the BBC had renewed confidence, and protest movements against nuclear programmes were also developing at pace (the first women’s peace camp at Greenham Common took place in late 1981, after Margaret Thatcher’s government announced its acquisition of US Trident missiles). Now working on a new BBC science series, QED, Jackson proposed a “scrupulously factual, unbiased” episode, “A Guide to Armageddon”, which coolly described the effects of a one-megaton blast.

Throughout it, images of ordinary life are juxtaposed with horror-movie detail: Jackson used a photo of his local butcher’s in Holland Park, then a close-up of animal fats burning from a pig’s leg, to show the effects of nuclear blast on human flesh. Couples are also seen building or buying shelters of various kinds: Joy and Eric build one under the stairs that will save them for 17 seconds. “I’d wanted to call it ‘A Consumer’s Guide to Armageddon’,” Jackson laughs. “For some reason, the BBC thought that unduly provocative. ‘But I am a scientist,’ I said. ‘Everything will be citable, provable.’” Jackson’s documentary was broadcast on 26 July 1982 and Threads went into pre-production the following year.

Filmed in 17 days in early 1984 on a budget of £250,000, Threads featured a cast of extras consisting mainly of CND supporters, loaned by Sheffield City Council (the area had recently declared itself a nuclear-free zone). Its script was by Barry Hines, best known for the uncompromising 1968 film Kes: he knew how to write Yorkshire because that’s where he was from. He battled ferociously with Jackson about Paul Vaughan’s intermittent, newsy voiceover, feeling that it smothered his drama, but Jackson knew a sui generis form for the film was essential to make it stand out.

This attitude hardened in November 1983 after Jackson saw the American post-apocalyptic TV movie, The Day After. Watched by 100 million people in the US, and featuring a similarly slow-burning series of real-life stories to Threads, well-known actors such as Jason Robards and Steve Guttenberg prettied it up, and its setting was sanitised. “I mean, the hospital scene in it – the electricity was working!” Jackson rants. In Threads, amputations are delivered without anaesthetic; people bite on rags. Jackson says: “The idea of nuclear war informing a new species of made-for-TV disaster movies was the worst thing that could happen, to my mind. I wanted to show the full horror. I felt that was absolutely my responsibility.”

There were other motivations behind this attitude, he says. A day after Threads was broadcast, as part of a night that also featured a political debate, Jackson went on BBC One’s Pebble Mill with a beeper on his belt – his wife was due to have their first child. Her being pregnant throughout the filming of Threads puts three of its scenes in a particularly tough light: Ruth sees a woman rocking her dead baby, her eyes numb and wide; she herself gives birth in a rural barn, alone, biting through her daughter’s umbilical cord with her teeth; and her own daughter, Jane, gives birth ten years later. In the final scene, Jane is handed her baby, but we don’t see the child. Jane looks at it and she screams. “For Threads to work, I had to try to let images and emotion happen in people’s minds,” Jackson says. “Or rather in the extensions of their imaginations.”


Sheffield City Centre, January 2018. Around the corner from The Moor, the square in which we see the upturned buggies after the bomb, 75-year-old Rita May sits in BBC Sheffield’s reception. “When the bomb goes off, the camera’s on me!” she says, half-surprised – she watched Threads the day before for the first time in decades, seeing herself in a front room in her early forties, next to a window unprotected from the blast. “It’s dated a bit, I thought. But oh, that make-up. Bran flakes and gelatine. Horrible, it was.”

She played Mrs Kemp, the mother of Jimmy, a woman oblivious to the encroaching horror. Her character screams for the first time when she realises her youngest son, Michael, isn’t with her – then her skin is horrendously burned. She goes into the fallout minutes later with her husband, against all advice, and finds Michael’s blackened foot in the rubble.

May keeps her maroon anorak on while she talks, her manner all no-nonsense northern. After the bomb drops the film continues for an hour and seven minutes, covering another ten years. Backstage was a gala of cheap, terrifying special effects, she remembers. Racks of clothes were blowtorched daily on-set by the wardrobe team. Karen Meagher, who played Ruth Beckett, wore her cataract contact lenses while doing her supermarket shopping, in order to get used to them. And the umbilical cord Ruth chewed through? “Made of liquorice!” This cheapness is often apparent in the film, but other moments ensure it doesn’t matter: Mrs Kemp’s husband trying to find food while holding on to Michael’s favourite toy, a broken electronic game; Ruth carrying Jimmy’s old book of birds. Old threads being clung to, before they finally yield.

The subtle familiarity of the faces in Threads is a large part of its power today. May has played minor characters in Coronation Street, larger roles in BBC and Sky One sitcoms, and after Threads was in the ITV kids’ series Children’s Ward for years. This may explain why Threads had a disturbing effect on the generation who
were aware of the nuclear threat as children, but only saw the films a little later. Recognisable faces made it more chilling.

May remembers a screening for the whole cast and extras just before the BBC broadcast. It was a Sunday, in Sheffield’s Fiesta Nightclub, the tables set in a cabaret style. “After it finished, no one could speak.” (Jackson recalls this event too: “These people had known what they were doing in the film, taken part in the crowd scenes, but the effect the whole thing had on them was extraordinary – all these people weeping.”)

May herself had a recurring dream afterwards, she says, in which she was standing by a window, just like Mrs Kemp had been. “My boys were young in it, playing outside, and then I saw a mushroom cloud behind them. Funny that, isn’t it?” It also made May think about her mother, who’d seen a doodlebug suddenly, one day in Sheffield, during the Second War. “Apparently, it destroyed the house next door,” she says. May tugs her gold locket. “We forget what that fear feels like easily, don’t we?”


There is, however, an appetite to remember. On a late winter’s afternoon in London, the BFI Southbank’s NFT3 cinema is full of people ready to experience When the Wind Blows on a big screen. It begins gently: Jim Bloggs (John Mills) bumbling about the house, a Protect and Survive booklet in his hand acquired from his local library. He gazes out of his window in the countryside, seemingly so far away from danger. After the bomb drops, his wife, Hilda (Peggy Ashcroft), worries about trivial things: the filth on her cushions, her blackened, slashed curtains – then later, as reality hits her, the weals on her legs. At the end of the film Jim prays, his mind unravelling with sickness, as the couple tuck themselves up in the bags that become their forgotten coffins.

The film’s executive producer, Iain Harvey, talked to the BFI audience. He explained that it took three years to raise funds to make When the Wind Blows, despite it being developed after the success of another Raymond Briggs adaptation, The Snowman. Nuclear weapons policy had hardened, if anything, in Britain in the mid-1980s:  as late as April 1986 Thatcher was writing her first open letter on the topic to her local paper, the Finchley Times. “Nuclear weapons have kept the peace for over 40 years,” she wrote. “Of course, in an ideal world there would be no weapons of mass destruction. But they exist, and they cannot be disinvented.” Fifteen days later, on 25 April, the No 4 reactor at Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant exploded, sending clouds of radioactive caesium-137 slowly drifting westwards.

When the Wind Blows felt particularly vital at its world premiere just six months after Chernobyl. The film is dedicated to the children born to the relatively young cast and crew during its production: Harvey’s daughter, now 32, is in the audience today. Two women raise their hands, admitting that When the Wind Blows haunted them after they saw it as children. “We weren’t out to terrify you,” Harvey assures them. He tells me later how angry he would get when the film was criticised as being too party political. “After all,” he says, “what is party political about trying to ensure the world isn’t destroyed by nuclear war?”

A week later, Raymond Briggs calls me: now 84, he rarely ventures from his rural Sussex home. He also couldn’t stop watching When the Wind Blows the other day – but for different reasons. “That box separate to the telly – I couldn’t bloody switch it off.” He’s grumpy this morning and half-apologises; he’s softer recalling an old memory that inspired his anti-war stance.

“I remember standing at my window in Wimbledon Common, thinking of those ships on their way to Cuba. ‘All this out here,’ I remember thinking, ‘could be gone.’” He was 28 in 1962. “And now all this North Korea business. One bloke speaking off the cuff and the next day…” He tails off. “Thank God I’m 84, that’s all I can say.”

When the Wind Blows acknowledges how easy it is to become romantic about war. Briggs used his childhood experiences in the Second World War to address this nostalgia in the film, inserting his own Morrison shelter, covered with pin-ups, for Jim Bloggs’s, and taking inspiration from his own brief evacuation to a rural idyll far away from the bombs.

But as Threads and When the Wind Blows made clear, there is no rural idyll away from the bombs. And while modern dramas and documentaries have not confronted this reality, these older, bolder films still have a power to draw people together – on social media, in government, or even in smaller, more familiar ways. Mick Jackson’s father spent time in the Royal Army Medical Corps during the war. After he saw Threads, he started talking about what he’d seen for the first time. “That was absolutely what our work was about,” says Jackson, 34 years later. “To never forget, but to try, with the power we had, to change things.” 

“Threads” is released on DVD through Simply Media on 9 April; “When the Wind Blows” is out now on DVD, through the BFI

Tom Gatti and Kate Mossman are joined by Jude Rogers to discuss the 1984 nuclear disaster drama Threads. Then they talk about the Oscar-nominated film I, Tonya, and finally celebrate the noniversary of Jarvis Cocker invading the stage at the 1996 Brit Awards.

Listen on iTunes here, on Acast here or via the player below:

Our theme music is "God Speed" by Pistol Jazz, licensed under Creative Commons.