James Callaghan, an autodidact with a strong sense of history, knew that he would lose the 1979 general election. He confided to Bernard Donoughue: “There are times, perhaps once every 30 years, when there is a sea change in politics. It then does not matter what you say or what you do. There is a shift in what the public wants and what it approves of. I suspect that there is now such a sea change – and it is for Mrs Thatcher.”
He was right. There were, I think, five such sea changes in the 20th century. There was the Liberal landslide of 1906 that brought Henry Campbell-Bannerman, a quiet but determined radical, to Downing Street – producing the first rudimentary welfare state and reforming the House of Lords. Then, in 1931, the nation was terrified by its brief experiment with Labour government. The huge majority that voted for Stanley Baldwin’s Conservatives (it was called a “national” government but it was, in essence, Tory) preserved the privileges of the rich for the next decade and a half.
The third sea change, in 1945, gave Labour’s Clement Attlee the chance to create a true welfare state and a different sort of society; the fourth, in 1979, gave the equally able and determined Margaret Thatcher the chance to pick it apart. The fifth sea change was in 1997, when Labour was led by Tony Blair, who made rather less use of it than the others.
We are due for a sixth and David Cameron and George Osborne could be just the men to provoke it. If the sea change comes, whoever we elect as Labour leader will become prime minister. So the task isn’t to find someone who looks prime ministerial – no one does, until they become prime minister. In 1945, prime ministers were figures of Churchillian magnificence, until the modest, suburban Mr Attlee walked into No 10. In 1964, prime ministers were elderly, public-school-educated gentlemen who had fought in the First World War – that is, until a brash, young, state-school-educated Yorkshireman named Harold Wilson took over the job.
It’s no use looking for a leader who won’t be monstered by the Murdoch and Rothermere press. The media will savage whoever we elect, just as Lord Beaverbrook monstered Attlee – unless a Blair-style deal is done with Rupert Murdoch, though the price of that would make the election victory not worth having.
We should be looking for someone with the quiet steadfastness of purpose to make the most of the sea change, if it occurs on his or her watch, and to take any opportunities to push things gently in the right direction if it does not. Someone who can grab the chance while it’s there, as Attlee did, and ignore the many siren voices saying that it can’t be done. Attlee thought that Labour should be led from the left, liked bringing the left into the tent and hoped that Nye Bevan might succeed him.
It is perfectly possible that Andy Burnham might turn out to be the one to do it – and conceivable that Yvette Cooper might, too. But I feel confident that, should a sea change happen while Jeremy Corbyn is leader, he will not waste the chance. That’s why I will vote for him.