In the long and often turbulent life of the party, Labor was led by men of different characters and approaches. Here are four that offer history lessons for Keir Starmer.
“A modest man with much to be modest about.” “A gray mouse”. “An empty taxi stopped in front of No. 10 and Mr. Attlee got out.” For much of his career, Clement Attlee has been subject to unflattering comparisons with rivals of more obvious talent within his party, as he stood up against Winston Churchill, the brilliant genius in handling the English language.
Yet Attlee won a landslide for Labor in 1945 and then presided over one of the great reforming governments. It is an excellent example of how a reputation for dullness can become a virtue when reinterpreted as reliable decency and constant competence. It may be inspirational for Starmer. During the 1945 election, the Tories portrayed Churchill as the glorious war leader by hauling their leader across the country in a royal style by limousine and special train. Attlee went around in a modest Hillman led by his wife, Vi, a notoriously irregular driver. The contrast worked for the benefit of the Labor leader.
After the privations of a conflict that required a supreme collective effort, Britain was in the mood to embrace a more egalitarian post-war society. We can only imagine if the coronavirus crisis will have a similar effect on the national psyche, but it is possible.
Asked to name the Labor leader he most admired, Starmer made the outmoded choice of Harold Wilson. He brought the party back to power in 1964 after 13 years of opposition, and it is instructive to remember how he did it.
A key component was the unstoppable ridicule of the Tories as a party out of this world, out of time and horribly seedy, an attack that was given a tailwind by the Perfume deal. Wilson was a brilliant intelligent economist who had not done a day’s manual work in his life, but cultivated the image of a “man of the people”. In public, he swelled his pipe and claimed to love brown sauce. In private, he drank brandy and smoked cigars.
The other key to Wilson’s success was to present the party of the future to the Labor Party with a plan to modernize the country. He promised a “new Britain” that would be “forged in the white heat of the technological revolution”. It didn’t work exactly that way in the office, but the power of the idea helped Labor return to power.
The work was at its peak when Neil Kinnock was chosen to succeed Michael Foot in the wake of the 1983 “suicide note” election, which was as disastrous for the party as the 2019 defeat. Kinnock was energetic, charismatic and mocked by his opponents like the “Welsh windbag”.
Elected to lead the “left-left”, he consistently decreed policies, such as unilateral nuclear disarmament, which had rejected voters and traditional supporters of the working class. It was a tough fight often accompanied by cries of treason. He eliminated the far left extremists of the militant trend, notoriously condemning them in an electrifying speech at the Bournemouth conference in 1985. With the help of Peter Mandelson, the party’s presentation and communications were transformed from hopeless amateurism into a serious professionalism that impressed the media and alarmed the Tories.
Despite his best efforts, Kinnock never convinced the country to appoint him prime minister. He lost to Margaret Thatcher during a boom in 1987 and lost again, albeit more closely, to John Major in 1992, despite a recession. That said, it can be argued persuasively that Kinnock saved his party from existential danger and put him on the road to a recovery that culminated in the 1997 New Labor landslide.
There are many lessons to be learned from Labor’s most successful electoral leader. Tony Blair is the only one among them to win a hat-trick of consecutive elections. Blair triumphed in 1997 by convincing the country that Labor had changed and changed forever, and Britain could also be trusted to change for the better. The conservatives were excluded from power for the next 13 years, their longest opposing trait in modern history.
Even though he has absorbed things that Blair has done well, Starmer will probably be very cautious in saying it. A poll that asked Labor members to rate past leaders had Blair very close to the bottom, even under Foot and Jim Callaghan. Public polls, by contrast, have Blair near or on top of the most admired Labor leaders’ tables.
The work did not do much good to his brand or morale by running incessantly over the last period in power. This self-cleaning process started with Ed Miliband and intensified under Jeremy Corbyn. Starmer has suggested that the denigration of the Blair era will end. The job will have a more promising future if it has a more mature and balanced understanding of how it has won in the past.