Monday, 17 September 2012

Lessons for Labour from the greatest Labour Prime Minister

Clement (Clem) Attlee was Prime Minister of the UK from 1945 to 1951. 

It is surprising Attlee isn't more studied as one of the most successful Prime Ministers of the UK and certainly the best Labour Prime Minister ever.
Attlee came from a affluent background and was converted to socialism by volunteer work he undertook in the East End of London.

Luck played a big part in Clement Attlee's success. Attlee became leader of the Labour Party in 1935 after the National Government swept almost all before it. Attlee almost lost his seat too. Had there been a General Election in 1939 or 1940, Labour would have certainly have lost and Attlee might have been a footnote in history. As it was the 2nd World War intervened.  Attlee served with distinction in the War Cabinet and even as Deputy Prime Minister but he was often in behind the scene roles and he remained a very private figure.

In 1945 Attlee became Prime Minister - much to the surprise of many who expected the usual 'Karki Election' win for the 'man who won the war' Churchill.

Oddly no one seems sure why Labour won a landslide victory in 1945 and why it lasted such a short time.
Part of the explanation must be that the extent of Labours win in 1945 was although a big majority in seats was not based on a huge lead in terms of share of the vote.  In my view 'socialism' in action in the war years probably played a huge part - rationing and Government direction could be seen as promoting a better life for the many, efficient and not the 'communism' that was a vote loser in the inter-war years.   An oft offered explanation is that people blamed the Conservatives for the economic troubles of the 1930's and appeasement before the war.  In reality, the economic policies of the National Government (Conservative in all but name) won huge election majorities.  Indeed it was Labour who rejected the far more radical policies to reduce unemployment being proposed by the Liberal Party.

Appeasement was a popular policy and probably was preferable to the pacifism of much of the Labour Party.  So as an explanation it relies of voters being very inconsistent - which of course they can be.

The Labour Victory in 1945 was followed by perhaps 3 years of major and lasting reforms.  The Beveridge Report was implemented and the NHS founded, reforms that last to this day. Several industries were nationalised - Coal, Railways, Airlines, Telephones, electricity.

Attlee's style of Leadership was very much the hands of chairman - he rarely expressed strong views himself and he saw it as his role to implement the agree policies of the Labour Party. Partly this was a reaction against the 'strong' leadership of people like Lloyd George, Churchill and Ramsey McDonald - leaders who each became 'bigger' than their own parties.

This chairmanship style at times proved very effective - but at others when leadership was required, it fell short.  Oddly, Attlee, the most collegiate of men took the decision to make a British Nuclear Bomb without informing the Cabinet, and it was kept secret from all but 3 of them.

Issues come and go - Attlee's political life was dominated by issues such as Independence for India and Pakistan.  Pacifism and appeasement vs rearmament.  The idea that India could part of the British Empire was outdated even in 1945, yet independence and partition was marred by violence.  Even with the experience of Ireland, UK politicians struggled to get a good outcome.

It is perhaps difficult to get enthused by the internal Labour party battles between Bevin and Bevan and Morrison.
A very cold winter in 1946-47, fuel shortages, particularly of coal combined to make the Government quite unpopular.  Perhaps the very things that had led to Labour winning the election - rationing, the Trade Unions, particularly the miners now contributed to the unpopularity of the Labour Party.
By 1948 - Labour had run out of steam and pressed on with Nationalising the Iron and Steel Industry without having any reason for doing so - apart from a belief that nationalisation as a concept was better than private ownership.

By 1950 Labour scrapped a majority at the general election, this brought problems as ill health meant Labour MPs had to be on call all the time and they were harried by the Conservative Party.

In 1951 Bevan, the Health Minister resigned from the Cabinet because he objected to being told by the new Chancellor of the Exchequer, Hugh Gaitskell to make £13 million of savings to the health budget out of total Government spending of £4000 million.  Bevan was right in saying the £13 million saving he was asked to make was tiny and Gaitskell had budgeted for a huge increase in defence spending, which was not delivered.

This split had a lasting impact on Labour politics, right through to the 1980's !
In 1951, Clem unwisely called another general election, which Labour lost.
1951 was a nadir for the Liberal Party and most of their former supporters voted Conservative and although Labour scored their highest tally of votes ever and more votes than the Conservatives - they lost the election and remained out of power for the next 13 years.

Attlee was a conservative with a small c politician. An essentiallly modest man
he achieved great things by quiet behind the scenes work.

Labour won in 1945 with a clear plan of what they wanted to do and from 1945-1948 they set about implementing it.   That was clearly their most successful period even though they suffered mid term unpopularity and

The contrast with say Tony Blair in 1997 is very noticeable. Blair was elected on a platform of things are really bad, but we won't change anything much.  The reforms that have lasted from the Blair years - devolution for Scotland, Wales and London, proportional representation for European Elections are all things that were of little interest to Blair and done to win round Liberal Democrats and driven forward by reformist in the Labour Party like Robin Cook.  Blair had a strategy to win power, but less idea about what to do with it once he had won it. Blair says he wishes he had been bolder - but the person responsible for the lack of boldness was Blair himself !  With a huge majority and a crushed opposition, Blair could have pursued a far more radical agenda, but he didn't really have one to follow.  Winning had after 18 years of opposition become more important than having a clear idea of what you wanted to achieve and how to achieve it.   As Attlee found by 1949, without such a plan Government becomes mere management.
Looking at the current leader of the Labour Party, Ed Milliband and asking what difference it would make if he was Prime Minister - it is difficult to envisage him as a man with a plan.

(Ref. Attlee, A life in Politics Nicklaus Thomas-Symonds, ISBN 978-1-84511-779-5)

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