Opinion

Lame Tories have failed us. Labour must plan to do better

While the Conservatives were once associated with material prosperity, since their 2010 they have steadily trashed that reputation and now it's too late

Harold Macmillan at the 1957 Conservative Conference

Harold Macmillan said the UK “never had it so good” in 1957. He’d struggle to make the same claim today. Image: Pictorial Press Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo

When Sir Winston Churchill’s administration came in in late 1951 it seemed that the tight state corset of rationing and austerity was lifted off the lives of the people. The Labour government had since 1945 led the people into a welfare state, with an apparent promise that one day they could share in the prosperity only hitherto enjoyed by the professional middle classes and their social betters. Rationing of many things, though – sweets being the hardest thing for a postwar child like me – seemed to suggest to some that we might be living more in a Soviet system than a slowly reviving mixed economy of socially responsible capitalism.  

Whatever the truth of the promises, certainly between 1952 and 1962 the Tories were seen as the arbiters in creating more material prosperity for people. Within four years the greatest sign of comfort and joy was the arrival of commercial TV in the London area, and its spread to other parts of the UK over the next few years. The comfort of coming home from what was classed as an unskilled or semi-skilled job, tiring and labour intensive, to a box that radiated promises, hopes and stories was a godsend. It made us all feel more happy and prosperous, even if there was not a lot of prosperity around.  

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Youth culture seemed to coincide with this, with Elvis, Craig Douglas and Tommy Steele – a kind of English Elvis – and new clothes to demonstrate that you were young and ready to rock’n’roll all night. Hairstyles, denim jeans, brash colours, pointed shoes – winklepickers – all collided in this post war whirl through consumerism. And it looked – looked – as if the Tories were sharing out the largesse of their incredible fortunes and comforts.  

Labour were dead in the water because they were the party that wanted to close down the party of gay abandonment that many wanted; cod liver oil capsules and the state-supplied milk were just not enough to whet the appetites of the common people.  

A ‘confectionery’ culture you might call it, with a vast increase in sugar, to ‘sugar’ this new expansion of pleasure into a part of society that had previously had very little.  

Housing was largely cheap and appalling. Most working people lived in the private rented sector, and those that lived in local authority housing had better facilities, their own non-shared toilets. But much of the council housing was poorly constructed and not built to last. Sink estates full of council housing often became a curse to local authorities and the people who lived in them. But there were some solid builds; and my family and I, among many others, were accommodated in well-made estates.  

What the Tories became known for therefore in this postwar period, certainly up to the mid-1960s, was prosperity and the opportunity for the many to participate in it. You could borrow future earnings through hire purchase and live the plenitude even if you were low paid and poorly housed.  

Many people agreed with the Tory prime minister Harold Macmillan’s 1957 claim that the UK “never had it so good”. Yet by 1963 Toryism had turned into the wimpish, stuttering Conservativism of Lord Alec Douglas-Home. A limp, ‘just hanging on by the skin of their teeth’ Toryism outclassed and outgunned not necessarily by a strong opposition, but by its own internal ineptness. A kind of caretaker government not sure of what to do next.  

Sixty years ago may be old history but the autumn statement of the chancellor and the Sunak administration seems to smack of the same sentiment that resounded six decades ago. It’s as though the Tories are not now associated with prosperity, with a dynamic redistribution of prosperity and wealth, but an economic dithering. Yes, increase the minimum wage by the biggest amount ever – their claim – but that’s not government spend and investment. That is business picking up the cost of generosity. And so it should, many of us say.  

But where is the grandness, the brio, the risk taking, the facing up to the big problems of a health service weighed down by poverty, with 50% of those using it suffering from food poverty? Where is the energy to tackle the huge housing crisis with emergency measures? Utilising the vast amounts of empty properties that are owned by the state and that lie dormant, for instance. Building on acres of brownfield sites.  

The only thing that would have saved the current government from appearing lame and caretakerish – holding on until Labour take over – is boldness in recognising the deep problems thrown up by the cost of living and inflationary hikes of recent times. In declaring war on poverty and committing to help the thousands of families in temporary accommodation because they had been moved on due to rental pressures.  

The boldness of tackling poverty would have made us believe that prosperity was a Tory product. As it appeared to be in earlier times. But no, they are tinkering their way into the future – something they may have precious little left of.  

What dramatic offerings, what leaps into the air, what dynamic policies are the waiting Labour going to offer us? Or will it be more of the same – ugh!

John Bird is the founder and editor-in-chief of The Big Issue. Read more of his words here.

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