Opinion

Keir Starmer needs to stop worrying about winning next election and learn from Clement Attlee

Labour's recent by-election victories were so impressive that the party should now stop worrying about whether it is really going to win the next election. History suggests, however, that it should now start worrying instead about whether it is going to win the one after that

Clement Atlee and Keir Starmer. Credit: left - Wikimedia commons, right - Dan Kitwood/Getty Images.

The results of last week’s by-elections in Tamworth and Mid-Bedfordshire were spectacular. Sweeping away huge Tory majorities in what ought to have been safe Conservative seats, Labour broke electoral records and put a spring in the step of its activists. The outcome was so impressive that the party should now stop worrying about whether it is really going to win the next election. History suggests, however, that it should now start worrying instead about whether it is going to win the one after that.

Researching and writing Age of Hope led me to reflect on lessons the much-admired Labour government of 1945 can teach us today. I was partly seeking to answer the perennially intriguing question of how Clement Attlee, a competent and respected but seemingly uninspiring figure, could defeat the charismatic and colourful Winston Churchill, whose war leadership had gained admiration across the political spectrum.

But I also wanted to address the issue of why, having won a majority of almost 150 during the final phase of the war, Labour fell from power just six years later, and then plunged into internecine conflict. We might also ask: is there anything that Keir Starmer can do to prevent a similar scenario playing out again?

In order to answer that question, we need to think about Labour’s strengths and weaknesses as Attlee stepped over the threshold of No 10. His party had triumphed because it mobilised a mood of optimism about the possibilities of peacetime reform. It benefitted from having a coherent programme, but the inspired title of the manifesto – Let Us Face the Future – may have been more important in winning over voters than the detail of its pledges.

Although the National Health Service is now thought of today as the landmark achievement of these years, the manifesto disposed of the theme in just a few words. Labour stormed to victory not because voters internalised and were convinced by the minutiae of its policies, but because it conjured up a compelling overall vision.

Rather than assaulting the idea of the free market, the party argued that the free market was itself a myth, as private firms indulged in monopolistic and anti-competitive behaviour at the expense of ordinary people: “The price of so-called ‘economic freedom’ for the few is too high if it is bought at the cost of idleness and misery for millions.” By casting the issue in terms of public versus private control, Labour succeeded in selling socialist ideas, such as nationalisation, that had traditionally struggled to find support among the electorate.

The Age of Hope by Richard Toye is out now (Bloomsbury, £25)

Yet there was a troubling corollary. Labour came to power at a time when – Brexit and post-Covid challenges notwithstanding – the UK’s economic and political challenges were even more severe than they are today. The country was virtually bankrupt, forcing a turn to the USA for financial aid, which was only available with strings attached. It was necessary not only to maintain controls on personal consumption but even to extend them – the government was obliged to introduce bread rationing, which had not been needed even during the war. Ministerial incompetence played a part in the coal crisis which hit during the severe winter of 1947, but in broad terms the balance of achievement was positive. The government delivered full employment, rising living standards and social reform – and yet, at the general election of February 1950, its majority fell to single digits.

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The withering of Labour’s popular support is explained somewhat by tough external conditions. An atmosphere of hope could not long withstand the deterioration of relations with the Soviet Union and the very real threat of a third world war. Yet there were also problems within Labour’s ranks. Although the party’s ideological exhaustion has been exaggerated, there was no convincing big-picture policy renewal of the kind that might have persuaded the British people to deliver a convincing mandate for further social progress.

The outbreak of the Korean War, which led to the imposition of limited NHS charges, provoked the 1951 resignation of Nye Bevan, the system’s founder and a modern-day socialist hero. Attlee, worn out by the challenge of governing with a wafer-thin parliamentary margin, called another election in October, and it was unsurprising that his split party went down to Churchill’s resurgent Conservatives. Ironically, though, Labour actually won more votes than the Tories, and owed its defeat to the vicissitudes of the First Past the Post electoral system. It piled up big majorities in its heartlands, but lost the support of waverers in marginal seats elsewhere.

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Shadow cabinet take note. In spite of the dire situation that Labour inherited, and although honeymoons never last, it was not inevitable that the party’s support should atrophy. Tactical missteps and a failure to sustain its 1945 rhetoric meant that Attlee and his cabinet lost the chance to embed social democracy more fully in the fabric of the nation. It must be remembered, though, that the probability of mistakes increases with the pressures of the times. Keir Starmer has boldly spoken of a decade in power. He and his colleagues will certainly make history. But they will not do so in conditions of their own choosing.

Richard Toye is professor of history and the University of Exeter.

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