Modernisation is harder for Labour than the Tories

by Kevin Meagher

It’s worth pondering how Churchill did it. Not winning the war; there is no shortage of history books telling us how he did that – not least by the man himself.

No I am talking about how he won back power so quickly in 1951 – just six years after suffering a catastrophic election defeat at the hands of Clem Attlee’s great reforming Labour government.

Labour cruised to victory in 1945, winning a 145-seat majority. The Tories were trounced, losing 190 MPs.

But it was more serious than that. Theirs’ was an intellectual defeat too. The right-wing historian Andrew Roberts once claimed that an entire generation of Tory politicians were “emasculated” by the defeat. Labour genuinely enthused the electorate with the promise of change for the many: the creation of the NHS, the welfare state, full employment and the nationalisation of key industries. The post-war world was Labour’s.

The Tory party was not just beaten; it was invalidated as a party of government. Its jingoism, servility to wealth and malign neglect of the poor were crushed by the optimism of the possibility of change. “Let us face the future” was Labour’s election slogan. The audacity of hope, so to speak.

Pre-war memories lingered. The dreadfulness of the 1930s was still raw. Churchill’s wartime leadership aside, the Tories were still the nasty party of the Jarrow March, grinding poverty and the misery of mass unemployment.

Yet in 1951 an even more stooped and aged Churchill returned. The Tories were back in business. Six years from political oblivion to triumph. How did they manage it?

Quite straightforward really. They just junked their policies and took up Labour’s instead. Having walked through the division lobbies to oppose the creation of the National Health Service in 1948, they now clasped it to their bosom.

After fighting tooth and nail against the nationalisation of key industries, they meekly accepted them.

After spitting blood at the break-up of the empire, they conformed to the new demands for national self-determination.

They swallowed hard; but once they were back in, Labour was out for the next 13 years. America was halfway through the Korean War when Labour lost in 1951. By the time Harold Wilson squeaked Labour back-in in 1964, America was knee-deep in Vietnam.

During those wasted years an entire generation of Labour’s brightest hopes and finest minds were lost to perpetual scheming and feuding.

But enough of the history: the key point is that it is not easy to reinvent a political party and put it back in office. But it is possible – and the Tories are objectively more successful at it than Labour.

And they have shown it time and again. Having been hopelessly ill-equipped to respond to the social and political changes of the 1960s after losing power to Wilson, they still managed to claw their way back to power in 1970.  Again, they lost in 1974, only to be back in situ by1979.

An uncharitable view might be that their quick recoveries are because the Tories do not fundamentally believe in anything. The “stupid party” as JS Mill described it, does not trouble itself with ideology. Or it didn’t, sans Thatcher.

It can – and does – drop unpopular positions with alacrity. Leaders too. The Tories have a casual ruthlessness borne of political non-belief. Their only goal – the organising concept behind their very existence – is winning power.

Labour is different. The party seeks to govern to do things. Treading water in power always shows a Labour government in peril. The Tories, in contrast, are quite happy lazing around in the pool.

What they do with power is always an afterthought to winning it. There is no grand plan. No destination. No Conservative equivalent of the new Jerusalem. So they are prepared to change – often radically and quickly.

Look what happened after their defeat in 1997. Rather than saddle themselves with a leader inextricably bound in the public’s memory with John Major’s failed government, like Ken Clarke or Michael Howard, they skipped a generation to 36 year-old William Hague.

Clearly not very successfully on that occasion; but the modernising impulse was there nonetheless. It always is. For a party of fusty traditionalists, the Tories are also brutally modernist.

Labour is the reverse: slower, more stubborn and certainly more sentimental than the Tories. A party of reluctant butchers where tribal loyalties run deep. And tradition matters. Jettisoning articles of faith – even in the name of modernisation and electability – is difficult.

It was a landmark moment for Tony Blair to rewrite clause four of Labour’s constitution back in 1995. Six Labour leaders earlier, Hugh Gaitskell tried doing the same thing for the same reasons. The point is that clause four – an ambiguous commitment to wholesale nationalisation – was a millstone round the party’s neck. And Labour knew it thirty-five years before it was finally jettisoned.

This reluctance to modernise is because Labour folk have not yet given up the idea of building that new Jerusalem. Labour’s thought processes remain rigid and often theoretical – anchored to past reference points like clause four. Reforming zeal within the party is viewed suspiciously. New thinking must be pored over for any deviation from orthodoxy.

If the Vatican “thinks in centuries”, cogitating over each micro-reform in a bid to maintain doctrinal coherence, then Labour thinks in decades, leading to long periods in the electoral wilderness, such as the 1950s and 1980s.

This is why Ed Miliband’s challenge is so hard. As Peter Mandelson put it recently he is striving to respond to the government’s cuts and austerity measures while recognising Labour’s part-culpability for the current situation.

But at the same time he is also trying to forge a new “left-of-centre political paradigm”, drawing lessons from Labour’s time in office but recognising the world has now moved on.

So what lesson does Winston have for Ed?

Electoral rehabilitation is possible. Labour does not have to live in the desert eating locusts and wild honey for a proscribed period. The party is altogether more united than in was during the 50s or 80s; it can limit its period of opposition to a single term. Winning the next election should be a realisable goal.

And where is Labour right now? It is certainly not at the end of its journey back to government – there is still a long way to go. But the party is now facing up to hard choices and beginning to help shape the political debate once more.

As someone once put it, it may be the end of the beginning.

Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut.

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16 Responses to “Modernisation is harder for Labour than the Tories”

  1. Stephen says:

    Labour is apriori and the Tories are aposteriori. Labour jump in and the Tories pull them out.

  2. Kevin Ward says:

    Interesting. Not one mention of the unions.

    I believe they are one reason why the Labour party fails to modernise…

  3. figurewizard says:

    Labour lost the 1951 election because they broke their promise to the electorate. By scrapping the right to free false teeth and introducing prescription charges, having already dumped free spectacles after six weeks of its inception they discarded their commitment to Beveridge. Aneurin Bevan resigning in the wake of these decisions didn’t much help either.

    Offering the “new Jerusalem” is one thing but paying for it is another. Under Gordon Brown’s financial stewardship he moved heaven and earth to accomplish this at the cost of colossal national debt, adding to the problem by the privatisation of some £80 billions of ‘off-balance-sheet’ debt for investment in schools and hospitals renewal and replacement through the device of PFI.

    Ed Milliband saying that he’s sorry, “we got it wrong” won’t change things and it wouldn’t make much difference if anyone else on the party’s front bench were to say the same. It is the broken promise of the new Jerusalem ending in lower standards of living and a bleak economic for years to come for the vast majority of people that is the real problem.

  4. John P Reid says:

    In 1949 , 1967 and in 1976 Labour had run out of money,So Gaitskell, Jenkins and Healey all brought in spending cuts, and then when Labour lost the left of the party said that iwas those cuts 2 years before those elections htat had resulted in laobur losing subquential elections as We hadn’t been left wing enough, I’m not sure if we aren’t infighting at the moment becuase we’ve learnt the lesson of history, or because when we ran out of money in 2008 we didn’t have a spending freeze, but we actually swung to the left and borrowed and spent more.

  5. We lost in 1951 because the Liberal Party strategically collapsed into the arms of the Tories. Attlee got more votes than Churchill, and indeed more than he got in 1945. But you can’t trust the Liberals. Plus ça change.

    As for the bigger question, modernity is a creation. If you have confidence in your ideas you can make modernity. Labour has a critical lack of confidence, because it’s two traditions of middle-class Fabianism and working class Trade Unionism drift further apart with each generation.

  6. paul barker says:

    A very odd article. It reads as though a big chunk has been cut out.
    The first 4/5ths of the piece is clearly arguing that Labour has to adopt The Coalition Program wholesale & then move on from there & then …… suddenly everthing is fine & Eds doing a great job. What happened ?
    Of course all that guff about Labour being united is nonsense. Milliband was chosen preciely because he was the least divisive candidate, his big job was to hold Labour together & stave off bankruptcy, for now. Hes done OK on both those aims, expecting him to be another Churchill is a bit unreasonable, give the guy a break.

  7. swatantra says:

    The touble is that Labour is afraid of the Future and always has been. Itsa Brave New World out there and yet Labour clings onto its comfort blanket and is afraid tomove on. ‘Throw off your chains’ said Marx but yet Labour is still bound, bound to the past, the Unions and History.
    It has begun its evolution from a demorcratic Party to social democratic Party but still has a long way to go.
    Labour lost in 1951 because the people had been through post war hardship and rationing and austerity, and now they wanted some fun and the people forgot about comradeship and being in it together and became greedy and selfish. So tey ditched Labour for the Tories, in the same way that after Cromwell came the Restoration and Charles II. Labour are still the Puritan Party, of prudence and soil justice,; and we all know what the Tory Party are for.

  8. swatantra says:

    That should have been: ‘It has begun its evolution from a democratic socialist Party to social democratic Party, but still has a long way to go.’
    And : Labour are still the Puritan Party, of prudence toil and social justice,

  9. Clr Ralph Baldwin says:

    Your biggest problem is the underlying conflict between the vested interests of those claiming to be “Left” and those vested interests claiming to be “Right”. Its the ulterior motives of those involved, their reasons for being in politics to fill their pockets while businesses go to the dogs, people lose their livelihoods or work few hours with very little to show for it. Indeed the people the Leadership are celebrating at the moment have done very well out of the UKs misfortunes, the most shocking element to this is their ignorance and blindness to this as such people claim its for a middle class cause when it is really a placation of either Big Union bosses or their old friends in the banking sector whose interests they still serve. Either way the majority are disgusted.

  10. John P Reid says:

    Thanks swantantra 129pm ,figure wizard just beat me to the Attlee lost in 5’1 argument and Lo and behold he’ came out with teh we lost as we had cuts in 1949 line, Not people didn’t want to still have the rationing of the ’45 victory. and yes We got more votes in 51 and lost than we got when we won in 45, but we got more votes when we lost in’79 than when we won in the ’74 elections, the Tories also got more votes in 97 and lost, than what we got when we won in 2005.

  11. Henrik says:


    “Labour are still the Puritan Party, of prudence toil and social justice”

    That may be the way the party sees itself. but I absolutely guarantee that the electorate has a different view: “Labour is the interfering Party, of profligacy with public money, support for the workshy and the lowest common denominator”.

    Whether justly or not, the Labour Party has allowed itself to be widely regarded as uninterested in common or garden working folk but obsessed with the liberal elite and its prejudices and a huge client body of people dependent upon the State.

  12. swatantra says:

    Labour put on the great Festival of Britain 51, but the it made no difference.
    The electorate were oblivious of its achievements under very difficult circumstances and went for the easier option.

  13. Madasafish says:

    It’s simple. After nearly 70 years of being in power at times, the Labour Party is politically incapable of running the finances of the UK. Proven by complete and utter economic failure and an unwillingness to take tough and unpopular economic decisions.

    Not to say the Tories were any better but at least they could and did take unpopular decisions to cut spending when needed.

    And the evidence of today’s Labour Party is they have learned nothing from the past.. so will repeat the same mistakes..

  14. John P Reid says:

    Madasafish, Yes it was A coalition in the War But labour rinherited a mess in 45 and It was right for them to devalue in 1949, in 1964 Reginald Maulding apoligised to Callaghan as the Tories left office, In 1974 Unemplyment and Inflation were going up, Yes partly due to unions ,but it was An independent inquiry that proved in Feb 74 that the miners were massively under paid, and it was healey who got the Econmoy back under control in 79, Thathcer came in started A mini recession to get unempoloyment as A way of controlling the Unions,

    Yes every labour Government, All 4 of them ,did run out of money after 3 years and have to be cautious in their last 3 years, excpet the recent one and they ran out of money after 10 years due ot a world recession, remember when the Tories messed up the economy in the late 80’s they blamed it on a world recession (except there wasn’t one at that moment in time.)

  15. swatantra says:

    I’ve never known any Govt that hasn’t been plunged into some kind of crisis during its term of Office, Tory or Labour. Its often been outside events that have caused turmoil, jus when you tought things were going smoothly! eg Majors Govt and Black Wednesday. Economist will say that the cycle of boom and bust can’t be broken and I’d agree with them. The power to call an election should be taken away from PMs because they’ll lways try and call the election when things are going well, just before the country plunges into bust. Lets have fixed term Parliaments of 4 years. OK Heaths 3 day week was self inflicted, but I think productivity actually went up during that brief period, for some reason; that needs investigating.
    Govts are often run by their Rule Book hence ideology plays a big part hence Thatcher was fixated on monetarism and the free market which led to the problems of Britain today. Blair was bit more relaxed and not committed to ideology and sought out a Third and more flexible way.

  16. Mike Homfray says:

    Modernisation, choice, aspiration, progressive

    All words which if any Labour spokesperson uses should result in instant dismissal

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