Nick Thomas-Symonds’s rewritten and improved biography of Clement Attlee, out in October, has an introduction by Keir Starmer. Thomas-Symonds, now a shadow minister without portfolio in the Labour leader’s team, is one of the brainy younger politicians who will form the backbone of a Starmer government.
Attlee had a clear programme, from which he never deviated. He articulated it in opposition, and implemented it in government. This book is therefore the best guide we’re likely to get as to whether Starmer can be that sort of prime minister.
The signs so far aren’t encouraging, as I found for myself in July when I went to Uxbridge on polling day in July to canvass for Labour in the by-election. Within an hour of arriving, I knew we were going to lose. We canvassers were given a short briefing: Don’t mention ULEZ, and if asked about it, say just that the candidate thinks it ought to be delayed.
On polling day, canvassers only knock on the doors of those who said they would probably vote Labour. It was quickly obvious that many of them had changed their minds.
Why? Only one voter actually mentioned ULEZ. He had little idea how it was going to work, but was certain it was going to ruin him. Another man volunteered: “That Keir Starmer, he can’t make up his mind. First, he’s for something, then he’s against it.” Several just told me they had voted and did not want to say how they had voted, which means they voted Conservative.
If Labour had made the case for ULEZ, instead of trying to pretend the party had nothing to do with it the moment it looked as though Tory opposition to it had some traction, I think Uxbridge would have been won.
It wasn’t encouraging for those of us who hope that Starmer might be the Clem Attlee de nos jours, with a clear and radical programme on which he never retreats, either when running for office or in office. With each retreat, Starmer looks less and less like Attlee, and more and more like Tony Blair.
But in his introduction to Thomas-Symonds’s book, the Labour leader offers not just ritual admiration of Attlee, but some indication that he understands the lessons of the Attlee government.
Starmer writes that his party’s greatest achievements are those of Attlee’s post-war government. That’s true, though hardly news. But then Starmer says something genuinely interesting: “It is extraordinary that the Attlee government accomplished so much in so little time – and in such inauspicious circumstances.”
Now, the criticism of Attlee from the Blair wing of the party has always been that he did not keep Labour in power for longer. Just six years, and then they were thrown out by the electorate. The answer, from Attlee’s admirers, is that in six years he changed the face of Britain utterly. Blair was in power for ten years, and his changes were far less momentous.
That’s why Starmer’s sentence is significant. With this statement, Starmer seems to align himself with those who would like to see the Labour leader preparing for government with a set of policies which he is determined to get on and implement. None of this “Oh, that will have to wait for our second term” (and then our third term, and then our fourth term).
And he seems to be saying that inheriting an economic mess should not inhibit the new government’s reforming zeal. He writes that “even in the rubble of the aftermath of the Second World War” Attlee created the welfare state, built new council houses, expanded state education, provided pensions and national insurance.
This looks like a firm rejection of the “we will have to deal with the economy which has been crashed by the Tories before we do anything” argument. It suggests that a Labour government should get on with the change the nation wants and needs, undeterred, as Attlee was undeterred, by poor economic circumstances.
Starmer, rightly, wants to present as small a target as possible. He knows that even now, with a government as grossly corrupt and incompetent as the present one, the slightest wild promise could be magnified by the Tory client press into an election-losing event. But sometimes caution can itself backfire, as it did in Uxbridge. There are signs in this brief essay on Attlee that Starmer sees this.
“Then as now,” writes Starmer, “it needs a transformative Labour government to glimpse the future and to set out a transformative programme that can change lives and change Britain.” Is that the sort of Labour prime minister Starmer wants to be?
The book to which he has lent his support, written by one of his friends and proteges, is a lucid, thoughtful and well-researched biography, strong on Attlee’s political significance, and it seems to recognise that those qualities we have not yet seen in Starmer are precisely the ones a Labour prime minister needs.
Attlee, Tomas-Symonds tells us, spelled out the qualities that are needed: “A sense of urgency, of dispatch. A sense of the time and the occasion and the atmosphere of the country.”
Later, he writes: “Attlee succeeded for two reasons: first, his core belief in the kind of society he wanted to create, and secondly, through his focus on getting things done.”
Admittedly, the biographer sometimes seems to want to hedge his bets. He quotes approvingly the dismissive judgment of Gerald Kaufman that the reforms of Attlee’s government were the work of others, particularly Herbert Morrison. Kaufman was blinded by his loathing of Attlee: the truth is that Attlee was the engine room of his government, and with a different Labour leader, less would have been accomplished.
From time to time he seems to suggest that Attlee was a prototype of New Labour, which he certainly was not. And he writes that an Attlee could not survive as prime minister today, with 24-hour media. Media intrusion is nothing new, and Attlee would have taken it in his stride.
All the same, this is an admiring biography by someone who will soon occupy a place in a Keir Starmer government. It has the imprimatur of the leader, and it says that “Clement Attlee bestrides the 20th-century history of the Labour Party. Its greatest constructive achievements are his government’s achievements.”
It gives grounds for hope that – appearances notwithstanding – a Starmer government will show “a sense of urgency, of dispatch.” But what would Clem have made of ULEZ?