This is a week of bittersweet anniversaries for the Labour party. It is now 72 years since Clement Attlee’s government created the National Health Service, its most popular achievement. It is also 75 years since Attlee led the party to its first ever landslide victory, a triumph that made the NHS possible. But if these memories warm the hearts of Labour members they should be cooled by the realisation that their party is some way from even scraping back into office, let alone marching into power armed with a manifesto as radical as ‘Let Us Face the Future’, which rejected pre-war poverty and laissez-faire economics and embraced a new world of greater equality and state intervention.
Under Keir Starmer Labour appears to be going in the right direction, but it still lags some way behind the Conservatives in the polls. The Labour leader has, however, been getting rave reviews for his weekly dissection of Boris Johnson at Prime Minister’s Questions, which has exposed various lapses in the government’s handling of the Covid crisis. He is now – albeit by a narrow majority – seen by the public as better qualified to be Prime Minister than Johnson.
Starmer’s method of attack – which coolly focuses on the government’s lack of competence – is paying dividends. But will it be enough to ensure his party can emerge from the Covid crisis in a way that emulates how Labour dramatically came out of the second world war, a conflict which left Britain even more economically bereft?
The answer may lie in another anniversary, one marked by a recent Radio 4 documentary presented by the insightful Phil Tinline. 80 years ago, in July 1940, possibly the most politically influential book of the twentieth century was published: Guilty Men. It certainly helped Labour win that 1945 victory and so enabled Aneurin Bevan to create the NHS.
Guilty Men was written by three journalists writing under the collective nom de plume of ‘Cato’, one of whom happened to be future Labour leader Michael Foot. Dashed off as British troops were being evacuated from Dunkirk, their object was to draw a decisive line between the past and present by identifying the politicians they held responsible for the greatest military disaster ever suffered by Britain, which left the country vulnerable to Nazi invasion. By the time of publication Churchill was already Prime Minister and Labour part of his Coalition but the authors wanted every Conservative appeaser of Germany still in office chased out of public life. Their accusation, often delivered in blood curdling prose, was that these men had wilfully failed to prepare the country for war despite Hitler’s obvious intentions. This, the authors argued, was a dereliction of duty tantamount to treason.
As Tinline’s documentary makes clear this was not a fair assessment, especially as Labour (which escaped any criticism) had supported disarmament for much of the 1930s. It may have been unfair, but the book was certainly influential. It was politics as melodrama, a story of innocent people betrayed by the elite, written by popular and talented journalists. Guilty Men leapt off the shelves: 200,000 copies were sold in a matter of weeks and the book’s title was implanted into the political lexicon. When Winston Churchill – who Cato regarded as a hero for his warnings about the Nazi peril – led his party to the polls in 1945, even he could not save the Conservatives from the toxic touch of Guilty Men.
Compared to the invective unleashed by Guilty Men, Starmer’s rhetorical style is insipid. About the worst thing he has said of Johnson is that the Prime Minister has been ‘asleep at the wheel’ during the current crisis. But to have a breakthrough, the lesson of Guilty Men is that he has to do more than simply skewer Johnson on the cold facts. In 1945 ‘Let Us Face the Future’ outlined (in remarkably brief terms) a new agenda for a new Britain. But it wasn’t the manifesto that won Labour its landslide and transformed Britain’s political landscape, it was the melodramatic story outlined in Guilty Men, in which Labour’s opponents were cast as enemies and villains who only cared for their own comfort at the price of the safety of a poor benighted people. Perhaps Starmer – like Attlee – is not a man comfortable with such lurid rhetoric. But someone in his team or journalists sympathetic to his cause need to start mobilising against Johnson.
It is not as if the Covid crisis does not have figures almost queueing up to play the role of the Guilty Men. Step forward David Cameron, George Osborne and Nick Clegg who under the auspices of austerity started to defund the NHS, leaving it close to breaking point when the pandemic broke. Most recently the Prime Minister’s senior advisor Dominic Cummings selfishly ignored the government’s own stipulations and so potentially endangered the public while facing no consequences for his actions. And of course there is the Prime Minister himself who as the crisis broke proudly boasted of having shaken hands despite his own scientists’ advice.
The material is there. The only question is: does Starmer the lawyer have the desire to identify 2020’s Guilty Men – and Women? Or does he imagine competence alone will see him become the first Labour Prime Minister since 2010?