By Paul Goodman
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How would a future Labour Government deliver its aims without any money? Ed Miliband has found an answer that satisfies him: we've done it before, and we can do it again.
It was reported over the weekend that the Labour leader's sees his model as the post-war administration of Clement Attlee, which governed a bankrupt Britain.
The party's conference stage set suggests this theme: a big Union flag hangs over the platform, as if invoking a revived spirit of national co-operation.
Did the Attlee Government really mark Britain's finest hour? No. And regardless of whether it was or not, is it a good starting-point for Miliband's 2015 election campaign? No.
The 1940s were a drab, grey era:
- Bread was rationed for the first time. (Coupons covered "all flour products".)
- British Rail began its long journey to notoreity: "No sooner had British Railways taken over the old regional semi-private
networks than jokes began to circulate about unreliable, crowded
trains, crumbling stations and that old standby of British comedy, the
buffet sandwich. After the initial euphoria of nationalisation, it wasn't long before
doubts began to emerge." (Labour and the creation of the welfare state, The Guardian)
- Hugh Dalton, Labour's Chancellor, resigned in the wake of an emergency budget.
- Fish for families was recycled as cat food: "Cripps
continued with a wartime-style 'fair shares' policy of food rationing.
This was in spite of growing resentment among middle-class women over
ever-lengthening queues to obtain food of dubious quality, such as the
infamous South African fish snoek, which tasted so unappetising that the
whole bulk consignment had to be sold off for reprocessing as cat
food." ("Rebuilding post-war Britain: Conflicting views of the Attlee Governments", Professor Kevin Jeffreys.)
The path on which Attlee set Britain was unsustainable:
- The Government's good ideas weren't Labour's alone… The new tripartitite education system was based on the work of a Conservative, Rab Butler, who supported compulsory free education for all and selection at 11. The blueprint for the welfare state was that of a Liberal, Beveridge, drawn up in his wartime report. The new economic consensus was the brainchild of a Liberal, Keynes (and "vulgar Keynesianism" turned out badly in the end).
- …But its bad ideas were exclusively Labour's. During the war, the Conservatives supported a tax-and-rates financed national health plan. The highly centralised system that Bevan drove through post-war differed both from this model and Labour's own policy. He assumed that healthcare demand would eventually fall. He was wrong, and by 1951 Labour was retreating from the principle that all care should be provided free at the point of use, bringing in charges for false teeth and spectacles.
- Attlee's central planning didn't work. Correlli Barnett has argued that by putting social reform before economic renewal, Britain lost a crucial opportunity to modernise its economy while mainland Europe was exhausted. Whatever one's view, the Attlee model of nationalisation and state planning, which endured until the Thatcher era, was certainly outpaced by Britain's European competitors.
All in all, the 1945 Government is a bad model for Miliband:
- Looking forward to the future, not back to the past, is best for oppositions. Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair, the two most successful post-war election-winners, ran against – not on – their own parties' past.
- The 1945 fan base is the Labour tribe. Not a good place to start for a party that needs new support.
- Above all, the pluses and minuses of an almost 70 year-distant Government have little connection with today's changed Britain. There was no EU in 1945. There were very few ethnic minority voters. Fewer women worked in the labour market – see Bruce Anderson's column this morning for more.