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If Corbyn’s Labour wins, it will be Attlee v Churchill all over again

Jack Witek argues that a Labour victory is no longer unthinkable – and it would mean the biggest shake-up since 1945

June 2, 2017
5 min read

Labour under Jeremy Corbyn has been peppered by hack-psephologist historical analogies and allegories, with Corbyn being most often compared to Michael Foot and his ‘longest suicide note in history’ 1983 manifesto. And had Labour not almost closed the poll gap with the Tories in a month, this might have even stuck.

I’d like to pre-empt the post-election scrabble for comparisons with one of my own. If Labour form a majority on June 8, a potentiality that is no longer unthinkable, it will be akin to Attlee beating Churchill in 1945.

From austerity to the welfare state

Churchill effectively executed the war, but having lived through a period of austerity and ruin, with the unemployment of the 1930s still within memory, the British public resoundingly rejected the ‘strong and stable’ hand of the Conservatives for the radical and optimistic vision of Attlee’s Labour, which won an unlikely landslide with its post-war settlement that saw the formation of the NHS and cradle-to-grave welfare. People trusted Labour to rebuild a shattered Britain, not Churchill.

Jeremy himself invoked this legacy in his ‘Battle for Number 10’ audience Q&A, asking how it was any of the things we once took for granted, like the NHS, came about: ‘Because the Labour Party was bold enough in the post-war period to invest in the future. Our Labour government will do the same.’

Now the comparison is by no means flush. For one thing, Churchill might well have turned up to a televised debate. Moreover, Brexit was not a war, though the rhetoric often devolves to such black and white comparisons, especially by a smug liberal Remain demographic that seeks to cast half the population as barbarians at the gates of progress. But however you voted, life after Brexit has undeniably been a difficult and challenging time, with the referendum itself culminating in the murder of an MP, Jo Cox, and huge spikes in racially motivated violence.

What would Owen Smith have done?

The immediate aftermath of the referendum nearly broke the Labour party when a section of Labour MPs attempted to pin the blame on Corbyn for Brexit – which, ironically, the Conservative narrative now accuses him of obstructing. But as unfortunate and unnecessary as the leadership contest was, it could have been far worse.

Imagine if anti-Corbyn challenger Owen Smith had won, and had carried forward his pledge to hold a second referendum on EU membership, or whipped the party in opposition to the triggering of Article 50 in a futile but defiant gesture. Theresa May would accuse Labour of trying to confound the democratic will of the country and derail the Brexit process, as she is now, but under Owen Smith the attack would have stuck, like Cameron’s right honourable member to a pig’s mouth. It could have unmade the party.

Thank god for the good sense of the British public, who played their part in the leadership contest in a fully engaged manner. Because of this, Labour, a democratic and accountable institution, was whipped to vote to trigger Article 50 under Corbyn’s leadership. Polling shows a majority of the population do not want a second referendum, Remain voters included. I don’t think there’s a very strong appetite to keep fighting this battle. I think instead people want to know what comes next.

The British public are not idiots, and they are losing patience with Theresa May and a campaign based on fear. They know the script: enemies are at the gate, communists running Labour want to nationalise your pet rabbit, vote to strengthen our weak and wobbly hand. But what is not cutting through is the political settlement that the Conservatives offer – because there isn’t one. They have almost nothing for the vast majority, except for Brexit.

But Brexit is happening, Article 50 has been triggered, and so now we are being asked to put our faith in the strength and stability of a candidate who U-turns on her manifesto pledges – setting a precedent for the first candidate to do so during an election – to get us the best deal out of Europe. The words ‘you had one job’ come to mind.

A better future

Londoners rejected the fear-mongering and race-baiting of Zac Goldsmith’s mayoral bid. The ‘sky will fall’ narrative of the Stronger In campaign was rejected for a promise of a break with business as usual. The people of Stoke sent Arsenal midfielder and astronaut Paul Nuttall’s bereft and toxic by-election attempt packing.

On June 8, we will be faced with on the one hand the option of more austerity, more war, more tax breaks for the elite, with no plan to navigate Brexit apart from empty threats to walk away with nothing, and on the other, a break with all of this, a return to investment in our infrastructure, investment in our youngest and our oldest, a desire and capacity to work with our European neighbours.

When Labour form a government on June 8, it will be because hope and ambition won out over fear, and because we came together to heal the division of the past year and build a better future, for the many, not the few.