From Attlee to Blair: what Starmer can learn from four Labour leaders

The Labour leader picked Harold Wilson as the predecessor he most admired, but he’ll have to carve out his own niche

In the party’s long and often turbulent life, Labour has been led by men of diverse characters and approaches. Here are four who offer lessons from history for Keir Starmer.

Clement Attlee

“A modest man with much to be modest about”. “A grey little mouse”. “An empty taxi pulled up in front of No 10 and Mr Attlee got out”. For much of his career, Clement Attlee was subject to unflattering comparisons with more obviously talented rivals within his party, while being up against Winston Churchill, the flamboyant genius at wielding the English language.

Yet Attlee won a landslide for Labour in 1945 and then presided over one of the great reforming governments. He is a prime example of how a reputation for dullness can become a virtue when it is reinterpreted as reliable decency and steady competence. That may be an inspiration to Starmer. During the 1945 election, the Tories played up Churchill as the glorious war leader by having their chief conveyed around the country in regal style by limousine and special train. Attlee went about in a modest Hillman helmed by his wife, Vi, a notoriously erratic driver. The contrast worked to the Labour leader’s advantage.

After the privations of a conflict which had demanded a supreme collective effort, Britain was in a mood to embrace a more egalitarian postwar society. We can only guess whether the coronavirus crisis will have a similar effect on the national psyche, but it is possible.

Harold Wilson

Asked to name the Labour leader he most admired, Starmer made the unfashionable pick of Harold Wilson. He brought the party back to power in 1964 after a 13-year stretch in opposition, and it is instructive to recall how he went about it.

One key component was relentless ridicule of the Tories as a party out of touch, out of time and hideously sleazy, an attack which was given a tailwind by the Profumo affair. Wilson was a very clever economics don who had not done a day of manual labour in his life, but he cultivated a “man of the people” image. In public, he puffed a pipe and claimed to like brown sauce. In private, he drank brandy and smoked cigars.

The other key to Wilson’s success was to present Labour as the party of the future with a plan to modernise the country. He promised a “new Britain” which would be “forged in the white heat of the technological revolution”. It didn’t exactly work out like that in office, but the power of the idea helped Labour return to power.

Neil Kinnock

Labour was at rock bottom when Neil Kinnock was chosen to succeed Michael Foot in the wake of the 1983 “suicide note” election, which was about as calamitous for the party as its 2019 defeat. Kinnock was energetic, charismatic and mocked by his opponents as the “Welsh windbag”.

Elected to the leadership from the “soft left”, he steadily junked policies, such as unilateral nuclear disarmament, which had repelled swing voters and traditional working-class supporters. It was a tough struggle often accompanied by cries of betrayal. He purged the far left extremists of the Militant tendency, famously condemning them in an electrifying speech to the Bournemouth conference in 1985. With the help of Peter Mandelson, party presentation and communications were transformed from hopeless amateurism into a slick professionalism which impressed the media and alarmed the Tories.

Despite his best efforts, Kinnock never convinced the country to make him prime minister. He lost to Margaret Thatcher during a boom in 1987, and lost again, albeit more narrowly, to John Major in 1992, despite a recession. That said, it can be persuasively argued that Kinnock saved his party from existential danger and put it on the road to a recovery which culminated in New Labour’s 1997 landslide.

Tony Blair

There are plenty of lessons to learn from Labour’s most electorally successful leader. Tony Blair is the only one among them to win a back-to-back hat-trick of elections. Blair triumphed in 1997 by convincing the country that Labour had changed and changed for good, and could be trusted to change Britain for the better as well. The Conservatives were excluded from power for the next 13 years, their longest stretch in opposition in modern history.

Even if he has absorbed things that Blair got right, Starmer will probably be very cautious about saying so. One poll asking Labour members to rate past leaders had Blair very near the bottom, below even Foot and Jim Callaghan. Polls of the public, by contrast, have Blair at or near the top of tables of most admired Labour leaders.

Labour has not done its brand or morale much good by relentlessly running down its last period in power. This process of self-rubbishing began with Ed Miliband and intensified under Jeremy Corbyn. Starmer has suggested that he will cease the denigration of the Blair era. Labour will have a more promising future if it has a more mature and balanced understanding of how it won in the past.


Andrew Rawnsley

The GuardianTramp

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