Jeremy Corbyn has been compared to Clement Attlee. Is the comparison apt? After reading a solid if uninspiring biography of Attlee, by Nicklaus Thomas-Symonds, I can offer the following thoughts on the comparison.
Atlee was a man of high-minded principle, as Corbyn clearly is. If Atlee were alive today, many of us would call him ‘authentic’, as many of us call Corbyn. This word can be overused. It’s true that Attlee was and Corbyn is a million miles away from the spin and artifice of the Blair years. But Attlee’s notorious laconicism was an affectation as is Corbyn’s disheveled public presentation. Attlee carefully cultivated a public persona, as Corbyn does. That’s not to say Attlee was, or Corbyn is, a fake. It’s to say that public personas are edited, with selected characteristics emphasized for effect and other traits toned down. It’s something we all do as social animals and Attlee was no different and neither is Corbyn. Still, Corbyn’s persona is of his own devising, and not some spin doctor’s version. The same can be said about Attlee.
But, getting beyond the appearances, what about the substance of the two men? Attlee led the Labour Party for 20 years and for over half of that time he was in government, as Deputy Prime Minister from 1940 to 1945 in the wartime coalition government and as Prime Minister from 1945 to 1951. Attlee had power. Corbyn wants power. The question is, is there something in Attlee’s leadership style from which Corbyn could learn in his quest to take power? Attlee’s leadership style was that of a committee Chairman, who devolved important tasks to deputies and allowed them to get on with the job, intervening to trouble-shoot or fix disputes but very much aloof as a leader. This could not have been more different to the approach Blair took, with No.10 vetting all ministerial speeches before they were delivered.
This style no doubt has its attractions to Corbyn but he should also beware of its limitations. Attlee could be too remote in a crisis and during especially testing times of his administration, like the coal crisis in the freezing winter of 1947-8. Attlee took a calculated gamble in not explicitly supporting Bevan in his battles with the British Medical Association over the establishment of the National Health Service, something the BMA was fiercely opposed to at the time. It was as well that Bevan was a formidable operator in his own right. Attlee might have seen his administration’s flag ship sunk otherwise. There is a lesson to draw from this. It’s all very well making a song and dance about how high minded and principled you are but if your opponents are not prepared to reciprocate (as Corbyn is finding with David Cameron) then you are left with two choices: take the blows with dignity but risk looking weak or fight fire with fire, and risk sinking to your opponents’ level – but perhaps beat them in the process. If you are not prepared to do it, then you have to give the task to someone else. To survive, Corbyn is going to have to roll up his sleeves or let others do so.
Whatever the attractions or otherwise of Attlee’s personal and leadership styles, there is no reason to think that these alone won Labour power in 1945. Had the Second World War not broken out, the Conservatives would probably have won an election that would have been held in 1940. Labour’s victory in 1945 perhaps owed less to Attlee’s personality and leadership style than to the wider social changes afoot in the midst of the war and its aftermath. Thomas-Symonds’ book does not discuss this context in any depth at all. Therefore, one cannot answer the question, was Labour’s victory because of Attlee’s personality and leadership style or in spite of them? Perhaps some unforeseen social and political upheaval may propel Corbyn into power in 2020. If that happens that it may happen despite Corbyn, not because of him. Who knows? One thing is for certain: 1945 is not much guide to what might have in 2020, let alone 2025.
Attlee, like Corbyn, was not afraid to talk about social injustice and the poor, and identify the Labour party with the interests of the most disadvantaged. Here again, the contrasts between Labour of 1945, Labour as it now become, and Labour as it was under Blair, are stark. But there are notable differences. Attlee revered the monarchy, had no desire to abolish private and grammar schools or reform the House of Lords. In the First World War, he volunteered for service, seeing it as his patriotic duty and was proud to have served. And of course, Attlee took the decision to acquire nuclear weapons, striking not only for the fact that he did that, but also for how he did it, in secrecy, conferring only with a select cabal, a notable exception to his otherwise collegial leadership style. The Labour government of 1945-51 was in economics well to the left of Blair’s government but to the right of it in culture.
There is no doubt that Labour has shifted left. What will the rest of the country make of it? There is some evidence that some of Corbyn’s policies may enjoy broad public support, such as higher taxes on high earners, rent controls and railway nationalization. But it’s hard to get a clear picture because poll evidence is mixed. On the one hand, it suggests that the public is to the left of the Blairite Party on some issues but well to the right of it on others, such as immigration, welfare, national security and just how far we all have to shoulder a higher tax burden in order to pay for the sort of society Corbyn wants, the costs of which cannot be borne by the plutocrats alone. Indeed, on some issues the public is well to the right of Cameron.
In my view, if there is a substantial comparison to be made, then undoubtedly its Corbyn’s explicit advocacy of the poorest and most disadvantaged in our country. That however is no guide to whether he will win in 2020. Sincerity and authenticity are not enough. The most pressing question is whether Corbyn is going to be able to resolve what political historian David Marquand called the ‘Progressive Dilemma’, that is, if Labour is to win power, it has to appeal to the swing vote; but, in doing that, it risks alienating its core vote. It’s not a new dilemma. This was very much Attlee’s own dilemma as it is Corbyn’s. For a while, Attlee squared the circle, as Blair did. Corbyn and his supporters are interested in Attlee’s example and not Blair’s. Whether they will find anything in his example of practical, contemporary application is another matter altogether. After all, politics is not all about personalities and leaders.