While the rest of the country shivers, takes an anxious glance at their online bank account and gloomily turns the thermostat even further down, one man has good reason to celebrate as we stagger towards the end of the year. The very first opinion poll of 2022 showed Keir Starmer’s Labour Party just 3% ahead of Boris Johnson’s Conservatives, a desperately fragile margin midway through the parliamentary cycle.
Yet in the past 12 months everything has changed. The Conservatives are now onto their third Prime Minister of the year, having done their best to torpedo their own reputation for economic responsibility, while the Bank of England predicts the longest recession since records began. Above all, Starmer’s poll lead now stands somewhere around 20%, depending on whom you ask. The sense of inevitability is such that even the Chester by-election, which Labour won with a swing of almost 14%, was treated by the press as a bit of a non-event. Maybe the Conservatives will come back in time for the general election; after all, they’ve done it before. They’ve never done it, though, against such a gloomy economic backdrop.
So, while Starmer would be rash to give Pickfords a ring just yet, he wouldn’t be human if he didn’t look up their number, just in case. If Starmer does make it into Downing Street, he’ll be only the seventh Labour Prime Minister in our history, following Ramsay MacDonald, Clement Attlee, Harold Wilson, Jim Callaghan, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. (The Tories have had twice that number since 1924.) No doubt readers will have strong views about some of the names on that list. (All men, of course: a fact that really irritates Labour partisans when you bring it up.)
The really remarkable thing, though, is that there have been so few of them. Indeed, only three of those men — Attlee, Wilson and Blair — actually won a Labour majority at a General Election, an astonishing statistic when you consider that their party styles itself as the People’s Party. I would guess that most of us instinctively think of the Tories and Labour as rivals of roughly equal standing, a bit like the Republicans and the Democrats across the Atlantic. But if winning elections is the test, which it surely is, then the two parties are less Liverpool and Manchester City than Liverpool and West Bromwich Albion.
As it happens, it’s exactly 99 years today since the election that gave us the very first Labour government — although in a sign of things to come, they didn’t come close to winning a majority. The circumstances were complicated, to say the least. A year earlier, in the autumn of 1922, the collapse of the Lloyd George coalition had triggered a general election. The Conservatives won handsomely under the dour Canadian-born businessman Bonar Law, with the Liberals divided and Labour a very poor second. But Bonar Law fell ill with terminal cancer the following spring, and was succeeded by his Chancellor, the former Harrow pornographer turned media countryman Stanley Baldwin.
Amid a series of enormously complicated intrigues, Baldwin adopted a new policy of economic protectionism, for which, he decided, he must have a new mandate from the voters. So, on 6 December 1923, the voters turned out for their second general election in barely a year. Almost everybody expected Baldwin to romp home, rather as people expected Theresa May to crush the saboteurs in 2017. Alas, we know what happened to her — and it happened to Baldwin, too. His majority vanished in a puff of smoke, leaving a hung parliament in which the Tories had 258 seats, Labour 191 and the Liberals 158. To almost universal disbelief — including, it has to be said, his own — Ramsay MacDonald made his way to Buckingham Palace for a historic audience with George V.
Almost a century later, it’s easy to forget what an extraordinary moment this was. Born in 1866, the illegitimate son of a Scottish farm labourer and a housemaid, MacDonald was by far the most unlikely Prime Minister in Britain’s history. After leaving school at the age of 15, he had worked on a farm himself before becoming a schoolteacher and socialist activist. Leader of the little parliamentary Labour Party before the Great War, he had been forced to step down because of his pacifism, and had even lost his seat in 1918. Persistence, charisma and intellectual dedication had brought him back into the front line. Never, though, had he expected to be offered the premiership.
For the King, who had actively urged Baldwin not to risk the “turmoil” of an early general election, the prospect of a Labour government was less than enticing. In the words of his biographer, Kenneth Rose, George “thought that nearly all change was for the worse”, and had “scarcely troubled to conceal his detestation of either Socialism or the Labour Party”.
But now George rose to the challenge. When, on the afternoon of 22 January 1924, MacDonald returned from Buckingham Palace as Prime Minister, he noted that the King had been “most friendly”, and had asked only that “I would do nothing to compel him to shake hands with the murderers of his relatives” — meaning Lenin’s Bolsheviks. Indeed, by and large the two men got on remarkably well, given the gulf of class and outlook. “The King has never seen me as a Minister without making me feel that he was also seeing me as a friend,” MacDonald wrote afterwards, rather sweetly.
That first Labour government didn’t last long. Right from the start it was a beleaguered minority administration; indeed, MacDonald had only been given the chance of power because the Liberal leader and former PM, H. H. Asquith, was so sure he would make a mess of it. In the immediate aftermath of the election, the Tory papers were full of blood and thunder about the threat of Bolshevism. Yet as one of his ministers remarked at the time, “MacDonald’s idea is to show how respectable [we] are.”
In that respect, he succeeded. There were no radical reforms, no major nationalisations, no great innovations. “Once Labour was in office,” the ultra-reactionary historian Maurice Cowling wrote later, “the government seemed very little different from anything that had gone before.” By and large, MacDonald and co. pottered blandly along, waiting for the inevitable moment when the Tories and Liberals would gang up and force them out.
It came in the late summer of 1924, after a row about a Communist newspaper editor who had urged the armed forces to mutiny. Once again, the three parties went to the country. This time the issue was pretty simple: MacDonald and socialism, or Baldwin and anti-socialism. And this time Baldwin won a gigantic 209-seat majority, and that was that.
In some ways, that first taste of power 99 years ago looked very propitious. MacDonald had established Labour as the main rivals to the Tories, and as a serious, ostentatiously respectable party of government. There was no reason to doubt that they would soon return to office, and indeed MacDonald came back as head of yet another minority government just five years later.
The long-term future seemed equally bright. In an industrial democracy like Britain, in which chapels and trade unions played such enormous social and cultural roles, there seemed every chance Labour would become the nation’s dominant political force, as the Liberals had been in Gladstone’s day. Surely, surely, the future was red — wasn’t it?
A century later, of course, we know different. When you survey the political landscape from MacDonald’s unexpected success in December 1923 to Starmer’s great expectations in December 2022, there are a couple of Labour high points — the Attlee and Blair landslides in particular. But there aren’t half as many as MacDonald and his contemporaries would have predicted. Over the decades, Conservative Prime Ministers have come and gone with wearisome regularity, but the spectacle of haggard, red-eyed Labour leaders conceding defeat in the early hours of the morning has become something of a cliché. Even the sainted Attlee, indisputably Labour’s most influential Prime Minister, lost more general elections than he won.
Why? On the Left, the usual explanation is a conspiracy theorist’s bedtime fantasy, with a rich cast of unscrupulous businessmen, wicked press lords and brainwashed masses. After Ed Miliband’s humiliation in 2015, I heard a splendidly baroque version of this at first hand, involving George Osborne, the Rothschilds and a plot by the Post Office to steal millions of votes. It came, inevitably, from an Oxford academic. But if we steer away from the wilder shores of Left-wing lunacy, one of the best explanations lies in an excellent essay by a Labour activist called Chris Clarke, since published as the book The Dark Knight and the Puppet Master.
In essence, says Clarke, Labour has been distressingly prone to populist myths that drag it down “ethical and electoral wormholes” — a result, I would suggest, of its emotional roots in nonconformist Protestant enthusiasm. One myth is what he calls “The Dark Knight”, which elevates boring parliamentary politics into an apocalyptic showdown between good and evil. The upside is that it gets activists going (“Never kissed a Tory!”). The drawback is that most ordinary people think it’s completely bonkers.
The next myth is “The Puppet Master”, the simplistic view that things are really being controlled by a shadowy elite in cahoots with the mainstream media. (As you may have noticed, these myths have their mirror images on the right, especially in America.) And the third is what Clarke calls “The Golden Era” — the fantasy that life was better in the past, before the Great Betrayal.
In Labour’s case, this means a rose-tinted and often utterly wrong-headed fixation on its one truly significant period in office, the Attlee government of 1945-51. At Labour conferences, you can often see plenty of people wearing T-shirts asking “What Would Clement Do?” Well, what would Clement do? Serve as Churchill’s deputy? Send troops across picket lines to break a dock strike? Set up Nato and commission a nuclear bomb? Send British troops to fight in Korea? Yes, that’s what Clement would do, because he did.
Back, though, to Starmer. Can he break the losing streak? Can he succeed where Hugh Gaitskell, Michael Foot, Neil Kinnock, Ed Miliband and Jeremy Corbyn so conspicuously failed, and follow Ramsay and Clem into the Palace to kiss hands with the King? Given the polls, you’d be brave to bet against him. Indeed, whatever you think of him — and personally, I’d happily never hear another word from him as long as I live — there’s no doubt that he wants it. His slow-burning betrayal of Jeremy Corbyn, his abandonment of his own Brexit position, his ruthless moves against his own Left wing: these are the hallmarks of a politician who’s absolutely serious about winning power. Even his shameless posturing about private schools seems very cleverly calculated, a bit of populist red meat to throw to the loonies.
Perhaps above all, Starmer has the one quality that most recent Labour leaders have lacked. He is dull — and not just dull, but excruciatingly, soul-crushingly boring. That infuriates his hard-core activists, just as Attlee’s taciturn caution infuriated their predecessors in the Forties. But the facts of history are pretty clear. Nobody can lose an election like an interesting Labour leader. And if the Baggies of British politics have their hearts set on a championship charge in 2024, perhaps they should be grateful to have a manager who’s not afraid to grind his way, whatever it takes, to a boring 1-0 victory.
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