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On Ian Aitken, “Red Ed”, being bold and winning elections

I haven’t always agreed with Ian Aitken, but the Guardian’s former political editor who’s 86 and still writes regularly has a cracking piece in this week’s Tribune (to which Left Futures readers would do well to subscribe). In it he reminds us of some earlier dark times when bold, radical promises were made at a Labour conference and dire warnings were issued about the electoral consequence by a prominent Labour right-winger – just like Peter Mandelson in response to what Ed Miliband’s speech said about freezing energy prices.

The dark times were 1944 when, like today, the British people wanted new hope about the future, and the prominent right-winger was Lord Mandelson’s grand-father, Herbert Morrison:

The key discussion took place on a composite motion which, to a very large extent, set out the programme which was eventually carried out by Clement Attlee’s Government, including the creation of a national health service, the foundation of the cradle-to-grave welfare state, and the nationalisation of the pits, the railways and the Bank of England.

The motion did not have the backing of the platform, which was plugging a much blander document. But it was moved by a youthful Ian Mikardo, later to be Labour MP for Reading and a leading Tribunite, and he spoke with such passion and conviction that he carried the hall with him and won the vote against the platform’s advice.

As he made his way out of the hall after the decisive vote, Mik felt a hand on his shoulder. It belonged to Herbert Morrison, then Home Secretary in the wartime coalition Government and effectively the party’s number two after Attlee. “That was a very fine speech, young man,” said Morrison. “But you realise that you have just lost us the next election?

Not only was Morrison completely wrong about the future, but, as Aitken explains, Mandelson makes he same mistake when “Red Ed” was not nearly so bold as Ian Mikardo and the delegates to Labour’s conference in 1944.

But there is a further lesson, and this time for Ed. Clem Atlee allowed Labour’s conference a choice. Allowed them even to outvote the platform. To be bolder than Labour’s right would allow. And the result was victory.

That “living, breathing party” you promised us, Ed. The restoration of a voice for members, of internal democracy. We’re still waiting….


  1. David Pavett says:

    The point made by Ian Aitkin is nicely highlighted by a comment in Andrew Rawnsley’s piece in The Observer today. He says

    ” I think it was George Eaton of the New Statesman who was the first to point out that polls report that the majority of voters support a return to a 50p top rate of income tax, increases in the minimum wage and a mansion tax. If these policies are nuts, then the majority of the British public has gone bonkers. There is also hearty public support for the renationalisation of the utilities and the train operators, which puts the average voter well to the left of Mr Miliband when he merely advocates a temporary price cap on energy bills.”

    It would be easy to extend this point to many other policy areas such as education on which polls indicate that the public would be receptive to a programme to bring schools back into the framework of local government (albeit a local government reformed to make it more open and more democratic). There are no accumulating grounds for believing that if Labour advocated well thought through radical policies across the board, making a decisive break with Blairism, this would be an election winner. But that would require courage and above all a vision that goes well beyond modifying what the Tories have done will sticking to fundamentally the same social arrangements.

    And Jon is right about the lack of a meaningful democracy within the Labour Party. The current position is a democratic farce. The quality of the materials and the level of participation in the Party’s alleged decision-making machinery (e.g. NPF, Policy Commissions etc) is already poor enough but to cap it all policies are issued from the Shadow Cabinet that have no connection with any of that.

  2. swatantra says:

    You can’t really compare,the uunusual surroundings of a Wartime Party Conference, with those of of nowadays when the threat of conflict on the mainland Britain is a virtual no-no.
    After 5 long years of War, the British People were fed up with the Party that had led them into the War, and nothing would have made them vote Conservative. A Labour victory was therefore certain, and Labour had a blank sheet to do anything they wanted to. Not so now, when market forces and global interactions and individual aspirations are embedded in the British psyche.

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