It’s Getting Tense on the Left

Callum McFarlane discusses why the centre-ground is the key to understanding Labour's past and unlocking its future.

A common belief amongst British progressives is that Clement Attlee was a radical. Indeed, was it not Attlee’s government that founded the NHS, championed Keynesian principles and established the welfare state? In actual fact, Attlee was a moderate — his landslide victory in 1945 came, according to Professor Glen O’Hara, as a result of the little difficulty that Attlee and his cabinet had “in presenting themselves as gradual, progressive reformers who the public had already come to know well.[i]

This is not to say that Attlee did not bring about enormous change; according to Adam Gopnik, for example, Attlee “helped make a genuine revolution, achieving almost everything that Marx had dreamed of for the British working classes without a single violent civil act intervening.[ii]” The ability to strike a balance between practicality and socialist principles was what made Attlee such a great leader, but it was also the attribute that was ultimately responsible for every Labour election victory before or since Attlee’s triumph as well.

Only four people have ever won an election for Labour. Until Attlee’s election, Ramsay MacDonald had been the only ever Labour leader to become Prime Minister. Ever an unpopular figure with Labour’s left, MacDonald infamously once argued that “Public doles, poplarism, strikes for increased wages, limitation of output, not only are not socialism, but may mislead the spirit and policy of the Socialist movement.” After Attlee, it was another 13 years until Harold Wilson won power. Wilson was a leader who did little to pursue public ownership of industry and whose cabinet largely described themselves as social democrats. Of course, Tony Blair at the head of New Labour was the fourth and most recent Labour leader to win a general election.

Why is this important? Taken together, the history of Labour’s electoral victories show that when we win elections, we win because we take the centre-ground, without exception. It is essential that we learn this lesson; 2020 marks the 120th year of Labour’s existence, but for only 30 of those years has it been in power. If we are going to endeavour to improve our electoral fortunes, we have to understand that a party platform too far to the left is a betrayal of Clause One of the party’s constitution — history has shown us that “the election of Labour Party representatives at all levels of the democratic process” can only be achieved from a moderate platform.

With this in mind let us consider the future. Here, too, the centre-ground is incredibly important; in the short term, if we are going to be effective in opposition, credibility and popularity are essential. For instance, successfully holding the Government to account on their post-Brexit trade policy will be achieved through practical discussion, debate and the putting forward of feasible alternatives, not empty rhetoric and calls for unpopular radical schemes or upheaval. The Government will not feel threatened by an opposition with little support — keeping the Government in check is best effectuated by a Labour Party with broad support and reasonable policies.

This is also true in the longer term. We cannot risk regression to an old school, outdated mode of government. Old fashioned socialist policies of nationalisation and class-based emotionalism will not fare well against the immense and completely new challenges that Britain will face over the coming decades. Solving the issue of climate change, for example, will require a universal front, and any approach to tackling it must have support from across the political spectrum if it going to be effective. This will require innovative, Attlee-esque political thinking that must be both principled — motivated by sound moral judgement, and practical — anchored in functional policy that appeals to the masses. This kind of position will not be found on the reactionary wing of the party.

If we are going to learn the lessons of our past electoral struggles, either in order to position ourselves to take on the challenges of the future, provide effective opposition, or simply to win elections, the importance of understanding the historical context of political moderation must be properly understood. “In any event”, chuckled Tony Blair in a recent interview “I would suggest it’s about time to try it again.[iii]

This article was shortlisted as one of twelve finalist pieces in the Young Fabians Political Writing Competition 2020. 

Callum McFarlane is in his second year studying Political Science and Economics at the University of Chicago. His interests lie in industrial relations and labour economics and he hopes to return to the UK to pursue further study in this field. He spends his free time volunteering for the Biden campaign, writing about politics and playing FIFA.

He tweets at @Cal_McFarlane.


[i] O’Hara, Glen. "Labour's Lost Past Endangers Its Future". Institute For Global Change, 2020, Accessed 24 July 2020.

[ii] Gopnik, Adam. "Never Mind Churchill, Clement Attlee Is A Model For These Times". The New Yorker, 2018, Accessed 25 July 2020.

[iii] King's College London. 120 Years Of The Labour Party: In Conversation With Tony Blair. 2020, Accessed 24 July 2020.

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