Mark Perryman argues that Labour's '45 Landslide should remain a cause to celebrate 70 years on
27 July 1945. After a long wait, in Britain the votes had been cast on 5 July, the ballot boxes from British forces still stationed all over the world were all accounted for and finally counted. Labour had won a sensational victory, a landslide even, and unarguably the greatest upset in British electoral history.
Winston Churchill, rightly lauded then and ever since as a Wartime Premier, had led his Tory party to its most ignominious defeat. In the modern personality stakes that have come to take the place of party politics Churchill would beat Labour's Clement Attlee hands down. But seventy years ago on the cusp of World War Two coming to an end via the atomic horror of Hiroshima and Nagasaki British General Elections were still a battle of fiercely countervailing ideas rather than who looks best in front of a camera, with or without a bacon sarnie.
'Win the Peace' was Labour's message. And more than any other single individual Aneurin Bevan provided the ideals to turn that slogan into a vision. In three lines Bevan summer up powerfully Labour's journey to '45. 'We have been the dreamers. We have been the sufferers. And now we are builders.'
It was in the 1930s that the dreamers, against fascism, would mobilise to physically oppose Mosley's fascist Blackshirts wherever they would seek to organise. But Mosley wasn't defeated simply by episodes such as Cable Street in '36, however heroic. As brilliantly recounted by Phil Piratin in his autobiography Our Flag Stays Red, Mosley's opponents would organise around the very real grievances that the Fascists sought to exploit via anti-Semitism. The most important of these was housing. Piratin brought together tenants, whatever their politics, to oppose the exploitative landlords, demanding fair rents and public housing. And it was thanks largely to those efforts that Piratin was elected the Communist MP for East London's Mile End in the '45 landslide.
This was a practical anti-fascism with a purposefully popular element. Aid to Spain during the Spanish Civil War stretching from the International Brigades via the food and clothing collections to providing homes for Basque refugee children. 'If You Tolerate this your children will be next' a poster of the time symbolising the indiscriminate carnage twenty-first century warfare has become, a deadly process that began at Guernica.
This was a politics of the dreamers but it combined practicality and popularity to give it a substance. A substance rooted in the organising principle of the collective good. And in wartime such collective organisation became the means to survive, to live, from the Blitz to the deserts of North Africa, the Eastern Front, landings in Italy, D-Day.
Beveridge, a Liberal, provided something to hope for when he spelt out what a state, a Welfare State, run for the many not for the few, might look like. A hope that rapidly became translated into a new common sense. If co-operation was the means with which we defeated the Nazis surely this was how we would build the peace without going back to how things once were.
A national health service, comprehensive education, a massive public housing programme, nationalisation of the railways, mines and public utilities. Out of the horrors of warfare, the creation of a Welfare State. It is hard to credit it in 2015 but for three and a bit decades this was the basis of our post-war consensus. Today a middle ground rejects in large or small measure all and every element. It is a politics that belongs to the insurgents, Jeremy Corbyn's labour leadership campaign, the SNP and Plaid, the Greens, the People's Assembly and the anti-austerity movement.
Thatcher's achievement in 1979 wasn't simply to shred the Bevanite principles of the Welfare State for one electoral cycle but to turn the clock back for ever and a Blairist-Brownite day, most ironically of all a process that described itself as 'modernisation'.
Labour may in large part want to turn its back on its own history in the forlorn search for a middle ground but that doesn't mean the rest of us want to follow them no thankyou very much. When Bevan's era of dreams and survival turned to building a new society he had the people on his side. A support so majoritarian in its expression it took the Tories until 1979, and New Labour shamefully after them, to break the consensus that Bevan had helped construct.
The majority had become fragmented, old collectives fractured, the labour movement in retreat, defeats suffered. Nobody would sensibly deny any or all of that. And after three decades the early inadequacies of the Welfare Stare were become increasingly, and painfully, acute. Not helped of course by underfunding and wilful surrender to private interests. Bevan's principles now exist outside of a Westminster Consensus, hidden in large part from electoral view but that doesn't mean they are either not present nor lack potency as a political force.
A Left whose dreams are narrowly defined by a history before most of us were born is doomed to failure. But a Left that cannot connect to the ideals and principles that shaped these dreams, provided the means to survive Europe's darkest moments, and fired up the energies to rebuild denies itself the connections of history and identity, individual and collective. These were Bevan's resources of hope, they should remain ours.
Bevan's 'We Have been the dreamers' tee is available from Philosophy Football
Mark Perryman is a member of both the Labour Party and Momentum. Co-founder of the self-styled ‘sporting outfitters of intellectual distinction’ aka Philosophy Football, he has also edited numerous books on the politics of the Left. The latest is Corbynism from Below and is published by Lawrence & Wishart, available to order from here.