Ed Miliband has just announced revisions in the Labour Party’s relationship with the trade unions. Previously, affiliated unions automatically donated part of their members’ dues into the party’s coffers. The forthcoming changes mean that this will have to be a conscious choice by each individual member.
This represents a dramatic shift: there was a time, not too long ago, when such a move would have been seen as preposterous. The Labour Party was the political wing of the trade union movement: if you were a worker who toiled in a coal mine or a steel mill, there was no other way to improve your lot apart from joining with others in a trade union and voting for a Labour MP who would represent your interests.
Since then, the vast industries which once comprised Britain’s industrial might have mainly vanished. I recall watching a replay of an “Election Night Special” from February 1974 in which Alastair Burnett reeled off result after result. He not only made a point of saying the constituency name, but also stating what the primary industry of that area was. Steel, coal, textiles were all mentioned. Nowadays, we have an economy that is mainly built on services and shopping; the trade unions have been emasculated by Thatcher’s labour laws. The Labour Party is not as naturally linked to the unions which remain, and there are smaller parties like the Greens and the TUSC which vie for the hard core union vote.
It’s perhaps apropos that we now have Ken Loach’s film “The Spirit of 45” to give us a glimpse of what we’ve lost. I first saw it in the theatre at Bradford’s National Media Museum: the audience was mainly of an age group that could remember the mills and vast industrial concerns around Bradford in operation. After the film ended, there was a round of applause. It was a rare accolade as one could hear sadness and regret as well as appreciation.
Loach first provides us with a salubrious reminder of what the world of the 1930’s was like: there was widespread squalor, the poor lived in vermin-infested houses, unemployment and irregular employment were rife. It was a world in which people used the pawn shop as liberally as some nowadays use payday loans to overcome problems in cash flow. It was a time in which if you purchased medical treatment, the doctor would often send around debt collectors to ensure you paid for it.
World War II demanded maximum effort from everyone: a new egalitarianism emerged from the conflict. Furthermore, Churchill was forced to form a wartime coalition that included Labour ministers. They ran many key sectors of the economy: Ernest Bevin, for example, was responsible for production and manpower. Given this, Labour was more strongly positioned than they perhaps realised to win a famous election victory in 1945.
Loach reels off the Labour government’s great achievements: key industries, transport and health were nationalised. Nye Bevan created the National Health Service and decent public housing. By the time Labour left office in 1951, Loach suggests, vast improvements had been made: the song which echoes in the background suggests that “life is a bowl of cherries”.
We then jump to 1979 and the election of Margaret Thatcher; what was built up post-1945 is shown to be torn down. Miners are beaten for protesting pit closures. The free market runs rampant: bankers show up in Ferraris. Perhaps the most eye watering statistic lay in the number of pit closures: by 1994 there were only 14 coal mines left open.
Loach suggests that the last stand should be made over the National Health Service, the one legacy of 1945 that remains with us. We are shown a montage featuring groups such as UK Uncut; today’s Labour Party is disdained as being “middle class” rather than “working class”.
I enjoyed the film and it does fire one’s imagination: the unlimited greed of the 1980’s would have been greeted with disgust in 1945. One wonders how we get back to such societal norms. I also wished that I could vote for Clement Attlee, as his unassuming, almost twee demeanour was a mask for sincere, principled radicalism. However, the film does gloss over some key facts.
First, the 1945 Labour government achieved much, but it would be incorrect to assume they established heaven on earth: the film is honest enough to state that nationalisation happened “the wrong way” in many instances, namely state bosses replaced private ones. Also, during this time Britain was bankrupt and had to go cap in hand to the Americans for a loan; the effort required to secure this support killed John Maynard Keynes, Britain’s chief negotiator. The role of Marshall Plan aid in rebuilding post-war Britain is also excised.
Additionally, the fact that rationing was still in force until the mid 1950’s is similarly brushed aside. Housing developments didn’t happen quickly enough: squatting, even on former army bases, was rife.
Furthermore, by jumping over most of the 1950’s, 1960’s and 1970’s, Loach completely overlooks key events like the struggle between Harold Wilson’s Labour government and the trade unions. Neither Barbara Castle nor “In Place of Strife” are mentioned. One can argue that these ruptures within the framework of a functioning social democracy are preferable to the anarchy and squalor of laissez faire policies, but nevertheless, to ignore them entirely weakens the argument. It also means that Labour’s evolution into the party it is today is more inexplicable: an uninformed viewer would wonder why Labour “dropped” the unions. The truth is, and Ed Miliband appears to understand this, that as work has evolved, unions have evolved too and with it, so has the Labour Party. The mass industries of old no longer exist: there are more self-employed people than ever before. Small businesses, i.e. ones which are not conducive for the growth of mass trade unions, predominate. Labour has had to manage the rather difficult feat of maintaining one foot in the past while taking a step towards the future. Loach does not explain any of this.
Nevertheless, one can look on in something like wonder and even envy: the idea that there was full employment, the chance of a decent home without a heavy mortgage, a reasonable standard of living available to most and a societal emphasis on equality, does make the world of 1945 seem appealing. But perhaps what is most alluring about this era lay in what the 1945 Labour government inspired and fostered most: hope. We live in an era of unbridled cynicism: we accept that things are the way they are and this is how it will always be. This was not always true, and belief has managed to lever off foes like the Nazis and raise up institutions like the NHS. If we did have some of the Spirit of 45, the future might be altogether brighter: because it would not only seem possible to do better, it would be a direct goal.