What is the Centre Ground? Lessons from 1945


In the aftermath of Labour’s phenomenal performance in the 2017 General Election, Tony Blair called on Jeremy Corbyn to return Labour to the centre ground or face political wilderness, warning of the ills of “unreconstructed hard-left economics.” However Corbyn used his 2017 New Years’ message to proclaim that Labour was “stalking out a new centre ground.” What is this lucrative centre ground and who has the key to capturing it? Is it Tony Blair, whose quest to capture the centre led New Labour into a triangulation of twenty years of Thatcherite politics; or is it Jeremy Corbyn, whose manifesto of nationalisation and redistribution, and commitment to peace, has transformed the nature of political debate in Britain? Does the centre ground even exist?

A very important comparison can be drawn between 2017 and the 1945 general election, in which Labour won its first ever majority. Long the orthodoxy among historians, Paul Addison’s contention that “consensus fell, like a branch of ripe plums, into Mr. Attlee’s lap” has seen the post-war period treated as a time of agreement between political parties in which debate was constrained within parameters that were set by the wartime coalition: a mixed economy, the priority of controlling unemployment and a welfare state were the main areas of convergence. Is this the fabled centre ground?

Not according to Winston Churchill. During the 1945 election campaign, Churchill made an explicit comparison between Labour and the Nazi Party by stating that a Labour government would require “some form of Gestapo” in order to implement its programme, only weeks after Belsen had been liberated. Similar smear tactics against Corbyn clearly affected Labour’s performance before the general election, but in June 2017 over 40% of the public voted for Labour- people who obviously did not take completely seriously the claims that Corbyn is a threat to national security. That the public largely rejected the claims that Corbyn and Clement Attlee were hard-left extremists suggests that their politics were far closer to the views of the average person than those of their right-wing detractors.

The assertion by many historians that all politics was conducted from the centre in 1945 is not evident in Labour’s domestic policies. While the Labour governments set about nationalising vast swathes of industry, the Conservative manifesto summed up emphatically in favour of the free-market, arguing that “Nationalisation involves a state monopoly, with no proper protection for anyone against monopoly power. Neither that nor any other form of unfettered monopoly should be allowed to exist in Britain.” While maintaining nationalised industries such as coal and rail, the 1951 Conservative government privatised the steel industry. Evidently, the Conservatives had been forced into accepting a settlement that they were ideologically opposed to since it aligned with the majority of public opinion.

The “unreconstructed hard-left economics” that Tony Blair has warned of bear a lot of resemblance to the policies that won Labour a landslide in 1945. Despite attempts to portray Corbyn and John McDonnell as unpatriotic Marxist extremists, these economics are firmly within the boundaries of Keynesian management theory. And they’re popular- 53% of people in a recent YouGov poll said the they supported the nationalisation of energy companies. Nationalisation is back on the agenda and like in 1945, Labour is winning the argument.

Aneurin Bevan led the Labour government towards creating the NHS in the face of opposition from the British Medical Association, who were backed by the Tories. Although concessions were made to allow private patients, Labour’s NHS was a dramatic step towards universality of provision. Labour’s own wartime policy, outlined in the 1943 publication ‘A National Service for Health’, did not advocate nationalisation of the hospitals. Instead wartime Labour and then the Tories and some members of the 1945 Labour government supported a tripartite system, which preserved voluntary and charitable hospitals. However, Bevan referred to these voluntary and charitable hospitals as an important source of ‘political and social patronage’ for the Tories and pressed ahead with nationalisation. The principle of charity, where welfare is voluntary and totally dependent on the kindness of individuals, is alien to a socialist system and if it were not for Bevan’s efforts, it might have been the basis of our health service today. The NHS is phenomenally popular and perhaps the most enduring achievement of Labour; so popular that these days the Conservatives have had to resort to privatising the system under flowery language such as ‘Accountable Care Organisations’, all while proclaiming their love for nationalised health care.

It would be a positive step towards defending public health care if Labour were to lend their full support towards the NHS reinstatement bill, as Corbyn, McDonnell, Abbott and others have done in the past. Since the public are overwhelmingly in favour of public healthcare (83% favoured nationalised healthcare in the recent YouGov poll), it falls upon Labour to make the connection between the public’s desire for nationalised health care and the reversal of decades of privatisation.

Where the left is most disappointed by the 1945-51 Labour governments is in foreign policy. Many prominent left-wingers were placed in domestic departments- Bevan had both housing and health- whereas those on the right of the party were given foreign policy roles. As a result, Labour’s foreign policy accepted the pro-American orientation of the post-war world. Opposition to American dominance came from the Labour left, with Michael Foot, Barbara Castle, Jennie Lee, Seymour Cocks, Raymond Blackburn and a dozen other Labour members voting against America’s multi-billion dollar loan to the UK, which entailed commitments to NATO. Although there were some differences between Labour and Conservative foreign policy, most notably on Indian independence, the efforts of some Labour MP’s to create a socialist foreign policy failed. Jingoism prevailed and Britain developed its first nuclear weapon. Ernest Bevin summed up the mood among the Labour leadership: “we’ve got to have a bloody Union Jack on top of it!”

Jeremy Corbyn’s lifelong commitment to peace sets him apart from the majority of the PLP like no other issue.  Although Labour’s 2017 manifesto remained committed to Trident and the 2% of GDP military spending target, there was a moment during the 2017 election campaign that turned the whole debate around foreign policy on its head and in many ways summed up the Corbyn project. Straight after the Manchester terror attack, Corbyn delivered a speech that highlighted the role that British foreign policy in the Middle East plays in fostering terrorism. It totally unconventional for an opposition leader to deliver a political statement on such an issue. If the press and right-wing politicians were to pick a moment to deliver their fell blow and brandish him as a terrorist sympathiser forever, this would be it. Yet Labour’s poll ratings continued to rise. Jeremy Corbyn must continue to demonstrate the merits of an anti-war foreign policy and dispel the myth that wars win elections.

So whose model of the centre ground works best? Is it Tony Blair’s assertion that elections are won by agreeing with your opponents on most major political questions, or is it Jeremy Corbyn’s appeal to the many by putting out a distinctly redistributive platform? Labour won a landslide in 1945 by disagreeing with the Tories. If we are confident in our left-wing beliefs, then we should be promoting them without hesitation. What Labour proved in 1945 and are proving again in the aftermath of the 2017 general election is that the centre ground of public opinion is malleable and responds to political arguments. Tony Blair’s impression that centrists are above left/right politics- that they don’t stand for anything- is disingenuous. A centre ground of politicians who go a third way on essentially binary issues such as public or private does not exist- all must take sides. And ever more increasingly of late, these so-called centrists are being proved out of touch with a newly febrile public opinion. Socialists in the Labour Party must resist all efforts to return the party to Blair’s centre ground.



Eton Rifles: Why I am proud to wear a white poppy

I’m not going to rehearse the arguments about the symbolism of the white poppy – but a few things should be said, as there is a lot of (perhaps wilful) misunderstanding around it. The white poppy has a long history, which goes back to Armistice Day 1933. As the Peace Pledge Union website, which produces White Poppies for Peace says:

“In 1933 the first white poppies appeared on Armistice Day (called Remembrance Day after World War Two). The white poppy was not intended as an insult to those who died in the First World War – a war in which many of the white poppy supporters lost husbands, brothers, sons and lovers – but a challenge to the continuing drive to war.”

That appetite for war has hardly abated since 1933, so, in the eyes of many, there is still the need to make that statement. What is disturbing is the lack of respect and tolerance still shown to peace activists around Remembrance Day, despite that context.

There is an airbrushing of history, which glosses over the real, lived experience of real people, and puts them in a box marked “respect for the dead”. Inside that box is a mixture of half-truths, myths and downright lies.

However, that isn’t what this piece is about. I also have a personal reason for recoiling from the ceremony around Remembrance Day – a personal, family story which recently came to light and chimed with my own instincts about war and our history.

My great granddad, George Sellers was born in 1887, in Eton Wick, just up the road from Eton College, but a millions miles away in terms of social class and status. Although his father, John Sellers, had worked his way up from the labouring of his early life to become Foreman to the Board of Health, the family was not well off, maybe due to the fact that George was the youngest of eleven children. In June 1914, George married Selina, my great grandmother. They were, apparently, childhood sweethearts and very much in love. By this time, George had found permanent work as a waterman at the Eton boathouse, preparing the boats for the over-privileged school boys at Eton.

By all accounts, George built up an understandable resentment towards the Etonians and was fiercely independent and trenchant in his criticism. This is hardly a great surprise, when wealth and poverty sit so close together as they did in pre-war Eton, class antagonism is pretty inevitable. Some of my relatives suggest that there were longstanding ructions between George and the schoolboys, while others claim that it was all muttered under the breath.

The outbreak of war, however, brought these tensions to the surface. George was, apparently, stridently against the war. It’s not clear whether he would have called himself a pacifist or whether it was a more instinctive horror at going to fight “their war” – or whether it was for entirely different reasons again. What is clear, however, is that, in 1914, while many of his friends signed up enthusiastically, George stayed at home and at the Eton boathouse.

This decision brought him into direct conflict with the Eton schoolboys. It is said that, after many arguments, George was subjected to sustained abuse at the hands of some of the older boys. The irony of their patriotic enthusiasm for the “Great War” will not have been lost on George, knowing that they would be either too young to fight, or would have a high ranking officers position which carried far less of a risk than the many thousands of working class men who we’re being sent to the Western Front as glorified cannon fodder.

A year later, in August 1915, George did sign up. Maybe he had become convinced by the argument for war. Maybe the death of close friends in the first year of the “Great War” had a profound effect on him and persuaded him that he had to “do his bit”. Maybe he just got tired of the disdain, the abuse and the intimidation – we just don’t know. However, he said his goodbyes to Selina and left for the killing fields of Flanders. He left his wife in the early stages of pregnancy, carrying George Albert, my grandfather.

I don’t know an awful lot about the battles that George senior fought in, only that he was part of the Royal Field Artillery D Battalion, 19th Brigade. I don’t know the detail of the horrors he would have seen, but I have read enough about the Western Front to be able to draw a mental picture. Mutilations, dismemberment, death in massive numbers, putrid conditions, disease and death again. It’s no surprise that it was often described as hell by the ordinary working class “Tommies” who were its victims. Meanwhile, the old Etonians of the officer class played out their strategic power plays with little regard for the human waste.

After two years in the field of battle, and many heart wrenching letters home, the war seemed to be coming to an end. Finally, the German troops, devastated by their own mass carnage, seemed close to surrender. In Ypres, in October 1918, the final battles were being fought. Nothing decisive was being won here – it was almost as if the hapless armies were playing out the final act of a cruel drama. Here it was that George’s life came to a very premature end. At the age of 31, he was killed by mortar fire. The date was the 3rd of October 1918, just over a month before the armistice.

It is said that Selina “lost her mind” when she heard of her sweetheart’s death. It must have felt like murder, knowing what she knew about her husband. Certainly, glory and sacrifice would have been far from her mind. Although she re-married, it was a mistake – she never recovered from the tragedy of losing her beloved George. Selina lived out her last years in an asylum.

One life ended. Many more wrecked. Even more again affected. And this tragic story could no doubt be repeated thousands upon thousands of times up and down the country – in ordinary, working class homes. At Eton? Not so much. Theirs was the glory. They had defended their Empire and their wealth – and miraculously survived intact. Of course, there were well known martyrs and heroes from the upper classes, but the overwhelming majority of the blood spilt was that of people like George, who had little choice, in the end, to fight “their war”. That’s the reality of the First World War.

I suppose it’s a persuasive argument that Remembrance Day is just one day. One day for us peace loving, lily livered objectors to leave our politics at the door. Except it isn’t just one day, is it? It’s at least two weeks of build up, of saturated media coverage and – of course – the subtle inculcation of militarism in our society’s values. Two weeks when peace activists and those opposed to militarism have to hide their views, shut their gobs and get in with it.

Ultimately people will wear whatever colour poppy they want – or none. I have to say, I’ve never heard of anyone who has been bullied, threatened or harassed for wearing a red one. I wish I could say the same about the white poppy. What I object to, and will continue to object to, is the sanitisation of a very dark period of our history.

As any basic social history will tell you, the First World War wasn’t a “Great War”, it wasn’t a war to end all wars and neither was it a war to defend our freedoms. It was an imperial war game between competing European powers that sent millions of young working class men, on all sides to their deaths. So, in its proper historical context, and with the memory of George Sellers in mind, I’m happy to talk about their courage, but please don’t lecture me about their sacrifice and our freedom. Pick up a history book if you want to argue that First World War was a just war, necessary to protect our way of life. Then we can talk. In the meantime, if you don’t mind, I’ll do three things:

Firstly, I won’t be intimidated into wearing a red poppy. I’ll stay true to what I believe and what my great granddad believed and continue to make any statement I feel is appropriate.

Secondly, I won’t wipe my brain of the memory of history or people’s real experience – whether that is the First World War or Iraq. Neither will I take a holiday from thinking about history from below  – and in so doing, conceding a kind of anti-history which conflates and confuses the first and second world wars, militarism and remembrance, patriotism and courage.

Thirdly, I’m not going to stop being a peace activist for two weeks, a weekend or even a day. So that’s why I’ll make an explicit decision to wear the white poppy instead of none at all. That is entirely consistent with what history has taught me, from the First World War right up to Iraq and Afghanistan.  It is also, I believe, what George would have wanted me to do and an appropriate tribute to all those working class “Tommies” who could see this war for what it was, but had no choice but to sacrifice their lives for something that they didn’t believe in.