There are many lessons which we can learn from history, and when it comes to politics this is as true as anywhere else. Many in the Labour Party are looking at the lessons of the last Labour government – and why wouldn’t they? We won three general elections and saw record investment in our schools, enacted the minimum wage and by the time we left office our NHS was graded the best health service in the world.
We shouldn’t forget the achievements of 1997-2010, far from it. And we should learn from the what went wrong as well as from what went right during that period. But perhaps it is time to look back further, to another Labour government that took on challenges similar to those we face today. The Attlee government had to deal with the results of an international financial crisis.
Today we face a similar situation.
The austerity of the pre-war period failed to deal with the problems caused by that financial crisis. The same mistakes are being made now and predictions of growth are constantly downgraded by the Office for Budgetary Responsibility. Millions see their living standards under attack with many struggling to make ends meet at all and the misery faced during the great depression is being re-lived by far too many people. Food was rationed in the 1940s. Today 350,000 people use foodbanks. The more I think about the comparisons, the more it strikes me that we should be looking at the lessons from 1945 and seeing how we can apply them in the 2015 campaign.
People tell me that they cannot tell the difference between the parties. That was not a problem in 1945: you knew what Labour stood for and what it was offering to a nation under enormous social and financial strain. We won an election committed to homes for heroes and we built millions of council houses. And, of course, we set up the National Health Service. All on the back of a large public debt and after a long period of austerity from before the war.
And what is the situation now? We face a government which has cut far too far in many of the poorest parts of the country. A government which has caused a crisis in health and social care and a government that does nothing to solve a growing shortage of homes, especially affordable housing.
We can capture public imagination in 2015 by harnessing the spirit of ’45 and by drawing on the successful themes of that election. Nye Bevan set up the National Health Service. Andy Burnham can rescue and then re-launch the National Health and Care Service to build on the work he and his team are doing on integrating health and social care. We can deliver the housing our country needs with our commitment to 400,000 affordable homes and to investment in infrastructure. That investment in capital spending is vital if we are to grow the economy. The approach being proposed sounds more and more like the successful recipe of the post war Labour government. Traditional Labour values in a modern setting, to set us apart from this government’s disastrous policies and to remind a disillusioned public exactly what Labour stands for.
It is going to be very tough for Labour to win an election after only one term in opposition. People need to be convinced that what we are proposing will make a difference and will work, especially given that we were in government when the crisis hit and therefore are regarded as guilty just by association by many people.
One element of this is to use the evidence of history to work in our favour. A re-launched NHS and homes fit for our children are just two ways in which we can evoke the spirit of hope which swept Labour to power after the disaster of the second world war. The challenge which faces us is largely financial whereas the challenge in 1945 was the result of both a financial crisis and a war. But giving hope and capturing the imagination on issues where people instinctively know we are right may just be the approach needed to make sure Ed Miliband is in Number 10 in May 2015 rather than David Cameron.
We need positive reasons for people to vote Labour and a reminder of some of Labour’s greatest successes may be just the ticket.
Bill Esterson is the MP for Sefton Central