The Spirit of 45 – is the Labour Party missing in action?

By   /   March 15, 2013  /   9 Comments

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“Unfortunately, the differences between the neoliberal policies of the Right and the neoliberal-lite policies of Modern Labour are differences of degree not kind. Rather than its nemesis, Blairism turned out to be Thatcherism’s bastard child.”

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“I AM NOT PREPARED to associate myself with a policy where well-to-do people can afford to build luxury homes and poor people go without homes!”

The old newsreel shows Aneurin Bevan in full flight: speaking as British Labour ministers were wont to speak during the crucial, but all-too-brief, period of Labour rule between 1945 and 1951.

It began with the landslide socialist victory of 5 July 1945.

Labour’s share of the popular vote was 49.7 percent (a remarkable result in what was still a three party system). When the counting ended Labour held 61.7 percent of the seats in the House of Commons.

On the night of their historic victory, thousands of working-class Labour voters gathered outside the party’s Transport House headquarters and sang, over and over again, William Blake’s great spiritual call-to-arms – “Jerusalem”.

I shall not cease from mental fight,
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand,
Til we have built Jerusalem
In England’s green and pleasant land.

It was a pivotal historical moment in British history, and it has contributed both the title and the subject matter for “The Spirit of 45”, a documentary released in the UK today (15 March) by the celebrated left-wing English filmmaker, Ken Loach.

A trailer for the documentary can be found here.

Thank God for people like Ken Loach! Because without them so many of the memories, hopes and dreams of a generation which is rapidly passing away would be lost forever.

Thank Loach, too, for bringing together in one documentary so much superb archival material. The images of a people taking charge of their destiny are as precious as the memories they evoke.

At a time when our own Labour Party (whose record of radical reform was already ten years old in 1945) seems utterly incapable of formulating anything remotely resembling the transformative programme of Clement Attlee’s 1945-51 government, it is quite inspiring to hear the unequivocal declarations of Nye Bevan, and to see the UK miners’ union members marching shoulder-to-shoulder with the managers of the newly nationalised pits.

Loach does not, however, permit his audience to revel in wistful political nostalgia for very long. “The Spirit of 45” – so triumphant in the six years following the end of World War II – was reduced to a bitter memory during the Thatcher Years (1979-1991). The contrast Loach draws between the collective spirit of 1945 and the brutal individualism so assiduously fostered by the “Iron Lady’s” neoliberal mentors is as important to draw as it is agonising to watch.

In his interview with the Guardian, Loach recalls how difficult it was to get anything remotely resembling an alternative version of events onto the screens of Thatcherite Britain. The blatant censorship of dissenting voices (including his own) in the 1980s should alert us to the dangerously totalitarian trajectory that remains embedded in neoliberal thought.

Comparing the joy, the exhilaration and the powerful sense of rapidly expanding social horizons ushered in by the Attlee Government in 1945, with the vicious selfishness held up as the new normal by Mrs “There’s no such thing as society” Thatcher, one cannot help being seized by the sheer magnitude of the social transformation which neoliberalism has wrought – as great in its own way as the transformation overseen thirty-five years earlier by Labour’s socialists.

The Pagani School of Labour theory rejects out-of-hand any possibility of a return to the spirit of 1945 (or, in New Zealand’s case, of 1935 and 1938) and urges the party’s policy-makers to embrace Tony Blair’s vision of “New” or “Modern” Labour.

Unfortunately, the differences between the neoliberal policies of the Right and the neoliberal-lite policies of Modern Labour are differences of degree not kind. Rather than its nemesis, Blairism turned out to be Thatcherism’s bastard child.

More than anything else, it is the Shearer-led Labour Party’s inarticulateness; its singular incapacity to think outside the neoliberal box; that illustrates how very far it has strayed from the impulse to improve and empower the lives of ordinary people which Loach’s latest documentary so movingly elucidates.

The chances of anyone singing “Jerusalem” outside the New Zealand Labour Party’s Wellington headquarters in 2014 are, for the moment, depressingly slim.

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  1. Ron Collinson says:

    In an interview Thatcher was asked what was your greatest achievement, her response Tony Blair and New Labour.

  2. ak says:

    Nailed it again brother. It’s not the deeds so much but the naked treachery that will forever keep the Douglas/Bassett/Caygill et al tumor way, way above even the Key/Bennett niche of evil.

    “Another swivel-eyed lawyer, beware!” called the ’51 vets at Lange’s elevation, to no avail. And the rest is history, which you detail so well, and which multitudes endure daily.

  3. JonL says:

    The Blair government was to the right of any Tory government of the mid 1900’s.
    About the only similarity to the current Shearer led party to those of Savage and co, is the infighting!

  4. Another David says:

    And the Lord did send a plague of Boy Racers upon the land for the sins of the fourth Labour government

  5. Draco T Bastard says:

    Labour, today, are a party of capitalism, for capitalism. They’ve forgotten that they were once the workers party.

  6. Rosie Rosie says:

    Thats great to hear about the new doco by Ken Loach. Just watching the trailer was very stirring. Such hope and such loss. Can’t wait to see it.

  7. Afewknowthetruth says:

    NZ does not have a labour party. There are covert fascists who wear blue, and there are covert fascists who wear red. Both National and Labour promote the agendas of corporations and money-lenders, and support military intervention overseas to gain access for corporations to resources: all that matches Mussolini’s definition of fascism very closely.

    All that so-called Labour in NZ offers the proles is a few more breadcrumbs falling off the elites table than National does. It’s much the same throughout the western world, of course.

  8. Jenny says:

    The ‘Spirit of ’45’ grew out of the experience of the second world war.

    Tory Prime Minister Churchill had promised to those fighting overseas and those at home that victory would mean that “the life of the world may move forward into broad, sunlit uplands.”

    People sensed that Churchill and the Tories would not be able to fulfill this promise.

    Not only that, but the huge material forces that had been released to fight the war were apparent to all. The obvious conclusion drawn by millions of people was; If such huge resources can be made available to fight a war of destruction, they be could be made available for peacetime reconstruction as well. And indeed they were.

    But where did these material forces come from?

    At the height of the Second World War, in this country, the top tax rate on the very wealthy was 90% of their income. And large sectors of the economy were nationalised to “help with the war effort”.

    I know.

    Unthinkable in this day and age.

    The rich and powerful would not tolerate it. And indeed they didn’t. Ever since the end of the war more and more of the tax burden has been put onto working people and their families. And large parts of the economy that was nationalised were put into private hands.

    The tories historically were unable to reverse these historic gains. So it fell to the Labour Party to do so. The first move was the black budget of 1958 where for the first time in New Zealand’s history income tax on working people was introduced. (Previously income tax has only applied to the very wealthy particularly those who gained their income not by productive work but by investment and rents etc. Ever since then the proportion of income tax paid by working people has increased and the rate paid by wealthy rentiers has decreased.

    But why did the wealthy and politically powerful tamely agree to carry most of the tax burden during the ’40s in the first place?

    This question turns us back again to the war.

    The war against fascism was seen as an existential struggle that depending on its outcome would beggar all classes of society including the rich. The wealthy ruling elite in New Zealand or England risked being surplanted by foreign fascist ruling elites with their powerbase not in London, or Wellington, but in Berlin and Tokyo.

    Very few of the ruling elite of the West were prepared to make the change (Though some did).

    Where am I going with all this?

    The fate of humanity is now in the jaws of another existential threat. A menace so great that it will need an all society effort to defeat it.

    Climate Change has been described by scientists as the greatest extinction level event this side of the KT boundary.

    Without any coordinated response from humanity, (or even a portion of humanity), global temperatures are set to rise 6 degrees C over the pre industrial average. At this temperature the ice caps will melt, Australia will become uninhabitable to human beings and huge areas of low land countries will become flooded. Not to mention the poisoning of the oceans as they absorb excess CO2 in the atmosphere where it becomes carbonic acid, deadly to all marine organisms but jellyfish.

    The solution to the menace of climate change can only come from the the mobilisation of people and resources that was achieved during the Second World War.

    Some on the Left say that fighting for social justice is more important than the fight against climate change.

    Naomi Klein famously said “Climate change has the ability to destroy all your past victories and current struggles”. I agree. But to this I would say that the struggle against climate change will release the material forces that will address these issues.

    Naomi Klein goes on to say “That we should fight climate change like it is endangering our life’s work, or even our lives. As indeed it is”.

  9. Ovicula says:

    Thatcherism showed up the weakness of the social democratic program of the postwar Labour government. Although there were many successes, the structure of society and relations of production were left basically unchanged. The changes were in distribution and when naked capitalism once again felt strong enough to roll back these changes, it did so without a coherent response from the Labour Party. Those who did fight, such as Scargill and the miners, fought on a limited basis and were easily defeated.

    The same thing happened here, except that it was a Labour government that undid the gains. The union movement showed itself totally unable to fight against their parliamentary “comrades” in any meaningful way and we lost the battle. In a very real sense, Lange laid the foundations for Key. Cunliffe wants to erect different architecture on these foundations and what Shearer wants will become obvious once his advisors make a decision. The answers will not be found by looking back nostalgically at the gains of past Labour governments, but they can be found by abandoning the game of musical chairs that is parliamentary politics and building something new from the ground up. Learning from the past needs to mean that we either make deep structural changes, or else we are doomed to hiring a new team of interior decorates every three or six years, and all to disguise a rotting edifice.