OPINION - Forget Margaret Thatcher, the key to Keir Starmer is his view on Clement Attlee

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer (Jane Barlow/PA) (PA Wire)
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer (Jane Barlow/PA) (PA Wire)

A politician praising a predecessor provides a heavy hint on how they intend to govern, but Keir Starmer’s new found enthusiasm for Margaret Thatcher is a tactical play. His ultimate role model is a very different leader — not the grocer’s grammar school daughter but the shy and underwhelming Clement Attlee.

In many ways Sir Keir Starmer had little choice when seeking a successful role model. Only three Labour leaders have won a general election since the Second World War. All three were white, heterosexual men, educated at selective schools and at Oxford. Two went to private schools and two were barristers. The choice when seeking a close parallel was therefore down to Tony Blair or Clement Attlee. Blair, born and raised in Edinburgh, got the top job aged just 43. Lord Attlee, like Sir Keir, was brought up in Surrey and was 62 when he became PM — the age the current Labour leader is now.

Those striking similarities are not what Sir Keir highlighted in his introduction to a recently refreshed biography of the post war leader. Sir Keir’s backstory falls well short of the street cred most of his front bench colleagues crave. But in other respects Clement Attlee is an interesting hero and what Keir Starmer choses to highlight about him is telling.

Attlee spent much of his career in the shadow of a much more dynamic and charismatic opponent, Sir Winston Churchill. Starmer has shadowed a number of Conservatives but his formative period was opposite Boris Johnson — whose biography of Churchill is practically begging us to find similarities between him and his subject. Without over-indulging that one, a common skill they shared was an ability to deploy language devastatingly. Churchill famously described Attlee as “a sheep in sheep’s clothing” and “a modest man with much to be modest about”. Yet it was the grey forgettable man who emerged on top in the general election of 1945, beating Churchill at the height of his post-war popularity and power.

The most relevant parallel is with the state of the UK that Labour look likely to take over next year

Sir Keir has already seen off Boris Johnson of course, though it was Johnson's own Conservative colleagues who really took him down. The most relevant parallel — however — is with the state of the United Kingdom that Labour look likely to take over next year. It has not been ravaged by the the Second World War but is still reeling from a global pandemic that cost us £400 billion and left us with huge challenges and little money to address them.

A cautious leader, comfortably ahead in the polls as he is, would normally be seeking to manage our expectations down and warning that even a full term in power would not be remotely enough to make a difference. Yet in Starmer’s introduction to Attlee's biography he highlights how Attlee “accomplished so much in so little time — and in such inauspicious circumstances”.

The list is indeed impressive: finding jobs for returning soldiers, building council homes to house them, expanding pensions and national insurance and, crowning it all, the creation of the NHS.

It’s no wonder Keir Starmer is “inspired…by the scale of Attlee’s ambition for change” and concludes that Britain again needs a “transformative Labour government to glimpse the future and set out a transformative programme that can change lives”. The double use of that “t” word is pretty striking by a leader whose greatest supporters struggle to describe him in such up-beat terms. Look beyond the headline and his praise of Margaret Thatcher is for her “driving sense of purpose”, not anything she actually delivered (which he surely disagrees with).

So to what extent is Starmer signalling that all the caution and adoption of many Conservative targets are merely for this Christmas and not the life of a Labour government? Attlee — for better or worse — led the most left-wing government in British history. New Labour it was not.

Can Keir Starmer keep things tight with his powerful team?

Interestingly, the biography he introduces was written by a close friend and key member of the shadow cabinet, another Oxford educated barrister, the Torfaen MP, Nick Thomas-Symonds. His profile took a hit when he was moved from shadow Home Secretary, but he is now applying his formidable analytical skills to the Cabinet Office working with the former civil servant, Sue Gray, on the future shape and direction of a Labour government.

In that context his conclusions about Attlee are very interesting, and Thomas-Symonds is clearly trying to set a high bar for success should his shadow cabinet colleagues get into power, recalling Attlee’s warning in 1945 that his team would be judged on what they succeed at, not what they attempted. Each was given almost free reign in their departments with little central control from No10. But they were expected to use that autonomy with urgency and ambition. The PM in such circumstances becomes in-effect a chairman of the board co-ordinating rather than leading the discussion, but at every stage pushing the pace. “Democracy means government by discussion”, said Attlee, “but it is only effective if you can stop people talking”.

Can Keir Starmer keep things that tight, and project a coherent sense of purpose to a team that has Angela Rayner and Lisa Nandy as well as Wes Streeting and Rachel Reeves? Attlee’s mission was was cut short in the end by squabbling among his over powerful ministers which he failed to reign in. That was — admittedly — after a highly productive five years.

What’s fascinating is Thomas-Symonds's view that Attlee would probably have never stood a chance of gaining office in today’s fast paced, polarised and intensely scrutinised political landscape. “Attlee was too reserved, too unemotional in public and too formal to have survived”.

It’s hard not to see this as a candid warning to Keir Starmer that he is yet to close the deal with the British electorate and unless he can raise his campaigning game he can only dream of replicating what Clement Attlee achieved in office.