Tony Garnett • Blog Posts

Clement Attlee

Corbyn and Attlee

A man of quiet dignity, courteous to everyone, but a poor public speaker, whose voice does not carry. His intimates swear he has a warm sense of humour and his charm is sincere. If so, these qualities are like wine that doesn’t travel. He has no sales patter: he could not sell ice lollies in the Sahara. Even when making a case people ache to hear, he is boring and dull. As a leader he so lacks that overworked word “charisma” he is regarded as a disaster and suicidal for his party.
Jeremy Corbyn? No. Clement Attlee.

In the early Thirties, after the betrayals of MacDonald, the Labour Party split. The Party was swept aside by the electorate. Attlee was elected leader, but some of the Parliamentary Party’s big personalities, like Mandelson’s grandfather, Morrison, thought he was an inadequate lightweight. He would soon be replaced by a real leader, one who could truly present an electable face to the electorate.
But he didn’t resign. He wasn’t ousted. He quietly and modestly insinuated himself into the country’s trust. He ignored Churchill’s patronising jibes: “A modest man, but then he has so much to modest about”; “An empty taxi cab draws up to No 10 and Mr Attlee steps out”. In 1945 Labour was elected with a huge majority and carried out life changing reforms, including the creation of the NHS. He was a brilliant chairman and party manager, orchestrating many towering personalities into an effective government.

Of course, Corbyn and Attlee are different men, in different times. Corbyn has not yet shown Attlee’s management guile. His politics are to the Left of Attlee’s. He lives in a time when presentational skills are prized. The sound bite and the seductive charm of the sales person are thought necessary – and might well be necessary. The camera does not love him. A leader now must be willing to be moulded by the image consultants, must sell the sizzle not the steak. Must lie and lie to be a hero. Corbyn looks too honest for his own good, even though after years of MP’s sleaze, his honesty might be for the country’s good.

So maybe if image is more important than policy, and if the PLP despises the policy, then he will fail. Certainly his devotion to a modest version of some Socialist policies is enough to martial every element hostile to even the hint of democratic socialism. He’s not suggesting that the people might be in charge of Capital, rather than be exploited by it. But even so, he must be stopped. We don’t want the people getting infected with dangerous ideas, do we?
He is getting a much rougher ride than Attlee ever endured.

It’s revealing that the challenger put up by the PLP is Owen Smith, whose background is the BBC Today programme, where glib sound bites trump thoughtful honesty; and Public Relations for a pharmaceutical company. One notes that Cameron’s only job outside politics was Public Relations for Carlton, the shoddiest company ever to be given a TV franchise. Public Relations, even more than diplomacy, is the art of lying for ones client. A fine apprenticeship for a political career.

So maybe Corbyn isn’t Attlee Mark 2 and even if he is he might still fail. Even Attlee himself might be thought too dull for these celebrity times. The politics of this upper middle class devout Christian would now be thought incendiary.
Odd, because Attlee’s politics were cautiously reformist and he proved to be an effective Prime Minister, head and shoulders above the opportunism and arrogance we’ve suffered since.

Corbyn’s policies are cautiously reformist, too. But the PLP think they are red meat.
Shows how we’ve regressed.
Lenin famously said, “two steps forward, one step back”.
Two forward and only one back?
Bloody heck, those were the days.
But politics is a long game.



5 Responses so far.

  1. Nick Halpin says:
    Saw you on Hard Talk Tony. I’m looking forward to reading your book very much.

    Interesting thoughts on Corbyn & Atlee, who in many ways had much in common.. but Corbyn has almost an innocence in wanting to make UK a kinder, more humane & just place. It’s probably too much to ask in C21st UK… But I am willing to travel with him, because that is a dream I share, along with many others….

    And at the end of my life I want to be able to say to my children, and my Maker, if there is one(!).. that at least I fought to be true to what I believe in, to what I consider to the greatest values of Social Justice, Human Rights and Socialism. Liberté, Fraternité, Egalité…

    Let’s see what happens on this adventure.

    Best Regards, Nick

  2. Paul Ries says:
    thank you for the excellent comparison between corbyn and atlee, which i hope will persuade the great british public to see, cherish and support corbyn and his policies as the way forward. I would like to contribute to that outcome with another comparison, viz. with the scandinavian politicians who over time managed to build social democracies, in which today few have too much and even fewer too little, Their cause received further support following the introduction of universal suffrage, while the electorates secured continuity by re-electing each of the first three social democratic prime ministers several times: The Swedish aristocrat Hjalmar Branting (1860-1925, in 1920, 1921-23 and 1924-25); the Danish trades unionist Thorvald Stauning (1873-1942), in 1924-26 and 1929-42); and “the father of the Norwegian Nation”, former road worker Einar Gerhardsen (1897-1987) in 1945-51, 1955-63,1963-65). After nearly a century of corbyn-like policies, their work is clearly not finished, and one corbyn victory will also not do the trick for us. but it is high time that we at least got started ?
  3. Ellie Gatres says:
    I have enjoyed reading the article and the above two comments. It is very interesting to me how the advent of Corbyn to prominence has enlivened the whole political debate. Ordinary citizens are being inspired by hope for a new way of doing politics. I do not know much of Scandinavian politicians but I shall enjoy researching them. Many thanks for this information.
  4. Richard Lightbown says:
    An interesting comparison which has not aged well following the Labour Party’s gains in the 2017 election. Even so I think you tried to push a square peg into a round hole. It was unfair to suggest that Corbyn is a poor public speaker, and whether or not his voice carries is irrelevant if your sound engineer is up to the job. As for no “charisma”, that perception might depend on whether you are a member of Momentum or of Progress (or merely a reader of a Murdoch tabloid). But what is common to both is integrity, honesty and fundamental decency. Perhaps those are attributes whose time has come around again, at last.
  5. Paulames says:
    l would like Corbyn when he wins next election to announce that Labour party will introduce a new bank holiday it will be 5 July the day OUR NHS started whole nation can celebrate what wonderful work ALL NHS staff do 24/7 TV and radio shows, fetes, concerts, teach the young the truth how OUR NHS came into being. How tories voted 22 times against NHS from ever being. The bank holiday will keep OUR NHS properly in the public eye so no sneaky tory double dealing to sell wonderful services off to greedy shallow sneaky Capitalists.

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