In the past seventy years or so, there have been five really big changes in Government. Five mornings where everyone woke up to the election results and realised something genuinely significant had happened. It's often said that Governments lose elections, but there were five times where the Opposition unmistakeably and unequivocally won.

As an unswerving supporter of the Labour Party, and, in particular of Clause One, I believe that the best possible thing which could happen for this country is a Labour Government. For this to happen, we can't afford to wait around and hope that, somehow or another, the Tories will simply hand us the reins of power. We need to think about how to win. And, in doing that, we could do a great deal worse than seeing what the five great opposition wins can teach us about the essentials of gaining power.

The Really Big Opposition Wins

I think there are five opposition wins really worth concentrating on:

  • The Attlee 1945 win where "the man who won the war" was rejected in favour of a reforming Labour Party which had never before enjoyed a majority
  • The Churchill 1951 win where the party which brought us the NHS was beaten by a Tory Party which had been on its knees only 6 years earlier
  • The Wilson 1964 win where the party which had created "you've never had it so good" conditions was turned out by a Party which only a few years earlier was demonstrably at war with itself
  • The Thatcher 1979 win in which the "natural Party of government" which had led the polls only six months earlier was decisively beaten
  • The Blair 1997 win in which the instinctive conservatism of the electorate which had created the Major 1992 victory was overturned in a Labour landslide.

The Essentials

To understand how these wins happened, I think we need to look at what the British electorate wants from its government. It is worth noting that the electorate rarely concerns itself with high policy or dogma. Quite a big chunk of it votes "the way it has always voted" but, to the extent that the performance of the government and the promises of the opposition actually influence the way people vote, there seem to me to be a number of essential requirements which the government is expected to meet:

  • A decent life: one in which a gradual but steady improvement in their standard of living is delivered
  • A decent job: where there is a reasonable amount of security, reasonable pay and a reasonable chance that they can "get on"
  • Somewhere decent to live: where, if you don't do something stupid, you can reasonably expect to continue living for as long as you want
  • A decent chance of your kids having a better life than you
  • A reasonable level of security for you and yours: when you get old, get ill or when some unforeseen circumstance hits
  • A reasonable level of security for the Country: proper care and attention paid to crime and criminal behaviour and internal and external threats

Other factors no doubt impact some voters (for example: reduction in inequality, foreign policy, environmental protection, overbearing regulation) but, most of these voters (depending on which of the factors they give priority to) will probably have already decided which way they are intending to vote and are unlikely to influence election outcomes.

It seems to me that, in every case of a significant opposition win in the past 60 years, the opposition managed to achieve two things.

First, despite the inbuilt disadvantage of being out of power, the successful oppositions were able to convince those voters open to influence, that they would do at least as good a job as the incumbent at delivering against all of the six essentials listed above.

Second, a real sense of optimism about two or more of the essentials. Here it is not enough simply to demonstrate that you won't make things worse or that the incumbent has made a mess of things but that you have credible and coherent plans to improve individual prospects of having your requirement not just met but exceeded.

What Happened in the Big Wins

Having set out this hypothesis, I need now to look at the five big opposition wins and see how they stacked up against them.

First, the Attlee 1945 win. "Now let's win the peace" summed it up. Nationalisation offered the prospect of a secure and reasonably well paid job in contrast to the uncertainties of the 1930's. The NHS and the Beveridge social security plans meant that real hope was offered to those worried about sickness, poverty and old age. At the same time, there was no suggestion that life would get worse under Labour; that Labour would fail to implement the Butler education reforms; that Labour would be less active than the Tories in trying to rebuild the bombed housing infrastructure; or, thanks to the presence of Ernie Bevin, that Labour would be less effective than the Tories in promoting security at home and abroad. So, four areas in which there was little doubt that Labour would do at least as good a job as the Tories and two (nationalisation and social security/NHS) where there was an over-riding sense that Labour would deliver real, genuine, improvement for everyone.

So how was this turned this around only six years later, in the Tory 1951 win? First they covered the key bases. After thinking about it for a bit, the Tories made it clear that they had no intention of rolling back NHS, social security and education reforms. They would tinker with nationalisation a bit, but there would be no return to the thirties in terms of rapacious mine owners or job insecurity. With Churchill in charge they had no trouble matching even the Bevin/Attlee commitment to national defence and international alliances. All well and good but nowhere near enough. To make the breakthrough they concentrated on housing and standards of living. By combining a commitment to build new homes (which ultimately made Harold MacMillan a credible Prime Ministerial candidate) with a plan to dismantle rationing and controls (with the associated prospect of improved standards of living) the Tories offered optimism in two key desires, contrasting very effectively with the Cripps austerity of the previous six years, won the election and (despite Suez and the inadequacy of both Churchill and Eden as peacetime Prime Ministers) stayed in power for thirteen years.

From 1951 to 1964, Labour had gone through one of its periods of internal squabbling. Gaitskell and Bevan had had their "fight, fight and fight again" moment. At the same time we had, according to MacMillan, "never had it so good". So how on earth did Harold Wilson win in 1963? "The White Heat of Technology" that's how. No-one believed that Labour would do worse than the Tories on social security issues or that there would be any reduction in slum clearance and new house building. Wilson, by carefully praising Ernie Bevin and by committing himself to a nuclear armed NATO, cleverly committed Labour to global nuclear reductions without "putting the UK's defences at risk". He just about got away with it. With full employment in place, there was nowhere much to go on the job front but there was also no risk that anyone would think a Labour government would lead to increased job insecurity. So the big push came on standards of living and the prospects for the future of young people. The New Economic Plan was all about the future: how technology would transform lives, opportunities and British success in international markets. And it worked. Wilson was swept to power on a tide of optimism and the desire for an exciting new future for the country.

Thatcher won the 1979 general election in a landslide

No-one much liked Margaret Thatcher when she won in 1979. A lot of traditional Tories didn't much fancy a woman Prime Minister. In 1974 Ted Heath had "taken on the Unions" and lost. In the final years of the 74-79 Labour Government, the U.K. economy had been steadily recovering after the trauma of the 1976 IMF bale-out. And everyone was really quite fond of Jim Callaghan. But she won. The "winter of discontent" made matters easier for her of course but it was much more, and much cleverer, than that. Firstly, of course, she had no problem with all the national defence stuff and in two lines (I've just re-read the manifesto) she put the NHS to bed by simply saying that there were no plans to spend less than Labour. Social security is also a traditionally tricky one for the Tories so this was also negated by committing to simplification and a sideswipe at "the scroungers". All the high risk stuff for the Tories was covered in less than a paragraph in their manifesto. The big push came in two areas - the Unions (who were cleverly painted as not only a threat to internal security but also to the economy and most people's prospects for a decent life and a decent future) and Homes. The ideal of a decent and secure home was taken to a new level and millions of people who never thought they had a chance of owning their own homes, suddenly saw in the prospect of buying their Council house an optimistic future and voted Tory (sometimes for the first time in their lives). Enough people believed that internal security threats would be fixed, the economy would be transformed and they'd have the chance to buy their own home to deliver a Tory majority which lasted for eighteen years.

Having lost the 1992 election despite Tory meltdowns over Europe and the Poll Tax, it was hard to believe that Labour would ever win again (despite all the positive polling before the 1997 election, I doubt that many of us really believed that it would happen until Gisela Stewart won in Birmingham). But win they did and with a monumental landslide into the bargain. How did New Labour do it in 1997? As usual, they fixed the weaknesses first. Suggestions of weakness on the Unions, on crime and on national defence were eliminated. By adopting the Tory spending limits for the first two years, the threat of inflation was counteracted. They talked about addressing homelessness rather than homebuilding and left the "right to buy" in place. The big push came on young people and the prospects for a better life. Everything from the New Deal to "education, education, education" hammered the point that your kids would have a better life under labour. Everything about "work and family" said that, if you were prepared to put in the effort, you would have a better life too. I defy even the most die hard of Tory voters not to have felt the tide of optimism flowing through the country on the morning after the election. It was this tide of optimism which eventually delivered 13 years of a Labour government.

In all of the five major opposition wins since the war, the winners have made sure that no one really believes that they would be any worse than the incumbent on up to four of the essentials and have created a genuine sense of optimism about at least two of them.

How is the Opposition Doing Today?

If this hypothesis does hold water (and I believe that, to some extent at least, it does). We need to use it to measure where we stand as the current opposition and what is needed to create the environment in which a sixth great opposition victory becomes not just possible but likely.

Are there areas in which we are not currently regarded as at least the equal of the current incumbent?

Whether we like it or not, we have been given (and, regrettably, accepted) the blame for the 2008 financial crash and the fiscal problems it created. This has undermined a large number of people's hopes of a decent life. We are fortunate that the current government are not performing brilliantly on the economic front, but the Tories remain massively more trusted than Labour in this area. We absolutely have to address this. We have to have really credible fiscal and economic policies which at worst are regarded as comparable with those of the Tories and, hopefully, somewhat better. The new conditions created by Brexit may be an opportunity for us.

We are not currently regarded as "sound" on matters of internal and external security. Attlee had Ernie Bevin in the Foreign Office, Wilson had Denis Healey at the Ministry of Defence. We have to find our equivalent "safe pair of hands". This is not an area in which we should look to beat the Tories but it is essential that we give them no opportunity of beating us.

If we can fix these two issues (and it is of course a very big "if"), we need to pick two from the remaining four on which we will create the true sense of optimism which will lift us from plucky losers to real winners.

It would be tempting to regard the "security of you and yours" in times of difficulty as something of a given. But we need to be careful. First, the "essential" is for a reasonable amount of security not necessarily total security. We need to guard against our manifesto being branded a "scrounger's charter". Second, we've tried "saving the NHS" as our motto before and it hasn't worked; I'm not sure how much trouble the NHS has to be in before people really believe that the Tories are going to destroy it, but I do know (as do most voters) that, since the war, the Tories have had more than 40 years in office and the NHS remains resolutely undestroyed. Third, the really big issue of social care is so big, so difficult and so complex that I'm not sure that we could come up with a solution which would truly set us apart from the Tories. On balance, and whilst there is no risk of us losing to the Tories on this essential, I think we would be unwise to select it as one of our lead arguments.

My view is that the Tories will be pulling out the stops to deliver homes over the coming years. They are flexing the planning rules to allow development almost everywhere and construction companies have always been close to the Tory party and able to influence policies. It is unlikely that a sufficient number of affordable homes to buy or rent will be created but the overall number is likely to be pretty big I think. We should, I believe, hammer them on affordable homes and rent controls and insist that Local Authorities be given the right (and encouraged) to borrow, build and manage Council houses. But I do not think that this will create a big enough contrast with what the Tories will have "delivered" by 2020 and their continuing "right to buy" reputation for the subject to really work for us.

The two remaining "essentials" - jobs and young people's future - are I think where we need to place our big bets.


We need to build a compelling narrative around decent jobs. There is no reason why we should not adopt something similar to the New Zealand approach to zero hours contracts (the New Zealanders have not entirely abolished zero hours jobs but they have made them much more equitable); we did after all implement the minimum wage without creating job losses. But this is nowhere near enough. I believe that there is an embryonic industrial strategy emerging which focuses on significant government infrastructure investment and regional investment banks. We need this to be developed and focused on the creation of productive jobs (the service sector will I think look after itself). We will need to engage with big business in the U.K. and abroad (and stop demonising the private sector) and provide grants and tax breaks for companies which create the jobs we want in the places we want them. We will have to develop the plans we have to invest heavily in the infrastructure needed to make those parts of our country not in the South East attractive to investors. We will need to reform monopolies and mergers legislation to make it possible for us to prevent ownership of businesses changing when it is not in the national interest for it to do so. We need to work with all of the regional mayors to secure their active endorsement of our plans. Overall, we need to have the confidence to make solid assurances about how many new, productive, jobs our policies will create in the lifetime of the 2020-25 government. With a credible policy along these lines, delivered consistently and persuasively, we could start to create a real sense of optimism throughout the Labour heartlands of England and Wales (and maybe even Scotland).

We need to focus on allowing young people the chance of a better life. Apparently, our young people are feeling worse about their prospects today than any equivalent generation since the war. Whether or not they are right to do so (and as someone who left school immediately after the Three Day Week and spent my twenties during Mrs Thatcher's period of 3 million unemployed, I'm not sure they do!) is neither here nor there. The massively increased number of graduates whose expectations are not being met, those facing the despair about joblessness, and those in jobs with few prospects should become our key targets. Not only might we get their votes but, even more importantly, we might get the votes of their mums, dads and grandparents who are more likely to vote and who want their kids and grandchildren to have the prospect of a much better life. We absolutely have to focus on new technologies (information, biological, environmental, material-based), start-ups (perhaps a version of SureStart for very young businesses), and apprenticeships. We need to create hubs in which businesses can start and be nurtured. We need to swallow our pride and talk to banks, landlords, communications companies and local authorities and ask them to come together with a revitalised Business Department to help provide the best possible environment for young people in young businesses. There is a huge opportunity for us to transform despair into hope and one which plays well to our natural constituency (the Tories have focused on pensioners, let Labour focus on the people who will be paying for those pensions!). Finally, it would not hurt (and it really wouldn't cost too much) to simply abolish tuition fees for people up to, say, 21 years old, whilst, at the same time, making available a similar amount of money for non-students under 21 to invest in training or equipment they might require to improve their skills or their prospects of work.

If Labour could recover its reputation for economic and fiscal competence at least equal to that of the Tories (I'd give us about 3 out of 10 on this at present - much of it self-inflicted) and security against internal and external threats (the Tories will really bash us on this one - fairly or unfairly, I doubt we're doing better than 2 out of 10); if we can keep the Tories on the back foot on social security issues (8 out of 10 at present) and housing (6 out of 10); if we can convert our industrial thinking into a strong coherent industrial strategy for productive jobs (5 out of 10); and if we can create real hope for the future amongst our young people (4 out of 10) then we could be the next big winners.

I've tried to be fair about the marks out of ten. We have a very long way to go to be competitive (as indicated by the polls) and we certainly do not have all the right people in place pointing in the right direction. But, if nothing else, this analysis does demonstrate that no matter how bad it may seem there has, over the past 70 years, always been a way back for a party prepared to understand what voters really expect of governments, use its time in opposition to work out ways in which its political philosophy can be applied to deliver those things which are truly essential, and create real optimism that they will make one or two of those essentials get a great deal better.

It is not a question of whether Labour will rise to this challenge - of course it will - but how long it will take us to do so.