What do Ramsay MacDonald, Harold Wilson, Tony Blair and Jeremy Corbyn have in common?
Surprisingly, quite a lot.
Let us assume it is May 2022 and Jeremy Corbyn has won a general election victory. He has beaten the odds, retained the youth vote, persuaded some swing voters in English marginal seats to back him, and has won back many Scottish National party-held seats in Scotland. He enters the door of No 10 in triumph and is greeted, as is traditional, by the cabinet secretary. What does he do?
The evidence from history is not reassuring. Ramsay MacDonald, Labour’s first prime minister in 1924, had no experience of ministerial office and only two years as leader of the opposition before entering Downing Street. Tony Blair, although much more experienced on the front bench, had no experience of being a minister and only three years as leader of the opposition. In many ways the commonalities with Corbyn are striking.
Corbyn has no experience of being a minister or being a departmental frontbencher in opposition. He has never run a complex organisation focused on delivery. MacDonald and Blair had in their time unclear objectives for government. MacDonald was notorious for wooliness and indecision and Maurice Hankey’s diaries, the then cabinet secretary, are littered with examples of him reclining to give instructions, dithering, and failure.
Blair prepared well for government in some areas and badly in others. On finance, there were clear plans to give independence to the Bank of England and follow restrictive spending plans for the first year. However, in some other areas there was little apart from the pledge card – and senior ministers who joined the government in 1997 agree with this assessment. This repeated the pattern of the government under Harold Wilson (who only served as leader of the opposition for 15 months but did serve in the Clement Attlee government) in 1964 when there were no clear plans on major issues like housing, and new ministers like Richard Crossman had to hunt down ancient Labour pamphlets to obtain guidance.
Blair himself has said that he wasted the first term of office, and Richard Wilson (Blair’s first cabinet secretary) quotes him, in Anthony Seldon’s book on the cabinet office, saying that he was ‘sitting in a Rolls Royce and couldn’t find the key’. Other Labour ministers felt underinformed and powerless too.
Labour’s most successful prime minister, Attlee, had the most prior experience of government, having been deputy prime minister in the war years. He knew how the cabinet worked, was well briefed on key issues, and was the beneficiary of the groundswell for change which had emerged after 1942.
In contrast, Corbyn has none of these advantages or experiences. He is not first and foremost a policy person, but a campaigner: yet the challenges are much the same as with MacDonald and Blair. This challenge is made deeper because he wants to do what no one has done before: run an anti-establishment financial policy, which will be anathema to many. He must therefore focus ruthlessly on how he is going to organise the cabinet, what instructions he will give to new ministers, what priorities will be front and centre, how cabinet committees will be used and to what extent other organising principles will be introduced. These are not new dilemmas and many were never resolved during Blair’s period of office.
So what could happen? We may get an unprepared government and ministers, relying on slogans, many with little governmental or delivery experience, with a controversial agenda, and where the figures of substance with experience of working at the centre, are from the opposite wing of the party – namely Charlie Falconer and Peter Mandelson.
If there is lack of clarity on objectives and priorities, on the model of decision-making and control, and a mood of paranoia, the most likely outcome is that the new prime minister will be overwhelmed. On this, he certainly will not be able to rely on Momentum to fix it.
The appointment of the former head of the civil service Bob Kerslake to advise on these issues is an important step forward. But there are serious dangers ahead – and warnings from history.
Reg Race was member of parliament for Wood Green from 1979 to 1983
Progressive centre-ground Labour politics does not come for free.
Our work depends on you.