I am old enough to remember listening to the results of the general election of 1945 and sensing the surprise at the size of Attlee’s majority shared by Conservative and Labour supporters alike. And I remember the comment then made by one of my relations to the effect that the problems facing the country in the aftermath of the Second World War were such that no government would be able to address them without losing popularity, so that the Conservatives could plausibly look forward to being returned as the unintended beneficiaries next time round. It was, in its way, a prophetic remark. But the Attlee government was, nevertheless, an authentically reforming one inspired by an explicit set of principles and committed to a legislative programme which was duly put into effect in accordance with pledges the electorate had been given.

It was not a revolutionary government, in the sense that some members of the Labour Party would have liked it to be. But nor was it a consensual one. However little the Conservatives were to do, once in power again after 1951, to put the clock back to 1935, the 1945 election was fiercely contested across a clear ideological divide. There is something of a paradox here, since it suited both sides to pretend that 1945 was more of a watershed than it subsequently turned out to be: the left, because they wanted to show that the Labour Party was at last in a position to carry the country towards the long-awaited socialist millennium, and the right because they wanted to show that the Labour Party was at last revealed in its true crypto-Communist colours. But more far-reaching and long-lasting institutional changes in British society, and in the functions and powers of the British state, had in fact taken place under Lloyd George between 1915 and 1922. The difference was that in the immediate aftermath of the First World War, it suited the left to pretend that nothing had changed because socialism had not yet overthrown capitalism, while it suited the right to pretend that pre-1914 ‘normalcy’, as it came to be called, had (thank goodness) been restored. In the 1950s, a myth of consensus could be constructed because by then it suited the Conservative Party to present itself as modern and unconfrontational, while it suited the Labour Party to present itself as moderate and pragmatic.

In 1945, however, Labour stood for four distinctive principles on which its priorities in domestic policy rested and with which the Conservative Party overtly disagreed. The first principle was the universal provision of welfare services on the basis of need. It is true that Churchill in a broadcast to the nation following the publication of the Beveridge Report in 1943 had talked about establishing a National Health Service on ‘broad and solid foundations’. But the Conservative Party’s idea of universal provision on the insurance principle of contributions made to provide against risk was a long way away from Labour’s vision of across-the-board provision financed out of the resources of central government.

The second principle was progressive taxation. There was no question of outright confiscation of private property – Dalton’s flirtation with the idea of a ‘capital levy’ caused a flutter of indignation among the rich, but had no serious repercussions – and capital gains were not yet taxed at all. But inheritances were taxed at near punitive levels (although frequently circumvented through the device of discretionary trusts) and a marginal income tax rate as low as 40 per cent at the top end would have been unthinkable. Tawney had argued in the 1920s that ‘by taking money where it can most easily be spared, and spending it where it is most urgently needed, it produces the maximum of social benefit with the minimum of economic disturbance.’ The carefully balanced antitheses may come over a little too rhetorically now, but they encapsulate exactly what many in the Labour Party would have agreed that they had in mind.

The third principle was the protection of the legitimate interests of organised labour in the face of the traditional domination of capital. Tensions between the trade-union and Parliamentary wings of the labour movement had a history which went back to the Labour Party’s formation and has continued to the present day. But in 1945, with the formidable Ernest Bevin imperturbably loyal to Attlee as prime minister, unemployment low, free collective bargaining unchallenged, pay differentials after tax relatively narrow, and union leaders determined to resist the incursions of the Communist left, there was the appearance, at least, not only of identity of purpose but of a long-awaited recognition that, to quote Tawney again, ‘the traditional division of functions between “labour” and “management” no longer corresponds to economic realities, and that the debatable land between them, which has hitherto been claimed as the province of one party, must in future be recognised as the concern of both.’

The fourth principle was that of a strong civil service charged with the implementation of central planning in the interests of the nation as a whole. It was not that Attlee ever envisaged a command economy and the compulsory direction of labour. But the experience of the war had helped to encourage a belief among the moderate as well as the radical left that some degree of direct governmental control was the necessary safeguard against a return to what were held to be the unpalatable but otherwise inescapable consequences of unfettered market capitalism. What mattered was that authority should be entrusted to an effective non-partisan bureaucracy on which Labour ministers could rely.

In all this I have said nothing about nationalisation. The famous Clause IV had been in the Labour Party’s constitution since 1918, and in 1945 the party’s intention to take coal, gas, electricity, the railways, and iron and steel into public ownership was explicitly declared. Nationalisation continued to be a contentious issue throughout most of the period of the Attlee government. But its importance was rhetorically magnified by left and right alike. On the left, the illusion that working conditions, including worker-employer relations, would be transformed for the better by nationalisation was soon dispelled by the experience of the coal mines. On the right, the exaggerated fear of large-scale takeovers of efficient and profitable businesses concealed the Conservative Party’s earlier and unquestioning acceptance of public ownership of the Post Office, broadcasting and the airways. From the unions’ point of view, a nationalised industry could, on the one hand, pay high wages thanks to its access to virtually unlimited reserves of taxpayers’ money, but, on the other, could, if the government of the day was sufficiently determined, stand up to wage demands which other employers might be forced to concede because they could not afford the costs of a protracted strike in the way that a nationalised industry could. In practice, the nationalised industries were run in much the same way by much the same kind of people as before. Hopes that workers recruited onto boards of directors could do much if anything more than compromise themselves in the eyes of those whom they purported to represent were predictably dashed. Clause IV preserved a life of its own as a totem round which internecine warfare was waged between rival factions within the Labour Party, but it had by then ceased to have a corresponding resonance among the electorate.

The social services in general and the NHS in particular soon came up against the dilemma of limited resources facing relentlessly expanding demand. More and more money was spent on health, as it was on education. But the scale of expenditure, and the size of the bureaucracy needed to administer it, were such that they couldn’t fail to generate both perceived and imagined inefficiencies and anomalies. As different governments succeeded one another, changing priorities and administrative reorganisations followed hard on each other’s heels without persuading either the public or the professions serving them that they had succeeded in achieving their proclaimed objectives. Neither schools nor hospitals, housing departments nor benefit offices seemed able to meet the public’s rising expectations.

Taxation of incomes, unsurprisingly, began to lose its electoral appeal as soon as more and more voters, manual workers included, started having to pay more of it. Increasing National Insurance contributions might be less unpalatable than increases in income tax, and means testing might mollify resentment of benefits now seen as universal to a fault. But whereas, under Attlee’s government, the average manual-working wage-earner had paid no tax at all, by the 1970s a fifth of the gross average wage was being taken by income tax and National Insurance contributions. As both the expectations which voters now had of the Welfare State and the costs of meeting them rose in parallel, so did their unwillingness to have it funded out of their own pockets. Soaking the rich was not a sufficient answer; punitive levels of tax at the upper end of the distribution of incomes, even if they could be effectively applied, were not going to yield the revenue which would enable the Treasury to escape from the dilemma that taxation was now falling on workers whose demands for increases in pay were becoming more insistent in consequence. Growth in productivity per head was not enough to make up for it. And if the electorate’s expectations had therefore to be met by borrowing, how was the borrowing to be repaid?

The trade unions steadily lost the image they had once had, or sought to promote, as the champions of the downtrodden. Their legal privileges and immunities became increasingly questioned as the sectional claims of those engaged in what they called the ‘wages struggle’ escalated in the absence of centralised negotiation. The effects of strike action were increasingly felt by the public as much as or more than by the employers. By the time Wilson’s failed attempt to legislate in 1969, and then Heath’s U-turn of 1972 and capitulation in 1974, were followed by the collapse of Labour’s ‘Social Contract’ and the 1979 ‘Winter of Discontent’, the unions had forfeited the erstwhile belief in the legitimacy of their actions among all but the left of the left. The labour movement as it had been in the days of Attlee and Bevin had broken apart.

Meanwhile, the civil service was being ground between the upper millstone of politicians’ increasing desire to bend it to their own priorities and the nether millstone of the public’s increasing resentment of bureaucratic direction. Incoming ministers who suspected that their departments were staffed by people tainted by their acquiescence in the policies of the outgoing government were succeeded a few years later by rivals who in their turn suspected the same. The Webbs’ ideal of a professional service delivering politically neutral advice which would be the same to either party was increasingly seen as unrealistic to the point of naivety.

So far, so familiar and – depending as always on your point of view – so disappointing. But why should these disappointments cause people like those who shared the ideals of the Labour Party in 1945 to abandon them? Whatever the obstacles in the way of their realisation, is there no case left to be made for welfare provision on the basis of need irrespective of ability to pay, for a redistribution of wealth from those who have much more than they either need or deserve to those who have much less, for protecting the least well-paid and least well-organised workers from exploitation by their employers, and for strengthening rather than weakening the Fabian reliance on central direction by a professionally qualified civil service? I am not offering any opinion of my own as to whether those of the present-day electorate for whom the answer to these questions is ‘no’ are either right or wrong. I simply ask why there are, or at any rate appear to be, so many more of them than there were.

Some may attribute the change to Margaret Thatcher, with her outspoken determination to roll back the encroaching state, her vehement belief in free, competitive markets, her implacable hostility to the trade unions, and her famous remark that ‘there is no such thing as society.’ But as Nicholas Timmins has pointed out in The Five Giants: A Biography of the Welfare State (1995), by the end of her period of office a prime minister whose instincts were ‘to unscramble the NHS and to increase charges, to roll back social security and social services, and to return schools to selection and fee-paying, had instead headed a government which found itself promoting reforms that, however controversial, were plainly intended to improve existing health, education and social services’. However much she may have wanted to turn Britain back from what she called a ‘give-it-to-me’ to a ‘do-it-yourself’ society, the number of people on national assistance had more than quintupled between Attlee’s prime ministership and the end of hers, a million of the three million unemployed over whom she presided had been out of work for more than a year, and one out of five families with children was headed by a single parent. Whatever metaphor you choose – Topsy, the Juggernaut or the Rising Tide – the Welfare State had shown itself difficult to restrain and impossible to demolish. When it comes to undercutting the power of the trade unions, there is perhaps a stronger case to be made for Thatcher’s personal role. But any government would in the end have had to stand up to the mineworkers once they posed a serious threat to the authority of the state. Union density declined in all the major industrial countries at the same time as it did in Britain. The successes Thatcher was able to achieve, in her own terms, in domestic policy were as much a symptom of how the country had changed as a consequence of her desire to change it.

After Thatcher, what about Blair? It may be as true of him as of her that political careers all end in failure, and that only at exceptional moments and to a limited degree do politicians determine the nature and extent of the social changes which are taking place, so to speak, under their feet. But it is hard not to speculate about what might have been different had John Smith lived to become prime minister in Blair’s stead. Whether you approve of it or not, Blair’s success in outflanking the traditional party of the right from within the traditional party of the left was achieved with remarkable rhetorical and political skill: so much so, indeed, as to make it worth asking whether his electoral strategy has been different in any significant way from what would have been the strategy of a wholly unscrupulous political operator concerned with nothing other than gaining and holding power by whatever means it might require. I do not believe that Blair is in fact an unprincipled cynic. Future historians are, I suspect, more likely to depict him as sanctimonious and self-deceiving than as self-consciously amoral and ruthlessly cunning. But just suppose that a latter-day Machiavelli had been asked to devise a ten-point programme for a leader of the British Labour Party at the end of the 20th century who was prepared to do whatever was necessary to become and remain prime minister. Might it not have looked something like this?

1. Repudiate Labour’s traditional commitment to civil liberties.

2. Ingratiate yourself with business and finance.

3. Engage British troops in one or more foreign wars.

4. Tax by stealth, rather than directly, and where directly only at an acceptably non-progressive marginal rate.

5. Present right-wing policies to the electorate in the ostensibly left-wing language of ‘progress’, ‘modernisation’, ‘radicalism’ and ‘reform’.

6. Disarm by enlisting as advisers and subordinates ambitious second-ranking academics and politicians of proclaimed left-wing opinions who can be discarded at will.

7. Introduce the doctrines and methods of the private sector into the public services and then blame the managers for failure to meet the unrealistic targets which you set them.

8. Ignore the opinions of the middle-class professionals and intellectuals who have traditionally supported the Labour Party in favour of popular opinion as purveyed by the tabloid press.

9. Reiterate the ever present danger to the security of the nation posed by enemies without and within.

10. Align your government as closely with that of the United States under a Republican president, however right-wing, as under a Democratic one.

The point of this list is not seriously to suggest that it exists in a locked drawer at 10 Downing Street on a side of A4 over Alastair Campbell’s initials. On the other hand, I am not being merely facetious. The serious conclusion which it implies is that, by the time Blair was returned for a third term against an inept opposition, on a low turnout, and with a reduced majority, it no longer made much difference to the majority of the electorate whether the Labour Party or the Conservative Party was in power. That, some may say, is no bad thing: happy the country where political passions run lukewarm, and the differences between the major contenders for office are marginal. But did the Labour Party have to move as far to the right as it did? It must have been possible for a Labour Party that had faced down trade-union extremism and then gone to the country on an anti-big-business, moderately redistributive, civil-libertarian, pro-Welfare-State programme to have won enough support to retain a Parliamentary majority through what we now think of as the Thatcher years. Yet a Labour Party that tried to move a significant distance to the left as the 20th century drew to a close risked losing more votes than it could hope to gain. There is no way of measuring that risk. But was there something in the underlying changes which took place in British society in the half-century after Attlee’s prime ministership that irreversibly deprived of their electoral appeal the ideals of the Labour Party of 1945?

It must be irresistibly tempting to Blair’s left-wing enemies to ask what Attlee would have found most distasteful about Blair’s prime ministership: the indulgent attitude to gambling and drinking, or the indifference to inequality of wealth? The faith in market forces, or the contempt for Parliament? The holidaying with Silvio Berlusconi, or the bestowal of peerages on businessmen distinguished only for their donations and loans to the Labour Party? The spin, or the sleaze? But such questions contribute nothing to the explanation of what needs to be explained, whether you agree with Blair’s left-wing enemies or, on the contrary, admire him for facing them down. Attlee’s political creed had, after all, been formed in the first half of the 20th century by his direct observation of the conditions and experiences of underprivileged British men and women denied the opportunities and resources which he believed that a left-wing government should be able to provide. Socialism, for him, was about the obligation on the state to deliver ‘fair shares’, a ‘national minimum’, ‘decent’ houses, ‘decent’ schools, and a ‘decent’ pension for those past working age. He would, I conjecture, have been as astonished by the salaries paid to professional footballers in 2006 as he would have been unsurprised by the continued popularity of the queen, and as horrified by inner-city drug-dealing and associated violence as he would have been gratified by the rise in average life-expectancy brought about by advances in medicine and healthier lifestyles.

The difference between then and now can be summed up in a single well-worn and perhaps dismayingly obvious word: affluence. I do not mean by it either that voters in liberal democracies are bound to become more and more conservative in their attitudes as they have more and more cash in their pockets, or that as countries as a whole get richer their governments move proportionately further to the right. They may, or they may not. I mean two other things: first, the difference between then and now in what money can actually buy; and second, the difference in the shape of the distribution across the British population of the capacity to buy it.

For a very long time, British people have spent their money on accessories that moralising commentators regard as unnecessary and activities that those same commentators regard as harmful if not downright wicked; and not only providers but advertisers have been there to encourage them to do so. But the combination of steadily rising wage and salary levels and opportunities for self-employment, together with an exponential reduction in the prices of goods which in 1945 were – or if known of, would have been assumed to be – available only to the rich, transformed what would once have been luxuries into staples; and the resulting increase in the volume of sales drove their prices down still further. Working-class families began to be able not merely to take foreign holidays but to go on low-cost airlines; not merely to refrigerate their food but to deep-freeze it; not merely to have telephones in their houses, but carry mobiles in their pockets; not merely BBC radio, but a multitude of television channels to choose from; not merely weekly visits to the cinema, but videos watched nightly at home; and not merely cars, but cars of a style, reliability and comfort previously restricted to those of the seriously well-off.

This was not, to be sure, true of every household in the land. The sociologists who rediscovered poverty in the 1960s and 1970s pointed to groups within the population whose incomes and living conditions were such as to dispel any complacent assumption that the Welfare State had realised Tawney’s vision of transferring money from where it could most obviously be spared to where it was most obviously needed. It continued to be true that the distribution of wealth, even more than that of income, fitted the Pareto distribution, with its long upper tail, where the very rich are much, much richer than the ordinary rich. But the profile of the distribution was no longer a triangle but a diamond – the large middle class between a small upper class and a small lower class, which Aristotle thought was the best guarantee of political stability.

Taken together, these two concomitant trends go a long way to explain the difference which is neatly captured in two remarks by two different observers. The first is Kenneth Galbraith, in The Affluent Society published in the late 1950s, where he remarked that ‘few things are more evident in modern social history than the decline of interest in inequality as an economic issue. This has been particularly true in the United States. And it would appear, among Western countries, to be least true of the United Kingdom.’ The second is David Donnison, in his The Politics of Poverty. It was published in 1982, but the remark I wish to quote is about the year 1978: ‘Labour had lost its convictions about poverty and the redistribution of incomes. Or perhaps the voters at large had lost those convictions, and the Labour Party was afraid to remind them.’ Galbraith’s book appeared in 1958, the year before the Labour Party under Gaitskill lost a general election to the Conservative Party under Macmillan, just as 1978 was the year before the Labour Party under Callaghan lost a general election to the Conservative Party under Thatcher. And it was in those twenty years, as I see it (and, indeed, remember it), that the four changes and two trends which I have summarised undermined the ideals of the Labour Party of 1945.

And yet: even if that is more or less what happened, was it bound to? Shifts of attitude across a large and diverse population are complex, open-ended and reversible, and as I have suggested already there are might-have-beens which, without undoing any of the four changes or reversing either of the two trends, might have preserved a larger measure of support for the principles and priorities of 1945 among a wider swathe of the electorate than the veterans of the so-called old left and the stage army of the bien pensant middle class. Affluence didn’t, after all, overwhelm the social-democratic ethos of egalitarian and bureaucratic but also prosperous Sweden, with its high levels of both welfare spending and union density, its large proportion of women in employment, its public pension system designed to incentivise workers not to retire before 65, its narrow earnings differentials, its generous public day care for children, and its relatively high rate of income mobility even for those starting out with very low incomes.

I had some direct experience of the Swedish system some years ago, when I was the non-executive chairman of a British plc one of whose subsidiaries acquired an engineering company located in the town of Gävle. I knew that Swedish worker-directors went on courses paid for by their employers and run by the white-collar section of the trade-union federation. But I was unprepared for the first question put to me by the worker-director placed next to me on my introductory visit: ‘Is it true that the takeover of our company by your company will give us access to export markets which we would not otherwise have been able to enter?’ The idea of a counterpart at the sister plant in Billericay asking that question of a new Swedish owner was inconceivable; and perhaps the moral of the anecdote is that the demography, the political and economic history, the social structure, and the system of secondary education and occupational training in Sweden are different in so many ways from Britain that comparison is irrelevant. But the ideals – or, if it should be less sententiously phrased, the attitudes – of the British electors of 1945 who were seriously committed to what they believed the Labour Party stood for were much more like those of the Swedish social democrats of both then and now than what Blair and his ministers stand for (whatever exactly you think that is).

I therefore come back not so much to affluence as to attitudes to affluence, because it is here, I think, that the answer to my question lies. In Attlee’s Labour Party, there was quite a lot of – for want of a better word – puritanism. It was not that the party had ever been wholly dominated by its plain-living, chapel-going, good-doing, high-thinking wing. Tawney may have recognised, as both left-wing and right-wing commentators had done from before the earliest days of the Labour Party, that many working-class electors had more in common in their attitudes with the big-spending, hard-drinking, horse-racing, fornicating, gambling, foreigner-despising members of the traditional upper class than with the middle-class moralists who disapproved of them. But how many Labour intellectuals were prepared to acknowledge the implications of the prospect that what the underprivileged in whose name they spoke would want to do with money in their pockets once they had it was the same as the acquisitive capitalists did – spend it on large houses, fast cars, lavish holidays, expensive clothes, and in general the uninhibited pursuit of private pleasure?

In the 1950s and 1960s, there was still agreement on both the right and the left of the Labour Party that it stood in some sense for socialism and that socialism was in some sense about equality. But what sense? There was nothing very contentious about ‘levelling up’, as it was sometimes called, if that meant that the standard of living of the least well-off was no longer as far below the average as it had been, women no longer as disadvantaged in opportunities and rewards relative to men, and standards of education and healthcare so raised as to narrow the gap between public and private provision. But it was another matter if it meant erosion of differentials between the skilled and unskilled, or subsidy by those in work of those unwilling to work at all, or discrimination against self-denying savers who have accumulated personal capital in favour of spendthrifts who have chosen to make no provision for more than the state will in due course provide. To Peter Townsend, the best-known of the researchers who rediscovered poverty in the 1960s, it was axiomatic that poverty should be defined in relative terms: to be poor is to be significantly less well-off than the average, and as Adam Smith himself had maintained, the criterion of need ought to rise in some at least approximate ratio to the general level of well-being. But does this mean that we have to regard as ‘poor’ people whose standard of living is in many ways immeasurably higher than that of the poor as Charles Booth and Seebohm Rowntree observed them in the period when the Labour Party was emerging in the form which was to displace the Liberal Party as the national party of the left?

I pose that question because I think it was between the 1950s (and my quotation from Kenneth Galbraith) and the 1980s (and my quotation from David Donnison) that it raised its head above the parapet, so to speak, in public opinion and debate. The definition of ‘absolute’ poverty is as elusive today as it was in the days of Booth and Rowntree. But from any political perspective, arguments for the redress of inequality are bound to be stronger when the inequality is between those who are wallowing in luxury and those who are struggling to make ends meet at subsistence level than when it is between those who are wallowing in luxury and those who, although they would like to be wallowing too, are at least tolerably well-housed, well-shod and well-fed. Voters aged 50 in 1945 had seen for themselves the glaring differences between the lifestyles of the Edwardian rich and the Edwardian poor, the hardship suffered by the unemployed and their families during the interwar Depression, and the continuing underprovision of housing and healthcare which was made not only more serious but more visible by the Second World War. But to voters aged 50 in 2006, all that is as remote as were the conditions of Dickensian Britain to the 50-year-olds of 1945.

There are some long-standing questions of political philosophy at issue here, and there will always be some people for whom marked inequalities of resources and well-being between their fellow-citizens are more disturbing than they are for others. To the committed egalitarian, a society in which differentials are narrower is to be preferred as a matter of principle over one where they are wider, even if the least well off are, once what Adam Smith called the ‘established rules of decency’ have been satisfied, less well-off than they would be in a more unequal one. But no political party with serious aspirations to hold power is going to go to the electorate on a programme of deliberately making the better-off worse off without compensating gains for anybody else. To campaign under the slogan of equality in a prosperous liberal democracy is not to advocate taking money from the rich simply in order to make them less rich but in order to meet the needs and deserts of people less rich than they. But has any such aspiration lost the appeal to the British electorate which it had sixty years ago?

If the answer is ‘yes’ – and I think that for the moment, at least, it is – it could be so for several different reasons. One possibility is that there has been a change in attitudes to social mobility. Although the chances of a child born into a working-class family having a middle-class career are, as they were in Attlee’s day, much less than those of a child born into a middle-class family, many more middle-class positions are now filled by children from working-class families than were then. Perhaps, therefore, people who two generations ago would have identified with the prospectively immobile are now more likely to identify with the prospectively mobile, whose careers, life-styles and interests will be those of the traditional middle class. Perhaps, on the other hand, it is enough for people to believe that they and their families are becoming on average better-off, year on year, and therefore no longer excluded from the access to goods and services which their parents and grandparents were. Or perhaps the difference is that the ownership of at least some property, of whatever kind, is now far more widespread than in Attlee’s day among those who traditionally had nothing but their labour to sell. Or perhaps the change of attitude is a symptom of a wider change in what used to be called, in a phrase now more rarely heard, ‘class consciousness’, and the old sense of collective identity of ‘us’ against ‘them’ is cross-cut by differences and conflicts of lifestyle, ethnicity, gender and party allegiance. It may be also that the attitudes of the left-leaning portion of the electorate have been modified by the manifest failures of the command economies of the state-socialist countries and the spread of capitalist ideas and practices into parts of the world which half a century ago seemed both firmly and durably closed to them. Marxism never penetrated either the Parliamentary or the trade-union wing of the Labour Party to the extent that some Marxist intellectuals continued to predict, or at least to hope, through the 1960s and 1970s. But by the turn of the century, the prospect of the immiseration of the proletariat leading to a social revolution was being taken seriously only among a small minority of a small minority on the left.

In political and social history, the past, however well understood, is never a trustworthy guide to the future. But it is difficult, after half a century, to see the Labour Party re-creating the sense it then had of being the authentic repository of the hopes and ambitions of the underprivileged for a fairer and more equal society than the Conservative Party would, could or would ever wish to create. However surprising the thought would have seemed in 1945, the second great reforming administration of the 20th century looks to have been less the opening episode of a new political era than the concluding episode of an old one.

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Vol. 28 No. 15 · 3 August 2006

I was appalled to read W.G. Runciman’s analysis of what has happened to the Labour Party since 1945 – not because of his interesting historical assessment but because of the conclusion he draws from it (LRB, 22 June). He is correct that the Labour Party was never a socialist or Marxist party, but his argument that a fundamental change of attitude in the British electorate brought about by growing affluence during the second half of the 20th century has shunted a commitment to fairness and greater equality off the political agenda is a flawed apologia for New Labour. New Labour’s meek submission to the selfish attitudes so encouraged by Thatcherism make an alternative political programme harder to promote now, but the collapse of democratic-socialist aspirations was not inevitable. As Runciman himself says, ‘affluence didn’t, after all, overwhelm the social-democratic ethos of egalitarian and bureaucratic but also prosperous Sweden.’ Even within its social-democratic traditions there are many ways the Labour Party could still free itself from the shackles of New Labourism, distinguish itself from the Conservative Party and win a general election. Of course it would have to protect the affluence to which British society has become accustomed, but ‘fairness’ rather than the divisive and fallacious notion of ‘choice’ should be the basis of its political philosophy and policies.

Roger Fieldhouse
Exeter, Devon

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