Lessons from the Labour Party’s Past: An Interview with Lord Andrew Adonis

Alex Manzoor 3 July 2020

Lord Adonis is currently best well-known as the stalwart campaigner against Brexit and the Vice Chairman of the European Movement pressure group. In this capacity, along with his political efforts through the Labour Party and in the House of Lords, Adonis toured Leave voting areas to attempt to understand their grievances and convince them that Brexit was not the solution. Despite this recent prominence, pre-2016 Lord Adonis was one of the most acclaimed policy experts in frontline British politics. A former advisor to Tony Blair and Secretary of State for Transport, Adonis influenced the government’s thinking on education and infrastructure. Now he is author of a new biography of the trade unionist and Labour politician Ernest Bevin, who served as Minister of Labour during World War Two and Foreign Secretary under Prime Minister Clement Attlee.

Bevin is a largely forgotten character in British history in general and the history of the Labour Party specifically. Adonis is clear about why this is: ‘the trade unions ignored him’ and his legacy. Bevin was always concerned with bread and butter issues like pay and conditions, whereas the union leaders after his death were more left-wing, like the charismatic communist leader of the National Union of Miners Arthur Scargill. This problem of remembrance is something that Lord Adonis attributes to the Labour Party generally because the party is ‘very bad at cultivating the reputation of its moderate leaders’. It is instead always ‘the king over the water who is worshipped’. Tony Benn is probably the best example of such a phenomenon. It has even taken a long time for Attlee to become ‘the revered figure he is today’. Adonis connects this to present day Labour politics, pointing out that ‘it is very interesting that Kier Starmer suggests the leader he most admires is Harold Wilson’ because his reputation was trashed as someone who lacked serious principles. Bevin, like many moderate figures in the Party after him was not immortalised in the way his colleague Aneurin Bevan was as the founding father of the National Health Service. Lord Adonis’ Bevin biography combines an engaging narrative focus on Bevin’s life and times, along with interesting asides placing the trade unionist within the contested history of the Labour Party. He is clear throughout of the didactic purpose of this book: to have future leaders of the Party emulate Bevin, who he views as a successful example of a moderate politics that is “revolutionary about ends, democratic about means”.

Lord Adonis’ affinity with Bevin as a historical figure is understandable because they both share a similar political philosophy which blends progressive policies with a pragmatic view of politics. Another key similarity is the way in which they are both self-made men who used education to place them at the centre of the political debates of their time. Bevin was born into Victorian Britain and his formal schooling ended at the primary stage, though he was an incredible autodidact throughout his life and always sought self-improvement through adult education lectures. Lord Adonis was born to a Greek Cypriot father and partly raised in the care system. A more formal background of education through a scholarship to a boarding school in Oxford and then a doctorate and fellowship at Oxford University saw Lord Adonis become one of the most important insiders during the New Labour years. He is keen to point out that Bevin was very good at ‘spotting the intellectual trends that actually made a fundamental difference to the lives of working people, as a opposed to those which were’ more esoteric. His friendship with the famous liberal economist John Maynard Keynes is a prime example of this. This was because Bevin was attracted to so-called Keynesianism as it provided ‘an analysis of how to tackle mass unemployment and the importance of… investment to create jobs in slums, particularly focusing on the unemployed working class’. ‘Bevin completely grasped that the intellectual revolution that was needed, in terms of the role of the state and public spending’, in reaction to the economic crisis of the 1930s. At a time when unemployment looks likely to be the major economic crisis the government will face; it would behove them to adopt the insights of Bevin and Keynes.

Unlike many interested in left wing politics, during the first half of the twentieth century, Bevin never had ‘any love of communism or the Soviet Union’. He had direct experience with this ideology through his battles with British communists who attempted to take control of the trade union movement. He saw the threat of communism in largely practical terms due to their tendency to totalitarianism and he maintained his faith in the democratic tradition no matter how perilous the situation. He also never suffered from the ‘kind of knee jerk anti-Americanism’ which was common amongst left wing figures then, and even now. This was partly because he had extensive experience of the struggles of the American trade unions and saw their struggle as akin to his own. His extensive travels to liaise with other trade unions gave him the kind of ‘real practical experience’ that his more ideological and theoretically minded colleagues lacked.

Lord Adonis is clear about the failures of Bevin throughout his career. The book explores in detail the personal shortcomings and political mistakes of Bevin, especially once Foreign Secretary. His dogged imperialism, after World War Two had ended, is presented as a flaw in his worldview. Bevin’s reasoning was a desire to ensure ‘prosperity’ for the people of Britain and counter Stalin’s bellicosity. However, this justification was faulty because he had the alternative of the European Coal and Steel Community: a precursor to the modern EU. The pursual of a policy of aligning Britain with the Community, Adonis argues, would have been far more effective at preserving British prosperity and countering the Soviet Union. ‘Like all great political careers, he did not get everything right. The thing about Bevin that makes him a very great leader is that he got more right than he got wrong’. A staunch supporter of Tony Blair’s premiership, one could see this statement as an encapsulation of the views of many of Blair’s supporters, though such an opinion is now often degraded by both sides of the political aisle.

‘Like all great political careers, he did not get everything right. The thing about Bevin that makes him a very great leader is that he got more right than he got wrong’.

Bevin’s range of interests reflects those of his biographer, for instance they both share a belief in the importance of public works. As the former Chairman of the National Infrastructure Commission, Lord Adonis had staunchly advocated new infrastructure projects, like HS2 and a third runway for Heathrow Airport. He argues that a focus on infrastructure ‘needs to become much more a part of our narrative’ after the Coronavirus has abated. He points out that the reason for the greater willingness to conduct infrastructure projects in continental Europe comes from the legacy of the war and the necessity of doing so for many of these states as their pre-war infrastructure was unusable. By contrast, after the War had ended ‘our railway system just about worked, indeed it still just about works today’ and therefore politicians have been complacent about improving it. This attitude is one that Lord Adonis sees permeating throughout all areas of British politics.

‘We are a victim of our own success. The way people talk about Dunkirk and our survival in the war… you would think that it was still a template for how we should run Britain in 2020’.

Lord Adonis is, however, unwilling to throw out the positive legacies of the war. This is made clear by his biography’s subtitle: “Labour’s Churchill”. The importance of real leadership, whether in the form of Winston Churchill or Ernest Bevin, is something that Lord Adonis is always keen to demonstrate, and is a theme that is present throughout his biography. It is fair to say that he believes this quality is woefully lacking in the present administration.

Lord Adonis resigned from the National Infrastructure Commission partly due to the way in which senior Conservative ministers, like Chris Grayling, failed to handle the rail companies effectively and resorted to bailing out Virgin and Stagecoach. He argues that the underlying reason behind this failure was because ‘this generation of Conservatives are essentially Thatcherites’.

‘It is very important to understand the Brexit debate in a Thatcher perspective. Thatcher is always sceptical about the European Union and became deeply anti-European by the end of her premiership’.

Lord Adonis views the 1980s as vital to the Conservative Party as the 1940s was to the Labour Party. The main legacies, in his view, from Thatcher to the modern Conservatives is a preference for a ‘small state… and to never trust the Europeans or get close to them’. He emphasises that one should always avoid taking ‘doctrinaire views’ on these matters, a view that reflects the Blair government’s dynamic approach to state intervention. An example of his reluctance to be doctrinaire on this question is his views of education. He argues that ‘there is a tendency of the Labour Party to side with the producers and not the consumers and that has been a constant and long-running challenge’. Lord Adonis is much keener to see public services from the view of the people who rely on such services. In the case of education that is largely parents and students as opposed to teachers and particularly teachers’ unions. His support for Academies upset the teacher’s unions in the Blair years and he has faced similar criticism from them for his recent support for pupils to be able to return to schools as soon as possible. As a Trustee of the Teach First, Lord Adonis suggests that the starting point is that ‘everyone should return to school from September’. This would be done by ensuring health and safety is properly taken into account, followed by a kind of ‘military-style operation’ to build ‘a school system that brings education back for all pupils’, which he adds ‘Bevin would have been great at’.

‘I think there should be a director of educational facilities from September that actually gives advice and gets directly engaged in the business of seeing that the logistical issues… are actually sorted out.’ However, once again, he does not see that kind of leadership coming from this government.

His response to my suggestion that he would be perfectly suited for such a position is polite but firm, suggesting he had ‘no intention whatsoever’ of accepting any job the Prime Minister offered to him. To this rejection he adds an interesting coda, namely that the Prime Minister ‘is far too partisan’ to offer someone who did not agree with all of his programme a job like that. He adds that ‘the culture of the Cummings and Johnson government is very much like the worst of the culture of Thatcher… where the test of whether anyone can work for the government’ was based on ideology rather than merit. He points out by contrast that ‘Tony appointed a lot of Tories’, caring more about merit than whether they were ‘ideologically sound’.

‘The culture of the Cummings and Johnson government is very much like the worst of the culture of Thatcher… where the test of whether anyone can work for the government’ was based on ideology rather than merit.

His criticism of the Prime Minster contrasts sharply with his praise for Bevin. This is because whilst Bevin’s discipline and incorruptibility were famous, the government’s scandals around Dominic Cummings and Robert Jenrick show a lax approach to party management and personal discipline. Lord Adonis agrees that, as with the late Thatcher era, the government is ‘becoming extremely slapdash with the issues and there is a kind of sleaze taking hold’. He views the disgraced Tory MP Neil Hamilton, felled in the 1990s in a Cash for Questions scandal, and Robert Jenrick as ‘birds of a feather’. However, there is a ‘fundamental difference between what happened then and what happens now’, because John Major did discipline Neil Hamilton at the time and in general had a ‘high standard’ of propriety. Lord Adonis hopes that Keir Starmer as ‘prosecutor supreme’ uses this huge opportunity to attack the government. However, he argues that the ‘mistake he [Starmer] must not make is to think that you win elections by exposing the weaknesses and quasi-corruption of your opponents’. Lord Adonis’ experience extends to in frontline political strategy, having helped to lead the Labour Party’s negotiations to attempt to form a pact with the Lib Dems in the aftermath of the inconclusive 2010 Election.

Always the policy specialist, he notes that in the 1990s New Labour provided ‘a big policy offer’ of ‘a new Britain’ which provided a ‘very positive… vision’. Lord Adonis believes that Starmer must follow this tried and tested strategy and become the ‘face and voice of a fundamentally positive Britain’. He has often, utilising Blair’s adage about crime, suggested that the government should be “tough on Brexit and tough on the causes of Brexit”. To tackle the root causes of Brexit, Lord Adonis is clear on priorities. He argues there ‘has to be a systematic policy on education, jobs and civic renewal in the large parts of Britain that have been left behind since the economic crash’. ‘We need a leader who can lead in that direction… the reason why the Red Wall collapsed was because’ Brexit was, in his view wrongly, believed to be the policy that would achieve this renewal. The Labour Party need to show that they have ‘much better policy offers’ and ‘leaders who can fill’ the vacuum Johnson seems to have left.

He notes that Starmer is ‘at the very early stages of developing’ such an agenda. The way in which he describes this process implies that he has been involved in some of these preparations. Bevin rode into government as Foreign Secretary on the back off a Labour manifesto entitled “Let us Face the Future”. Given Lord Adonis’ consummate experience, Starmer would be mistaken not to pay attention to a figure in the Labour Party who, perhaps more than any other, is able to present an appealing vision for the future.