One day this summer, 6 July, marks sixty-one years since the death of Nye Bevan, and his legacy remains as important as ever. Our magnificent NHS is Labour’s greatest achievement, Bevan’s vision of a fair society made reality, and its value has been shown once again through this pandemic. Our thanks must go to its magnificent staff who give so much, every working day, to help others.
The NHS is also a powerful reminder of how progressive reforms can be achieved after a period of great collective sacrifice. Universal healthcare based on need, not ability to pay, became a reality in July 1948, after the Second World War. Today, the Labour Party can take inspiration from this, and argue that things cannot be the same as they were before the coronavirus crisis. If this period has shown us anything, it has proved that those workers we needed most at a time of peril were not being paid on the basis of the value of what they contribute to our society. That must change.
Bevan’s conviction that a radical Labour Government could build a better world at the end of the war found expression in the magazine Tribune, which he had founded with Stafford Cripps and George Strauss in 1937. In early 1942, Bevan took over as editor for three years, working alongside Jon Kimche. The Tribune tradition was also important in the 1960s, with the Tribune group of MPs founded in 1964. Under Harold Wilson’s leadership, Labour had won a majority at the General Election held on 15 October, ending thirteen years of Tory rule.
At his party conference speech in Scarborough in 1963, Wilson had spoken of an age of scientific and technological change, and a Britain “forged in the white heat of this revolution”. His Governments produced great reforms, not least in the creation of the Open University, and widescale, liberalising social change that made Britain a better, more equal place: the very first legislation to address discrimination on grounds of race; homosexuality was no longer a crime; corporal and capital punishment were abolished; divorce law reform meant people were no longer trapped in loveless marriages.
Numbering around 40, the Tribune Group linked the past and the future: Jo Richardson was its secretary, having carried out the same function for Keep Left in the later 1940s and then the Bevanites, whose members like Michael Foot and Ian Mikardo joined newly-elected MPs such as Stan Orme. Other Bevanites like Wilson himself, Barbara Castle and Richard Crossman, were now in Government. Foot had promised Wilson the Tribune Group would be constructive, and it became a forum for discussing ideas. It met on a Monday, and Dick Clements, then the editor of Tribune, would be in attendance.
At this time, as we deal with the coronavirus crisis, the current Tribune Group can also contribute, with ambitious ideas helping our Labour Movement rise to the moment and grasp the opportunity for change. At the front of our minds must be the vision set out in the 1964 manifesto: “Until 60 years ago when the Labour Party was founded, the ending of economic privilege, the abolition of poverty in the midst of plenty, and the creation of real equality of opportunity were inspiring but remote ideals.” They remain our ideals: the challenge now is how we now implement them the post-coronavirus world of the 2020s.
Nick Thomas-Symonds MP is the Labour MP for Torfaen and Shadow Home Secretary.