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The shadow home secretary wants to take the lessons of his post-war Labour heroes and apply them to a world suffering under the effects of Covid. Could the party’s resurgence lie in its achievements of the past?
Few MPs in 2020 can associate themselves with the post-war Labour titans of Clement Attlee and Aneurin Bevan with as much authenticity as Nicklaus Thomas-Symonds. The shadow home secretary is a Valleys boy from Blaenavon, the son of a steel worker, who at age 16 was eagerly taking the minutes of his local Labour party, and who has written comprehensive biographies of both men. Pride in the 1945 government is not new ground for those at the top of the party: Jeremy Corbyn recently celebrated Attlee’s tenacity for never once “parking the big ideas”. Yet it is precisely this moment in time in which the lessons from those giants of the past can be most relevant, Thomas-Symonds believes. He isn’t afraid to look back, in order to prepare for the future.
In his spacious office in Westminster, recently vacated by ex-deputy Tom Watson, the 40-year-old explains how in the Covid-19 era, he can see how the level of sacrifice of the country draws parallels with the mood in 1945. He says the party’s mission now is his oft-repeated mantra of “compassion and competence”.
With Labour “under new management” as leader Keir Starmer so often explains, the upcoming virtual party conference Labour Connected is a chance for Thomas-Symonds to introduce himself to party members more widely for the first time since he replaced Diane Abbott as shadow home secretary in April this year.
“My speech is actually titled ‘Learning from Clement Attlee’ and I do think that’s particularly important at the moment because Clement Attlee became Prime Minister in 1945 at the end of a period of great collective sacrifice,” he says, in his distinctive Welsh lilt.
“Now, a very different type of sacrifice of course. This virus doesn’t set human against human, country against country [but] this is a threat to our common humanity if you like, none the less.
“This is that period since 1945 – we’ve had the national lock down, we’ve had this sense of people making sacrifices to help others.”
Like any wartime politician, he praises the workers – or as we’ve come to know them in 2020, the “key workers” – stressing: “There were people I’m afraid who didn’t appreciate their contribution until they actually saw how vital their work was during this crisis.”
They are figures from Labour’s past but at the same time there is this great comparison post-1945 to the current day
Former British prime minister Attlee’s politics were formed when he worked at Haileybury House, a charity helping working class boys in Stepney pre-WWI. Bevan, who began working in the coalmines age 13, was shaped by the poverty of the 1920s and 30s from his native south Wales and supported the Jarrow March. Both felt that they had seen enough of squalor of the poorest people’s lives in society to know that getting into power in 1945 was essential, and once there the country could never go back. Their politics fundamentally had to change Britain.
But how do Attlee and former minister of health, Bevan, inspire a teenage Labour supporter attracted to join by Corbyn, fired up by the Glastonbury moment, and who went out door knocking with Momentum? Or to someone who might have once sung ‘oh, Jeremy Corbyn’ and meant it, passionately, perhaps even wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with his name?
Thomas-Symonds, born in 1980, is on the cusp of being a millennial himself, but he skips past the Blair-Brown Labour government, and Harold Wilson and James Callaghan, and describes himself as ‘Bevanite’ through and though.
“I make it relevant by telling their story but taking their timeless values which are very relevant to the modern world. I’ve been a Labour party member for a quarter of a century and there is a lot of interest in Bevan and Attlee among the membership, I can tell that from hundreds of meetings that I’ve done on them over the years.”
Attlee died in 1967, Bevan passed away in 1960 – you’d have to be in your late 90s to have voted for them. One senior party figure said you’ll still hear the call for a “Bevanite” intervention of the state and people reminisce on the fizz and excitement of the achievements of that post-war government, usually through the tales from their parents. Corbyn borrowed the “cradle to grave” ethos and applied it to education policy. Naturally the party solidly believes it to be the defender of the NHS, which Bevan pioneered.
Thomas-Symonds admits: “Yes they are figures from Labour’s past but at the same time there is this great comparison post-1945 to the current day. And also the set of values they stood for, that sense of things not being the same. That burning sense of tackling inequality…
“Of course they applied a very particular set of solutions for their era, and it’s a very different era and set of challenges, but I think […] we can still very much relate to [it] in 2020.”
With a party four years out from an election, Thomas-Symonds appears to be setting out more of a mindset and tone for Labour than a detailed policy platform. His favourite two words come up again: “competence and compassion”, and while both qualities could make Labour electable, he believes, it’s the former concept that is doing a lot of heavy lifting for the party right now. The shadow front bench forensically counters the government’s Coronavirus response, armed with facts and figures. It’s far less emotional than Corbyn, less good for sound bites, but it often works.
If you’d asked any senior party figure – from Corbynistas to Blairites – post-2015 about where the party’s talent lies, then Thomas-Symonds, known as Nick, invariably got a mention. He’s something of a secret weapon: a thinker (an academic with a prestigious 11 year Oxford academic career behind him), an author, a lawyer. He won the seat of Torfaen in 2015, and the father-of-three is there a great deal, often Zooming into TV interviews in front of a stash of weighty tomes, winning him the attention of the infamous Bookcase Credibility Twitter account.
I support the aims of [tackling] climate change but I don’t support the methods
Now in his shadow home secretary role, he can show a kernel of their longer term aims around the rule of law. And it hasn’t been difficult for him to present where he stands politically, having arrived in post slap bang in the middle of a culture war.
On the pulling down of the statue of slave trader Edward Colston in Bristol, he said he could not agree with how it had been toppled. And with Extinction Rebellion’s latest blockade of the printing presses of Rupert Murdoch owned newspapers, he is unequivocal.
“I thought it was wrong to block the printing presses. I think newspapers should be distributed.
“I also think its counter-productive incidentally to the cause. There is this fundamental noble cause that I think we have to tackle but it just comes back to the rule of law.”
“I support the aims of [tackling] climate change but I don’t support the methods.”
The new stop and search proposals over convicted knife crime criminals from the Home Office, which were announced just days ago, don’t seem to trigger a draconian gut response.
“I’ll look at the detail of it as I do with all of these announcements but for me you need to have a holistic approach to this, you also need to be tackling the underlying causes.
“For example, closure of youth clubs, around things like mental health services, all these things have gone.
“I want to see a holistic approach. Preventing crime and addressing crime. Not the latest Saturday night, Sunday night press release,” he said, making reference to the fact he often shows up to take part in a Sunday politics show only to be asked about the latest crime related press release drop from central government the night before.
Who are usually the victims of crime? Women, people in poorer communities and minorities. That is a progressive issue
He accuses Priti Patel’s Home Office and the government more widely of operating distraction politics, particularly while their grip on the coronavirus response and Brexit is under so much scrutiny.
“Take a recent Sunday. Very clearly the issue was the government was proposing to breach international law, so they just happened to talk about a sentencing white paper on the same day.
“There are various examples where the Home Secretary has talked tough. She wants to lock various people up. Bring in new laws for various things. The substance is very, rarely there in the following couple of weeks in Parliament to back it up. And usually we discover the issue of the week is sadly a chronic failure on tackling Covid,” he said.
Thomas-Symonds also thinks the Home Secretary has questions to answer over the still unpublished Cabinet Office investigation into allegations of bullying. The probe began in March following a blistering resignation speech from former permanent secretary Sir Philip Rutnam, who claimed he had been the target of a “vicious” briefing campaign.
It also emerged that civil servants had also accused Patel of bullying behaviour while she worked as International Development Secretary from 2016 to 2017, and during her time at the Department for Work and Pensions. She denies all the allegations.
But Thomas-Symonds says the length of time it has taken to release the findings sets an “appalling example” for workplaces. “I think it’s disgraceful it hasn’t appeared, frankly,” he says. “If you were in any workplace in the country and there were allegations around bullying, they should be treated sensitively and seriously and you’d expect them to be dealt with properly.
“If it’s ready, it should be published. It worries me there’s something to hide in it, that’s why they’ve taken so long.”
It’s been widely speculated upon by many in the media that Labour’s stance on disruptive protests and criminal damage from recent demonstrations is tougher than it would have been in the Corbyn era – a ploy to win back red wall voters. In contrast to Thomas-Symonds, Diane Abbott said it was important to remember direct action is legal, and Extinction Rebellion were operating in the tradition of the suffragettes and hunger marches.
He rejects the idea he’s playing to a specific audience, saying you can support the police and still be progressive.
“Who are usually the victims of crime? Women, people in poorer communities and minorities. That is a progressive issue,” he said.
It chimes with his position on other issues: he supports the closure of Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre and the end of indefinite detention by limiting it to 28 days. He says threats to deploy Royal Navy ships in the Channel to stop the flow of asylum seekers, should stop. He says the recommendations of the Wendy Williams Review into the Windrush scandal must be implemented in full, as should David Lammy’s independent inquiry into BAME children and teenagers in the youth justice system.
For all his admiration of Bevan – whom he can quote at length – Thomas-Symonds comes across as far more clubbable and constructive his political hero. It’s hard to imagine he could ever be a trouble maker, or form something around him as politically intense as the left-leaning Bevanites of the late 1950s. While Bevan was wrapped by his own party for famously calling the Tories “lower than vermin”, Thomas-Symonds would likely rather formally debate them at the despatch box with manners and respect.
He won’t even let rip on Kayleigh McEnany, a former pupil of his at Oxford who now works at Donald Trump’s press secretary and is a highly political Republican and Trump supporter.
He laughs politely: “It doesn’t look as though she’s taken a lot of my politics to be fair, to be fair.”
As Labour rebuilds after the crushing 2019 general election, there’s no doubt value in revisiting the eras of success for the party, and trying to find parallels in history when the world has been turned upside down because of Covid-19. The party has fared well with the vote of the under 40s in the last two elections, and if it’s to turn the tide it has to pitch to the over 50s, to the lifelong voters who abandoned the party, and to the red wall. Perhaps a nostalgic opener from Thomas-Symonds first conference makes a great deal of sense.