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New International, Summer 1955


Owen Roberts

British Labor After the Elections

The Struggle tor Power in the British Labor Party


From New International, Vol. XXI No. 3, Fall 1955, pp. 174–187.
Marked up up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


THE DEFEAT OF THE BRITISH LABOR PARTY in the general election a few months ago has brought to public notice a fact which has long been the subject of discussion inside the party itself – that the Labor Party is today in one of the most significant phases in its history. It has successfully struggled through the formative years during which it built itself into the mass political expression of the British working class. It has experienced a period of power during which it sought to translate its program into practical reality and during which it carried out certain modifications of Britain’s social structure and established what is now universally known as the Welfare State. Now, having experienced an electoral defeat which probably relegates it to the role of opposition for the next five years, it has reached a critical stage in its development and one which will determine the general character of British politics for many years to come. In order to fully appreciate the Labor Party’s position it is necessary to take a brief look at its fortunes during the years since the end of the war.

THE POST-WAR HISTORY OF THE LABOR Party really begins in the early part of 1945 when the war in Europe was obviously entering its closing stages. The long period of electoral truce and governmental coalition with the Tories had for long lain heavy on the stomachs of many members of the Labor Party and a steady pressure had been maintained within the party ranks for an ending of this situation at the earliest opportunity. With the end of the European war in sight the party decided that the time was fast approaching when it would have to make its bid for power. Brushing aside the voices which urged a continuation of the coalition it set to work formulating the program which would constitute the basis of its challenge. The result was a document, entitled Let Us Face the Future, which was far in advance of anything produced by the party in the whole of its history – in fact it was probably the most radical document ever produced by a similarly constituted party anywhere in the world.

It stated that Labor’s participation in the wartime coalition had been undertaken with the objective of ensuring a victory of a different type to that envisaged by the Tories – that, as far as the Labor Party was concerned, military victory was but the prelude to victories of a different character in different spheres. “The Labor Party,” it said, “is a Socialist Party, and proud of it. Its ultimate purpose at home is the establishment of the Socialist Commonwealth of Great Britain – free, democratic, efficient, progressive, public spirited, its material resources organized in the service of the British people.” Then, to remove any doubts that these were empty phrases capable of any interpretation, it laid out the practical and specific details of its program for the first five years should it be returned as the government.

Pride of place in the program was given to the measures for bringing into public ownership certain basic industries – the list was impressive. Coal, gas, electricity, road transport, airlines, railroads, canals, iron and steel industries. All of these were earmarked for nationalization on the basis of “fair compensation” and were to be “conducted in the interests of consumers, coupled with proper status and conditions for the workers employed in them.” Alongside these plans for outright public ownership were others for the establishment and maintenance of various physical controls covering practically the whole range of economic activity in the country.

On the other side of the picture the Labor manifesto promised far reaching measures of social services for the whole of the population. Educational facilities were to be greatly expanded; health was to be protected under a comprehensive scheme organized and managed by the state; social insurance schemes providing cash benefits for sickness, unemployment, old age, child allowances and death grants were to be instituted or expanded. From the cradle to the grave the British worker was to be assured a minimum – albeit a low one – standard of life guaranteed by the state.

These, then, were the fundamentals with which the Labor Party challenged the Tory representatives of the capitalist class. The electoral clash was one of clear contrast with no one left in doubt as to the real issue involved. Either a forward movement with Labor toward a new type of social structure or a continuance of the status quo with the Tories. The challenge, the program and the mood of the British people after six years of war could not fail to produce a triumph for the Labor Party. It swept to victory with 396 seats in the House of Commons against 189 for the Tories and gained a clear majority of 186 above all other parties. When Parliament first assembled the Labor members stood in their places to greet the new Labor Prime Minister – Clement Attlee – by singing The Red Flag as he entered the chamber. The British bourgeoisie trembled as it fearfully awaited the tramp of the jackboots of the Socialist “Gestapo” promised by Winston Churchill should the Labor Party attain power.

THE STRONG POSITION OF THE LABOR Party in Parliament at this time was not reflected by a similar position in the local constituency organizations. The wartime electoral truce, coupled with the disruption of life through air-raids, evacuation of population and the large numbers of workers serving in the armed forces, had played havoc with the local party machinery which had dwindled – in many places, to nothingness. The individual membership of the party, which stood at 408,844 in 1939, had fallen to 265,763 by the end of 1944 and, although the affiliated membership from trade unions had grown, the lack of individual members in the constituency organizations had reduced inner party life to a very low ebb. But pockets of activists remained and, with the filling of the electoral victory, they set about re-building the party machinery. Recruits came flocking in and by the end of 1946 the individual membership had climbed to 645,345 and the local machinery was once again running smoothly. Many of the new recruits to the party were young men returning from service with the armed forces. They were inexperienced in the practical workings of a political organization and most of them had little theoretical knowledge of socialism; but they were young and enthusiastic – their imaginations had been fired by the promises held out by the Labor victory and their horizons broadened by contact with foreign lands and peoples during the war.

This big increase in party membership – and the accompanying growth of political activity at the lower levels of the party – meant that the newcomers had a very rapid political apprenticeship. They developed very quickly and were soon producing local leaders who presented a serious challenge to older members for leadership of local party organizations. Inevitably, conflicts began to develop; first in a vague form in the shape of the impetuosity of youth against the apparent slowness of age and, then, as political understanding developed, the limited scope of youth versus age conflict was raised to a higher ideological plane. Older members of the party Left began to impart their knowledge to the younger members. Endless pints of beer and cups of tea were consumed as the “old hands” yarned into the small hours in what were, in fact, impromptu education sessions. Slowly, new forces were being born in the Labor Party. It was primarily an unconscious process, unplanned and vague; creating a force from which the present-day Left derives much of its strength.

During this period the Labor Government in Parliament was carrying on its arduous task of translating the election manifesto into reality through legislation. At the same time, many points of disagreement arose among the Labor MPs, and on occasion, odd Parliamentary groupings of Laborites would emerge which endeavored to secure various points of policy in opposition to the line of the party leadership. But, on the whole, there was no emergence of a definite and clear cut left wing group. The nearest to such that arose was in opposition to the foreign policy of the party which was being handled in Parliament by Ernest Bevin as Foreign Secretary. Time after time attempts were made to challenge this policy – and time after time the opposition was beaten into submission by the lack of clear alternatives, the forceful debating power of Bevin and the massive strength which he, as an old trade union leader, drew from the Right Wing trade union leadership. At the party annual conferences feeble rallyings of opposition were annually defeated to retire into semi-obscurity.

One of the reasons for this initial lack of success of those advocating policies in opposition to the official leadership was due to the narrowness of approach. Little or no attempt was made to relate specific points of opposition to the broader pattern of party policy as a whole. This, to some extent, is understandable, for while the Labor Government was still steadfastly pursuing the main objectives laid down in Let Us Face The Future there arose little occasion for debate on fundamentals concerning future perspectives – an effective opposition from the Left could never emerge while confining itself to points of detail.

A SECOND, PERHAPS MORE SERIOUS, reason for the lack of success of those in opposition to the party leadership was the fairly high degree of Stalinist influence then existing among some of the more vocal elements of the opposition. The Communist Party, having been most rudely pushed aside in the general swing to the left in the 1945 election, was doing its utmost to influence the Labor Party through its dissatisfied elements. This tactic had achieved some results with the consequence that what left force there was in the Labor Party was greatly influenced by Stalinist ideology and was often vocally represented at party gatherings by Stalinist or near Stalinist elements. A direct outcome of this Stalinist influence was the retardation of the growth of a real Socialist left wing inside the Labor Party; for many who were dissatisfied with the official party line were by no means anxious to join the international chorus which followed the baton of the Kremlin choirmaster. Hence there existed within the Labor Party a potential left wing which required a catalyst to bring it into action. This catalyst was provided when, in April 1951, Aneurin Bevan, Harold Wilson and John Freeman resigned their government posts because of lack of sympathy with policies then being pursued by the government.

The resignation of these three was sparked by the annual budget for 1951 introduced by the Chancellor of the Exchequer – Hugh Gaitskell. Drawn up in the context of the rearmament program, adopted by the Labor Government as a consequence of the Korean War and pressure from the United States, the budget hit hard at the so-called Welfare State. It increased the purchase tax on a wide range of items – such as radio and television sets, cars, vacuum cleaners, washing machines and similar domestic equipment – by 100 per cent. It increased the tax on gasoline which in turn brought an all round increase in transport costs. The food subsidies, a device designed to cushion the working class from increases in the price of basic foodstuffs, were pegged at £410 millions – in spite of the soaring prices resulting from the Korean War. The National Health Service – the apple of Aneurin Bevan’s eye – was caught in the cold blast; for the first time charges were placed upon patients for the provision of such items as false teeth and spectacles. Every feature of the budget was designed to restrict the purchasing power of the people in order to release industrial capacity and provide the finance for the insatiable appetite of the arms program. The budget was a formal announcement that the order of priorities had been reversed; that social welfare – hitherto considered sacrosanct – had relinquished its privileged position to military requirements.

The budget was the last straw. It represented the limit beyond which Bevan, Wilson and Freeman were not prepared to go and was therefore responsible for the qualitative change which took place. The quantitative changes preceding it had been building up over a period and stemmed from the lack of ultimate objectives by the party leadership.

Having run out its alloted span the Labor Government had sent the country to the polls in February 1950 with the result that Labor’s solid majority of 186 of the previous election had been slashed away to a mere 8 and placed it in an extremely precarious position. The 1950 election, unlike that of 1945, was not characterized by any marked boldness on the part of the Labor Party. The reasons are plain enough to see. The first post-war Labor Government had swept to power on the basis of Let Us Face The Future and during its period of office had implemented practically all the proposals contained in that document; one or two major items left outstanding were, in fact, in course of preparation when the election was called and had only been postponed because of the very heavy program of legislation carried out by the government. Having reached this position the Labor Party was faced with the necessity of formulating its future program should it find itself once again in power as the government. This formulation immediately called into account the ultimate objective of the party; whether Let Us Face The Future represented the fulfillment of this objective, or whether it represented but a first step on a much longer road. The critical economic situation prevailing at this time served to sharpen these two distinct courses of action.

The Right Wing showed no hesitation in making up its mind and, given the ideological lead of Herbert Morrison, emblazoned upon its banners the slogans – “Woo The Middle Class” and “Consolidation.” It did not emphatically reject the idea of any further advancement – but it did propagate the idea that the main task was accomplished with the creation of the Welfare State and all that remained was to do a little tidying up – and even this would have to wait until the economic situation improved. The Left Wing, which by now was beginning to get the situation in proper focus, took the contrary view and pressure began to build up behind agitation for a return to the dynamism of 1945. The British Labor movement is characterized, to a large extent, by the fashion in which the elements coming into collision with the Right Wing leadership begin their agitation on a “get back to” theme. On this particular occasion the dissenters wanted a return to Let Us Face The Future – which by now had become almost legendary in the Labor Party. What a large number failed to appreciate was the fact that it was not a question of “getting back” to 1945 – but of pushing forward from the point reached by the 1945 program. Similarly, many who could not understand why the Right Wing had adopted such a radical program in 1945 yet refused to pursue a similar one in 1950, failed to realize that the measures taken by the Labor Government had advanced the position of the working class along the road to power. The resistance of the bourgeoisie increased as their positions of economic and political power fell to the working class. The Right Wing, however, realized this; it realized, also, that the going would be harder and the risk of a head on clash with the bourgeoisie more likely. Hence its effort to call a halt to further advance with the cries of “consolidation” and its attempt to dilute the class character of the Labor Party by appeals to the middle class elements. This, then, was the real background against which the resignation of Bevan must be viewed – and there is every indication that he was perfectly aware of the full import of the situation.

The resignations of the three acted as the catalyst for which the torpid Left forces of the Labor Party had waited. Very soon the party – indeed the whole of the country – was ablaze with argument, debate and discussion. Focal point of it all was the pamphlet One Way Only published by the weekly newspaper Tribune. Subtitled A Socialist Analysis of the Present World Crisis and signed by Bevan, Wilson and Freeman, the pamphlet became a best seller; no less than 100,000 copies of it were sold and it was read, reviewed and railed against all over the country.

The three authors, in their signed foreword, made clear that the pamphlet was not intended to be a statement of policy for the Labor Party, for that function, they pointed out, belonged to the annual conference of the party. It was, they said, a serious contribution to the great debate taking place in the Labor Party and was an endeavor “to focus discussion on the central problem of our time.” Much of the pamphlet was taken up with the economics of the rearmament program and the foreign policy which necessitated its adoption – for these were the issues which had prompted the final breach. It also recalled that the party had adopted a program entitled Let Us Win Through Together which had included proposals for the nationalization of sugar, cement and part of the chemical industry; the public ownership of the meat wholesaling trade and the creation of publicly owned markets. It had pronounced in favor of the control of “financial forces,” the abolition of price rings and action against monopolies. All of these, said the pamphlet, still remained to be carried out and within their framework there was ample scope for the Labor Government to tackle the then current economic problems. “These plans for extending Socialism have been put into cold storage” said the pamphlet. In other words the authors of the pamphlet showed their recognition of the fact that the Right Wing was following its expected role and using the first signs of economic difficulties as an excuse for throwing overboard the few radical measures contained in the 1950 program. By calling for full implementation of the already existing program Bevan and his friends showed a deep understanding of the mind of the Labor Party. They were not, at this stage, calling for a change in the party program. They were merely demanding that the leadership stop ignoring and pursue with vigor the program already agreed upon by the party annual conference. In this way they were assured of the maximum amount of support within the party from those who had not grasped the full significance of the situation. But the long term objectives were firmly in the mind of the authors, as the statement, “there is still a long way to go before we can claim to have established a Socialist society,” bears witness.

FOUR YEARS AND TWO ELECTION defeats after the emergence of the Bevanites the situation discerned by only a few in the Labor Party in 1951 now stands out clearly and – although still not openly acknowledged by all the participants – forms the basis for the conflict which now has become a normal feature of Labor Party discussions. The electoral defeat of a few months ago has merely served to accentuate the nature of the division and hence brings the picture more sharply into focus.

The first remarkable feature of the Labor Party’s activities immediately following the recent election defeat is the manner in which a large number of hounds have spent a considerable amount of time in chasing a phony hare. At its first meeting after the election the National Executive Committee of the party set up a special sub-committee to conduct a large scale inquiry into the weaknesses of party organization under the chairmanship of Harold Wilson. In this, it was responding to a great clamor which arose – seemingly quite spontaneously – almost before the complete election results had been announced. The actual origins of this uproar are hard to trace, but beyond doubt they were considerably influenced by the stories skillfully constructed by pressmen as they made their rounds during the election campaign; stories which consistently compared the slick smoothness of the Tory apparatus with the ponderous wheezing of the Labor engine. The journalists were bound to angle this particular side of the election campaign because of the absence – in the main – of fierce conflict by the propagandists of the rival parties. But it cannot be supposed that in doing so they were aware that they would set a large proportion of the Labor Party membership scratching around like hens in their own backyard.

That there are wide differences in the efficiency of the two party machines is beyond dispute, and that Labor could find much room for improvement in its organization is no less true. During the past ten years, following its sound trouncing at the polls in 1945, the Tory Party has given a great deal of attention to its party machinery. It has created an efficient head office with a top rate public relations department and a network of highly paid professional political agents – receiving salaries about double those of the average worker – all over the country. The recent election presented the first opportunity for this machine to really go into action having sorted out its weaknesses as exposed by the two previous elections. The result was that it presented a first rate standard against which to measure the Labor election machinery.

But, and this is extremely important and relevant, what the leaders of the Labor Party – and all those who follow their example of worshipping before the god of functional efficiency – are apparently overlooking is the fact that the Labor election machine was this year at its worst for a long time. But, more important, they have seemingly ignored the reasons for this phenomena, reasons which are of a profound political character. Depending, as it does, upon the activities of vast numbers of voluntary workers to conduct its election campaign, the degree of success of Labor’s organization is in direct relation to the enthusiasm of those workers. The leaders of these groups of voluntary workers in the constituency parties are – in the main – rank and file militants of the Left Wing. It is because large numbers of these local leaders found it difficult to generate any enthusiasm in themselves on the basis of the electoral program of the Labor Party that the party’s election machine functioned so poorly and thus over-emphasized and magnified the efficiency of the Tory organization in relation to it. Thus, while there is definitely much room for improvement in functional apparatus, the present concern of the party leadership is by-passing the real issue which is political. It is hard to believe that the leadership does not recognize this and leads one to the conclusion that it is a conscious tactical move to play down debate on policy matters until a time chosen by the Right Wing as being most opportune from their own point of view.

If this is the case then it must be stated that their tactics have met with some success for undoubtedly the present organizational fetish in the party has tended to rush much of the post election debate into a blind alley. Even experienced campaigners have swallowed the bait and blossomed out into efficiency experts – complete with slide rules and graph paper. The New Statesman and Nation, in an editorial investigation of Labor’s fallen fortunes on June 4, made three main points which, it claimed, would provide the basis for restoring those fortunes. Two of them concerned organization and the one which did concern policy seemed strangely out of place in a journal which claims to give expression to the minds of the Left intellectuals. The political point urged that the Parliamentary Labor Party accept Forward With Labor – the program on which Labor had fought, and lost, the election – as its agreed policy upon which to build a fighting opposition to the Tory Government. (Apparently The New Statesman overlooked the fact that it had described Challenge to Britain, of which Forward With Labor was more or less a digested version, as “neither a revivalist’s bible nor speaker’s handbook, too pedestrian for a crusade, too imprecise for an election platform” and that “when it comes to action, realism is clouded by compromise.”) Having demonstrated what can only be classified as its uncanny knack of performing political acrobatics without moving the New Statesman advanced its dual solution for Labor’s organizational difficulties. First, the “ageing leadership” must be renovated – with Clement Attlee remaining as chairman of the Parliamentary Party for the sole purpose of building up a new team of younger men. And, secondly, Morgan Phillips – the party secretary – should be persuaded to agree to the long overdue overhaul of the organization under his control. The adoption of these proposals, according to the New Statesman, would enable a businesslike interim report to be produced at the next party annual conference which would “send the delegates back to the constituencies in a fighting mood.”

The New Statesman was by no means alone in sponsoring a remedy for Labor’s ills which concerned itself with organization as a central feature; from practically every section of the party came advice of a similar character. As an inevitable consequence the discussion which should have been taking place on political matters import has been pushed into the background – a situation reflected by the fact that no less than 73 resolutions on the agenda for the annual conference this year come under the heading of Party Administration.

This is not to say, however, that political discussion has been absent within the Labor Party or that many members of the party have not grasped the full implications of the present position. It is more an indication of the successful tactics of the Right Wing which apparently wishes to deal with the Left of the party in an organizational manner prior to engaging in any serious political discussion – a fact which seems to have crept out in parts of the debate which has so far taken place. Herbert Morrison, writing in Socialist Commentary immediately after the election, gave one or two pointers in this direction. In what was an obvious reference to the Bevanite weekly Tribune, although its name was not actually mentioned, Morrison spoke of “uncomradely matter” which was published week after week in “certain periodicals” and which was “harmful and confusing within the party and among the public.” What the party badly needed, he said, was “a real Labor and socialist weekly.” He also denounced what he called a “party within the party” and demanded an end to “highly organized persistent opposition and campaigning.” The constituency parties, he said, should get on with their real work and protect themselves against “politically foreign elements seeking to penetrate us from the outside.”

This was faintly reminiscent of the arguments used by the Right Wing when they successfully shut down the Left Wing Socialist Outlook twelve months earlier – an affair in which it is said that Morrison played a prominent part when the matter was initiated by a sub-committee of the NEC. In the circular announcing the ban on the Socialist Outlook the NEC recalled that sometime earlier the Socialist Fellowship – an organization within the Labor Party which was supported by the Socialist Outlook – had been proscribed “since the fractional activities it organized had a disturbing effect on many parties and led to a diversion of effort and attention from the task of building up an efficient electoral machine in the constituencies.” In spite of the subsequent dissolution of the Socialist Fellowship, said the NEC, “it is plain that there is an organized faction at work within a number of Constituency Labor Parties in support of policies advocated in Socialist Outlook.” This is a clear indication of what Morrison, and the remainder of the Right Wing, see as the “real work” of constituency parties – they are to be merely administrative cogs in a vast electoral machine. And, equally apparent, is the desire of the Right Wing to have this machine firmly in the hands of the Right Wing so that it can be used to stifle any voices of opposition.

At the moment many local constituency parties employ a full time paid organizer. He is appointed by the local party and his wages are paid from the funds of the local organization itself. This means, theoretically at least, that the party head office at Transport House has no more control over them than over the ordinary party member. It has long been known that many Right Wingers would like to see an end to this position; they would prefer to see the local organizers recruited by the head office and under its firm control. In his article in Socialist Commentary Morrison raised this point and said that he was in favor of a national service of organizing agents “with real responsibility from and to head office.” That there are financial and organizational advantages in this scheme is beyond dispute – but many on the party Left feel that it is yet another attempt by the Right Wing to stifle independent thought on the part of constituency parties. With local organizers under the control of head office it would mean, in effect, that the Right Wing had a loyal servant in those constituency parties where they were working and that they could be relied upon to crack down on the Left as well as keeping Transport House fully informed of the latest activities of the Left in the local parties.

OF GREATER IMPORTANCE IS THE DESIRE of some people to alter the party organization in respect to the relationships which at present exist between the mass party membership, the annual conference and the Parliamentary Labor Party. According to the party Constitution the annual conference is the supreme body of the party; to quote: “The Party Conference shall decide from time to time what specific proposals of legislative, financial or administrative reform shall be included in the party program. No proposal shall be included in the party program unless it has been adopted by the party conference by a majority of not less than two-thirds of the votes recorded on a card vote.” And further: “The work of the party shall be under the direction and control of the party conference.” The effect of this was clearly summed up by the present leader of the party, Clement Attlee, in his book The Labor Party In Perspective, which was written in 1937 and re-issued in 1949. In it he says of the party conference:

“It lays down the policy of the party, and issues instructions which must be carried out by the Executive, the affiliated organizations and its representatives in Parliament and on local authorities ... the Labor Party Conference is in fact a parliament of the movement.”

This position contrasts starkly with what exists within the Tory Party. The Tory leaders look upon their annual conference as little more than a sociable get-together once a year at which the party leadership can convey its policies to the members gathered in conference. The Tory annual conference exercises absolutely no control over either policy or the activities of it representatives within Parliament. This charade is looked upon with scorn by the Labor Party and frequent use is made of it during polemics with the Tories – but of late many Right Wingers within the Labor Party have realized how convenient such an arrangement is. The party leadership is left free from the influences of the mass of members and can pursue a policy which – it can claim – is dictated by circumstances existing within Parliament.

In actuality, of course, the leadership of the Labor Party manages to exercise control in the manner it desires in spite of the constitutional supremacy of the annual conference. This is achieved by the preponderance of votes held at the conference by the trade unions who are – in the main – dominated by Right Wing elements. Thus, when it comes to a conflict between Left and Right, the trade union votes decide the issue in favor of the Right. But this situation is full of uncertainty and can only continue to exist for as long as the Right Wing can maintain its grip upon the trade unions. When big issues arise it is possible for an alliance to be formed which, in spite of the adherence of the bigger unions to the Right Wing, brings the leadership close to defeat. Such a situation developed at the conference last year when the question of German rearmament was put to a vote. In spite of a plan by Attlee not to pass a resolution against German re-armament which would “tie the hands of a future Labor Foreign Secretary” the conference came within an inch of beating the platform; and, indeed, would have actually done so had it not been for the fact that a couple of union delegations actually voted for the re armament of Germany in defiance of contrary views expressed at their own annual conferences. Clearly, such a position is not welcomed by the Right Wing – and a solution is doubtless being thought out.

Most outspoken in this respect is R.T. McKenzie – the author of British Political Parties – and he is currently engaged in expounding his views on the subject in any publication which will print them. It cannot be claimed that McKenzie has much, if any, influence with the Right Wing leadership – but all the same he is providing them with a considerable amount of ammunition. In the post-election issue of the Fabian Journal McKenzie wrote that:

“... ‘intra-party democracy’ is incompatible with parliamentary government. The mass organizations of any parliamentary party must be primarily a vote-getting organization. In return for its labors it can expect to be invited to make some contribution to the formulation of party policy. But it is dangerous to continue to encourage the illusion that the party leaders (who collectively are either a Cabinet or potential Cabinet) can be bound to obey the instructions of a party conference.”

On this argument McKenzie advocated that the party Constitution be revised to give more effective control to the party leadership for, he said, on once again taking office the present constitution would “hang like an albatross around the neck of the Parliamentary Party.”

It is not without significance that the Sunday Observer, which is currently running a series entitled Labor’s Future, should feature as its first contribution an article by McKenzie in which he reiterates the arguments made in the Fabian Journal earlier. After recalling a remark of Sydney Webb that the constituency parties “were frequently unrepresentative groups of nonentities dominated by fanatics and cranks” McKenzie puts his finger on one of the difficulties with which the party Right Wing leadership is confronted at this moment.

“The difficulty for the Labor Leaders,” he wrote, “is this: the trade union leaders provide both the party funds and the block votes which keep the conference in check; but the much despised ‘nonentities, fanatics and cranks,’ with their devotion to full-blooded Socialism, do the work in the constituencies.”

Clearly this is a matter of some importance for the Right Wing leadership; for while it is desperately anxious to extend its grip over the party machine it is confronted with the unpleasant situation in which those who disagree most violently with the present policies of the party are the very people upon whom in the final analysis, the electoral success of the party in elections depends. The rank and file workers in the constituencies are already in an atmosphere of frustration owing to the frequent stifling of their point of view in the party program – to further manipulate the party organization brings the risk that this frustration will be further increased and the effectiveness of the electoral machine reduced as a consequence This is the dilemma in which the Right Wing at present finds itself and which it is seeking to solve – hence its concentration upon organizational topics in this immediate post election-period.

Indications of the manner in which it will be solved were apparent at the recent Trades Union Congress, where Hugh Gaitskell – the party treasurer – called together a meeting of union leaders to discuss the ways in which they could increase their financial contribution to the party. With many of the local parties leading hand to mouth existence financially the Right Wing trade union leaders could increase their influence – and also that of the party Right Wing – by the simple expedient of buying it. One manner in which this could be achieved is by giving greater financial backing to those local parties prepared to adopt candidates sponsored by the Right Wing trade unions. In this way the money poured into the local party would enable it to conduct election campaigns with all the publicity media available through normal commercial channels – as does the Tory Party at present. Hence the voluntary party worker would be replaced by high pressure leaflet and poster campaigns and voluntary labor would be replaced by paid employees in those parts of the election machine where this is possible by law. (Under British electoral law certain activities must be done on a voluntary basis – any payment constituting an illegal practice and punishable at law. But these particular activities can largely be dispensed with if enough money is available to conduct the election through other channels; such as large poster billboards and press advertisements in place of door to door canvassers – who are one of the categories for which no payment can be made.) The difficulty in the way of adopting this solution is that the choice of a Parliamentary candidate depends – to a large degree – upon the constituency party; hence the first obstacle is getting the local party to accept a Right Wing trade union sponsored candidate. Until the Left in the local parties are effectively upon this as a sure solution to their altogether, the Right Wing cannot rely upon this is a sure solution to their problem.

In face of this emphasis on organizational matters the Left Wing has adopted, in many instances, an effective counter by arguing that organization is not something abstract which can be divorced from the outlook of the party as a whole. Organizational strength is largely dependent on political, programmatic agreement around which a campaign can be organized. In addition, it is not only to efficient organization in election campaigns that the party must aspire. It must also concentrate on the conduct of its affairs between election times.

Writing in Tribune soon after the election, Bevan made this point when he said:

“... no amount of technical efficiency can make up for deficiencies in policy. There is increasing doubt as to whether electoral campaigns change many votes. The mood of the electorate is usually set by the behavior of the political parties on day to day issues between election campaigns. All the election campaign can do is harvest that mood for good or ill. An efficient machine can give an added cutting edge during the campaign, but it is the thrust of the shaft that really matters and that is determined long before the election date is fixed.”

This attitude is reflected in the many resolutions down for discussion at the party conference which deal with the Parliamentary Party and its activities in recent years. Says the Essex Federation of Labor Parties: “This Conference is of the opinion that our defeat in the General Election was partly due to the lack of energetic opposition to the Tory Government, shown by the Parliamentary Labor Party in the House of Commons.” Or the resolution standing in the name of the two constituency parties of Oldham which reads, in part: “This Conference expresses its strong disapproval at the continued acquiescent state of H.M. Opposition in the House of Commons.” These resolutions, and others of a similar character, display the awareness of local parties that the Parliamentary Party – even within the limits set by the present party policy – have not been fulfilling the role of an active opposition in the House of Commons and that, with the prospect of five years in opposition now before it, the Parliamentary Labor Party must conduct itself in a much more militant fashion. The rank and file of the constituency parties do not – thank goodness – have any regard for the constitutional niceties of British Parliamentary practice. To them Parliament is seen as a spearhead of the general fight against the capitalist class as a whole – the suggestion that the Parliamentary Labor Party should act in the role cast for it by Parliamentary tradition is rudely rejected.

Alongside this pressure for a more militant attitude on the part of its representatives in Parliament the Left Wing continues to push for the adoption of a policy designed to commit the party to a program so constructed that it will continue from the point where Let Us Face The Future ended. This has tended to concentrate primarily around domestic issues. The emphasis upon foreign policy which, to a large degree, has characterized the opposition of the Left during the past few years has been replaced – the future extent of nationalization has now become one of the main debating points.

The soft-pedalling which the Right Wing has been performing on nationalization for some time has become much more pronounced since the election defeat. The Right has swung its propaganda around to the provision of better social and welfare facilities, improved living standards and what it calls the “growing Americanization” of the British people. As the Right Wing see it the appetites of the British workers have been whetted by the end of post-war austerity in Britain; television sets, washing machines, refrigerators and motor cars are now the most important things to the British workers. In such a situation, claims the Right Wing, what the Labor Party has to do is to reflect this mood and seek to capture the support of the electorate by promising them of these blessings of civilization. It must show them that the Labor Party can feed their appetites better than the Tories and with less dangers of economic upsets in the process.

No one in the Labor Party decries this demand of the British worker for higher living standards, or denies the desirability of meeting them. But whereas the Right are of the opinion that they can be met simply by the installation of a Labor Government – which can better administer the economic fortunes of Britain – the Left Wing is making a serious endeavor to tie them in with the ultimate objective of establishing a Socialist society. With the recent popularity which automation and the application of atomic energy to industrial purposes has enjoyed in the British press the Left Wing has been quick to seize the opportunity of relating industrial developments to both higher living standards and the extension of nationalization. In this way they have succeeded in making the pace and creating a favorable impression of the Left Wing as a body fully aware of all the possibilities of the future.

On the agenda for the forthcoming annual conference there are some twenty resolutions which deal with automation and nuclear energy – the content of many of them shows how the Left Wing is endeavoring to relate these new developments to the advancement of Socialism in Britain. Says the Isle of Ely: “Conference is convinced that only a bold socialist policy can ensure that all the workers benefit from the advantages and opportunities which will arise from this further development in industry.” It then calls for workers’ participation in the control of industry, shorter hours, new education and training schemes and the diversion of all benefits to the workers, consumers and the “backward areas of the Commonwealth.” Resolution after resolution demands that these technological developments be made the opportunity for an extension of publicly controlled industry. At the Trade Union Congress earlier this year the Left Wing National Union of Public Employees (NUPE) made a similar demand in an amendment which it moved to a resolution moved by the National Union of General and Municipal Workers – one of the big unions of the Right. It was, of course, defeated; but the vote of 4,465,000 of the Right Wing was only a short head in front of the 3,359,000 registered by the Left. The debate was marked by the clear fashion in which Bryn Roberts, moving the amendment on behalf of NUPE, outlined the approach which the Labor movement should make to new industrial developments. He said that discussions and “joint consultation” (which the original resolution saw as the answer to the problems of automation) could never provide the answer – only public ownership, he said, could ensure that the workers would not be the victims of new social forces arising from these developments. The spokesmen of the Right at the TUC, on the other hand, advised caution and spoke of the speculation which was apparent during talks of automation. This line is somewhat general of the way in which the Right is trying to dampen down the pressure from the Left – having no positive approach they endeavor to raise all sorts of doubts and uncertainties in the minds of the membership.

Thus a pattern is emerging of the Left Wing seeking to take up the loose threads where they were dropped after the first five years or so of the Labor Government and also, at the same time, realizing that if it is to advance its position it must relate its demands to the developments which are taking place in Britain today. This is essential from both a long and short term view. For, with the present combination of industrial developments coupled with economic instability existing in Britain today, an immediate program of action is as necessary as a long term perspective. The big question is whether the Left of the Labor Party can thrash out such policies in detail – rather than in general as at present – and then pursue them with consistency and in a coherent manner.

SINCE THE EMERGENCE OF THE LEFT as a recognizable political force following the resignation of Bevan, the lack of consistency and of a coherently expressed program has been a big weakness. Throughout the Labor Party there exists what has been termed an “amorphous Left” which, since 1951, has been expressed through the tendency now popularly known as Bevanism; this Left force has developed to nothing like its full potential because of the failure to act in a fashion demanded by the situation. For too long personalities have filled a space which should have been occupied by policies and emotional discontent has largely dominated over logical advancement of alternative policies. Such a situation was understandable a few years ago – it was part of the evolutionary development of the Left. But now the situation in the Labor Party – with the Right Wing seemingly more determined than ever to change the character of the party and its ultimate perspectives – the time has come for the Left Wing to discard these signs of its infancy and to act as a definite political force rather than a loose collection of individuals.

Much depends upon Bevan and his immediate associates. If they give the lead there are thousands prepared to follow. If they do not, then others will ultimately be found who are able to give expression and reflection of the moods and aspirations of the Left Wing workers in the constituencies – only the process will be longer and the way harder as the Right Wing extends its position while the new leadership of the Left develops. The signs are that the rank and file militants are ready and anxious to take advantage of the present situation and this in turn may act as the spur which prods the Bevanite leadership into action. Should the Bevanite leaders fail to respond then the cause of Labor’s Left will not be lost – but it will be very badly damaged and the Right Wing, which is at this moment making great efforts to re-direct the party into even narrower channels of reformism, will have gained a respite which may last many years.

London, September 1955

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