Paul Foot

Harold Wilson and the Labour Left

(Summer 1968)

FFrom International Socialism (1st series), No. 33, Summer 1968, pp.&nbsdp;18–26.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Bevanite fury at the Rightward drift of official Party policy after the 1955 election did not last. The Suez crisis of late 1956 and the economic recession which followed exposed the fallibility of Tory economic policy and forged the Labour Party into a new unity. Even Aneurin Bevan agreed to co-operate with a leadership with which he fundamentally disagreed. Bevan’s public disavowal of the ‘unilateralists’ at the Brighton Conference of 1957 and his acceptance of the post of Shadow Foreign Secretary encouraged his followers grudgingly to fall into line with Party policy for the 1959 election. At the Scarborough Conference of 1958, controversy was sacrificed to unity. Only the public schools provoked a genuine revolt against the leadership. ‘Unilateralist’ motions on defence were defeated by votes of 6 to 1 and the Executive statement on economic policy, Plan for Progress, moved by Wilson, summed up by Gaitskell and supported by Frank Cousins was carried unanimously. It was only after the election had been lost that the Left wing re-grouped and fought again.

By now, Aneurin Bevan was dying and it was by no means certain who should take his place as the Left’s candidate for the Party leadership. Harold Wilson was still an enigma. His association with Bevan in the early 1950s had not been forgotten and most of the Left-wing still regarded him as their man in the Shadow Cabinet. Others remembered his sponsorship of Industry and Society and his tacit support for the Executive on nuclear weapons. In 1958, Wilson came fourth in the elections for the constituency section of the Executive – the lowest place he had occupied since 1955.

His decision to stand against Gaitskell for the leadership in 1960, and against Brown for the deputy leadership in 1962 rallied the Left to him. He received the declared support of all Parliamentary Left-wingers and from Tribune, around which the Parliamentary Left rallied. Other journals of the Labour Left, however, were not so enthusiastic. The New Left Review, for instance, whose circulation had risen sharply with the rise of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament attacked him sharply: ‘If the Labour Party ends this week facing two directions’ it declared before the 1960 Party Conference, ‘it is certain that the figure of Mr Wilson will be there – at the end of both of them.’

On Gaitskell’s death in 1963, the Left rallied without hesitation to Wilson’s candidature for the leadership. After his election as leader, they abandoned their accustomed role as critics of the leadership, and became instead its most enthusiastic supporters. Michael Foot, who, with four other MPs, had had the Labour Whip withdrawn for opposing the Tory defence estimates in 1961, wrote a long article on Tribune’s front page, listing Wilson’s qualifications for the job:

‘... (He has) not only qualities of political acumen, political skill and survival power which no one denies him. Other considerable qualities too for a Labour leader – a coherence of ideas, a readiness to follow unorthodox courses, a respect for democracy ... above all a deep and genuine love of the Labour movement.

‘We are told he is tricky, untrustworthy, an addict of political in-fighting. Of course he is canny, ambitious, often cautious, always cool, usually calculating. And why not? They say that he does not make up his mind, that he sits on the fence. It was not true when he resigned in 1951. It was not true when he opposed German re-armament.’ [1]

Walter Padley, the ‘centre-Left’ general secretary of the shopworkers’ union (USDAW), and MP for Glamorganshire, Ogmore, told his union conference: ‘In Harold Wilson we have a leader fully worthy of the tradition of Clem Attlee and Keir Hardie.’ This sentiment commended itself to Frank Allaun, a hardy warrior of the Left, who wrote an article for the Labour Press Service which was circulated to all trade-union journals. ‘Harold Wilson,’ the article started in what was intended to be a compliment, ‘is the best Labour leader since Keir Hardie.’ Shortly before the Scarborough Conference of 1963, Frank Cousins called a Press Conference to assure the nation that any suggestion of a quarrel between himself and Wilson was totally unfounded. ‘There is’ he said ‘no difference, nor can anyone manufacture a difference between us.’ The New Statesman, which had assaulted Gaitskell in the most decisive language during the 1960 controversies, stated in their leader of 10 March 1964:

‘Mr Wilson has set his party a fine example. Like Gladstone he believes in appealing to the highest instincts of the public, and his speeches have a cogency and authority unrivalled in recent years.’

Even James Cameron, the idealist journalist, who had bitterly opposed the Gaitskell leadership, exclaimed in the Daily Herald after Wilson’s speech at the 1963 Scarborough Conference:

‘Harold Wilson will not be just a good Prime Minister. He will be a great one... Harold Wilson’s startling essay into political science-fiction may well be held by experts to be the most vital speech he has ever made. Here at least was the 20th century.’ [2]

In the following months Tribune confined itself to praising Wilson and publishing his speeches. Anxiously it assured its readers that despite outward appearances, Wilson’s intentions were all for the good:

‘Mr Harold Wilson’s remarks to the T&GWU conference have been widely misinterpreted. He did not, as the Daily Worker headline suggested, advocate a wage freeze. “When we say incomes” he said “we mean all incomes – not only wages and salaries but profits, especially monopoly profits, distributed dividends and, yes, rents.”’ [3]

And Mr Clive Jenkins, militant general secretary of ASSET, wrote after the 1963 Trades Union Congress: ‘Mr Harold Wilson is opposed to wage restraint.’ After the 1963 Labour Conference, Jenkins complained

‘A circumstantial story that a Wilson Cabinet will hold back wages for the first 18 months of his Government is, incredibly, being peddled. It is a lie. The Scarborough decision is a real gain over the re-drafted paragraph on wages finally approved by the TUC.’ [4]

Jenkins’ support increased during 1964. On Wilson’s speech to the TUC in Blackpool the following year, he wrote:

‘Harold Wilson’s well-keyed and emphatic speech on Monday was brilliantly expressive of the taut, yet flexible pregnant relationship between the unions and the Labour Party.’ [5]

And, after Labour’s election,

‘Everything in the Queen’s speech is first-rate and demands, firstly, our support and our appreciation of the firm leadership being shown. The task of transforming our country has been very well begun indeed.’ [6]

Plaudits for Harold Wilson in Tribune throughout those months can be found even from such devoted militants as Ian Mikardo and Fenner Brockway. In the nineteen months of Wilson’s Leadership of the Opposition, Tribune devoted only a few random sentences to criticism of Harold Wilson or his policies. When, for instance, Wilson called for more helicopters to assist the British troops fighting against nationalists in South Arabia and Aden, Tribune complained: ‘Hasty statements like Mr Wilson’s this week will not help.’

The compliments heaped on Harold Wilson by the Labour Left were not always returned. During the election campaign for the Labour leadership after Gaitskell’s death, the editor of Tribune, Richard Clements, decided to publish Commons speeches on defence policy by the two principal contenders, Harold Wilson and George Brown, to demonstrate the differences between them. Accordingly, Clements sent them both proofs of the edited versions of their speeches, and telephoned them to check that the editing met with their approval. Brown agreed instantly, as did Harold Wilson who was full of praise for the standard of the editing. As Clements was about to hang up, Wilson asked urgently,

‘You’re not supporting me, are you, by any chance?’

Not at all, replied Clements. The speeches would be published without editorial comment. In some relief, and with further effusive praise and thanks, the conversation ended. By the time Wilson became Prime Minister in October 1964 he had contrived to unite the Labour Party and its affiliates as it had never been united since 1945. Even before the 1945 and 1929 elections a substantial minority of critics continued to attack central aspects of official Labour Party policy, and the Labour leaders. Before the 1964 election the silence of the consensus was broken only by the thin wails of ‘satirists and sectarians.’

In normal circumstances such unanimous approval and praise from the Left would almost certainly provoke an opposite reaction from the Right. Yet during the same period the Labour Right was equally uncritical. This was not merely because an election approached and most of the Right-wing leaders were guaranteed a place in a Labour Cabinet. It was also because in the twenty months of Tory Government following Gaitskell’s death, Labour Party policy did not change in detail or in emphasis.

The few policy changes which did take place, notably over immigration, Cyprus and Aden were clear moves to the Right. The Right-wing leaders may have disliked Wilson and distrusted him. But they could hardly forbear to support him when he contrived to unite the Party behind a policy which was slightly to the Right of that approved by Hugh Gaitskell. The Left, in the meantime, concocted a myth which was to sustain them for several years:

‘By the early 1960s the Labour Party had decided that revisionism was not on the agenda and the slow struggle back to power began. Under a new leadership and with a programme which made a clear challenge to the “You’ve never had it so good” society which had been created by the Tories, the party won the election of 1964.’ [7]

In fact, of course, revisionism had in no sense, and not for a single moment, left the agenda. Gaitskell’s policy on the Bomb had triumphed and the parry’s policy on economic affairs was still based on the ultra-revisionist Industry and Society. In more ways than one the policy of the Party, as opposed to the electoral rhetoric of its leaders, had swung, if anything, Rightwards since 1959. The magical transformation in Party policy which accompanied the election of Harold Wilson to the leadership took place only in the minds of the Labour Left. The enthusiasm for this mythical revolution swept the Labour ranks even further Left than Tribune. Mr Tom Nairn, a prominent writer in the New Left Review wrote in the symposium Towards Socialism, written before the Labour victory of 1964, but coming out shortly after it:

‘There is no doubt that, relatively, with regard to the past annals of the Labour leadership, Wilson represents a kind of progress. Wilson constantly professes the habitual Labour contempt for theory – “theology” as he calls it – but has far more theoretical grasp than any previous leader. Unlike so many former Left-wing figures who have moved towards power, he has never actually renounced or broken with his past: he is likely to be much more open to Left-wing ideas and pressures than his predecessors. In contrast to Gaitskell and Attlee, Wilson seems singularly free from the bigoted anti-Communism which has been a surrogate for thought and action in many social-democratic movements.’

The almost unanimous inclination of the Labour Left to turn their attention from the written policy to abstract rhetoric about ‘commanding heights’ and ‘nationalisation of urban land’ enabled Harold Wilson during his twenty months as leader of the Opposition to fulfil his promise of remaining loyal to the policy of Hugh Gaitskell while at the same time convincing Gaitskell’s enemies that Gaitskellite revisionism ‘was not on the agenda.’ His ambition, as expressed to John Junor, to hold high the banner of nationalisation while leading the Labour Party away from it had been fulfilled.

This achievement was sustained in the immediate afterglow of the 1964 election victory. Only a few Labour MPs complained about the delay of six months in paying the proposed pensions increase, and even fewer objected to the decision to send Buccaneer aircraft to South Africa. Throughout November, Tribune re-published Harold Wilson’s main speeches, explaining that the differences between the paper and the leader were ‘of emphasis rather than of principle.’ [8] The paper’s clerical correspondent, Dr Donald Soper, who was shortly to receive a peerage from the Prime Minister, declared his New Year’s resolution on 1 January 1965: ‘to support the Government more fervently.’ And when George Brown had enticed the leaders of the trade unions and of industry to sign a declaration of intent to formulate an incomes policy, he received uncritical support from Tribune’s two economic correspondents from Sheffield, Mr Michael Barratt Brown and Mr Royden Harrison, who were not ashamed to cloak Mr Brown and his advisers in the mantle of Marxist orthodoxy: ‘The scene,’ they wrote, ‘is once again set for a decisive victory for the political economy of Labour.’ [9]

Summarising Labour’s first hundred days, Tribune’s editor concluded: ‘It would be grossly unfair to turn upon the Government now and rend it.’ Any minor errors, he was sure, would soon be put right. After all,

‘Given the spirit which Harold Wilson has most notably displayed on many previous occasions, there is no reason why the Government could not and cannot recover all the ground lost in the past weeks, and capture much more territory in the months ahead.’ [10]

And so it seemed, for a few months at any rate. The publication of ‘Dick Crossman’s brilliant housing Bill,’ the ‘welcome Race Relations Bill,’ the plans for steel nationalisation, the Budget, and the long Commons battle with Tory stockbrokers, all put heart into the Labour Left. Tribune proudly published interviews with leading Ministers, notably one with Anthony Greenwood, the new Colonial Secretary, who astonished the paper’s readers in British Guiana by his enthusiasm for the Duncan Sandys’ Guianese Constitution (described by Harold Wilson at the time of its publication as ‘fiddled’) and his description of the Guianese Prime Minister, Forbes Burnham, as ‘a socialist.’

More important matters, however, soon arose to ruffle the solidarity of the Labour Left. First was the Government’s immediate and unequivocal support for the Americans in their war in Vietnam, particularly their support for the American bombing of North Vietnam, which started in February. Second was the Immigration White Paper in August. Third was the series of nibbling deflations, culminating in the big £100m bite at the end of July. Fourth was the Government’s decision, in the light of the abstention of Desmond Donnelly and Woodrow Wyatt in the House of Commons, to shelve the nationalisation of steel. And fifth, perhaps worst of all, was the National Plan, published in September. All these, in one form or another, were attacked by the Labour Left, though none of these attacks took the form of Parliamentary votes or abstentions. The National Plan particularly irritated those who had hoped for a genuine economic programme based on social justice, welfare and equality. The Plan, complained Tribune, ‘is a non-plan with its priorities badly wrong. George Brown should go away and think again.’ As for deflation, the Left’s alternatives did not (yet) include devaluation. John Mendelson, Left wing MP for Penistone argued both in Parliament and outside for import controls and overseas investment checks. On the issue of the incomes policy, the Left was split. Clive Jenkins, who had argued so furiously a year earlier that Harold Wilson was opposed to wage restraint, found that George Brown’s plan for an Incomes Bill was ‘fundamentally authoritarian and anti-trade union. It should be spurned as a hobble for free men – a device which perpetuates inequality in British society.’ [11] The academics of the Left, however, still believed that the Government would produce a ‘socialist incomes policy.’ The extent of the Left’s reaction to these measures differed sharply. Some were so shocked and horrified that they cried halt to all support for Labour. Malcolm Caldwell, a dedicated Labour campaigner, voiced the most extreme disillusionment in a letter to Tribune on 20 August:

‘Socialist principles have been tossed aside with almost indecent cynicism and casualness. Racial discrimination in Britain has been condoned and strengthened. American butchery in Vietnam has been actively supported and encouraged. Social welfare and economic development in Britain have been sacrificed to carry out a reactionary economic programme at the behest of international finance capital. What of the Left leaders in Parliament? Tell them off on your fingers, comrades, and think of their words and deeds in recent months while the Labour movement has been sold down the river. It is a sad picture and I can personally neither see nor offer any excuses. Are we finished, we of the Labour Left?’

And, the following month, Alan Dawe, Tribune’s education correspondent, announced his resignation from the Labour Party:

‘We are not right,’ he wrote ‘to view the Labour Party and its latter day works as having anything to do with socialism. They don’t, they won’t and it is time we faced up to it.’ [12]

Such voices were, at the time, isolated heralds of the massive disillusionment that was to follow. The editor of Tribune received a great many more letters complaining about his attacks on the Labour Government and was forced to write an editorial explaining the need for dissent. And, even in that unhappy summer, the Left-wing Labour MPs could take solace in the wizardry of their leader:

‘He (Wilson) commands more widespread support within the Parliamentary Labour Party and in the country than any other leader the Labour Party has had. He fights the Tories and enjoys it ... The atmosphere (at the PLP meeting at the end of the summer Parliamentary session) was euphoric. Miraculously the gloom was banished ... Everything in the garden seemed to be looking, well, if not exactly lovely, at least a good deal greener than when Callaghan was wielding his axe six days before.’ [13]

As the economic crisis was temporarily dispelled, and, as Parliament met again in the autumn, the atmosphere of euphoria drugged the Labour Left. The total disarray of the Tories, under a new and indecisive leader; Harold Wilson’s two vast speeches at Party Conference and his apparently tough line on Rhodesia; the promotion of Barbara Castle and Anthony Greenwood; and a number of important welfare reforms, notably rating relief and local authority interest rate subsidy, combined to convince the Left that the Government was on the right road. When Richard Gott decided to stand as Radical Alliance candidate in the by-election in North Hull, he was severely rebuked by the Labour Left. ‘Do not destroy the Government!’ bellowed Tribune:

‘Every socialist has the right to criticise the design and performance of the Labour automobile – so long as he also helps to put some petrol in the tank.’ [14]

Two months later, with the decision to hold another General Election, all criticism was thrown to the winds in a stampede to get as much petrol into the tank as possible. Even Clive Jenkins’ carping about the Incomes Policy was stayed. For the new Labour Manifesto, Time for Decision, Tribune had nothing but praise:

‘The Labour manifesto is not only an interesting and stimulating document. It is also, in essence, a socialist one. The answers are inescapably egalitarian. There is some self-congratulation, but is it not justified?’ [15]

As election day approached the enthusiasm became feverish: ‘March 31st,’ wrote Michael Foot, ‘will mark one of the essential dates in the forward march. It is an opportunity which only incorrigible sectarians and nihilists, the best allies of the forces of reaction, will not wish to seize.’ [16]

It is hard even for an incorrigible sectarian to read Tribune before and after the March 1966 General Election without a lump rising in his throat. On the day of the election, Tribune brought out a special front and back page which shouted in savage exultation at the impending destruction of the Left’s enemies:

‘... Who doesn’t want a landslide? We see you, Desmond Donnelly, with your Spectator pals – well, here it comes and you’ll be buried in steel ...

‘Pensions up, Rent Act Security, Unemployment Down, Prescription Charges off, who cares! We do ... and so do millions ... now, for bigger advances, VOTE LABOUR!’

It was the triumphant, almost incredulous shout of thousands of men and women in the Labour movement who had worked all their lives without compensation for the return of a Labour Government in prosperous peacetime. The quarrels, the arguments, the strikes and lock-outs, the bitter theoretical wrangles of the last thirteen years had been smoothed over and bypassed with the injunction: ‘Get the Tories Out.’ In the past 17 months of miniscule majorities, the injunction had been reiterated even more earnestly. For the 50,000 or so readers of Tribune, the hard core of Labour’s rank and file, a Parliamentary majority for Labour was the first solution and did promise a more libertarian, more egalitarian society. No wonder in the hour of victory, that Tribune bellowed: ‘SOCIALISM IS RIGHT BACK ON THE AGENDA,’ and that their columnist Francis Flavius could argue that the election results marked ‘a significant watershed in British politics.’ [17] The Labour Left and Tribune took the 1966 election result more seriously than anyone else in the land. The Press, who had whipped up a violent campaign against Labour in 1964, the industrialists, (even the steel masters who knew that a big majority would bring steel nationalisation) were silent. The flow of big money into Tory Party funds, even from the steel masters all but dried up. Political commentators reported ‘a boring election’ and predicted ‘no change.’ And, in the event, nothing changed. The course of British politics was not altered in the slightest degree by Labour’s landslide victory of 1966. After a brief moment of euphoria, Harold Wilson and his henchmen continued their propaganda about restrictive practises on both sides of industry, their paranoiac defence of the pound sterling and their attacks on the trade unions.

Once the axe started to fall, it fell quickly. In May, the seamen went on strike to be met with fierce resistance, smears and abuse from the Labour Government. In early July, Frank Cousins, hero of the Labour Left, resigned from the Government over the publication of the Prices and Incomes Bill. In mid-July another sterling crisis pushed the Labour Government into a wage freeze and the most ruthless deflationary measures since the war.

The Left reacted to all this in shocked astonishment. ‘There has been,’ complained Tribune in June, ‘no glimmer of a changed strategy, no enlarged vision since the General Election of March 1966.’ John Morgan, a devoted socialist with a strong Left-wing bias, greeted the July measures with a melancholy cry which must have touched the hearts of the Labour Left throughout the land:

‘It isn’t just emotion that moves the socialist to rage and sadness now – not that there would be anything wrong with emotion. Dismay springs from the knowledge that a good, coherent programme for modernisation existed, even exists, which has been abandoned without even being tried. When Harold Wilson began speaking on the stage of the Brangwen Hall, Swansea, on the afternoon of 25 January 1964, he was not only establishing himself as a national leader, he was winning the people to sensible ideas. It was an important moment in British politics ... The speech became the basis of the National Plan. It demonstrated how the recurring difficulties of the balance of payments could be defeated, how increased production could be the basis of a new society.’ [18]

John Morgan represented the Labour Party members who had been won over to what he called ‘that series of great speeches in the early months of 1964.’ The dreary semi-Keynesian technocracy of Harold Wilson had inspired men like John Morgan just as John Kennedy’s preposterous New Frontier had inspired the soft American Left four years previously. Now with the Government’s collapse into Conservative remedies and Conservative reactions the Labour Left was utterly disillusioned without anything to offer as an half credible alternative.

In his Sunday Times article, in fact, John Morgan argued that the pound should have been devalued in 1964. Along with many others on the Left and Right who argued along the same lines, Morgan had advanced no such argument hi 1964. Tribune opposed devaluation in 1964, 1965 and in July 1966; only in 1967 did the majority of the paper’s economic correspondents support a floating rate for the pound. And even then the Labour Left argued, quite dishonestly, that devaluation need not involve deflation. [19]

The July measures of 1966 forced the hard core Labour Left into almost permanent opposition to their Government. The Prices and Incomes Act (on which some 30 Labour MPs abstained in August and October), the Vietnam war, the Common Market (for entry to which the Government applied in November), rising unemployment and a continuing squeeze on the social services all provoked more and more protest. Fortunately for the Left-wing MPs, the policy of the Whips, laid down by Richard Grossman and John Silkin, was to run the Parliamentary party on a light reign, and abstentions were permitted against angry protests from the more ‘loyalist’ backbenchers and from the chairman of the Parliamentary Labour Party, Emmanuel Shinwell, who eventually resigned. All the Left assumed that Harold Wilson strongly approved this ‘liberal’ policy. In May 1966, for instance, Hugh Jenkins, the MP for Putney, had argued:

‘Years of hostility and repression have bred in the old Parliamentarians (who are still the most courageous and resolute of the lot of us) conspiratorial habits which are no longer necessary under the tolerant regime of Harold Wilson.’ [20]

Yet in March 1967, after 60 MPs had abstained after the defence debate, in protest against the refusal to make further defence cuts, Wilson rounded on the Left at a Parliamentary Party meeting, warning them that ‘a dog is only allowed one bite’ and threatening them with a General Election unless they came to heel. Though the discipline issue faded for several months after this outburst, it arose even more seriously in early 1968 as the hard core of the Parliamentary Left voted against every one of the Government proposals for cuts in social services announced in January, and against the Immigration Act, 1968. Once again, the Parliamentary Party, with Wilson’s approval, turned the discipline screw.

Yet throughout the entire period of disillusionment and near-despair, there was one threat which never failed to ensure the loyalty of the Labour Left: a threat to the personal leadership of Harold Wilson. In the aftermath of the 1966 July deflation, a rumour gained ground in Labour circles, which was substantially true, that a meeting of back-benchers and some Ministers had been held to discuss the possibility and the means of replacing Harold Wilson with James Callaghan. As soon as Tribune caught hold of this rumour, it exploded with rage.

Similarly, after the 1967 devaluation, during the controversy on arms for South Africa, when a bid was made to replace Wilson with Callaghan, the Left rallied to Wilson. Three months later, when further moves were made to promote Roy Jenkins or Anthony Crosland to the Treasury, a group of 91 MPs wrote a letter to The Times.

The letter was headed ‘Comfort for Mr Wilson’ and it took issue with The Times political correspondent, David Wood, who had reported the previous day that ‘his (Wilson’s) own rank and file have no confidence in him.’

‘We do not know,’ ran the letter, ‘how Mr Wood came to this conclusion, but it certainly was not in speaking to any of the undersigned, proof enough that his sweeping generalisation has no basis in fact.’ [21]

The signatures had, reported the letter, been ‘gathered in a very short time,’ and they included familiar loyalists and former ‘young eagles.’ Yet they also included such bastions of the Parliamentary Labour Left as Russell Kerr, John Mendel-son, James Dickens, Eric Heffer, Peter Jackson, Norman Atkinson, Michael Foot, Andrew Faulds, and Ben Whitaker. The official argument for the letter was that the Left’s quarrel with the Government was about policies, not personalities, and that any attempt to introduce personalities into the argument should be immediately scotched.

The Left however had not scrupled in the past to attack personalities responsible for reactionary policies, and to call for their removal if only as a gesture of disapproval of those policies. In 1959 and 1960, Tribune and its followers had consistently attacked Gaitskell and had called again and again for his removal from the leadership. Again, on 6 January 1967 Tribune had demanded, in a front page headline: ‘CALLAGHAN MUST GO!’ and had claimed that although the removal of the Chancellor would not of itself right the wrongs of his policies, it was necessary as an indication that policy changes were intended.

The obsession of political correspondents with personalities is infuriating for all politicians who seek to discuss the policy issues. Yet the MPs’ letters to The Times of 12 March 1968, did not diminish the personality aspect; it increased it. If the Left-wing MPs who signed the letter had genuinely not cared about personalities, they would have written to The Times not to declare their confidence in their leader but to disavow all interest in the leadership issue. The truth was, as it had been for several years, that, deep down, the Labour Left felt that Harold Wilson was ‘one of them.’ This myth had outlived the apparently endless list of anti-socialist measures enacted by Harold Wilson’s administration.

Old ghosts still jibbered in the theoretical graveyard. ‘Gaitskellism,’ wrote Michael Foot in March 1967, ‘like Stalinism, cannot easily be restored.’ Yet what, in the reality of March 1967, did Gaitskellism mean? What further horrors could it wreak? Would Gaitskell, perhaps, have introduced a wage freeze for a year or permanently brought wage negotiations under the control of the law courts? Would he have imposed prescription charges, postponed raising the school leaving age, cancelled free school milk in secondary schools? Would he have based his industrial policy on mergers and monopolies supported by Government finance and Government orders? Would he have supported the Vietnam war? No doubt, Gaitskell would have pursued all these courses, as would Callaghan, Jenkins or Crosland. But Wilson had done all these things – and more. Where was the evidence – save only in the quarrel on South African arms – that ‘the Gaitskellites’ would have proved better Tories than Harold Wilson? Essentially, their policies would have been the same. The direction of the Labour Government, under Gaitskell, Wilson, Callaghan, Jenkins or Crosland or any of the other alternatives would have been equally disastrous. The leadership issue, in short, compared with the political issues in which the Government was involved was almost if not completely irrelevant.

The tenacious hold which Harold Wilson exercised on his former friends and supporters in the Left had a deeper, more political root than the fear of a mythical Gaitskellism. The reaction of Tribune and the Parliamentary Left to Wilson’s Government was based throughout on the political theory of another era. Where the Government took action which offended against the old traditions and the old theory of the Labour Left, the Left responded immediately and courageously with clear and untrammeled opposition. The reaction to the seaman’s strike of 1966 in Tribune was unconditional ‘SUPPORT THE SEAMEN!’ When unemployment was created, the Government was sharply censured. When the health charges were reimposed, Tribune shouted ‘THE SHAME OF IT ALL!’ Certainly no one could blame the Labour Left for a lack of resolution, courage and determination in their efforts to swing the Government away from these old evils. Yet at the same time, the Wilson Government was pursuing policies of a more subtle and sinister nature which seem to have escaped the attention and the criticism of the Labour Left.

These policies can be listed under the heading of Corporatism. The encouragement of vast mergers and monopolies under the aegis of the Government-financed Industrial Reorganisation Corporation; the complex planning machinery of the little Neddies and of the geographic planning councils; the incorporation of the trade-union leadership into the network of planning on the bogus pretext of ‘Incomes Policy;’ the interference of the State with almost every major wage dispute through the Prices and Incomes Board – these new, drastically dangerous corporatist developments were not identified by the Labour Left – and therefore not opposed. When Alan Dawe had resigned from the Labour Party in 1965 he had complained in Tribune about that paper’s obsession with State ownership and State control:

‘There is nothing socialist about the commanding heights now. For this Government is trying to create a power elite, more cohesive and omnipotent than any we have seen in recent British history ... this is the ultimate significance of the attempt to forge a consensus of opinion and action between the leaders of Government, industry and the unions ...’

Yet the Left around Tribune overlooked this problem. They rejoiced when, in the autumn of 1967, the Queen’s Speech included references to an Industrial Expansion Bill, whereby the State would take minority shareholdings in crucial industries and appoint minority directors to the Boards .The measure was marginally less drastic than the proposals in Industry and Society which the Left had so violently opposed ten years previously. Nevertheless, at the suggestion that the Industrial Expansion Bill should be dropped or postponed, Tribune frothed with fury. Harold Wilson’s knowledge of ‘public ownership’ rhetoric, gleaned with such care during his period as a Bevanite, served him in good stead as Prime Minister, and continued to bamboozle many of his former Left-wing colleagues into the belief that the vast, undemocratic corporatist machinery which he was setting up was in some sense a move towards socialism. In fact, of course, the ‘planning’ of Selwyn Lloyd and Maudling was taken over and speeded up by Harold Wilson – even to the extent of nationalising the steel industry and appointing the steel bosses to run a new, dynamic, streamlined single unit called the National Steel Corporation. The Government’s decision to include provisions in the steel legislation for the election of trade unionists and rank-and-file workers to the local steel boards was hailed by the Labour Left as a victory. [22] In fact, it was nothing of the kind. As became clear at once, the ‘concession’ served merely to incorporate some of the more politically conscious workers into the labyrinthine apparatus of the Corporation machine. The steel corporation rapidly became the most transparently corporatist, or State capitalist industrial unit in the country.

The grand illusions which, both before and after 1964, rallied the Labour Left to the Wilsonian recipes of State ownership and automation were not entirely due to the skill of the illusionist. Rhetorical sleight-of-hand, however brilliant, could never of its own have brought about so great a conversion. The truth was that Harold Wilson’s pragmatism burst on the Labour movement at a moment of theoretical impasse. The violent changes in capitalism, in the relationship between the State and private industry, had thrown the Labour Movement into theoretical disarray. The Labour Right had responded by abandoning ‘the means’ of public ownership and fixing their sights on a more humane capitalism, prodded and pushed by a Labour Government. The Left, in fury, responded by re-stating ‘the end’ – socialism – while becoming increasingly vague as to what it meant, and increasingly unable, therefore, to propose any comprehensible means. The argument, symbolised by two 1960 Fabian pamphlets, Socialism in the Affluent Society, by Richard Crossman, and Can Labour Win? by Anthony Crosland, dragged on for several years, with both sides hopelessly missing the mark. In the event, both sides were exhausted by irrelevance, and Harold Wilson’s ‘dynamic,’ essentially capitalist terminology filled the vacuum. [23]

The new corporatism which Wilson had consistently proclaimed for so many years led to a development which was even more significant for the Labour Left: a decline in the power and importance of Parliament. Classical capitalism of the Adam Smith variety, with its warring factions and devotion to competition between individual firms, allowed considerable scope for debate, discussion and even power in Parliament. Similarly in the early days of universal suffrage, and, particularly in the post-1945 era when private, pre-war capitalism was in jeopardy, the power of Parliament was, relatively, considerable. With the closing of the capitalist ranks in national, corporate monopoly, and, more importantly, with the increasing power and confidence of the monopolies, the power of Parliament declined. The big decisions left to Government became increasingly secret, increasingly the preserve of the Executive which did not always mean the Cabinet. The big decisions were taken by Cabinet committees, sometimes even by individuals, and, even then, many of these decisions depended on expert advice from the men who wielded economic power. The decision to devalue the pound in 1949 was taken by four or five men, and the Cabinet were not told until six weeks after the decision had been taken. The choice open to Cabinet members at that stage was to accept a fait accompli or to resign. Similarly, in 1967, the devaluation decision was taken several weeks before the Cabinet knew anything about it. In 1965, the National Plan, which was intended to shape the nation’s economic future for five years, was released in the Parliamentary recess, without recourse to Parliament or even to the Parliamentary Labour Party (still less to the Labour Conference). These were all decisions which were still formally the province of Parliament. In the meantime, the big decisions in the nation’s economic and industrial life moved away even from the Executive. The almost laughable antics of the Monopolies Commission indicated, if proof were needed, the full extent of the impotence of Parliament over the nation’s industrial affairs. The more the mergers, the bigger the monopolies, the greater the power of industrial and economic bureaucracies. The absorption of trade-union leaders and the official trade-union machinery into these bureaucracies shifted the centres of resistance into small pockets of revolt: into isolated unofficial strikes, tenants’ committees, students’ demonstrations. Even inside the Party, however, the real shift to the Left was to be seen not in Parliament but in the trade unions. The election of Hugh Scanlon as President of the AEU in 1967, the growth in membership and militancy of the small white-collar unions, notably the Draughtsmen and Allied Technicians’ Union and the Association of Scientific and Managerial Staffs, indicated a sharp shift away from the Labour establishment in the area in which thereto it had been most firmly entrenched; the trade-union leadership.

In the meantime the Parliamentary Left and Tribune seemed to focus even more closely and intently on traditional, Parliamentary forms of political activity. There was no attempt to reform the Victory for Socialism Group or the Appeal for Unity which had been formed in the late 1950s and early 1960s in an effort (which was not very successful) to organise the rank and file for a campaign against the Labour Right. In 1967, an effort was made to re-start the Tribune Brains Trusts of the early 1950s. By April 1968, about twenty of these Brains Trusts had been held, their success depending on the strength and militancy of the sponsoring constituency parties. The Left-wing MPs were forced by the logic of their position, to concentrate on Parliamentary tactics. In August 1966, John Horner, Left-wing MP for Oldbury and Halesowen, wrote an article in Tribune attacking the new wage freeze and incomes policy and calling for rejection of the policy at the forthcoming Trades Union Congress. When Francis Flavius, Tribune’s columnist referred the following week to Horner’s ‘campaign,’ John Horner replied with some urgency:

‘I should hate Francis Flavius to give anyone the idea that I am now calling for mass action from the trade union movement against it (the incomes policy).’ [24]

Moreover, as Ralph Miliband has shown in his comprehensive analysis, Parliamentary Socialism, the Parliamentary road to socialism is fraught with dangers – not least the danger of personal absorption into the machinery of Government. From the very beginning of the Labour Government in 1964 the Left was split between on the one hand the resolute older Parliamentarians and the new trade-union MPs who were prepared to fight decisions with which they disagreed through the established Parliamentary machinery, and on the other, a group of younger men who hoped, in some unspecific way, to find ‘new ways’ of proclaiming their opposition. One idea was to establish a ‘Parliamentary Forum,’ a permanent debating chamber at which the Left could thrash out a new strategy and a new theory. [25] Allegations were made by these younger men of ‘pussyfooting’ – a disparaging reference to Mr Michael Foot and the older Parliamentarians.

Harold Wilson, who had so much experience of such splits and divisions, watched with considerable interest, and, as soon as an able young Left MP fell out with his colleagues, he was duly swept into the Government. As early as 19 February 1965 a group of young back-benchers joined with two Labour veterans, Philip Noel-Baker and Arthur Henderson in writing a letter to The Times urging the Government ‘to take an immediate initiative to achieve a cease-fire (in Vietnam) and a conference in which the principled participants can search for a political solution.’ They were Peter Shore, David Ennals, Shirley Williams and Dr Jeremy Bray. The following August, the latter three of the four signed a letter from back-bench MPs calling on the Government to ‘scrap the immigration white paper.’ Jeremy Bray spoke at the 1965 Labour Party Conference on behalf of his union, the Transport and General Workers, whose million votes he pledged against the White Paper. The most anxious and dedicated opponent of the immigration White Paper was Reginald Freeson, MP for Willesden East, whose constituency housed one of the largest immigrant populations in the country (and who subsequently tripled his majority in the 1966 election). Another signature on the letter was that of the young barrister MP for Lincoln, Mr Dick Taverne. The immigration policy was also attacked in a brilliant and bitter speech late at night in the House of Commons by the MP for Renfrew West, Mr Norman Buchan, perhaps the ablest of all the Left-wing intake in 1964.

Two years later, Shore (Minister of Economic Affairs), Bray (Technology), Mrs Williams (Education), Freeson (Power), Taverne (Home Office), Ennals (Home Office) and Buchan (Scottish Office) had been absorbed into the Government. Mr Neil Carmichael and Mr Ioan Evans who had associated themselves with the Left, notably on Vietnam and defence, had also accepted jobs in the Ministries of Transport and the Whips Office respectively. The ‘pussy-footers’ had been left to carry on the fight against their accusers.

The offer of such a job places a Left-wing MP in an intolerable dilemma. In the first place, the logic of his place in Parliament tells him that he must accept a place in the Government. How, he argues, can he press for more left-wing policies from a Government, and then refuse to join the Government when offered a place in it? Moreover, particularly in offices like the Scottish Office and the Ministry of Transport the political complexion of an Under Secretary can make a difference to a host of administrative decisions. As against that, the Minister is silenced on the broad issues. He has no voice in the Government, which never meets. And, whenever necessary, he can be hauled out to vote for the Cabinet’s policy. The spectacle, for instance, of Norman Buchan and Reginald Freeson failing to oppose the frankly racialist Immigration Act of 1968 was as nauseating for their supporters as it must have been galling for themselves. Yet only once, in the case of Eric Heffer, who was offered a Government post in 1967, was the offer of such a job turned down by a Left-wing MP. Yet, in the final analysis, the central criticism of the Labour Left under Harold Wilson’s leadership does not concern their Parliamentary tactics nor the difficult decisions as to whether or not to vote against the Government, or to accept a post within it. In the 1930s Sir Stafford Cripps had posed to his followers in the Socialist League, many of whom were prominent in the Labour Left in the 1950s and 1960s, central questions about power in modern capitalist society, based on his view that the ‘idea that the wielders of economic power will co-operate with a Labour Government is quite fantastic.’

‘Can socialism come by constitutional means?’ he had asked, and had replied in the affirmative, only on the condition that the most dramatic measures to control private economic interests were undertaken immediately by a Labour Government. The power of Parliament, argued Cripps, had to be exerted to the full against private economic and industrial interests if that power was to survive. The slightest wavering in the face of those economic interests would mean the inevitable bondage of Parliament.

Had Cripps’ case been eroded by the thirty years between 1933 and 1963? Had capitalism become less powerful, more subservient to the whims of Parliament than in the 1930s? Were the great corporations of the 1960s more democratic and more easily controlled than the demoralised industries of the 1930s? Had the conflict between economic interests and socialist aims diminished, so that the powers necessary to fulfil the latter and control the former were in some sense less crucial? These questions had been raised to some extent, though in less specific and more diluted language, in the big arguments of the late 1950s. At the 1958 Labour Party Conference, for instance, Mr Trevor Park, the delegate from Darwen, later MP for South East Derbyshire, had declared:

‘I am not interested merely in a better organised society; I am not interested merely in working capitalism more efficiently than the capitalists themselves. I am interested in a society which is based upon co-operation and not upon competition ...

‘There is a fundamental conflict here.

‘The aims of those who evolve the plans – Government and the public authorities – are very different from the aims of the private capitalists who control industry. No matter how many social controls and regulations we create, there will still be attempts to evade them and discover ways and means by which the instruments of social interest can be evaded ...

‘Sooner or later we shall be brought back to this fundamental issue: are we interested only in making capitalism more efficient; are we trying to out-do the Tory Party in what is their own territory; or are we preparing for the next stage in the march forward to socialism?’ [26]

Under the leadership of Harold Wilson, these questions, despite their increasing relevance, were not asked. Instead the Left concentrated on the mechanics of Parliamentary victory rather than the policies by which the ‘fundamental conflict’ between Labour’s aims and private economic interests could be resolved. The hysteria about the importance of electoral victories reached a climax at the General Election in 1966, which quickly emerged as the unhappiest paper victory in Labour history. Under the hypnosis of Wilsonian rhetoric about public ownership, peace and technology, in the vacuum created by the irrelevance of old slogans and old analyses, and in the Gadarenian Stampede to Party Unity at election time, the Labour Left forgot about or ignored the ’fundamental conflict’ and were therefore theoretically and practically unprepared for defeat in it.

Harold Wilson’s uncanny knowledge of the Labour Party and its Left wing, most of it gained from his association with the Bevanites in the early 1950s was consistently applied to obtaining the support of Left-wing MPs, though his policies only very rarely leant Leftwards. Ruthlessly he played on the Left’s most fatal weakness: its sentimentality. Wilson knows that the Labour Left responds more enthusiastically than the Right to calls for party unity at times of crisis (especially at elections), to vague phrases about public ownership and moral crusades and helping the starving millions. In the generalised sloganising of the Labour Left Harold Wilson has always been an expert, and he never scrupled to wrap it in the shroud of Aneurin Bevan. Both before and after his accession, Wilson deployed a familiar, but highly successful rhetorical technique, attaching the name of Aneurin Bevan to the most banal cliches.

‘Why, Aneurin Bevan asked, look into the crystal ball when you can read the book.’ [27]

‘We know, as Nye Bevan said, that politics are about power.’ [28]

‘Nye had a word for it, as always: why look in the crystal ball when you can read the book?’ [29]

‘If I may quote Nye again, we are not gigolos.’ [30]

‘As Nye Bevan reminded us in the last speech to the House of Commons, one of the defects of our postwar democracy has been that it has not yet proved that it can voluntarily save itself from drift, decline and disaster by imposing the necessary discipline in time.’ [31]

Howard and West tell us that after the first ballot for the Labour leadership election in January 1963, in which Wilson had fallen only eight votes short of an overall majority over his two rivals, Callaghan and Brown, he repaired with his two campaign managers, Richard Crossman and George Wigg, to Crossman’s house in Vincent Square. There Wigg assured them that at least twelve of Callaghan’s votes were committed to Wilson, who had, in effect, won the election. At this, Wilson ‘raised his glass and proposed a toast to Nye Bevan’s memory.’ [32]

Wilson, supported by Crossman, had taken Bevan’s place on the Shadow Cabinet in 1954, when the latter had resigned on a principle held by both of them. Wilson had actively supported Gaitskell for the Party leadership against Bevan in 1955 and 1956. Wigg had resigned from the Keep Left Group in 1951 out of loyalty to Emmanuel Shinwell and the latter’s defence budget, which Bevan opposed. Yet, in a sense, the toast was justified. For without the mantle of Nye, and the deep attachment to Bevan’s memory (and to those who had supported him in the past) among the Labour Left, Harold Wilson would never have been able to appeal to the Left as one of their own. The appeal to the sentimentality of the Left was to serve Harold Wilson even more handsomely in the future. At the 1966 Labour Party Conference, for instance, at which he tried to explain away the collapse of all his policies, Wilson turned, at the end of a long, pedantic speech to a quote from a living hero, from Lord, formerly the Rev Donald Soper, personally ennobled by the Prime Minister himself as a mark of Wilson’s respect for the ‘non-conformist conscience’ of the Labour Left. At a ‘service of dedication’ in the crypt chapel of St Stephen’s Church, Mary Undercroft, in the Palace of Westminster, Wilson recalled Soper pronouncing a prayer:

‘Oh, God, grant us a vision of our land, fair as it might be:
A land of righteousness where none shall wrong his neighbour;
A land of plenty where evil and poverty shall be done away;
A land of brotherhood where all success shall be founded on service, and honour shall be given to excellence alone;
A land of peace where order shall not rest on force, but on the love of all for the common life and weal;
Bless our efforts to make the vision a living reality;
Inspire and strengthen each one of us that we may give time, thought and sacrifice to speed the day of its coming.’

‘When the time comes,’ Wilson went on, ‘I would want this Government, this Movement, to be judged by not only the British Nation, but by history, by our success or failure in turning this prayer into a reality.’

No one was sick.

The Conference, whose Left-wing element had been distinctly restive throughout Wilson’s speech (one incorrigible sectarian had even been moved to heckle) was silenced. And, to a man, the delegates rose for the solemn ritual of the standing ovation.

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1. Tribune, 22 February 1963.

2. Daily Herald, 2 October 1963.

3. Tribune, 12 June 1963.

4. Tribune, 11 October 1963.

5. Ibid., 11 September 1964.

6. Ibid., 6 November 1964.

7. Tribune editorial after the 1966 election, 8 April 1966.

8. Tribune, 20 November 1964.

9. Ibid., 8 January 1965.

10. Ibid., 29 January 1965.

11. Ibid., 17 September 1965.

12. Ibid., 24 September 1965.

13. Michael Foot in Tribune, 6 August 1965.

14. 7 January 1966.

15. 11 March 1966.

16. Tribune, 25 March 1966.

17. Ibid., 8 April 1966.

18. The Sunday Times, 24 July 1966.

19. See Tribune pamphlet, Never Again, published in July 1967.

20. Tribune, 29 May 1966.

21. The Times, 12 March 1968.

22. See Ian Mikardo, The Left in 1967, Tribune, 23 December 1966

23. Needless to say, the few socialists who recognised the real situation were ‘incorrigible sectarians.’ Alasdair MacIntyre, for instance, had written, in the aftermath of Wilson’s Scarborough speech, an article which was vindicated by subsequent events in every particular:

‘From Togliatti to Wilson the cry goes up across Western Europe that socialism is now State-sponsored planning plus automation. It is sad that neither Wilson nor Togliatti is a keen student of Hegel’s dialectic, for it would have been a great comfort to those who believe that opposites become one in a higher synthesis to realise that oddly enough capitalism is now State-sponsored planning plus automation.

‘To accept Wilsonism is to have moved over to the Right at least for the moment, no matter what other professions of socialism are made ...’ Labour Policy and Capitalist Planning, International Socialism, Winter 1963, pp. 5 9.

24. Tribune, 2 September 1966.

25. One Labour wag named the proposed organisation the Parliamentary Institute for Socialist Studies, PISS.

26. Labour Party Conference Report, 1958, pp. 163–4.

27. Swansea, 25 January 1964.

28. London, Speech to Society of Labour Lawyers, 20 April 1964.

29. Labour Party Conference, Blackpool, 29 September 1965.

30. Ibid.

31. TUC, 5 September 1966.

32. Anthony Howard and Richard West, The Making of the Prime Mlnliter, Cape, 1965, p. 30.

Last updated on 22 October 2020