Ted Grant

The Bournemouth conference—reality and illusion

Source: RCP internal bulletin (August 3, 1946)
Transcription: Francesco 2010
Proofread: Fred 2010
Markup: Niklas 2010

Comrade DO’s criticism of the article in the mid-June Socialist Appeal is, we fear, written from the point of view of immediate “entry”, and does not give an objective estimate of the trends in the Labour Party conference. Although he claims that the Appeal article was coloured by preconceived ideas, on examination we will see it is comrade DO who seeks to substitute preconceived ideas for unchallengeable facts.

The Appeal article was written on the basis of press reports from all newspapers—bourgeois and labour—and before comrade DO’s report of the conference arrived at the centre.

It is a striking fact that the whole of the press, from left to right, were unanimous that the conference was a resounding victory for the right-wing leadership. From whatever angle the conference was approached, every serious observer could only come to this conclusion.

The Tribune, organ of the “left” of the Labour Party sums up the “Bournemouth parade” accurately thus:

“The Bournemouth Victory Parade has, to this mid-week date of writing, passed off without a hitch. Office has enhanced the stature of Labour’s leaders; their record of achievement is immense; one after another, with becoming grace, they took the salute from an enthusiastic and uncritical audience…

“Altogether it was magnificent; but it was not a party conference. For a party conference, as opposed to a victory parade, requires opposition. A brilliantly witty, but unsupported typical speech from Ian Mikardo; a few demagogic gestures from Will Lawther easily brushed aside by Shinwell; mild defeats for the executive on comparatively minor issues, some uncoordinated protests on foreign policy; excellent speeches on Spain and Palestine (the best of the conference from the floor, notably by Dick Crossman) such a combination does not constitute an opposition. Delegates waited eagerly for the pill, only to be left dazed and wondering at the end whether they had swallowed it without knowing…

“But the problem for the future remains. It will be a bad thing for the Party, bad for socialism, bad for all the hopes and aspirations which enthused the assembled delegates, if the Bournemouth procedure is accepted as a precedent…

“We should prepare, after this first natural celebration, for real conferences in the future…”

Pollitt [General Secretary of the Communist Party of Great Britain, Editor’s Note] writes of the “honeymoon” period for the Labour government. The national, local, and provincial and labour papers sounded the same note: victory for the Labour leaders. Only our Minorityblind to the factsand there are none so blind as those who do not wish to seewould dream of denying so self-evident a fact. [“Our Minority” refers to the minority in the Revolutionary Communist Party who had developed the perspective, in line with the then leadership of the Fourth International, that capitalism was facing an immediate crisis and that on that basis the Labour Party would be pushed to the left. This led them to see a left wing where there was none. Editor’s note].

Our summing up of the conference in the Appeal was as follows:

“The Labour Party conference this year was a walkover for the right wing. The Labour leaders and the members of the government had it all their own way. There was not a single important issue on which they were seriously challenged. Even in comparison with conferences held during the war years, this one was sharply to the right.”

This statement is an absolutely accurate estimation of the trend of the conference. The Labour leaders had as easy a passage as they [have] had for many years. Comrade DO says that this was not accomplished “without a good deal of opposition”. No one who knows anything about past Labour Party conferences would make so bold as to assert anything else but that the opposition was feebler, less formidable and easily dealt with by the bureaucracy than in the past.

In order to try and cover up the fact that there is no real left wing, comrade DO has to put forward the fantastic proposition that the Labour Party leaders have swung to the left!

“ ‘Even in comparison with conferences held during the war years, this one was sharply to the right.’ This is certainly the wildest of comrade Grant’s statements. The fact that the coalition has been broken and that we now have a majority Labour government is proof of the leftward turn of the masses, and this left turn was expressed at the conference by the delegates and also by certain of the platform speakers. Does comrade Grant deny that by breaking the coalition last year the Labour Party leadership took a ‘left’ demagogic position? That this leftward swing of the masses forced the Labour Party leadership to the left?”

Certainly the ending of the coalition and the election of the Labour government was an indication of the greatest radicalisation of the British working class for two decades. Reluctantly the Labour leaders tore themselves from the loving embrace of the Tories. They were compelled to enter the general election under an independent banner. They did not enter the election with a fighting organisation which had been prepared for electoral struggle. On the contrary they were taken by the scruff of the neck and pushed into power.

Unfortunately comrade DO has not seen the process which has taken place. The election of the Labour government marked a tremendous swing to the left, and indeed in the broad historical sense, marked the beginning of the British revolution. But because of the contradictory historical process, the election of the Labour government led to a turn to the right on the part of the masses and the Labour Party. This was shown not only by developments within the country, but precisely by the Labour Party conference. This question is fully dealt with in the conference resolution. Sufficient to point out that we corrected our previous perspective on the tempo of development in the light of events. Not only the Labour Party Conference indicates that the tempo will be slower than we expected, but the struggle on the industrial field [also confirms this].

In the first year following the last war 35 million working days were lost because of strikes. In the first year following this war two and a half to three million days were lost. Does this not teach the comrades of the Minority anything? Of course, this will change both in the Labour Party and in industry. But the first moves of the masses will be in the industrial field.

The breaking of the coalition and the victory of the Labour government was paradoxically the reason why this conference was more to the right than in previous years. No one can doubt this who would compare the discussion at last year’s conference with the discussions at this conference. We will develop this point precisely on the question of foreign policy, which is the main peg on which DO hangs his case. He does not see that it is precisely on this question that the swing to the right is most clearly indicated!

In the first place, most of the resolutions on foreign policy were not genuinely left. They were Stalinist stooge resolutions in the interests of Russian foreign policy. In the second place compare the discussion on foreign policy with the last conference—the uproar over the coalition government’s policy in Greece. The difference is outstanding. There was formidable opposition to the Labour leaders’ support of Churchill’s policy. Transport House was snowballed with resolutions from local Labour parties. The Labour leaders really had difficulty in holding their own at the 1945 conference—despite their bureaucratic manoeuvrings which take place at every Labour Party conference. (The leadership never has been, or never will be so obliging as not to manoeuvre and rig conferences! Normally, the left manifests itself in spite of those manoeuvres but does not support the leadership which engages in them!)

Today Bevin is carrying on Churchill’s policy in Greece, Indonesia and other countries. Yet how feeble and half-hearted the opposition! No matter how the comrades paint it up, this was the feeblest of oppositions with which Bevin easily dealt.

Comrade DO says that the “left was expressed at the conference by delegates and also by certain of the platform speakers”. We would like to hear the names of these lefts speaking from the platform. This would be very important for our work in the Labour Party. Does comrade DO perhaps mean Professor Laski? We have heard the name of Will Lawther as expressing the “left tendency”. Curious left wingers (at this stage)! A few pious left quasi-socialist phrases will always be heard from the Labour Party platform. That doesn’t make a left wing.

We said in the Appeal article:

“But the fact is that the agenda did not contain any resolutions indicating a left wing current. On the contrary, apart from a number vaguely left, they solidly supported the reformist conceptions of the Labour leadership.”

Comrade DO quoted only the first sentence of this paragraph. He left out the second which qualifies the first. This is bad. The formulation may not be as good as it could be. But the idea is clear enough. Vaguely left resolutions, which are not followed up by opposition to the right wing leadership and their out-and-out reformist and even reactionary policy, could not at best be characterised as a left current.

DO’s analysis of the conference agenda is rather peculiar. He finds evidence of the “left wing” in resolutions which have formed part of the reformist conceptions of the Labour Party for 25 years! There are always elements to the left of the leadership in a reformist organisation putting forward resolutions of this character—even at the period of the blackest reaction. What was important and striking about this conference was not these resolutions (which appear regularly), but the lack of any real opposition. The elements which composed the opposition were not prepared to carry a struggle against the leadership even on these limited issues; it collapsed in face of the right wing.

Comrade DO asserts that:

“In common with most of the bourgeois newspapers, Comrade Grant saw only the considerable majority vote in favour of the EC resolutions, and the general confusion of ideas presented by the opposition minority. He concludes from this that the right wing swept the board and that the only fact that emerges from the Labour Party at present is that it is en bloc, a reactionary mass, and not worth bothering with.”

The slightest perusal of the material of the party would indicate that this latter statement is a sheer distortion. At a period when the Labour Party was really dead, opposing many sectarians who are at present in the leadership of the Minority, we have argued against such a misconception. But we did not then go on to paint the Labour Party up as being more active or left than it really was. And so today, we look facts in the face.

Yes, comrades. The right wing did “sweep the board”, and at present there is no left wing or the likelihood of its emergence in the immediate future, unless some great event takes place at home or abroad such as revolution in India or France. But there is a difference between saying that entry is not advisable now, or may not be necessary in the future, and the nonsense which DO wishes to foist upon us: that the Labour Party is “one reactionary mass and not worth bothering with”.

On the question of nationalisation, comrade DO has allowed himself to be carried away. He writes:

“Such was the mood of the delegates on this question (nationalisation with generous compensation and without workers’ control) that a clearly posed alternative programme would undoubtedly have led to the defeat of the EC.”

How fantastic to suggest that the bloc vote, or even the rank and file delegates would have carried an opposition resolution of the character suggested by our comrade!

Comrade DO has forgotten apparently that when the Labour Party faction asked him to raise the question of nationalisation without compensation and with workers’ control, with the object of getting such a resolution to the conference, he pointed out that he would get no support in his branch and proposed only to speak on foreign policy and the League of Youth!

The reports from Labour parties throughout the country indicate no different a situation.

The comrade’s lack of proportion is further emphasised by his remarks on CP affiliation. He says:

“No one can seriously accept comrade Grant’s statement that, ‘The great majority unfortunately opposed affiliation, because Morrison and the Labour leaders had raised the scare that the Stalinists were really “communists”, and stood for red revolution as against parliamentary reform’.”

And proof?

“…Far from feeling bitter and hostile towards the CP, the delegates expressed their feelings by warmly applauding Morrison’s statement that there were some good and capable men and women in the CP whom the Party would welcome inside its ranks.”

Has comrade DO had “second thoughts” on this question since he sent his report in to the Labour Party faction? Compare this with what he wrote immediately after the conference:

CP affiliation

The result of vote speaks for itself. Little interest shown by delegates.

“Applause greeted Morrison’s statement that there were some good capable men and women among CP rank and file whom the party would welcome as individual members.

“The change in the constitution was voted on without discussion, although there was a strong protest, and the vote on the question of allowing discussion had to be taken twice.”

Obviously, the applause expressed the idea of the delegates that the CP should fold up, that the members should join the Labour Party as individual members.

Morrison based himself on the arguments of the incompatibility of red revolution as against peaceful methods. There is no doubt—and not even the Minority will deny this—that the overwhelming majority not only of delegates, but of Labour Party members and supporters throughout the country, still believe that they can solve their problems through Parliament and without revolution. The delegates believed that the Labour government was doing the job. Insofar as any of them are critical, they believe nevertheless, that the leadership should be given a chance to show what they can do. Unexpected even by ourselves, the Labour Party is carrying out its election programme. This creates an enormous impression in the minds of the Labour workers. That is why that, at this stage, [they] opposes the methods of “red revolution”, and that is why there was no left wing at the conference.

Comrade DO is forced to admit that there is no disillusionment amongst the Labour Party rank and file with the Parliamentary method. Then proceeds to leave this statement hanging in mid-air and tries to hinge his case on “loyalty” towards the party, and “hostility” towards outsiders!

Great events and experiences will prepare the way for the shattering of the illusions of the Labour workers. The same events will shatter the cohesion of the Labour Party. Insofar as a criticism can be made of the article it is that at the end, in dealing with the inevitable economic convulsions, it should have explained that this would inevitably lead to fissures among the leadership of the Labour Party, the development of a left wing among the younger Parliamentary MPs and find its reflection in the ranks of the Labour Party throughout the country. Such a legitimate criticism was unnoticed by our critic.

At this stage the leadership of the old left wing has fused with the right. That is one of the outstanding features of the Labour Party conference. In a few years time Aneurin Bevan or some other left faker will break with the leadership under the influence of events, most likely in the beginning of the slump and as a result of watching the movement of the masses. How the process will develop has already been outlined by us in advance. Regulation 1Aa was an indication of the process which will develop. The opposition to this regulation was not a revolutionary opposition, but left reformist. In conditions of difficulty for the Labour government, similar movements will develop.

Comrade DO says we are “pitifully weak…” and then suggests that we are in a position to create and lead the opposition! Unfortunately for our Minority’s conceptions, the left wing, when it is organised in the Labour Party, will not be organised around our programme. On the contrary, it will develop first as a left reformist and then as a centrist current.

The idea of an immediate development of the left wing in the Labour Party results from a failure to seriously analyse the situation. DO and the Minority seem to be under the impression that discontent in itself is enough for a left wing. There is always discontent inside a reformist organisation. This does not mean that this discontent automatically leads to “rebellion”. Special conditions must obtain for this. The position is analogous within society itself. There is always discontent with bad conditions under capitalism. This does not lead necessarily and immediately to revolution. All the propaganda in the world—even though the discontent is present—will have little effect unless other conditions are present. This should be familiar to all comrades in our movement. The experience of comrade DO at the Labour Party conference, when trying to make contact with the “left wing” in order to organise them, is an indication of this. He reports that the left wing “does not recognise the need for coordinating its activity.” It is significant that DO does not make any report of a single contact out of those left wingers.

The collapse and impotence of the “Victory for socialism” group (an informative letter will be issued on this) is an indication of the fact that they cannot organise even a broad left reformist current. The organising secretary of the “Victory for socialism” group admitted in discussion with some of our comrades that their campaign so far as this conference was concerned, was a “complete flop”. Furthermore, that his organisation could muster only some 200 members, most of whom were inactive.

In his “General Observations” comrade DO writes:

“The nature and variety of the criticisms shows that a left wing is in the process of emerging. At the moment it is completely without plan or leadership, and does not recognise the need for coordinating its activity.”

It is rather curious, and we think hardly accidental, that DO stopped here and did not continue to quote the most illuminating and significant part of his report to the Labour Party faction which follows on the above passage:

“These observations are based on discussions with most of the delegates who took a critical left line. Without exception, they all expressed confidence in the present leadership.”

Indeed a peculiar “left wing”! When in history has the emerging left wing expressed confidence in the right wing leadership? When in the history of the revolutionary movement has it been suggested that it would be a good time to enter the reformist organisation, when the “left wing” are so pleased with the leadership that they refuse to even countenance the idea of organising themselves? This certainly introduces new conceptions of work in reformist organisations, new conceptions of “entry”. Trotsky always taught us that we enter a reformist organisation when the left wing is at loggerheads with the leadership, and when the leadership has lost a measure of control; not when they have confidence in it! The tasks that our Minority set us are truly unique. They are based on precisely the same conceptions as those of Brockway and the centrists who have succumbed to reformist pressure, rather than those of Trotsky. To be sure their formulations are even worse. One section talks about bringing the workers into the LP and creating the left wing, admitting that there is no left wing. The other talks about going inside and raising the programme—and hey presto—the left wing will gather round us! The Trotskyists have had to pay dearly for mistakes on this question in the past. A repetition of past errors would be inexcusable for the leadership of the British Party.