Labour after the Election: The Future of the Left
First published in Socialist Review, November 1959.
Republished in A Socialist Review, London 1965, pp.111-6.
Transcribed and marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive
Thanks to Ted Crawford.
We did our best. Party activists rolled up in thousands for canvassing, addressing and all the other necessary jobs. The poll was high (6 per cent more than in 1945) the weather good. The organization near-perfect. The left put unity above all other considerations and accepted the most right-wing, unsocialist platform ever to have emanated from Transport House; they closed the ranks without reservation to put Gaitskell into power and postpone the reckoning with him and his wing until then.
It didn’t work, and the fact that it didn’t work has set off a chain-reaction of soul searching that promises to last well beyond the forthcoming conference. What happened? Was it that the Party leadership have not put up a consistent fight for the old aged pensioners all along, but remembered them only during the campaign? Was it that they have made it only too clear to militant workers that industrial disputes were none of their business and shouldn’t even happen? Was it that they were on the defensive on nationalization, paring it away here, changing its nature there? Was it their colonial record that made their fight for African freedom seem so phoney? Was it their reassurance to the City that the Pound would be put before employment? Was it their Tory position on the H-bomb?
It was all this. Labour, the party of reform par excellence, has shown little reforming zeal. Nothing it has said or done in opposition, nothing it has promised on the hustings could arouse much enthusiasm in anyone looking for more appreciable easement within capitalism than he was getting anyway, let alone anyone wanting an end to the system. To have an image projected at one during the election campaign is one thing. To be sure that it is the true image is altogether another. What, for example, has happened to the municipalization of housing and all the other bright products of the three-year re-think? Electors were not sure. They were not sure that the Labour Party was the party of change, of small reforms or of large historical steps.
But is that all? Can we honestly say with many of the political concerns, that had the party shown more fight for reforms, more principled concern for pensioners, a lively defence of nationalization and so on. over the years we would have definitely got back to power? Is there nothing other than the negative features of the Labour Party and its right-wing direction that can explain the defeat?
1 believe there is if the lack of fight was the only reason for our defaulting support. there would have been no swing to Labour in the areas of above-average unemployment (Scotland. the cotton belt and Northern Ireland) where a militant struggle for reform is more pressing than elsewhere; there would have been a greater turn towards the Liberals in those areas than in the country as a whole instead of which they lost votes in four out of the five constituencies in which comparison with 1955 is possible. If this were the sole or even major reason, at least Labour’s Left would have escaped rout. As it is, Mikardo lost Reading and over 4,000 votes, Orbach of Victory for Socialism dropped 3,000 votes and lost East Willesden, Michael Foot suffered one of the greatest swings towards the Tories (6 per cent.), Fenner Brockway just managed to hold on to Eton and Slough with the narrowest of majorities, having lost almost two-and-a-half thousand votes on the way, and so on. Similarly, deserters from the Labour Party would have turned towards the Left: but the Communist Party lost 17 deposits out of its 18 and its vote slumped heavily-14 per cent. of its supporters disappearing since the last elections in the fifteen constituences which have been fought both times (the drop being from 30,090 in 1955 to 25,742 this year).
The turn was definitely to the right and Labour’s right-wing platform was simply not right enough to stop the tide. Not that the movement of support away from Labour should be exaggerated. We still polled nearly 12¼ million votes; 43 per cent of the electorate still support whatever program Labour puts forward. The swing in Parliamentary terms is violent compared with the movement in party support. Yet, small though the latter was (less than 3 per cent) it was significant in that it was concentrated in the younger age group: the new arrivals to the voting register, and the under-thirties. How many old Party stalwarts learned poignantly that their sons appeared as “doubtful” or “against” on the canvass cards? How many learned that the loyalty to Labour, the blind unreasoning loyalty scarred into them by the struggles and sufferings of the 20’s and 30’s has not passed by heredity into the younger generation? that the environment of post-war prosperity has produced a new crop of working-class agnostics? to whom, in the words of the Party’s Youth Commission “trade unions, political parties ... have considerably less appeal ...” and in whom “there is a great deal of indifference, even hostility ... to the trade union movement”? that. finally, their move to new towns and boom power has weakened the social pressures that might have kept them “loyal “?
“This section of the population,” to quote Bevan who is once again busily turning his coat, “has become thoroughly Americanized.” “Their psychology ... is compounded of two contradictory elements – contentment and apprehension. Contentment because their material horizons have expanded and apprehension because they know their new-found improvement is precarious and fragile.” (News of the World, October 11). True enough. The new voting generation have never had it so good. No matter that their prosperity is compounded of overtime working, of wives earning, of hire-purchase and other debts; this compound is itself a product of the boom and is ministered successfully, so it seems to them, by the Tories.
To sum up so far, prosperity has weaned the post-war generation of working-class voters perceptibly from their “natural” loyalty to Labour by offering them tangible benefits in the Tory here-and-now; it has taken the steam out of the older generation’s reforming zeal with the result that the Labour Party leadership had permissive authority to suffocate in a tasteless porridge of Butskellite policy all the idealism, all the power of change inherent in youth’s frustrated condition, that might yet have appealed against the material gains and given Labour electoral victory.
The Labour leadership was caught suspended between the generations. The undying traditions of the older generation, its class loyalties proved an embarrassment to the opportunist empirics at the top bent on office at any price and on any program. The new voters found the fuddy-duddy philanthropy of the leadership unsuited to the brash realities of the Jasper world as they know it. The promise of return was not bold enough. Prosperity poisoned Labour’s electoral prospects as surely as it has separated the generations: where it hadn’t seeped through, in Scotland, the cotton belt, and Northern Ireland, young and old put their cross against the same candidate.
The coincidence of prosperity and Tory rule hurt Labour, It is a coincidence based partly in a steady rise in export prices and fall in import prices that have improved Britain’s overall terms of trade by more than 11 per cent since 1954 and have helped to steady prices. It is based partly on the enormous increase in dollar and other foreign investments in the Outer Sterling Area since 1958 which have offset the loss of some 20 per cent in its export income and have prevented a run on the slender reserves in gold and foreign currency held in London. Another element was the rise in unemployment, short-term though it was in most cases but sufficient to reduce the pressure for wage increases which helped keep prices down. 
These factors operated, but they were not the only ones. Our young workers received their impressions not merely from the Tory world of 1958-59, but from the entire post-war decade in which changes in terms of trade cancelled out, in which unemployment was a factor of negligible importance and in which, the strains of exchange crises alternated with the building of foreign reserves. There is something more lasting in the post-war prosperity than the coincidental luck of the Tories, something that confounds the interminable predictions of “the slump around the corner” and rights Capitalism’s bias to over-production, at least for the present. It is the permanent arms economy which has sustained the long-term boom and which has fixed the impression of continuing and inevitable prosperity in the minds of our young working class.
This impression might not be misplaced for a number of years yet. The greatest immorality of all time-prosperity poised on a nose-cone-looks to carry on. Not so, however, the exceptionally favourable circumstances that have blessed the Tories over the past couple of years disappearance that will make most of the political running over the period of the coming Parliament.
First, the facts. The terms of trade are turning against Britain as the world industrial boom seeps down to the raw materials producing countries and raises prices. The September Board of Trade figures (neatly held over until after the elections) showed a trade gap of £72 million, the highest since December of last year. Then, unemployment is dropping rapidly in this country and likely to drop further as the boom spreads over into the areas (Scotland, Northern Ireland) specializing in the production of capital goods. Already, some six million workers are covered by wage claims pending and many more will probably be joining the queue this season. All this and more point to the imminent loss of the exceptionally favourable economic climate which the Tories have enjoyed these last couple of years.
There is no doubt how they will react. Their majority of 100 in the Commons, the feeling that they can rely on a substantial minority of working class support will give them the confidence to resist any encroachment on their good fortune. They will resist but there is no occasion for a show-down, for an all out attempt 10 crush the working-class movement. Any cry of “back to the ’thirties” is as idiotic as it is irresponsible since so long as the no-war arms economy is a major factor in the West, they need not fear serious damage to the basic structure of their world however much they might be cramped for space every now and then.
What can we expect, then? Legislation against strikes? against shop stewards’ activities and unofficial action? against the need to “contract-out” of the political levy? Possibly. But o showdown. Again, only possibly, but also possibly not. And for this reason.
The bosses’ defence of their especially favoured position gained in the last couple of years will turn the focus of class activity towards the factories and building sites. As Bevan writes with heavy heart, the workers “will look upon Parliamentary debates as a meaningless charade, and they will seek their solution by means nearer to their hands” (ibid.). The Americanization of class relations will go on as workers become industrially more demanding, more militant and politically more reserved. Under such conditions, the bosses have the choice of openly attacking as attempted by the engineering employers twice in recent years or of disuniting the workers even more by driving a wedge between the union leadership and its membership. by using the bureaucracy to sort out their “rebel” rank-and-file militants and to conduct the war against shop stewards and such like “firebrands.” Anyone who has followed the increasing independence of the trade-union leadership from its rank-and- file, who has watched their willing acceptance of a co-operative role within the industrial machine of recent years, or, who saw the delayed, lethargic response to Labour’s election campaign cannot fail to doubt that the Tories and their pay-masters will find the second, less dramatic approach more fruitful in the long run. The real danger at this moment appears to he an attempt to buy the political neutrality of the trade union machines, and their enthusiastic condemnation of anything “unofficial” or “unauthorized”.
What of the Labour Party? We must remember that it still commands an enormous vote. It has not by any means received a death blow. But the circumstances outlined above will put enormous pressure on it to swing more and more rightward as the class struggle, fragmented though it be, passes it by and assumes a more and more “industrial” coloration. Militants will find it less, even less than now, sensitive to their needs; youth will tend to escape it; intellectuals ignore it.
The ideological lines in the Party are already drawn. The Right has marked a course towards a self-confessed, alternative capitalist party on the lines of Western Germany’s SPD (the “Party of Free Enterprise”), towards a final rejection of whatever traces of class identification remain. The Left has gathered around the defence of this class heritage and the class political platform: defence of nationalization, defence of national planning and so on. The Left is undoubtedly unorganized; its program is manifestly incomplete; its perspectives completely unthought-out. For the moment, however, it exists as a conscious tendency within the Party, more conscious than it has been for a number of years.
That the Right will ultimately be in the ascendant seems almost inevitable. The “re-think” over the last few years was made on their assumptions; the election fought on its policy. The Left offered no opposition, no platform. The Right is based on a profound trend in contemporary capitalism; the stability of a permanent arms economy. The Left on nothing more than a defence of traditions and a half-formulated, semi-socialist ideology inherited from a pre-arms-economy period. That the Left is doomed to ultimate atrophy seems almost sure.
But socialists don’t always deal in ultimates. The very next period offers an opportunity for socialist propaganda and conversion such as we’ve not had for many years. At least over the next few months the Right, for the reason that they made all the running in choosing election issues, will be on the defensive. For the first time since the immediate post-war period, they will have to fight on ideological grounds on policy. They will have to justify their programmatic stand. This is our chance. Now is the tune to resurrect the fundamentals of socialism, to hammer them out in flit eyes of a rank-and-file still smarting at the unexplained defeat. Now is the time to bring in the youth as a natural socialist battalion. No matter that we remain the minority. No matter that we face an almost certain defeat. The more we gain over the next three months, the more difficult will it be for the Right to smoke out the socialist traditions of the Labour Party, the more fertile the soil too for a burgeoning of socialism in Britain in the future.
1. In the first eight months of 1957 10,865,000 workers received wage increases amounting to £4,526,000 per week.
In the first eight months of 1958 6,028,000 workers received wage increases of £1,754,000 per week.
In the first eight months of this year only 3,606,000 workers are receiving wage increases of £867,000 per week.
Last updated on Last updated 21.5.2003