Peter Sedgwick

They’re Talking About Me

(Winter 1968/69)

From International Socialism (1st series), No. 35, Winter 1968/69, pp. 39–40.
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Middle Class Radicalism
Frank Parkin
Manchester University Press, 35s

Constituency Labour Parties in Britain
Edward G. Janosik
Pall Mall, 45s

These books are the fruit of social-survey projects conducted in recent years on two British political institutions of interest to IS readers: the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and the Constituency Labour Parties. Both suffer from the timing of the moment at which it was decided to gather the data: Parkin did his survey of several hundred CND’ers in 1965 and 1966, when the movement was hardly more than a rump, and Janosik was unlucky enough to come across his CLP’s in the winter of 1962–3, a phase of unusually stuporose consensus even for the Labour Party. Wilson’s recent succession to Gaitskell, General Election jitters and Common Market cross-alliance all combined to reduce Left/Right differentiation among party activists.

No clear picture is provided by Dr Parkin on the age-distribution of his sample as a whole (though there are separate studies of participants over and under 25); nor are we told how far the participants were newcomers or experienced members. The book is, however, interesting and informative on the attitudes displayed towards the Bomb, and on other social and moral questions, by the middle-class majority of the sample and the working-class minority. Both groups were, perhaps surprisingly for those of us with experience of the CND Right inside the Labour Party, distinctly Left-wing on most of the economic items polled: both middle-class and working-class subjects wanted all major industries nationalised, the dole substantially increased, and the trade unions to have better legal protection. The proportion with the Left-wing commitment on these items increases as one goes down the scale of occupations, as does the relative appeal of the purely economic arguments against the Bomb. A majority of respondents from all classes favoured the notion of a ‘common interest’ between workers and management, but again the workers had a higher proportion with a class-conscious response.

There were, however, only 44 worker-subjects in all the 42 CND branches covered by the survey. Though the author shows that these were less solidly liberal than their middle-class counterparts on certain moral-humanitarian issues (homosexuality, overseas aid, immigration), the differences appear relatively slight; the workers in the sample are obviously far more ideologically committed to liberal and radical values than most members of their class.

The evidence in the data does not, I think, support Dr Parkin’s conclusion that middle-class Campaigners are practitioners of ‘expressive’ or ‘symbolic’, as opposed to ‘instrumental’, politics, or that middle-class respondents have no all-encompassing social ideology. Both classes of respondent sound like Centre-Left politicos: both are very untypical of their own social milieu, and resemble each other far more than they differ.

Most of the book is an entertaining and perceptive political history of CND, especially astute on the roles of the CP and the Labour Left. It is rather unfair to Christians and Marxists, both of whom are presented as less than sincere in their adhesion to the Campaign. IS is among those supposed to have been ‘half-hearted and grudging’ in their involvement, and to have refused any commitment to civil disobedience: those of us with memories of sore feet on marches, cold bottoms on pavements, and appearances in dingy police-courts (as well as of countless man-hours in CND and YCND work) are bound to find these imputations offensively inaccurate. But then, according to Parkin, any movement not geared to specific economic grievances is ‘symbolic’ or ‘expressive’, with the implication that its ultimate meaning for its participants is less than rational. Despite his strictures on American ‘mass-movement’ theory, he accepts many of its assumptions: CND’ers have a ‘deviance-syndrome’ (i.e. they have a number of disagreements with the dominant social outlook), they are ‘partially estranged from the normative order’ (which again means that they disagree with a number of official positions), and this is supposed to account for their membership of CND. In fact, the chapter on the young campaigners suggests that in their case a CND commitment preceded any wider political appraisal.

Dr. Janosik’s survey took twelve CLP’s in each of the categories: strong majority, marginal, weak. The electorally weak ones were more middle-class, more anti-NEC, more inclined to favour Leftish NEC candidates, and more insistent on foreign affairs as an area for urgent policy reform. A condition of ‘active factionalism’ was found in only three of the thirty-six parties studied. Janosik’s conclusion that there is virtually no Transport House pressure against the selection of Left-wing Parliamentary candidates is reached on too crude a view of the process of influence, and on too loose an interpretation of what would constitute acceptably Left-wing behaviour in the eyes of the official machine: even on his own evidence, not one of the candidates in safe or marginal seats rejected PLP defence policy. The role of the Regional Organiser is only cursorily examined, and there is scarcely any attempt to portray the local life of the CLP, or to relate municipal politics and clique formation to national policy alignments.

Still, more than in many other studies the essentially apolitical atmosphere of British Social-Democracy comes across. The author reserves some peeved words for CLP’s as sponsors of Left consensus-breaking and ideological brawling; there is, however, precious little of it in the data. This is one case, it seems where the academic outsider has come out with a clearer picture of the murk than the bemused insider or entrist.

Peter Sedgwick

Last updated on 22 October 2020