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Fourth International, July 1944


Our London Correspondent

Britain’s Labor Party Faces a Crisis


From Fourth International, vol.5 No.7, July 1944, pp.208-211.
Transcribed, marked up & formatted by Ted Crawford & David Walters in 2008 for ETOL.


The Labor Party has a dual structure of political and trade union wings. The political wing comprises the local branches, Divisional Labor Parties and Constituency Labor Parties. All of these local parties are organized in accordance with Local Government or Parliamentary Electoral Areas. For example, in any city, the smallest Labor Party branch will be the Ward Committee, which is the Party Committee in any local government electoral area. Delegates go from the Ward Committees to the City, Divisional and Constituency Labor Party, which latter is the Labor Party local, comprising all members in the Parliamentary constituency concerned. This form of organization, in times of elections, constitute a highly efficient and formidable electoral machine and indeed it was designed for that very purpose.

The trade union wing of the Labor Party, on the other hand, is entirely different in structure. Each union, at the Annual Conference of the Party, is represented by a delegate or a delegation. These delegates represent all the votes of those affiliated to the Labor Party by virtue of paying the political levy. Members of any union who sign the form contracting to pay one penny per month to the Union political funds, are thus represented as a bloc at the Labor Party conferences. There is, however, no prior discussion on political questions in the union which has any binding power over the delegate who is usually a leader appointed by the Executive. He is simply at the conference to represent Union policy – that is, the policy of the bureaucracy – but he wields the vote of the entire affiliated membership of his Union.

Slump in Party Life

At the Annual Conferences of the Labor Party, voting is by total numbers of members affiliated, either by direct individual membership, i.e. “political” membership, or by trade union affiliated membership. The ‘figures for 1944 disclosed 235,501 individual members of the Labor Party compared with 2,237,307 affiliated through trade unions. The overwhelming vote wielded by the trade union delegates at the Party Conferences thus becomes apparent. It is necessary to bear the above in mind when considering events in the Labor Party.

During the course of the war, and certainly since the entry of Labor representatives into the Churchill Coalition in 1940, the internal life of the Party has dropped to a very low level. Ward Committees very often meet only every three months. Individual membership has slumped badly. Very few public meetings are held. In general, as an organized party, the Labor Party may be said to be moribund. In most localities, the Labor Party takes no lead at all on any questions. Where an active functioning Labor Party exists, it becomes a battleground of opposing, usually Stalinist and Left wing, political tendencies. Insofar as such a local party operates, its main work is restricted to “educational” meetings, or the convening of a May Day Committee, etc.

The leaders of the Labor Party, those who are now Ministers, or in Government posts, have become completely divorced from the party base. It is not necessary here to outline the reactionary legislation and activities of Morrison, Bevin, Alexander and a host of others. But the direction in which they are driving, it is important to note, is more and more to the Right. The recent pronouncement of Labor Party foreign policy is more reactionary than any they have made in the past. The Government White Paper on Employment is typical bourgeois reaction, and the Labor Party Ministers still remain in the Government and thus give tacit consent to it. And, of course, the recent promulgation of Regulation IAA, and the arrest of the Trotskyists mark a new level of collaboration with the worst Tory reaction.

Two Antagonistic Trends

Parallel with the apathy of the party organization and the leadership’s swing to the Right, proceeds the ever greater integration of the trade union apparatus in the state. The influence of the bureaucratic executive councils of the unions is consistently thrown behind the most reactionary current Labor Party figures in the Government at any particular time. Further, the union bureaucrats in return are guaranteed powerful aid from the government circles against the leftward pressure from the masses.

However, this over-boiling, leftward pressure of the masses is the factor which complicates and threatens to destroy the whole bureaucratic reactionary set-up. Particularly in the armed forces, a great spirit of questioning and discussion pervades the atmosphere. The events in the Eighth Army, such as the recent poll, which showed an overwhelming majority of the soldiers in favor of the right to strike in wartime, give poignant evidence of this spirit.

The transition to new production forms, curtailing war production and the preparation for peacetime production with its concommitant redundancy of labor and reduction of wages, are having a far-reaching effect upon the political orientation of the workers. It thus becomes more and more difficult for the union bureaucrats and the labor leaders to effectively keep the workers in check. The rising crescendo of strikes, culminating in the great miners’ strikes this year, was a sufficient warning and indication to the bureaucrats that their whole policy was in danger.

In terms of political allegiance, however, the entire process has led to the undoubted fact that if a general election were to be held now, the Labor Party would get an overwhelming majority. At the moment, the workers and soldiers believe, in the main, that everything would be better if the Tory influence were to be completely crushed, and the Labor leaders given a free hand. Meanwhile, amongst certain sections of the workers, such as the miners and factory workers in some of the key engineering centers, a deep distrust of Bevin, Morrison and the Labor Party tops has set in.

It is the contradiction between the reactionary activities of the Labor Party tops and the militant temper of the workers which determines the whole course of the struggles in the Labor Party today. The mass pressure has resulted in a crystallization of what are called the “Labor Lefts” in the House of Commons, who attempt to give vent to the frustrated feeling of sections of the workers, and at the same time lead these feelings into “safe” channels.

Crystallizationof the “Labor Left”

The “Labor Left” consists of such Members of Parliament as Aneurin Bevan, Silverman, Sorenson, Cove, Alex Sloan, S.O. Davies, R.R. Stokes and Rhys Davies. The recognized leader of this group is Aneurin Bevan, a miner’s M.P. representing Ebbw Vale, in South Wales.

Other Left groupings exist in the Labor Party in more or less varying strength in the rank and file; the “Victory for Socialism” group, for example, is one small group of centrists. The “Socialist Vanguard” and “Clarity” groups are similar left reformist tendencies and the Tribune, a weekly labor paper, provides a kind of common platform for the airing of Left Labor views. There is also the Militant group, which fights on a revolutionary Marxist position, but, like the other groups just mentioned, has as yet no mass support.

But far and away the most important Left critic of the present Labor leaders is Aneurin Bevan and his loose grouping in the House of Commons. Bevan has great mass support among the miners of South Wales as a result of his opposition to 1AA, and his speeches against the government over a long period. Some of his speeches in South Wales to miners’ audiences have been so “Left” that it would be difficult to distinguish them from those of a revolutionist – at least on issues dealing with the mining industry – and except for the fact that in the background, there is always evidence of his pro-war position.

Aneurin Bevan has placed himself at the head of the agitation against Regulation 1AA, in the Labor Party. In Parliament, on April 28, he moved a prayer for the annulment of the regulation. In his speech in the House, Bevan made a trenchant attack on Minister of Labor Ernest Bevin and the trade union bureaucrats. The following are some quotations from his speech.

“If the Right Honorable Gentleman (Bevin) thinks that he has the support of the armed forces, then he does not know the mood of the armed forces. The men who will shortly go to France are not soldiers. They are civilians in uniform. They are miners, busmen, farm laborers, shop assistants and the like ... Now, after putting them in uniform and handing them the orders the government stabs them in the back ...

“Many trade union officials do not like the shop stewards because the shop stewards are nearer the men than they are, and therefore challenge the supremacy of the trade union officials. One way of becoming a Member of Parliament is to become a shop steward or to lead a strike and then to be sent to gaol for so doing. That is a certain lever for getting into Parliament. But these shop stewards are all alarmed and I have had telegrams from shop stewards all over the country expressing alarm about this ...

“It is an astonishing spectacle to see conservative members giving special legal protection not to trade unions but to trade union officials, because it is the trade union officials who are invoking the law against their own members. Do not let anybody on this side of the House think that he is defending the trade unions; he is defending the trade union official, who has arteriosclerosis, and who cannot readjust himself to his membership. He is defending an official who has become so unpopular among his own membership that the only way he can keep them in order is to threaten them with five years in gaol. Wherever you get the rank and file at trade union meetings, this regulation will be opposed. The General Council of the Trade Union Congress, at the top, supports it, but the worker at the bottom opposes it. The further you get away from the trade union official to the rank and file, the less support the regulation gets. The more you move away from reality, from the robust, dignified, normal worker, to the jaded, cynical, irresponsible trade union official, the more support the regulation gets.”

Bevan and the New Anti-Labor Laws

The quotations give a good indication of the acerbity which the differences between the political Lefts of the Labor Party and the trade union bureaucrats have reached.

By placing himself at the head of the protests against 1AA, Aneurin Bevan has scored a decisive personal victory. Greenwood, the leader of the Parliamentary Labor Party, supported by Bevin, Attlee, and the rest of the Labor Party leaders, attempted to expel Bevan from the Party, but were completely unsuccessful. The rank and file Labor M.P.’s refused to stand for it. They have constituents to face and they know what is and what is not healthy for them.

The Executive Board of the Welsh Miners Federation had already unanimously demanded the repeal of the regulation, and in the course of a few weeks a majority of the union executives were forced by the rank and file to register opposition to it.

The net result of the whole affair has been to strengthen the Labor Party Lefts at the expense of the reactionary bureaucracy. Aneurin Bevan nailed his colors to the masthead in a very important article in the Tribune of May 26. In this article, Bevan affirms the necessity of a mass Labor Party based upon the unions. The identification of a political Labor Party and the unions is and has been the Party’s main source of strength and stability. “Strength from the unions and social purpose from the Party; those are still the twin merits which justify the trade union basis of the British Labor Party.”

He goes on to point to the masses of youth who have been “enormously stimulated by the existing conditions of public affairs” (the swing to the Left) and italicizes “It is absolutely vital that we should devise the means for them to express themselves through the medium of the labor movement both in industry and politics.”

He points out the danger of fascism if the youth are not given a fighting way out. It is precisely in this that the unions are failing us, says Bevan. He refers to the great volume of correspondence he gets expressing “deep indignation with the fact that decisions are being taken in their name affecting their lives most intimately and yet with no attempt made to consult their opinions.” The trouble is that “as things are, the trade union affiliates as a single unit, with the result that only on rare occasions can the trade union as a whole form a view on a political question. The practical effect of this is that the executives and officials of the unions at the top make the real decisions on policy, while the rank and file fumes at the bottom, condemned to frustration.”

The Demand for Party Reform

Bevan suggests that union branches should affiliate to their local labor parties, not, as now, affiliating as a union to the Labor Party nationally. Without this reform, and a new turn in the Party, the danger of a split and break-up of the Party is very real.

The article by Bevan voices a demand for a reform which has long been advocated, and which would undoubtedly have a vitalizing effect on the Labor Party. On their own behalf, the union tops strike back by jeering impotently at the “intellectuals.” Ernest Bevin himself the other day protested against any domination of the party by intellectuals. Harold J. Laski, the President of the Party and one of the “intellectuals” published a reply in the Tribune.

One of the standard bones of contention between the two factions is the question of the electoral truce and the coalition. At several bye-elections, the Government candidates have been defeated. In those constituencies where the Tory and Labor Parties have supported notorious reactionary candidates, Commonwealth or Left Independent candidates have won victories. This fact, and the restiveness of the rank and file, have produced their reaction. At the last Labor Party conference, which was postponed ostensibly due to the Second Front, 40 MPs had resolutions demanding the ending of the truce, although not necessarily the coalition. The Tribune has begun recently to doubt the value of national unity abroad, and has taken a stand which implies that it is only a matter of time before that “Left” organ demands the ending of the coalition.

To sum up, the effect of the increasingly reactionary trend of the Labor Party leaders at a period when there is a rapid swing to the left, is to produce the beginning of a serious split in the Labor Party.

In the past, all Left movements and groupings in the Labor Party have been initiated or have fallen into the hands of the Communist Party of Great Britain. Since 1935 all of these groupings, under Stalinist direction, have borne a Popular Front character. In fact, Aneurin Bevan and the Labor Lefts are tending in the direction of a “Left coalition” even now. However there is a difference between 1944 and the past.

New Signposts in the Situation

For one thing, the Stalinists are today among the staunchest supporters of Churchill and his Tory-Labor cabinet. Any flirtations that they may undertake with the Labor Lefts in the CP’s so-called “Left Unity” campaign will have as their object to revert the whole movement to allegiance to Churchill and Co. This is known far and wide and it runs counter to the whole line of Aneurin Bevan and his friends, who base themselves on the radicalization of the masses.

For another, there exists today in Great Britain a growing Trotskyist party, the Revolutionary Communist Party. This party has already established contact with the masses and poses an alternative before them which Bevan and the Labor Lefts can hardly ignore. The case of the Four Trotskyist has aroused nation-wide publicity. The trade union masses are responding to the persecution with great warmth. In defense of the arrested Trotskyist and with the objective of repealing the infamous 1AA regulation, a genuine working class united front movement has been initiated. Its further political development is bound to pose the question of Proletarian Front versus Popular Front as the practical answer to the needs of the masses.

Aneurin Bevan and several Labor Lefts were invited to join the new united front organization, the Anti-Labor Laws Victims’ Defense Committee. The fact that they have joined the Committee shows not only that they are aware of the trend but that, under the pressure from below, they have to recognize it as a political factor with which they will have to count in the future.

The invasion of Europe has brought a pause in the industrial struggle. But there is no shadow of a doubt that the struggle will reopen on a far higher plane. In the period of temporary industrial quiet, the regroupments in the class struggle are taking place in the political sphere, within the framework of the Labor Party. Meanwhile the Aneurin Bevan group in the House of Commons, with its mass support in the mining areas, appears to be the immediate focus around which the Left wing of British labor is crystallizing.

London, June 1944

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