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Ian Birchall

Worsening shame

(March 1991)

From Socialist Worker Review, No.140, March 1991, p.34.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

SIMON JOYCE’S account of Labour’s Shameful Past (February SWR) is quite correct, but only tells half the story. Labour’s record has always been bad – but it has got much worse.

Take a couple of examples. Ramsey MacDonald’s record on the First World War was one of shameful wavering – but at least he did waver. He appeared enough of an opponent of the war to be vilified by the bourgeois press.

Fenner Brockway, a consistent opponent of the war recalls: ‘The fury of the attack on him by all sections of the capitalist press compelled us to rally to him.’

Kinnock, on the other hand, has taken good care not to waver; the bourgeois press can find no excuse to attack him. A few years back it was common the compare Kinnock to Ramsey MacDonald. It must now be clear that this was a disgraceful slander ... to MacDonald.

In 1956, at the time of Suez, Labour was led by perhaps the most aggressively right wing leader it has ever had. But Gaitskell defied the government pressure and broadcast a demand for the Tory prime minister’s resignation.

Only one Labour MP, Stanley Evans, supported the Suez invasion, and he was promptly forced to resign by his constituency party (Wednesbury), a solidly working class party dominated by the engineering union.

It is sometimes said that Gaitskell opposed Suez because he was pro-American rather than anti-imperialist. But Guy Mollet, the French ‘Socialist’ architect of the Suez adventure, was at least as pro-American as Gaitskell.

The difference was that the French Socialist Party had largely withered at the base, while the British Labour Party was still close to its peak of membership and electoral support in the post-war period.

As Labour’s working class base has rotted away, so too has any pressure on its leaders to even make a pretence of opposition to war.

Those Labour Party members I meet in the anti-war movement generally seem to be rather ashamed of their party membership. During the Vietnam War Labour Party members used to burn their party cards on demonstrations; perhaps we should encourage Labour supporters to do the same today.

But the main lesson of Labour’s continuing decline is that the responsibilities – and the opportunities – for revolutionaries get even greater.


Ian Birchall
North London

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