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Roger Protz

Labour Party in Power

Letter from Britain

(Winter 1965)

From International Socialist Review, Vol.25 no.1, Winter 1965, p.20.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The Labour Party has come to power in Britain with a cliff-hanging majority of 5 over the Tories and Liberals. The tide that seemed to be running so strongly for Labour receded at the last moment; the middle class dithered, pondered, worried, then either stayed at home or voted for the Liberals. But there was no mass swing to Labour. They govern almost by default.

But they do govern, however small the majority, and it is an historic occasion for the British labour movement, which has emerged from the political twilight after 13 years of Tory rule. It is an astonishing result. The Tories, the entrenched, ruthlessly-efficient party of the ruling class, are out of office at a time of relative economic and political stability and British politics are in the melting pot.

Why did the Tories lose? The economic stability is indeed very relative; underlying the apparent affluence are all the cross-currents of crisis and, although only the myopic sectarians of the left would see in the present balance of payments crisis the rapid downfall of British capitalism, it seems clear that the post-war boom will end with a bang, not a whimper.

British industry has failed to modernize. The monopolists and big employers have been content, in recent decades, to rest on their laurels and dream of their once dominant position in world trade. Cut-throat competitors, meanwhile, have been forging ahead on the continent and in Japan, and, thanks to heavy handouts from the United States, even the vanquished of World War II have overtaken the somnolent British lion.

Britain flounders at the bottom of every economic league. Now there is a frenzied spate of activity. Modernisation and planning are the key words on everyone’s lips (well, almost everyone: we have a few latent Gold waters of our own). Schemes and blueprints for the ‘new Britain’ are on countless drawing boards. Tory ministers and their allies in big business looked optimistically to the future but, in their hearts, knew that their plans could only succeed with a frontal assault on the mighty British labour movement.

All these pressure have been at play inside the Tory Party for the past few years and even those calm, unruffled ranks were knocked sideways by a sudden series of events which mirrored the economic crisis: the Profumo affair, which revealed a half-hidden world of rich pimps and influential prostitutes and produced the startling anachronism of a capitalist politician who had most pronounced egalitarian traits so far as his sexual prowess was concerned; followed by the rough removal of premier Harold Macmillan and the obscene picture of bourgeois gentlemen fighting like alley cats for his discarded mantle. Even feudal Lords joined in, discarding crowns, coronets and ermine in all directions in order to get a piece of the game. Lord Hailsham became a Hogg, but was pushed aside in the melée, and the cadaverous Lord Home, now the more plebeian Sir Alec Douglas-Home, was chosen as leader.

Middle Class Panic

Although Labour came to power, the party’s vote was fractionally down, compared to the 1959 result. Labour’s stock 12 million supporters, predominantly working class, were again solidly behind Harold Wilson, but the party made no inroad at all to the middle-class vote. The Liberals trebled their vote, to over 3 million, but, because of the vagaries of the electoral system, have only 9 members in the new parliament. But the size of this Liberal vote holds a great menace for the left; here lie many of the seeds of middle-class discontent which, in the next decade, might easily overspill the Liberal Party, with its laissez-faire programme, and form the nucleus of an extreme, authoritarian party – unless Labour can make a dynamic effort to win the allegiance of the middle class.

But at the moment, all eyes are on Labour. Harold Wilson has declared that however small and tenuous his majority, he will govern for as long as possible and will press ahead with the reforms outlined in his election manifesto: nationalisation of the great steel industry, riddled by price rings, which even the Tories admitted was not being run in ‘the national interest’; repeal of the Rent Act, a hated piece of Tory legislation, which allowed landlords free reign to push up rents and mercilessly evict tenants, often with the help of thugs and alsatian dogs; push the old-age pension – Britain’s old people are probably the most disgracefully treated of any western country – and general reforms of the social services. This is a very limited and timid programme, but, if it is pushed through, could bring some relief to many sections of the community.

Wilson knows that he will have a tough time getting some measures, especially the nationalisation of steel, through the House of Commons; both Tories and Liberals will unite to oppose him. A united party is therefore vitally necessary. In order to try to tame his left wing – and it will not need much taming, for Labour’s left-centrist lions have a traditional habit of tucking their tails between their legs and scurrying towards the right at a time of crisis – Wilson has taken a number of their spokesmen into his cabinet. Barbara Castle leads a new ministry for overseas development, Frank Cousins, boss of the giant, bureaucratic Transport Workers union, also has a new job, Minister for Technology, and Anthony Greenwood, once an impassioned nuclear disarmer, goes to the colonial office, where his first move was to refuse to dismantle the Tory gerrymandering in British Guiana, designed to unseat Cheddi Jagan at the next, enforced, election there.

Ray Gunter

Wilson has also stocked his cabinet with a number of staunch right-wingers, of whom the most dangerous, as far as the left is concerned, is the little Welsh demagogue Ray Gunter, who goes to the Ministry of Labour. Gunter, a leading hatchet man against the Marxist left in recent years, is a pronounced campaigner for trade union reform and will attempt to speed up the Tory plans to embroil the union bureaucrats more closely into the state machine through various planning bodies.

Everything points to the first major upsurge against the social democrats coming from the rank and file of the trade unions. While Labour Party activists will prefer to bide their time and ‘give Wilson a chance,’ industrial workers, ignoring the frantic advice of their union leaders, will press ahead with their struggles for better wages, hours and conditions, hoping at first that Wilson will be kindly disposed towards them but soon finding out what his real intentions are. And once the union militants move into action, it will not be long before the Labour Party left-wing, which has strong links with the unions, joins the march.

A fruitful and vital period lies ahead for the British Marxist movement. With patience and perseverance, pushing aside all sectarian tendencies, it can build a strong base in the coming months. Already Wilson is attempting to solve the balance of payments crisis in a purely capitalist way – heavy taxes on imports and free handouts to monopolies and even the most backward British industrialists, a step which will undoubtedly draw retaliatory measures from Europe and only make worse the present situation.

Frenzied screaming from the ultra lefts about ‘traitors’ and ‘scabs’ will not help unseat Labour’s right-wing; on the contrary, it will turn many possible supporters of Marxism away in distaste and help to further entrench Wilson and company. If instead the Marxists can calmly counterpose to Wilson’s solutions, thoroughgoing socialist proposals, we can win a great army of support and look with enthusiasm to the future.

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Last updated: 4 June 2009