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The Socialist Ideal in the Labour Party, by Martin R. Beveridge, published by Merlin
This book goes over old ground and gets off to a shaky start, but as we get nearer the modern era, it picks up momentum and provides many useful insights. To get a better understanding of the impressive scale of Labour’s 1945 victory and the Attlee government’s subsequent achievements, it explores the huge shift in public opinion that occurred in the lead-up to it.
It’s encapsulated in an anecdote the author cites from David Kynaston’s Austerity Britain: 1945-51 (Bloomsbury, 2007). “’My man,’ called out a blazered, straw-hatted 14-year-old public schoolboy, John Rae, as he stood on Bishop’s Stortford station with his trunk that late July. ‘No,’ came the porter’s quiet but firm reply, ‘that sort of thing is all over now.’” The mood was also evident in the packed Labour election meetings across the country.
Attlee himself was aware of this shift at the level of the elite. He wrote to Harold Laski in 1944: “I have witnessed now the acceptance by all the leading politicians in this country and all the economists of any account of the conception of the utilisation of abundance… There follows from this the doctrine of full employment.” He later wrote of his time in the Coalition War Cabinet: “When one came to work out solutions, they were often socialist ones, because one had to have organisation, and planning, and disregard private interests.”
Several factors combined to create Labour’ 1945 landslide: an acceptance of the logic of state planning; a heightened sense of community induced by wartime suffering; a refusal to return to the mass poverty and unemployment of the 1930s; a sense of entitlement to a share of the spoils of victory; and a wave of support for the popular ideas of the Beveridge Report’s proposals for a ‘cradle to grave’ welfare state.
In office, the initial achievements of the Attlee government – nationalisation of key industries, a comprehensive welfare state including an NHS free at the point of use, full employment – were seen by many activists as a first step, limited by government indebtedness to the US and the urgency of post-war reconstruction. But for many at the top, this was the social revolution in its entirety.
After 1947, a Keynesian managed economy became the dominant paradigm, far less than what the grassroots hoped for, but still better than what the Treasury wanted, which was spending cuts at the first sign of economic difficulties. The Attlee government largely resisted this: its successors would not.
But even the achievements had their limitations: nationalisation was confined to bankrupt industries, and although working conditions improved, managerial hierarchies remained unchanged, with little room for workers’ democracy. And despite a significant rise in manual workers’ wages, the basic distribution of wealth in society was unaltered and class stratification remained pronounced.
Part of the reason for this is that the cost of labour’s reforms could be met by squeezing Britain’s imperial possessions. Its colonies were pressed to produce cash crops, despite the local food shortages and economic subordination that created.
By 1951, Chancellor Hugh Gaitskell was planning, under US pressure, to double the defence budget, while the government, aided by union leaders, were demanding wage restraint from their working class base. The defence spending increase came at the expense of the NHS, where charges were introduced. Its architect, Nye Bevan, resigned from the Cabinet in protest.
The subsequent rise of Bevanism opened up a serious challenge to Labour’s official Atlanticism, although by now the Party was in Opposition. The differences were sharp: the Bevan group was effectively proscribed and at one point Gaitskell compared Bevan to Hitler. But Gaitskell’s election as leader in 1955 led to Bevan eventually accommodating to the new realities, joining the Shadow Cabinet and accepting Britain’s nuclear deterrent, which demoralised his left wing base.
Yet it is worth underlining that, far from leading to a renewed Party unity, this conciliation encouraged the right to push further. Gaitskell now called for the scrapping of Labour’s Clause 4 commitment to common ownership, a demand Tony Blair would resurrect over thirty years later.
Harold Wilson’s governments, from 1964 on, do much to explain people’s cynicism about the modern Labour Party. Wilson talked vaguely about modernisation but was essentially a leader without vision, making the classic journey from left to right. His “polarising rhetoric functioned as a cover for an accommodation with the existing structures of economic power.”
When he came to power, UK productivity was poor, a problem rooted fundamentally in British capital’s chronic refusal to invest in research and development, preferring the extraction of short-term profit. Wilson joined employers in blaming high wages and strikes, introducing an incomes policy and later threatening legal measures against unions.
Like his Labour predecessor, he relied for support on the trade union bureaucracy – 1968’s In place of Strife anti-union measures were withdrawn when this wasn’t forthcoming. Like his successor, Tony Blair, his only lasting positive achievement was at the level of liberal democratic reforms, in Wilson’s case, on race and sex discrimination, abortion, censorship and capital punishment, in Blair’s, on piecemeal constitutional reform. The difference was the background: the late 1960s and early 1970s saw a high level of industrial militancy and social protest – all while the Party’s membership collapsed.
Yet the extra-parliamentary actions of the early 1970s against the Conservative Heath government, including two miners strikes in three years, had a significant impact inside the Labour Party. It underpinned the rise of the Bennite left, which developed an alternative economic strategy to the unravelling Keynesian consensus and concretised new conceptions of workers’ democracy and control.
But while left ideas were harnessed by Labour in Opposition – even the right wing Denis Healey talked of squeezing the rich “until the pips squeaked”, they were marginalised when the Party returned to office in 1974. Wilson, then Callaghan, fell back on using the union bureaucracy to police workers’ pay demands, in return for maintaining social spending – the “Social Contract” – a deal the government reneged on when it introduced spending cuts at the behest of the International Monetary Fund.
This marked the end of Keynesian economics and Labour’s capitulation to a free market economics it is still in thrall to. Yet while we bemoan the Wilson-Callaghan failures, we should also look critically at the role of the union leaders who held the line for them against the wishes and interests of their members, took little interest in alternative economic approaches and saw their own organisations hammered by 18 years of Conservative rule as a consequence.
Back in Opposition, Labour would swing sharply to the left. But the defection of a swathe of right wing MPs to the new Social Democratic Party, successive general election defeats and the Thatcher government’s brutal crushing of industrial action and social unrest led to Labour’s increasing accommodation to the new economic orthodoxy and the emergence of a new cabal of modernisers which spawned New Labour.
For all their glossy and energetic modernism, the Blair-Brown governments were really the product of over a decade of defeats. Contrast the radicalism of the 1945 Labour government, taking over a country ravaged by war, homelessness and indebtedness, with New Labour’s inheriting of an economic boom, yet still committing for two years to the spending plans of the outgoing heavily defeated Tory government. And then things went further downhill: benefit cuts, an authoritarian social policy, the marketization of bedrock pubic services, an illegal war against Iraq and finally austerity.
For all its talk about a ‘Third Way’ between Thatcherism and traditional democratic socialism, New Labour was intellectually bankrupt as well. Its adherence to neoliberal economics caused its own downfall. Beveridge notes:
“What is significant is that New Labour had no effective reply to the Tory claim that Labour overspending caused the crisis. Brown had based the government’s social spending projections on the unsustainable tax revenue from the overheated financial sector, but refused to accept that his abdication of regulation on bank asset requirements or encouragement of inflation in the property market was in any way connected to the need for a massive bank bailout.”
On reflection, the election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader in 2015 should not have been so surprising. Against the odds, Ed Miliband in 2010 had beaten his brother, the continuity candidate backed by the parliamentary Party and a very well financed campaign, precisely because he, Ed, was not part of the New Labour project, nor a supporter of the Iraq war. But unlike his successor, Ed Miliband lacked the experience and steel to resist the constant efforts by Labour’s apparatus to thwart any radical ideas.
Labour lost the 2015 general election on an incoherent platform. It lost its Scottish heartlands to a force that pitched itself to the Party’s left.
The staleness of New Labour was reflected in the second rate nature of the candidates it fielded to succeed Miliband. Against this bunch – all willing to vote for Tory benefit cuts mid-campaign – Jeremy Corbyn only needed to remain true to his long-held democratic socialist principles. This alone, however, cannot explain the unprecedented surge of support in and beyond the Party which was unlike any other in living memory.
Beveridge argues correctly that the surge for Corbyn transcended individual policies. It constituted a new ethical socialist critique of the very values of capitalism – substituting community, cooperation and public service for individualism, competitiveness and greed – long missing from mainstream Labour discourse.
The rise and fall of the Corbyn Project has been covered with more originality and in more detail elsewhere. But despite its failure nationally, the author is right to see some continuity with ideas now being pursued at a municipal level, for example in the Preston model of community wealth building.
It’s also clear that in the face of new challenges – climate catastrophe, the pandemic, the cost of living crisis – it is the left that continues to set the political agenda in the Party and beyond. And despite the intensely factional behaviour of the Starmer apparatus in persecuting its political opponents, “young members especially are committed to continue fighting within the Party.”
Beveridge’s overview draws mainly on previously published material and is perhaps too concise to fully achieve its aim. In particular, I wanted more about the social context in which the different left movements – Bevanism, Bennism, Corbynism – operated and from which layers they drew their support. That aside, this is an accessible and useful contribution to the history of our movement.
The Anti*Capitalist Resistance Editorial Board may not always agree with all of the content we repost but feel it is important to give left voices a platform and develop a space for comradely debate and disagreement.
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