Commentary Magazine

Can British Labor Come Back?
Planning England's “Scandinavian” Future


The remarkable thing about the British general election of October 1959 was not that the Conservatives won, but that anyone should have thought they might lose. Politicians are notoriously given to sudden panic waves on the eve of polling, but even so they might have reflected that, with all the odds in their favor, the Conservatives could not well fail to succeed, unless their day as a party was definitely over; and nothing this year suggested that Labor was capable of replacing them. This simple reflection seems indeed to have sustained some nervous Tories during the last hectic week of the campaign; but elsewhere—notably at Labor headquarters—a great deal of significance was read into opinion polls which showed an unusually large number of waverers. These turned out to have been mostly people who did not greatly care for either of the two major parties, and who at the last moment decided to plump for the Liberals. Since there were not enough of them, the Macmillan government was never in danger, and its present enlarged majority—though excessive in terms of actual votes cast—is a pretty good indicator of the balance of forces.

If the Tory victory was not really in doubt—though its extent was—Labor’s defeat came as a surprise. This may sound absurd, but a party may fail to triumph and yet gain ground. Labor lost ground, and moreover did so for the fourth time running—counting from the 1950 election, which was really a defeat, though the Labor government then just managed to scrape through. The 1951, 1955, and 1959 contests were all straightforward defeats, and in the last two not only did Labor lose seats, but its voting support declined, while that of the Conservatives went up. To cap this uninspiring record, the Liberals this time did unexpectedly well, on a shoestring campaign, thus deflating the argument that all Labor needs is a bigger and more efficient machine.

Compared with 1955—when Labor’s vote went down from 14 million to 12.5 million—there has been a further loss of some 200,000 Labor votes, while the Conservative poll rose by more than double this number to almost 14 million, and the Liberals actually increased their votes by nearly a million. But for the fact that they ran candidates in only about a third of the 630 constituencies, they might have rolled up some three million votes to match Labor’s 12 million; even as it was, they did quite well with over a million and a half, many of them apparently former Labor supporters and—what is more noteworthy—young people. Of the splinter parties, the Communists (18 candidates and 30,000 votes) did considerably worse than the Scottish and Welsh Nationalists, neither of whom secured a seat; while Oswald Mosley came bottom of the poll in a London constituency notorious for its color problem—a newcomer in British elections.

So much for the bare bones. What of the significance? An election aftermath is always a good time for posing this question, and the experts have already come forward with some explanations. But even experts have their preconceptions, and their findings tend to be colored by what they would like to see in future. The Manchester Guardian, for example, having supported both Labor and the Liberals throughout the campaign—a remarkable feat of equilibristics—concluded (October 10) that what was needed was a Labor party even closer to its own Liberal heart, i.e., minus its remaining semisocialist features, such as the demand for public ownership of the steel industry. It required no prophetic gifts to predict that when Labor got down to its inquest the left-wingers would draw the opposite conclusion: the battle was lost because the trumpet gave an uncertain sound, i.e., there was not enough socialism in the platform and in Hugh Gaitskell’s television speeches.

Arguments can be marshaled in support of both propositions. It can even be held that Labor fell between two stools, being neither sufficiently radical to move the normally indifferent bottom strata of the electorate—the turnout this year, though larger than in 1955, fell below the total in 1951, when Labor polled two million extra votes—nor yet sufficiently moderate and reassuring to attract those middle-class votes which went to the Liberals. As was said before, no one needs to explain why the Tories got almost 14 million votes: Britain is normally a conservative country, and consequently there is no mystery about the Conservatives being in office—especially since there is almost full employment just now, the summit seems close, and even the weather has favored the party in power. The problem is how to account for Labor’s bad showing. Was it just a setback or is the trouble organic?



Before trying to answer this question, let us marshal those arguments which seem to suggest that all Labor has to do is wait for the pendulum to swing back in 1964, when the next general election is due:

  1. Since 1950 there has been a conservative swing all over the Western world. On the European Continent and in the British Commonwealth (not to mention the United States), those parties and movements have benefited which stand to the right of Labor—the (not very important) exception being Scandinavia, where the Social Democrats have retained power. Hence this year’s British election result is not really surprising, and all Labor needs to do is sit tight and wait for the young generation to get sick of the Tories.
  2. Prosperity has been the Macmillan government’s trump card, and prosperity may not last. Moreover, under Conservative rule its fruits are likely to be unequally shared. Even in this election Labor was able to make play with London City finagling, swollen financial profits, and bulging expense accounts. In another five years, social inequalities will have become so glaring that a disgusted electorate will kick the Tories out.
  3. Labor’s election campaign, by common consent, was better managed, technically more efficient, and more lavishly financed than in 1955. Above all, effective use was made of the television medium—so much so that at one point the Conservatives got quite worried. Next time all these gimmicks can be improved upon, and given the other factors already mentioned, Labor should appear sufficiently streamlined and glamorous by 1964 to enthrall the postwar generation. Besides, Macmillan can’t last forever, and Gaitskell may in time come to look and sound less donnish and more statesmanlike. (The Tory monopoly of father-figures is admitted on the left to constitute a severe handicap.)

As against these consoling reflections—now prominent in the post-mortems conducted publicly and in private—there are considerations of a less agreeable kind. For example:

  1. Even if there is a swing against the Tories in 1964, it may benefit Liberalism rather than Labor. Yet the Liberal party was supposed to be moribund; certainly some years ago no one expected the patient to sit up, dismiss his doctors, and clamor for steak.
  2. While it is true that even at its present peak Toryism represents only half the electorate, Labor shows no sign of making inroads among the younger generation. On the contrary, there is disturbing evidence that in areas of high industrial prosperity the younger working-class voters display their new found confidence (and their rejection of traditional family loyalties) by voting Conservative.
  3. The party has neither an adequate program nor a leadership that inspires confidence in its ability to run a planned, semi-planned, or unplanned economy. Its potential “front bench” in fact looks distressingly weak by comparison with the Macmillan Cabinet—or the Attlee Cabinet of 1945-51.

It is the last point which comes immediately to mind when one hears the election results discussed among people who are otherwise friendly to Labor and may even have voted for it, (as did the author of these remarks). There is no denying that Gaitskell, Aneurin Bevan, and Harold Wilson seem distinctly less impressive than Attlee, Ernest Bevin, and Stafford Cripps did in 1945. It can, of course, be said that Macmillan likewise is no Churchill. But the truth remains that the Tory front bench on the whole looks remarkably competent. Its incumbents have that indefinable air of belonging by nature to the governing caste—an air always just bordering on insolence, and consequently liable to grate on part of the electorate. Still, the British public being what it is, the authoritarian manner helps more than it hinders.

A lot of people feel that it would do Gaitskell no harm if he appeared less boyish; and that it would be even better if his potential Chancellor of the Exchequer were someone other than Mr. Harold Wilson: an entertaining speaker but an alarmingly professional politician, who somehow does not inspire the taxpayer with the same degree of confidence as his Tory opposite number, the very respectable and solid-looking Mr. Derick Heathcoat Amory. One might even go so far as to suggest that Gaitskell’s personal brain trust of bright young economists—mostly liberals trying, not very successfully, to sound like socialists—exudes an aura not quite suitable to the Labor party. Those superior accents, those elegant clothes, that blasé air—are Oxford common rooms really the ideal antechamber to a career in the British Labor movement?



Still, these are trifles. The real trouble is that the party has no adequate program and is hamstrung by the trade unions to an extent not paralleled on the other side. The City of London, and industry throughout the country, do what they can to help the Conservatives, but they have learned to stay discreetly in the background, and no one supposes that Macmillan takes orders from the bankers. Gaitskell, on the other hand, gives every impression of having to take orders from the union bosses who put him in the saddle and have so far kept him there. In time this state of affairs may change; if it does not, Labor is in for further shocks. For the union leaders are not popular, though their personal integrity is unquestioned and most of them have learned to sound like statesmen. They are not yet quite as unpopular as their opposite numbers, the magnates of business, but it may not take them long to achieve a similar eminence. They also seem to be rather remote from the rank and file, and in a constant panic about sudden unofficial strikes.

There are various reasons for this. One does not yet know what the average unionist thinks of his leaders accepting hereditary titles and joining that curious moth-eaten relic of the Middle Ages, the House of Lords; but it would surprise few people to discover that he thinks it silly, and has little respect for elderly trade union chiefs who cherish such baubles. One rather prominent representative of this breed was sensationally unseated in his constituency on October 8, by a Tory whose social and political views probably did not differ greatly from his own. This seems to suggest that as between two aged, stale, and conservative party machines, the voters prefer the one that gives off an authentically medieval aroma, as against the one that tries, rather pathetically, to sound modern and progressive.

The Liberals—almost without funds, but led by some able young men—traded extensively on this concealed voter resentment against Labor stuffiness, and reaped some surprising successes. Indeed, as between Labor and the Liberals—now that the latter have come out against British production of nuclear arms, and for British membership in a European customs union (as well as in NATO)—Labor this time looked distinctly less attractive to independent young voters.



At this point, it may be well to consider the part played in the election by foreign affairs. On the whole, this theme came up much less often during meetings than readers of the highbrow papers might have been led to suppose. The exception, for a while, was the summit—until it dawned on people that the only summit meeting worth mention had already been held at Camp David. Still, the summit—and the Eisenhower visit—undoubtedly helped Macmillan to put himself across as an international statesman and peacemaker. (The Khrushchev circus also helped, by making people feel that tensions had been lowered.)

The obverse of this wave of optimism about East-West relations was a distinct lessening of interest in the subject of nuclear arms: if the great powers seemed less likely to fight, there was that much less reason to worry about the Bomb. In consequence, Labor’s rather complicated scheme for a “non-nuclear club” of all the secondary powers (leaving America and Russia to settle the major issue as best they might) attracted even less interest than it might have done otherwise. Of the three parties, only the Liberals came out flatly against British manufacture of nuclear weapons; Labor hedged (few people believed that France would join the “club,” hence the plan seemed to be a non-starter); and the Tories took the traditional line that Britain was entitled to as many Bombs as other great powers.

It would have been open to Gaitskell to point out that Britain is no longer a great power, but he left that to the Liberals—another opportunity missed. By 1964 Labor in all probability will have come round, reluctantly but definitely, to the conclusion that summit meetings are best left to the Big Two, and that Britain does not need nuclear arms, though it should stay in NATO. At present the first half of this proposition is the trade-mark of the cold-blooded realists on the Economist. The second half finds its defenders among Liberals (including the Manchester Guardian) and, for different reasons, the pacifist wing of Labor—which on the whole did rather badly in the election, its noisiest representative, Ian Mikardo, losing his seat. (But here the Jewish issue may have entered: both sides—but the Conservatives more than Labor—made what they could of a rather unappetizing scandal involving financiers with German-Jewish names, and the Beaverbrook press seized the opportunity to launch a minor pogrom against one or two Jewish Labor candidates.)

Since neither the Bomb nor the summit were an issue—save insofar as Macmillan took credit for the apparent outbreak of world peace—the campaign was even more of a bread-and-butter affair than on the last two occasions. This did not prevent Labor speakers from beating their opponents over the head with the Suez debacle of 1956; but it prevented them from getting anywhere with this exceedingly remote theme. Suez was never much of an issue to set the pubs on fire, though it caused great excitement in academic common rooms and even led to the rupture of some friendships. The majority of Labor’s working-class supporters probably approved the expedition against Egypt and regretted its failure; while those people who were outraged by it had no need to vote for Gaitskell’s party—they could assuage their bruised feelings by voting Liberal. The same applied to the parliamentary and press row over the Tory government’s mishandling of Cyprus and the looming trouble in Central Africa.

On all these issues, the Liberal press—the Manchester Guardian, the London Observer, and the weekly Spectator—attacked the Conservatives without thereby doing Labor much good. The Guardian went furthest: it damned the Tories root and branch, and called for “Labor in office, and a strengthened Liberal party.” The others contented themselves with advising their readers to vote against the government, which they would probably have done anyhow. The upshot was that the Conservatives won the election, but lost practically the entire liberal intelligentsia. This, however, does not solve the Labor party’s problem, since the intelligentsia is not yet prepared to put its trust in Labor.

From these sketchy observations it will be evident that Labor still has some distance to travel before it becomes a genuinely national party, rather than a sectional representation of the manual workers. On this point all independent observers, and indeed all factions within the Labor movement, are agreed. The differences begin over the question of how the desired aim is to be achieved.



In principle there are two ways of doing it. One leads to the jettisoning of what remains of Labor’s socialist baggage, and ultimately to amalgamation with the Liberals. The alternative would be to sharpen the conflict with the Conservatives over the issue of economic planning and public ownership versus uncontrolled capitalism. This is a more promising avenue than “nationalization” in the sense of the original socialist program, in which state ownership of the “means of production” figured almost as an end in itself. If the economy runs into trouble under Conservative management, or if Britain continues to lag behind Western Europe in capital investment and exports, Labor may be able to persuade the electorate that the issue is not “state ownership” but “planning.” This could become the unifying formula relating Labor’s sectional aims to the growing public concern over Britain’s place in the world. Some such revival of the Crippsian “managerial socialism” of 1945-50 is probably required if the growing stratum of managers, professional men, and technicians is to take Labor seriously.

At present these groups are held back by a suspicion—only too well founded—that a Labor government would be not so much revolutionary as simply inefficient; specifically, that it would run the economy aground by permitting the unions to start another burst of inflation. There is plenty of dissatisfaction among technicians and scientists with the slow rate of economic growth under the Conservatives, but few people in this influential stratum are willing to purchase a faster rate of advance at the price of endangering the currency. Yet this appears to be the prospect which Labor holds out, until its leadership acquires enough political courage to make it plain to the unions that “planning” includes everybody and everything, even wages.

For some reason, the Swedish Social Democrats seem to have been more successful in this respect. Admittedly they came to power in 1932, in the depths of the great depression, and have held office ever since. Also Sweden is not saddled with the remnants of a world empire, an outsize arms budget, and a superiority complex involving frequent invocation of the idea—implausible to outsiders, but still sacred to most politicians in Britain—that world peace depends on Whitehall. Getting rid of such notions is not an easy matter.

Perhaps by 1964 it will be easier to talk sense about Britain’s real position in the second half of the 20th century, and Labor will not feel the need to outdo the Tories in protesting its unwillingness to let England become a “mere” European country. At the moment this subject is still taboo outside Liberal circles, where anything can be said, since there is no danger of being called upon to do something about it. In Labor quarters it is regarded as dangerous to let the Tories have a monopoly of flag waving; this is understandable, but it does not encourage realism. Nor is a sober estimate of the real world promoted by such flights of fancy as Aneurin Bevan’s assertion, at the height of the election campaign, that “hundreds of millions of people in Asia and Africa” were hoping and praying for a Labor victory. It may safely be asserted that Mr. Bevan believed this; it can be said with equal certainty that he was mistaken. In any case his star is dimming: by 1964, he will be sixty-seven years old and younger men will be treading on his heels.

Who will these rising young politicians be, and what are they likely to stand for? An impression currently prevails that they are going to be not socialists but pragmatic reformers, barely distinguishable from the rejuvenated Liberal group around Mr. Joseph Grimond, which did so well in the election. If this forecast is borne out, there is every likelihood of a Liberal-Labor electoral pact in 1964. At the tactical level this is probably the most sensible solution, since the Labor party in its present shape can scarcely hope to win a majority. A Gaitskell-Grimond axis (already being promoted by some strategists on both sides) might do the trick. It would have plenty of press support—one of Labor’s handicaps is the extraordinary dullness of its few reliable papers—and might look glamorous enough to attract the younger voters who are put off by Labor’s stodgy traditionalism and the depressing spectacle of its elderly trade union contingent. But elections are not everything. A Liberal-Labor sweep in 1964 is regarded as probable by some students of politics, but the question is what would happen once the victors got into office, and here the omens are less favorable.



Labor’s curiously deceptive self-confidence in the recent campaign was partly due to the image which Gaitskell and his brains-trust had superficially imposed on the public: that of a youthful, competent, professional group of politicians in tune with the needs of an industrial mass society. The image was not wholly misleading, but it took no account of the fact that most Labor organizations in the provinces are still tradition-ridden and unattractive to the younger voters. Besides, the new emphasis on youth and efficiency at party headquarters (to make up for the stodginess of the elderly branch secretaries, and the general dreariness that pervades Labor party organizations) led to an excessive stress on mere smartness in televised vote-catching. This in the end proved less effective than had been hoped, and so provided ammunition for the party’s Old Guard, which had privately maintained all along that the “new look” would prove a failure. Since this gloomy forecast has now been borne out, it can be argued that Labor watered down its program, and damped the enthusiasm of its true zealots, without reaping any corresponding advantage. For Gaitskell this is a damaging charge, since the “new look” was his chief contribution to the campaign. His supporters may also wonder whether it really does them good to have the Economist (October 3) describe one of Gaitskell’s chief lieutenants as a liberal in socialist clothing.

Even if the new technique should prove more attractive next time—and after all the Conservatives’ majority in actual votes is so narrow that a slight swing could dislodge them—it seems questionable whether a Labor-Liberal government would have the kind of moral authority that Labor possessed during its 1945-51 stay in power.

One of the few issues on which the partners to such a coalition are wholly agreed is anti-colonialism, with special reference to Africa, where a very dangerous racial and political conflict is shaping between the white settlers in the remaining British territories and the growing African nationalist movement. Yet it is by no means certain that the dominant white minority in Central Africa would heed instructions from Whitehall if the Conservatives were driven from power in 1964. A Labor Cabinet which tried to impose democratic policies in places like Rhodesia—e.g., a broader franchise and the ending of the color bar—might discover that its writ had ceased to run. Some of these territories could at a pinch secede and join the Union of South Africa, whose racialist policies are certainly more to their liking than the Liberal-Labor program of multi-racial democracy, or even the half-hearted Conservative belief in “racial partnership.”

To put it plainly, Labor might have an Algerian settlers’ revolt on its hands, and no means of effectively countering it. This, after all, was the sent of issue on which the last left-wing government in France (also, as it happens, a socialist-liberal coalition) came to grief before de Gaulle took over. A repetition of this experience, with the Tories at home surreptitiously encouraging their friends in Africa, is by no means excluded. There may be some optimists who believe that Gaitskell and his staff of bright young welfare economists and social service administrators could cope with this kind of emergency, but their number cannot be great. On balance, Macmillan—like de Gaulle—seems the better man for a situation of this sort. (On the other hand, of course, five more years of Conservative rule may have precisely the effect of placing the white settler minorities in an impregnable position from which they cannot afterwards be dislodged.)

Should the party conflict in the next Parliament come to center on Africa, one must expect a sharpening of political cleavages. A favorite remark among cynics just now is that the Conservatives have given up hope for the British empire, the Liberals no longer believe in free trade, and Labor has lost its faith in socialism. There is just enough truth in this sour quip to conceal the fact that the Conservatives have a big material and emotional stake in the remaining British territories in Africa, while the Labor-Liberal opposition is convinced that Britain’s only chance of retaining any influence in the backward countries lies in coming to terms with African sentiment. This is a legitimate issue, but it could easily get out of hand. A secessionist movement on the part of people allied with the diehard wing of British Toryism would certainly restore life to British politics and make an end of the current boredom with the parties; but the challenge could once again show up Labor’s inherent weakness.

In 1945-51 the Attlee government met all such issues by transferring power from Britain to someone else—notably in India and the Middle East. This could be done because no European minorities were involved (save in Palestine, where indeed the minority surprised everyone by putting up a successful fight and winning independence for itself). In Africa partition is no solution, and the entire set-up resembles Algeria rather than Palestine. The Mollet-Mendès-France government of 1956 was wrecked by Algeria; would a Gaitskell-Grimond administration do better in East Africa?



Finally, what of the doctrinal issue? Recent events on both sides of the British Channel suggest that the relationship between liberalism and socialism has become fluid. Some weeks ago Mendès-France, to the shocked surprise of some of his old supporters, announced his conversion to socialism (albeit non-Marxian socialism), and the adherence of his group to one of the two rival socialist movements in France. In Britain—where this incident received curiously little publicity—the trend at the moment is in the other direction. Most commentators have been advising the Labor party to renounce its vestigial faith in public ownership, and proclaim its willingness to make capitalism work. In fact, however, the difference between the two standpoints is not as great as might seem. Readers of the statement in which Mendès-France set out his belief in economic planning and social equality must have noticed that, were he to transfer himself to Britain, he would feel very comfortably at home in a party headed by Gaitskell. The kind of pragmatic socialism to which both men are now committed is distinctly postwar and, to employ a cant phrase, “managerial.”

This is probably the real answer to the question how the Labor party can gain middle-class support without losing its trade union backing and disheartening its old supporters. After all, “socialism” need not be synonymous with Utopia. Some further streamlining may be required before Labor can claim to have brought its doctrine up to date, but in principle there is no reason why belief in rational planning should not become the keystone of the new structure. Something has already been done along these lines. What the Labor party now needs is less emphasis on vote-catching and more attention to long-range thinking. In particular, its leaders—not merely its backroom boys—are under an obligation to explain just exactly how and where the British economy (and British society in general) needs to be modernized. That this cannot be done without profound structural reforms should be apparent to students of Britain’s relative failure in recent years to keep step with the much more rapid economic development of Western Europe. Liberals and Laborites who are in earnest about making England a more modern country have no reason to shy away from this kind of investigation, and the more deeply they get into it, the more common ground they are likely to discover.

It must, however, be admitted that all this does not quite add up to the kind of faith which animated the Labor movement in 1945. The principal reason for the change has already been indicated: the decline in British power has accentuated the insular character of British party politics. It is plain that even a victorious Labor, or Labor-Liberal, administration in 1964 could not hope to exercise the kind of world influence which the 1945-51 Labor government possessed. Britain is not likely to be represented at many future summit meetings, and the illusion (still obstinately cherished by some influential Labor party leaders) that other countries are looking to British socialism for a solution of the world’s ills, cannot be maintained much longer. In fact, the precondition of an extended Labor rule seems to be acceptance of “Little Englandism,” i.e., concentration on home affairs and economics. There just is no evidence that a Labor government, whether or not it remained committed to democratic socialism, could do more than try to administer the domestic affairs of the British people.

In the long run, the outlook for Britain is distinctly “Scandinavian,” with all that this implies in terms of increased welfare, education, socialization—and loss of status. The 1959 election campaign, with its almost obsessive stress upon bread-and-butter issues, has made this plain, although the nominal victors owed part of their success to the electorate’s nostalgia for Churchillian “greatness.” By 1964 the issue is likely to have become a good deal clearer, and whoever wins—perhaps a reformed Labor party—will settle down to rule a country that has at last come to terms with reality and accepted its true status in the world.



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