Commentary Magazine

England's Labor Party & Its Discontents

Ever since its birth sixty years ago, the British Labor party has appeared to be on the point of collapse. Again and again, the mourners have assembled in the graveyard—only to find the prospective corpse dancing merrily on top of the coffin. Over the years Labor politicians have developed uncanny skill at plunging their daggers into each other’s backs, hard enough to wound but not to kill. The Labor movement has stumbled on, raucous, quarrelsome, undignified—but splendidly alive. But now it seems to have ground to a halt. Labor has lost three elections in a row; and the party is split down the middle. It may yet recover: stranger things have happened in British history. But short of a miracle it is hard to see how it can escape a devastating civil war, from which it must emerge severely crippled, if not actually destroyed.

Many Labor members of Parliament would deny this. They cannot deny that the Labor party conference at Scarborough early in October rejected the defense policy prepared by the Executive, though it made more concessions to the left than any previous defense platform had done: it recognized that an independent British nuclear deterrent is not possible; demanded that NATO should reduce its dangerous dependence on tactical nuclear weapons; warned of the spread of nuclear weapons to other countries; and called for reforms in the structure of the Western alliance. But it clearly and explicitly reaffirmed its belief in the continued necessity of the alliance—and it was evidently this that the majority would not accept. Yet the majority was a small one, and the vote defeating the Executive policy was, in fact, less than representative. The conference rejected “any defense policy based on the threat of the use of tactical or strategic nuclear weapons” by a vote of 3,282,000 to 3,239,000; it demanded the “unilateral renunciation of the manufacture, stockpiling and basing of nuclear weapons in Great Britain” by a vote of only 3,303,000 to 2,836,000. But there can be little doubt that most of the delegates actually present in the hall voted with the Executive. It was the votes of some of the big unions affiliated to the Labor party that carried the anti-nuclear resolutions; and the mandates of the unions had been decided before the Executive policy had even been drawn up. The constituency parties, representing the individual rank and file members, voted 6 to 4 in favor of the Executive. This suggests that by the next conference, after a year of intensive propaganda by the leadership, the decision can be reversed. Hence, it is said by some optimists, the crisis is only temporary.

Temporary it may be: but to an outsider, at least, it looks certain to last much longer than just a year. The “unilateralist” resolutions were passed in open defiance of the party leader and against the advice of the party’s chief spokesmen on foreign affairs and defense. In the course of his speech, Hugh Gaitskell declared that if the vote went against him, he would “fight, fight, and fight again” to reverse it. He has carried out his threat, supported by two-thirds of his Labor colleagues in Parliament. Yet according to the party constitution, the final authority for policymaking lies with the annual conference; and the rift has already provoked open strife in the Parliamentary party. For the first time since 1922, an incumbent leader has been challenged at the annual election of officers in Parliament: Gaitskell was re-elected on November 3 by 166 votes to 81, but his authority has undeniably suffered. It will be almost impossible for the moderate majority to discipline the extremists of the left; nor will Gaitskell be able to count on a majority in the National Executive, which includes the union leaders and is legally responsible not to the Parliamentary party, but to the annual conference. More important even, it is by no means certain that the leadership will prevail in a year’s time: the emotions behind unilateralism are deep and genuine. It is true that 60 per cent of the constituency party delegates at Scarborough supported Gaitskell’s policy, and that many of the union leaders voted against him not because they wanted to, but because they were bound by their own union conferences; and it is equally true that Khrushchev’s behavior at Paris last May created the worst possible international climate for unilateralism. But the U-2 affair cut both ways. If the next United States administration puts a foot wrong in its relations with the Soviet Union; if it starts nuclear tests again, or acts in what looks like an aggressive fashion toward Cuba, opinion in the rank and file of the Labor party may become violently anti-American.



But even if the next party conference should reverse the Scarborough decision, would that really be the end of the matter? The split in the Labor party is a fundamental one, not confined to foreign affairs and defense. Scarborough was only the last and noisiest of a series of explosions. When Labor went out of office in 1951, it was already split over the rearmament program made necessary by the Korean war. In 1954, the rift was deepened still further by the implications of German rearmament. For a short time in 1955 the then leader of the party’s left wing—Aneurin Bevan—was actually suspended from the Parliamentary group. After Gaitskell’s election to the leadership in 1955, there was a brief, unconvincing, and unconsummated honeymoon between the left and the right. Bevan and Gaitskell made peace, and the divisions in the party were temporarily buried. But an acute listener could still detect subterranean rumbles, and from time to time the volcano seemed on the point of erupting once again. During the election campaign in the fall of 1959, it is true, the party seemed more united than at any time in the last fifteen years; and Gaitskell’s leadership was apparently accepted in the most unlikely quarters with something approaching enthusiasm. But after the election defeat, Gaitskell’s reputation came crashing down; the old volcano did erupt—and it was found that the molten lava had lost none of its heat.

The election defeat itself was partly to blame for this. British politics is a cruel sport, in which the captain of a losing team must expect to be kicked to death by his own side. To vary the metaphor, there is a tribal quality about British political parties: so long as the tribe is on top, its chief is revered and given a great deal of power. But let the tribe run into a period of bad luck, and the chief is liable to end in the cook-pot. British history offers only one parallel to the Labor party’s recent record of three defeats in a row: the three defeats suffered by the Conservatives be-between 1906 and 1914. Prolonged failure has led to schism and rebellion. Balfour, the Conservative leader, received the same ferocious treatment from right-wing Tories that Gaitskell has been getting lately from left-wing socialists. Labor’s defeat in last year’s elections was in no sense Gaitskell’s fault—without him, in fact, Labor would almost certainly have fared worse. Yet Gaitskell’s troubles have been aggravated by his personality. Successful British politicians, it has been said, must be in character either bishops or bookmakers. Gladstone was a bishop. Disraeli was a bookmaker. Harold Macmillan is one of the most polished and versatile bookmakers in our recent history. Gaitskell is neither. He is a university don. He lacks the flaming moral passion of the bishop—and he lacks, even more disastrously, the tactical agility of the bookmaker. During the past year, the most critical in his party’s history, he has made almost no effort to stump the country for his policies, and he has taken a stubborn delight in fighting his critics not where they are weakest, but where he is weakest. He is, moreover, the walking embodiment of Aristotle’s “magnanimous man”: reasonable, calm, virtuous—and a little stiff. In private he is said to be warm and emotional; in public the warmth is apt to be concealed beneath the armor plating of the British middle class. Indeed, Gaitskell as a politician is strangely reminiscent of Adlai Stevenson: he has all the gifts needed by a political leader—except being good at politics. Worst of all, he is a middle-class intellectual, and yet on the right wing of the party. One of the unwritten rules of Labor party politics is that intellectuals are allowed only on the left. Union leaders can safely stand on the right: they may be bitterly attacked, but they cannot be accused of patronizing the rest of the movement—whatever they do, they will be one of “us,” not one of “them.” But a middle-class intellectual is always apt to be suspect in a predominantly working-class party. If he takes care to present himself as a left-winger, in tune with the party’s emotions, he can work his passage and win acceptance. But if his speeches contain more appeals to moderation and sanity than to passion and principle, he can easily sound like a prig or a snob—an outsider come to lecture, not an insider trying to persuade. Gaitskell himself has managed to escape this danger, though not entirely. But he has made one of the worst mistakes a politician can make: he has acquired friends. Some of them can claim to have harmed him almost as much as his enemies have. Indeed, according to one view, the real author of Labor’s present discontents is the so-called “Hampstead set”: a group of intellectuals who happen to live near Gaitskell, and who are alleged to spend their Sunday mornings sipping sherry with their leader, plotting the downfall of socialism. This malicious caricature is based on the true fact that Gaitskell has seemed to prefer the company of university-trained intellectuals to that of Labor leaders who have come up the hard way. And his friends—men like Anthony Crosland, Roy Jenkins, and Douglas Jay—give the impression of being far to the right of the party’s center of gravity. That impression may be false—but appearances matter, in politics as in matrimony; and to the average member of Labor’s rank and file, the Hampstead set appears arrogant, supercilious, and—un-socialist.



“Un-Socialist”: there is the key. The really important differences in the Labor party are at bottom ideological, not personal—though no one seems to know for certain what the ideological differences are about. The commonest way of describing them is to say that Labor is divided between a “doctrinaire” and a “pragmatic” wing. As a form of political shorthand, readily available to the editorial writer, this description has its merits, but it conceals more than it describes. What exactly is the doctrine which the “doctrinaires” hold so dear? No one knows: least of all they themselves. British socialism, unlike continental Social Democracy, has no sacred books. It has always owed more to Methodism than to Marxism—and this is at least as true of the left as it is of the right. A few members of the left are, or have been, fellow-travelers, but even they are generally Christian socialists gone soft, not full-blooded Marxists. And in any case, the vast majority of the left are not fellow-travelers at all. They may occasionally indulge in wishful thinking about the Soviet Union—but then they indulge in wishful thinking about everything.

If anyone in the Labor party has a doctrine, indeed, it is the intellectuals of the “pragmatic” right. During the past ten years, three British socialists have produced writings of merit: Aneurin Bevan, John Strachey, and Anthony Crosland. Of the three, only Bevan belonged to the left wing of the party—and after reading his book, In Place of Fear, one is little the wiser about his theoretical beliefs. John Strachey is in a different category. His two volumes (Contemporary Capitalism and The End of Empire) are a real contribution to socialist thought—and what is more, they are heavily influenced by Marx. But Strachey is no longer a left-winger; he supports Gaitskell and is firmly committed to NATO. Crosland is an even more revealing example. He is perhaps the most important ideologue of the right, and certainly the most creative of the younger intellectuals in the party. His book, The Future of Socialism, is massive and erudite as well as brilliant. But whatever else it may be, it is certainly not “pragmatic.” A large section is occupied by an almost scholastic discussion on whether capitalism is still capitalism—or something else. Another section is occupied by an elaborate attempt to prove that almost every socialist writer who ever lived really thought what Crosland thinks. Crosland himself is no more pragmatic than his book. He has insisted on his doctrine with the stubbornness of a Calvinist, and has given the impression that he would cheerfully destroy his political future rather than sacrifice his views.

The right, then, has its doctrines. But only the left has a Faith. That is the real difference between them. The left-wingers are the true descendants of the early pioneers, the Chartists of the 19th Century, and the Levellers of the 17th. For them, the progress of political action is not to win power: it is to make a new heaven and a new earth. The left sometimes does not know what it is fighting for—but it always knows what it is fighting against. Its real enemy is the gray confusion of ordinary life, the tawdry compromises of practical politics, the inevitable pettiness of living people—all summed up in the single word, “capitalism.” To the left, capitalism is not simply an economic system which evolves; one might as well suggest to a Presbyterian of the old school that the Devil evolves. Capitalism is incorrigible; and the changes that occasionally appear on its surfaces are simply camouflage to trap the unwary. To an outsider, the left’s brand of socialism seems increasingly remote from the real world. To the faithful, it is the “old-time religion,” immaculate and inviolable—and if the real world does not like it, that merely proves that the real world is corrupt. Mrs. Barbara Castle, chairman of the party last year, unconsciously revealed the fundamentalist psychology of the left in an address she made at the 1959 conference to a group which had met to consider the implications of the party’s third successive electoral defeat. In the circumstances, even she might have admitted that perhaps all was not well with the party’s Creed. On the contrary, her verdict was: “It is chasing fantasies to imagine that we can win elections on moral issues in a democracy built on such amoral foundations.” That is, the electors aren’t good enough for the Labor party!



Over fifty years ago, Graham Wallas, one of the early Fabians, described the socialism of the left as follows. “The need of something which one may love and for which one may work has created for thousands of working men a personified ‘Socialism,’ a winged goddess with stern eyes and drawn sword, to be the hope of the world and the protector of those that suffer.” To the devotees of the winged goddess, faith is all: works are nothing. Indeed, one suggests that for some of the left, defeat is a sign of Grace.

The strong ecclesiastical character of the Labor movement has never been better illustrated than by its current controversy about public ownership. The crucial clause of the party constitution, adopted in 1918 after years of effort by what was at first a minority of socialists, runs as follows: “To secure for the workers by hand or by brain the full fruits of their industry and the most equitable distribution thereof that may be possible upon the basis of the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange and the best obtainable system of popular administration and control of each industry or service.” This is the notorious “Clause 4” of the constitution, now colloquially known as the “Old Testament.” After the party’s defeat last year, Gaitskell tried to delete Clause 4 and substitute a broader statement of aims which would no longer commit the party to wholesale public ownership. His ostensible reason was tactical. “Nationalization” has become the favorite boo-word of British politics, guaranteed to torpedo the electoral hopes of any party that advocates it. So long as Clause 4 remains, Gaitskell’s argument ran, the press will terrorize the electorate with the scarecrow of wholesale nationalization, and no matter how attractive the rest of Labor’s program may be, the Conservatives will go on winning elections. Beneath this tactical argument there was, however, a theoretical assumption: the Labor party constitution was drawn up before Keynes had shattered the noble edifice of classical economics. To the early socialists it seemed self-evident that the cycle of booms and slumps could only be eliminated by public ownership. Keynesian economics destroyed the assumptions on which this doctrine rested—and the experience of the postwar world appeared to show that Keynes was right. Governments, it seemed, could control the economy and maintain full employment without nationalization. But in that case, why nationalize?



That, in essence, was Gaitskell’s question. True, Gaitskell and most of his supporters have never denied that public ownership can be a useful device for improving economic efficiency or preventing monopoly. But for the left, public ownership is far more than a useful device: it is the very essence of socialism. Gaitskell’s assault on Clause 4 was greeted with rage. Few members of the party had ever read the constitution; and still fewer really believed that the party would in the foreseeable future nationalize the means of production, distribution, and exchange. But the platform had become as sacred to members of the Labor party as the United States constitution to the people of America—and for a rather similar reason. The Labor party, after all, has a short history. Unlike the Conservatives or the Liberals, it cannot point to a long gallery of Victorian statesmen. The constitution is all the history it has; and the commitment to public ownership was a kind of pledge to keep faith with the pioneers. In attacking Clause 4, Gaitskell infuriated not only the left, but large numbers of trade unionists and members of Parliament for whom verbal support of public ownership had become a form of genuflection at the shrine of their lost youth. Bit by bit, he was beaten back. First, he asked for a new statement of aims to replace Clause 4. Then it was suggested that perhaps Clause 4 and the new statement might stand side by side, the second “clarifying” the first. Finally, a compromise was hammered out: Clause 4 was to remain, alone and unclarified, but the new statement was incorporated in the Executive’s report to the party conference as a matter of interest. Meanwhile, the emotional reaction had crystallized into an argument, or rather two arguments.

The first, and somewhat unsophisticated, rejoinder was that the Labor party had lost three elections not because it was too socialist but because it was not socialist enough. The extreme left of the Labor party bears a suspicious resemblance to the extreme right of the Republican party in the United States: both appear to believe that the recipe for influencing electors is to tell them what they don’t want to hear in the loudest possible voice. “Metooism,” it was said, was the real curse of the Labor party. The electors would never vote for a party without the courage of its convictions. The only hope for Labor was to make a full-scale attack on “capitalism.” Moreover, it was argued, the party workers saw no point in persuading their friends and neighbors to vote for a milk-and-water program. Gaitskell’s timidity was sending these gallant shock troops to sleep. Only when they returned to the firing line could Labor hope to win.

The second argument, by contrast, was dazzling in its sophistication and audacity. As Mr. Richard Crossman sees it, radical governments only come to power in Britain if there is a real crisis. If Labor sneaked into power now, as a result of assiduous servility to the prejudices of the electorate, it would not be able to force through a really socialist program. Power, in fact, is the last thing Labor should be seeking now. For in spite of Keynes, capitalism is heading for a catastrophe, different in origin from that prophesied by Marx—but similar in effect. If Labor resolutely rejects the temptations of vote-catching, if it plays the part of Cassandra and gives warning of the wrath to come, if above all it insists on the full rigor of socialism as the only solution—then when catastrophe does come, Labor will reap its reward. This approach was based on an unlikely foundation, the writings of John Kenneth Galbraith; for The Affluent Society has become the Bible of the left. Crossman claims that Galbraith has shown the apparent stability of contemporary capitalism to be a sham: economic power rests with the great oligopolies; the State may propose—the Organization Men dispose. Hence, “private opulence and public squalor”; hence the absence of adequate capital investment; hence the growing superiority of the Soviet Union—and hence the coming crisis.



These ideological differences are concerned chiefly with domestic politics. Yet the great conflicts which have periodically torn the Labor party to pieces in the last ten years have almost all been over foreign policy and defense. Nationalization, however fundamental its importance, has been a damp squib compared with the rearmament program, German rearmament, SEATO, and the H-bomb. Why? Is there any logical connection between the left’s stand on public ownership and its foreign policy? Why should the battles over foreign policy and defense have been so much the more savage?

There is, in fact, no logical connection, just as there is no purely rational explanation for the greater bitterness of argument over foreign affairs. But the divisions in the party are not based on reason alone: their source is emotional. To the right, the object of political activity is to win power and carry out piecemeal reforms. To the left, the object is utopia and the method a crusade against evil—and of all evils, the evil of war is the worst; of all Utopias, the most attractive is a world at peace, without conflict.

The non-conformist culture which nurtured so many of the early socialist pioneers was profoundly pacifist in feeling. Anglican priests might glorify British arms; non-conformist ministers decidedly did not. Before 1914, pacifism was one of the main roots of the Labor movement: captialism went hand in hand with war; after 1918, these pacifist sentiments were strengthened by the memory of slaughter in Flanders. Hitler and the Spanish Civil War almost killed pacifism as a formal political force; they did not kill the emotions on which pacifism fed. After 1945, these emotions returned to the surface again—only to be outraged by the course of postwar history. The left then had to search for a scapegoat: as Utopians, they could not believe that conflict is the normal condition of international politics. They found their scapegoat in the Foreign Secretary, Ernest Bevin. Throughout the Labor government’s term in office in 1945—51, Bevin was the target of abuse from the Labor back benches: he had been captured by the Foreign Office; he had sold out to the Americans; he treated the mighty Soviet Union like a breakaway from his own Transport and General Workers Union. What these criticisms really meant was that Bevin recognized the role of force in international relations, and appreciated that the Soviet threat was the prime fact of postwar politics; and in doing so he undermined the illusions of the left. After Bevin died and Labor went out of office, a new scapegoat had to be found. In the early 50’s it was John Foster Dulles. Now it is NATO as such.

In isolation, these ideological and emotional divisions, even the divisions over foreign policy, might not matter. Unfortunately they have been superimposed on an already gloomy situation. Since 1950, Labor has been swimming against the sociological tide—and the knowledge that the tide was first set in motion by the postwar Labor government does nothing to sweeten the experience. The most obvious reason for Labor’s defeats is the growth in material prosperity. In the past decade, parts of Britain have entered the age of mass consumption—and the new consumers are grateful to the government under which this has happened. But material prosperity has had less obvious results as well. As in the United States, the politics of class are giving way to the politics of status. The British are still a very class-conscious people, but they are less class-conscious than they were. Young people especially are almost as indifferent to class as their contemporaries in America. This change has had a paradoxical result. The electors might have been expected to turn to Labor as the traditional enemies of class privilege. On the contrary, they have turned to the Conservatives—because Labor reminds them of a past they wish to forget.



The labor party was created to break through the walls of privilege and give the workers a place in the sun. It was, above all, a class party: even its name—“Labor” rather than “Socialist”—is evidence of this. It drew its strength less from an idea than from an almost instinctive response to the bitter memories of the Industrial Revolution. Its votes came from the gray cotton towns of the Northwest, the scarred industrial wilderness of the Black Country, the slag heaps of South Wales and Durham, the filthy slums of Glasgow, and the East End of London. Its earliest leaders—Keir Hardie, the miner; Ramsay MacDonald, the illegitimate son of a housemaid; Arthur Henderson, the iron smelter—were drawn from the authentic working class. Poverty had denied them any chance of education or advancement—and Labor politics was for them an opportunity for legitimate personal ambition, as well as for service to their fellows. From the beginning, Labor gave a hospitable welcome to middle-class allies, but the leaders for whom it reserved its warmth were working class, and proud of it. What has happened in the last ten years is that prosperity has started to wither the roots of a proletarian party. Technological change is killing the old industries and creating new occupations unsoured by the memory of old oppression. The filthy industrial slums are coming down at last; and their inhabitants are moving out to new housing estates in the suburbs. Above all, the educational ladder has been extended down to the bottom. Compared with the United States, the proportion of the population that goes to a university is still scandalously low, but it is high enough to cream off the ablest children of the working class. The Hardies, MacDonalds, and Hendersons of today are segregated from their less able playmates at the age of eleven, and they finish their education at twenty-two instead of at fifteen. The result of these changes is that the objective need for a primarily class-oriented progressive party has diminished—and at the same time, its attractiveness has declined. Recent surveys show that for more and more people, Labor is the party of the underdog, the hopeless and helpless: the aged, the poor, the unskilled. But fewer and fewer people are willing to think of themselves as underdogs. For young people, especially, the Labor party is redolent of a forgotten past.

The obvious moral is that Labor should throw off this dreary image. But it can hardly repudiate its past without breaking its ties with the unions—and it depends on the unions for most of its funds. Over a third of the Labor MP’s are union nominees. Over half the party Executive is elected by the unions. The union vote at the annual party conference outnumbers the votes of constituency party delegates. The operation may be necessary—but the patient cannot be blamed for resisting it. Unattractive though it is, the Labor party still has a solid wedge of safe seats in Parliament and twelve million votes in the country. Most of those seats and many of those votes come not from the new Britain of today but from the old Britain of the 1930’s. A Labor party with no union ties might win votes in the new suburban housing estates and from the white-collar workers in expanding industries, but would it appeal to the miners in South Wales and Durham, or to old-age pensioners all over the country? In the long run, the party would gain by dropping the union connection, but in politics the run is always short.



There are, however, two reasons for believing that Labor may soon be forced to undergo a political face-lift. The first is the Liberal revival. For years, the Liberal party was the coelacanth of British politics; extinct according to the textbooks, illogically alive in fact. In the past few years the Liberals have transformed themselves. Although they are in fact a very old party, they look very new. They are therefore perfectly situated to benefit from the social changes which have harmed Labor. The Liberals are progressive and lively; more responsive to the interests of the consumer than the other two parties; idealistic without being fanatical; egalitarian without being tied to any one class. The same surveys which show that the Labor party is seen as the party of the underdog show that the Liberals are seen as the party of the progressive-minded, the alert, the ambitious. If the Labor party remains set in its ways, the Liberal voters will eventually overtake it. When that happens, Labor voters will desert en masse. British voters have a healthy distaste for wasting their votes. For thirty years, Liberals have voted Labor to keep the Conservatives out. If the Liberals began to advance, would-be Labor voters would desert to the Liberals. This is still a distant prospect, but Labor’s civil war has brought it nearer.

The struggle in the Labor party is, in fact, the strongest reason for believing that Labor will be forced to change. If the left wins, the right will for all practical purposes be forced out of the party—into alliance with the Liberals. If the Gaitskellites win, they will be strong enough to stamp their image on the party—and there will no longer be any need for a Liberal party. In either case, the end result is the same. There will be a small, extremist party opposed to NATO and advocating old-style nationalization; and a larger, more moderate, force, committed to NATO and with a more empirical social policy. The moderate party might be called either “Liberal” or “Labor,” depending on circumstances. But the name does not matter. The important question is how long it takes to come into existence.



About the Author

Pin It on Pinterest

Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
for full access to
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
Don't have a log in?
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.