Commentary Magazine

The British Elections Herald a New Era:
The Break in Working-Class Solidarity

One of the reasons the Labor party victory in the British election of 1945 was regarded as historic was the fact that this victory was expected to usher in a long-term period of Labor dominance—the working class, with the advance of popular democracy, had at last come into its own and could be expected to remain there. But, writes Norman Macrae, last May’s Conservative triumph in the general elections throws all this into question again—analysis of the vote may indeed indicate that the Labor tide is on a long-term ebb.



“I’m not going to vote at this election,” said the taxi driver who picked up Lord Woolton, the Conservative party leader, last month in a grimy northern town. “I’ve got nothing to grumble about.” It is possible that he was merely being polite to his distinguished passenger. But it is also possible—indeed, now that the results are out, it is probable—that he was giving Lord Woolton his first real assurance of Conservative victory in the country at large. The question that every political analyst in Britain is asking today is whether that taxi driver was also sounding the first faint rumble of a sea-change in British political history.

The statistics of the election have already been carried in almost every newspaper in the world but the barest of them are well worth repetition. The number of people who were entitled to vote at this election was almost exactly the same as in the election of 1951: just under 35 million in each case. Since 1951, of course, about two million electors had died, and another two million young people had risen above the minimum voting age of twenty-one to take their place. But this normal shift at either end of the voting cavalcade did not carry with it any significant change in the class structure of the electorate; indeed, for reasons that will be discussed later, it should have been of a slight net advantage to Labor. The real difference between the two elections lies in the fact that in 1951 more than 28.5 million people, or 82.6 per cent of those entitled to vote, came to the polls; in 1955 only just over 26.5 million people, or 76.8 per cent, bothered to do so. By the standards of most democracies this is still a fairly good turnout, but by recent British standards it is a poor one. Nearly two million people who had voted in 1951 this time stayed away.

Of these two million, some 400,000 were people who voted Conservative last time, or who might have been expected to do so in 1955; the Tory vote dropped from 13.7 million in 1951 to 13.3 million this time. After even a cursory examination of the figures for different areas, this drop is fairly easy to explain. A sizable part of the drop occurred in agricultural areas; farmers everywhere are less enthusiastic about any government that has been in power since the great postwar food shortage and agricultural inflation were assuaged. There is also an irremediable malcontents’ vote in Britain which always tends to go against the government of the day. It went against the Tories in 1945, and against Labor in 1951; this time it did not go against the Tories again, but it did stay at home. In addition, more of the well-to-do take their holidays early, and will have been away from home for a May election, and there was a fairly sharp drop in Tory votes in some residential areas where everybody knew that the Conservatives “were going to get in anyway, so that it hardly seemed worth voting.”



In my own home suburb of Wimbledon, where 42,000 Tories went to the polls last time to give the sitting member one of the biggest Conservative majorities in the country, only 22,000 turned out this time (admittedly, from a smaller electorate): but although a lot of stockbrokers obviously stayed in town for the festivities of election night instead of hurrying home to record their votes, our local Tory member was still returned with a rock-solid, though reduced majority. The Conservatives have some reason to be disappointed with this relative apathy among their supporters after a period of government in which they have done much better than most fair-minded people had expected—better, indeed, than they themselves had originally dreamed. But they can take comfort from the thought that the drop in their vote, having regard to the stability of the electorate, was the smallest that has ever occurred after a period of Conservative government. By any reasonable historical standard they have kept up their vote remarkably well.

But the level of Labor abstentions was a very different matter. For one thing, it was much bigger. While 400,000 Tories stayed away, one and a half million Labor voters abstained. Labor’s vote dropped from over 13.9 million in 1951 to 12.4 million this time. For another, there is—or ought to be—a long-term tendency for the Labor vote to rise. Until last month it had risen at every election since 1918, with the sole exception of 1931 when Labor’s own leader, Ramsay MacDonald, had thrown in the towel before mounting economic crisis and himself gone over to the Tories’ side. For yet another, Labor, being in opposition, cannot take much comfort from the thought that part of its drop, like that of the Tories, was explained by the feeling that it is “not worth voting” in safe seats. Admittedly, the feelings of the stockbrokers in Wimbledon were echoed among the miners of the Rhondda, where 12,000 stayed away; but it is part of the tradition of British politics that apathy settles more easily upon government supporters than upon opposition supporters, who are supposed to be bubbling with energy on polling day in the desire to “throw the rascals out.”

Finally, and most significant of all, there were some Labor seats—notably in the engineering area around Birmingham—where the Labor vote did not merely go down, but where the Tory vote went up. In these Midland towns, in some of which production and real earnings have increased by 30 or 40 per cent since 1951, some of the workers quite clearly carried their feeling that they had “nothing to grumble about” to un-British extremes; they went and voted Tory, probably for the first time in their lives. Where they went this time, is there any danger that the one and a half million others with “nothing to grumble about” may go next time? If there is, what can Labor do about it? These are the questions ruining every Labor politician’s sleep at the present time, and they may well lead to dramatic eruptions in the course of this Parliament.



To the outsider, all this must seem a rather exaggerated fuss to make about such a small turnover in votes. But this is because, from outside, Britain’s choice of a Labor government between 1945 and 1951 probably looked like a strange aberration. From inside, it looked like a natural development, and one that was probably going to be much more durable than anti-socialists abroad believed. The sensible supposition to make in 1945 was that Britain was going to have many more Labor governments than Tory governments during the second half of the 20th century. Moreover, this supposition still held good just after the election of 1951. It is important to understand why.

The reason for Labor’s optimism, even after 1951, was that the Labor vote still showed a long-term tendency to rise. In its great victory of 1945 the party had won 391 Parliamentary seats from 12.1 million votes, but in its narrow defeat of 1951 it won only 294 seats from 13.9 million votes. In both years, exactly 48.8 per cent of those who voted came down on its side. Labor’s transition from victory to defeat between 1945 and 1951 was not due to any decline in its support. It was due, first, to the fact that 8.3 per cent of the electorate deserted Liberal or anti-socialist “independent” candidates between 1945 and 1951, and that exactly this proportion was added on to the Tory vote; and, secondly, to certain changes in constituency boundaries. The 1945 election, which was fought along pre-war constituency boundaries, brought gross under-representation to the dormitory suburbs which had nfled up with Tory voters in the late 1930’s, out which still returned only the same number of MP’s as in the days before the efflux to suburbia began. Boundary changes in 1948 and 1954 have put that injustice right, and have indeed introduced a slight distortion in the Tories’ favor. But this re-alignment of Liberal votes and this re-arrangement of boundaries were once-for-all factors in the Tories’ favor. Once they were effected, it seemed, the long-term tendency for the Labor vote to grow would again become the dominant factor of British politics—although from a lower jumping-off point of Parliamentary advantage than the peak conditions of 1945 had given to the party.

The lesson of the election of 1955 is that there may not, after all, be a long-term tendency for the Labor vote to grow. With increasing incomes we may, conceivably, be moving over to a less obviously “class-constructed” framework of politics. And nobody will understand the buzz that this election has caused among British political thinkers until he realizes that this would be a changeover that could set the whole course of European history on to a new tack. It may be worthwhile here to discourse at some length upon why, up to last month, it had seemed reasonable to suppose that the advantages Labor ought to have in any British election were built into our social and political system.



Britain has an electorate of some 35 million, and of these between 20 and 25 million belong—under any definition of the term—to the “working class.” This, of course, is not an unusual proportion for an industrial country; broadly, the same picture obtains in America and in industrial Western Europe. But compared with America the British have the great disadvantage that their “proletariat” thinks of itself as a proletariat, and as people whose children will remain in the same class. You can blame this if you like upon British snobbery, including the inverted snobbery of the East End of London, where it is rather improper to put an aspidistra in your window and suggest that you are more uppity than the Joneses. You can also blame it on our educational system. But neither apportionment of the blame is strictly fair.

Britain’s real disadvantages compared with America are that we have not got the enormous dynamic of an immigrant economy, where Bill Jones does not feel something of a traitor to his class if he rises to a position above Bert Jones—because with you neither of them is called Jones, but Greenbaum or Jorgenssen or Kowalski. We have also lived for a much longer time than you in an economy where small-scale enterprise is very limited, Where there is no tradition of the “small-town business makes good” (because we have not got any small towns in the American sense), and where only 5 per cent of our population is in agriculture so that we have not got many of that useful class cross-breed, “the boy from the farm.” “Never forget, gentlemen,” Keynes used to tell his students in his naughtier moments, “that America is fundamentally a peasant economy.” Combine this with the fact that our universities, when crammed to the roof, can only take between 3 and 4 per cent of those of university age and are not yet sufficiently democratized, and you will grasp our great social and political disadvantage. For a long time we have had, and for a long time to come it had seemed that we were bound to have, a large and homogeneous body of our population which thinks of itself as purely working class. And do not be scornful of us about this, for the same inevitability had appeared to lie over the whole of Western Europe.

Compared with Western Europe, however, we have one great political difference. In Western Europe the working class vote is usually split in three. There are the Communists, who are particularly powerful in France and Italy; there are the socialists, who are fundamentally anti-clerical; and there are the Roman Catholics, to whom the anti-clericalism of the socialists is anathema. The dominant feature of the British Labor party is that it is a flexible party whose highest aim is to attract all the working class people who would divide under these three heads in France and Italy, plus a few other people as well.



In the first place, Labor undoubtedly captures some of the people who would vote Communist in some other countries. One always has to tell Americans that they need not worry much about this, and to tell the British Labor party that it ought to worry about it a great deal more. The reason why Americans should not worry about it is that political Communism in Britain is an electoral joke; the average poll of the seventeen Communists who stood as Communists at the election last month was not much larger than that of the enterprising gentleman who stood in a Lake District constituency on the platform of home rule for the county of Cumberland and the legalization of cock-fighting. The reason why Labor should worry more about Communism, however, is that the sort of people who would vote Communist in France and Italy are the intense sort who bother to turn up at dull local Labor party meetings even when there are no elections in the offing. They thus, by sheer persistence and by the natural convention that chaps who turn up and do the work deserve to become organizing secretaries and the like, tend to fill many of the most important “amateur” posts in the local Labor parties; and they exert an undue influence on the choice of the local parties’ candidates at election time. It is for this reason that about a quarter of Labor candidates are usually supporters of Aneurin Bevan, even though it is a reasonable guess (supported by public opinion polls) that a much smaller proportion of those who vote for the party at elections are Bevanite-inclined. Of the 277 Labor MP’s elected last month, in fact, about 60 are likely to prove to be supporters of Mr. Bevan; and about three are likely to be very red and very anti-American indeed. But once again, outsiders should not worry. It is surprising how the queerest customers tone down when they get near to Westminster and power. This applies, in especial degree, to that queerest customer of all—Aneurin Bevan himself.

To the second group of working class voters—those who would call themselves socialists on the continent—Labor’s appeal is effective but muted. Officially the Labor party is a socialist party, and it calls itself that at appropriate moments in its private enclaves, but in the outside world the only people who always give it that name are writers in the Conservative press. Indeed, when the words “Socialist Party” cropped up in a quasi-judicial report on land usage, Herbert Morrison exploded indignantly in the House of Commons that this supposedly impartial lawyer had unwittingly “revealed by these words what sort of newspapers he reads.” It is a great feat of flexibility for Labor to adopt the word “socialist” when it is advantageous, and to pretend that it is a press baron’s term of abuse upon the party when it is disadvantageous. But anybody who thinks that it is a feat which might repel its supporters just does not understand the political solidarity of the British working class.

The third division of the working class vote in Europe hardly exists with us at all. Religion in politics is not a principal issue and, insofar as it is even a side issue, Labor is ready to come up wagging its tail and prepared to make concessions to special religious or moralist interests to bring in their votes. For example, Labor nearly always arranges to have its proper quota of temperance MP’s (the chief of them was unexpectedly beaten on May 26), anti-vaccination MP’s, and pacifists—all in a party which is boisterous, progressive, and reputedly militant. It can do this because it has hitherto felt pretty certain that, once it got its candidate past the local party’s (possibly Bevanite) selection group, then the quirks of the candidate did not matter nearly so much as the party label among the party’s solid working class vote. “Our chaps will vote for a pig if we choose to put one up,” one party official is reputed to have said at the time of the 1951 election. On the other side of the fence, the Conservatives have never been able to feel quite so certain about this. If they did adopt anything that any local anti-socialists regarded as workable, then they would have an uncomfortable feeling that an “Independent Anti-Pig Conservative” candidate would probably be put up against him and split the middle-class vote. (Very much this sort of thing in fact did split the Tory vote, and lose a seat to Labor in one Scottish constituency last month.) The result is that the local Tory candidate nowadays tends to be terribly conformist to middle-class “good taste”—preferably Anglican, center-of-the-road, able war record, not too outspoken—unless, of course, he happens to be a relative or a relative-in-law of a present or past Tory prime minister. This insistence on conformity is rather a bore, and if one belongs to a minority group I suppose one should get very angry about it. But it does have one advantage: it is no longer considered conformist to be very Blimpish and right wing. For this reason, the feeling that a more powerful Tory party might become again the party of “pelf and privilege” is really arrant nonsense. It will become steadily more “welfare state” instead.

This digression on the type of candidates put up by each party has been worthwhile, because it emphasizes the crucial point that people at whom the Labor party tries to beam its appeal are not mainly doctrinaire socialists or anything so intellectual-sounding. Instead, its aim is to persuade all sorts of ordinary and extraordinary people, and especially the 70 per cent of the electorate which regards itself as working class, that it is the party “which one would normally expect to represent people like themselves.” Only in Scandinavia, and particularly in Sweden, has a working class party managed to run up a similar monopoly of being “against the boss.” And in Sweden the Social Democrat party has now formed the King’s government for many years.



Who are the one and a half million former Labor voters who refused on this occasion to respond to such an appeal? One can perhaps get nearest an answer to this question by trying to trace the sort of working people who have never voted Labor at all, and who have thus prevented it from getting the clear majority it might well have expected years ago. They seem to be split into three groups. First, there are those who, while regarding the Tories as the bosses’ party, have a suspicion that the bosses are probably more efficient at managing affairs. This feeling, of course, was especially prevalent in the Tory landslide of 1931, after Ramsay Macdonald had deserted Labor because he felt that the party could not handle the economic crisis on its own. Secondly, there are always some workers who know quite well that they are doing better than others and are afraid that Labor’s egalitarian-ism might hurt them as well as the boss. Thirdly, there are some elder workers who still regard Labor as slightly unrespectable; after all, only the Liberals and the Tories were respectable up to 1918.

This last group is gradually dying out. It was largely because of their gradual decline—and because more and more of the working classes were fulfilling their democratic right of coming to the polls—that the Labor vote rose so consistently (apart from 1931) between 1918 and 1951. The drop in the Labor vote in 1955 must mean that there has been a sudden swelling of the first and second groups. It is in the feeling that Labor is not so efficient as the Tories, that it might “take prosperity away” from higher earning workers, and perhaps—just a shadow of perhaps—that Bevanism is making Labor not quite respectable again, that one can almost certainly find the principal explanation of those fatal one and a half million Labor abstentions in this election.

This reading is, I think, borne out by analysis of the places where the swing to the Tories was most marked in this election. The swing in the prosperous engineering constituencies of the Midlands has already been referred to: this was the “don’t let them take it away” vote. A second feature was the reaction of Labor voters to Bevanite candidates. Constituencies that had had Bevanite candidates as sitting members at previous elections voted in very much the same way as the national average (apart from a rather surprising drop in the Labor turn-out in Bevan’s own constituency of Ebbw Vale). But wherever a left-wing local Labor party had introduced a Bevanite candidate to a constituency which had had a right-wing Labor candidate before, the drop in the Labor vote, and the increase in the indignant Conservative vote, was marked. This, quite clearly, was the “un-respectability” bogey rearing its head before the Labor party again; intriguingly, it also seems to have affected constituencies where not quite Bevanite candidates deviated from the supposedly bipartisan line of supporting manufacture of the hydrogen bomb. A third feature of the election—which deserves a separate sentence on its own—was the dramatic vote in the Yorkshire constituency of Cleveland. This area is dominated by workers employed by Imperial Chemical Industries, which Labor had promised to nationalize; it showed the largest statistical swing to the Conservatives of any seat in the country.

These individual results, even more than the general trend, must compel the Labor party to search their souls. It has been clear for a long time that the majority of the British people does not really believe in—although it also does not doctrinally recoil from—the nationalization of all the means of production, distribution, and exchange. The Labor party does not believe in it either, but it has hitherto felt assured that it would not harm itself by pretending on occasion that it did. After May 26, that assumption does not look as firm as it did.



This, then, is the political situation which Britain has inherited from its recent election. The lesson that the Conservatives will draw from it is quite clear. They will continue with the policies that they followed in 1951-55. At home, this is an expansionist policy which keeps rigidly in step with the trade unions, full employment, the welfare state, and all the other things which the mass of British voters—and especially working class voters—hold dear. It is a policy which the Conservatives originally inherited from Labor, but in which the Butlerites now implicitly believe; ever since it has been shown that monetary policy can keep a check upon fluctuating industrial inventories, and thereby upon the balance of payments problem of a country whose imports so largely consist of raw materials, it is a policy in which most of the rest of us have believed also. Abroad, the Tory recipe will be a mixture of the policy of peace through strength, in which both Sir Anthony Eden and Harold Macmillan believe, and of the policy of talking with the Russians at every opportunity on which the British public insists. This may have its dangers, but one has the suspicion from here that if the Russians really are going to offer a partial withdrawal from Eastern Europe in return for a withdrawal of foreign (which principally means American) troops from Germany—then the dangers of rash peace-mongering within the Western Alliance are not going to rest entirely on this side of the Atlantic. But any attempt to examine olive branches before they are offered would lead far beyond the proper confines of this article. The only thing that needs to be said on Tory foreign policy is that, although the voice may be the voice of Macmillan, Sir Anthony himself will be at the helm.



The implications of the election results for the Labor party are far more interesting. There have been three reactions as yet, all of which should be studied in the light of the fearful—if still faint—forebodings for Labor which have been described in this article. The first came from Attlee, who is seventy-two years of age and will almost certainly retire before the next election. “The tide may have ebbed for the time being,” he declared in his first post-election speech, “but it will come again in full flood.” Attlee’s theme is that if economic or other misfortune overtakes a Conservative government, then the pendulum will soon swing back to labor; and, if that misfortune did come, then there is no doubt that he would be right. By contrast, Gaitskell, whom most people expect to be the leader of the Labor party by the time the next election comes round, has given a recipe almost precisely the opposite of Attlee’s. He has told a post-election audience of right-wing trade unionists that there is no point in having a party that can only win elections when things go wrong for the country; an administration that could only take power at moments of disaster is not his idea of fun. He is, therefore, in favor of a reform of Labor’s policy, to fit in with what he believes is the new mood of the country.

The third reaction that deserves quotation comes from an article in the New Statesman and Nation, which—although unsigned—was almost certainly written by a Bevanite politician. The New Statesman argues that the “Forward with Labor” manifesto on which “the election should have been, but was not, fought” represented an agreed policy between the left and right wings of the party. It should therefore be clutched to the party’s breast “as the strategic framework within which the tactics of the Parliamentary battle can be worked out.” In other words, this voice from the left insists that such measures of nationalization as the party theoretically accepted in that manifesto must be maintained as party policy, but that the left need not press any new demands at this juncture.

For what it is worth, therefore, in the immediate aftermath of defeat, the left in the Labor party seems to be on the defensive, the old leader of the party seems eager to stand still, and the man whom most people expect to be the old leader’s heir clearly wants to do some rightward re-thinking. One suspects that the outcome of this clash of forces will depend on the sort of economic weather that awaits the Conservatives, and on the trend shown in by-elections at the time when Attlee retires; it will also depend upon the battle of personalities as that retirement approaches. For the man who is still determined to challenge Gaitskell for the leadership remains inscrutable and implacable. Bevan has so far given one principal explanation of the drop in the Labor vote in his constituency: it was due, he is reported to have said, to a small but badly timed shower of rain. It would be too bad for the journalist, at the end of such a long article as this, if this mere matter of meteorology was the whole explanation of the mystery of May 26—if the course of history was swayed last month merely because capitalist Conservatives carry umbrellas while downtrodden Labor voters cannot afford them. But, somehow, I do not think it was.



About the Author

Pin It on Pinterest