Labour: Yesterday and Today
IN HIS novel The Go-Between L.P. Hartley compares the past with the present: events in different periods have a different significance, and people behave in a strangely different manner. Oddly, it almost seems that one is visiting a foreign country. I had very much this feeling when I read the articles which mention the Labour Party in the last What Next? (No.20). I felt contributors had little or no conception of the vast changes that have taken place.
I joined the Labour Party in 1946. This was after the Edge Hill by-election, where I worked my guts out for a month campaigning for David Gibson, the Independent Labour Party candidate. I had made a bet with Walter Padley, who subsequently became MP for Ogmore and leader of the shopworkers’ union. He had wagered that the ILP candidate would not get 500 votes. Actually, the figure was only 154 votes. I had to buy him a year’s subscription to the Socialist Appeal.
So, feeling that the ILP was finished, I joined the Crewe Constituency Labour Party.
A total of 47 individuals attended the monthly meeting of the North ward. The Crewe CLP was one of 13 parties in Lancashire and Cheshire region that had its own local edition of Labour’s Voice, a well-produced 12-page printed monthly journal. One member objected to a cartoon that appeared on the last page that was mildly critical of the monarchy. It made what at one time would have been called a Willie Hamilton-style point: it ridiculed the large sum of money being spent to convert HMS Vanguard, the last battleship Britain built, so that Princess Elizabeth and Princess Margaret could sail on her to South Africa. After speaker after speaker had risen to attack this vile slur on the royal family, I could contain myself no longer. I stood up and made what amounted to a pure and simple republican speech. Support came from Ted Alcock, an old socialist who had been in the British Socialist Party. Then it was put to the vote: we had lost by 43 votes to three.
From this it would be easy to conclude that the Labour Party is much more left today. Nobody would be now thrown out, or even be strongly reprimanded, for advocating republicanism, let alone making a critical reference to royal extravagance. But this misses the vital point: the meaning of the terms "left" and "right" have completely changed over the past half century. Those who many Blairites today would regard as right-wingers would not sit passively by and accept the numerous outrages emanating from Millbank Tower like the majority of Labour Party members now do. They believed in a welfare state that protected everybody from the cradle to the grave, full employment in a free society, and a comprehensive National Health Service, where the criterion was need, not the ability to pay.
Immediately this was threatened by cuts in the health budget and a wage freeze, accompanied by a government plea to employers not to declare higher profits, a mighty protest movement emerged. "The struggle in British politics today", declared Aneurin Bevan, "is not between the Tories and the Labour Party. It is for the soul of the Labour Party." Fifty-seven MPs defied the government and voted against the welfare cuts. At the 1951 general election they projected a different image from the party hacks. In Tribune Ian Mikardo stated that, if every Labour candidate had done as well as the Bevanites, then Labour would still be in power. What a contrast with the recent general election, when all Labour candidates appeared to be singing from the same hymn sheet.
Equally startling is the transformation in the composition of the party. Then there was credibility, roots in the class and local activities, all of which have now vanished. Today there is merely a miserable 310,000 individual members; in 1957 membership stood at 1,146,000. Several years previously the rank and file had dumped off all the reactionaries, such as Dalton and Morrison, from the constituency party section of the National Executive. I recall the first industrial action in the North Staffs coalfield since the General Strike of 1926. The miners demanded to inspect the Labour Party membership cards of the two leaders of the strike – Stan Newens and Ernest Scrivens – before they would allow them to speak. Such action is quite inconceivable today. Trade unionists no longer look to Labour in this fond way.
The beginning of the change came with the next great protest movement. Whereas Bevanism was a movement which began inside the labour movement, the struggle against nuclear weapons was started by a small group of direct actionists who ignited the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament outside Labour’s ranks. It was the Labour Advisory Committee of CND, of which I was a member along with Olive Gibbs and Peggy Duff, which sought to spread its influence inside Labour. Eventually, we won such extensive backing that a unilateralist resolution was adopted at the annual conference held at Scarborough in 1960. Hugh Gaitskell was forced to fight, fight and fight again before he was able to restore the right’s hegemony.
Since the early 1960s there have been numerous protest movements: over Vietnam, the Gulf, the right to work, etc. However, they have all had one thing in common – they have not, unlike CND, seen winning control of the Labour Party as central to their strategy. This has been, I think, for two reasons. First, because the Labour Party, like the Cheshire cat in Alice in Wonderland, has shrunk in power and influence. And while clearly Hitler had no say in the constitutional changes within the party, I do not think he could have bettered Blair’s moves to end democratic control, eliminating the influence of ordinary members on the decision-making process.
It seems to me likely that Labour will continue its slow, inglorious decline. Within the next decade some new source of socialist revolt will spring up, arousing a new generation of angry young people. Of course, life may prove me wrong. Perhaps somehow the Labour left will again be a force to be reckoned with in working class politics. If so, I would ask comrades to remember that there must be many around like myself. In no circumstances, as the party bosses have made plain to me, would they allow me back into the party.
Besides joining the Labour Party 55 years ago, I have served it in a number of different capacities: borough councillor, constituency party secretary, parliamentary candidate etc, as well as being vice-president of the Society for the Study of Labour History and writing five books on working class topics. Yet, all this is as naught. The reason? I refuse to remain silent on corruption.
My interest was first kindled by the case of John Poulson, the Yorkshire architect. When he, Cunningham and Smith were found guilty, Mr Justice Waller stated that there was a web of corruption that encompassed 23 local authorities and 300 individuals. I was the main supporting speaker for Eddie Milne MP. He wanted a full disclosure of all the financial facts surrounding the Poulson affair. He was thrown out of the Labour Party and won Blyth as an Independent Labour candidate.
A secret coalition between influential Tory and Labour leaders, members of the Establishment, sought to keep deeply embarrassing information from purview. Of the 300 tainted by corruption, 280 still remain unknown. I have good reason to believe these include cabinet ministers, important businessmen, leading policeman and numerous councillors. Britain’s entire political system would be thrown into disrepute if their names were to be revealed.
Of course, it does not end there. A trail of slime comes right down to the present day. A few months ago the World Bank issued a list of 54 companies which indulged in criminal and fraudulent practices. On this blacklist were the names of 35 British companies. I wrote to my local MP, Alan Campbell, to ask him what he thought should be done. Instead of stating his personal opinion, he merely forwarded my letter to the Board of Trade. It gave a crisp and curt reply, stating that the matter was in the hands of the law enforcement agencies. Yet, so far, they have done nothing. Naturally, I wrote to express my dissatisfaction to Alan Campbell but received no reply.
No membership, no reply to my letter. This would seem to me to symbolise the position of New – or should it be "Blue"? – Labour, as Tory Blair leads his lambs to the slaughter.