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Socialism and the Labour Party: The Labour Left and Domestic Policy, 1945-1950

David Rubinstein

MANY contemporaries hoped or feared that the Labour Government of 1945, the first supported by a majority in the House of Commons, would create a socialist society. Labour Party leaders often claimed to he bringing about a peaceful social revolution, a term much in use at the time.1 Immediately after the government’s election King George VI had to give a resolute assurance to the enquiring American president, Harry Truman, that revolutions were not a British institution.2 The Keep Left group of MPs, on the other hand, asserted in May 1947 that a revolution was exactly what the nation had voted for in 1945.3 Yet already disillusionment had begun to act in. "Sagittarius", the New Statesman and Nation’s penetrating satirist, concluded in the same year:

"The Revolution’s wave has passed its peak –
It only lasted for Election Week."4

Soon after the government’s fall, its period of office could be seen in perspective not as the beginning of a socialist Britain, but as the end of a long struggle to establish the framework of the welfare state.5 In this field, as with full employment, its success was striking. Them was, however, no hint of either socialism or social revolution in the sense of a significant shift in power relations between social classes, let alone the abolition of classes.6 In the government’s emphasis on social welfare rather than socialism can he seen the extent of the failure of the Labour left between 1945 and 1950.


The failure cannot be attributed to lack of left-wing pressure. Constant demands were made, in Parliament, in the socialist press, by the constituency Labour parties and at the annual party conference, for the Labour Party’s declared aim of bringing about a socialist commonwealth in Britain to be pursued more vigorously.

One target of socialist critics was the government’s social policy, despite its efforts in this field. As early as 12 October 1945 Sydney Silverman sponsored a motion in the House of Commons calling, in defiance of government policy, for an immediate increase in old age pensions. His motion attracted the signatures of nearly 170 Labour backbenchers.7 The next month a Labour rebellion in a parliamentary standing committee resulted in a government defeat over its attempt to delay the payment of benefit for industrial injury until the fourth day of injury.8 On 23 May 1946 Silverman moved an amendment to delete a clause of the National Insurance Bill which limited unemployment benefit as of right to 180 days. Barbara Castle, Jennie Lee and S.O. Davies were among the MPs who joined the attack, claiming that under the bill long-term unemployment was in effect blamed on the unemployed and that the clause was "a furtive effort" to reintroduce a means test. In a division, thirty-two Labour members voted against the government. W.G. Cove, a former teacher, led a campaign in Parliament and at the Labour Party ,conference in opposition to the educational policies of Ellen Wilkinson, the Minister of Education, whose hostility to the comprehensive school he called "a danger to the whole Labour movement".9

There was also much concern within the party over economic and financial policy and a planned economy. Socialist planning was at the centre of the demands made in Keep Left, the manifesto signed by fifteen MPs led by Richard Crossman, Michael Foot and Ian Mikardo. Maurice Webb and Barbara Castle were two of the MPs most insistent that the housewife should be protected by delaying or abandoning the "bonfire of controls" begun by Harold Wilson at the Board of Trade in the autumn of 1948. The bonfire, Webb warned the party conference in 1949, could well become "the funeral pyre of social justice".10 In the House of Commons during the economic crisis of 1947 a number of MPs demanded that sacrifices be shared equally by all social classes, urging the need for higher taxes on profits, control of dividends and the introduction of a capital levy. They condemned the availability of luxury goods at a time of cuts in the rate of construction of new houses and factories.11 The provision of hotels, expensive shops and fashionable restaurants, Harold Lever claimed on 24 October, had reached positively gigantic proportions. In February 1948 the publication of a White Paper on incomes and prices enunciating a doctrine of severe wage restraint resulted in a letter to the Prime Minister from sixty Labour MPs calling for limitation of profits. This was accompanied, by a parliamentary motion led by Ellis Smith and signed by twenty-one MPs, repudiating the White Paper and urging restraint of prices and profits rather than wages.12

Many backbench MPs were involved between 1946 and 1948 in a campaign to force the nationalisation of iron and steel upon a government many of whose members were by no means enthusiastic on the issue. At an agitated meeting of the parliamentary party on 11 August 1947 the demand to expedite nationalisation was backed by a petition signed by nearly 150 backbenchers.13 Outside Parliament Tribune was heavily involved with the campaign for steel nationalisation, pointing out in an unsigned article on 8 August 1947 that the issue at stake was nothing less than the control of the economy by capitalists or the government.

Criticism of the government’s financial and taxation policy as unfair to the working class, favourable to profits and dividends and hostile to economic equality, reached a climax when Sir Stafford Cripps’s budget speech in April 1949 announced reduced food subsidies, foreshadowed charges on the National Health Service and asserted that there was little possibility of redistributing income in the immediate future by increasing taxation. Richard Acland, Ronald Chamberlain, Mark Hewitson, James Hudson, Emrys Hughes, Kenneth Robinson, Thomas Scollan, Ellis Smith and George Wigg were among the outspoken critics of the budget, their attacks reflecting opposition to the whole trend of economic policy rather than to one financial measure alone. Smith, who made consistent demands throughout this Parliament for planning and a comprehensive economic strategy, declared on 7 April: "We have no Socialist drive or vision of the end we want to achieve, or how to reach it." The deepest impression was made (also on 7 April) by Hewitson, a trade union leader and a member of the Labour Party’s National Executive Committee, who threatened a fight against the Labour Government "as we have fought in the past against Tories and Tory employers". Like the backbenchers, many constituency parties reacted angrily and vigorously to the budget. So many letters were sent to party headquarters at Transport House that a special "budget reply" had to be prepared. One strongly worded letter came from the secretary-agent of the Coventry Borough Labour Party, George Hodgkinson, who wrote that the assumptions of the budget proposals had driven many of the keenest party workers to cease party activity: "There is a feeling that Sir Stafford Cripps is going the way of Ramsay MacDonald, and in the Budget has shown more patriotism than socialism."14

Another focus for criticism of the government was the failure of nationalisation of industry to act as an instrument of socialism. Sixteen resolutions for the party conference of 1948 and eighteen more in 1949 dealt with democratic control of nationalised industries, supporting workers’ participation and the inclusion of more socialists on the boards, and opposing the high salaries paid to board members.15 When the party policy statement Labour Believes in Britain was in draft early in 1949, one of the criticisms made at the Policy and Publicity Committee was that "the spiritual results of nationalisation" had been less beneficial than had been hoped. At the same period meetings of area groups of MPs with the party chairman, James Griffiths, and the secretary, Morgan Phillips, produced a number of complaints about nationalisation. These involved unacceptable appointments to the boards, the lack of industrial democracy, and the higher prices which, it was alleged, immediately followed measures of nationalisation.16

Few if any other subjects aroused such repeated and agonised debates at the party conferences. The demand for more democratic control of publicly owned industry was raised by spokesmen of two leading trade unions, Jim Figgins of the National Union of Railwaymen and Robert Openshaw of the Amalgamated Engineering Union, but the case for giving the workers a major share in the control of the nationalised industries was voiced with even greater feeling by some of the rank and file. One such was Bob Shaw, a goods guard from Nottingham, who told the 1949 conference that the promised new spirit had failed to materialise on the nationalised railways. Frustration had not diminished but increased. The old managers had retained control and the industry was saddled with heavy compensation payments. Shaw’s solution was to "place the workers in control of these railways". His outburst received a measure of statistical support from a survey undertaken by the NUR journal, the Railway Review, at the end of 1948, which showed that 45 per cent of the 485 railwaymen who replied to a questionnaire felt that their jobs were virtually unchanged, while another 45 per cent felt that frustration had increased after a year of nationalisation. Fewer than 15 per cent of respondents thought that they had a share in running the railways.17

Although the National Union of Mineworkers did not advocate workers’ control of their industry, it was clear that dissatisfaction among miners and others was not removed by the transfer of the mines to public ownership. Harold Davies MP wryly told the Labour Party conference in 1948: "In the mining industry there is the National Coal Board. It has been said that the difference between the National Coal Board and Old King Cole is that Old King Cole knew how many fiddlers he had!" In May 1949 a Fabian research study of twelve coalfields showed that only three of the eighty-eight respondents thought that miners were adequately consulted, while fifty-nine thought that they were never consulted.18 Dissatisfaction with the fruits of nationalisation was a contributory factor in a number of unofficial miners’ strikes during this period.19 The New Statesman, which took a special interest in the problems of nationalisation, commented on 8 May 1948 that the miners felt no sense of change under public ownership and, on 28 August 1948, that the public boards seemed to many workers to resemble such large firms as Levers or ICI: "The Boards are remote from the ordinary worker, and the representatives of management with whom he comes into direct contact are nearly all the same persons as before."20 The paper’s prescription, voiced on 4 March 1950, was by that date a common demand within the labour movement: "to socialise the nationalised industries."

The government had maintained the heavy taxes on income imposed during the war, but it was urged by some of its followers to extend its attack on inequality to capital and property as well as income. A perceptive article by Ivor Moresby in Tribune on 12 April 1946 pointed out that income distribution remained heavily unequal, and would be blatantly revealed as such when the war-time burden of taxation was reduced. Nationalisation, he continued, should be undertaken not only for reasons of industrial efficiency but in order to reduce "exploitation and speculation.... We have now had heavy progressive taxation and death duties for a generation, and yet the distribution of wealth is much the same as before.... Property begets more property". At the Labour Party conference of 1950 Roy Jenkins MP, then a contributor to Tribune, took a similar line, arguing that "we have hardly yet scratched the surface of the problem" of inequality of property, which had changed little since 1939. Death duties were too slow and "a capital levy ... would be very much quicker". Like Moresby, Jenkins thought that one of the keys to greater economic and social equality lay in the nationalisation of industry. Theirs were not isolated voices, and a number of MPs and the New Statesman joined in the demand for, in particular, a capital levy.21 But in general the need to bring about equality of property was not pressed as strongly between 1945 and 1950 as were other issues.

A demand frequently heard both in the socialist press and within the party itself was for increased vigour in pursuing socialist goals, for "more Socialism – not less".22 Maurice Webb, chairman of the Parliamentary Labour Party and a widely respected centre figure in the party, wrote in Tribune on 23 January 1948: "The plain truth is we are not yet within miles of Socialism.... All we have done so far is to make Socialism possible." Shortly afterwards Ian Mikardo MP wrote in similar vein in a Fabian research pamphlet, asserting that the government’s industrial record was no more than "the very first step in the transition to Socialism".23 The case for a faster advance towards socialism was also advocated by Harold Laski, a leading socialist intellectual who was a member of the Labour Party’s National Executive Committee. Laski’s weekly articles in the Scottish socialist journal Forward were concerned above all with foreign affairs, but he wrote occasional articles on domestic policy, including a series at the time of the economic crisis in 1947, when he urged the need for "a thoroughgoing application of Socialist principles".24 A similar line was taken by Forward’s editor, Morgan Thomson, who was later, as George Thomson, to move into different fields as minister, Common Market bureaucrat and peer. In an article on 5 February 1949, during the course of a Scottish visit by Herbert Morrison, Thomson attacked as inadequate the policy of "consolidation" of existing measures of nationalisation which Morrison had been urging since the Labour Party conference of 1948, rather than undertaking new measures of public ownership. Thomson wrote aggressively that there was room in the country for only one Conservative Party, and that the Labour Party, "pledged to create a Socialist society", had still "a long way to go.... Any dalliance with the idea of pausing a while and making the best of things as they are will only endanger the Movement as it did in 1931".

G.D.H. Cole, like Laski one of Labour’s leading intellectuals, made a trenchant attack in the Political Quarterly for July-September 1949 on the policy statement Labour Believes in Britain, which was heavy with consolidationist assumptions. Cole feared that the party leadership had abandoned its belief in socialism and replaced it by belief in the mixed economy. What sort of Britain should Labour believe in? he asked. "Surely in a socialist Britain." In a Fabian tract discussing the policy statement he sharply distinguished between real socialism and "Keynesian liberalism, sometimes masquerading as Socialism".25

The demands for "more socialism" were reflected in resolutions placed on the agenda for the party conference, calling for a faster "passage to full Socialism", "an economy that is predominantly Socialist" and "a plan for the complete Socialisation of our Economy during the 1950 Parliament". After the election reverse in 1950 many more such resolutions were submitted.26 The nature of the party conference was such that most of the delegates’ time was taken up in discussing specific issues rather than socialism as an abstract principle. However, several delegates were able to argue the case for a basic reconstruction of policy. In 1948 Hugh Lawson, a war-time MP for the independent Common Wealth Party and later Labour candidate for Rushcliffe and King’s Lynn, proclaimed his faith in public ownership for reasons of social justice rather than economic efficiency. The government, he said, was moving too slowly, not too fast. In 1950 William Carter, the delegate from Merton and Morden, told the conference that the "light of a great joy" which shone in 1945 with the election of a socialist government had faded over the past few years. The pugnacious Harry Ratner of Salford East, a shop steward in an engineering works, pointed out to the same conference that 80 per cent of the economy remained in capitalist hands, charged the party leadership with being more concerned with accommodating Labour’s enemies than with "a genuine socialist programme", and demanded nationalisation of all basic industries.

This sketch of the criticisms and demands voiced by the Labour left cannot begin to do justice to the quantity of such demands, nor to the knowledge and passion with which they were made. But it can at least suggest that pride in the government’s record and anxiety about its enemies by no means prevented the existence of an articulate left. A primary problem lay in organising the widespread feelings of dissatisfaction which existed within the party. Ian Mikardo pointed out in an article in Tribune on 12 September 1947 the dilemma of the left-wing minority in both the Labour Party and the trade unions: "If they get together and organise they are condemned as sectarian and as a threat to the solidarity of the Movement, and are thereby crushed, and if they remain informal and unorganised they are outmanoeuvred and picked off one at a time."

It was not until late in 1948 that the Labour left began to organise itself. In December there appeared the first number of Socialist Outlook, a monthly journal which aimed to mobilise the left within the Labour Party, and which from the start was tinged with Trotskyism. Among MPs associated with the paper were Tom Braddock, who wrote a monthly column which was sharply – and sometimes vituperatively – critical of the party leaders, Ronald Chamberlain, who also wrote regularly, Harold Davies, H.L. Austin, Stephen Swingler and Bessie Braddock (unrelated to Tom). Among the rank and file both Bob Shaw and Harry Ratner were frequent contributors.

The movement for an organised left was signally strengthened by an article by Ellis Smith in the co-operative/socialist weekly paper Reynolds News on 22 May 1949. Smith wrote that since 1945 apathy and disillusionment had grown up within the Labour Party. He had decided to form a national organisation of socialists based on local branches, inspired by the: spirit of socialist pioneering days and the ILP in the period before it left the Labour Party in 1932. His decision, he added, was the result of requests from all over the country. Smith, a skilled engineer who almost alone among the active left-wingers of this Parliament was of working class background, expressed pride in the achievements of the Labour Government, but urged that it should be doing more to improve working and living standards and to move towards socialism.

His initiative was welcomed in a leading article in Forward on 28 May, and followed by a meeting held during the Labour Party conference at Blackpool in early June which attracted an audience of over 150 people. In the summer of 1949 the Socialist Fellowship was formed and local groups were soon established in three parts of London, Reading, Luton, Nottingham, Manchester, Liverpool and Sheffield. The first annual conference was held in London on 27 November, with one hundred delegates from twenty-nine places. Smith was elected president, Tom Braddock and Ronald Chamberlain vice-presidents, and among the members of the committee was Fenner Brockway, who had recently left the ILP to rejoin the Labour Party. The Fellowship aimed, as Brockway pointed out, to work within the Labour Party rather than outside it, and its programme included increased public ownership, workers’ control of industry, heavier taxation of the wealthy and a more equal distribution of income, reduced compensation to the former shareholders of the nationalised industries, greater efficiency in industry and improved social services.27

The Socialist Fellowship had a willing mouthpiece though not an official organ in Socialist Outlook; the paper gave, for example, its front page in November 1949 to an article by Ellis Smith, who made such characteristic demands as a planned economy and a capital levy. But despite its promising start the Fellowship soon fell apart. Braddock and Chamberlain lost their seats in the election of 1950, and after the outbreak of the Korean War in June, Smith and Brockway resigned when the Fellowship’s national committee passed a resolution condemning American and British intervention in Korea as "imperialist aggression". When the second national conference of the Fellowship was held in September 1950 no MPs were elected to the committee and only Tom Braddock, the new president, remained as a parliamentary veteran. In 1951 the Labour Party conference proscribed the Socialist Fellowship, thus bringing to an end the one organisation which had attempted in these years to move the party to the left from within its tanks.


It is likely that without the consistent pressure of the Labour left the government would have taken even fewer steps towards socialism than it did. The eventual decision to go ahead with the nationalisation of steel is the most obvious example, and the Cabinet minutes for 1947 contain numerous references to backbench opinion on the subject.29 But there were very few cases in which the government was forced to change its policy because of parliamentary pressure, and these few successes were due to the fact that the left was able to draw support from elsewhere in the party. The only considerable victory was in 1947, when party rebellion led to the reduction of the planned term of conscription from eighteen to twelve months. There was nothing comparable on the home front, although there were small successes with social security and civil aviation bills in 1946.30 The 170 old age pension rebels of 1945 were met with the firm Cabinet decision that "the Motion ... could not be accepted", and Herbert Morrison lectured the party, as one member wrote, like Wackford Squeers reprimanding his pupils.31

The behaviour of the socialist press was not subject to the direct control of the party leadership. However, there is no evidence that they were seriously disturbed by press criticism between 1945 and 1950 in the way they were to be after the outbreak of the Bevanite rebellion in 1951.32 The size of the Labour majority and the fact that the criticism of the socialist press alternated with strong defence of the government against the Conservatives were the principal reasons for this sang-froid, perhaps augmented by the somewhat cynical consideration that journalistic activities kept the left of the party occupied with publications of limited circulation. The socialist press was much more influential than its circulation suggested, but Labour voters as a whole were largely untouched by such journals, which were more than balanced by the mass circulation of the loyal Daily Herald.

As for the party conference, the National Executive Committee was defeated on nine occasions between 1946 and 1950. The subjects were in some cases of considerable importance; two dealt with publicity, a third with agriculture, a fourth demanded a socialist education policy, two others urged the abolition of the tied cottage, a seventh called for equal pay for women in national and local government, and the final two related to food and clothing subsidies and distribution.33 There was no indication, however, that the defeats actually changed government policy. Hugh Dalton recorded after the 1947 defeats (on tied cottages and equal pay): "Neither of these are to be taken very seriously";34 and Tribune wrote on 6 June that many conference delegates had spoken in similar terms.

In short, the Labour left between 1945 and 1950 was vociferous, but largely unorganised and unsuccessful. The remainder of this paper examines the reasons for its weakness.


We may begin again with the parliamentary party, nearly two-thirds of whom were newly elected in July 1945. They were a far more middle class group than ever before, for less than half of the members now came from manual occupations.35 It was the journalists, the lawyers, the lecturers and teachers who composed the bulk of the parliamentary rebels, including the signatories of Keep Left.37 Their background and education tended to make them articulate and self-confident, but as middle class members of a working class party, new to Parliament and with often shallow roots in the labour movement, they reinforced the image held by many trade unionists, including some MPs, of "unreliable intellectuals".37 The circumstances of the time also militated against successful opposition. Not only did the government have a programme of radical measures, but also it had been elected at a time of virtually unprecedented economic crisis. Its urgent priorities, above all the need for higher production and more exports, seemed to most ministers and to many backbenchers to require close co-operation between the government and private industry, and muddied the left-wing argument for socialist measures. Thus Herbert Morrison could declare to the Labour Party conference in 1947, without a sense of incongruity: "In Britain today the battle for Socialism is the battle for production." Moreover, Conservative opposition to the government was intense, both in Parliament and, even more important, in the press. It was natural for backbenchers to rally to the aid of their government when it was under heavy economic and political pressure.38

Members of Parliament who followed a left-wing line by no means shared a uniform ideology. Old left-right antagonisms had been largely dissolved in war-time, and a programme which united almost all the party had been provided by the 1945 election manifesto, Let Us Face the Future. The ILP critics of the 1920s had disappeared as a significant force. Marxist solutions had been fashionable in the 1930s, but seemed inappropriate in the changed conditions of the later 1940s. The war had changed social attitudes on both right and left. It had been followed by a Labour Government sustained by a large parliamentary majority, peacefully carrying out a programme of social reform and nationalisation. Full employment had been maintained in peace-time. These achievements led to a weakening of belief in class conflict and to the acceptance by the left of a gradualist approach to socialism which differed little in kind from that of most of the rest of the party.39 The left’s main function was now to urge the government to move faster than it was doing, rather than along a different road. This rather unsatisfactory ideological stance contributed to the failure of the left to evolve a formal organisation or a common programme. MPs would join in opposition to the leadership on particular issues on an ad hoc basis; with the partial and temporary exception of the Keep Left group, there was no tendency to propose an alternative strategy across the whole range of domestic policy. It was, for example, Stanley Evans, chairman of the PLP iron and steel committee, who in an interview with Tribune on 20 September 1946 denounced government vacillation over steel nationalisation, but in other respects Evans was an arch right-winger, and under pressure from his local party was to resign his seat in 1956.

The Labour left lacked not only organisation and programme, but also leaders. The New Statesman’s parliamentary correspondent noted on 5 January 1946 the presence in the government of virtually every potential leader of rebellion, and Richard Crossman, one of the most important figures of the parliamentary centre left, wrote in the same paper on 15 June 1946 that among reformist ministers were to be found "all the brilliant prophets of the inevitability of violence, Aneurin Bevan, Stafford Cripps, Ellen Wilkinson, Emanuel Shinwell and John Strachey". It was not until the Bevanite movement of the early 1950s that a leader was found.40

Overshadowing all left-wing activities was the lowering tragedy of the Cold War, which progressively destroyed the ardent hopes of left speaking to left and a socialist Europe, substituting the reality of a foreign policy subordinate to the crusading anti-communism of the United States. In such circumstances it is not surprising that many backbenchers were diverted from the creation of socialist Britain to defence and foreign affairs. Attitudes towards foreign policy divided the parliamentary party far more sharply than domestic politics and also divided the left within itself. Large numbers of backbenchers were able to combine from time to time in opposition to Ernest Bevin’s conduct of foreign affairs or the adoption of conscription, especially in the early years of the government, but as the Cold War became more bitter most of the centre left of the party, however reluctantly, chose the American side of the struggle. This acceptance of the American alliance and the stigma of "fellow travelling" attached to the small far left group inevitably reduced the effectiveness of the campaign for "more socialism" at home and helped to tilt the party balance to the right, not only because of opposition to Russia per se, but because the burden of rearmament and dependence upon economic aid from capitalist America were severe disincentives to further moves by the government to the left.41 Crossman pointed out in the New Statesman on 8 January 1949 that the belief that left meant support for Russia had destroyed effective left-wing criticism of the government and prevented the creation of a "ginger group" within the party. Crossman himself was overwhelmed by Ernest Bevin’s attack on the critics of the government’s foreign policy at the Labour Party conference in 1947, an attack which played a major part in the disintegration of the Keep Left group.42

The Parliamentary Labour Party had no real power besides its theoretical ability to bring down the government, and its influence was very limited. Herbert Morrison, who was far more concerned with party organisation than any other leader, was largely responsible for the establishment of twenty party subject groups in 1945, and he urged his Cabinet colleagues to distribute and digest backbench opinion. But the Cabinet minutes for 1945, 1946 and 1947, the latest available at the time of writing, suggest that ministers were more concerned to control and restrict the expression of parliamentary opinion than to encourage it. It is not surprising that many backbenchers felt that the subject groups, and the regional groups which followed, were merely devices to keep them quiet. Meetings of the PLP itself could lead to storms, but the prestige of ministers, their unwillingness to accept changes in their policies and their appeals to loyalty were always able to carry the day.43

If Labour members did step out of line they found themselves confronted with a alien but highly effective discipline, wielded less in Parliament than outside it. The sanctions of the party’s National Executive Committee were numerous and powerful and included expulsion, which was used against four foreign policy rebels in this Parliament and also against one right winger, whose dissent from party policy was concerned above all with the nationalisation of steel. The fact that so drastic a threat was held in reserve meant that discipline in the PLP itself could be deceptively lax, and a number of rebellions in the House of Commons, which only rarely attracted the support of an actual or near majority of backbenchers, could be tolerated.44

The party leaders could also afford a lax discipline because there was no group of rebels in the House of Commons which had ties with an outside organisation such as the ILP in the 1920s. Hugh Jenkins, later an MP and a minister, wrote to Tribune on 19 November 1948, after, the collapse of the Keep Left group, saying: "The body of opinion to support it was there in the Party, but little or no attempt was made to connect the head to the tail. Such an organism tends to be inherently inviable!"45 It was not until late in the life of the government that Ellis Smith established the Socialist Fellowship, a body with too few influential figures and too far to the left to attract the support which Keep Left might have done. The constituency parties, in turn, which were frequently well to the left of MPs, had little or no control over parliamentary behaviour. A loyalist MP was usually able to go his own way without reference to the view of his local party.46 Weaker in organisation than in sentiment, the left was thus unable, inside or outside Parliament, to mount an effective challenge to the party leaders.

Trade union leaders played an important role in the structure of the Labour Party organisation, in 1950 controlling five-sixths of the voting strength at the party conference. They were by no means monolithic in their support for the party leadership, for a number of important unions sat on or leaned to the left. None the less, the party executive could count on the votes of three of the four largest unions, the Transport and General Workers, the Mineworkers and the General and Municipal Workers, who between them controlled nearly two million of the six million conference votes.47 Arthur Deakin of the transport workers and Will Lawther of the miners were solid and dependable figures, staunch allies of the parliamentary leaders in speech and vote. Trade unionists tended to prize loyalty far more than ideological consistency or fidelity to a particular line of policy. The "labourist" character of the Labour Party meant that the election and maintenance of a Labour government, the culmination of decades of struggle, was an end in itself. Policy, on this view, should be left to the party leaders.48 Ernest Bevin was thus able to draw on a powerful tradition when in his speech to the party conference in 1947 he accused the critics of his foreign policy of stabbing him in the back, adding that as a product of the trade union movement he was accustomed to the mutual loyalty of both leaders and rank and file.

But trade union solidarity could not have delivered an unwilling Labour Party membership into the hands of the party leadership. Most members of the party, it seems clear, were quite willing to be led. Year after year the party conference was a personal triumph for members of the platform, as Hugh Dalton noted with satisfaction in his diary.49 To some extent harmony at the conferences was due to external factors, Bournemouth in 1946 being commonly termed a victory parade, while Scarborough in 1948 and Blackpool in 1949 were influenced by the approach of the next General Election. But left-wingers realised that there were more deep-rooted reasons for the party’s docility. Harold Laski asserted in his Forward column of 31 May 1947 from the Margate conference that delegates looked to the left more for inspiration than for a new policy, seeing in the Labour Government itself the only alternative to the Conservatives. Writing in Tribune on 28 May 1948, after the Scarborough conference, Ian Mikardo reflected that the failure of the conference to mount an effective challenge to the government arose both from the approach of the election and from a general movement in the party to the right. Perhaps the most perceptive explanation was offered by Tom Gittins, chairman of the Spelthorne (Middlesex) constituency Labour Party. Gittins, who was to be expelled in 1950 for his hostility to the party’s foreign policy, wrote in the Communist Labour Monthly for July 1948 that the "submissive" nature of the Scarborough conference was due to the support of the unions for measures of nationalisation and social reform, and also to the forthcoming election (which cast a long shadow). But the heart of his analysis lay in three succinct sentences: "The British working class movement as yet lacks a sound scientific basis for its socialist thinking. It is more liberal than Marxist. Its loyalty is in terms of persons rather than of principles."

The control of the party by its leaders owed much to its National Executive Committee. Before 1948, only two of the twenty-seven-man executive consistently took a left-wing line. These were Aneurin Bevan and, until his retirement in 1949, Harold Laski. A shift in constituency sentiment to the left is suggested by the election of Michael Foot in 1948, followed by Tom Driberg in 1949 and Ian Mikardo in 1950, but the constituencies also repeatedly elected such orthodox leaders as Hugh Dalton, James Griffiths and Herbert Morrison. Bevan, whose freedom was limited by his membership of the government, and Laski, whose attendance at the policy subcommittee in particular was sporadic, were useful to the right-wing NEC as left-wingers who could wind up debates by persuading reluctant delegates to give their backing to the platform. Laski defended conscription in 1947 and persuaded delegates to remit to the executive in 1948 a motion dealing with the revival of fascist activities, while Bevan repeatedly appealed to the conference to support the government, notably in an eloquent speech in 1949 in which he defended the mixed economy and attacked critics of the administration of the nationalised industries.50

Between 1945 and 1950 there was a good deal of adverse comment about the NEC’s domination of the party conference through composited resolutions, a tight control of proceedings which severely discriminated against speeches from the floor, and biased chairmanship. Even more attention was given to the government’s control of the NEC. Much concern was expressed, notably in the pages of Tribune, about the failure of the party conference to play the primary role in determining policy.51 Seven resolutions and amendments were placed on the conference agenda in 1948, urging that the NEC should carry out resolutions passed by the conference and deploring the fact that much of the conference time was taken up by speeches by party and government leaders. A motion from Herbert Morrison’s East Lewisham constituency that conference resolutions should bind the government would have been added to the other demands had Morrison not descended upon the party and strangled the infant resolution before it could survive to the final conference agenda.52 The most determined effort to shift the balance of power within the party was made by Nat Whine, chairman of the St Marylebone Labour Party and candidate for East Surrey in 1950 and 1951, who sought to reduce ministerial membership of the NEC and concentrate power in the conference. Whine’s campaign culminated in a detailed memorandum dated November 1947 which the NEC discussed at length before rejecting it at their meeting on 25 February 1948.53

It has already been suggested that an important factor inhibiting rebellion in Parliament and criticism in the constituencies and at the annual conference was loyalty to the government and the party leadership, always a powerful influence in the Labour Party and especially strong between 1945 and 1950. One reason for this loyalty lay in the successes of the government, especially in its early years. Attlee told the Bournemouth "victory" conference in 1946 that seventy-three bills had been introduced in less than a year, fifty-five of which had been passed.54 Frank Allaun, then a socialist journalist and later a leader of the parliamentary left, asked in Labour’s Northern Voice in July 1946 if any British government had achieved so much in one year, and Tribune wrote on 8 November that the government in its first session had done "more revolutionary things to this country than the first three years after the 1917 Revolution did for Russia". Even Willie Gallacher, one of the two Communist MPs, admitted in the Labour Monthly for August 1946 that the first year of the government had "much to its credit".

There is no doubt that, if viewed as an instrument of social reform rather than socialism, the Labour government had much to be proud of. Labour was, it rightly claimed in 1950, the party which kept its promises. Twenty per cent of industry was transferred to public ownership. The social security system was restructured and expanded. Food was heavily subsidised and the National Health Service created. Above all else, peace-time full employment was maintained for the first time in modern history. These were achievements which impressed the whole party, especially its older members. Sam Watson, the Durham miner who was party chairman in 1950, told the conference that poverty had been abolished.55 Herbert Bullock spoke to the same conference as the fraternal delegate of the TUC, recalling as a man of sixty-five who had started work at eleven that over half the boys at his school in Bristol had had no boots or stockings, and praising the "revolutionary changes" brought about by the labour movement. The following year Nellie Cressall, a great-grandmother from Poplar and an old comrade-at-arms of Attlee, took the conference by storm, telling delegates:

"Years ago after the First World War many, many people in my constituency sat in the dark because they had not got a penny to put in the gas. Today what do I find? People come to me creating about the heavy electricity bills they have to pay! ... I have young people coming worrying me for houses.... We have got some houses where six families lived once upon a time.... Whereas in the old days people would get married, as I did, and be contented in two nice little rooms, today our young people want a home of their own.... I get very needled when I hear housewives complaining because they cannot get the best butter. In my day they never knew what it was. And did they get cow’s milk? Not on your life! ... Did they ever grumble about their meat then? No, because they only had meat once a week and that was Sunday dinner."

To such people Labour’s claim to he bringing about a social revolution was self-evident truth.

Throughout the life of the government the redistribution of income brought about by the high level of progressive war-time taxation and largely maintained after the war56 was hailed as a social revolution. Figures published by the government in April 1950 showed that the share of post-tax personal income going to wages had risen between 1938 and 1949 from 39 to 48 per cent, while the share of rent, dividends and interest had fallen from 34 to 25 per cent. Further figures published the following October showed that the number of people who enjoyed a post-tax income of over £6,000 a year had fallen from 6,560 in 1938-9 to 86 in 1948-9. ("The current joke at the time, among the faithless", John Saville has recalled, "was that they all had lunch together every day at the Savoy.")57 During the same period the amount of income tax paid on an earned income of £50,000 increased from nearly £30,000 to nearly £45,000.58 Roy Jenkins told the party conference in 1950 that the largest income after tax was still twenty-five times as great as the smallest, but the tax figures seemed a convincing reply to those who demanded "more socialism". They were used not only by party publicists and friendly journalists, but by such an independent-minded and deeply respected socialist as R.H. Tawney, who wrote in 1952 that changes in income distribution, together with nationalisation and the expansion of the social services, proved the success of gradualist socialism and that a socialist government could increase the power and raise the standard of living of the working class.59


It is clear that the structure of the Labour Party inside and outside Parliament and the social reforms of the government gravely weakened the socialist elan of the Labour left between 1945 and 1950. Its weakness was reinforced by other factors which arose from the difficult economic and social conditions which prevailed in post-war Britain and the failure of the party to make socialists in sufficient numbers to attack capitalism at its roots. Hostility to shortages, restrictions and controls led many voters into apathy, cynicism or antagonism towards the Labour Party and its approach to socialism. There was also a widespread disillusionment with the fruits of public ownership and a marked indifference within the working class itself towards the democratic control of industry.

The left-wing demand for a greater sense of socialist urgency confronted the difficulty that the times were inauspicious once the immediate excitement of victories in war and election had worn off. Labour assumed office at a time when the nation was weary of war and the privations which accompanied it.60 On 15 September 1945 the New Statesman remarked that the British people were tired, that they lacked the material possessions which had sustained them at the start of the war, "and the moral sanctions of total war have gone. In their place the Government has so far produced nothing more compelling than the warning that a painful period of stern austerity lies ahead". Sydney Silverman told the party conference in 1946 that there was in the country "a spirit of cynicism, of pessimism, and of apathy", and the social scientist Eva Hubback wrote in 1948 that "grumbling might almost be said to be one of our national pastimes".61 When Ivor Thomas, formerly a junior Labour Minister, resigned from the party late in 1948, he contrasted the slogans of the French Revolution of 1789 with "the slogans of the Labour revolution", which, he said, "appear to be utility, priority, austerity". Thomas was anything but an unbiased observer, but his charges were typical of many attacks on the government and admitted as not unreasonable by at least one shrewd party supporter.62

Freedom from austerity and controls was eagerly sought, and symbolised by the Conservative demand to "set the people free". Hugh Dalton reflected later: "We proclaimed a just policy of ‘fair shares’, but the complaint was not so much that shares were unfair, but that they were too small."63 A considerable part of the Conservative advance in the election of 1950 was due to public response to constant attacks on shortages, including the gross lack of adequate homes, and on rationing and bureaucracy.64

Controls were identified not only with shortages and the absence of consumer choice, but also with the unsavoury and unscrupulous black-marketeering and influence peddling which came to a much publicised climax with the revelations made to the Lynskey Tribunal at the end of 1948.65 The stigma attached to controls was a particularly severe blow to the left. While everyone in the Labour Party believed in planning and controls of come kind, the right was increasingly content to plan through the budget and other fiscal means. Belief in physical controls of men and materials was a distinguishing mark of most of the left, and particularly of the Keep Left group. The onslaught on controls in Press, Parliament and influential business circles led inevitably to government concessions. As early as November 1946 Attlee announced that the government was "not in favour of controls for their own sake", and by the time of the election in 1950 the "bonfire" of controls was well under way. It was thus courageous of Richard Crossman but not politically practical to write in the New Statesman on 28 May 1949 that controls and rationing must remain as permanent weapons of socialist planning. Physical controls were also difficult to apply in that they involved planning wages as well as other aspects of the economy. This was a course highly unpopular with large numbers of trade unionists. At the Labour Party conference in 1947 Arthur Deakin, general secretary of the Transport and General Workers Union, said flatly of wages policy: "We will have none of that." As Tribune noted on 6 June 1947, a rigorous wages policy would be likely to result in "an unending series of unofficial strikes which might more than undo the good effects of such a policy". Against the rocks of trade union opposition, socialist discussion of wages policy dashed endlessly but in vain.

A crucial section of the Labour vote in 1945 had come from the middle class. One opinion poll suggested that the proportion of the middle class who voted Labour declined by about a quarter between 1945 and 1950, and small shifts of opinion were of great importance in the 1950 election, in which the swing to the Conservatives was 33 per cent, but their gain in seats (greatly assisted by redistribution in 1948) was fully 40 per cent.68 Morgan Phillips wrote in a confidential party memorandum after the election that one reason for the Labour reverse lay in the burden of taxation on salaried and professional groups, together with the desire for owner occupation in the suburbs, where the Conservative slogan "let the builders build" found a ready response. Teachers in particular, Phillips noted, were also aggrieved by the level of their salaries.69 The Economist published an influential series of articles during the election campaign of 1950, estimating that between 1938 and 1948 real wages after taxation had risen by 20 per cent, while salaries had declined by 17 per cent.70 It seems probable that middle class resentment of their apparently lower standard of living outweighed any element of working class rallying to Labour in 1950, especially as younger working class people tended to take full employment and the welfare state for granted.71 And, as Herbert Morrison remarked in another confidential post-election memorandum, the middle class were not only numerous but influenced the attitudes of manual workers.72

For resentment of controls, austerity and taxation, while voiced especially strongly by middle class voters, was by no means restricted to them. Even more disliked by the working class, despite relatively high post-war wages, were inadequate housing, a monotonous diet and a rising cost of living.73 High prices were an obvious Conservative target, and many lower-paid workers in particular must have been tempted to abandon Labour by the unauthorised but vigorous campaign waged in the Beaverbrook press during the election for a minimum wage of £6 a week.74 In the long term Labour supporters were promised the commonwealth, but in the short term they faced constant appeals for higher production and harder work, symbolised in the unattractive and unpopular government slogan "work or want", first used early in 1947. Sagittarius pointed out:

"Trade Unionists will not unlease their powers
When everything is shorter, but the hours."75

Her comment was amplified by an article by Henry Williams in the New Statesman on 6 September 1947 about workers in a factory making pre-fabricated houses. Williams informed his middle class audience that factory workers did not read White Papers or, indeed, care about politics beyond casting their vote for Labour candidates. The nature of repetitive factory work was such as to deaden political consciousness in most cases. The motive for work was not the desire to raise production and bring closer a socialist society, but the desire to earn money. Other socialist writers pointed out that high production under capitalism depended upon fear of dismissal and unemployment. This sanction had been largely abolished under Labour without being replaced by a socialist motivation.76 The problem was easier to diagnose than to solve.

The principal weapon by which the Labour left had hoped to bring about the transition from capitalism to socialism was public ownership, chiefly expressed through nationalised industry. Yet, as seen above, nothing was so clear by 1950 as the failure of nationalisation as an instrument of socialism. The result was a noticeable demoralisation of the whole party, not just the left. During the General Election campaign of 1950 nationalisation was one of the Conservatives’ principal targets. Most leading Labour spokesmen seemed reluctant to defend the existing nationalised industries and even less eager to advocate more public ownership. Voters appear to have been more bored by the issue than actively hostile, but the caution displayed by most of the party leadership inevitably placed the left on the defensive.77 It was difficult to argue a case for socialism without more public ownership, and highly undesirable to demand the creation of more bureaucratic nationalised industries. Thus Frank Allaun wrote in Socialist Outlook in March 1949: "You can’t have socialism without public ownership"; but in March 1950 he argued in Labour’s Northern Voice against making "nationalisation of any industry the issue on which we fight the next election". Opposing both Morrisonian "consolidation" and nationalisation of industry on existing lines, also associated with Morrison, the left had to think out a new approach to public ownership, a task not easily accomplished.

Industrial democracy was a subject of constant discussion during these years, and steps towards its introduction were demanded in various parts of the labour movement. Yet such demands ran up against the hard fact that there seemed to be little desire on the part of workers themselves to run their industries. Such was the view of G.D.H. Cole, who had been a passionate and influential advocate of industrial democracy since before the First World War, and who remained after 1945 one of the most influential of socialist thinkers. In a Fabian research pamphlet of 1948 on the National Coal Board Cole wrote that the rank and file of the miners "have at present no real wish to control the industry; they are aware that they have as yet neither the knowledge nor the attitude which would make this workable". The next year, in a postscript to a Fabian tract by I.M. Chalmers of the postal workers (with a "rejoinder" by Ian Mikardo) entitled Consultation or Joint Management?, Cole commented that there remained with the Labour Party and the TUC doubt and distrust about the feasibility of industry run by workers. Cole shared the doubt: "The main body even of the active workers in the trade unions is not ready for the responsibility which sharing in management involves.... Even the present opportunities for the development of joint consultation are not being properly used, because so few trade unionists know what they really want to make of them." If the TUC reflected the views of its membership, Cole was correct in thinking that there was little demand among workers for a trade union share in the control of industry. The General Council insisted in its report for 1948 that trade unionists who served on the boards of nationalised industries would be placed in an embarrassing and unsatisfactory position of dual loyalty if they retained responsibility to their unions. The next year the Council reiterated its support for the public corporation form of administration without trade union participation, although it felt that "there were problems of structure and administration which had not yet been solved". This view was not challenged by Congress.78

As the government’s term of office wore on a new tone became apparent among many socialists. In the dawn of 4 August 1945 the New Statesman had written: "For the first time the popular vote demands Socialism." By 12 March 1949 it had decided that electoral opinion was "not yet ripe" for the conversion of Britain into a socialist country. Articulate voices on the left began to sound a retreat from previously accepted socialist principles, a retreat which paralleled the move to the right in the party as a whole.79 Writers like Laski and Cole commented80 that their hopes had been too high in 1945, that socialism could not be introduced faster than the electorate would accept and that the march to the socialist commonwealth would take longer than had been expected by the enthusiasts of 1945. What people had voted for in 1945, Cole remarked in the Political Quarterly for July-September 1949, was not socialism but better social services, less social inequality and full employment. Socialists argued that these benefits were unattainable under capitalism, but most Labour voters were unconvinced. Its disappointment with the failure of nationalisation was accompanied by a reluctance to undertake further measures. "No sensible Socialist", he wrote in 1948, "wants to socialise, or to nationalise, industries merely for the sake of a theory, where public ownership is not necessary for the sake of efficiency or in order to secure conformity with the national economic interest."81 The New Statesman, in a comment on Labour Believes in Britain on 16 April 1949, found it "Fabian, reasonable and seductive", and added: "The picture presented is that of steady progress towards a Scandinavian type of Social-Democracy; and that is probably what most people in this country want." Richard Crossman, writing in the New Statesman on 25 September 1948, declared that, within a framework of planning and a considerable measure of state-owned goods and services, "free enterprise ... becomes an essential component of Socialism". Keeping Left, issued as a manifesto for the 1950 election with an authorship of twelve MPs, seven of whom had also signed Keep Left nearly three years earlier, accepted the near-permanence of the mixed economy, saying: "We are now less concerned about who owns a factory, and more about who manages it and how, and whether it is working according to socialist plans."

The indictment of the Labour left in this period must lie, not with any failure to criticise government policy, but with its inability to formulate socialist proposals in such a way as to seize the intellectual initiative within the party. Instead the initiative passed to the right, appearing as "consolidation" with Herbert Morrison and, a few years later, as "revision" with Anthony Crosland.82 Morrison’s appeal to the middle class to support Labour was echoed by Crossman in an article in the New Statesman on 30 October 1948,83 declaring that the class war was obsolete and using the phrase "the useful people", invented and popularised by Morrison as a means of uniting social classes in support of the Labour Party.84 No policy of appealing specifically to the working class emerged from the Labour left unless one includes occasional colourful and controversial phrases by such Cabinet Ministers as Aneurin Bevan and Emanuel Shinwell.85 There was a discernible air of bewilderment and, in some cases, of discouragement. Tribune admitted on 31 December 1948 that there was much to be learned about "the application of Socialist measures" and the means "to instill the spirit of Socialism", and the New Statesman pointed out on 10 December 1949 that, despite the enactment of most of the legislation long planned by the Labour Party leadership, the government had "lost its impetus". The structure of British society and industrial relations were virtually unchanged, and "no great advance has been made towards social equality". The paper could only advocate "a sudden jolt of imaginative leadership".86

Seeking an explanation of the many problems facing them, left-wing publicists acknowledged that there was little interest in socialism in the country at large. In an article in the party journal Labour Forum for January-March 1948, Woodrow Wyatt MP, then a member of the Labour left, wrote that relatively few people understood the meaning or implications of socialism. Most of the people who voted Labour, he added, supported the party not for ideological but for "human, personal reasons.... Their understanding is confined by the limits of their personal experience". His politician’s view was elaborated in a more philosophical analysis by Harold Laski, given before a Fabian audience in the autumn of 1947. Laski pointed out that most people

"were less interested in doctrine than in the results of doctrine. We shall be judged, not by the greatness of our purpose, but by the efficiency with which we achieve it. Man is a conservative animal, whose ideas are imprisoned within a framework he is not easily persuaded to abandon.... We are trying to transform a profoundly bourgeois society ... a society, moreover, in which all the major criteria of social values have been imposed by a long indoctrination for whose aid all the power of church and school, of press and cinema and radio, have been very skilfully mobilised; we have got to transform this bourgeois society into a socialist society with foundations not less secure than those it seeks to renovate. We have, moreover, to accomplish this in a dramatically revolutionary period, in which quite literally millions, afraid of the responsibilities of freedom, yearn to cling to whatever they have, however fragmentary, of a security with which they are familiar."87

A few years later Crossman wrote that ingrained tradition had fostered obsession with social status and the preservation of oligarchies, and that these features remained throughout British society, in the educational system, the political parties and the trade unions. The leaders, he wrote, in the labour movement as elsewhere, "profoundly distrust active democracy".88 It should also be borne in mind that while the power and status of the working class rose sharply in the war and post-war years, the period of the Labour Government was closer in time to the mainly docile and quiescent period of pro-war economic slump than to the flowering of support for workers’ control, public participation in decision-making and equality of social status which was so marked a feature of the later 1960s and 1970s. It may have been true, as socialists claimed then and later, that had a policy of socialist egalitarianism been tried, the results would have engendered enthusiastic working class support. But it would have been very difficult in a parliamentary system to have introduced such a policy without prior evidence of mass support of a kind plainly lacking at the time.

A disparate body like the Labour left could produce no agreed policy for the General Election of 1950; even Keeping Left, the most prominent publication of the left, committed only its authors. But over the years of Labour Government a consensus had emerged which was accepted by much of the left within the party.89 First came a belief in socialist planning of the economy, a considerable though unspecified portion of which was to remain in private hands. Second, heavier taxation of the wealthy was advocated, by death duties, higher taxes on profits, a capital gains tax or a capital levy. Third came measures to "socialise" the nationalised industries, by appointing socialists and trade unionists to the boards and introducing a measure of workers’ control. With this extension of grass-roots democracy was sometimes coupled various means to strengthen the power of the citizen against the state. Fourth was an attack on educational privilege, which was identified more with making the public schools democratic than with the introduction of comprehensive education. Fifth came measures to protect the consumer from high prices, by maintaining subsidies and a measure of physical controls. Finally came the need for more urgency and drive. The signatories of Keep Left, augmented by four more MPs who included James Callaghan and Jennie Lee, declared in a letter in the Daily Herald on 8 August 1947: "The hour calls for audacity and imagination." In similar vein, Harold Laski wrote in Forward on 21 January 1950 that the Labour election manifesto was in need of "a bit of fire and inspiration, of guts and glory".

These points indicated, with a marked lack of precision, important areas in which the Labour Government had acted inadequately or not at all. Most of them were measures which would win general socialist support. Yet even had they all been carried out, a socialist society in the sense of a fundamental shift in power relations between social classes would have been brought little closer, at least in the short term. The programme, if so it may be called, of the left was limited partly by its pessimism about the possibilities of socialist advance in the domestic and foreign conditions which prevailed in the later years of the government’s term of office. But it was also limited by the fact that the Labour left saw the advance towards socialism largely in terms of particular measures of parliamentary legislation. There was little attempt to dwell on fundamental questions of power and wealth, or to work out a coherent socialist strategy dependent upon mass support outside Parliament.90 Desirable reforms tended to be seen as ends in themselves. This was probably inevitable given the trend of modern British history and the nature of the Labour Party itself. Parties based more firmly on socialist doctrine than was the Labour left had failed to achieve wide popular support. But if its programme was understandable, its position was none the less unenviable. As the 1950s began the left, which saw itself as the conscience and inspiration of the Labour Party, was uncertain of its aims, confused about methods and weak in numbers.

The tiny majority won by Labour at the election of February 1950 was a blow to party unity, since parliamentary weakness precluded bold new measures of legislation, the most effective means of containing the left. In June the Korean War began, and with it a further intensification of the Cold War. Foreign and defence policy clashed sharply with domestic social commitments. The party leaders, a number of whom had been in office without a break since 1940, were weary and overworked, and the strain inevitably began to tell. Ill health forced the resignation in October of Sir Stafford Cripps, the inflexible but masterful Chancellor of the Exchequer, and Hugh Gaitskell, his successor, was a much less dominant figure. In April 1951 the death of Ernest Bevin removed an immense influence for party stability and unity. A few days later Aneurin Bevan resigned from the Cabinet. With his resignation the Labour Party’s era of domestic peace came to an end and the role of the left was suddenly transformed.


Warm thanks are acknowledged to Ian Cunnison, Margaret ’Espinasse, Ian Mikardo MP, and Ralph Miliband, who kindly read and commented on drafts of this article; to Carol Johnson CBE, secretary of the Parliamentary Labour Party, 1943-59, for helpful information; to the staff of Tribune, especially Richard Clements, the editor, and Douglas Hill, the literary editor, for hospitality, reading accommodation and a preview of Tribune 40; and to librarians in Hull and London, particularly Judith Woods, Archivist of the Labour Party library.


1. Two instances are a speech by Clement Attlee, the Prime Minister, to the Labour Party conference in 1948 (Labour Party Annual Report, 1948, p.161); and Herbert Morrison, The Peaceful Revolution (1949), p.vii.

2. So Hugh Dalton heard and told his diary on 28 July 1945 (Dalton diary, vol.33. British Library of Political and Economic Science, London School of Economics). See also John Wheeler-Bennett, King George VI (1958), pp.649-50, 654.

3. Keep Left (1947), pp.10, 45.

4. Sagittarius [Olga Katzin], Let Cowards Flinch (1947), p.36.

5. R.H.S. Crossman (ed.), New Fabian Essays (1952), pp.5-6.

6. For description and analysis of the 1945-50 government see Ralph Miliband, Parliamentary Socialism (1961), ch.9; David Coates, The Labour Party and the Struggle for Socialism (1975), ch.3; and David Howell, British Social Democracy (1976), ch.5. My debt to all three books is gratefully acknowledged.

7. House of Commons, Notices of Motions, 12 October 1945, pp.37, 54; 15 October, p.394; 16 October, p.424; 18 October, p.480; The Times 13,16, 18, 19 October 1945; Robert Jackson, Rebels and Whips (1968), pp.49-50.

8. The Times, 7 November 1945. The defeat was later partly reversed; see 419 HC Deb. 5s., cols.849-56 (18 February 1946); and Arthur Marwick, Britain in the Century of Total War (1968), p.348.

9. Labour Party Annual Report, 1946, p.191; 424 HC Deb. 5s., cols.1833-4 (1 July 1946).

10. Maurice Webb at the Labour Party conference, 1949 (Annual Report, p.142); in the House of Commons, 17 December 1948 (459 HC Deb. 5s., cols.1598-9); in Tribune, 10 December 1948 and 3 June 1949; Barbara Castle in Tribune, 26 November 1948; at the Labour Party conference, 1949 (pp.161-2).

11. See, e.g., speeches by Fred Lee and Tom Driberg on 7 August, Ian Mikardo and Richard Crossman on 8 August, Ellis Smith, Ronald Chamberlain and John Parker on 24 October, Michael Foot on 28 October, Donald Bruce and Barbara Castle on 13 November, William Warbey on 25 November.

12. Trade union pressure caused a number of the signatories to withdraw their names. House of Commons, Notices of Motions, 12 February 1948, pp.1726-7; The Times, 12 February 1948; Jackson, Rebels and Whips, pp.53-4.

13. News Chronicle, 9 and 12 August 1947; The Times, 12 August 1947; Tribune, 8 August 1947; Hugh Dalton, High Tide and After (1962), pp.252-3; Michael Foot, Aneurin Bevan, vol.2 (1973; paperback ed., 1975), pp.221-2.

14. Labour Party, General Secretary’s correspondence: GS 16/9, 11 April 1949. A letter from Woking alleged that the budget proposals were typical of Cripps’s "lack of appreciation of the feelings and conditions of the common people" (GS 20/1, 27 May 1949).

15. Agendas for Labour Party Conferences (Transport House library), 1948, pp.18-19; 1949, pp.15-17. A study undertaken for the Acton Society Trust in October 1950 showed that only nine of the forty-seven full-time seven of the forty-eight part-time members of the twelve boards studied were trade unionists. The British Electricity Authority, four of whose twelve members were Labour supporters, was "the board with the biggest left-wing element" (Acton Society Trust, ed. G.R. Taylor, Men on the Boards, 1951, pp.6, 9, 12).

16. Policy and Publicity Committee minutes (NEC minutes, vol.96), 17 January 1949; NEC minutes, vol.96, 26 January 1949, memorandum by Morgan Phillips, ‘Report on Special Area Group Meetings of MPs’ (p.3).

17. Railway Review, 10 December 1948, 4 and 11 February 1949. I am grateful to Laurie Harries of the National Union of Railwaymen for assistance on this point.

18. Margaret Cole (ed.), Miners and the Board (1949), pp.6-7, 12. See also the similar conclusions of F. Zweig, Men in the Pits (1948), esp. chs.31-2; and Acton Society Trust, ed. G.R. Taylor, The Worker’s Point of View (1952).

19. See articles in New Statesman, 13 September 1947; 2 and 23 April, 21 May, 2 July 1949; also Frank Allaun in Labour’s Northern Voice, October 1947.

20. "It was a common saying that the Government had less power over Lord Citrine [head of the nationalised electricity undertaking] than over ICI." (Anthony Crosland, The Fate of Socialism (1956; paperback ed., 1964), pp.316-17).

21. In the House of Commons, John Parker on 24 October 1947, Donald Bruce on 13 November 1947, James Hudson on 6 May 1948; in the New Statesman. 29 December 1945; 9 August, 4 October and 15 November 1947; 26 March, 23 April, 24 September, 15, 22 and 29 October 1949.

22. The first use of this phrase I have found is in an article by F[rank] Allaun in Labour’s Northern Voice, September 1947. It was used in slightly different form in Keep Left in May 1947 and in a resolution proposed at the Labour Party conference held in the same month (Labour Party Annual Report, 1947, p.137).

23. The Second Five Years (1948), p.11. Mikardo went on to propose the public ownership of a long list of industries and services.

24. Forward, 9, 16, 23, 30 August, 6 September, 1 November 1947.

25. Labour’s Second Term (1949), pp.7-8, 13-15.

26. There were four resolutions or amendments of this type in 1947, six in 1948, three in 1949 and thirteen in 1950, apart from many others calling for nationalisation of particular industries and related demands (Agendas for Labour Party Conferences). See Addendum, below.

27. Socialist Outlook, July, August 1949, January 1950; Labour’s Northern Voice, December 1949.

28. Socialist Outlook, September, November 1950; Labour Party Annual Report, 1951, pp.13-14, 85-6. Socialist Outlook was in turn proscribed in 1954 and folded the same year.

29. PRO, Cab. 128/9, Cabinet 37(47), item 8 (17 April 1947); Cab. 128/10, Cabinet 64(47), item 2 (24 July 1947); Cab. 128/10, Cabinet 66(47), item 4 (31 July 1947); Cab. 128/10, Cabinet 70(47), item 6 (7 August 1947).

30. 423 HC Deb. 5s., col.368 (22 May 1946); Jackson, Rebels and Whips, pp.52, 59-60; R.T. McKenzie, British Political Parties (1955), pp.447-51; J.M Burns, ‘The Parliamentary Labor Party in Great Britain’, American Political Science Review, vol.44 (1950), pp.860, 865; R.K. Alderman, ‘Discipline in the Parliamentary Labour Party 1945-51’, Parliamentary Affairs, vol.18 (1965), pp.294,300.

31. PRO, Cab. 128/1, Cabinet 42(45), item 5 (16 October 1945); Dalton diary, vol.33, 17 October 1945; New Statesman, 27 October 1945. Morrison’s biographers see his role as that of a pacifier; Bernard Donoughue and G.W. Jones, Herbert Morrison (1973), pp.370-1. The raising of pensions in October 1946, nearly two years before the National Insurance Act was brought into operation, was claimed as a victory for backbench pressure (J.P.W. Mallalieu MP, Tribune, 3 June 1949; Alderman, loc. cit., p.300).

32. See Dalton diary, vol.40, 20 April 1951; Foot, Aneurin Bevan, p.328.

33. McKenzie, British Political Parties, p.513.

34. Dalton diary, vol.35, entry for 24-29 May 1947. Both subjects were discussed at a meeting of the Parliamentary Labour Party on 11 June (see note 43), but no resolutions were passed or decisions taken.

35. Of the numerous analyses of the composition of the 1945 parliament the most comprehensive are J.F.S. Ross, Parliamentary Representation (1943; 2nd ed., 1948), part 4, and idem, Elections and Electors (1955), part 6.

36. Jackson, Rebels and Whips, pp.63, 82-3, 192-3.

37. William Muller, The Kept Men? The First Century of Trade Union Representation in the House of Commons, 1874-1975 (Hassocks, 1977), pp.88, 228. See also the speech by Herbert Bullock, the TUC fraternal delegate, at the Labour Party conference in 1950 (Labour Party Annual Report, 1950, p.136).

38. As Sagittarius observed (Let Cowards Flinch, p.35):

"... Faced with crisis of the utmost urgency,
The Government a marble calm maintains;
With warnings dire of national emergency,
Attlee the slipped initiative regains –
A time-worn but invaluable device
For keeping insurrection on the ice."

39. See Richard Crossman, New Statesman, 15 June 1946 and idem, New Fabian Essays, p.5. See also Kingsley Martin’s review of Margaret Cole’s autobiography Growing Up into Revolution (1949), which concludes: "She seems not fully aware that her revealing account is really a discussion of how she – and a whole generation of British Socialists with her – have grown, not into, but away from, revolution" (New Statesman, 14 January 1950).

40. Or at least a standard bearer, as Ian Mikardo calls Aneurin Bevan (private communication, August 1977).

41. As the New Statesman noted on 13 March 1948, economic independence from the United States would have involved sacrifices unexpected by and unacceptable to the British people.

42. Dalton wrote with satisfied malice of Bevin’s sweeping conference triumph: "Crossman was obliterated, humiliated and deeply offended" (diary, vol.35, 24-29 May 1947). For a comment by Crossman, see New Statesman, 7 June 1947. For the anxiety of the Keep Left group not to be confused with fellow travellers, see T.R. Fyvel in Tribune, 6 June 1947.

43. PRO, Cab. 128/1, Cabinet 47(45), item 8 (30 October 1945); Cab. 128/9, Cabinet 44(47), item 5 (6 May 1947); Cab. 128/10, Cabinet 83(47), item 2 (30 October 1947); Cab. 128/10, Cabinet 93(47), item 4 (4 December 1947); Donoughue and Jones, Herbert Morrison, pp.368-9; Burns, ‘Parliamentary Labor Party’, pp.858-60; Alderman, ‘Discipline in the Parliamentary Labour Party’, pp.300-1; McKenzie, British Political Parties, pp.447-41; Harold Laski, Reflections on the Constitution (Manchester, 1951), pp.77-8. For accounts of party meetings see the sources cited in note 13, and the report of Morrison’s virtuoso performance after the 1949 budget in News Chronicle, 8 April 1949. A microfilm of the somewhat unrevealing minutes of PLP meetings from 1946 to 1955 is kept at the British Library of Political and Economic Science.

44. Alderman, ‘Discipline in the Parliamentary Labour Party’; Laski, Reflections, pp.79-81; Jackson, Rebels and Whips, pp.202-14. For division lists giving details of parliamentary rebellion, see Philip Norton, Dissension in the House of Commons 1945-1974 (1975), pp.1-81. For expressions of opinion as revealed in "early day" motions, see Hugh Berrington, Backbench Opinion in the House of Commons 1945-1955 (Oxford, 1973).

45. Jenkins’s witty and revealing letter is well worth reading. Crossman replied a week later, saying: "Divisions, in a Party facing an all-out Conservative onslaught, should be avoided unless they are absolutely necessary." He also claimed (as did Ian Mikardo, Tribune, 17 December 1948) that most of Keep Left’s domestic proposals had become government policy, a claim which confuses a few specific measures with the purpose and practice of economic planning as a whole. See Samuel Beer, Modern British Politics (1965), pp.196-202; and James Leruez, Economic Planning and Politics in Britain (1975), pp.48-61.

46. I owe this point to Ian Mikardo. See also Addendum, below.

47. Martin Harrison, Trade Unions and the Labour Party Since 1945 (1960), ch.5; McKenzie, British Political Parties, pp.501-02.

48. Muller, The Kept Men?, p.90; Jackson, Rebels and Whips, pp.57, 92-3, 192-3; Burns, ‘Parliamentary Labor Party’, pp.865-6; Ian Aitken, ‘The Structure of the Labour Party’, in Gerald Kaufman (ed.), The Left (1966), p.18; Robert Dowse, ‘The Parliamentary Labour Party in Opposition’, Parliamentary Affairs, vol.13 (1960), pp.522-5. See also the discussions of labourism in Coates, The Labour Party, pp.136-44, and Tom Forester, The Labour Party and the Working Class (1976), pp.31-42.

49. Entries for 27 June 1946, 24-29 May 1947, 17-21 May 1948, 3-10 June 1949, vols.34-7. See also Harrison, Trade Unions, pp.223-4, and the Addendum, below.

50. This paragraph is based on study of the minutes of the NEC and its subcommittees. See also Howell, British Social Democracy, ch.5. Kingsley Martin, Harold Laski (1953), pp.189-90, reveals in a poignant passage Laski’s doubt and hesitations and eventual decision to surrender his place on the NEC. Of a speech in 1949 even the far-left critic Tom Braddock wrote: "the high spot of eloquence, a genius of a man" (Socialist Outlook, July 1949).

51. See articles by Barbara Castle, 21 June 1946; Harold Laski, 28 June 1946; leading article, 6 June 1947; Ian Mikardo, 28 May 1948. Laski attempted to establish a special committee to consider relations between the NEC and the government when the party was in power, but was defeated by ten votes to seven (NEC minutes, vol.93, 24 July 1946).

52. The Times, 9, 17 March, 20 April 1948; Socialist Outlook, January 1949.

53. Labour Party Annual Report, 1947, p.174; Tribune, 31 October 1947, 20 February 1948; Fabian Quarterly, Spring 1948; NEC minutes, vol.95, 25 February 1948. There are also references to the Whine affair in McKenzie, British Political Parties, pp.5, 13-15, and Howell, British Social Democracy, pp.142, 177 (where the Laski initiative on the NEC is misdated).

54. The flow of legislation continued. According to Herbert Morrison (The Peaceful Revolution, p.90) over 200 public acts were passed in the first three years of Labour government. See also Frank Illingworth (ed.), British Political Yearbook 1947 (1947), pp.21-3.

55. Watson’s claim was rebutted the next day by Sydney Silverman MP.

56. "The great redistribution of incomes ... was a product of the war; Labour has taken it over and preserved it rather than initiated it" (The Economist, 4 February 1950).

57. John Saville, ‘Labour and Income Redistribution’, in Ralph Miliband and John Saville (eds.), The Socialist Register 1965 (1965), p.153. This article provides an excellent antidote to the exaggerated claims of redistribution under Labour.

58. PP 1950: vol.XII, Cmd. 8052, pp.83, 86; vol.XV, Cmd. 7933, p.15. Similar figures were published in earlier years.

59. R.H. Tawney, ‘British Socialism Today’, in Rita Hinden (ed.), The Radical Tradition (1964; paperback ed., Harmondsworth, 1966), pp.179-80 (reprinted from Socialist Commentary, June 1952). Tawney went on to advocate that "the next Labour Government should ... go all out" on the question of redistribution of property (p.181).

60. See, e.g., the alarming account of the state of the nation’s health and diet given by Edith Summerskill MP, Parliamentary Secretary of the Ministry of Food (News Chronicle, 18 October 1945).

61. Current Affairs, 6 March 1948. See also Mass Observation, Puzzled People (1947), pp.148-55.

62. 457 HC Deb. 5s., col.117 (27 October 1948); Donald MacRae, ‘Domestic Record of the Labour Government’, Political Quarterly, vol.20 (1949), pp.1-11.

63. Dalton, High Tide and After, p.347.

64. A Labour Party inquest carried out regionally after local government election reverses in November 1947 showed that an enduring pattern had been established: "The people generally have become a little weary of austerity" (Wales); "the housing difficulties, the intensifying of food restrictions" (Yorkshire); Conservative "propaganda on shortages" (Eastern); "We failed to get the electorate to realise the real facts of the Economic Crisis" (Northern); "Active Party workers were obviously oppressed by the economic situation" (South-Western); "The middle class polled very heavily indeed" (West Midlands), (Labour Party, General Secretary’s Correspondence, GS 1416, November 1947). For the experience and conclusion of one perceptive backbencher who lost her seat in 1950, see Leah Manning, A Life for Education (1970), pp.178, 195.

65. John Gross, ‘The Lynskey Tribunal’, in Michael Sissons and Philip French (eds.), Age of Austerity (1963), pp.255-75.

66. Beer, Modern British Politics, ch.7; Leruez, Economic Planning and Politics, part 1. There is an interesting contemporary discussion of the "two schools of economic thought ... battling for the allegiance of the Labour Party" by Harold Lever MP in Tribune in December 1949. See also B.C. Roberts, National Wages Policy in War and Peace (1958), ch.4.

67. Quoted in A.A. Rogow, The Labour Government and British Industry 1945-1951 (Oxford, 1955), p.41.

68. H.G. Nicholas, The British General Election of 1950 (1951), pp.4, 296, 320. An analysis by the British Institute of Public Opinion suggested that 21 per cent of the middle class supported Labour in 1945, but only 16 per cent in 1950 (ibid., p.296n.), See also John Bonham, The Middle Class Vote (1954), pp.130, 168.

69. ‘General Election Campaign Report: Personal Observations by the General Secretary’, p.7; NEC minutes, vol.99, 22 March 1950.

70. The Economist, 21 January 1950. Other articles followed on 28 January and 4 February. For elaboration and qualification of these statistics, see Dudley Seers, ‘The Levelling of Income’, Bulletin of the Oxford University Institute of Statistics, vol.12 (1950), esp.pp.275, 278, 279, 283, 291, 293.

71. Nicholas, British General Election 1950, pp.219-21, 296-8; Roy Jenkins, Pursuit of Progress (1953), pp.148-9; Herbert and Nancie Matthews, The Britain We Saw (1950), pp.296-7, 302-3; Carl Brand, ‘The British General Election of 1950’, South Atlantic Quarterly, vol.50 (1951), pp.485, 497.

72. ‘The Recent General Election and the Next’, p.2; NEC minutes, vol.99, 22 March 1950. See also Donoughue and Jones, Herbert Morrison, pp.455-6.

73. The area group meetings of MPs reported to the party NEC on 26 January 1949 (minutes, vol. 96) "unanimously agreed that Housing, Food and the cost of living were the topics causing most concern in all parts of the country" (p.3).

74. Daily Express, 10, 11, 13, 14, 17 February 1950; New Statesman, 18 February 1950; Nicholas, British General Election 1950, pp.153, 157, 163, 179, 220.

75. Sagittarius, Let Cowards Flinch, p.25.

76. Morgan Thomson in Forward, 5 February 1949; F.A. Cobb MP in Fabian News, March 1949.

77. Nicholas, British General Election 1950, pp.81, 97, 116, 118, 129, 220, 298-9; D. Daiches Raphael, ‘The Issues’, in S.B. Chrimes (ed.), The General Election in Glasgow February, 1950 (Glasgow, 1950), pp.46, 57, 63; Jenkins, Pursuit of Progress, pp.89-97; Dalton, High Tide and After, pp.339-40.

78. Report of ... the ... Trades Union Congress, 1948, pp.238, 3 71-8; ibid., 1949, pp.211-22, 406-8.

79. Leon Epstein, ‘Socialism and the British Labor Party’, Political Science Quarterly, vol.66 (1951), pp.556-75; Gerhard Loewenberg, ‘The Transformation of British Labour Party Policy since 1945’, Journal of Politics, vol.21 (1959), pp.234-57.

80. Laski in Forward, 18 June 1949; Cole in a Fabian tract, Labour’s Second Term (1949), and in the New Statesman, 23 April 1949.

81. ‘The Socialisation Programme for Industry’, in Donald Munro (ed.), Socialism: the British Way (1948), p.55.

82. In The Future of Socialism (1956).

83. Written under the pseudonym "a Labour MP". See note 89.

84. Donoughue and Jones, Herbert Morrison, p.441; Morrison, The Peaceful Revolution, p.142.

85. See Bonham, Middle Class Vote, pp.28-9, 34-5, 85, 127; Foot, Aneurin Bevan, ch.6. Dalton saw Attlee shortly after the election of 1950, and told his diary on 27 February of Attlee’s reaction to the election result: "Nye, he thinks, has lost us more votes than any other minister, by his vermin speech & by his statement, during the election, that the middle classes don’t really need domestic servants, they only want to be able to order someone about" (vol.38).

86. See also Richard Crossman’s Fabian lecture, Socialist Values in a Changing Civilization (1951) p.11.

87. Fabian Society Lectures, The Road to Recovery (1948), pp.49-50; quoted in part in Rogow, Labour Government, p.6.

88. New Fabian Essays, pp.28-9. See also idem, ‘The Lessons of 1945’, in Perry Anderson and Robin Blackburn (eds.), Towards Socialism (1965), p.156 (reprinted from the New Statesman, 19 April 1963).

89. What follows is based in part on six long articles written by Richard Crossman for the New Statesman between 23 October and 27 November 1948 under the pseudonym "a Labour MP" (identified by the New Statesman, private communication, 6 July 1977) and on Crossman’s confidential ‘Memorandum on Problems Facing the Party’, dated 27 March 1950 and received by the NEC on 26 April (NEC minutes, vol.99). No one figure spoke for the whole of the Labour left, but Crossman wrote more about future Labour policy than any other member of the left and, despite his reputation for volatility, was an influential figure. He was a principal author of Keep Left and Keeping Left, assistant editor of the New Statesman, and, according to George Orwell, helped to determine the policy of Tribune (The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell, vol.4 (1968; paperback ed., Harmondsworth, 1970), p.448).

90. For an extended discussion of this characteristic of the left over a prolonged period see Coates, The Labour Party, ch.7. See also Tom Nairn’s stimulating essay, ‘The Nature of the Labour Party’, in Anderson and Blackburn (eds.), Towards Socialism, pp.159-217.


Jonathan Wood’s interesting MA thesis, ‘The Labour Left in the Constituency Labour Parties 1945-51’, University of Warwick, 1977, did not become available until April 1978, after the completion of this article. The study was based on analysis of resolutions on the agenda of the Labour Party annual conferences during the period. Wood identified as left-wing the eighty-eight constituency parties which submitted two or more left-wing resolutions or amendments on either domestic or foreign issues, nine of which restricted their concern to foreign affairs alone. Most of the resolutions were not fundamentally critical of the course of government policy and only two condemned domestic policy as a whole, particularly the espousal of the mixed economy. The membership of the left-wing parties rose between 1945 and 1950 from 6 to over 11 per cent of individual Labour Party membership. The social composition of the relevant constituencies for which census information is available (though not necessarily of their Labour Parties) was more middle class than the national average, and a high proportion were Opposition-held or marginal Labour seats. About half of the Labour-held left-wing constituencies had MPs who supported the left on at least some important issues (ch.3, passim).