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Book Review: 'The Labour Party and the Working Class'

Gluttons For Punishment

'The Labour Party and the Working Class' by Tom Forester. (Heinemann, £3.75.)

The "WORKING CLASS" of the title of this book are manual workers: unskilled, semi-skilled, skilled and foremen. Clerks and all the rest are "middle class", which shows that the author not only does not know Socialist basics but has never heard the words sung to the tune of The Red Flag: "The working class can watch me pass, I've got the foreman's job at last."

Though his definition won't do, what he has to say is interesting. He asks why more than half the manual workers, with the percentage highest among the poorest 8 per cent (Gallup Poll figures 1945-66), are persistent Labour voters. It is not because the Labour Party woos them assiduously. Local party organizations are small, doing little between election times and holding their membership chiefly through the "social" side. In Forester's view the Labour Party "has always had an essentially passive relationship to the working class".

The answer lies partly in its historical relationship with the trade unions, of course. Forester says, correctly, that Keir Hardie and his associates wanted to create a union-backed Labour party because "socialist activity and propaganda in the 1880s and 1890s . . . had seemingly failed to make any headway": thus they set out consciously to win the support of non-Socialists. The existence of a "left wing" wanting Labour success on the same conditions then squalling against the results also dates from that time. (In 1912 the British Socialist Party, angry over the Liberal-Labour alliance in Parliament, urged workers to vote Conservative.)

Given the opportunity to participate in government by the first World War, in 1918 the Labour Party adopted a constitution including the famous Clause IV.  This represented not any turning towards Socialism — which had been rejected at the outset in 1900, and was in any case not stated in Clause IV — but, as Forester puts it, the realization that "it would need to clearly differentiate itself from the other major political parties if it wanted to achieve similar prominence as an alternative government party".

What follows is that the legend of the "de-radicalization" of the Labour Party, the falling away from principles once held, is untrue. Moreover, while the attractive aura of the word "socialism" is exploited, nothing can emerge from it while Labour supporters do not understand what it means. Forester gives as one reason why Labour MPs so readily act like Conservatives that they have no mandate for "a radical challenge to the system". That was the idea at the beginning. The book has some studies of Labour voters and their reasons: which are not markedly different from what Tory or Liberal voters would say.  But the writer does not explain why he is in the Labour Party.

Robert Barltrop