1940s >> 1946 >> no-508-december-1946

Editorial: The Slippery Slopes of Labourism

According to R. L. Stevenson, “to travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive.” He put into words what Labour Party supporters learn in the hard way about Labour governments. They march hopefully towards their appointed goal only to discover when they reach it that it was not where they wanted to be. They ought then to stop and ask themselves whether they have been on the right road; instead they start denouncing the MacDonald or the Attlee whom they chose to lead them. It has not taken long for the cleavage to come in the ranks of the present Labour Government. In the House of Commons, on November 18th, well over a hundred Labour M.P.s— though they would not actually vote against their own Government—forcibly expressed their dislike of its foreign policy by abstaining from voting. The Government got its vote of confidence, 353 to nil, with the help of many Tory M.P.s. It is a symptom of a spreading discontent with the Labour Government, which carries on a foreign policy largely taken over from its Conservative predecessors. One Labour writer, Mr. Hannen Swaffer, claims that it is supported by millions of trade unionists. He quoted one of the Labour M.P.s as saying: “We are heading for war. We had to do something about it” (People, 17/11/46).


The failure of the “rebels” to back their condemnatory speeches with their votes was a farcical end to the revolt, and naturally the Tories jeered, but for many sincere supporters of the Labour Party it is the beginning of a tragedy, the tragedy of seeing the Government of their choice turn its back on long- proclaimed hopes and pledges.


How the minds of the Labour Ministers are working was shown by several revealing passages in their speeches, the keynote being that the fine words of pre-election programmes have little bearing on the realities of the world as it is. Prime Minister Mr. Attlee trounced the rebel Labour M.P.s and charged them with holding views “which . . . do not correspond with the facts and which are based upon profound misapprehension of the inevitable conditions under which foreign affairs are conducted ’’ (Hansard, Nov. 18th, col. 589). He defended Mr. Bevin with the plea that “he is not the slave of an abstract theory. He is a practical man of affairs seeking to get things done.” This was ever the defence of the politician who won’t or can’t fulfil the rosy hopes he held out before entering office. Mr. Dalton, defending the Government’s decision to retain conscription, put it more crudely when he begged one of the Labour rebels “not to mistake catch phrases of long ago for the realities of to-day.’’


The real tragedy, from a working-class standpoint, is that the sincere Labour supporters of both sides fail to see why the present situation was bound to arise. To the rebels it appears merely that Mr. Bevin is the wrong man with the wrong policy for Foreign Secretary. To the loyal majority, on the other hand, it appears necessary to drop impractical ideals and be realists. Neither side will face up to the stubborn fact that foreign policy is determined by the position the Labour Government occupies of trying to administer capitalism in a capitalist world.


Some of the rebels would, no doubt, like to vote in accordance with their uneasy feeling that it is wrong for a Labour Government to be in this position, but their fatal weakness is that they have not got backing in their constituencies. One loyal Labour M.P., Mr. W. Nally, took refuge behind the views, held “rightly or wrongly,” of “ the average man in the average pub.” It is, of course, true, as we have always maintained, that until the “average man” has been won over from his wrong ideas to Socialism, no other policy is possible than a capitalist policy.


It is not only in foreign affairs that Labour Government deeds are destroying the confidence and enthusiasm of Labour supporters. On the home front the Labour Party is in wholesale—though, as yet, not fully recognised—retreat. As long as the Labour Party has been in existence its most prominent propagandists have given lip-service to the Socialist condemnation of the capitalist system for its “profit motive.” Now a changed line has been announced without any attempt being made first to get it endorsed by the members of the Labour Party. This line was defined by Mr. Herbert Morrison in a speech at Birmingham, reported in the Daily Herald (October 28th, 1946). “There is no need,” he said, “to abolish the profit motive,” all that is required is to rid it of abuses. Three days later the Daily Herald told its readers that one of the reasons for the Labour Government’s drive for increased production and the most economical use of labour was that these are essential “to preserve the real value of both wages and profits” (Daily Herald, 31/10/46). Many Labour voters will be astonished to learn that one of the objects of their Party is to “preserve the real value of profits.” Some may ask themselves, too, how the present policy of discouraging wage increases fits in with pre-election promises and with the increase of M.P.s’ salaries from £600 to £1,000 a year in April last. They may also notice a significant exception, the increase of police pay by 15s. a week. The Home Secretary, Mr. Chuter Ede, rather indiscreetly let the cat out of that bag when he stated that he hopes the increase will produce a contented police force “to enable us to deal with the difficult circumstances which still confront us and will confront us for some months ahead” (Times, 18/11/46). A few days later one “difficult circumstance” occurred in Manchester, where the police came into conflict with bus workers out on strike.


Many other examples can be found of the widening gulf between promise and performance. In 1944 Mr. E. Bevin said that after the war “There will be . . . no fear of unemployment for several years” (People, 26/11/44). Recently we have seen Mr. Marquand’s admissions about possible industrial depressions, and Mr. Morrison’s confession that no government can guarantee full employment ” (Reynolds News, 27/10/46). Already unemployment is not far below the 400,000 mark.


Then there is the question of taxation of profits and of big incomes. Mr. Dalton, who reduced Excess Profits Tax this year by 40 per cent., also told the House of Commons, on November 18th, 1946, that he hoped gradually to diminish Surtax (the tax levied on incomes above £2,000 a year), but that the financial burden of conscription means that “Surtax will not be able to be reduced quite so rapidly as it otherwise would have been” (Hansard, 18/11/46, col. 630). On November 13th, addressing the Fabian Society, Mr. Dalton blandly threw overboard the Labour Party’s very old claim that direct taxation (income tax, etc.) is better for the workers than indirect taxation (taxes on tobacco, beer, etc). “The old idea that direct taxation is, in all circumstances, better than indirect taxation has been disproved by recent experience ” (Daily Worker, 14/11/46).


Lastly, on November 14th, Mr. Eden entertained the House of Commons by quoting from Mr. Strachey’sWhy You Should be a Socialist” (revised and republished in 1944) a sweeping condemnation of the increased production stunt that Mr. Strachey and the rest of the Government are busily preaching up and down the country. Though capitalism is now run by the Labour Party, it is just as true as when Mr. Strachey wrote it that “however hard the workers work, they will remain workers, and poor workers at that. Hard work will not make the workers any richer.”


Another group that has turned a somersault like Mr. Strachey is the Communist Party, with which he used to associate. They used to be all against the “work harder” campaign and are now all for it, and on the same day that the vote of confidence took place in the House (their two M.P.s abstaining) the Times published an interview with M. Thorez Secretary-General of the French Communist Party, in which he boasted that the French miners are now producing 15 per cent. more than before the war as a direct response to the Communist Party’s appeal. He went on to assure the readers of the Tory Times that if his Party became the Government of France they have no intention of abolishing capitalism: —

  “We repeated deliberately in our electoral campaign that we do not ask a mandate to apply a strictly Communist programme—one, that is, resting on a radical transformation of the present regime of property and of the conditions of production that flow from that. ‘We have put forward a programme of national reconstruction, such as all democrats may accept, including some nationalisation, but also the support of medium and small industrial and craft undertakings, and the defence of present property against the trusts’” (Times, 18/11/46.)

The lesson to be drawn from this spectacle of British Labour Party dissension and of compromise with capitalism in Britain and France is that the whole policy of trying to operate capitalism is fallacious and full of danger for the working class. What the workers need is not Labour Party or Communist Party administration of Capitalism, but its abolition and replacement by Socialism; but that will be done only when a majority have been won over to Socialism, and the instruments for its accomplishment will not be the Labour and Communist Parties.