If the 1946 Labour Party Conference can be described as a “victory binge,” then using another metaphor, this year’s might be said to be the hangover. Undoubtedly another year of Labour government has cleared away any intoxicating fumes. It was this perhaps that gave to the conference the somewhat depressing and jaundiced air of those who have at last sobered up and are beginning to see things as they really are. “Things as they really are” being Conscription, continued Austerity, Power Politics, etc. It is hardly to be wondered at that even the most optimistic member of the Labour Party is hard put to it to recognise these things as the signs of “Labour’s New Social Order.” Nevertheless party loyalty was the keynote sounded, and the huge Labour Party voting machine went obediently into action and, apart from one or two irrelevancies and minor side shows, automatically clicked its approval of Government policy. In Labour Party circles it was known as “the Unity Conference.”
The opening speech of the Chairman, Mr. Noel Baker, was significant for what it omitted rather than for anything it contained. Unable to give any convincing reason why the record of the Labour Government should merit any working-class support, Mr. Noel Baker played up the Tory “big bad wolf ” theme by telling his audience that bad as things might be under a Labour Government, under a Tory regime they would have been infinitely worse. Or, to use his own words, it would have ended in a catastrophe (Daily Telegraph, May 27th, 1947). On the international field he offered the dismal information “that to end the fear of war is the crux upon which for our generation and for our children all else turns.” However, his cloudy idealism trailed a vapour which spelt out “that it was possible for nations with different social systems to live in peace and harmony.” Why it has not hitherto been possible for nations with just one social system to live in this “blessed state” he failed to explain. Of course the idea of Western democratic nations and a communist totalitarian Russia being fundamentally different social systems is a piece of fiction. All these nations are Capitalist Powers merely differing in form and certain incidental details. As a piece of fiction it is, however, both mischievous and dangerous when circulated among members of the working class, because it serves as the basis for an idealogical justification for some future conflict. Strangely enough, Mr. Noel Baker himself supplied a distinctly discordant note in all this “peace and harmony” by issuing a warning—“Let no foreigner believe that Britain is down and out.” His only statement which might have significance for working class consideration was hie admission “that poverty was still the master problem for mankind” (Daily Telegraph, same issue).
The “Socialist” Morrison began, and perhaps fittingly so, by appealing to the capitalist class for co-operation and even enthusiasm for his “Socialist State.” He even asked them to accept in terms of real spendable power, less surplus value (he called it net reward) than they had been accustomed to. (Times, May 29th, 1947). Admitting “great inequalities of wealth and bad examples of luxury spending,” he seemed determined, however, to ensure that there was a level below which the wealthy must not be allowed to sink. “There was little or no more to be got by squeezing the rich,” he declared. Whatever the workers got in the future would only be by hard work and producing more. Mr. Morrison has probably never been told that whatever the workers have got or are likely to get is only the result of their own labour. It might come as something of a shock to Mr. Morrison to be also informed that whatever the rich get is also the result of that labour of the dispossessed majority. Apparently Mr. Morrison views the working class in the light of a set of profligate nephews who have dunned their good-natured and wealthy relatives to the point of pecuniary embarrassment. That the rich have acquired their riches only by squeezing unpaid labour from the workers, and in ever greater quantities, is of course the plain, even if somewhat unpalatable, truth. It is remarkable, perhaps, how one can spend a lifetime in the Labour Movement without ever acquiring these simple elementary facts of working class existence.
Mr. Morrison also played up to what he referred to as “the so-called middle class ” (Times, May 25th, 1947). That is managers, technicians, etc. Asking also for their co-operation and help but unable it seemed to implement it by any increases of salaries, it appears he is prepared at least to confer on them official recognition of the social dignity of a middle-class status. Whether suburbia will feel that this non-material reward outweighs the disadvantages of austerity conditions is of course open to question.
Mr. Morrison then spoke as a Trade Unionist (although not at present following his craft) to his fellow trade unionists. He told them that the battle for Socialism was the battle for production. Being slogan-minded, he would just as readily have made the same claim for “The battle of Britain.” He warned his fellow trade unionists, however, that all unofficial strikes were sabotage with violence to the body of the Labour movement (Daily Telegraph, May 29th, 1947). Seeing, however, that most strikes occur not as the result of any action undertaken by the trade union leaders but in spite of them, Mr. Morrison was virtually declaring that strike action for all practical purposes is incompatible with Labour Party Government. Whether a 20th century version of “ unofficial ” Tolpuddle Martyrs will evolve under “Labour’s New Social Order” might at least be reflected on. Mr. Morrison demanded the lifting of all restrictive practices on the part of the workers. No strikes, no wage demands, no action likely to interfere with Government planning; only hard work and more hard work. Mr. Dalton added his quota to Morrison’s “I can offer you nothing but toil and sweat ” formula by telling the conference that non-compliance by the workers in Government planning would lead to economic disaster (Times, May 29th, 1947).
The dangerous implication contained in Mr. Morrison’s speech was apparent from the discussion which followed it. Hampstead D.L.P. moved a resolution—subsequently withdrawn—asking for Government regulation in the distribution of man-power between essential and non-essential industry (Daily Telegraph, May 29th, 1947). Mr. Lawther, of the National Union of Mine Workers, then moved a resolution which was accepted by the Executive Committee and carried by Conference asking for necessary measures to be taken by the Government to attract Labour into the under-manned industries. Mr. Deakin, of the Transport and General Workers Union, opposed it on grounds that it posed a wages policy. He said it was not the Government’s responsibility to fix wages and conditions. He did not, however, comment on Mr. Morrison’s unofficial strike denunciation of which his Union has, in respect of such strikes, the largest number. Several delegates supported the reactionary notion of Government regulation on wages and conditions. Mr. Hawser described Mr. Deakin’s speech “as irresponsible and pernicious,” adding “That there would be trouble in the movement unless Trade Union leaders began to think on Socialist lines. If the Trade Unions are unable to prevent delays then the Government would have to take more drastic steps than it had done so far.” It might seem that certain sections of the Labour Party consider that the conduct of present day Trade Union activities is rendered superfluous by the advent of a Labour Government. The New Statesman, June 7th, 1947, succinctly expresses it by saying “that very soon a decision will have to be made between old fashioned trade union principles and Socialist planning.”
It is ironical to reflect that had proposals for wage regulation and industrial conscription by the Government emanated from any Tory quarter, it would have evoked among Labour Party supporters considerable resentment and hostility. By a curious process of self-deception they are prepared to discuss it within their own ranks in the light of “Socialist measures.” Measures, we may add, that if adopted would convert the Trade Union movement into a department of the Ministry of Labour and put back the trade union clock a hundred years.
In the Labour Party a sentimental pacifism has endured a lingering and precarious existence. It was by the Government’s Conscription Act finally slain. Professor Laski, speaking on the Government’s behalf, had to dispose of the body and ask Conference to return a verdict of “death from natural causes.” Professor Laski, who is not noted for plain speech and direct utterance, was, however, on the subject of conscription brutally frank. “The Government had to defend the country,” he said (Manchester Guardian, May 27th, 1947). ‘‘It could do so by the old method of recruiting an army by way of poverty, hunger and unemployment ’’—which would of course be unsuitable to the higher technical standards and requirements of the modern army (our comment)—“or by offering recruits opportunities and privileges so outstanding that it became a special caste.” That of course we may add would be too dear. Thus conscription is the cheap and therefore ideal method of ensuring for capitalism a plentiful and suitable supply of potential cannon-fodder for possible future wars. Apart from Mr. Rhys Davies, what opposition there was to conscription was in terms of its adverse effect on industrial man-power rather than to any objection to it on principle.
In the debate on foreign policy, Mr. Bevin, spoke as the official representative of one of the three Great Powers. His insistence on the maintenance of oil interests in the Middle East, his opposition to conflicting Russian claims and his insistence on maintaining British capitalists’ interests wherever they are, marked him as a worthy descendant in the long line of British Imperialism. Mr. Bevin added a touch of melodrama to the scene in answering certain of his critics—the same critics who had objected to the “cards on the table” pamphlet eulogising his foreign policy—by shouting that he had “been stabbed in the back.” This is, of course, always an emotional trick winning device with a Labour Party audience.
Only on minor issues such as the abolition of tied cottages and equal pay for women doing equal work did the conference vote against the executive. The first is an age-long abuse of agricultural interests. The second is a measure which has considerable support in the Tory party. Its application, of course, is highly restrictive and full of anomalies. Neither of them touches the real problem confronting the workers. Nevertheless Aneurin Bevan complained that the abolition of the tied cottage system would put the Government in a legislative strait jacket, while Mr. Dalton, with a fine disregard for conference decisions, has recently rejected the equal pay for equal work project.
The Labour Party has undoubtedly proved an inestimable boon for existing capitalist interests. British capitalism, weak from the emergence of a great war coupled with the recession of the traditional hold over the workers, exercised by the older political parties, might have found the process of recovery and rehabilitation a grave problem.
The Labour Party, in securing the support of the workers by their claims to be able to run capitalism differently from the older parties, have not only strengthened the hold of capitalism over the working- class but have facilitated its recovery. Looking at the Labour Party Conference one is almost inclined to paraphrase Voltaire by saying that if the Labour Party did not exist it would have been necessary for capitalism to have invented one.