The Margate Labour Party Conference
Nationalisation was the issue at Margate. It is the issue at all Labour conferences. It is difficult to see how it can be otherwise; for Nationalisation apart what else is there left to discuss within the Labour Party? Housing! Education! The Health Services! These are not the things which separate the Labour Party from the Tories and oft times the Labour Party from itself. Only Nationalisation can do that.
True the Tories have nationalised in the past and might conceivably do so again if circumstances warranted. But for them Nationalisation measures have been a means to an end. The Labour Party for political purposes have made it an end in itself, although the Margate conference saw a full scale strategical withdrawal from that position.
Mr. Woodburn, M.P., made a clumsy attempt to cover the withdrawal by telling the conference that “Nationalisation was not Socialism.” Mr. Woodburn may know that but the history of his party is writ large in the monumental confusion created by it in failing to make any real distinction between them. The speeches and writings of Labour leaders over the years bear damning testimony to this confusion. He also added, “ Nationalisation is merely a means to an end and not necessarily the best means.” Whatever implications one likes to draw from that remark the fact is that the Labour Party in the past has viewed Nationalisation as an end; a social goal, a political ideal. Its 1918 Manifesto, “Labour and the New Social Order,” proclaimed as its aim the continued extension of nationalisation acts to ever widening spheres of industry. And until recent years the Labour Party never substantially departed from it. Hitherto the Labour Party regarded its policy of Nationalisation as one of principle not expediency.
The militant convictions of the Webbs and old Fabians who contributed considerably to the Nationalisation policy of the Labour Party are lacking among present day Labour leaders. Two terms of Labour administration have dispelled from the minds of the “administrators” any notion of the talismanic powers of Nationalisation. The Webbs are dead in more senses than one.
The Nationalisation by the Labour Party in its first term of office of coal, electricity, gas, transport looked impressive to many people. When one realises that these industries have previously been subject to a greater or lesser degree of governmental regulation, the “revolution” appears rather a palace one.
Because there is a natural tendency towards monopolistic growth and practises in Capitalism. Capitalist governments are faced with certain problems. For instance the ownership and control by private monopolies of such things as gas, coal, electric power, transport, etc., are a powerful weapon for exacting toll from the vast majority of capitalist enterprises who are utterly dependent on these things. Moreover private monopolies pursue their interests regardless of the requirements of other capitalist sections. As a result they disturb the balance of capitalist economy by disturbing what is termed the free play of the market and so intensify the anarchy of capitalist production. The State is therefore compelled to intervene in order to curb this monopolistic power. State action along these lines is then both an attempt to protect the various sections of capitalism and to ensure the smoother running of the system from the standpoint of the requirements of Capitalism as a whole. Nationalisation is one way of bringing this about.
So far so good; but when the Labour Party is confronted with making good its promise to extend Nationalisation to other spheres of industry it finds itself faced with formidable difficulties. Capitalism now presents to the Labour Party a different aspect than when viewed through the rose-tinted glasses of yesterday’s propaganda.
Once the Labour Party used to damn what they termed the present competitive system. Now they have discovered unsuspected virtues in “competition.” Thus Mr. Strauss tells us that the Aircraft industry benefits the country by rivalry and competition in aircraft designs. Any measure of greater centralisation in that industry may have adverse effects, he said. Nationalisation, Mr. Strauss declared, is not so much a way of dealing with the problems of industry but a rather escapist way of avoiding them. And this is the distilled wisdom of years of Labour Party propaganda.
Now it seems to leaders of the Labour Party that Nationalisation can offer no solution for the successful survival of British capitalism in the world’s markets. It appears that high quality manufacture, speciality of design and responsiveness and adaptability to market requirements are the basic essentials. In fact the trend of Labour Party opinion seems to suggest that Nationalisation with its mammoth structure and bureaucratic dictation might be an hindrance rather than an aid. One spokesman at Margate illustrated this point by saying that it was the mammoth’s inability to adapt itself to changing conditions that lead to its extinction, its place being taken by the more agile elephant.
While the Labour leaders might propose a new line for the Labour Party’s general acceptance it will not be able to easily dispose of the old one. The policy of state Capitalism, miscalled by the Labour Party, state socialism, has deep rooted attachments for many of the rank and file. Popularised and propagandised by the Labour leaders for nearly fifty years it has acquired an ideological significance not to be easily dismissed. For many workers the old State-capitalist policy of the Labour Party conjured up in their minds visions of a “A New Era” in which the working class would in some way or another come into its own. It will not be easy to divert the energy and enthusiasm this has called forth into other channels. Then of course there is Mr. Bevan. And Mr. Bevan is still Mr. Bevan. For that reason the appeal of Mr. Greenwood for the Labour Party to close its ranks and stop internal dissension will not we think deter Mr. Bevan from his private ambitions. He will continue to keep the pot of Nationalisation boiling by the advocacy to use his own phrase—”Socialism through the old hard agony of Public Ownership and control.”
This of course will embarrass other Labour leaders because it will be difficult for them to admit that they no longer believe in such things. Because the Labour Party’s claim for political support rests on the fact they represent themselves in the light of a progressive party as distinct from the Tories, they must aspire to the semblance even if not the reality of having a social goal not envisaged by their political rivals.
In the past the old policy of State Capitalism served them well in this respect The difficulty will now be to find a substitute goal which will be as effective. One thing appears certain, however, that is whatever their political calculations and figuring might be. Nationalisation will be for the Labour leaders a recurring decimal.
One other thing is also certain that is for the workers the golden promise of a Labour summer is and will remain unfulfilled. It is the long hard winter of capitalism which lies ahead.