Editorial: The Labour Party seeks a Programme
For political parties dependent on leaders it is much better to travel hopefully than to arrive. The leaders’ promises to remove some present evils at a not too distant date keep members and voters united and enthusiastic. The led are willing to accept with a great deal of trust the belief that the reforms they are working for will produce the desired beneficial results. It is with achievement that the testing time comes and the party’s cohesion or even its existence is imperilled. A case in point is the long struggle waged early this century to give the American people the benefits of prohibition. When it came the beneficiaries decided that it was more of a curse than a blessing and there followed a much shorter struggle, to get rid of it This of course, shattered the prohibition organisations; but, if things had gone differently and prohibition had turned out to be even half-way up to expectations and had become permanent this too would have ended the organisations for their work would have been completed.
Problems like these are responsible for the present doubts, dissensions and struggles for leadership in the British Labour Party. In their six years of power after the war, they carried out much of the programme that had kept them going for half a century. They nationalised basic industries, elaborated the national Insurance schemes, introduced the Health Service continued war-time arbitration in industrial disputes gave independence to India and other countries in the Empire and put into operation their plans for bringing peace into international relationships through the United Nations and their “new approach” to foreign governments. Then they sat back waiting for the applause that did not come. According to the book a grateful electorate should then have rallied to Labour and spurned the Tories. Instead, disappointment with Nationalisation and the utter failure of Labour’s foreign policy had the result of dividing the electorate about evenly between the Labour and Tory parties. To the extent that they approved the insurance schemes and the Health Service they decided that these were as much Tory schemes as Labour ones, as indeed they were, for the Tories were astute enough to adopt them and not leave them to figure as a Labour Party monopoly. In the meantime Labour’s experience of running capitalism in a world beset with peril for the British Empire capitalist group had made them as safe for the preservation of the interests of that group as the Tories themselves. So now the hopes and the fire have departed from Labour ranks and they are trying to find how to regain what has been lost. They are seeking new leaders and new programmes that will carry them back to power.
The problem has been surveyed by Professor G. D. H. Cole and by Mr. Donald Chapman, formerly secretary of the Fabian Society; by Mr. Cole in a pamphlet Is this Socialism? and by Mr. Chapman in the Political Quarterly.
Mr. Cole is certain that if the Labour Party at the 1950 and 1951 elections had come out boldly for more of the old programme—as some Labour leaders thought they should—they would have lost votes not gained them. And Mr. Chapman finds that the workers, no longer spurred on by mass unemployment, have largely lost what desire they had for seemingly radical changes. And it is certainly true that the quite unprecedented nine year period of unemployment averaging less than two per cent has robbed the Labour Party of the asset it had when mass unemployment constantly stirred the workers to discontent with Tory governments between the wars.
Their analysis of the troubles of the Labour Party are convincing but it is when we look at their suggested remedies that we see how little they have to offer. Mr. Cole suggests that inheritance should be virtually abolished, that dividends should be limited, and that part of profits re-invested as capital should be taken by the State. This assumes, of course, that nationalisation by a back-door method could be foisted on electors who have become less enamoured of straight nationalisation, and that having got complete State capitalism they would like it
Mr. Chapman does examine another proposition, that goes by the misleading title of “workers control” in industry, but decides that by and large the workers are not much interested in it.
It would, however, be a mistake to conclude, because Messrs. Cole and Chapman cannot find issues likely to put new life into the Labour Party, that the problem is insoluble. We can be sure that capitalism itself will go on producing evils at home and abroad around which the Tory and Labour parties (or other capitalist-reformist parties in their place) can build up rival programmes to form the basis of electoral battles.