Nationalisation—The Labour Party’s millstone
In the minds of supporters and opponents alike the the Labour Party has always been associated with Nationalisation and up to 1945, it was a popular item in that party’s, programme. It had the attractions of novelty and to “progressives,” including some in the Liberal and Tory parties, it promised to be a happy blend of warm idealism with practical realism. For the candidate at elections it was the way to win friends and influence voters. Now, saddening experience has taken off the bloom. Fewer than half the electors can be induced to vote for the party that sponsored it and those who really love it are fewer still. This does not worry the S.P.G.B., for we never had any illusion about it and never supported it; but for the Labour Party it is a disaster. In the fifty years since our formation in 1904, while we were warning the workers not to waste their time on nationalisation, because at most it could solve only Capitalist problems, the Labour Party were polarising it, campaigning for it, and resting their hopes for continued electoral victory on nationalisation proving a success.
We, too, were partly wrong. We were right in saying that nationalisation would solve no working class problem but we are now faced with the situation that British Capitalists decided, at least for the present, that nationalisation is of little use to them either.
It is not difficult to explain this. In the long boom years since the war it has been easy to sell and easy to make profits, and it is only the Capitalist whose wealth is invested in declining or depressed industries who looks hopefully on being bought out by the Government. Another reason, one that influences manufacturers and traders as a whole, is that the nationalised industries, notably coal and transport, have not given the anticipated low charges high efficiency and freedom from strikes. They may be wrong about this. It may be that the same industries left in private hands would have served the great body of Capitalists even worse; but be that as it may many of them have reached the conclusion that the experiment has failed them.
The attitude of the Labour Party leaders in this, to them, alarming situation has been confused and disingenuous. Some have thought it best to stick to the old propaganda because that is what their supporters are used to, while others have thought it expedient to try to find new ways of winning votes. So in the recent election the Conservatives found themselves fighting a divided and dispirited Labour army—those at the back pushed for more nationalisation while those at the front tried to keep their one-time favourite child, out of sight.
Indeed, some of them are now pretending that the Labour Party never really did attach more than minor importance to nationalisation, though the evidence of their former declarations proves this to be an absurd distortion of the facts.
In 1929, for example, the late Arthur Henderson, who was a Minister in the two Labour Governments of 1923-4 and 1929-31, and became Leader of the Party in 1931, made a forthright declaration that nationalisation was the fundamental issue dividing the Labour Party from its opponents. This was in the Foreword to a pamphlet, “The Success of Nationalisation,” written by Thomas Johnston, another prominent member of the Labour Party. This is what Mr. Henderson had to say:—
“This pamphlet deals with a fundamental issue of modem politics. Nationalisation is a much abused word, and its meaning is often misunderstood and misrepresented. But as a matter of principle and policy it represents the dividing line between the Labour Party and the orthodox parties whose historical supremacy it has so successfully challenged.”
and again, after identifying nationalisation with Socialism, Mr. Henderson wrote:—
“More clearly than ever as the political parties develop their respective economic policies, it can be seen that Nationalisation is the dividing issue between them.” (Italics his.)
The claims the Labour Party made for nationalisation in those days were varied: some to appeal to the Capitalist, some to appeal to the workers.
In “The Modern Case for Socialism,” published in 1928, Mr. A. W. Humphrey, a member of the Labour Party, quoted with approval the argument used by Chiozza Money (a Liberal who later supported the Labour Party) that nationalisation of the railways would provide cheap transport for manufacturers. Money had quoted the charges made by the privately run British railways by contrast with those on the German State railways: “The charge for carrying hardware from Birmingham to Newcastle (207 miles) was 15/- per ton, but from Dortmund to Rotterdam (153 miles) was 10/- per ton” (p. 195).
A second line of sales-talk for nationalisation was that it would improve the relations between employers and employed; which has an odd flavour now when strikes in the nationalised coal mines and on the railways are the order of the day.
Mr. Ramsay MacDonald, twice Prime Minister in Labour Governments, developed this theme in his “Socialism: Critical and Constructive” (first published in 1921, re-issued in 1924 and 1929). He not only promised that this better relationship would develop but quoted an example that had, he said, come to his notice in some country (unnamed) where an industry had been nationalised.
“They would never dream of going back to the old bad relationship. The managers themselves were happier in their work and found far more heartiness in it. The men had abandoned of their own free will the most provocative restrictions which they had enforced—or tried to enforce— as a protection against Capitalism, and which undoubtedly hampered production.” (1929 edition, p. 169.)
That was the hope. We have recently seen the reality in the railway strike. Mr. Baty, general secretary of the strikers’ union the Associated Society of Locomotive Engineers and Firemen, made the following statement to the Sunday Express (5 June, 1955):—
“I agree one was entitled to expect an improvement in labour relations under the new set-up. But, in fact, they have deteriorated very considerably.”
One of the arguments of MacDonald and other Labour leaders was that under nationalisation the old concern of the Railway Directors with the financial aspect would disappear. Mr. Baty, on the contrary, says of the nationalised railways:—‘The men at the top . . . are always looking round to see how they can avoid this or that item of spending.”
One ironical incident of the railway strike was the resolution passed by 1,000 strikers at Willesden demanding the dismissal of the members of the British Transport Commission (Daily Worker, 13/6/55). This Commission includes former officials of the locomen’s union and the N.U.R.!
Still another illusion of the Labour Party was that nationalisation would reap big profits and enable these to be used, at least in part, for the benefit of the workers. The late Philip Snowden, another leader of the Labour Party, put this in his “If Labour Rules” (1923, page 27)
“Nationalisation would place at the disposal of the State the means of raising the standard of life of large numbers of workers.”
This may be judged by the recent complaint of the railway unions that their members wages have fallen behind the levels of private industries..
It was the belief of the Labour Party before it came to power that as industries were nationalised the benefits falling to grateful workers and grateful users would generate enthusiasm for more nationalisation and win ever increasing support for the Party responsible.
They can no longer believe in this and the election delivered a blow to their hopes in the Cleveland division where live many workers employed by Imperial Chemical Industries. During the campaign the threat was made that a future Labour Government would nationalise that firm, or part of it; which I.C.I. countered with a scheme of profit-sharing. A correspondent of the Manchester Guardian (18/5/55) reported that the Conservatives made this a prominent issue and that “trade unionists within the industry have reported that the men are threatening not to vote at all in the election.”
After the election the Economist (4/6/55) commented:—
“A final striking result was the cut in Mr. Palmer’s majority in the unchanged Labour seat of Cleveland, from 5,481 to 181; the workers in this constituency are largely employed by Imperial Chemical Industries, which Labour has promised to nationalise.”
The election has been followed by the Conservative Prime Minister’s announcement that his Government intends to encourage companies to introduce schemes of profit-sharing and co-partnership. The Tories now think that they can win votes by promising such schemes in place of nationalisation.
It only needs to add that the Socialist Party will criticise profit-sharing as it has always criticised nationalisation, and for the same reason; that Socialism is what the workers interest requires not the perpetuation of Capitalism whether as private Capitalism or as State Capitalism.
(Editorial, Socialist Standard, July 1955)