Future of the Labour Party

As outsiders we look on curiously as the factions in the Labour Party argue about why they lost the election and about whether their chances would be better next time if they got nearer to the Tories or further away, or if they dropped their programme altogether. Unlike other outsiders who are butting in with advice we have no guidance to offer to the Labour Party. Our stand is a simple one. We seek Socialism and have always been convinced that the Labour Party could never be anything but an obstacle in our path: all we wish to see is the disappearance of the Labour parties of the world and their replacement by Socialist parties. But those who have not yet come to see things us Socialists do can usefully note the difficulties in which its own policies have involved the Labour Party.


Douglas Jay, the Labour M.P., who started the row. held various posts in the Labour Government. 1945-1951, and retained his seat at Battersea North in the recent election, though with a reduced majority. Writing in Forward (October 16th, 1959) under the title “ Are We Downhearted? Yes!” he admitted that since 1945 there has been “a persistent drift away from Labour towards the Tories.” and offered as a provisional answer, the following:


1 -THE BETTER off wage earners and numerous salary earners arc tending to regard the Labour Party as associated with a class to which they themselves don’t belong. Few of them—least of all the women—feel themselves to be members of a “working class.” We are in danger of fighting under the label of a class which no longer exists.
If you doubt this, ask anyone who canvassed intensively in the last four weeks, particularly in the new housing estates. We must have a wider cross sectional appeal. What the public wants is a vigorous radical reforming open-minded party.
2- THE WORD “nationalisation” has become damaging to the Labour Party. This is a fact; and it is no use denying it. even if you deplore it. We have allowed the word which properly applies only to public monopoly, to be associated with social ownership as a whole. The myth that we intended to “nationalise” anything and everything was very powerful in this Election—any canvasser will agree. We must destroy this myth decisively; otherwise we may never win again.
3—Favourable economic circumstances for the Tories meant more, in terms of votes than any moral argument or propaganda vigour could counteract. True, the old people, the unemployed and badly housed, were suffering badly.


Opponents of Jay attacked him for suggesting that the Labour Party should water down its programme on Nationalisation. So far Mr. Gaitskell has not committed himself publicly in the controversy, but there is little doubt where he stood a few years ago at the time that he wrote the Fabian Tract Socialism and Nationalisation (July. 1956).


In that pamphlet he contended that nationalisation should be regarded as a means to achieving a better social system and not as an end in itself; though he frankly admitted that in the Labour Party it had often been treated as an end in itself, and indeed as “more or less identical with Socialism” (page 5). This, he said, was because many members of the Labour Party considered that nationalisation was the only way to get what they were driving at and that it could not fail to produce the desired ends. He now thinks that nationalisation is not by any means “the only way.”


The truth is that the Labour Party, in its half-century of propaganda, has accepted or tolerated the expression of many divergent views on nationalisation. Some advocates regarded it as a good business proposition; one that would show big economies, big profits and low charges. Others thought it would lead to higher wages, and others again, including Mr. Gaitskell, thought it would lead to the transfer of wealth from the rich to the government to be used to make the poor better off. (As the £53 million a year being paid indefinitely on the Government securities given to former coal and railway shareholders is probably at least double the profits they would now be getting in their shrinking industries if nationalisation had not taken place, the argument seems to be a particularly silly one).


The Whole Hog on Nationalisation
Some of the Labour leaders who want to forget nationalisation deny that the Labour Party ever intended to go the whole hog—though why shouldn’t they if they thought it such a good thing? But in 1935 the Labour Party published a pamphlet. “The Position of the Middle Class Worker in the Transition to Socialism,” by Lawrence Benjamin. In it he stated plainly that the Labour Party intended to take over the whole productive machine, land, industrial plant, warehouses, shop, stores, and the banks and financial houses. And he wrote:-


“But,” says someone in perhaps horror-struck tones, “if all the parts of the national economic machine are not privately owned, they would be publicly owned—and this means Socialism.” Certainly this is true. It does mean Socialism.” (Page 9.)


The Real Dilemma
The mess the Labour Party is in is the result of its own past muddled thinking. All its groups, however divided on other things, persuaded themselves that nationalisation would be an attractive institution and a vote-catcher. They are now having to swallow the bitter truth—that the extension of nationalisation is not wanted by most workers and has nothing to offer most capitalists. (Labour parties in Austria, Germany and elsewhere have met the same drift of opinion). So now one faction would willingly drop nationalisation in order to win the next election. but this can only look like treachery to the other faction, for whom the only purpose of winning an election is to introduce more nationalisation.


The Labour Party has many other worries when it looks to its future. It would like to see the Tories reverting to their less astute policies of earlier decades, which would help to stir up interest among the workers. But according to some accounts Mr. MacMillan, himself a one-time critic of Tory “reaction,” is deliberately setting out to pursue what “Cross-bencher” calls “a Leftward reforming course.” Sunday Express (November 8th, 1959). When the early pioneers of the Labour Party dreamed of placing themselves at the head of a grateful army of electors by first popularising and then enacting a series of social reforms, they never thought of the possibility of a Tory party that beat them at the same game.


The arguments in Labour Party ranks will go on for months and years and will never be finally settled until that Party disintegrates, to give place to the Socialist Party. In the meantime the present decline of nationalisation, which we never supported, should give an added opportunity for Socialist propaganda to make headway against all the other issues.


Edgar Hardcastle