1960s >> 1960 >> no-665-january-1960

Labour’s Lost Chord

Against all the precedents, and to the: surprise of many Labour supporters, the Tories have won their third election in succession; and have even managed to increase their majority. The most interesting aspect of this was not Supermac’s victory, but the changed attitudes and moods of the electorate, that were revealed more clearly than before. These changes affect the Labour Party far more than the Tories, and in some ways appear to be a major disaster for Labour, causing much heart-searching and what John Foster Dulles called “agonising re-appraisals.”

In spite of high polls and a fairly steady Labour vote, something has gone from British politics, and gone for ever. This “something” might loosely be called “left-wing idealism.” Where is the enthusiasm of Labour’s early years; where the desire to make the world a place of dignity, free from slavery and oppression; where the striving to make man master of the machine instead of its mere adjunct. Labour in the past expressed, however incoherently, all these aspirations of a working class just out of its infancy, crying out, not for charity and mercy, but for political power with which to change the world.

The Labour Party was formed in 1906, yet despite its recent emergence (as compared with Liberal or Tory) its appeal is already fading, its policies old-hat, its ideals threadbare and increasingly lost in vague verbiage. Fifty-three years have seen the rise and decline of that sincere idealism that sent hundreds of thousands of workers onto the streets campaigning, not for “we can make ‘You have never had it so good’ even better.” but to build a society worthy of Man’s sense of his own dignity. Left-wing idealism has died, and all the trumpeting of Bevan. Barbara Castle, Mikardo and “Tribune” cannot bring it to life again. Labour today can only mimic its former styles; and the result, with even the rebels supporting H-bombs, rearmament and the trade struggle with foreign powers, sounds as hollow as an old biscuit-tin.

Labour’s Lost Image
Images—religious, military, national or political have nothing precise or rational in their make-up. A political image is created by a thousand-and-one vague impressions gained from speeches, articles (and even catchy phrases remembered out of context), the personal appearance and integrity (real or assumed) of the politicians, and the manner and methods of presenting promises to the electorate. The practiced politician is aware of this, and seeks more to create a favourable image than to present a coherent political programme. The measures presented must likewise have quick appeal, the thoughtful must make way for the sensational. The image which Labour built was of the working-man turned politician who by a judicious use of Parliament would strike a blow for the workers against the forces of exploitation and oppression. Labour became the embodiment of “Us.” “Them” being not just the ruling class, but the whole Establishment, right down to the foreman. With this image Labour could rely on millions of votes from embittered workers who were never sufficiently politically aware to state any specific revolutionary aims.

In furtherance of this image, Labour became a political Father Christmas offering something to every shade of radical, reforming opinion. A political pap, made of Reformism, Fabianism, Pacifism, Nationalisation, Cooperation, Patriotism and Christianity, provided a diet for everybody—almost. This diet may not be very nourishing, but the promise of working-class victory was enough to blind many to Labour’s defects. Five-and-a-half years of Labour Government helped to disillusion many, but the malaise of the Labour Party goes deeper. Times have changed, and the changed attitudes of workers are posing a big problem for Labour. It seems that in an era of full employment their message has become irrelevant. Since 1950, they have had difficulty in finding a policy that marked them off from the Tories. A rather damaging thing to say about a party whose prominent members are fond of talking about “Principles of Social Democracy”; “Public Ownership”; and “Co-operative Commonwealth.” Big words, and words that are extremely obscure as used by the Labour Party. They have in any case lost a lot of their old appeal, and Labour might as well drop them.

The Rise of the “Middle Class”
It is the spread of what is called the “middle class” and its ideals that has so much changed the character of British Politics. “Middle Class” is not a valid term in the economic sense; the middle class or rising Capitalist class of Marx’s day have vanished from the scene. A rough definition of them today would be “all those members of the working class who, for reasons of tradition, snobbery and aspiration, identify themselves with Capitalism and its institutions.” They are a part of the Establishment; seeking social solidarity in the pretences that their employments are valuable and that they form the backbone of society. The correct ethics and morals must be observed, the correct sort of clothes worn, and the right sort of house occupied. Income is to some extent secondary, though the most lowly-paid workers cannot qualify. The £12 a week clerk is frequently “middle class” in outlook, while better paid workers on bench or machines are usually “working class.” “Middle class” aims and aspirations are however becoming more widespread, even among Labour’s traditional supporters.

One change is the growth of the unproductive tasks. This process is continuous, but it has received fresh impetus in the boom conditions prevailing since the War. New office-buildings thrust their outlines into every city skyline, and they are much bigger than the bombed or demolished buildings they replace. More and more office staff are required, and their activities are mechanised and organised on a large scale. Capitalism requires more and more people to calculate, organise, publicise and litigate.

As the office-workers have grown, so the industrial workers, considered as a proportion of the population, have declined. In industry, too, important changes are taking place. The technicians, designers, draughtsmen, and supervisors become increasingly important, and are becoming cut off from their proletarian roots. Many such people are “middle class” in outlook, and are usually on the side of the “Supermac” angels.

Most important of all is the growth among all sections of what D. H. Lawrence called “the new money pleasures.” The past sixty years has seen tremendous changes in consumer goods. Modern Capitalism, with its mass-production of pressed-steel and plastic gadgets, its electronic marvels and its motor-cars, has conditioned people to the continual discarding of the old and the buying of new things. No longer need the furniture last a lifetime it must be glossy, bold-as-brass. and changed every few years. Acquisition and coveting are the ruling social ideas, and there has been as a consequence a decline in social life and a decline in interest in real human questions. The furniture, radiogram and T.V. may be new, but the emotional experiences are second-hand, gained from T.V., best-selling novel or film. “You have never had it so good” is a pretty accurate, and cynical, summing-up of attitudes in the 1950’s This is not a triumph of higher wages and improved social conditions, it is a triumph of things over human relationships. The Commodity reigns supreme, and Humanity is hardly anywhere. There is a constant barrage of T.V.. press and film advertising to help keep the Commodity secure.

What can the left-wing idealists of the Labour Party say against this? The Labour Party, with its catchpenny prosperity schemes, its sensational appeals, its exhortations to workers to work harder in the cause of increased prosperity, its support of the trade struggle, contributed its share towards Man’s enslavement to the Commodity.

What Labour failed to see was that Capitalism could be modified again and again—and still remain Capitalism. Poverty is a permanent feature of Capitalism. However many gadgets workers acquire (and the process need not be continuous, for slumps can return again) they remain workers; and the ruling class are still there—on top.

The Squawking, Chattering Jay
Labour need not be stuck for an answer. There is the quick gloss, the clever evasion, the downright lie; all useful weapons in politics. There is the Jay approach, a truly cynical one: cast away the old ideas, keep up to date, be in with the times! It doesn’t matter what you do so long as you kick wicked old Mac out of office! The argument is of course justified by the cry: “spare a tear for the poor electorate under Tory rule!” Labour members are certainly confused, but this kind of argument hasn’t gone down very well. They have, after all, an attachment to what they call their “principles.” Many would like to see more Nationalisation, but are prepared to admit it hasn’t made much difference so far. And why and how should it?

The bulk of the Party will probably come round to Gaitskell’s views on the subject which are: keep a fair smattering of high-sounding phrases for the more thoughtful (but Keep it Vague!); an abandonment or modification (or in any case soft-pedalling) of the garbled and obscure definition of Socialism in the Party’s 1919 constitution: and plenty of gloss on those policy statements. Labour’s post-election conference suggests that for the time being they will be satisfied with a patchwork job. with Uncle Nye (how genial the old firebrand is getting!) suavely proclaiming the Party’s essential unity. Labour’s next programme might be envisaged as promising a thousand miles more motorway than the Tories, bigger and better Hire-Purchase and house buying facilities, and a suggestion that Labour is an up-to-date slick Party in a slick world. They might on the other hand become the victims of their own traditions and go into a gentle decline. In any event Socialism will become more and more distant, the “principles” more and more obscure and more and more a cloak for ruling class ideas.

In spite of sixty years of “inevitable gradualness”: in spite of increasing Government interference in the running of almost everything: Capitalism is still carried on for the benefit of a ruling class. Its hold over people’s minds appears as strong as ever. “Appears” is used deliberately; although people still support Capitalism, it is support on a rather cynical level. Outright enthusiasm is becoming rare. Perhaps in a way this is an advance; perhaps disillusion comes all the quicker. .

Capitalism, in spite of “improved” education, better social services, motor-cars and other gadgets of all sorts, remains an unworthy system: throwing its peoples’ lives away in futile battle; damaging the very basis of Man’s biological inheritance: submitting its peoples to the rat-race scramble for jobs and favours; subordinating Man to the machine and productive method: crushing individuality; battering at peoples’ consciousness with hideous advertising, and misusing language in the same process (adding “triteness” to “brightness” is one of Capitalism’s more subtle and insidious crimes): and fostering avarice, envy and hatred where there could be human cooperative happiness.

Out in the Cold
More and more motor-cars and motor-ways, and more intricate gadgets, do not suggest Wonderland to the Socialist. They suggest that Mankind is going mad over mere things, over what should be simply aids and adjuncts to living, and in the process are forgetting how to live, forgetting their own humanity.

Not being interested in cadging votes (though we would certainly like to see more workers supporting Socialism, at the Polls and elsewhere); not wasting our time in collecting the crumbs of Reform; not trying to resolve the impossible by offering a Foreign Policy that will reconcile Eisenhower, Khruschev, De Gaulle and the British Government; we are in a position radically different from any other Party, and our problems are different. We are the victims of the general hostility and apathy towards politics. People dismiss all politicians—including Socialists—as frauds, even though our views are not “politics” in the sense that other Parties use the word. We have to break through a thick armour of apathy and hostility, to show people that we are really different. Still, we find few Labour supporters left prepared to argue, and perhaps out of the apathy and cynicism will come a more positive attitude, an attitude favourable to Socialist ideas. In the meantime we remain unrepentant, and to Labour jeering we can reply “we would rather be in the Political wilderness than have supported a Government that began the biggest peace-time armaments programme in this country’s history” (where were the left-wing mixed-up kids then? Cringing under the lash of three-line whips!)

Petrol-station, sham-Tudor house and shiny gadgets provide an unworthy material setting for mankind; just as irrational politics, reformism, “publicity” sensationalism and herd-appeals provide an unworthy ideological setting. Along with all this and the other rubbish that Socialism will consign to the dustbin will go the Labour Party. For they are a symbol of working-class political immaturity, and the sooner discarded the better.

F. R. Ivimey