Labour’s New Leader
For the moment, at any rate, the firing has ceased. And out of the settling dust of battle, a little tattered but nevertheless smiling heartily, has come Mr. Wilson, confirmed by the votes of anxious Labour M.P.s as the Labour Party’s new leader and perhaps, therefore, the next Prime Minister of this country.
Some time before the first ballot, the fighting lines had been drawn up. Certain M.P.s announced that they were sponsoring one or the other of the original three candidates and some newspapers came down for the man of their choice. The Guardian wanted Callaghan as long as he was in the race; The Economist wanted George Brown.
Everybody was wondering: Who will win? Nobody seemed to be interested in asking the question which really counts: Does it matter?
Gaitskell’s death has been described as a great blow to the Labour Party and to the people of this country. As usually happens when an eminent somebody dies, all sorts of people have rushed to the television or the radio or the newspaper to tell us what a great man Gaitskell was. How wise. How knowledgeable. How honest. And as well as all this, how gay. Countless fellow-politicians have gone out of their way to draw attention to supposed qualities in Gaitskell which these same men had assiduously ignored when he was alive. We should all be feeling shattered. It seems that the Labour leader’s death was a bit of massively bad luck for us all.
It was, of course, not time to dwell upon Hugh Gaitskell’s political mistakes. No time to recall that he blundered over Suez, when he openly appealed to Conservative M.P.s to desert the government—a move which, of course, stirred up the Tories’ loyalty and so had the opposite effect to that which Gaitskell intended. No time, either, to recall the mistake over Clause Four, when Gaitskell first aroused the muddled pioneer element in the Labour Party and then hastily withdrew from the battle, when he must have known all along that he could ignore Clause Four anyway. Gaitskell’s period as leader was a succession of public rows in the Labour Party, accompanied by the expected nervous assurances that the party was solidly united. It is doubtful that, if he had been made Prime Minister, he would have been remembered as one in the crafty, ruthless mould of, say, a Lloyd George nor as one in the casual contemptuous mould of a Macmillan.
As he died, Gaitskell seemed to be coming up for his turn at the top job. Now that the government’s popularity is registering such a low point, with even the weather co-operating in making them seem inefficient, the Labour Party is all in a sweat that their fortunes should hold until the next polling day. Labour M.P.s now go carefully, lest a word or a vote out of place should upset the delicately balanced apple cart upon which they hope to be wheeled in triumph to Westminster. It is, of course, an open question whether the Tories will work the old trick again and, as in 1959 when many people, including Gaitskell, expected the Labour Party to take power, turn all the forecasts upside down. If this happens we may be sure that there will be more rows in the Labour Party, with the disappointed office-seekers blaming the new leader for yet another defeat.
Perhaps Labour’s greatest difficulty is the theory, which seems so popular among workers that the Conservatives are the natural ruling party of British capitalism and that the Labour Party is a bunch of rather reckless dogmatists. When we remember the unmistakable way in which the Attlee government ran British capitalism—breaking strikes, freezing wages, protecting the overseas interests of the British capitalist class—we know how laughable this theory is. Nevertheless, it exists, and there are certain historical reasons for it doing so.
At one time the Labour Party was loaded with theorists. They had their share of men like Strachey and Cripps who knew something about political theory and could argue it. Both these men were, naturally, sober and respectable upholders of capitalist virtue in the 1945 Labour government. But presumably the memory of the things they said in the old days dies hard, Cripps, for one, was once an outstanding nuisance to the Labour Party, which expelled him for his activities in the Socialist League, Even when, as Minister of Aircraft Production, he was organising the making of the bombers which pounded the German cities, and when as Chancellor of the Exchequer he was fighting to hold down wages, the taint of his earlier indiscretions still hung about him. He was never a popular minister.
Nor does it end there. It is typical of the confusion in Labour Party thinking that it should keep in its Constitution quaint traces of democracy which clash directly with its desire to take over British capitalism. These traces are vestiges of the days when the theorists were farther from power than they are today, and therefore were safer and more respected. The Economist, on January 26th, was fretting about one of these vestiges:
“The most appalling feature of the parliamentary Labour Party’s constitution is that it provides for this sort of election for the party leadership to take place every year . . . there is unhappily no guarantee that whoever is elected leader next month will be accorded similar security of tenure (as Mr. Gaitskell) . . .”
What is capitalism to make of a party which in theory can elect a new Prime Minister every year? A party which does not know whether it wants to run capitalism or to appear to be a democratic organisation?
This was something of what Hugh Gaitskell was trying, albeit clumsily, to destroy. He was the leader who made it clear that the decisions of Labour conferences could be ignored by a future Labour government. This was something which Attlee had always appreciated; it was typical of Gaitskell that he chose to fight a public battle over an issue which he had won before he started. Perhaps Gaitskell saw his party’s salvation in their openly becoming another Conservative Party, entirely shorn of theorists and standing only as a responsible administration for British capitalism. There has never been any fundamental difference between the two parties anyway. Samuel Brittan, Economic Editor of The Observer, is one who has realised this. On January 27th last he wrote:
“One of the myths of British politics is that there is a huge difference between the Conservative and Labour Parties. Businessmen in particular tend to suppose that a change of Government would bring a radical change in the whole economic environment. Faced with this myth it is hardly worth saying: “No such luck! The basic approach of the two parties is all too depressingly similar.”
If the Labour Party are an alternative administration for British capitalism, we may well think the ruling class sometimes wish that they were a stronger alternative. A party which seems almost unable to lose an election, as the Tories seemed for so long, could be a nuisance to some sections of the capitalist class. Such a party could come to think that it was virtually unbeatable at election time and so could do whatever it liked. Capitalism does not want such a government. It wants a government which is open to pressure, a government which can be moulded, a government which treads carefully. So capitalism needs an alternative government always ready. It must have been greatly disappointed in the Labour Party over the past few years.
And for the future? The result of the ballot can make no difference. The newspapers may have got het up over the various candidates, but the fact is that this is all a waste of time. The next Labour Prime Minister will run capitalism, as far as he can, just as the Tories have run it—in the interests of the capitalist class. He will make war, if British capitalism demands it. He will oppress the working class just as much as ruling class interests say they must be oppressed. He will fight the workers over their wages and working conditions just as any other Prime Minister has done. He will, for example, be concerned to restrict wage claims as far as possible. This is what Mr. Harold Wilson wrote about wage claims in the Manchester Guardian on October 25th, 1957:
“Whether . . . a Conservative Government can now create the conditions in which wage restraint could once again become a reality is a matter for opinion . . .
For a Labour Government, no less than for the Conservatives, success or failure in the battle against inflation would depend on its ability to secure an understanding with the unions which would make wage restraint possible.”
Here the Labour Party attitude to wages is set out clear. They know that capitalism cannot allow unrestricted wages for its workers and they argue that they, with their special connections with the Trade Union movement, are better equipped to hold them down than are the Tories. Which shows how little the working class can hope for from a future Labour government.
Hugh Gaitskell is gone to his untimely end and nobody wants to be mean about that. But the facts must be clear. Leaders may come and go, but capitalism will go on until the very people who support and admire the leaders come to understand the social system they live under. The leaders always say, as Gaitskell used to, that they stand for a world of peace and human dignity. But only when the system needs the leaders is gone will their empty and cynical words become reality.