A Steel Prop for Labour

At many a Labour Party meeting, among the querulous Trots, the sandalled thinkers, the ambitious suburban admen, and the ruminative trade unionists there are a few old men, flotsam from the party’s past. They wear broad red ties beneath Donegal tweed, sing the Red Flag with defensive fervour. Grown old in decades of canvassing, licking envelopes, collecting dues, they speak as the constituency’s self-appointed conscience; they can remember when Labour, although in apparently endless opposition, seemed to them to stand for a better society and to be concerned about what they described as political principles.

Their delusions linger, through the reality of the government opposing strikers, or persuading the workers to take cuts in their living standards, or embracing whatever political bandit they are currently doing a deal with, or performing their genuflecting duty to the royal family. The old timers may take consolation from a moody, complaining beer with the ward’s left winger but even that will leave them uneasy about their party’s policies in action.

Any last few hopes they may have nurtured that the Labour Party stood for Socialism, or even had any consistent principles, must have come near to suffocation when, a year ago, Callaghan and Steel concluded the Liberal/Labour pact. However the agreement was dressed up by both sides for their members, the simple fact is that a Labour government which, those old members might have hoped would be able to introduce Socialism, has made a deal with an avowedly capitalist party in order to stay in power. And power, for Labour, means more wage restraint, more cuts in medical and social services, more international nuclear politicking.


When the pact was sealed, last March, Labour was in an overall minority of nine in the House of Commons. From their point of view this was a grievous come down from the overall majority of three which they won in the general election in October 1974. They have declined even further during the past year and are now kept alive only by the Liberal Party’s acquiescence in the agreement.

The pact was made just in time to avert what would have been a killing defeat on a vote of confidence. Described as an “experiment”, it set up a joint consultative committee to keep an eye on the government’s policies and to inject bits of Liberal policy into them (there is talk of a so-called profit sharing scheme being among the government’s plans for later this year). At the time Steel argued that the pact would tame some of Labour’s wilder ideas, would help secure “agreements” on pay and price restraint and would avoid the election which none of them wanted. Since then the Liberals have been anything but restrained in the claims they have made about the effects of the agreement:

   Since last November the results of this tough and unpopular struggle are being seen in a rise in real wages and a relaxation of the spending cuts. That success was made possible only by the pact . . . Just four years ago the miners, in a confrontation, had thrown the country into a three-day week . . . Today, the miners have voted to dig more coal and to be paid by results

. (Richard Wainwright MP at the Special Liberal Assembly, The Guardian 23/1/78)

It is constructive to compare this extravagance with Harold Wilson’s reaction to an earlier agitation in favour of a deal with the Liberals. In September 1965 the death of the Speaker effectively cut Labour’s majority to 1. There was plenty of advice to the government, in the press, that the only way it could survive was by arranging for reliable support from the Liberals. And this was how Wilson, in his memoirs (The Labour Government 1964-70) dismisses the matter:

     Only if there were a prior general understanding between Labour and the Liberals on broad principles could the Liberals undertake to keep Labour in office . . . But his [Jo Grimond’s] proposal would have meant . . . scrapping basic beliefs and philosophy as Socialists. I never considered accepting his proposal for one moment.

The idea of Wilson as a man with a belief in socialist philosophy, and prepared to relinquish power for it, is entertaining but for the moment it is enough to ask, now that Labour has done the deal Wilson refused to consider, what has happened to their “beliefs”. The Liberals have no doubts:

    . . . We have stopped Labour’s spendthrift and dangerous programme of nationalisation . . .  we have a government backed by a majority of public opinion. That is strong government.

(David Steel, The Sun, 30.1.78)

If for a long time the idea of a Lib/Lab alliance was an obscene thought in the Labour Party, this is rooted in Labour’s experience. In the years just before the First World War, as Labour was emerging as a political force to be reckoned with, the then Liberal government made a number of proposals for an alliance, even offering Labour seats in the government. On one occasion the Labour leader MacDonald was approached with a little flattery by the Liberal Chief Whip, the Master of Elibank:

  “You are one of our best debaters. The opposition are really frightened of you . . . Will you not join the Cabinet?”

(Ramsay MacDonald  by David Marquand)

(Macdonald who was supposed to be so frightening to the opposition, was later described by a colleague of Elibank’s, Winston Churchill, as a “boneless wonder” which must have been confusing for everyone).


At the time MacDonald refused the offer but a couple of years later, demonstrating the customary flexibility of mind, he became enthusiastic for a similar scheme. The outbreak of war in 1914 killed the idea and Labour could join the greater coalition for the defence of British capitalism, at the cost of a few million working class lives in Europe.

MacDonald emerged from the war unscathed and a few years later found himself Prime Minister of a Labour government which was going to bring in the revolution with the support of Liberals who were opposed to it. This period in office was one of Labour’s bad memories, which bred a generation of members distrustful of all alliances with the Liberals; only a year later it was a Liberal initiative in the Commons which brought MacDonald’s government down.

Whatever the Liberals may have hoped to gain from this, they must have been disappointed; in the subsequent election they lost 118 seats and with only 40 MPs they began their long, slow death pangs which linger to this day. In the 1929 election, with the interest roused by their plan We Can Conquer Unemployment which offered public works schemes as a method of reducing unemployment to “normal proportions” (what, might have been asked, is “normal”?) they claimed to be experiencing an Indian summer but when the votes were counted they had scraped up only another 19 MPs. For the first time the Labour Party were the strongest party in the Commons although they again relied upon Liberal votes to keep them in office.

Back in Number Ten, MacDonald was brisk not to say contemptuous. It was, he said, up to the Liberals and the Tories whether there was another election during the next two years. Meanwhile, he would stand “no monkeying”. (He was obviously out of touch with some of his parliamentary colleagues). In fact neither of the other parties relished the prospect of another election so soon — the Liberals in particular feared to sustain more damage — and the Conservative leader Baldwin spoke for them all when he soothed MacDonald with assurances of “fair play”.


With Labour safe for a while the Liberals opened discussions about the details of how they would keep them in office. Lloyd George wanted a formal pact. MacDonald offered them a series of joint conferences and access to information—an offer he made in spite of his opinion of Lloyd George as “. . . the most consummate cheat and wirepuller of all time”.

As the crisis of capitalism deepened the exchanges continued, with differing arrangements—talks between MacDonald and Lloyd George (who feared that “. . . unless we can do something to save the situation, the whole lot of us—Liberals and Labour alike—will be swept away by a great Protectionist wave”), hints about a pact between the two parties, a joint consultative committee in regular session.

Like so many other schemes, it was all ended in the Great Crash and MacDonald, in a notable widening of his ambitions, headed the National government which lived until the 1935 election. Another bad experience for Labour, it at least provided them with the excuses which helped them win outright power over British capitalism in 1945.

For winning—getting into power—is what capitalist politics are all about. All the parties which compete for our votes—as distinct from promoting a wider understanding of society—are hoping for some measure of control over the affairs of British capitalism, whether it be the outright power in the grasp of the Labour Party or the indirect influence which, in some circumstances, can be exerted by minorities like the Liberals.

Unity of Principle

When it suits them—and particularly at election time—they pretend to operate under deeply held, inviolable principles over which they are passionately divided from the lot with the rosettes of a different colour. But it takes only the normalities of capitalism—the political problems of a minority government, the pressures of an economic crisis, the emergencies of a war with a rival capitalist power—for their basic unity of principle to assert itself in some sort of alliance or coalition.

This is what Steel and Callaghan have really been talking about, when they have used phrases like “stable government” and “national interests”. The society they stand for has all the stability of anarchy and the interests are those of a privileged minority. If coalition in some form or another has figured so prominently in the politics of capitalism it is a measure of the endurance of the system’s crises and of the politicians’ impotence in the face of it all.