A tender trap
It cannot be nostalgia which drives so many Tory propagandists to pine for the Labour Party as it used to be, when it was led by Attlee, Gaitskell and Wilson. There is — runs the argument — much to be said for Neil Kinnock: nice bloke, undoubtedly patriotic, responsible family man. keen on Rugby football; but his leadership of the Labour Party is like a pie crust which lies over an especially noxious filling — the Militants, the communists. the violent pickets, the local Labour councillors who put up the rates to provide grants for black, disabled homosexuals . . . “As soon as you see two blokes holding hands, give ’em a subsidy” said a London busworker to Labour candidate Ken Livingstone during the election. It was not, runs the argument further, at all like that in the good old days, when Labour was a moderate, reasonable party led by moderate, reasonable people who would not tolerate so much as a hint of extremism.
Is this a case of distance lending enchantment? By their standards, the Tories should consider the Attlee government to have been the most extremist, and the Labour Party under Kinnock to be the most moderate, in recent history. Attlee’s government were responsible for that mass of nationalisation and for setting up structures like the National Health Service during their time in power from 1945 to 1951. Much of this went through with very little opposition from the Conservatives in parliament. In contrast Kinnock’s Labour Party, in their election manifesto. offered only schemes like something called British Enterprise, to invest state funds in hi-tech industries; they promised to use the government’s 49 per cent holding in British Telecom to “ensure proper influence in their decisions” and to convert the private holdings in BT and British Gas into a new type of security.
By those standards, the Tories of 1945-51 were more extremist than Labour members are today. In any case, how true is the assertion that the Labour Party of old was a placid, militant-free haven of unanimity? The first thing to be said is that at the time – whenever that was – the Tories did not see it in that way; in fact they have always used the extremist accusations against the Labour Party. To begin with Clement Attlee, when he won power in 1945, was derided by his opponents as a small, meek man unfit to live in Churchill’s massive shadow. During the 1945 campaign, and afterwards. Attlee showed how wrong were these conceptions, that he was anything but a fuddy-duddy. His mild, distracted manner concealed a steely determination that British capitalism should be run to the benefit of its ruling class and in that cause he was as ruthless with his friends as with his enemies.
Attlee had not always had the image of puny respectability for he was once famously photographed giving the clenched fist salute at a Republican rally in Spain. He showed during the war and by his attitude to Russian capitalism in the Cold War that he was no Moscow-dominated subversive. The Labour Party in those days was by no means free of what are called extremists. There was, to begin with, the Bevanite clique who were the rallying point for Labour supporters impatient at the way their party was running British capitalism. The Bevanites were held up as the true conscience of the Labour Party, as proof that one day. whatever their problems. Labour would bring about the revolution for socialism. As a result, they were as reviled then as Tony Benn and Arthur Scargill are today. Then there was the group of Labour MPs who seemed to have taken seriously Labour’s pledge that they would be sympathetic to Stalinist Russia – people like John Platts-Mills and Konni Zilliacus who could always be relied on for a public display of their blind support for the dictatorship in Russia and their readiness to excuse all its atrocities.
The time of Attlee’s successor, Hugh Gaitskell, was no more notable for blissful unity. Gaitskell’s reaction to the shock of losing the 1959 election was to set on foot the purging of Labour ‘s apparent commitment to wholesale nationalisation contained in Clause Four of the party constitution. There was no attempt to justify this change on grounds of principle; the case for getting rid of Clause Four was that it was a vote loser. This incensed many Labour Party members and not only the “extremists”; not a few people had joined the party because they believed, however mistakenly, that nationalisation was the solution to most of capitalism’s problems. (It is another matter, if Gaitskell had had his way, whether these people would have done the logical, honest thing and resigned their membership. More probably they would have stayed in the party, wretchedly comforting themselves with the last-ditch defence that, however bad the Labour Party might be, it was better than the Conservatives).
There was another uproar in the Labour Party when Gaitskell was defeated in the 1960 conference vote on unilateral nuclear disarmament. The people who favoured disarmament put a simple argument – that nuclear weapons are too devastating to be allowed to remain in existence. This perfectly accurate statement was followed by the inaccurate and baseless assertion that the way to get rid of the weapons was to tell capitalism’s governments how frightful they are (forgetting that those governments had developed the things precisely because of their awesome destructive power). The unilateralists seemed to think that voting for disarmament at a Labour Party conference would have some effect but Gaitskell made it quite clear that if he ever became prime minister he would run things as the interests of British capitalism demanded, not in accordance with how Labour delegates voted at their conference. The response of his faction to the unilateralists was also simple. Everyone agreed that the weapons were terrible but they could not be abolished because British capitalism needed them if it was to hold any place in the world power struggle; if Labour stood for getting rid of the British stockpile they would never again win an election:
Britain has to be defended today in conditions that exist today and not those we wish existed today. Until general disarmament is achieved, then deterrence means defence in those conditions. (George Brown, then Labour spokesman on “Defence”).
. . . the conference has to decide “what are our chances of securing political power”. (Sam Watson, NEC member).
(Both at the Labour Party conference, 1960).
As it turned out there was a more subtle way of keeping the weapons and of winning elections while allowing the unilateralists to think that the government were in favour of getting rid of them. This trickery was wrought by Harold Wilson, who had dearly taken the opportunity of Gaitskell’s struggles to quietly appear as Labour’s great unifier. For example, he derided the “independent British nuclear deterrent” as neither independent nor British nor a deterrent. This was cheering to the CND followers, who took it to mean that a Wilson government would favour abolition of the British weapons. They have still not learned through such experiences; unilateralists still think that a Labour government is more likely to abandon the bomb than a Tory one is, they still think it useful to spend their time trying to get a unilateralist policy written into Labour policy, as if a Labour government would be in the slightest degree impressed.
The Wilson government banked on the success of their great planning bonanza, which was going to swamp us all in prosperity. Higher productivity would provide everyone with the best things in life. This was at most a disconnected argument but in any case the whole idea was quickly overtaken by a succession of economic and financial crises which could not be explained away even by Wilson’s speeches. Labour’s left wing extremists and their everyday members were in revolt — against the government’s continual battles with the unions over pay rises, against Labour’s support for American capitalism’s war in Vietnam, against their compliance with the genocide in what was briefly the state of Biafra. It is true that Wilson generally managed to keep the dissidents in check; he had more problems with the other wing of his party, with people like Mayhew, Brown and Gunter but no one can look back on his leadership as a time of peace and unity in Labour’s ranks.
Capitalist parties often accuse each other of being in the grip of “extremists”. They all have their crazier elements who frighten the more impressionable among the other side. The Labour Party have Tony Benn, Denis Skinner, Ken Livingstone; the Tories have Peter Bruinvels, Terry Dicks and Harvey Proctor. One thing all these extremists have in common is the habit of avoiding reality — the economic laws and the inexorable demands of capitalism. Tory extremists may spout against coloured immigration but the reality is that those workers came to this country — many of them encouraged by the Ministry of Health when Enoch Powell was Minister — because of those laws. They constituted a pool of unemployed workers and. in the process of adjusting demand to supply. they moved to a place where there was a relative shortage of labour power. That is how capitalism works and how it will always work, whatever extremists may wish or say.
Extremists are often tamed by the temptations of power, which have the effect of miraculously purging them of all seditious ideas. Michael Foot, for example, was once one of Labour’s most inveterate extremists, always liable to take the stand at the party conference to remind everyone about their supposed principles and the struggle of the common people . . . When he became a minister, at first under Wilson and then under Callaghan. Foot was obsessed with clinging onto power. This was despite that government being in continual conflict with the workers, coming to a climax in the Winter of Discontent, despite it seeing unemployment double, despite it beginning the programme of massive cuts in state spending which the Thatcher government continued.
The Labour Party still makes its appeal partly on grounds of principle, even though the “principles” become more and more vague so that now they are little more than an implied concern about poverty, health, peace and so on. But there remain people who are gullible enough to cling to the “principles”. Their disappointment is inevitable – and in many cases so is their rebellion. If they persist in this they are liable to be labelled as extremist when all they really are is gullible and confused.
Nostalgia is a trap — more so when your opponents are nostalgic on your behalf. Just as the Tories pretend to pine for the days of Attlee. Gaitskell and Wilson so Labour supporters recall the Conservative Party of Churchill. Macmillan and Heath as more humane and unifying. If it is necessary for these parties to spread such confusion about each others’ past, what hope can they hold for the future?