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New International, Summer 1955


Notes of the Month

The British Elections


From New International, Vol.21 No.2, Summer 1955, pp.82-85.
Marked up up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


By all accounts, the parliamentary election was preceded by one of the dullest, most listless political campaigns in recent British history. The result of such an issueless contest was pretty much in the cards. With a light vote (76.8 per cent as against 82.6 per cent in 1951 and 84 per cent in 1950) the Tories increased their parliamentary majority from the feeble 26 seats of 1951 to the safe and substantial figure of 67. Only an economic and/or political earthquake will be able to overturn this Tory government before its five-year term is up.

Before we take up the more general significance of this resounding defeat for the British Labor Party just ten years after it won its smashing victory of 1945, a few facts about the British electoral system may be of interest, especially to readers in America who perforce get most of their information about British politics from the overwhelmingly pro-Tory press of this country.

As in the United States, the electoral franchise in Britain is heavily weighted against the urban, industrial population, which in concrete terms means against Labor. In 1951, for instance, Labor polled 48.8 per cent of the vote, but got only 295 seats in Parliament, while the 48 per cent for the Tories won them 321 seats. In this election, Labor received 46.4 per cent of the vote, exactly the same percentage they got in 1950. In 1950 that won them 315 seats in Parliament, while this year they received only 277. The difference is a tribute to the clever redrawing of electoral districts carried out by the Tories, as well as a reflection of the well-known fact that in a light vote Labor tends to suffer relatively more than its opponents.

This weighting of the franchise against the working class even in the most democratic countries is a standard, built-in feature of bourgeois democracy. It is one of those things which every labor party knows must be overcome if it is to succeed in winning a parliamentary majority. If the British Labor Party (or any other, for that matter) when in power were to re-draw the electoral districts so that every citizen’s vote would count for just as much and no more than every other’s, it would no doubt be denounced by all the respectable organs of public opinion for using its power to rig future elections, for failure to play the game according to the rules, and who knows what all else.

The dullness of the campaign is accounted for by the fact that the Labor Party offered the voters a program which was remarkably similar to that offered by the Conservatives. The latter have accepted, in the main, the basic Labor reforms of 1945. Since Labor had no bold new changes to offer, what argument there was tended to be confined to relatively minor disputes over how the various programs should be administered. Since the British economy is riding high on the world-wide capitalist boom, the voters can be excused for the tepid interest they showed in a dispute over administrative minutiae.

A time of prosperity is not the most propitious for the presentation of bold new programs of radical reform or revolutionary transformation. We do not advance the claim that the BLP would have been sure to win the election if they had only presented such a program. What is evident, however, is that the BLP cannot win an election by presenting itself to the voters as a “more efficient” or a “more humane” or even a “more liberal” version of conservatism. If the voters have to choose between two claimants to the Conservative mantle, they will generally prefer the genuine heir to his parvenu rival.

As Aneurin Bevan pointed out during the campaign, the British people have been exhausted politically by fifteen years of crises and forced marches. First there was the war, then the years of post-war austerity and reconstruction, accompanied by the alarms and crises of the cold war. The present prosperity has dripped down to the masses sufficiently to make them want to enjoy it for as long as it will last. The Stalinist peace offensive has given rise to hopes that a number of years’ may pass before another war crisis is reached. Since conditions of life have eased under the Tories, and they seem as likely as Labor to put the squeeze on the United States to reach some kind of a deal with the Stalinists, why rock the boat by turning them out of office now?

True, there are momentous issues in foreign and domestic policy which Britain must meet in the years ahead. The rearmament of Germany, the continuation of the armament race in nuclear weapons, the shaky basis of the present prosperity for Europe and Britain which have not corrected the deep structural defects which render them weak in themselves and keep them at the continued mercy of the economic policies and conditions in the United States ... all these are issues and problems which are as real today as they were in the past. But the policies of the BLP on foreign affairs have never transcended the bounds of the most narrow conception of British national interests. And in this election there was a gentleman’s agreement that neither party would seek to tie the hands of the British representatives at the forthcoming four-power conference by making the British position at that conference an issue in the campaign.

After the votes had been counted, Clement Attlee was asked to give reasons for Labor’s defeat. His answer was to refer to “the dissension in the Labor ranks.”

Since the election campaign was fought on lines determined by the right wing of the BLP, it is quite natural that they should seek to blame their defeat on the Bevanites. And it may very well be true that a substantial number of voters, when given no other basis for choice, will withold their votes from a party which is divided in favor of one which is politically and organizationally united. In this respect, again, Labor’s real difficulty was that the basis of choice given the voters was so narrow that the Tories could exploit the disunity in Labor’s ranks effectively.

The American press has noted, with glee, that the Bevanites came off no better in the election than their right-wing opponents in the Labor Party (in fact, they tried to make it appear that the Bevanites came off worse). Actually, no serious conclusions can be drawn from the failure of the Bevanites to make a better showing than the rest of the party. Since the policies in the campaign, and the policies of a possible Labor Government reflected or would have reflected the politics of the right wing, it is not surprising that the morale of the Bevanites and their supporters failed to reach heights of enthusiasm. This led to the fact, remarked on by most observers, that the campaign organization of the Labor Party functioned poorly. Their failure to get out the Labor vote was not due to some kind of technical organizational laxity, but to the feeling on the part of the party militants, a large number of whom are Bevanites in sympathy, that their cause did not warrant an expenditure of their energies to the maximum.

The current prosperity in Britain made Labor’s task exceptionally difficult. But the defeat they suffered has far more profound causes than that of the economic conjuncture. The fact of the matter is that the great reforms of their 1945 government exhausted the ideological capital of the party. They have played out their string in a historical sense. Either they must form a new conception of their goals, and hence of their role in British society, or they must content themselves with a perspective of being the junior (liberal) partner in the administration of British capitalism for a long time to come.

It is apparent that the old, right-wing leadership of the party is utterly incapable of transcending the ideas which were realized by the 1945 government. To them, socialism meant more and better and more humane government administration of a larger area of social and economic affairs. A certain amount of nationalization was a necessary means of attaining that goal. If conditions were to require it (such conditions as more sick industries, or growing general unemployment), they might nationalize another industry or institute some other reform measure. If things go relatively smoothly, they could tighten up on the efficiency of the programs already adopted.

In short, the very real encroachments on the foundations of British capitalism made by the 1945 government were regarded by them not as first steps in the reconstruction of British society, but as a slice of socialism fully realized. Additional slices would be added to it in time, even if they were not too sure just what these additional slices might be. What they did not, and do not understand, is that unless a socialist movement aims at a fundamental revolution in the social and economic relations of a society, i.e., in its class relations, individual “socialistic” measures can as easily serve to prop and patch up the old society as to transform it.

The Bevanite wing of the Labor Party has vague, almost instinctive understanding of this truth. Hence their resistance to the idea that what Labor must do is to “consolidate” its past gains, and their demand for more nationalization instead. Bevan has pointed out (In Place of Fear) that the problem is not to set more theoretical or arbitrary limit on nationalization, but to advance to the point at which the economic and political power of the capitalist class has been definitely and clearly subordinated to that of the productive members of society.

This insight, though vital to the historical rebirth of the BLP, is not sufficient for it. One reason for the floundering and uncertain progress of the Bevanite movement has been its failure to transform this insight from a generalization into a concrete program and series of policies designed to achieve it. Bevanism has remained a restless, dissatisfied mood in the BLP loosely held together by a group of prominent individuals who have tended to gallop from one set of issues to another. If there is some coherent plan in all this motion, or even some guiding principle which connects the various issues on which they have taken a stand, it has remained as obscure to the ranks which have tried to follow them as to their opponents who are convinced that all they want is to make trouble and/or gain personal power.

In recent months, Bevan and his friends have tended to concentrate their attention on foreign affairs. Their strictures on West German rearmament, on British production of the H-bomb, and against the more disastrous aspects of American foreign policy may well reflect the sentiments of broad sections of the Labor Party and of British public opinion in general. But the fact remains that out of all their criticism no coherent policy has emerged as an alternative around which to rally the Labor Party and the working class, or at least their most advanced elements. All one can gather is that Bevan and his friends are hot for co-existence and negotiations with the Russian and Chinese Stalinists. Their tendency is to seek to reduce the alternatives for British foreign policy to a choice between war and “peaceful co-existence.” When the latter term is subjected to closer scrutiny, it turns out to mean a deal to divide the world peacefully among the rival imperialisms.

If these were indeed the only alternatives, there can be no doubt that the people of Britain (and of all the other imperialist powers, at the very least) would tend to choose “peaceful co-existence” to war, if the choice were put up to them. The facts of the past five years demonstrate that they are not the only alternatives, and even a rudimentary insight into history convinces that they are really not alternatives at all. In any event, a policy designed to bring about “peaceful coexistence” does not tell the British people much about how Britain can achieve a long-run position of economic prosperity and security even in a world which has been carved up by Russia and the United States in the most amicable fashion imaginable.

As a mood in the Labor Party, Bevanism has prevented this great British working class movement from becoming frozen in an outlived ideology reinforced by a bureaucratic party administration. It has kept alive the possibility for the exchange and hence development of ideas inside a live political movement, rather than forcing those who seek to work out a more consistent, fudamental and coherent policy for the British working class into sectarian isolation from it.

The defeat of the Labor Party at the polls, and the manner in which this defeat was invited by the party may well intensify the search for a new approach among a wider section of the party militants. The inconclusive and floundering manner in which the Bevanite leadership has conducted its struggle may induce an effort on the part of many more of these militants to think through the problems of their movement in a more thorough and systematic manner than they have found necessary in the past. Unless such a development takes place, this defeat is not going to remain an isolated event in the fortunes of the British labor movement, but will tend to point the pattern for a whole period of its existence.

Gordon Haskell

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