IN itself the Labor Party's defeat at the general election of 1959 was not catastrophic. Only about one percent of the electorate changed sides and only 23 seats in the House of Commons changed hands. And the current Conservative parliamentary majority of 100, while substantial, has been exceeded in seven out of the fifteen parliaments of this century. For Labor the seriousness lay not in the size of the defeat but in its position as one of a series. It was the fourth successive election at which the Labor Party had lost support and the third successive election at which the Conservatives had won a majority. No previous British party had performed this feat of winning three wellspaced general elections in a row since the beginning of modern politics in 1832.

There were two other features which gave an additional seriousness to the Labor defeat. The first was the absence of any obvious extenuating circumstances. The party was well led, and peculiarly free from internal quarrels. The Conservatives, on the other hand, faced the electorate at the end of a Parliament during which the collapse of Sir Anthony Eden and of his Suez policy had temporarily reduced their public prestige to what seemed the point of no recovery. The second feature arises from the categories of people who are thought to have made up the swing away from Labor. Most evidence suggests that they came from the younger half of the adult population; from the better paid wage-earners; and, above all, from those who, in addition to fulfilling these two qualifications, had also achieved better housing conditions (often as a result of a public project) away from the centers of crowded industrial cities. This analysis adds seriousness to the Labor defeat because by the time of the next election the number of people in all three of these categories is likely to be greater rather than less. There will obviously be a new crop of young voters (and a further depletion by death of Labor's older supporters). Unless a severe slump is postulated, wage levels will continue to rise. And population will continue to move to new ambitious housing estates. Other things being equal, therefore, it certainly cannot be assumed that October 1959 was rock bottom for the Labor Party.

In these circumstances the possibility that the Labor Party has entered a period of permanent decline and may never again be capable of forming a government cannot be automatically excluded. Two general considerations could be mobilized in its favor. The first is the extent to which the British Parliament is organized upon the assumption of frequently alternating governments. As a legislative assembly the House of Commons is a remarkably ineffective body. Such vitality as it possesses is based upon its role of sustaining one party in power and preparing the other for taking over at an early date. If this looks unlikely, the working of the whole system is undermined. A party with little prospect of office finds it difficult to be a major force in Parliament and is likely in consequence to suffer from an accelerated momentum of decline.

The second consideration is that British left-wing parties have always been subject to decay and replacement. The Conservatives have been much less self-destructive and have successfully adapted themselves to social and franchise changes which resulted first in the replacement of the old Whig Party by the Liberal Party and then in the destruction of the Liberal Party and its replacement as a major force by the Labor Party.

Is the Labor Party's position now about as vulnerable as was that of the Liberal Party in 1918? Despite the general considerations mentioned above, the answer must, I think, be "no." But this is attributable more to the absence of any effective alternative left-wing party than to the health of the Labor Party. In 1918 when the Liberals were fatally weakened by the Asquith-Lloyd George quarrel and by an unresolved contradiction in the center of their home policy thinking, Labor was already a thrusting challenger, waiting in the wings ready to take over. Where is such a challenger today? The Communist Party is as sterile as it is small and, like any other group to the left of the Labor Party, is hopelessly at variance with the movement of electoral opinion.

What about the Liberal Party itself? Is there a possibility of the wheel going full circle, and that which was once replaced now replacing? This looks unlikely. Given the poorness of the Labor result at the recent general election, the Liberal performance was also extremely disappointing. Neither then nor subsequently has the Liberal Party shown any sustained power of revival. Nor is it likely to until two major weaknesses have been overcome. The first is the split between the agreeable, civilized radicalism of Mr. Grimond and his immediate colleagues on the one hand, and the outlook of large numbers (perhaps the majority) of Liberal voters on the other. Many of these are more "Poujadist" than radical and vote Liberal merely in order to express a general discontent with the existing political system. Before the Liberal Party could become a major left-wing political force it would have to shake many of them off. To this extent even its 6 percent vote exaggerates the strength of the true Liberal base.

The second weakness is the traditional contradiction which confuses the Liberal Party's whole approach to home policy. Is it the heir to the unrepentant economic individualism of Gladstone and John Morley or to the "constructive radicalism" (as Gladstone himself rather incredulously called it) of the early Joseph Chamberlain and of Lloyd George? Failure to resolve this central question was a great weakness to the party in the years of its decline in the 1920s. It is an equal weakness today, and one which means that Liberal views on a vital segment of policy do not merely show reasonable variation but are spattered over the whole political spectrum in a way that could not be endured if it were a party of government and not merely one of protest.

The future of the left in Britain must therefore still lie with the Labor Party. No other force looks remotely capable of beating the Conservatives within a generation. Either it must make itself more capable of winning than it was in October 1959, or Britain must reconcile itself to one-party Conservative Government for a long time to come.

In these circumstances it might have been expected that the whole Labor Party would have responded with enthusiasm to any attempt to improve its vote-attracting appeal. Instead, Mr. Gaitskell's relatively mild attempt at the Blackpool Conference to lead the party away from some of its electoral liabilities has provoked more opposition than he has known at any time since he became leader in 1955. It required Mr. Aneurin Bevan, some commentators suggested, to save the day for the leadership by throwing over Mr. Gaitskell the protective gloss of suggesting that he had not really intended a new departure. And Mr. Michael Foot, firing much lighter ammunition from a position well to the left of Mr. Bevan, had since come out with a direct challenge to Mr. Gaitskell's leadership. The Labor Party, Mr. Foot has said, should reject Mr. Gaitskell's proposal that its constitution should be rewritten; and when rejection takes place, Mr. Foot continues, Mr. Gaitskell's only honorable course would be to resign.

Although confronted with this opposition, Mr. Gaitskell has shown not the slightest desire to call off the fight. It therefore becomes important to see exactly what ground the battle is to be fought over; to understand why there are powerful forces drawn up against Mr. Gaitskell; and to make a judgment about the likely outcome. On the face of it, a party constitution does not seem the most obvious of the factors conditioning its impact upon the electorate. But decisive battles have often been fought over rather narrow and obscure strips of ground, and this is likely to be the case here. The Labor Party constitution dates from 1918 and was drawn up by Sidney Webb. Clause 4, which is the center of controversy, commits the party to "secure for the workers by hand or by brain the full fruits of their industry and the most equitable distribution thereof that may be possible, upon the basis of the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange, and the best obtainable system of popular administration and control of each industry and service." At Blackpool, Mr. Gaitskell did not put forward an alternative draft, but he gently suggested that this clause was both inadequate and misleading. It was inadequate because it did not mention a wide range of the party's other objectives--international, colonial, social, educational, libertarian. Few would disagree with him about this. And it was misleading because it suggested that the party wanted to nationalize everything, which was not true. Many more, however, while they are probably not in favor of wholesale nationalization, are unwilling to accept the implications of saying clearly that they are against it.

To understand these implications it is necessary briefly to trace some of the history of the nationalization issue. In the 1920s, following the adoption of the Webb constitution, the Labor Party was nominally in favor of wholesale nationalization, but most of its members would probably have been well-satisfied if they could have brought the coal industry under public ownership. Certainly neither of the minority Labor Governments came near to achieving as much as this. After the defeat of the second in 1931, and the defection of MacDonald, many leading members (including Attlee and Cripps) temporarily adopted a cataclysmic view of social progress. Advance would be possible only in conditions of crisis, and would require emergency powers and the rapid seizure of all key industries. By about 1934 this mood of pessimistic extremism had worn off and the party turned instead to a limited statement of nationalization priorities. The "Immediate Program," adopted in 1937, committed the next Labor Government to a transfer of ownership in coal and the public utilities. By 1945 the steel industry had been added to this list, and the program on which the election of that year was fought was therefore extensive, but at the same time quite sharply limited. Despite its extensive nature, however, this program was all given legislative shape by 1950. The Labor Party then looked around for industries which could constitute the next list. It had justified its public utility nationalization, not by arguments about a socialist commonwealth, but on efficiency grounds largely internal to the particular industries. And most Labor M.P.s at this stage believed that they could continue in this way in the future. The list of candidates for nationalization could be replenished indefinitely, but the approach and the justification would remain pragmatic.

This proved an illusory belief. It has not been possible to produce lists of industries which carried remotely the same degree of conviction as did the old 1937-1945 group. A rather peripheral list containing cement, sugar-refining and meat-wholesaling was put forward at one time and then dropped. A proposal to nationalize industrial insurance ran into difficulties with the Coöperative Movement (which itself ran a thriving insurance society) and met the same fate. So did a plan to nationalize a large segment of the chemical industry. Here the main difficulty was that the employees seemed unanxious for a change. After this somewhat depressing history the Labor Party faced the electorate in 1959 with only two specific nationalization proposals in its program--those for the steel and trucking industries, both of which had been brought under public ownership by the Labor Government but had subsequently been denationalized by the Conservatives.

Labor candidates at the last election were not therefore putting forward much dogma. But what their program said and what the electorate believed were not necessarily the same thing. Nationalization, it can hardly be denied, has not been popular with the general public. All the nationalized industries have been managed at least as efficiently as they were before the transfer of ownership, and some--power, atomic energy and the two airline corporations--have been considerable technical successes. But they have all suffered from the public dislike of the large-scale monopoly, and the two biggest nationalized concerns--coal and the railways--have suffered in addition from being problem industries; they were in an appalling state of decay before they were taken over. The railways, making much the most widespread public impact, have been prevented by their shrinking revenues from offering either a good service to travellers or a good rate of pay to the employees. Nor is there much evidence that public ownership has produced a new spirit and a new sense of service in industry. The Conservatives have not been slow to play upon these difficulties. Recognizing that they had fertile soil to cultivate, they have devoted great sums of money both to fostering the public suspicion of nationalization and to portraying Labor as a party of rigid doctrinaires who would never rest until they had popped almost every industry into the bag. The contradiction between the party's moderate proposals and its extreme theoretical position (as expressed in its constitution) greatly weakened its capacity for self-defense against this form of attack; and there can be no doubt that many of those who voted Conservative in October did so in the belief that the alternative was wholesale nationalization.

The problem for Mr. Gaitskell (and a sine qua non for electoral victory, I would judge) is that of breaking this false connection in the public mind between Labor and dogmatic, wholesale nationalization. He could have tried to do this by abandoning the steel and trucking proposals and giving a firm undertaking that the Labor Party was prepared to accept for an indefinite period the sanctity of the present frontier between the public and the private sectors of industry. But such a change would be impossible to carry through the Labor Party. It would also be undesirable in itself. It would tie the hands of a Labor Government in a way that neither Mr. Macmillan nor Mr. Grimond would wish to accept for their own parties. It would make Labor the one party which could never use the weapon of nationalization against an inefficient industry, however strong the practical case for such action was shown to be. It would also preclude a Labor Government from any experiments in non-monopolistic public ownership--either by taking over a particular firm and running it in competition with the rest of the industry or even by the public purchase of common stock. It would also lay the party open to the damaging charge that it was willing to accept any fetter on its beliefs provided that power and office could be obtained in exchange.

The alternative method, and the one which has been chosen, is that of making a symbolic change in the constitution. This involves no excessive trimming of the party's sails to the electoral wind, for it would merely amount to bringing the theoretical position into line with what has long been the practical position. And, on grounds of intellectual honesty alone, this is always a good thing to do. It would mean an explicit statement that the party accepts a mixed economy, but that the proportions of the mixture can be argued about on the merits of particular industries. Nationalization would not be thrown out of the window, but it would be put in its place as one of a number of alternative means to more important ends, and it would be freed from much of the obfuscating passion which at present surrounds its discussion. And the Labor Party's position would be more difficult to misrepresent because it had brought its own statement of basic beliefs into line both with its recent practice and with the assumptions of all the important theoretical socialist writing in Britain of the last ten years.

Even this limited change is arousing strong opposition, however. Few of Mr. Gaitskell's leading colleagues have yet given him public support on the issue, and several have let it be known that while they are in favor of his person as leader they are against his policies for giving the party a more attractive image. Why is this? As normally ambitious men they can hardly want to see their party permanently excluded from power, and they can hardly be confident of achieving this without a facelifting. This is subject to the proviso that they do not expect a severe and sustained slump. Were this to occur, and were the Government to be forced into a general election while still in its trough, even an unreformed Labor Party would no doubt be swept into power on the wave of discontent which would be created. But how likely is this? Mr. Gaitskell's view at Blackpool was that while recessions will no doubt occur and while the rate of growth under the Conservatives will probably remain sluggish, the first point will be neutralized by the Government's ability to choose the date of the election, and the second is in no way incompatible with the standard of living continuing to rise. Those members of the party who cling to a more old-fashioned analysis of capitalism obviously rate higher the chances of a major slump. But even they are now somewhat unconfident of the date of its arrival; and they are also a little uneasy as to whether the constant anticipation of a slump is the most forward-looking attitude for a major progressive party.

This is the first factor dividing the "Gaitskellite" analysis from that of some others in the party. The "Gaitskellites," while seeing plenty of other disadvantages to it, are more prepared to recognize the stability of the present economic order. There are several other factors as well. To many active supporters of Labor the principle of full public ownership is a sort of emotional raft. And when the surrounding seas are as chilly as they have been since the general election, these supporters are still more inclined to cling to it. The significance of this is increased by another aspect of the party's constitution--by which its leading spokesmen are elected by a continuing series of popularity polls. There is the annual election for the Shadow Cabinet in which all Labor M.P.s take part, and there is the annual election for the party's National Executive Committee in which all constituency parties take part. The leader himself is also subject to annual election, but he is not normally challenged, and even if he were, the upheaval which would be involved in his defeat gives him a certain security. But this does not apply to his captains. For them to drop a few places in the elections for the Shadow Cabinet or the National Executive, or even to be defeated altogether, would involve no great upheaval. Where a long list gives a wide choice they do not even have to be voted against. People have merely to forget to vote for them. As a result, there is a constant tendency for nothing to be said that will offend possible support. Some are of course more courageous than others, but the whole system has a built-in bias towards caution.

The third factor accounting for the opposition to Mr. Gaitskell is the inherent defeatism of the left. The will to power has always been much stronger in the Conservative Party. There it is something to be pursued at almost any cost. The Labor Party has quite rightly had a different order of priorities, but its danger is that of going too far in the other direction and thinking that it is unsocialist and even immoral to desire power. One effect of the election result was to encourage that aspect of the party's outlook which has always both expected and accepted defeat; and there have been some signs since of a throwback to the old Independent Labor Party approach of believing the best thing in politics is to be a happy few battling against intolerable odds. Some of those who refuse to follow Mr. Gaitskell's finger when he points to a better electoral prospect are not concerned with whether or not he is pointing in the right direction. Consciously or subconsciously they do not want him to point at all.

The fourth center of resistance (there is great overlapping of course) has a more intellectually respectable base. This involves looking at the rapid economic growth of the Soviet bloc on the one hand, at the relative stagnation of Britain and the United States on the other, and then asking whether this is a moment for the Labor Party to moderate its faith in public ownership. Over the past few months this argument has replaced the "inevitable slump" approach as the intellectual mainstay of the Labor left. It obviously begs several questions (whether the Russian rate of growth is not more geared to an authoritarian division of the national product than to ownership; whether West German dynamism is not more relevant to Britain; and whether the achievement of a popular program is not a prior condition to the Labor Party having any influence on Britain's rate of growth); but its current attraction should not be minimized.

The fifth cause of opposition is the fear that the Labor re-adjustment symbolized by Mr. Gaitskell's constitution change would make it into a sort of junior Conservative Party. Politics would lose their cutting edge, the immobilistes argue, and such a situation would necessarily be unfavorable to the left. So it would be, but the belief that it would follow shows a failure to understand the electorate's boredom with nationalization. The nationalization issue now has a cutting edge for use only within the Labor Party. As a weapon against the Conservatives it is hopelessly blunt and its retirement would stimulate rather than impair political energies. Politics could then increasingly be about the genuinely important issues of today and tomorrow: of Britain accepting her new place in the world; of colonial freedom; of whether, as the country grows richer, this new wealth is used exclusively for individual selfishness or whether community services get their fair share; of whether the existing class rigidities of English education are allowed to persist; of whether the present anarchy in the use of land is reversed sufficiently quickly to prevent the permanent destruction of the amenity of life in an island as overcrowded as Britain; of the right of the individual to live his private life free from the intolerant prejudices of others or the arrogant interference of state and police; and of whether the abuses and inefficiencies of contemporary private industry can be exposed and destroyed without offering as an alternative only the too massive deterrent of an indefinite extension of public monopoly.

The settling of the constitution and nationalization controversy would thus free the Labor Party's energies for a concentration on the issues which appear much more relevant to the modern electorate. "The narrow strip of ground" therefore becomes symbolic of the party's whole attitude to the world of the 1960s. Can it adjust itself to conditions in which the numbers of blue-collar workers are steadily shrinking; in which modest prosperity becomes increasingly widespread and memories of mass unemployment increasingly faint; and in which mass consumption and rising standards makes a "class" appeal steadily less powerful? Or will it turn inwards, attach itself more closely to dogma and await with growing disappointment the slump which does not come?

The issue only has to be stated in these terms for the strength of Mr. Gaitskell's position to be appreciated. Despite the five forces arrayed against him he has firmly on his side the most powerful one of all--the steady movement of social forces in Britain. He has also his own determined and persuasive personality, the prestige of a party leader, and the good sense which the Labor Party has often shown in the past when firmly confronted by an issue. But it will be a hard battle, the outcome of which cannot be certain. The first and most decisive stage will be over by October of this year. If Mr. Gaitskell wins that he should win the others too and be in a position to lead his party to victory in 1964.

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  • ROY JENKINS, Labor Member of Parliament from the Stechford Division of Birmingham since 1950; author of "The Pursuit of Progress," "Sir Charles Dilke, a Victorian Tragedy" and other works
  • More By Roy Jenkins