From the November 1959 issue of the Socialist Standard
Never before has the Labour Party fought an election on a programme and policy so far removed from even the pretence of doing anything about the abolition of capitalism and the establishment of socialism.
The five million pound election on 8th October was a triumph for Tory astuteness, a major defeat for the Labour Party, and a big encouragement for the Liberals. Almost without historical precedent, the Tories have now won three elections in succession and have increased their Parliamentary representation at each of four General Elections since 1945. From their low point of 213 M.P.’s in 1945 they have steadily grown to 298 in 1950, 321 in 1951, 345 in 1955 and now to 365. While they have grown the Labour Party representation in Parliament has steadily fallen, from its high peak of 393 in 1945 down to the present 258. And to make matters worse for the Labour Party, this last election has seen them losing many votes in both directions, to the Tories and to the Liberal Party.
Though the numbers of M.P.s has changed much there has not been a great swing over of votes. At this election about 1,000,000 more votes were cast than in 1955. Tories gained 400,000, Labour lost 200,000, Liberals gained 900,000, and “other candidates” lost 100,000. This near balance of votes has been a dominant factor in British politics since the end of the war. Under the influence of an electorate divided nearly evenly between the Government party and Opposition the Party leaders have had to restrain their more aggressive wings (the Tory backwoodsmen and the Labour “left wingers ”) in order to attract voters not committed strongly to either party. What will now happen to the Labour Party remains to be seen, but inevitably a bitter struggle will take place between rival factions there, who want to go back to “more nationalisation” and “more soaking the rich,” and those who, in the words of an Observer correspondent (October 4th, 1959) think that “the Labour Party should come to terms with capitalism, like the Democratic Party in America: that it should abandon its nationalisation plans and trade union ties, and become a modern, classless capitalist party” Squaring these divergent points of view will be made even more difficult than it was already because spokesmen for both sides will be looking for scapegoats for the electoral disaster: and looking over their shoulders at the new threat from the cock-a-hoop Liberals. As the Conservative vote, about 13.700.000, will still be slightly below the combined Labour and Liberal votes, 12,200.000 and 1,610,000, the idea may well arise at some stage of a Liberal-Labour pact to get the Tories out.
Forecasts just before the election that growing cynicism about politics would show itself in large abstentions were not borne out, the percentage voting, 79 per cent., being higher than at the last election, though lower than in 1951, when over 82 per cent. of the electorate voted. It has always been a complaint of the Labour Party that they are hampered at elections by not getting a full presentation of their case in the Press and on the air. This time the former Labour Postmaster-General. Mr. Ness Edwards, maintained that the Labour case had been fairly stated on Television and that this had counterbalanced the bias of the newspapers. Of course, when he said this he thought his party was going to win, but in any event newspaper influence on voters cannot have had the importance attached to it. In 1945, when the Labour Party had its greatest triumph, and at the 1950 election the preponderant hostility of the Press did not prevent a Labour victory and this time the heavy Labour defeat took place though they had much more support in national newspapers, including the Daily Mirror and Sunday Pictorial, as well as the Daily Herald, and had also the support or at least the benevolence of the Guardian and Observer.
Not a Defeat for Socialism
Except at Bethnal Green, where the S.P.G.B. candidate, our Comrade Read, after a fine campaign by party members, polled 899 votes, the issue of Socialism versus capitalism was not an issue between the candidates. This did not prevent the Financial Times (October 9th) from describing the Tory victory as “A Vote against Socialism.” And many commentators wrote of the election and of the Labour Party's defeat in terms of this being the end of the “class struggle.”
An article written by Mr. Gaitskell in the Daily Herald just before polling day contained a remarkable admission about the facts of capitalism and its never-ending cleavage between the classes. Gaitskell recalled that he had been in the Labour Party for over 30 years and he conceded to the Tory claims of prosperity under Macmillan's Government the observation that in those thirty years “progress has been made.” Then he made the staggering admission that after all the reforms that have been introduced “there are still indefensible inequalities of wealth in our society — one in 100 owning as much as the other 99 have between them!" (Daily Herald, October 5th, 1959). So, after half a century of social reforms the concentration of ownership in capitalist hands is not ended, not diminished, but. if anything, increased!
Yet never before has the Labour Party fought an election on a programme and policy so far removed from even the pretence of doing anything about the continuation of capitalism. There is quite a remarkable difference between their present tacit acceptance of capitalism and the resolutions the Labour Party used to move in Parliament in the nineteen-twenties denouncing capitalism and calling for its “gradual supersession.”
One feature of the week preceding the election was massive buying of shares on the Stock Exchange by large and small investors in confident anticipation of a Tory victory. The Tories played one card well. About three years ago City circles, with the backing of many newspapers, started a campaign to get workers who had savings, to invest in company shares and unit trusts. Then, as the election approached the City editors who favoured Macmillan warned these small investors that a Labour victory would lead to a sharp drop in the price of their holdings. This must have been worth many tens of thousands of votes for Tory candidates.
Among the defeated Labour candidates was Sir Tom O'Brien, who lost his seat at Nottingham West. Here in particular was an example of the diminutive margin of difference between the Labour and Tory policies, for just before polling day, his Tory opponent expressed his difficulty in finding anything to disagree with in O'Brien's election address: “He's got the least controversial election address I have ever seen. ‘Vote for O'Brien’ is almost the only thing in it I can quarrel with ” (The Times, October 5th, 1959). Labour leaders, with justification, charged Macmillan with having stolen their programme of reforms: which would seem to show that a majority of the workers prefer to have their reforms from a Conservative Government. If the Labour Party had been Socialist no one would steal from them.
One Labour claim was that they alone are the people able to deal with the Russian Government at a Summit Conference. Russian Government spokesmen won't have this. Moscow Radio attributed the Tory victory to the British electors longing for peace and to the fact that the Tories have a “special knack” for dealing with the Russians (Daily Mail, October 10th, 1959). Mr. Aneurin Bevan's explanation of his party’s defeat is: “We lost because our policy measured up too closely to Macmillan's” (Daily Express, October 10th, 1959).
The Other Reformist Parties
The Communists can derive no comfort from the election, either in respect of their own 18 candidates or in respect of the Labour Party, to which, uninvited, they attached themselves. In one or two of the 18 constituencies their vote increased, but the general picture was of a continuation of the 14-year decline of their vote-catching fortunes. In 1945 their 21 candidates polled over 100,000 votes. In 1950, with 100 candidates, they received only 92,000. In 1955, 17 candidates polled 33,144, and this time 18 polled only 31,000. The Daily Worker (October 9th, 1959) sadly noted that "growing support expressed by voters to Communist canvassers . . . was not translated into votes.”
The official Communist line in the Daily Worker was, “Vote for the Communist 18—elsewhere vote Labour.” The reasoning was of the usual tortuous kind and we can well understand the voter finding it hard to swallow. The essence of it was that the Tories must be thrown out because they can't be trusted, and the Labour Party put in: but as the Labour leaders also can’t be trusted there must be Communist M.P.s to keep an eye on Labour M.P.s.
The I.L.P. is in an even more pathetic plight. It can look back to the nineteen-twenties, when it boasted of over 200 of its members in Parliament: now it is reduced to fighting only two constituencies. In those days the I.L.P. was proud of its twin achievements of having built up the Labour Party and of having destroyed the Liberals: now in its own decline it sees the reviving Liberals capturing votes from the Labour Party.
The Tory, Labour and Liberal leaders all spoke as if it is possible for the Government running capitalism to control trade and employment and the price level. They all blamed the others for what goes wrong and undertook to put it right. Only Macmillan made some effort to put the matter into real perspective, as was shown in the reply he gave to the People (October 4th) to the question: “If there was a world slump, what steps would the Conservatives take to tackle the unemployment problem in this country that might result ?”
His reply contained the following warning note of what may happen
A world slump on the lines of that of 1929 is most unlikely, but recessions in trade may well occur from time to time, and a Conservative Government would immediately take the necessary steps to deal with them.
The fact is that the Tory Governments since 1951 have been singularly lucky, but their luck is not at all likely to hold out for another five years. The next recession may well be a much more drastic one than that from which British capitalism has just recovered: which will, of course, give the Labour Party or the Liberals (or a combination) their chance to break the long run of Conservative favour with the electors.
One thing the workers will get from the new Tory Government (workers get it from all governments everywhere, Tory, Liberal, Labour, Communist) will be the usual nauseating sermons from the rulers calling on the ruled to work harder and produce more. The working class have lost this election as they have lost every election so far held under capitalism