Tony Cliff & Donny Gluckstein

The Labour Party

12. ‘Thirteen wasted years’

LABOUR WENT INTO the October 1951 election exhausted by six years of hard work but euphoric about the future. Supporters were convinced that even if the Tory Party won, it would not last long. It would be unable to maintain the two great assets that made the Attlee government better than the 1930s: full employment and the welfare state. So after a short time Labour would return to office. Labour’s 1951 election slogan was ‘Ask your Dad!’.

Prophecies of doom if the Tories won were many and varied. Arthur Deakin, general secretary of the TGWU, told the 1951 Labour Conference, held three weeks before the election: ‘I know how desirous the Tories are of reimposing those restrictions that will enable them to bring us to our knees.’ [1] Alice Bacon, in her presidential address to the TUC, insisted:

All in Britain who suffered unemployment and poverty between the wars look to us with hope. They dread, and they are right to dread, the return of a Tory Government. They dread the re-emergence of unemployment, reductions in social services and the catastrophe price increases which would surely follow a Tory victory. [2]

Predictions about the Tories proved wildly inaccurate. Contrary to reformist beliefs, full employment and the welfare state were not the single-handed achievements of Attlee, but the result of a booming capitalist system that the Tories were happy to live with. So it was that Labour remained out of office for thirteen years – the longest period spent in opposition by a major political party since the Reform Bill of 1832.

The long boom – which was to last until the 1960s – was a by product of the high level of spending on arms, extended by the escalating cold war and the development of nuclear weapons. The tendency in capitalism for profit rates to fall and for society to lurch from boom to overproduction and slump was allayed by massive state spending on armaments, particularly in the US and Britain. So the prosperity of these years was built on the cone of a bomb. Capitalism was not more rational and harmonious, but less so, and equally subject to the diktat of competition, now taking really deadly forms in the nuclear arms race. From 1951 to 1964 productivity in Britain increased faster than in any other period of comparable length in the twentieth century. By 1964 total production measured at constant prices was 40 percent higher than in 1951. The economy grew faster than at any time since the peak of the Victorian era. Unemployment averaged less than 2.5 percent of the labour force in all but one of the thirteen years of Tory rule. This was radically different, of course, from the years between the two world wars. From 1921 to 1938 there was no year in which less than 9 percent of the labour force was unemployed. In the slump of 1931–2 the figure exceeded 22 percent. But even in the relatively prosperous mid- and late 1930s, the figure was usually well above 10 percent.

Inflation too stayed low in the 1950s. Retail prices rose by about 3.25 percent per year from 1952 to 1964, less than half the rate of 1946–1952 (and also a good deal slower than in 1964–70, not to speak of 1974–79, the two periods Labour was again in office).

Real wages of workers rose by over 25 percent in those thirteen years. Social provisions were not slashed. For example, house building ran at over 300,000 a year, as against some 200,000 when Labour left office.

The political commentator Andrew Gamble wrote:

The 1950s were the golden years for the Conservatives ... the contrast between the years of ‘austerity’ under Labour and the years of ‘affluence’ under the Conservatives was apparent enough to seem a vindication of the Conservatives’ claim that they could run a welfare capitalist system better than Labour.’ [3]

The Tories did not attack on the trade union front; on the contrary they appeased. The union bureaucracy must function whether Labour is in government or not, so when the Conservatives were returned to office, the TUC General Council announced:

It is our long standing practice to seek to work amicably with whatever Government is in power and through consultation jointly with Ministers and with the other side of industry to find practical solutions to the social and economic problems facing this country. [4]

Despite expectations, the Tory government reciprocated:

Indeed, the stage was reached under the Government when hardly any Government committee was formed without someone in authority asking for the trade union view to be represented on it. [5]

In some respects the Tories treated the unions even better than Labour. As one writer put it, whereas the Labour government frequently resorted to emergency measures against strikes, the Tories were ‘almost nonchalant in their treatment of strikes ... They have been less disposed to use emergency powers or troops.’ [6]

The Tory boom threw the Labour Party into disarray. It was more and more obvious that Labour was not the only party that could produce full employment and welfare services.

The revisionists

With the continuation of the boom, a group of leading Labour intellectuals declared themselves Revisionists. They took their name from the German Social Democrat Eduard Bernstein, who had attempted to revise Marxism at the turn of the century. He had redefined the fundamental character of the labour movement as a ‘democratic socialist reform party’ and not a party of social revolution. Opposing Marx, he argued that the contradictions in capitalism do not get sharper but, on the contrary, are continuously being alleviated. Capitalism is steadily being tamed, becoming more adaptable, and there is a tendency towards permanent prosperity. Social contradictions are also weakened by the expansion of the middle class and the more democratic distribution of capital ownership through shares. Bernstein’s trump card in support of his arguments was that for two decades, since 1873, capitalism had not suffered a major slump.

The extent to which the British Revisionists of the 1950 were a copy of the German Revisionists half a century earlier was uncanny. Equally extraordinary is the way they overlooked the fact that Bernstein had been discredited first by the brilliant arguments of Rosa Luxemburg in her book Reform or Revolution and then by the First World War, the revolutionary crises that followed it and Nazi regime. These confounded all his surmises.

The most important intellectual in Labour’s new current was Anthony Crosland. His book, The Future of Socialism, published in 1956, was to become the Bible of the Revisionists. According to Crosland, the anarchy of capitalism was withering away and with it class conflicts. The system was becoming more and more rational and democratic. Capitalism itself would peacefully dissolve, helped along by the increasing role of the state in the economy and developments inside the private firm that undermined the profit motive.

With the growing separation of shareholders from managers in the large companies, the latter would pursue goals other than maximum profits.

Business leaders are now, in the main, paid by salary and not by profit, and owe their power to their position in the managerial structure, and not to ownership. Meanwhile, the nominal owners have largely lost even the residue of control which they retained before the war.

And top management today is independent not only of the firm’s own shareholders, but increasingly of the capitalist or property-owning class as a whole, including the financial institutions ... The economic power of the capital market and the finance houses, and hence capitalist financial control over industry (in the strict sense of the word), are thus much weaker. This change alone makes it rather absurd to speak now of a capitalist ruling-class ...

If capital accumulation was no longer the prime goal, what was?

The business leader can also acquire prestige by gaining a reputation as a progressive employer, who introduces co-partnership or profit-sharing schemes: or by being known to possess a high standing in Whitehall, and to have the ear of Ministers, an obvious candidate, perhaps, for Royal Commissions and National Advisory Councils; or by enjoying an outstanding local and civic reputation, as a benefactor, a helpful friend to the City Council, a member of the Court of the civic University; or by displaying obvious patriotism, and devoting a lot of time to the British Productivity Council; or simply being an intellectual, who broadcasts and writes in Bank Reviews, or makes speeches at the British Institute of Management or Nuffield conferences at Oxford. [7]

All the talk about production being dedicated to making profits rather than meeting human need was, according to Crosland, sheer nonsense.

Production for use and production for profit may be taken as broadly coinciding now that working-class purchasing power is so high. What is profitable is what the consumer finds useful; and the firm and the consumer desire broadly the same allocation of resources. [8]

What an ideal picture of capitalism and its workings! A golden age was born.

Private industry is at last becoming humanised. I do not mean that all businessmen now behave as though they were manqué philanthropists or social reformers ... most businessmen are at least tinged by these more social attitudes and motives. [9]

A ‘peaceful revolution’ had begun in which class conflict would be unthinkable: ‘One cannot imagine today a deliberate offensive alliance between Government and employers against the Unions,’ wrote Crosland. [10]

As the ownership of industry became less important so too did the demand for nationalisation: [11]

there is now no insuperable economic difficulty about the Government imposing its will, provided it has one, on either public or private industry. Indeed, post-1945 experience in the planning field strongly underlines [the argument] that ownership is not now an important determinant of economic power. [12]

The land would flow with milk and honey from here on in: ‘We stand, in Britain, on the threshold of mass abundance.’ [13] Now that Keynesianism guaranteed uninhibited growth the state could look forward to high tax revenues which could finance social reforms and social welfare plans. Socialists should divert then attention away from economic issues. To what?

we shall turn our attention increasingly to other, and in the long run more important, spheres – of personal freedom, happiness, and cultural endeavour; the cultivation of leisure, beauty, grace, gaiety, excitement ... more open-air cafes, brighter and gayer streets at night, later closing-hours for public houses, more local repertory theatres, better and more hospitable hoteliers and restauranteurs ... more murals and pictures in public places, better designs for furniture and pottery and women’s clothes, statues in the centre of new housing-estates, better-designed street-lamps and telephone kiosks, and so on ad infinitum. [14]

Crosland was like the scientist who measures the growth of a puppy and predicts that in fifty years it will be an elephant. As a ‘realist’, therefore, he now found Marx’s analysis completely useless. The old man had ‘little or nothing to offer the contemporary socialist’ since, ‘His prophecies have been almost without exception falsified.’ [15]

Crosland concluded that Britain had ceased to be a capitalist country:

the proper definition of the word capitalism is a society with the essential social, economic, and ideological characteristics of Great Britain from the 1830s to the 1930s; and this, assuredly, the Britain of 1956 in not. And so, to the question ‘Is this still Capitalism?’, I would answer ‘No’. [16]

The Revisionists bore the hallmarks of Fabianism. Like the old Fabians, they believed in the neutrality of the state, they were committed to gradualism and consensus. But they strayed away from their forefathers by passing a positive judgment on the present system and by rejecting the need to transform society. Thus the Revisionists moved from Fabian ‘Socialism’ to a position indistinguishable from the main progressive branch of Liberalism. Hugh Gaitskell, the most important Revisionist and leader of the Labour Party from 1955 to 1963, accepted this logic.

We have already described the Labour Party as a form of organised amnesia. The Revisionists were its greatest exponents. Crosland behaved as though the sort of society that could produce the Second World War, or the horrors of fascism and mass unemployment that preceded it, had disappeared entirely. This inability to understand the inner processes of capitalism, to comprehend its past or predict its future, but to paint a completely impressionistic picture based on today’s events is deep-rooted in the Labour Party.

Labour’s avoidance of theory stems from its refusal to take a class standpoint from which to analyse society. As we see with Crosland, the net result is that they capitulate to the most superficial ruling class ideas available at the time. The boss would have you believe he is not an exploiter, but a kind-hearted and charitable fellow, Crosland duly obliges with what passes as an intellectual theory to support this.

This shallowness of ideas, alas, is not confined to the Labour right.


Aneurin Bevan led the biggest, although not the most left wing, rebellion in the history of the Labour Party. The context of this revolt was the increasing consensus between the Tories in office and the Labour Revisionists. Because of this, political conflict developed not so much between the two parties, as within the Labour Party. Bevanism was a reaction to the radical move to the right by the Labour leadership.

Unfortunately Bevan was afflicted with a poverty of ideas. While the Revisionists wandered around the new post-capitalist Wonderland, the Bevanites, like the dormouse at the Mad Hatter’s tea party, kept their eyes tight shut. They tried simply to deny the boom would last, saying that mass unemployment was only just around the comer. But facts are stubborn things.

Bevan and his supporters were not Marxists. Like the Revisionists they accepted gradualism and the mixed economy, even if they wanted the mix tilted towards the state sector. Both the right and the left in the Labour Party considered nationalisation as an addendum to private enterprise, not destined to be its replacement. Accepting the mixed economy meant agreeing to the subordination of the public sector to the rule of the market and the much larger and more prosperous private sector. Both the right and left accepted that economic efficiency should be the criterion in deciding which industries to nationalise. They argued only over how the criterion should be applied.

Bevan’s politics could be summed up as ‘dynamic parliamentarism’. But given the electoral success of the Tories under the conditions of the boom, the outlook for radical reformists looked bleak.

The pursuit of dynamic parliamentarism had further consequences. To succeed in parliament the Bevanites had to stay in the Labour Party. To be outside the party would have meant the end of their electoral prospects. The wartime successes of independent candidates were long gone. The heavy defeat of five Labour MPs who had been expelled from the party during the Attlee government, and had then stood as ‘Independent Labour’, was a warning. [1*]

Bevanism was a symptom of the tensions created inside the party as a result of consensus with the Tories. It offered no alternative vision of the future; it was more a defence of the reforms of 1945-51 against the Tories, which was in fact not needed, since the Tories did not intend to overthrow the achievements of the Attlee government.

Throughout the thirteen years of Tory rule, the Labour left practically avoided domestic issues, and concentrated instead on Foreign policy and defence. This can be seen clearly from the revolts of Labour MPs in the House of Commons against official party policy.

Revolts in the PLP [18]






Domestic policy




Foreign policy and defence




As a leading Bevanite, Richard Crossman wrote in his diaries on 1 December 1952: ‘It’s fairly clear that, on the strict economic level, there is literally no difference between the Left and the Right of the Party ... The real disagreements are not about economic policy but about relations with America, military commitments, etc.’ [19]

In the years 1951–4, the main issues on which battle was joined were the British defence programme and the rearmament of Germany. With the Korean war and the deep winter of the Cold War, the US and allies decided in 1951 to rearm West Germany (which had been completely disarmed since the defeat of Hitler). This move could only increase tension between West and East and the left therefore opposed it. The Bevanites also put up resistance to Britains’s own high arms spending. A sign of discontent in the ranks was that on both issues the party leadership had a narrow escape. [20]

Despite these arguments, in all essentials the Bevanites and the right shared the basic assumptions of Labour’s foreign policy: acceptance of NATO and of the need for Britain to rearm in order to defend British interests abroad. Thus while the 1952 party conference saw Bevan launch his bitterest attack on the Labour leadership, it also witnessed his endorsement of NATO and the executive’s statement ‘Labour’s Foreign Policy’, which said that ‘close cooperation with the United States of America is vital to Britain and to the Commonwealth as a whole.’ [21] This reduced the impact of Bevan’s Commons speech of April 1953 against SEATO, South East Asia Treaty Organisation. It was difficult to be an opponent of SEATO while supporting its elder brother, NATO.

However inconsistent it might seem, this was just what Bevan did. While supporting NATO, he immediately resigned from the shadow cabinet over the SEATO issue. Harold Wilson, a Bevanite who had been a runner-up in the 1953 election to the shadow cabinet, did not turn down the vacant seat Bevan’s protest had created. This was neither the first nor last example of one left-winger stabbing another in the back in order to climb into a position of influence. Neil Kinnock was to do the same to Tony Benn in the 1980s.

The Bevanites did not condemn US policy as a whole, but the Labour leadership’s uncritical acceptance of it. Dislike of specific US policies was quite compatible, the Bevanites argued, with general support of the Western Alliance. [2*] [22]

Bevanism found a powerful echo in the Labour Party Although a loose and heterogeneous group, the Bevanites’ connection with the rank and file was maintained chiefly through the organisation of Brains Trusts, consisting of MPs, 150 of which were held throughout the country up to 1954. Peggy Duff, secretary of Tribune from 1949 to 1955, recalled:

The fifty or so MPs more or less meant the Brains Trust worked as a group in the House and met regularly at least for a time ... were the front line, the upper strata of the Bevanite movement, the First Eleven. But there was also a lower strata, people outside the House who were either parliamentary candidates or aimed to become so. This was the Second Eleven. [24]

However the influence of the Bevanites did not stop there. They dominated the constituencies. With the exception of the Communists in the 1920s, who had a base in the industrial rank and file, left opposition within the Labour Party has always been concentrated in the constituencies. Constituency Labour Parties differ from other components of the party. The parliamentary party is directly dependent on electoral success and even in opposition is under pressure to prove itself ‘fit to govern’. It shows the least willingness to stand out against the prevailing ideas of capitalism. The trade union bureaucracy has on occasion made significant protests against the Labour leadership. But it is limited from rocking the boat too much by its mediating role between capital and labour. As for the mass affiliated membership of the unions, they have only the most tenuous links with Labour, either through general elections every five years or indirectly through the trade union bureaucrats.

The constituency parties, on the other hand, are not so thoroughly subordinated to immediate electoral needs; nor do they mediate like the bureaucracy. They are a self-selected group whose ardent reformism leads them to rise at least one step (and in some cases more) above passivity. It is ironic and not entirely accidental that the constituency parties are also by far the most powerless of all the groups that make up the party.

In a way the unhappy fate of the Bevanites shows clearly the impotence of the constituency parties. After all, their membership reached its zenith in 1952:

Labour Party membership (excluding affiliated trade unions) [25]



     13,861 (Socialist Societies plus Coop Societies)


     31,377 (Socialist Societies plus Coop Societies)


     52,720 (Socialist Societies plus Coop Societies)

















The later figures are distorted, especially since 1963 when a rule was introduced that made it obligatory for every constituency party to affiliate with at least 1,000 members. This rule was abolished at the 1979 Labour conference, when party membership was estimated at 284,000. [26]

In 1952 at the Morecambe conference, Morrison, Dalton and Shinwell were defeated in the elections to the constituency section of the party executive, so that of the seven members of this section, six were Bevanites. Gaitskell, who had stood for the constituency section, achieved a vote little more than half that of the lowest successful candidate. Tribune was overjoyed. Under a front-page headline ‘Oh! What a Beautiful Morning!’ Michael Foot celebrated not merely ‘the most significant shift in British politics since 1951’, but ‘the happiest political occasion I can remember’ since 1945. [27]

Unlike the Bennites thirty years later, Bevanism seemed a lesser threat to the right-wing leadership because, despite its base in the constituency parties, the majority of union officials felt little need to support it. The officials of a minority of unions, such as the engineers, the railworkers, the shopworkers and some smaller ones, did however back Bevan. [28]

Like the rest of the Labour leadership, Bevan had no link with rank and file workers’ struggles. He showed hardly any interest in them. The only time Bevanites intervened was in the 1954 docks dispute between the National Amalgamated Stevedores and Dockers (NASD), known as ‘the Blue Union’, and the TGWU, ‘the White Union’. Tribune backed the Blue Union and the right of dockers to join a union of their choice. This was motivated largely by the hatred of the Bevanites for Arthur Deakin, who had used the massive force of the TGWU to squash the Labour left. The fall-out from the dockers’ dispute was that Tribune briefly reflected the struggles of other workers and for a year or so even had an industrial correspondent.

Lacking deep roots in the working class, hazy in their ideas, the Bevanites were a very loose organisation, in fact hardly an organisation at all. According to Crossman:

5 December 1951: The fact is that Bevanism and the Bevanites seem much more important, well-organized and Machiavellian to the rest of the Labour Party, and indeed to the USA, than they do to us who are in it, who know that we are not organized ... we have not even got the beginnings of a coherent constructive policy.

17 December: ... So far from being a great strategist and organizer of cabals, Nye is an individualist, who, however, is an extraordinarily pleasant member of a group. But the last thing he does is to lead it. [29]

Jennie Lee commented: ‘It should have been plain for all in see that the so-called Bevanites were at sixes and sevens. It was the right wing that had successfully organised “a party within a party”.’ [30]

Labour lefts dare not organise as effectively as the right. They define themselves first as members of the Labour Party and second of a radical wing gingering up the main body. Unlike entrists who can for a time keep the organisation they bring with them, ordinary Labour lefts cannot become ‘a party within a party’. They fear copying the right’s aggressive methods because witch-hunts have only ever been mounted against the left. Prominent right-wing individuals have been excluded from the party, such as MacDonald, and always with much soul-searching, but never a whole tendency.

The disintegration of Bevanism

The bloc of right-wing union leaders – Arthur Deakin, general secretary of the TGWU, Sir William Lawther, president of the NUM, and Sir Tom Williamson, general secretary of the General and Municipal Workers – guaranteed that Labour Party conferences would reject Bevanism. The six Bevanites on the executive were a small minority among its twenty-seven members and not more than a quarter of the PLP were Bevanites. And despite the caution of the left, the right could easily find pretexts for witch-hunting. [3*]

An example of the risk they ran was shown on 3 March 1955, when Bevan challenged Attlee in the Commons on whether the Labour leadership supported the Tory government statements that Britain would use thermo-nuclear weapons to repel an attack by conventional arms. He then led sixty-one MPs in abstaining from voting on a Labour amendment. The following day the shadow cabinet decided to recommend to the PLP that the party whip be withdrawn from Bevan, with the clear inference that once the matter passed to the executive, Bevan would be expelled from the party altogether.

Fortunately for Bevan, the PLP was not united in favour of such an extreme measure. The motion passed by 141 to 112, but such a narrow majority was not enough for a proper killing. However the warning to Bevan was clear, and he must have taken it to heart.

When Gaitskell succeeded Attlee as leader of the party in December 1955, Bevan decided that the time had arrived to call a halt to his oppositional activity. He was convinced that to be effective you had to be inside the party’s leading circles. Once he made it clear that he was not going to challenge Gaitskell, he was elected to the shadow cabinet and became shadow foreign secretary.

In 1956, the war over Suez gave Bevan his opportunity to prove his reliability. The Suez Canal was still jointly controlled by Britain and France – a relic of the days when it was a vital link with India and the rest of the British Empire. When President Nasser of Egypt nationalised the canal, Britain and France collaborated with Israel in sending troops to seize the area. Labour, almost in spite of itself, ended up opposing this intervention and organised a massive ‘Law not War’ demonstration in Trafalgar Square. But the weakness and confusion of the left was quick to appear. Gaitskell compared Nasser to Hitler and Mussolini. Bevan agreed that the nationalisation of Suez was an act of robbery and added: ‘If the sending of one’s police and soldiers into the darkness of the night to seize somebody else’s property is nationalisation, then Ali Baba used the wrong terminology.’ [32]

Although Bevan thought the invasion of Egypt by Britain and France a mistake, as it would mean ‘the dismantling of NATO and the destruction of the United Nations,’ he still received an accolade from The Economist for his Trafalgar Square speech on the subject: ‘It was for Mr Aneurin Bevan – the new Mr Bevan. who is at the moment trying so hard to sound moderate – to feel the mood, and he made an undeniably brilliant speech.’ [33]

The 1957 Labour Party conference at Brighton gave Bevan another chance to prove he had made peace with Gaitskell. The new executive document, Industry and Society, was thoroughly revisionist. Apart from the inevitable renationalisation of steel and road haulage it suggested no other targets for nationalisation, but rather the state purchase of a share of large firms. Many in the Labour Party saw this less as increasing public ownership, than as creating a situation whereby ‘a future Labour Government is going to be a hostage bound hand and foot to the capitalist system.’ [34]

The NUR opposed Industry and Society, reaffirming ‘its belief in the common ownership of all the basic industries and means of production.’ [35] Even Morrison complained that it ‘appears to me to be somewhat biased against nationalisation’, and called for its rejection. [36] Shinwell urged this too: ‘If we endorse this document ... the Daily Herald will no longer be the Party newspaper, it will be the Financial Times.’ [37] Jennie Lee, Bevan’s wife, also attacked Industry and Society as ‘Too Pink, Too Blue and Too Yellow’. [38] But sitting on the platform, Bevan did not stir. It was the Bevanite Harold Wilson who moved Industry and Society, and Hugh Gaitskell, for the executive, who summed up. The document was adopted by an overwhelming majority.

However, Bevan’s greatest service for the right wing was in the debate on the H-Bomb. A composite resolution called on the British government to take the following measures:

an end to H-Bomb tests;

a ban on nuclear weapons and the destruction of existing stocks with international control and inspection;

progressive disarmament with adequate supervision by the United Nations. [39]

Bevan, for the executive, spoke against. If the resolution was passed, he said, it would be tantamount to sending the next Foreign secretary ‘naked into the conference chamber ... to preach sermons ... you call that statesmanship? I call it an emotional spasm.’ [40] Former followers of Bevan first kept a stunned silence. But this was the last straw. Now they heckled him vehemently. There were cries of ‘Shame!’ ‘Nonsense!’ ‘Rubbish!’ One delegate called out: ‘You have sold the pass!’ Bevan stood clasping Gaitskell’s hand demonstratively. The Daily Telegraph gleefully announced: Bevan into Bevin’. The New Statesman, in an article entitled The End of Bevanism, wondered:

Has Bevan, one is bound to ask after Brighton, sold himself too cheap? Unity has been achieved entirely on Mr Gaitskell’s terms and Mr Bevan has surrendered unconditionally ... He enters the Cabinet Room naked, a complete prisoner of his former opponents. [41]

Michael Foot’s explanation of Bevan’s behaviour is quite revealing of the policies of both Bevan and Foot. ‘So why did he do it?’ asks Foot, and answers:

it was true that Party considerations influenced his conduct, and why not? ... he saw more clearly than ever before the divisions which might occur if he refused to speak, if a new split developed. He saw the chasm opening at his feet, he saw the renewal of the old battles as the months went by, he saw the destruction of any hope for a new Labour government, he saw the accusations of his opponents – and perhaps of history – that he could have forestalled the catastrophe but that he had preferred the ease of his own conscience and the comfort of his friends. He saw the long trek back for the Bevanites and himself into the wilderness and the endless sojourn there, and he never had the taste, despite all the taunts, for martyrdom, for the locusts and wild honey. He was interested in power to achieve great objectives. [42]

After the 1957 conference Bevan went on a tour of the United States, so that, as Jennie Lee records:

he could begin to undo the bogey-man image of him depicted in their press as well as our own. Afterwards Adlai Stevenson wrote to him saying, ‘I can report with fair accuracy that your visit was an unqualified success. I gather it may even have been helpful in Washington.’ Leading banking and business associations he had addressed wrote letters of thanks to him which went beyond the demands of mere politeness. [43]

The disintegration of Bevan as a leader of the left was complete. He had travelled a long political distance to end this way. He had begun as an industrial syndicalist associated with The Miners’ Next Step before the First World War. But according to his own account, defeats in the 1920s turned him in a new direction:

The defeat of the miners ended a phase, and from then on the pendulum swung sharply to political action. It seemed to us that we must try to regain in Parliament what we had lost on the industrial battlefield. [44]

Having lost faith in the ability of the working class to change society directly, Bevan spent the rest of his life searching for the power to do so through state channels:

When I got older I said to myself: ‘The place to get to is the Council. That’s where the power is’. So I worked very hard and ... I got on the Council. I discovered when I got there that the power had been there, but it had just gone. So I made some enquiries, being an earnest student of social affairs, and I learned that the power had slipped down to the County Council. That was where it was and where it had gone to. So I worked very hard again and I got there and it had gone from there too.’ [45]

Bevan reached the cabinet and still found that the power was elsewhere, in the company boardrooms and officers’ clubs. He once described parliament as ‘the most formidable weapon of all’. Alas it has proved formidable indeed, by breaking generations of socialists upon its wheel.

The attack on Clause Four

In the 1955 general election Labour lost one and a half million votes compared with the 1951 election, while the Tories dropped by only 400,000. This was the first time in ninety years that a peacetime government, after a normal period of office, was returned with an increased majority in parliament. The number of Conservative seats increased from 319 at dissolution to 345. Labour fell from 293 seats to 277.

The general election of 1959 was even worse. Labour’s vote went down by a further 190,000 votes, while the Tory vote rose by 448,000. The government was returned with an even greater majority, 366 MPs to Labour’s 258.

This humiliating third defeat in a row had a traumatic impact. Douglas Jay, one of the most prominent Revisionists, wrote: ‘The better-off wage earners and numerous salary earners are tending to regard the Labour Party as associated with a class to which they themselves do not belong ... we are in danger of fighting under the label of a class which no longer exists.’ He argued too that the word ‘nationalisation’ had been a liability, and that ‘we must destroy this myth decisively; otherwise we may never win again.’ The Labour Party should change its name to ‘Labour and Radical’ or ‘Labour and Reform’. [46]

Depression permeated the Labour Party. Decline seemed inevitable. One historian remembers:

It is difficult now to recapture the atmosphere of the years 1959 and 1961, when so many political commentators were arguing that the Labour Party in its present form, would never again win a General Election ... Professor Mackintosh in a book written in 1961 argued that ‘it is hard to escape the conclusion that the Labour Party is unlikely to return to power and that the Government of the country will remain in the hands of the Conservatives for the foreseeable future.’ [4*] [47]

After the defeat of 1959 Gaitskell decided radical changes must be made in party policy. At the two-day post-mortem conference in Blackpool, he made a tough presentation of the Revisionist case. He began by suggesting that the party’s defeat could not be attributed to the election campaign:

What has caused this adverse trend? ... First, there is the changing character of the labour force. There are fewer miners, more engineers; fewer farm workers, more shop assistants; fewer manual workers, more clerical workers; fewer railwaymen, more research workers... The second general change is the absence of serious unemployment or even the fear of it.

In my opinion, capitalism has significantly changed, largely as a result of our own effort.

The party should modernize itself by ceasing to be a doctrinally pure class party. ‘Our object must be broaden our base ... to avoid becoming small cliques of isolated doctrine-ridden fanatics, out of touch with the main stream of social life in our time.’

Above all the party had lost votes, he said, through its identification with public ownership. Gaitskell saw Clause Four of the party constitution, advocating ‘common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange’, as the root of the problem:

[Since] our goal is not 100 percent state ownership ... we should clear our minds on these fundamental issues and then try to express in the most simple and comprehensive fashion what we stand for in the world today. The only official document which embodies such an attempt is the Party Constitution, written over forty years ago. It seems to me that this needs to be brought up to date.

The conference was mute as Gaitskell continued, but there were cries of dissent at the end of the following passage:

Standing as it does on its own, this [clause] cannot possibly be regarded as adequate ... It implies that the only precise object we have is nationalization, whereas in fact we have many other Socialist objectives. It implies that we propose to nationalize everything, but do we? Everything? – the whole of light industry, the whole of agriculture, all the shops – every little pub and garage? Of course not. We have long ago come to accept, we know very well, for the foreseeable future, at least in some form, a mixed economy ... had we better not say so instead of going out of our way to court misrepresentation?

Fury greeted Gaitskell’s assault on Clause Four. It fell to Bevan to pour oil on the troubled waters. He tried to produce a unifying formula which would keep the party’s divergent tendencies together. He pointed out that both Hugh Gaitskell and Barbara Castle, the chairperson of the conference, had quoted his own phrase about the commanding heights of the economy:

If Euclid’s deduction is correct they are both equal to me and therefore must be equal to each other ... I agree with Barbara, I agree with Hugh and I agree with myself ... I am a Socialist: I believe in public ownership. But I agreed with Hugh Gaitskell yesterday ... I do not believe that public ownership should reach down into every piece of economic activity, because that would be asking for a monolithic society. [49]

Gaitskell’s attack on Clause Four was in reality an attack on the working-class nature of the Labour Party. In 1918 Clause Four had been put forward to stave off a possible revolution. In 1959 it survived as a symbol of Labour’s commitment to a minimal anti-capitalist position.

Gaitskell’s insult to Clause Four was too much even for those trade union officials who had helped him become party leader. They, plus the left of the constituency parties and a substantial portion of the PLP, united in its defence. Drucker explains why:

As long as Labour retains Clause Four, the Tories can never assimilate all of Labour’s achievements or demands. The national health service can be assimilated by a Conservative government, and so, too, in prosperous days can strong trade unions, but ‘the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange’ cannot. Thus, Clause Four’s continuance as the sole statement of principle in Labour’s constitution holds Labour true to its past, true to what its originators wanted it to be: for labour and against capital. [50]

Labour is a reformist party, not a reactionary one. It has obvious limits too its leftward movement, but as the debate showed, there were also limits to the right, and Gaitskell had gone too far.

Clause Four was a potent symbol. The rhetoric of Labourism was precious to practically everyone in the party: its whole history is one of moderate policies wearing radical clothing. The traditionalists did not think the argument Gaitskell was raising over Clause Four was worth having. It was misconceived to raise the question of whether or not more common ownership was desired. They loved the ambiguity that dominated Labour. To repeat what Eduard Auer wrote to Eduard Bernstein: ‘one does not say these things, one simply does them.’

The struggle around Clause Four was shadow boxing. Win or lose, the Labour Party would continue with the policy of mixed economy.

Labour and CND – A resolutionary road to socialism?

The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) grew out of disappointment with the failure of summit meetings between the great powers in the 1950s. It was spurred on in 1956 by the Hungarian uprising and the Suez war. At a time when politics appeared to be one drab consensus, when people talked of ‘the death of ideology’ and when Gaitskell and the right were presiding over the demise of Bevanism, the growth of CND caused tremendous excitement on the left.

One sign was the 100,000-strong CND demonstration of Easter 1960. Hopes were high among the 10,000 CND supporters who converged on the Labour Party conference at Scarborough later the same year. The election of Frank Cousins, an enthusiastic supporter of CND, as general secretary of the TGWU, was another fillip for unilateralists at the conference. The conference adopted, by 3,303,000 to 2,896,000, a resolution demanding the ‘unilateral renunciation of the testing, manufacturing, stockpiling, and basing of all nuclear weapons in Great Britain.’ The TGWU, AEU, NUR, USDAW and electricians voted for the resolution. This was the high point of the first CND campaign.

It hardly seemed to matter that Gaitskell reacted aggressively, making a provocative speech: ‘There are some of us ... who will fight and fight and fight again to save the Party we love.’ Three million votes for disarmament, said the card vote! Not for the last time were the left to mistake conference decisions for political reality. The joyful celebrations overlooked fundamental weaknesses. In no way did it connect with the day-to-day bread and butter issues facing working people. As an editorial in International Socialism during Winter 1960–1 put it:

Our strongest weapon would be to link the issue of defence with the stuff of ordinary life on which workers have shown unshakeable convictions to the point of heroism ... It is obvious that progress for the Left lies in breaking down the high stakes of nuclear diplomacy into the small chips of class struggle.

It is here that the Left might show its greatest weakness. There is nothing in the record of its accepted leadership to suggest that it will organise around a program of argument by action rather than by word, or indeed, that it sees any connection between Boss and Bomb. On the contrary, to date it has remained a prisoner to the basic Gaitskellite assumption: that defence is a national issue, not a class one. [51]

It was excellent that the Labour conference had passed a unilateralist motion, because this gave the opportunity to carry the CND argument further. But to defend this gain and build on it, it was essential that the limitations of Labour conference votes should be clearly understood. Alas, the Labour left set too much store on block vote arithmetic, as if it reflected the views of the majority of rank and file workers and was sure to remain true to those views. This was wrong on both counts. Opinion polls suggested that only 16 per cent of trade unionists favoured unilateralism and that the figure for Labour voters was never much more than 24 per cent. [52]

If support was so low, why did the union leaders throw their block votes behind unilateralism in 1960? To a great extent it was in protest against Gaitskells insult to the holy of holies – Clause Four. This was not to be the only occasion on which the union bureaucracy, angered by a quite separate issue, decided to slap the wrists of the Labour leadership.

However the union leaders never intended to upset the whole apple cart. They were shocked by the implications of unilateralism and jubilation of the left. Immediately after the conference the major union leaders closed ranks around Gaitskell. The following year’s Labour conference rejected unilateralism by a massive 4,526,000 to 1,756,000.

The fact that the party rank and file did not in the main support unilateralism helped the bureaucrats to turn tail. Added to this was the cowardly behaviour of the leaders of the left. Straight after the Scarborough conference Barbara Castle argued that the row had been caused by ‘confusion over words, rather than by policies.’ [53] By February 1961 the New Statesman was advocating compromise. [54] The same month leading CND supporters produced a flurry of documents fudging the issue and preparing the way for retreat.

CND leaders had assumed a simple step by step advance. First Labour Party conference should adopt unilateralism. Then Labour would win the next general election, and unilateralism would be home and dry. The 1961 Labour Party conference in Blackpool was a shocking blow to CND, and led many Labour MPs to withdraw from the campaign. In August 1963 Tribune dropped its front-p. banner claiming that it led the campaign against the H-Bomb.

The paper victory of 1960 and its quick reversal had left a shambles. The left was in a terrible state. Crossman’s diary entry for 23 November 1960 described the situation: ‘We are all ... fragmented, at sixes and sevens, actuated by personal motives, without any coherent policy.’ [55]

The changing locus of reform

The years 1951–64 were an unsatisfactory and insubstantial period in Labour history. There were reasons for this. Labour lives to win office – and a long period of opposition gives debates and decisions an air of unreality. But there were other reasons for unease. The attention of the working class was mostly elsewhere. Parliamentary reformists may think the working class should bestir itself only once every five years, but the battle between the classes goes on day in, day out. Even in booms the struggle to gain the new hilltop or defend an old trench continued in open or hidden form.

In these years the workers’ struggle for improvements met with tangible practical results, but it was focused not in parliament but in the workplace. Roger Cox describes the situation:

The long post-war boom meant that workers were very much in the driving seat... That was especially true in the engineering industry. Engineers were absolutely essential to the post-war economy. The bosses would give them almost anything they wanted, and the workers knew it. [56]

All Labour governments, even when they had a large majority, have felt powerless to challenge the capitalist class. But workers collectively have this power, and in the 1950s and 1960s they used it, if only at factory level:

There were dozens of instances where groups of militants quite ruthlessly went after a particular manager who had treated them like shit in the thirties.

Workers would compete to see who could give the foreman the hardest time, who could drive him to a nervous breakdown, or at least out of the factory first ... Management really had to be careful. They needed production to go smoothly.

Rank and file action brought higher wages, better conditions and a confidence that gains came through self-activity, not by looking to someone to act on your behalf. This left the union bureaucracy with little control, and even less to do:

The role of the fulltime bureaucracy was totally different. The only function they had really was to get the rank and file workers out of trouble. If militants had cocked up a strike for example, they would call in the officials to call off the strike. But [the officials] wouldn’t play any role while things were going well. In those situations they were more or less irrelevant.

If that were true of the bureaucracy who at least had some connection with collective organisation, how much more irrelevant was the Labour Party to day-to-day activity!

This rank and file activity, although sharply differentiated from the party, was in the 1950s and 1960s but another kind of reformism, of the ‘do-it-yourself variety. Aspirations were met without challenging the framework of the system. As Roger Cox puts it:

Although it was very easy to build strong shop organisation it was almost impossible to argue socialist politics at work ... workers were getting a lot out of the system as it was ... Everything was terribly sectionalised. What happened in the next town or even the next factory didn’t seem to matter, let alone what happened in the rest of the world.

It would be extremely foolish to make the syndicalist error of seeing even the most militant do-it-yourself reformism as sufficient to win socialism. At the same time it must not be equated with Labour Party reformism. Generations of good socialists have sunk their efforts into making the Labour Party a vehicle for winning working-class advance. They have been watering the desert. Nothing has grown except illusions in an organisation which defends capitalism, if necessary against the working class.

Militant workers have also sacrificed much to develop the collective organisations of the working class, particularly at the grassroots level of union branch and shop stewards’ organisation. The vast bulk of this activity may be contained within a reformist framework and to think anything else would be self-deception. But these efforts have not been wasted. They have consistently born fruit.

Do-it-yourself reformism differs in three main ways from Labour reformism. Firstly, in Luxemburg’s words:

[through union action] the worker succeeds in obtaining for himself the rate of wages due to him in accordance with the situation of the labor-power market ... the capitalist law of wages is applied and the effect of the depressing tendency of economic development is paralyzed, or to be more exact, is attenuated. [57]

Secondly, the daily struggles that sustain the trade unions are in the main not revolutionary – but they can challenge the prevailing ideas of capitalism in practice, if only partially or for a limited period. By contrast, Labour always accommodates to prevailing ideas in order to win votes.

Finally, because rank and file struggle is necessarily collective and this is where the strength of the class lies, it sustains and develops the sinews of workers’ organised resistance to capitalism. Labour’s electoralism leads away from such grassroots resistance and towards the bosses’ state.

Do-it-yourself reformism is not socialism, but it is the necessary process by which the working class maintains its basic collective organisation. Luxemburg compared it to the labours of Sisyphus, condemned in Greek mythology forever to push a boulder to the top of a hill, watch it roll down, and then begin again. This activity ‘is, nevertheless, indispensable’.

The difference between shopfloor struggles and the Labour Party’s approach was about to be thrown into sharp relief, for the strength of the shop floor was about to be tested by an offensive from the party. In 1964 Harold Wilson became the third man to lead a Labour government.


1*. Labour rebel elections in 1950 [17]:


Rebel Vote


Labour Vote

H.L. Hutchinson



J. Platts-Mills



D.N. Pritt



L.J. Solley



K. Zilliacus



2*. Together with the Labour right (and the Tories), the Bevanites showed continued enthusiasm for summit talks of the Great Powers. In reality it was hard to outwit Eden and Macmillan in Summitry, and the latter being in office, they had quite an advantage over Labour in this field. Eden’s 1955 election campaign leaned heavily on his claim to have badgered the Americans into considering meeting the Russians. One historian argued that America’s willingness to negotiate was directly related to the ’necessity of winning an election for the British Conservatives.’ [23]

3*. It was ironic that the attack should be lead by Sir William Lawther who thirty years before, as plain Will Lawther, had defended the Communists. He wrote in the Daily Telegraph in 1953: ‘The opinion of the Trades Unions is that the Bevanite activities are a deliberate attempt to undermine the leadership in the same way as Hitler and the Communists did. There is no difference between them. [31]

4*. After the 1966 victory, many of the same commentators said that Labour was the natural ‘majority party’ and was in for a generation. One of the funniest explanations of why Labour was bound to win in the future was a reference to the fact that the birth rate among working-class people who vote Labour is higher than among Conservative votes, while the death rate among Conservatives was higher than for Labour. [48]


1. Labour Conference 1951, p. 92.

2. Labour Conference 1951, p. 75.

3. Gamble, pp. 61–2.

4. TUC Report 1952, p. 300.

5. Allen, p. 34.

6. Allen, p. 128.

7. Crosland, pp. 34–6.

8. Crosland, p. 505.

9. Crosland, p. 37.

10. Crosland, pp. 32–3.

11. Crosland, pp. 474–5.

12. Crosland, p. 468.

13. Crosland, p. 23.

14. Crosland, pp. 520–22.

15. Crosland, pp. 20–21.

16. Crosland, p. 76.

17. R.J. Jackson, Rebels and Whips (London 1968), p. 212.

18. Jackson, pp. 114, 152 and 175.

19. J. Morgan (ed.) Crossman (London 1981), pp. 185–6.

20. Labour Conference 1954, p. 108.

21. Labour Conference 1952, p. 113.

22. See the Tribune pamphlet It Need Not Happen: The Alternative to German Rearmament (London 1954).

23. D.F. Fleming, The Cold War and Its Origins, vol. 2 (London 1981), p. 737.

24. P. Duff, Left, Left, Left (London 1971), p. 46.

25. Labour Conference 1977, p. 80.

26. Labour Weekly, 28 September 1979.

27. Tribune, 5 October 1956.

28. M. Harrison, Trade Unions and the Labour Party since 1945 (London 1960), pp. 212–4.

29. Morgan, Crossman, pp. 47 and 53.

30. Lee, p. 217.

31. Daily Telegraph, 29 January 1953, quoted in M. Jenkins, Bevanism: Labour’s High Tide (Nottingham 1979), p. 180.

32. Hansard, 16 May 1956.

33. The Economist, 10 November 1956.

34. Maurice Edelman, Labour Conference 1957, p. 132.

35. Labour Conference 1957, p. 131.

36. Labour Conference 1957, p. 136.

37. Labour Conference 1957, p. 140.

38. Tribune, 23 August 1957.

39. Jackson, p. 163.

40. Jackson, pp. 181–2.

41. New Statesman, 12 October 1957.

42. Foot, Bevan, vol. 2, p. 580.

43. Lee, p. 238.

44. Bevan, In Place of Fear, p. 46.

45. Quoted in Foote, p. 278.

46. Forward, 16 October 1959.

47. V. Bogdanor, The Labour Party in Opposition, 1951–1964, in V. Bogdanor and R. Skidelsky (eds.), The Age of Affluence 1951–1964 (London 1970), p. 96.

48. D. Butler and D. Stokes, Political Change in Britain (London 1974), p. 350.

49. Labour Conference 1959, pp. 107-155.

50. Drucker, p. 38.

51. [Labour and the Bomb], International Socialism 1 : 3, Winter 1960–1.

52. McKenzie, pp. 627–8.

53. New Statesman, 16 October 1960.

54. New Statesman, 10 February 1961.

55. Morgan, Crossman, p. 901.

56. Socialist Review, July 1983.

57. R. Luxemburg, Reform or Revolution, in Rosa Luxemburg Speaks, p. 71.

Last updated on 14 August 2017