The Labour Party is currently at war over its heart, soul, and future. In some cases of dangerous historical rewriting by political commentators, it is also fighting over its past and those of its leadership candidates. So, let us now relive one of the great modernising moments of the Party. And while we’re at it, let us palm our faces at arguments unearthed from one small book and one survey carried out at the start of the swinging 60s.
In 1960 a small book (127 pages) called Must Labour Lose? was published to the general public by Penguin. It was not hidden away among the nabobs of Transport House. It was a briefing on what was called the Socialist Commentary Survey. Both documents had been commissioned by the Hugh Gaitskell’s Labour Party following its unexpected loss in the 1959 General Election.
Mark Abrams, of Research Services Ltd (a private company) was asked to carry out “a small sample survey” in order to, “establish what were the attitudes which have led (sic) the electorate to turn away steadily from the Labour Party in over the past ten years.”1
That’s right, all the way back in 1960, Labour was asking itself the same – or very similar questions about the same or very similar situations. It was a party in crisis. It feared that it might never be electable again. It was asking itself if, after the successes of its post-war incarnation had become part of the fabric of the country, it even had a purpose.
What was it for? Its “core voters” had deserted it. They were aspiring to the reinvigorated Conservative free market, against planning project: for example, the survey indicates that Nationalisation was by 1960 a less than popular policy.
The Tory party, which had benefited from Labour’s Welfare State initiatives and from the post-war economic upswing of the ‘never had it so good’ 1950s, seemed solidly lead. The Conservatives were, if not forward looking, certainly capable of maintaining the good fortune. Would Labour ever win again? Did it have a heart or soul? Could it compete? Who were its voters?
Sound familiar? And I bet you thought Tony Blair, Anthony Giddens, Peter Mandelson and Philip Gould were the first people to ask these kinds of searching questions? Or maybe you thought that the current, horribly fractured, viciously in-fighting Labour Party was taking on the challenge of airing its bloodied laundry in public for the first time during the ongoing debate of Corbynite Socialism versus Blairite Social Democracy versus “We Do Not Know What the Hell is Happeninism of a generalised Left”? Nope.
So, some quotes from Must Labour Lose? may strike you as a familiar. You can read those in the gallery below (mainly because I like the look of old books and I think you should to). I’ve added some of them in text form.
The book itself is still available, I got mine from Ebay. It is well worth a read because it informs us of how thinking about and within the Labour Party has for decades been robust, heartfelt and engaged with the its time and with the social and political potentials and pragmatics (two major schismatic aspects of the party) that meant and mean so much to its members; and also to those non-Labour voting citizens who have benefited from the Party’s achievements since its formation.
Not everything about politics needs to be seen through a lens shaped by declinism. Even arguments such as those raging today can end in renewal and a positive mixture of practical and idealist.
On a technical note You might also be interested to know that using survey data and attempting to collate ’empirical’ evidence was a new, and in many old Labour cases frightening way to go about party reform. As Dr Rita Hinden (“a well-known Fabian and editor of Socialist Commentary…) points out in the introduction:
“Many people — notably in the Labour Party — fear the result (of the survey) will be to scale down policies to ‘what people want’, whereas the essence of a party reform is to change values, not just to satisfy existing ones.
“But perhaps the most important reason for all the opposition which some politicians show to the survey is that it is a direct threat to their own ‘mystique’. Within the Labour Party there are too many who already know ‘what the workers want’.2”
For ‘workers’, I think you can now use ‘members’. But the point about the ‘mystique’ I think still holds. In fact, I think it can be also be extended to include the gang of largely paternalistic political commentators writing for old, entrenched publications using old, entrenched thinking to attempt to appear relevant in a new age of greater public engagement.
For bonus, “Whoa, no way! Things don’t half cycle in history! These connections must mean something!” context4: Tony Blair replaced John Smith as leader of a Labour Party that had been in ‘the wilderness’ for nearly two decades, following Smith’s untimely and shocking death.
Following the soul searching exemplified by Must Labour Lose?, Harold Wilson replaced Hugh Gaitskell following the latter’s untimely and shocking death, and Labour’s losses of the 1951,1955 and 1959 General Elections.
Like Blair, Wilson was a modernising leader who went on to secure several Labour General Election victories. In Wilson’s case: 1964, 1966, and 1974. Wilson’s achievements included the Open University, and it is also notable that Wilson:
…encouraged Leo Abse to introduce a 10-minute rule bill for homosexual law reform and then persuaded a reluctant cabinet to give it parliamentary time, a most unusual process.4
Like Blair, Wilson left the party (he resigned early and not following an election loss) having seen his reputation and legend tarnished.
That’s enough of that… now the quotes all of which come from Must Labour Lose?:
“The second appeal of Labour is also fading. Its promises to conquer economic distress and crises by planning based on public ownership mean little now that the terrible economic depressions of the past appear to have been left behind. The experience of public ownership has been insufficiently successful or inspiring to arouse a desire for more. On the contrary, the majority of people seem positively to dislike the idea of further experiments in this direction. To make matters worse while these appeals diminish the Party is divided. There are many within it who find it too difficult to adjust themselves to a new age, and bitterly accused those who try of ‘betraying their principles’”. (p119)
“Unity in the (Labour) party can never be recreated by a series of uneasy compromises; the trouble goes to deep for that. In the years before the last election, the Party did progress to a certain agreement on practical policies; we are in danger of forgetting how united it was during the election campaign behind both its leadership and its programme. But all the time, beneath this facade of unity, there lurked conflicts of principle which were never resolved; they have reasserted themselves with renewed acrimony in the demoralization following defeat. No political party can be effective without some underlying agreement on its principles; it is that which ultimately determines whether it speaks with one voice. The basic reason why the Labour Party does not speak with this one voice is that it cannot agree what, within socialist tradition, is principal and what is not.” (p117)
“Why is the tide of opinion set against Labour at the present time? The survey suggests three main reasons. The first is that Labour is thought of predominantly as a class party, and that the class which it represents is -objectively and subjectively – on the wane. This stamps it with a aura of sectionalism and narrowness, at a time when people see opportunities for advancement opening before them as never before.
“It is the Conservatives who have the wider appeal. They are regarded by the majority as the champions of material prosperity, the natural home of the young, the ambitious, successful. And, foremost — apart from working for world peace — among the qualities which the majority look for in a political party, is that it should ensure prosperity.
“Forgotten for most people are the wretched living standards, depressions, unemployment, class rigidity, and the rest of the evils which afflicted an earlier generation; in the mood today the Conservatives are undeservedly given the weight of credit for the good things that have come.
“Labour may stand for “the working class” but not for the increasing number who feel, rightly or wrongly, they have outgrown that label.
“The second reason for Labour’s unpopularity is it identification with nationalisation. It is not that public ownership is condemned outright: people are discriminating and are quite prepared to say that certain publicly owned industries have been a success.
“Nor as the survey reveals, do people want to retreat to times of laissez-faire: they understand that a considerable measure of government control is necessary. But their attitude reveals the empiricism of which British people are renowned. They will judge each case on its merits, and, in so far as Labour appeals to be doctrinaire on this subject of ownership, it settles itself with a liability.
“The third factor telling against Labour’s the impression of week divided leadership.” (p100)
1Mark Abrams and Richard Rose. Must Labour Lose? London, 1960 Penguin Books, p9
2Mark Abrams and Richard Rose. Must Labour Lose? London, 1960 Penguin Books, p8
3In fact, no a fact, a supposition on my part.
4Breathe in, some things, no matter how interesting, are simply coincidence.
5Credit where it’s due in Harold Wilson government