what is it, after the Labour Party’s third defeat that has to be put to rights? Some say that it is only the electoral machinery or the propaganda, but these answers are patently superficial. Others point to programme and policy, and they are right enough. Even so, to my mind this is not the root of the matter. It is high time to talk about the nature of the Labour Party.
Consider the party, then, as it has been at its best: that is, in certain strongholds during the years after 1945. For those joined in the fraternity of membership, and for many others who identified themselves with it, it represented not only the hope but in some measure the reality of an alternative way of life, existing alongside and continually challenging the old order. The Labour rooms served both as community centre and as advice bureau. Each time a problem was attacked or a grievance remedied, on however small or however large a scale, a window was opened upon a new view of human and social relations. The thinking of the community was shaped, not so much by the centralised diffusion of ideas through press and radio as by a myriad individual contacts and influences. There was a Labour attitude to every aspect of life—to the functioning of the economy, to the welfare services and education, to the administration of justice and the relations of the citizen to authority, to the provision and choice of entertainment, to social habits, even to personal morality. Both directly and indirectly (that is, through local government and various community bodies) these attitudes could often be carried into action with decisive effect.
Labour, in fact, was a mass party, and the only one we have ever had in this country, for the Conservative Party works differently. True, it has a superb political machine, a powerful say in local government, and a membership system that meshes with the social life of those who can feel at home in it. But it does not really seek a place in the general community, except a place apart: the place of power. It asks the millions to trust it, not to identify themselves with it. It eschews the social completeness, the emotional impetus, and the comprehensive though simple ideology that are essential to the mass party, whether of the Right or the Left. (Lord Hailsham’s Penguin book tells you why). It is worth remarking, however, that the mass party is a phenomenon characteristic of the post-war decade all over Western Europe. The Labour Party was not alone or even pre-eminent in creating social bonds of a strength and suppleness comparable only to those of religion. In broad outline, my description fits the French and Italian Communists, and in the case of the latter also their great antagonist, Christian Democracy.
That, as I say, was ten years ago and more. Today, each of these mass parties is a shadow of its old self. Voting strength and membership may be more or less maintained (in some cases, less rather than more), but only as the paper strength of a church in an irreligious country. The party has become a party in the textbook sense—confined, I mean, to the narrow arena of Parliament and of “politics” as the word is commonly used. The dynamic of ideas, and the holding of an integral place in the community, are equally attenuated.
The decline of the mass party is, of course, closely connected with the other great development of the 1950’s in our part of the world: the resurgence of capitalism and its unexpected ability to satisfy at least a limited range of human demands. That it has been unexpected, none should wonder. The “recovery” decade followed a long period, from the crash of 1929 to the Marshall Plan, during which European capitalism was discredited in the eyes of millions and appeared plainly incapable of functioning even by its own standards and in its own way. It was to parties and movements that these millions turned to solve even the most immediate and personal of problems: the need for a job, a home, the next meal. Sometimes they turned to the Left, sometimes to fascism or a party of pseudo-fascist demagogues, sometimes to a spiritual soup-kitchen like Italian Christian Democracy. The cause, however, was the same.