Any analysis of the state of the Left in Britain must begin with an analysis of the nature of the Labour Party.footnote1 For here is a mass party, based on an essentially undivided trade union movement. For at least the last 20 years, it has been always a potential government, and in good times for the Left it is capable of governing alone. From its foundation, it has been a coalition of Left organizations, and the essential political battles of the Left have been fought out within it. The Independent Labour Party offered an alternative political organization until its merger with the Labour Party in the early 1930’s: one more strand was then added to the coalition. The Communist Party, since the early 1920’s, has worked as a militant wing of the Labour movement: often involved in local struggles against the Labour Party, often influential in particular trade unions, but never looking likely to become a mass party. A Labour Government, with the maintenance of a militant Communist minority, has in practice been its normal political aim.

The strengths and weaknesses of this domination of the Left by a mass party capable in the short term of winning decisive parliamentary power are then the essential terms of any realistic analysis. The weaknesses are easy to see. The fact that the Labour Party is a coalition has led to an evident poverty in theory: any attempt to go beyond quite general definitions leads at once to strains on this complicated alliance. The prospect of parliamentary power, within the existing political system, leads regularly to a muting of necessary arguments, and the needs of the Party, in parliamentary and electoral terms, are given a quite frequent priority over political principle. The prospect of power, in this constitutional way, leads to a strengthening of those already large elements in the Party who broadly accept the existing political and economic system and who, apart from substituting themselves for Conservatives as Ministers, wish to make only comparatively minor reforms. When these lines of opportunism or liberalism become very pronounced, there is a scatter of breakaway movements, and the very structure of the Labout Party is widely seen as the principal weakness of the British Left. Among intellectuals of the Left, this kind of movement is particularly common. But the strengths of this peculiar organization are quite steadily underestimated. At several times and for different reasons in the last 30 years it has indeed seemed likely that the Party would disintegrate: that its contradictions and tensions were too deep for it to last. The Right, in and outside the Labour Party, have proposed a detachment from the class identification with the trade unions, and from the formal commitment to socialism. The Left, in and outside the Labour Party, have proposed a detachment of militants from this unprincipled and amorphous and often compromised organization, and the building of a principled Socialist Party. It needs emphasis that from these successive and different crises the main strength of the Labour Party has emerged relatively unscathed. The inability, as yet, of the Right to shatter this organized strength is, in fact, deeply encouraging. Certain deep strengths are here, as well as the obvious weaknesses. The similar inability of the Left to detach any significant body of the working-class from its Labour allegiance is a fact about British society as a whole. In one sense, this allegiance is an obstacle to militant socialism, but in another sense it keeps open the possibility of putting socialism on the political agenda without civil conflict or violence. There is a balance, here, of strengths and weaknesses, which is our real political context.

The existence and endurance of the Labour Party has tended to confine the arguments about socialism to parliamentary terms. These are evidently insufficient, but even so there have been many false statements about this matter of voting strengths and it is worth correcting them. The most common is the assertion that the relative post-war affluence of the working-class has led to a weakening of the Labour Party. The Conservative victories in 1951, 1955 and 1959 have been widely interpreted in this way. The effects of relatively full employment and higher real wages are indeed complicated, but in this matter of voting strengths it is indisputably true that the Labour Party has been stronger in the post-war period of relative affluence than it ever was in the pre-war periods of mass unemployment and poverty. Its victory in 1945 was gained with 12 million votes. Before the war its vote had never been higher than 8½ million. The situation after 1945 is said to be one of voting decline due to ‘affluence’, but the figures are: 1950, over 13 million; 1951, nearly 14 million; 1955, over 12 million; 1959, still over 12 million; 1964, again over 12 million, which, with a decline in the Conservative vote, was enough to regain power. The relative decline during the 1950’s, which cost Labour power, is still within the terms of an absolute and major improvement over the pre-war situation. The truth is that as the 1945 Labour Government carried out its programme, it gained some working-class support but also united against it a formidable and in the end decisive body of opinion. When it lost power in 1951, it still had, due to the pecularities of the electoral system, a higher popular vote than the Conservatives. The evident material improvements in Britain during the 1950’s gave the Conservatives the relatively narrow advantage in the popular vote on which they governed for 13 years. In 1964, this advantage was marginally altered, and Labour could again form a government. Additionally, all through this period, Labour has retained a clear majority among men; it is the anti-Labour majority among women which has kept them out. In the large towns and the industrial areas, including, recently, the most prosperous industrial areas, Labour has been exceptionally strong, even under Conservative rule.

The Labour Party remains then, in spite of post-war changes, a mass party and a permanently potential government, based primarily on the most organized sections of the working class. Yet, given this strength why has it seemed so often an improbable instrument of socialist change? Here we have to turn from the limited arena of parliamentary politics and examine the complicated intellectual and structural traditions of other kinds of social criticism and opposition.

The origins of the British working-class movement, in the years 1780–1835, show a complicated combination of political radicalism and defensive industrial organization. (The period has been well described in Edward Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class). The major challenge of Chartism in the 1840’s failed, but produced in the ruling class, in the following decades, a series of reformist attitudes and measures, in the beginning as the explicit cost of avoiding revolution. Within these reforms, a leading section of the previous movement—the artisans and skilled workers—became relatively acclimatized to a capitalist society which was growing in wealth and steadily extending the suffrage. When economic depression came again in the 1880’s, there was a revival of general trade union organization, but the political consequences of this were confused. The acclimatized trade union leaders saw no need for a new political party. It was from the leaders of the new unions that the demand for a political initiative came. An ambivalence, in the trade unions’ attitudes to working-class political initiatives, was thus already evident. In practical terms, the new leaders won, but the ambivalence has continued. Even when, in subsequent decades, the Labour Party had been accepted as the political instrument of the trade unions, there was a clear division of opinion, among trade union leaders, on what this political role should be. On the one hand, the Labour Party was seen as an instrument for the transformation of capitalist society and its replacement by socialism: an aim to which a number of the unions are, by their written constitutions, committed. On the other hand, by a majority of trade union leaders, the Labour Party has been seen primarily as a representative of working-class interests within the existing system, so that when it governs it need go no further than certain limited kinds of protective and welfare legislation. These opinions have fluctuated according to the nature of industrial conflict. The General Strike of 1926 was a major working-class challenge to the existing political régime, but it is significant that it was defeated, not by any failure in popular support, but by a final willingness to compromise among the trade union leaders. After this defeat, the tide ran strongly towards acclimatization, and there was a further development of bureaucracy and centralized control within many of the most important unions. These factors are all still apparent, and there is still an important section of the trade union leadership which, while formally supporting the Labour Party, might even welcome the separation of the trade unions from political commitments, leaving them as only negotiating and bargaining bodies. American influence in this direction has been particularly strong. At the same time, the undemocratic nature of many of the largest trade unions is itself a source of instability. The most striking recent demonstration of this was the succession of Cousins to Deakin (after a brief interregnum) as General Secretary of the Transport and General Workers’ Union, with a membership of more than a million. Under Deakin, this union had been the principal supporter of the Right leadership. Under Cousins it has been the most important supporter of a whole range of Left policies, in domestic and international affairs. The fact that a million votes can be swung so completely from one side of the power struggle to another is a clear sign of how far bureaucratization has gone. It shows also, however, how what looks like a powerful and monolithic orthodoxy can be quite seriously, if only temporarily, disturbed. The internal politics of the Labour Party, in recent years, are best understood as a series of struggles between essentially undemocratic groups. The Party Conference is dominated by the trade union bloc votes. The Constituency parties normally represent only the militant minorities of party members. The Parliamentary Party claims a practical independence of the other bodies, when policies conflict, and, by the nature of its involvement with the parliamentary system, is drawn continually into the orthodoxies of contemporary capitalist politics. Out of this complex situation, continually biased towards accommodations with existing political power, the general trend of Labour policy emerges. Thus we have the paradox of a mass party, formally committed to socialism, in practice functioning as the inheritor of the reforming Liberal Party with which the first generations of the working-class movement eventually worked. At the same time, the commitment to socialism, however, formal, is often an electoral weakness, and is exploited as such by the Right, while the continued loyalty to the Party of the majority of organized workers prevents any significant initiatives from the Left.