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.

This situation is reinforced by the nature of the inherited systems of ideas. Here, again, there is a complicated mixture of strength and weakness. The main ideological element in the British working-class movement is one of moral critique. Again and again, even during the periods of fervent political radicalism, this moral critique has revealed itself as the decisive line. The ideas of brotherhood and co-operation, against selfish individualism, have always been more influential than ideas about political power as such. The developed language of Marxism, with its emphasis on class power, has sometimes qualified but never altered this decisive bearing. Thus it has often seemed that the British working class have been more interested in building their own brotherly and co-operative institutions than in taking overall political power. This has led to many weaknesses, for the obvious theoretical reason that the brotherly and co-operative institutions have been forced to function within an individualist economy, and the margin has often been very narrow indeed. Again and again, it has seemed to Marxists that the British working-class movement is in this sense hopeless: that the option, under pressure, is always for the maintenance of their own institutions rather than for the transformation of the society as a whole. In many circumstances this has indeed been a weakness, but also outside observers have normally overlooked its strengths. For just this factor has been responsible for the maintenance of an essentially undivided mass party, which is capable of parliamentary power. Further, as many right-wing ideologists sadly admit, this inward-turning loyalty of the British working-class has created a continually surprising endurance and resilience, under the pressure of economic or political defeat. It would indeed be very difficult to imagine the British working-class movement, or any significant section of it, being captured, even temporarily, by an opportunism from outside itself. When it is betrayed, as so often, it is from within, but it is again surprising how comparatively little these frequent betrayals affect the main body of strength. Nor is it only a matter of the endurance of an organized and undivided movement. It is also a question of the endurance of certain pre-political values, which to a surprising degree survive the political frustrations and betrayals. The Right wing of the Labour Party, to say nothing of the Right in the country as a whole, has won an almost continuous succession of victories, in the short term, only to find that there is still ranged against it, almost as if the victories had not happened, the same complex of moral pressures and demands. Even here, the weakness of this social character of the British working-class movement is often evident. It can be frequently limited, or even corrupted, by nationalism, as it was so grossly corrupted by imperialism. The fact that the pre-political values have not often become politically significant has commonly been the very cause of the frustrations and defeats. Yet, in the persistence of this self-generating tradition, the option for the future, as well as the organization of the present, is continually there. In one sense, this kind of insularity (of an island, indeed, within an island) has to grow beyond itself, if there is to be socialism in Britain. The process of this transformation is all that matters, politically, in Britain. But it has been significant, recently, how most of the attacks on insularity have come from the Right. There is a very brisk line of right-wing argument designed to detach the British working-class from its own social traditions, and it is not only because of the sources of this argument that one sees it as double-edged. The truth is that if the British working-class movement could be detached from its own kind of unemphatic and pre-political self-reliance, the way would be completely open for the triumph of the new capitalism. The campaign to ‘modernize’ Britain, and to make it less ‘insular’, is, in its most common forms, a campaign especially directed against the particular strengths of the British working-class.

The moral critique of industrial capitalism, which has mainly informed the British working-class movement, has been paralleled, throughout, by a literary tradition of comparable importance. At the level of local organization, the working-class movement has been nourished by the important tradition of religious nonconformity. Puritanism has taught it restraint and the limitation of human demands, and in this sense has been frustrating and weakening. Puritanism has also taught it self-reliance and endurance, and these, correspondingly, have been strengthening. But there has been an important tradition of ideas and feelings which is not Puritan, and which in my view lies just as deeply in the moral consciousness. The claims of Cobbett, Ruskin, William Morris—to name three of the most influential writers—were no more Puritan than the novels of Dickens. What is asserted in this tradition is the claim to life, against the distortion of humanity by the priorities and disciplines of industrial capitalism. D. H. Lawrence is best seen as the latest writer in this important tradition. If we actually look at British working-class life, rather than at the stereotypes provided for political analysis and export, we find this, again pre-political, emphasis breaking out again and again. It is often anarchic, in its immediate forms, but in its insistence on satisfaction and excitement it is a moral challenge of no less weight than that of Puritanism. Nobody really knowing British working-class life would suppose that Puritan was a whole description of it. In recent years, with the weight of economic suffering lifted, this energy, if still crude, has flowered, and is now, factually, the most important challenge to the routines and orthodoxies of a society basing itself on the class satisfactions of industrial capitalism. Here, if still at a pre-political level, the grey routines of an alienated society are so strongly challenged that more alarm is caused, to the effective ruling class, by the way people take and use their leisure than by any overt political challenge. The sound of the young in Britain, so terrifying to all who have accepted the routines, is a deep and living sound, and it is significant that where it becomes political it is against the whole structure of the society rather than for or against a particular group in parliamentary politics.