Nostalgia for the golden age of Labourism.

21 06 2014

Barry Biddulph review’s, The People. The rise and fall of the working class 1910-2010, Selina Todd, (John Murray,2014,£25.)

Salina Todd’s The People  is nostalgia for the spirit of 1945 :  when ” the working class became the people whose interests were synonymous with those of Britain itself”. (1)   Despite the academic research,this is  very old Labour  mythology : the people as the nation, united by Labour parliamentarians,  in the people’s war, and then the people’s peace.   It’s  patriotic nostalgia for the golden age of  Labourism and one nation welfare capitalism.(2) But her historical narrative of the  triumph of British Social Democracy, reveals a political incoherence :  the people’s  victory was not the triumph of the working class. The Attlee administration was not all it is cracked up to be.





Salina Todd informs us that the Attlee government was an austerity government, which ultimately put the demands of employers first, and gave priority to the economic demands of post war capitalism, led by the American government. The  financial elite in the city of London was allowed to conduct business as usual, and  the  public and grammar school elites were allowed to retain their privileged position. Inefficient and failing businesses were nationalised, with massive compensation, and put firmly in the control  of the old managers and owners, who ran them on conventional business lines. Most wealth remained where it was prior to the war with the majority of the economy owned by capitalists.   But all this is played down as if it didn’t really matter.

The main thing for Salina Todd is to  give all the political credit for policies  of full employment and free access to health care and secondary education to the leaders of the  Labour party.  In Salina’s words ,”It was Labour who had ensured that the people’s war brought about a people’s peace of welfare and full employment”. (3) This is a myopic,labourite and nationalist view of post war history.The post war order of top down welfare states in western Europe to modernise and strengthen Capitalism, to keep out the threat of Socialism and Communism, was built up by American capital, military power, and the new deal liberalism of Franklin Roosevelt and Dean Acheson. As Keynes, who negotiated a huge American loan for the Labour government, said at the time : “our post war domestic policies are impossible without American assistance” (4)Full employment was generated by an upswing of capitalism created by the world-wide destruction of values, commodities, and the built environment during the war which made the adoption of Keynesian policies feasible.

For Salina Todd,  Ernest Bevin personifies the aspirations of the workers for a better life because in the second world war coalition cabinet he “saw the demand for factory workers as an opportunity to turn the working class into the people”.(5) This  suggests that   Bevin and Labour in government, were motivated by working class interests. Yet state intervention to regulate the capitalist economy was instrumental for Bevin: a  workforce united by a national purpose was a  more productive workforce. (6) This bourgeois liberal approach had dominated the ideas of the parliamentary Labour party from its inception. Ralph Miliband summed  up the post war continuation of this approach :”from the beginning the nationalization proposals of the government were designed to achieve the sole purpose of improving the efficiency of the British capitalist economy,not as the  beginning of its wholesale transformation.”(7) It was not about a neutral state driven by the working class,but the capitalist state “operating within market dominated structures and having no fundamentally different objectives than those of private capital”. (8)

Selina Todd glosses over the wider non working class interests served by state intervention. The welfare state proposals emerged from the liberal intelligentsia, and war-time coalition government committees, which included conservatives. “The main architects of the post war reforms were in fact the progressive liberal bourgeoisie who had become committed to Keynesianism and the interventionist state in the crisis of the 1930’s.”(9) Prominent liberals such as  Keynes and Beveridge wanted to save capitalism from above not construct an alternative from below. The Churchill led coalition government accepted  the Beveridge report, and  Correlli Barnett is clear that “Churchill even accepted that  there was a broadening field for state ownership and enterprise.” (10) It was  about the capitalist state taking responsibility for unprofitable sections of the economy at the public’s expense and creating a healthier and better educated workforce for a more competitive economy.

Ernest Bevin might have introduced better facilities for workers in the royal ordinance factories, and facilitated more trade union recognition in industry during the war ,as Salina Todd notes, but the aim was to make employees work harder  for the war effort. A view shared across the political spectrum. Ernest Bevin acknowledged that”the trade union movement has become part of the state”. (11)  The integration of leading trade union officials into the state apparatus often meant workers on the shop floor had two bosses.This class collaboration at a local factory level saw union officials and employers uniting in production committees.  The autobiography of an Oxford car worker, and left trade unionist, Arthur Exell, gives us a glimpse into life on the production line during the war. (12) As secretary of the joint works production committee his job was to enforce factory discipline on trade union members. The manager approached him for help about what he considered unacceptable behaviour and  absenteeism among young women in the factory. Arthur seems to have taken a similar point of view : the problem with ” these girls” was that they were fed up and kicking against the system. what could Arthur do ? They were not members of the union. So the manager gave him permission to take time off the production line to get them into the union. The plant became 100% union. But Arthur confessed he had to come down  a bit hard on those females. (13)

Salina Todd the historian does acknowledge that ” Bevin put productivity before civil liberty. He swiftly introduced order 1305 which made strikes illegal during the war”. (14) This anti working class legislation was kept in place by the Labour Government after the war. Shortly before the  election of the post war Labour Government Churchill organised  hundreds of troops on standby to break a strike on the Surrey docks in London. Attlee and Bevin had no hesitation in following Churchill’s lead and ordered the troops to give the employers a helping hand. Troops were used as a reserve army of labour to break strikes on “at least 14 occasions between July 1945 and October 1951. ”  (15) The strikers were obviously not seen in terms of the nation as the people, and strikes were always scandalous from a parliamentary point of view.  Dockers were angry about low pay,poor working conditions, and the insecurity of daily hire and fire by the employers. Union leaders put loyalty to a Labour government before the rank and file workers.

The Attlee government had a  bureaucratic top down  paternalistic connection  with the working class. There was no attempt to draw in working class participation in decision-making . Instead, there was confidence in experts of all kinds, and Whitehall civil servants in particular. Salina Todd states the obvious, “the Labour  front bench was not committed to establishing economic and political equality”,  (16)   The military,civil service, and juridical hierarchies remained intact as did elite grammar and public schools. All this could hardly improve opportunities for workers.There was continuing  deference to unelected hereditary lords and of course the unelected Monarch. Gerrymandering continued unchallenged in the orange state in Northern Ireland, and a Labour promise on Scotland’s  devolution was ditched. The great power status of the British state was continued at the expense of working class living standards at home and workers aspirations for an alternative to capitalism internationally.(Greece)  In his understated manner, James Hinton points to the “failure to make inroads into the subordinate position of women”  (17) War time nursery and crèche provision was ended,welfare measures often  assumed a male bread-winner, and there was no provision for birth control on the NHS.  And so on.

Salina Todd  presents an image of the Labour government of 1945 as a party that, unlike Thatcherism, was based on cooperation not competition and the free market.(18)  Yet as an  historian She knows all Labour governments have been based on competition and the market.  Neo- Liberalism did not originate with Thatcherism, but with the James Callaghan’s Labour government in 1976.  The first and second Labour governments of 1924 and 1929 supported conventional capitalist economics and the gold standard : Workers benefits and pay were cut in a desperate attempt to solve capitalism’s economic crisis. There was no support from Ramsay MacDonald for the miners fight against pay cuts in the General Strike in 1926.The mass unemployed marches in the 1930’s were organised without the leadership of the Labour party.  Salina’s narrative obscures old Labour responsibility for working class defeats in the interwar years. The slump is associated with the Tory party and the post war boom is identified with Labour . Hence, the election of a Labour government in 1945  is presented as the forward march of the working class as the people. There was cooperation with trade union leaders, but this was to freeze or cut workers wages in policies of wage restraint, as in the politics  of Harold Wilson’s Labour governments of the 1960’s and 1970’s. Tony Blair was not more  wealth and market friendly than previous Labour leaders. The requirements of administrating capitalism change over time.

Even in council house building the Attlee administration relied heavily on the market and refused to nationalize the land or disturb land ownership. Land to build was bought at market prices,money was borrowed at high interest rates from finance markets and, the houses and flats were often constructed by private contractors. This followed the  pro market policies of the first Labour government  in 1924 : John Wheatley, Labour’s Housing minister said : “I have left private enterprise exactly where I found it….as the protector of the small builder I am the defender of private enterprise”. (19) In 1945 as in 1924 private enterprise was the norm. Peter Malpass  provides the overall picture of housing provision in Britain : “the idea that the market could and should provide for most people, most of the time, has underpinned British housing policy since the start of the 20th century”. (20) There was an acute housing shortage for working people in 1945, but Labour built less housing in 1948 than 1938 and fell well short of their own house building target.  Council tenants were subject to petty rules based on a notion of respectability. Salina Todd reveals that Nye Bevan, the minister responsible for housing, instructed that larger houses should go to managers and middle class professionals. Universal provision ,in housing ,as elsewhere, was adopted to avoid challenging class inequality and  income redistribution. Many workers had to resort to squatting to meet their housing need.

Salina Todd ties the formation of the modern working class with the origin  of the parliamentary Labour party. According to Salina : “in 1900 the formation of the Labour party testified to the rising significance of the industrial workers as a political force”. (21) It certainly related to the rise of the trade union bureaucracy, and its modest and defensive attempt to have a parliamentary voice to moderate  anti-trade union legislation or pass legislation in the interests of trade unions. It was very much a Liberal voice . All the early Labour leaders, Keir  Hardie, Arthur Henderson, Phillip Snowden, and Ramsay MacDonald were liberals or were influenced by Fabian blue prints for class harmony and regulated capitalism. But, between 1910 and 1914, the mass of grass-roots workers in the unions defied their union bosses,conciliation procedure, and bypassed parliament in a serious of violent mass strikes which challenged the state and parliament. The Labour Representation Committee was rendered  irrelevant. George Dangerfield described the workers actions as a “movement which took on a revolutionary course and might have reached a revolutionary conclusion”. (if not for the war in 1914) (22) The L.R.C, and later the parliamentary Labour Party served to constitutionally separate politics from economics to blunt class struggle.

In 1985 Marcel Liebman  described the liberal collectivism of Labourism as a ghost : ” a nostalgia ridiculous and poignant for something which once existed and will never exist again”. (23) But it is a nostalgia that grips the mind of many of the left in Britain today in terms of conviction or tactics.  For decades there was a hope which was  rooted in the occasional radical rhetorical flourishes,and ambiguous phrases of  Labour politics, that the Labour Party embodied a promise of Socialist change. However, with the passing of each Labour government these tactical illusions, and expectations,  have dwindled along with the influence of the purveyors of these false hopes. Then the  expectations became more vague. Did Labour offer voters a promise of  some kind of change ? John Rees, considering the prospects of a Tony Blair government in 1997 was keen to silence the ultra left pessimists who thought the pro business agenda of new Labour would  make the struggle for socialism harder or just as hard as under Thatcher. For Rees it would be easier. Why? Because expectations are not just passive electoral stuff : “expectations are something very different if they begin to force demands for a change”. (24) There was, of course, no crisis of expectations following the election of Blair. Why call up the grey and oppressive spirit of 1945 when  life has moved on ?



1 Salina Todd,The people, the rise and fall of the working class 1910-2010,John Murray, 2014,p.1

2 Salina Todd’s tabloid politics can be seen from her comparison of the rise and fall of the working class with the rise and fall of Viv Nicholson. Viv was a pools winner who coined the phrase spend, spend, spend to describe what she wanted to do  and did which brought about her downfall back into poverty. Salina’s political views are often contradicted by her views as a historian.

3 As above,p.2. With the help of Marshall aid, and other financial assistance, a variety of political forces in western Europe  introduced welfare measures. Only a narrow British view could identify welfare measures solely with Labourism.

4 Leo Panitch and Sam Gindin,The Making of Global Capitalism,Verso,London,2012,p.77

5  As above, Leo Panitch and Sam Gindin, p.96. According to Leo and Sam, American financial assistance  was 15% of the combined gross domestic capital of France Italy and Britain,during the Marshall Plan period.

6 Ernest Bevin had been an authoritarian trade union leader who was not overly concerned with the wishes and participation of his union membership. He was not a  leader reflecting some kind of popular class struggle or directly expressing working class demands. His connection with the working class was indirect and bureaucratic. Salina Todd’s views him as some kind of hero which reveals her own old Labour politics. Although as an academic Oxford historian she does record his anti working class actions, which again undermines her nostalgic Labourism.

7 Ralph Miliband Parliamentary Socialism,Merlin London,p.288

8 Willie Thompson,The Long Death of British Labourism,  Pluto press, London,p.29

9 Norman Ginsburg,Class Capital and Social policy, Macmillan, London, 1979,p.9

10 Corelli Barnett,The audit of War, Papermac, London,1986,p.32

11 As above , Willie Thompson,p.24

12 Arthur Exell,The politics of the production line, History workshop journal 1981. Arthur was a member of the CPGB . His reward for helping managers run a section of the Cowley car plant in Oxford during the war was exclusion from the factory during the cold war. Although he was officially a Communist, he seems to have  been rather  moderate. If he was in a factory, he was there to work not voice socialist views. He had little sympathy for one of his comrades who had the he said had the gift of the gab,  and was sacked for his communist agitation.

13 As above Arthur Exell, p.55

14 Salina Todd,as above,p.124.

15 Steve Peak,Troops in Strikes,Cobham Trust, London 1984,p.83 There were 8,000 unofficial strikes between 1947 -1951. These strikes showed a significant degree of frustration and disillusionment with the Attlee government. It was difficult to take on the trade union leaders,the employers, and the government,especially in the period when strikes were illegal.  See also  more details in A. J Davies,To Build a New Jerusalem, Abacus, 1996

16  Salina Todd as above .p.152,

17 James Hinton,Labour and Socialism, Harvester Press,Brighton,1983, p.71

18 Salina Todd p.319

19 Tony Cliff and Donny Gluckstein, The Labour Party-A Marxist History, Bookmarks,London 1988,p.101

20 Peter Malpass,Housing and the Welfare state, Palgrave , London, 2005,p.209

21 As above , Salina Todd,p.15

22 George Dangerfield,The Strange Death of Liberal England, serif, London,1997, p.179.  This rebellious energy was in stark contrast to the early Labour leadership’s love of Royal garden parties and enjoying the company of the rich and famous. The parliamentary leaders were obsessed with respectability and trying to shake off propaganda about wild men in parliament. See also Tony Cliff and Donny Gluckstein,The Labour Party,a Marxist History,Bookmarks,London 1988. And Tom Nairn,The Anatomy of the Labour Party, in Revolution and Class Struggle, edited Robin Blackburn,Harvester press. Keir Hardie stood for a Labour party based on nation not class or socialist. Hence the name  Labour party,not Socialist party.

23 Marcel Liebman, Introduction to Socialist Register 1985,Social Democracy and After, p.21.

24 John Rees, The Class struggle under New Labour, International Socialism journal, summer 1997,p.10. At one level this was probably a cynical attempt to keep the SWP activists active and cheerful.At all levels it looked for activity in something that did not exist : a campaigning Social Democratic constituency. Lenin’s dubious category of the Labour party as a bourgeois workers party might have had some relevance for 19th century classical Social Democracy in Europe which created mass campaigning organisations. But in Britain the parliamentary Labour party was not part of any extra parliamentary mass struggle. Indeed it was an alternative to mass struggle it helped to defeat.  So there was no contradiction between a mass Socialist struggle and it’s pro- capitalist leaders. There was a separation of the political from the economic. Lenin’s critical support for Labourism simply resulted in accommodation to Social Democracy.

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2 responses

22 06 2014

Good to have you back on this day of the PAAA London demo – though how to break the hold of Labourism on despairing activists hearts and minds….? [Which calls up, for me, shades of the pamphlet "Red Front versus the Labour Party" late lamented(?) R.C.P.'s internal party discussion document of 198odd - I wonder who won?] Tom Richardson Middlesbrough

26 06 2014

Hi ngir
Thanks for the positive comment.

A member of Plan C has argued,correctly in my view,that the demo (25,000 or 50,000 ?) is not an indication of any political advance or politically coherent alternative to Capitalist Austerity. Its an update of the old failed tactics of an alliance with the official “movement.”Nostalgia for better days.


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