The current mental state of the Labour Party is like a nagging headache that’s impervious to repeated doses of paracetamol. Michele Hanson bottles the zeitgeist wittily in her column for today’s Guardian, while Helen Lewis offers a detailed and thoughtful analysis of attitudes on both sides of the divide in the New Statesman.
I had intended to avoid burdening this blog with more wasted words about it all, but then, while reading Family Britain, the second volume of David Kynaston’s brilliant social history of post-war Britain, I came across the following passage. It’s October 1952 and in a windswept Morecambe, a stormy Labour party conference is taking place a year after the Tories had swept the 1945-51 Labour government from power.
The party leadership, headed by former PM Clem Attlee, is facing challenges from the Bevanites – followers of the fiery Aneurin Bevan who had steered the NHS into existence a few years earlier. Kynaston takes up the story:
The defining event of an uninhibitedly fractious, ill-tempered conference – ‘Shut your gob,’ shouted the right-wing miners’ leader Will Lawther at one heckler, while at least two bouts of fisticuffs were reported, one of them involving the heavyweight Bessie Braddock – was the election for constituency representatives on the National Executive Committee (NEC).
Six out of the seven places went to avowed Bevanites at the expense of senior figures. The union block vote remained firmly attached to the right of the party, but, writes Kynaston, ‘this was still a stunning coup on the part of the Bevanites, increasingly a party within the party.’
After the conference, Hugh Gaitskell, emerging as leader of the right in the party, intensified the mood of internecine strife by making a highly provocative speech.
He accused a significant minority of the (increasingly middle-class) constituency delegates of being ‘Communists or Communist controlled’; made a derogatory reference to ‘mob rule by a group of frustrated journalists’ (with the left-wing.
Bevan-supporting Tribune explicitly mentioned); and called for a restoration of ‘the authority and leadership of the solid and sensible majority of the Movement’.
Attlee was determined to stay as leader for as long as it took to ensure that neither Bevan nor a figure from the right of the party succeeded him; at a subsequent meeting of the Parliamentary Labour Party, he successfully moved a resolution not only banning all unofficial groups within the party but also forbidding all personal
attacks. But, notes Kynaston, the pro-Bevan New Statesman was certain that Bevanism would not die, given that it was ‘the expression of a deep fissure between the official Party machine and the mass of everyday Socialists’. Kynaston goes on to quote a ‘disenchanted party worker’, puzzled that Labour had ‘so entirely failed to be a vigorous, coherent opposition to the Tories’.
‘Why have the Bevanites been allowed to hold the field?’ he asked. ‘It can be argued that a government which came so close to winning a third term cannot have been so far wrong. [The Tories won the 1951 election by a slim margin of seats, with Labour actually polling more votes.] The middle of the road voters apparently approved of the moderate programme of 1951, without any specific proposals for further nationalisation. Why then adopt more radical policies? All the more reason for avoiding extremism when its chief advocate is Mr Bevan, who is thought of as being violently disliked by the body of voters as he is violently admired by his followers.’
Bevanites… Cobynistas: plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.