31 51 81: Why Labour stayed in opposition, part 3

The third part of BARRY WINTER’s report on a conference to explore Labour’s lost decades, held on Rotherham on 19 March.

Part 3: the 1950s and the 1980s

The 1950s

Mark Wickham-Jones argued that some important reasons why Labour did not do so well in the 1950s have been neglected. Apart from a team at the US embassy at the time, producing monthly 60-page reports, there was no research undertaken on the party’s policy. This stressed that policy-making was highly pragmatic, based on notions of trial and error.

The party was also highly insular in its outlook, adopting a patronising and dismissive attitude to other social democratic parties. It was slow to take seriously the Coal and Steel Community (the first moves to European unity) and when it did so, it declined to participate. It reserved its praise for the United States. There is no evidence that it looked at Sweden’s sophisticated model of social democracy. The party’s highly empirical outlook meant that it was not interested in theoretical issues of this kind. In sum, the party was insular, nationalist and a-theoretical, and it drifted along in a piecemeal fashion.

Pat Thane looked at why Labour stayed in opposition in the 1950s, set against the bitter divisions between Nye Bevan and Hugh Gaitskell. The Labour Party had difficulty in coming to terms with mass affluence and women voters. It was slow to notice that the Conservatives were not presiding over mass unemployment. It was hostile towards affluence and saw consumer goods as a betrayal. It attacked hire purchase, fridges, cars, vacuum cleaners, televisions, supermarkets, and singled out washing machines, in particular. Opposition to washing machines may have done more to alienate women voters than anything else.

The party only saw women as housewives. Yet until 1951, working class women were more loyal to Labour than working class men. Meanwhile, in 1955 the Conservatives introduced equal pay for public sector workers. Having resisted equal pay at the time, Labour included it in its 1959 manifesto.

As a result, the 1950s was a decade in which women’s support for the Conservatives grew, particularly between 1955 and ’59. Middle class women swung against Labour’s austerity. The party’s anti-pleasure rhetoric – which offered no counter-attraction – alienated many. Herbert Morrison was perhaps the only leader who understood what affluence meant for working people. Others retained a lofty hostility towards materialism.

Labour’s discomfort with affluence is understandable. By 1951, the party leadership was exhausted and found it hard to adjust to the new realities. It was Anthony Crosland who, for good or ill, nudged the party into an accommodation with affluence and markets.

Discussion on the 1950s

Anne Perkins, journalist and author of a biography of Barbara Castle, said the party in the 1095s was unwilling to raise its horizons. It did not try to lead opinion, even on issues like ending the empire.

Dennis MacShane, MP for Rotherham, argued that one of Labour’s great unspoken problems was the Communist Party’s political role and negative influence in the trade unions. In Sweden, the trade unions defeated communist attempts to become a hegemonic force.

Another speaker said that in the ’50s, while all was not lost, Labour lacked a strategic sense of where it was going. The Tories, however, looked at the impact of affluence on Labour voters. Labour’s supporters did not shift to the Conservatives but they did become more instrumental in judging competent governance.

David Howell said that by 1959 electoral homogeneity begins to break down. During the 1930s, Labour did better among the affluent working class which was most unionised.

Mark Wickham-Jones argued that affluence posed complicated questions for Labour. What was notable was how quickly the party plunged itself into turmoil following the fight over prescription charges. There was no attempt to unify the party in these years.

The 1980s

Gerald Kaufman and David Owen were asked to address the question: Why was the 1980s such a bad era for Labour?

Gerald Kaufman pointed out that over the last century Labour have been in office for only 33 years. The real problem for Labour is that the Tories will do anything to get back into office because they are less in interested in politics than power. He described himself as being on the left and a former member of the Tribune group.

Since the 1950s (when he was first actively involved with the party), he has seen the party engaged in unnecessary turmoil. For Labour the post-1970s was a period of phoney ideological turmoil. It saw Tony Benn’s discovery of the working class as a kind of ‘noble savage’. The election of Michael Foot – itself a sign of the growing split – made it impossible for Labour to win the general election. His preoccupations were based on genuine convictions. He was a great scholar but not a party leader.

As a result, this was a period of utter chaos in both the shadow cabinet and the Labour Party. Labour MPs were so scared of their constituency parties, which were dominated by the far left, that they were afraid to speak their minds. His own CLP, Manchester Gorton, was controlled by the hard left. Yet the clashes were about next to nothing.

Later he added that the party became embedded in factionalism and produced barmy policies. It put its own political convictions ahead of the party’s electoral fortunes. The key moment was the deputy leadership election (when Benn stood against Healey) with corrupt and capricious trade unions, and hard left constituencies making the running. In one of his final remarks he said that the day Labour caves into pressure to restrict immigration is the day that he leaves the party.

David Owen said the question to ask is how the Labour Party and Ed Miliband as leader (who he supports) can win next time. The lesson of the 1970s is that it takes time to recover from economic recession. Labour lost in 1979 long before the ‘winter of discontent’, when it supported 17 per cent pay rises for Ford workers. This raises the question of the trade union links with the party which need rethinking. The unions played a constructive role in terms of incomes policy for three years and Jim Callaghan should have been more flexible about low paid workers.

Michael Foot was a disaster for the party, he said. This could have been avoided if Callaghan had stood down earlier to allow Denis Healey to be elected. The agreement with the unions over the party constitution – one member one vote and the electoral college for electing the leader – was a fatal error.

Labour now needs to consider how it can win the centre. Ed Miliband has considerable potential and has shown coolness and steadfastness under fire from the Conservatives.

In response to a point made by Mark Wickham-Jones that Michael Foot was more a symptom than a cause of Labour’s problems, Owen said that was a fair criticism of what he had said. The right of the party had shown slackness by placing too much reliance on the block vote to give them support.

Greg Rosen said that the main reason why the party was in opposition was a divorce between the aspirations of Labour activists and Labour voters. The party moved in a direction which many voters were not prepared to support. The party was also on the wrong side of the argument about council house sales, something it had earlier looked into introducing itself.

Labour was both too radical and too conservative at the same time. The left’s alternative economic strategy failed to answer questions about how to achieve industrial growth; it was not workable. Benn’s support for worker co-operatives, like Meriden, was a failure. The fratricide and hatred reached its peak in the 1980s. The SDP was pushed out of the party and then condemned for leaving.

However, while the left did at least point out the economic problems, the right did not even recognise them. The lesson for today is to look at Labour’s record to see what did and did not work.


The conference did raise important issues about Labour’s history, not least the contexts for its internal conflicts. The array of informed speakers was impressive; the performance by the two politicians rather less so. Indeed, by the time we reached the 1970-80s, the level of analysis deteriorated – ‘blame the left’, was Kaufman’s rather bitter, simplistic message.

I don’t think it’s unkind to say that, having learned nothing and forgotten nothing about the period, Kaufman had next to nothing to teach. What was wholly absent was any consideration of Labour’s record in office, let alone, any assessment of how, in responding to the UK’s economic decline, it acted as the midwife to Thatcherism. However, some of us, who were also active during the period, were allowed to respond and given a hearing.

During the 1980s, the ILP often argued for a different direction to the Bennite left. That said, the speakers made no mention of the paternalism, condescension and contempt shown by Labour’s leading parliamentarians towards party members. Not only was the Labour Party highly undemocratic and unresponsive to the wider party, but the parliamentary leadership was manipulative and anti-democratic. For example, when Labour Party conference voted by a two-thirds majority to abolish the House of Lords (sufficient for inclusion in the party manifesto), Jim Callaghan stopped it by threatening to resign.

Sure, they were difficult times. Sure, there was an overreaction, but when people’s voices go unheard for long enough, that’s what happens.

Mark Wickham-Jones is professor of political science at the University of Bath. He is writing an about of Labour’s relationship to social democracy in the postwar period. He wrote Economic Strategy and the Labour Party: Politics and Policy-Making, 1970-83.

Pat Thane is professor of contemporary British history at King’s College, London. She has written on the history of the Labour Party, inequality, and women and citizenship.

Sir Gerald Kaufman has been an MP since 1970. He is known for his description of the Labour Party’s 1983 manifesto as ‘the longest suicide note in history’.

Lord David Owen was Foreign Secretary in the 1970s Labour government. He was one of the founders of the Social Democratic Party but left when it merged with the Liberals. According to Wikipedia, he revealed in January 2011 that his ‘heart was with Labour’.

Greg Rosen is a public policy consultant, a columnist for The Scotsman and chair of the Labour History Group.

This is part 3 of Barry Winter’s report. Click here to read part one, and here to read part two.

For a lively, amusing and pithy assessment of the day’s proceedings, read Harry Barnes’ very fair report: http://threescoreyearsandten.blogspot.com/


  1. Jonathan
    29 April 2011

    The two most important influences on the politics of the Labour Party during the 1950s and 1980s may have been external: the rise of consumerist individualism and the increasing power of global capital (which was reflected in the narrowing political choices available to governments of whatever hue). The leading sections of the Labour Party only came to terms with this as a result of the leadership of Tony Blair, and we now understand that the truce between social democratic aims and finance capital he based New Labour’s strategy upon was deeply faulty.

  2. […] This is part two of Barry Winter’s report. Click here to read part one, and here to read part three. […]

  3. […] This is part one of Barry Winter’s report. Click here to read part two, and here to read part three. […]

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