Following its recent party conference, Labour’s stance now bears some similarities with its position at the 1945 general election. But we live in an entirely different nation surrounded by a much altered world. HARRY BARNES considers what the ’45 government achieved and what Corbyn’s party can learn from those years.
The Labour government of 1945 to 1951 created full employment and a welfare state, including the National Health Service; nationalised more than 20 per cent of industry; introduced the 1944 Education Act; made improvements in working class living standards; initiated a major council house building programme; and began the UK’s shift from Empire to Commonwealth.
Democratic socialists often look back with pride on such achievements, even if they hold some reservations about its shortcomings. So what was the wider context that enabled the Labour government to achieve all this?
- Labour was bolstered by supportive attitudes widespread among groups of working class people as a result of their pre-war and war-time experiences.
- There was wide support for the 1942 Beveridge Report, which aimed to tackle the five giant evils of squalor, ignorance, want, idleness and disease.
- Labour continued with fair shares policies such as rationing.
- Labour built on Keynesian economic techniques, including the stimulation of aggregate demand to tackle the dangers of recession.
- The UK received 26 per cent of the resources available under the Marshall Plan, which removed trade barriers – equivalent to US$32 billion today.
- The Bretton Woods agreement covering the USA, Canada, western Europe, Australia and Japan tied currencies to the Gold Standard while the International Monetary Fund bridged temporary imbalances of payments. The IMF was founded in 1945 with 29 members and aimed to foster global monetary co-operation. There are 189 today. The Gold Standard remained in place until 1971.
- Labour benefited from the Anglo-American Loan negotiated by Keynes in 1946, equivalent to some $60 billion in today’s prices, at a low interest rate of 2 per cent. The loan was finally paid off at the end of 2006.
Since 1951 the world has gone through massive changes. By 1963 Harold Wilson was already referring to the “white hot heat of the technological revolution” and wrote that he wished “to replace the cloth cap (with) the white laboratory coat as the symbol of British Labour”.
Whether we agree with Wilson’s aspirations or not, I do wonder what would be the symbol of today’s Labour Party.
Since the Wilson era, the size, influence and power of multinational companies have grown enormously; today’s technology means resources and financial powers can be transferred at the touch of a button; and China, which emerged as a form of Communist regime opposed to capitalist norms, now outplays many capitalist nations.
For those who hold on to traditional democratic socialist aspirations, how should we respond to today’s world within the confines of our own political system?
Labour policies today
The recent Labour Party conference took us back to some of the stances of 1945. The party’s current proposals, not all adopted at this year’s conference, include:
- taking rail, water, energy and the Royal Mail back into public ownership
- providing the means for workers’ control, co-operative enterprises and the extension of trade union rights
- restoring a healthy and viable NHS
- direct action on climate change
- a national education service with free tuition for students on college, technical and vocational courses, and moves to scrap university tuition fees
- an end to public-private partnerships – as John McDonnell said: “We are taking them back.”
I generally support these proposals as long-term objectives, although some could be introduced more quickly than others. But what can we hope to deliver in the current circumstances, when and how? We are currently suffering from the continuing consequences of the 2008 financial collapse and the economic impact of moves to Brexit.
There is scope for increasing taxes on the excessively rich and deficit expenditure (although at a fringe meeting McDonnell attacked the Tories for doing the latter) to improve people’s basic conditions and advance their opportunities.
But these are not magic wands. We do not have the equivalent of Britain’s immediate post-war international (and American) aid, and we do not live in a country with the same prevailing conditions and attitudes. I cannot see Labour delivering its current programme in anything like the lifetime of a single government.
So Labour will need to deliver what it can while working to establish a broader European and international framework that can gradually change and improve world conditions, so that we (and others) can work for better economic and social conditions in our societies.
In short, the current Labour leadership needs to confront what is the maximum art of the possible.
In particular, Labour needs to re-connect with people who were once regarded as solidly working class Labour supporters. Their descendants today are often some of the most deprived and isolated members of society – either unemployed, underpaid, in insecure jobs or working zero hours contracts, and often homeless or in excessively overcrowded accommodation – with little or no hope for the future.
Many such people flirted with UKIP and voted for Brexit, believing their economic plight arose from immigrants taking their job opportunities. Without surrendering to those views, Labour needs to consider how to restrict the numbers of people moving here from EU nations. This is perfectly compatible with giving full UK citizenship rights to those who are already settled in this country, while accepting many overseas people who are fleeing from persecution.
Compromising to change the lives and aspirations of people living in deprived circumstances will influence their future stance on immigration, helping to eventually adjust their overall outlook. But despite the recent boost in Labour membership, the party rarely mixes with people from deprived backgrounds.
Looking for a synthesis
When Tony Blair made his first speech at Labour conference following his election as leader I was sitting in the MPs’ section. Around me, everyone, it seemed, immediately jumped up to clap him.
Not wanting my photo to appear in the media as an immediate and grumpy rebel, I compromised by standing up but not clapping. A voice behind me said: “Harry what are you up to?” I turned to see a firmly seated and non-clapping Jeremy Corbyn. He was the only person to remain in his seat.
I wonder what I would have done in the same circumstances at this year’s party conference. Perhaps standing and not clapping is a sign of someone searching for a meaningful progressive synthesis between problematic extremes, going beyond both the limits of a Blairite thesis and the reaction of the Corbynite anti-thesis.
Harry Barnes is the former Labour MP for North East Derbyshire. He blogs at ‘Three Score Years and Ten’.