“The ideas generated under Corbyn’s leadership will not go away”

Martin Beveridge outlines some of the main themes of his book The Socialist Ideal in the Labour Party, published by Merlin

In 1964, Nelson Mandela proclaimed the social power of political ideals in the struggle to change the world. Justifying his commitment to the armed struggle against apartheid, he told the court in the Rivonia trial: “I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”

My book, The Socialist Ideal in the Labour Party: From Attlee to Corbyn, examines the ideas, hopes and needs that motivate ordinary people to give up their time and energy and part of their lives in order to fight for a fairer, more just society. I call this constellation of motives the socialist ideal, and I approach the question from a history of the role of the rank and file membership in shaping the aims of the Labour party.

The dialectical process that gives rise to the socialist ideal means it has both a structure and a history, one that coalesces around three key events that shaped people’s ideas about the anatomy of a future socialist society: the establishment of the welfare state by the 1945 Attlee government; the rethinking of Labour’s top-down statist ideology in the 1970s by Tony Benn; and the membership’s rejection of the neoliberal direction of the party in 2015. What follows synthesises the main points of my argument for each.

The reforms of the 1945 Labour government, most people would agree, benefited the lowest-paid and most vulnerable in society, but politicians and historians still argue over their significance. For the left, prime minister Clement Attlee was thought to have mobilised the public behind a clear commitment to reform. But New Labour was very critical, as was the Thatcherite Right, maintaining that the welfare state created public debt and welfare dependency.

Today, a new orientation of the Labour leadership wants to attribute the achievements of Attlee’s government to a conservative nationalism. Yet its achievement of an egalitarian, universal system of social welfare had a longer-lasting effect on people’s thinking than its conservatism: for example, when I asked Geraldine, a retired teacher in Liverpool, what a fairer society would be like, she told me that whatever their situation, “people should be treated with the same respect, the same dignity.”

My account shows the problems the 1945 government had to deal with. To survive, it depended crucially on loans from the US. It had to fulfil the hopes of a better society to which the public felt entitled through its wartime sacrifices, while at the same time it had to restore the circulation of capital in an economy that was bankrupt. This was an extraordinarily contradictory position, and lies behind the shifts and compromises the government made. Nevertheless, in 1946, when Attlee was prime minister, he insisted that the country needed the welfare legislation his government proposed. He told Parliament:  

“The question is asked – can we afford it? Supposing the answer is ‘No’, what does that mean? It really means that the sum total of the goods produced and the services rendered by the people of this country is not sufficient to provide for our people at all times, in sickness, in health, in youth and in age, the very modest standard of life that is represented by the sums of money set out in the Second Schedule to this [National Insurance] Bill. I cannot believe that our national productivity is so slow, that our willingness to work is so feeble or that we can submit to the world that the masses of our people must be condemned to penury.”

The significance of Attlee’s statement lies in the resonance of the ethical, and not economic, nature of his justification for social security’s expense: we cannot tell the world that the masses must be condemned to penury because of our unwillingness to work.

Far from expressing a conservative nationalism, Attlee’s statement is linked to the rhetoric of the prewar socialist ideal. It embodied a vision that an unselfish and caring community would one day replace an indifferent and cruel social order, a vision encapsulated in the idea of a cooperative commonwealth.

I describe the most popular account of this idea which is to be found in Robert Tressell’s novel The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, first published in 1914. In the book, the main protagonist Frank Owen argues with his co-workers about the causes of poverty, and declares that the cause is capitalism and the solution is socialism, or in his words, the “National Organisation of Industry for the production and distribution of the necessaries of life, not for the profit of a few, but for the benefit of all!” The state, he explains, should own all the land and all the factories and would represent the interests of the community as a whole in a cooperative commonwealth.

While the Labour membership was firmly wedded to this idea throughout the years between the world wars and well into the 1940s, the Party’s strategists took a different tack after 1931. It reflected the preference of the union leaders for ‘practical socialism’, or policies that would address the immediate problems of unemployment and poverty within the existing form of state. Influenced by Keynes, the strategists changed demands for state ownership of the economy to a policy for government planning of a mixed economy in which the public sector was to be predominant.

The Second World War brought about an important change in the relation of the labour movement to the state. In order to wage total war, the state had to rationalise industrial production and seek the cooperation of the organised working class. Labour was incorporated into the government, and was then able to insist on trade union recognition in the factories; for the Labour leadership, state direction of industry appeared to coincide with the Party’s prewar platform.

Attlee, in fact, identified the government’s war measures with the general line of Labour’s policy. The social changes that had been secured in the three years since 1940 would not have been believed possible before that time, he told a Labour party rally: “I spent many years of my life in a dock area where we suffered from the evils of casual labour. Over wide areas of industry today we have established the guaranteed week and the guaranteed weekly wage. In dock work, the build trade and many others, this is an immense advance.”

The wartime idea of shared sacrifice that cut across classes expressed a radical egalitarian mood embodied in the proposals of the Beveridge Report for universal social security. Its popular reception and Labour’s adoption of the report was a major factor in the Party’s election victory in 1945. A compulsory national insurance scheme had not been part of the prewar socialist narrative, since it was assumed that once the state had ended unemployment through its ownership of industry, an egalitarian commonwealth would take care of all people’s basic needs. Plans for social welfare had not been a high priority for the Party in the 1930s; it was the popular radicalisation of the 1940s that made it a political imperative.

Attlee’s government clearly responded to this public pressure in its welfare legislation, building large numbers of council houses, and maintaining full employment. But there were competing pressures – from the US administration, on whom the government depended for loans, from the Treasury and from the Tories. While resisting these forces, the government’s options were constrained by the framework of parliamentary constitutionalism and by the preservation of private property.

Labour’s crowning achievement was the establishment of the health service free at the point of use. But in the field of education it retained independent public schools, which everyone knows are bastions of class privilege. The industries which were nationalised were the old and failing heavy industries like railways and coal, where government ownership represented a subsidy to private industry, not only because of the huge compensation paid to the former shareholders, but also because of the provision of basic materials to manufacturers at a low cost. Following Herbert Morrison’s plan for nationalised industries, existing management structures were kept intact.

Government economic planning – held to be the answer to capitalist crisis – remained only a theoretical possibility since the enforcement measures needed for state planning were avoided in favor of voluntary cooperation. However, the historical experience of this form of nationalisation is contradictory: conditions did improve because the unions were incorporated as a legitimate factor in industrial relations, preserving the tripartite arrangement arrived at by the wartime coalition government.

As historian Kenneth Morgan points out: “Whatever the admitted inadequacies of the system of labour relations devised under nationalisation, it would be impossible to dispute the enormous improvement in the climate of industrial relations – and of growing prosperity for the workforce – in the new age of public ownership. In large measure, this was simply because of the symbolic fact of nationalisation itself.” He adds: “On Vesting Day, 1 January 1947, there were mass demonstrations of rejoicing in mining communities from South Wales to Nottingham, Yorkshire, Durham, and Fife, as the flag of the National Coal Board replaced the ensign of the old, discredited private coal-owners.”

The Attlee government ran into trouble when the reforming legislation of the first three years in office was overcome by a move to consolidate what had already been achieved. For Attlee and the Labour leaders, nationalisation, social welfare legislation and full employment had already realised socialism, whereas, as Ralph Miliband remarks: “The activist saw the Welfare State and the nationalisation measures of 1945-8 as the beginning of the social revolution to which he believed the Labour Party was dedicated; while his leaders took these achievements to be the social revolution.” For the rank and file, the prewar socialist ideal was replaced with a conviction that centralized state nationalisations and social welfare – what the Labour government had done – were the ‘first steps’ to a socialist society.

The next Labour government was elected in 1964 under Harold Wilson, and party members believed the new administration would continue the work of the Attlee government and resume the advance towards socialism. However, taking office in the middle of a balance of payments crisis, and with a small majority in parliament, Wilson’s plans for reform on the basis of economic expansion driven by technology were shelved in favour of a prices and incomes policy that would curb wage inflation.

The government’s strategy rested on the TUC acting as an agent of social control over the militant rank and file, but the political balance in the unions was changing as more left-wing leaders were elected. In 1968, Wilson commissioned former left MP Barbara Castle to draft a law that would restrict wage increases. The document, In Place of Strife, proposed to extend legal recognition for official collective bargaining agreements while persuading union leaders to act against unofficial strikes. However, rank and file opposition meant the TUC had to back down from cooperation with the government, and the plan was dropped.

But the damage had been done. Historian David Howell concludes that Wilson’s government marked the endpoint of the form of the socialist ideal that had become accepted after 1945, that is the idea that Labour had taken the ‘first steps’ to socialism. The government’s record, he writes, “had a devastating impact on the party. … Most clearly it was evident that the social democratic inspiration was dead. It had been nurtured after 1931, it had had its heroic hour after 1945, and it had failed to give guidance since then… Now the vision had withered, the potential for major reforms seemed virtually dead and the coalition showed signs of disintegration.” Despite this pessimistic evaluation, however, the decline of 1945-style social democracy had opened the way for a rethinking of strategy by the left.

This rethinking was pioneered by Tony Benn, who had been Minister for Technology under Wilson. While Labour was in opposition after 1970, Benn began a reassessment of the party’s corporatist orientation, having experienced first-hand the influence of multinational corporations, international finance, and US policy on British economy and politics. His analysis of the breakdown of consensus politics and its connection to the changes technology was making in society enabled him to address the problems of the decline of the British economy and the failures of the earlier Labour government. At this time there were massive strike struggles against factory closures and redundancies. Benn was inspired by the resistance of the workers at Upper Clyde Shipbuilders to the threatened closure of the shipyards by the Tory Heath government, and in turn supported their campaign and occupation of the yards.

After Heath was brought down by the miners’ strike in 1974,a minority Labour government was elected that placed Benn in the new Ministry of Industry, and for a short time he and Eric Heffer were able to offer state resources in support of workers’ initiatives in the struggle against redundancies and factory closures. This encouragement from within the government led to groups of trade unionists coming forward with plans for reorganisation of production, such as the well-known Lucas Plan.

The Lucas Aerospace shop stewards agreed to draw up an alternative corporate strategy that would develop plans for manufacturing socially useful products as an alternative to factory closures and redundancies. More importantly, they developed a new concept of nationalisation that re-thought the nature of the work process itself, pioneering schemes in which the practical and tactile knowledge of shop-floor workers would be combined with the scientific knowledge of technicians. Industrial democracy had been a theme for Labour’s left intellectuals and appeared in the Party’s programme, but it was still abstract. The Lucas stewards made it concrete, pioneering a ‘bottom-up’ form of planning for which there was no precedent.

Benn’s unique contribution to the socialist ideal was his determined advocacy of the idea that people should directly participate in government, rather than having the popular will interpreted for them by a class of professional representatives. Perhaps his greatest legacy was his support for the legitimacy of extra-parliamentary activism, which was continued by the Corbyn movement.

Benn advocated practical changes in the immediate present that would strengthen the working class and empower the public to decide how society should be improved. This overcame the separation of immediate practical reforms from an abstract ultimate goal. He became the primary advocate for making nationalised industries accountable to workers and consumers, attempting, as Benn put it in his Arguments for Democracy, to suggest “practical ways in which many of our existing institutions can be adapted from their present role as props of the status quo.”

After 1979, Labour had to contend with the victory of a Thatcher government that built on the postwar shift away from unionised heavy industries to small, high-tech companies based on microelectronics with a workforce divided between highly skilled engineers and low-paid and unorganised assembly workers. The explosive growth of the international finance system facilitated the relocation of production to the global South. The apparent inevitability of this transformation was the ground for a changed relation between government and society during the Thatcher period, as the government sought to change the political culture by removing the collective responsibility of the state for public welfare.

Through the individualisation of social responsibility, neoliberal governments inadvertently created a cultural trend toward what sociologists describe as personalized or ‘individuated’ politics, or in other words, “a radical individualisation that leads to all forms of social crisis being perceived as individual crises and all inequalities being made the responsibility of individuals.” When states are indifferent or unresponsive to these concerns, individuals are then impelled to challenge government policy independent of established political structures. Coming together on specific issues, such as climate change or austerity cuts, activists have discovered new affinities with like-minded people and created for themselves a means for the voices of all individuals to be heard through non-hierarchical participatory democracy.

Corbyn’s supporters included many anti-austerity activists who brought with them the concept of non-hierarchical democracy and the idea of building a better society in the here and now, rather than relying on state reform achieved from above. These ideas merged with Corbyn’s emphasis on grassroots democracy to create a new politics that sought to use the central power of the state to support bottom-up participatory organisation of the economy.

Their support stemmed not only from Corbyn’s commitment to democracy but also because it was combined with ethical socialism, an expression of his politics maintained over many years that aligned him with a shift in the party’s existing membership, with anti-austerity protestors and returning ex-members. When Corbyn voted against Tory benefit cuts while the Party leadership urged abstention, “he was at one with the majority of Labour members on what they considered to be a moral issue,” notes Alex Nunns in his book The Candidate.

After he was elected to the Party leadership in 2015, Corbyn evidently opened up a political space for a new conception of the socialist agenda that included radical proposals for a transformative change in the structure of ownership and economic power that would counteract the stranglehold of finance capital on the economy. Corbyn’s supporters sought a more democratic and inclusive form of state, exemplified by the Preston model of Community Wealth Building and embodied in the 2017 and 2019 Labour manifestos. Christine Berry and Joe Guinan explain that this approach would encourage the building of local counterweights to the power of financial markets and create a social basis for a transformation of the state so that central and municipal governments will work with and be accountable to local communities. De-privatisation, insourcing, regulating and taxing speculative financial activity, as well as establishing local community banks to support a larger worker-owned and cooperative sector, would create the basis for a truly participatory democracy.

To sum up, the history of the socialist ideal from its expression before 1945 to the present has evolved in three phases, from a utopian dream of a cooperative commonwealth, through a belief in a statist model of nationalised industries and welfare provision, to one of combining central state with local democratic power. These stages in the development of the ideal correspond to changes in the orientation of the labour movement to the state. Before 1940, organised labour was shut out of political power and the actual state was experienced as a repressive force.

But government intervention came to be perceived as a positive good after the establishment of full employment and the welfare state by the 1945 government. The militant opposition of the organised working class to the problematic role of the Wilson government, and the failure of Keynesian methods of economic intervention in the 1970s, prompted Tony Benn, when a minister, to demonstrate that support from within the state could legitimise workers’ initiatives for reorganising production so as to save jobs. The Corbyn leadership took this further by opening up a new discourse of combining elective power with local community organising in such a way as to curb the extraction of wealth by international capital.

This new formulation of the socialist ideal is essential to harnessing the ethical socialist values of equality, public service, and cooperative effort in the post-pandemic struggle to put public wealth over private profit. Despite the 2019 electoral defeat, the ideas generated under Corbyn’s leadership will not go away, and the party’s policy achievements will remain part of political discourse and collective memory, as the vibrant history and presence of the socialist ideal makes clear.

Martin Beveridge is a writer and activist. He writes a blog at https://coloneldespard.wordpress.com/

Read Labour Hub’s review of Martin’s book here

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