Link to this page: http://www.socialistparty.org.uk/issue/407/4629
Labour's 1945 landslide
(1945 Labour Party landslide: an abridged versionappeared in The Socialist)
MANY OLDER workers still remember the 1945-51 Labour government in Britain - memories of its reforms help maintain a degree of support for the Labour Party. My personal experience shows why.
Towards the end of World War Two, the doctor told my mother – out of my ear shot - that "it is only a question of time before your son will die from his asthma" as she paid him his usual five shillings (25p) for his visit to see me at our house.
Only a year or so later the first majority Labour government, elected in 1945, introduced the National Health Service (NHS). People who remember the huge difference it made passed the story on to their families, helping to maintain support, even for a Blair government that has supervised the de facto privatisation of the NHS.
Medicines, treatment, home visits, and hospital visits all became free at the point of need. In my own working-class family, I could now receive the latest medicines. I’d missed two-thirds of my earlier education, but in my final eighteen months I could participate fully, even in sports activities, until I left school.
The Labour government had been elected as an expression of the working class’ anger and determination. They had just fought the war on the battlefields and on the home front and were determined that "never again" would they or their children go through that horror.
No return to pre-war poverty
Neither did they want to return to pre-war poverty and struggle to survive. These had created the conditions for the rise of fascism in Europe, and as they saw it the consequent world war.
Workers blamed capitalism and its direct representatives, especially prime minister Winston Churchill, portrayed in the media as the man who won the war, and our "natural" next prime minister.
Even the Labour leaders were guilty of this and Nye Bevan the ex-miner and left wing MP for Ebbw Vale had to warn a Labour meeting in Cardiff just before the election, "against the danger of building [Churchill] up to more than life-size by uncritical hero-worship."
On 26 July, three weeks after the election, to let the soldiers’ votes be counted, it was announced that Labour had won 393 seats with the remains of the Independent Labour Party winning three and the left Commonwealth Party one. This was a massive 180-seat majority over the Tories and their allies.
They won as a result of the Labour Party’s most radical programme ever and despite the weak leadership who were as shocked as anyone at the result. Victory was due to Labour’s rank and file members, workers and soldiers, who reflected the mood nationally. That programme had been fought for and won at the Labour Party conference in December 1944 (see separate article).
Despite what Manny Shinwell MP called "Labour’s restrained manifesto", Churchill attacked Labour’s conference policies on nationalisation and socialism. His broadcast on 4 June said: "No socialist system could be run without political police; a fully socialist programme would fall back on some form of Gestapo".
This gave the go ahead to the media and the more rabid Tory members to conduct a vicious campaign. But as Shinwell said in his autobiography: "for the workers who read of the (conference) resolution this seemed to indicate that the evils of unrestricted private enterprise, which most believed was the source of all their problems, would be banished if Labour were given a mandate". He doesn’t say that he advised against the resolution!
The capitalist class had kept making their profits during the war, exploiting even more the workers’ sacrifices for the "war effort" and women workers who’d been taken into the factories. Labour ministers in the coalition government and trade union leaders led vicious attacks on workers who protested. They supported the imprisonment of Trotskyists (the only left party supporting those workers’ struggles in that period).
The war effort greatly increased the workers’ consciousness of their class and their strength in united action. The government nationalised coal, oil, gas, electricity, transport, the Bank of England and later iron and steel – most of them bankrupt industries and all of them vital services needed to reconstruct capitalist society. And these reforms were, over a long period, taken away.
From the start, these nationalisations deliberately gave the workers no say or control. On the contrary they made representatives of the old private owners into chairmen of the nationalised industries’ boards.
In fact, the 20% of the economy that was nationalised became cheap services and suppliers to the 80% which they left in private hands. Only the NHS has prolonged working-class memories of the good things about Labour. It has required a Tory leadership with a New Labour label to privatise that.
Nye Bevan, the most left-wing of Labour’s 1945 leadership, was given the Ministry of Health to organise, hoping he’d take the flak from any opposition from the consultants and doctors’ organisations who, Bevan says, had to have their mouths stuffed with gold to get them to tolerate the NHS. The drugs and health supply industries campaigned against nationalisation, and went on to make their billions.
Michael Foot’s biography of Bevan says he stood by his Marxist training in the Welsh valleys, and, "If the currents of history were on his side, the lack of seamanship in their captain and his mates might still be remedied. Nor did he ever underrate the difficulties of achieving a socialist revolution by democratic means. No one had truly attempted the task before. If it could be accomplished without bloodshed, what a boon it would be, not only for Britain, but for all mankind!"
Of course Foot obscures the point that Lenin’s Russian revolution – 28 years earlier – had been democratic. Only the forces of the counter-revolution, backed by the intervention of British imperialism with 21 other capitalist armies created the bloodshed.
Nonetheless in 1945 there was a revolutionary mood among Britain’s workers and its pressure was even reflected in parliament. On the first day of the new parliament Labour MPs celebrated by singing the socialist anthem, the ‘Red Flag’.
But for all the advances in the welfare state from this government, capitalism still ruled in Britain and most of the reforms won were snatched back over time by the ruling class. Generations of workers have paid the price for this failure.
The next time such a radical mood arrives, the workers’ movement will need to be armed with the ideas and the leadership to successfully "seize the time." The building of a new mass workers’ party with a clear thread of Marxist understanding running throughout the ranks and the leadership will lay the basis for such a movement.
In The Socialist 15 September 2005: