11 NOVEMBER 2014
THE GENERAL ELECTION, 1959
PROFESSOR VERNON BOGDANOR
This lecture is the second in a series of six on significant post-War elections and it is on 1959, which I think is a hugely significant Election. After the Election, the Daily Mail commented on it as follows: “Some general elections come and go, like a shower of rain, freshening things up a bit but not changing anything radically, not penetrating to the roots of our political soil. This is not likely to be said of the General Election of October 1959. It will be remembered as a major upheaval, a turning point, a political watershed. Nothing in politics will ever be quite the same after as it was before, either for the three parties, for the trade unions, or for any of us as individuals.”
The 1959 Election, in a way, is unusual. I will show the results of the elections in the 1950s… This was 1951, where, as you can see, the Conservatives scraped back into power really, with a majority of 17, though the Labour Party had more votes than the Conservatives. Then, in 1955, the Conservatives gained both in seats and in votes; and then, in 1959, their vote was slightly lower in terms of percentage, but they gained in seats. Now, the 1959 Election is the only one of the six that I am discussing in which the Government was not defeated, but in fact, as you can see, it increased its majority from 1955. An increase in the majority of a Government has happened on only two other occasions since the War: in 1955, as you could see, that was an increase from 1951; and then later, in 1983, under Margaret Thatcher. But it was also unprecedented at that time for a Government to be returned on a third occasion, three times, and that had not occurred since the Napoleonic Wars. Since then, it has happened twice. Indeed, the Conservatives, between 1979 and 1997 were returned four times, and then Labour, between 1997 and 2010, was returned three times, but in the 1950s, it was new and unexpected. People thought then in terms of a swing of the pendulum but that had not occurred. It was particularly surprising because this Election occurred just three years after the Suez expedition, which, whether you were for it or against it, seemed to have failed, and the Prime Minister at the time, Sir Anthony Eden, was rapidly replaced, through illness, by his successor, Harold Macmillan.
The Election led to a crisis in the Labour Party, which had been defeated three times – 1951, 1955 and 1959 – and since its great victory in 1945, had lost votes in four successive elections because, in 1950, although returned to office, it was returned with a very small majority and did not last longer than 18 months. It seemed that for many people, Labour was becoming the victim of social change, which was moving people away from socialism, and some people argued that the Labour Party could never win an election without radically revising its ideas. The Election of 1959 inaugurated a conflict between people on the left, who said you must stick, broadly, to the old socialist ideas, and people on the right, who were called revisionists, who said, no, we have got to bring them up-to-date, and in particular, they wanted to revise Labour’s constitution to delete from it Clause IV of the constitution, committing the Party to nationalisation of the means of production, distribution and exchange. That battle continued really until 1995, when Tony Blair succeeded in achieving that and inaugurating so-called New Labour, but perhaps the conflict still exists and has not been fully resolved because the Labour Party still faces the problem, I think, of whether it can come to terms with social change. Some would argue, certainly from the 1950s, that the Conservatives were more successful in doing this, under Churchill, Eden and Macmillan, and then, later on, they would say the same under Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s.
Now there are two further factors of interest in the 1959 Election. The first is that the Election showed the first signs of a divergence in voting behaviour between the North of England and the South, and between Scotland and England. Scotland and the North were much more sympathetic to Labour than the South of England. Indeed, Labour won seats in the textile areas of Lancashire and in Glasgow, against this general swing.
Secondly, the Election showed the first real signs of a Liberal revival – you see 5.9% of the vote, up from 2.7% of the vote, which was up from 2.5%, so the first real signs that the Liberal Party might again become a serious player on the political stage.
The Conservative percentage of the vote was lower than 1955, as you can see, slightly lower, and part of the reason seemed to be that people who were disaffected with the Conservative Party were not supporting Labour, whose vote was much lower than in 1955, but they were moving to the Liberals, and that obviously increased the problems for the Labour Party, and possibly, you may say, the very early beginnings of the erosion of the two-party system can be seen there.
So, from that point of view, I think, the 1959 Election was a contemporary election, that the themes in it resonate today, whereas I think you would probably agree, those of you who heard me talk about the 1945 Election, that seems like an election from another age which is not very relevant to today.
There was also another way in which 1959 was a contemporary election: it was the first television election, the first in which party images seemed important, and the Conservatives, before the election, had employed an advertising agency, the first party to do so, to improve their image. Many people on the left complained that Harold Macmillan, the Conservative Leader and Prime Minister, was being sold to the country as if he were a washing powder. It is fair to say, I think, the Conservatives were far more attuned to television techniques than Labour and some on the left were very suspicious of advertising and they were suspicious of the techniques of modern public relations. Labour’s Deputy Leader, Aneurin Bevan, whom we will hear later, it is significant perhaps, he found television highly distasteful, though he did like Hancock’s Half-Hour by all accounts…but not much else. He also objected to public opinion polls, which he said “took the poetry out of politics”.
Now, when the Conservatives regained power from Labour in 1951, all these successes had seemed rather improbable. They just squeezed back into power, as you can see, and many in the Labour Party were really quite relieved because they had expected a heavy defeat. Just six months before the election, Aneurin Bevan and Harold Wilson had resigned from the Government in protest against charges for false teeth and spectacles in the Health Service, and that had inaugurated a battle between the left and right in the Labour Party. The Labour Party seemed very split. One Leader of the Labour Party at the time, Hugh Dalton, said when that came out: “The election results are wonderful - they’re not too bad.” One Liberal newspaper summed it up well by saying: “The country has got rid of the party it does not want in favour of one it does not trust.”
The Labour Party thought they would be very rapidly back into power because the Conservatives would rapidly flounder, and they thought the Conservatives were out-of-date, that they would seek to retain the Empire and this would lead to armed clashes. They thought the Conservatives would adopt a harder line towards the Soviet Union and that would threaten war. One headline in the Daily Mirror, a Labour paper, in 1951, showed a picture of Attlee and a picture of Churchill under the slogan “Whose finger on the trigger?” – in other words, Churchill would be trigger-happy and you could not trust him with keeping the peace. But I think, most important of all, the Labour Party believed the Conservatives would be unable to preserve the gains of the Attlee years – full employment, the National Health Service, and the welfare state.
But in fact, the Conservative Party followed an opposite course entirely to that predicted by Labour. They followed, both in foreign affairs and domestic policy, a policy of conciliation and not confrontation. Now, if the Labour Party had thought more about history, they would have realised that Churchill was not really a reactionary. He had, after all, been a member of the Liberal Government before 1914, which had helped develop the welfare state, and as President of the Board of Trade in that Government, he had instituted unemployment insurance, labour exchanges and minimum wages in sweated trades. He was a social reformer. And, in the 1950s, far from destroying the welfare state, the Conservatives improved it, particularly the Health Service, on which they increased spending, and they preserved full employment. Churchill also adopted a highly conciliatory policy towards the trade unions. Indeed, later on, particularly when Margaret Thatcher came to power, his Government was accused of being too conciliatory towards the trade unions. In terminology later to be adopted by Margaret Thatcher, Winston Churchill was a wet Conservative and not a dry – in other words, he was not a reactionary.
Now, the Conservatives were greatly helped by a stroke of luck, that in 1952, there was a windfall improvement in the terms of trade because import prices fell, and that meant an automatic fall in the cost of living and an automatic rise in the standard of living, without governments having to do anything about it. That enabled the Conservatives to remove rationing, which had been imposed during the War and continued after the War by the Labour Party, and indeed, until the early-1970s, these years are characterised by the long boom in Europe, and it is possible that any government coming to power in the early-1950s would have been returned to power because economic conditions were so favourable. It does make one think that, if only Labour could have held on until 1952, until the fall in import prices, if they could have held on and won in 1952, they would have been the beneficiaries of all this, and Britain might look a very different place from what it does now, but that is all speculation.
I want to show now a party political broadcast not from 1959 but from 1955, from a party political broadcast, in which Harold Macmillan, who was Foreign Secretary at the time, was describing Conservative achievements. I think he brings it out very well. His style is, by modern standards, rather patronising and the film is a bit amateurish, but I think he makes the point.
“United for peace and progress – that’s the policy the Conservative Party puts before the nation at this general election. It’s a policy of onward from success and is presented to you tonight by the Foreign Secretary, the Right Honourable Harold Macmillan…
Good evening. I want to talk to you tonight mainly about the future. That’s what we’re all interested in. But I think it’s right to say a few words about the past, about the record of Sir Winston Churchill’s Government. When we came into power three and half years ago, things were pretty grim: at home, we were on the verge of bankruptcy, and abroad, our prestige had fallen pretty low. Well, now there has been quite a spectacular change. Indeed, the change is so great that we find it rather difficult to remember what things used to be like. It’s quite an effort to try and put our minds back.
In a minute or two, I want to talk to you…something about what we hope to do, but before that, we’ve got a short picture to show what we have done. Let’s look at it together…
As the crowds cheered the election results on the night of the 26th of October 1951, the whole history of this country was at the point of change. The truth was not clear then. The Labour Party was spreading the fear of mass unemployment. You will find it in election addresses like Maurice Edelman’s. Hugh Dalton and many others said the Tories would slash the social services and lead the country into war. Let me remind you of what has happened since that fateful October. The socialists are for controls and austerity, but the Conservative policy is incentive and expansion. The socialist prescription is to cut down and restrict; the Conservatives work for freedom and plenty. “Britain strong and free” was our election cry in 1951. Strength has come to us over the last four years because of our recovery, and freedom has come in many ways. Into the wastepaper basket went identity cards, building licenses, repairs licenses, development charges, most wartime controls, the act to nationalise steel, dozens of forms farmers had to fill up, and the ration-book.
The Minister of Food, Major Gwilym Lloyd George, celebrated the end of this chapter. He himself lit the bonfire, and young and old alike rejoiced to see the ration-book go. In two years, he had successfully de-rationed sweets, eggs, tea and sugar, butter, margarine, cooking fats, meat, gammon, and bacon and cheese. Last Christmas was the gayest and most abundant we have ever known. From everywhere came the same story: more to spend and more to buy! The Coop knew this alright. They advised their customers, “Order early – there’s a good choice this year.” What a contrast with a few years ago when a part of our small meat ration had often to be taken in two-penny-worth of corned beef, and we were glad to get it. Now, we don’t think in terms of allocations and under the counter is no longer the place where the best goods are kept. Here is the story of progress in a nutshell: registered customers only, then anyone served – that was the breath of freedom. Now, no space is taken to tell you the shop will serve you. You take your choice. And with the notices, the queues have gone, and they must not return.
Although the socialists said there would be a million unemployed under the Tories, we have record employment, and production is up, earnings are up, savings are up, pensions are up, children’s allowances are up, and the nation is spending more on health and education. All these things, taken together, spell economic recovery and a higher standard of living. Taxes have been brought down and the last budget completely exempted nearly 2.5 million people from PAYE.
Let’s have a look now at another improvement – freedom to build. A policy of expansion means we get rid of restrictions and controls and find a new determination to plan for plenty. The result: almost twice as many homes built last year as under Labour in 1951, and a million houses built under the Tories to date. This was not, as the socialists said, at the expense of new schools. Now, the slums are to be cleared away altogether. Here’s an example, just off the Canongate in Edinburgh…”
That is the Conservative broadcast of 1955, which gives a good picture I think of the domestic policy. The colonial policy also was much more conciliatory than had been predicted, and Churchill had attacked the Labour Government for its policy of what he called “scuttle” and of course, in the 1930s, he’d been an opponent of self-government in India. The Labour Manifesto of 1951 said: “The Tory still thinks in terms of Victorian imperialism and colonial exploitation. His reaction in a crisis is to threaten force. He would have denied freedom to India, Pakistan, Ceylon and Burma.” But in fact, partly through the influence of Anthony Eden, the Conservatives did not reverse their policy of decolonisation of the Labour Government. They gave independence to the Sudan in 1954, withdrew from the Egyptian canal base in Suez the same year, and gave independence to the first of the African colonies, Ghana, which had formerly been the Gold Coast, in 1957, to be followed by the largest country in West Africa, Nigeria, in 1960.
In their foreign policy also, they continued Labour’s policy, but indeed with some amelioration. For example, they lowered the amount spent on armaments from that in Hugh Gaitskell’s budget of 1951 - they realised that expenditure was not sustainable, and, in 1957, they abolished national service.
I think it is fair to say that the Conservative Governments of the 1950s did not do very much differently from what a Labour Government would have done if returned in 1951. The pace might have been different, but the direction I think would not have been different, and the differences were really at the margin, and perhaps there was probably less real change of policy than after any change of Government since the War, and the Labour Party, if it had been there in the 1950s with these beneficial trade terms, would I think have removed rationing, perhaps a little more slowly, but the direction would have been the same.
Now, in 1951, Harold Macmillan, whom we have just seen, made a very shrewd assessment of the result in his diary. He said: “The truth is that the socialists have fought the election very astutely, not on socialism but on fear – fear of unemployment, fear of reduced wages, fear of reduced benefits, fear of war. These four fears have been brilliantly, if unscrupulously, exploited. If before the next election none of these fears have proved reasonable, we may be able to force the opposition to fight on socialism – then we can win.” That proved correct.
The 1951-5 Government was arguably the most successful Conservative Government since the War because it’s the only Government that increased its percentage of the vote after a full term in office, which is 48% then and 49.7% in the second election. Margaret Thatcher, in 1983, when she won many more seats than in 1979, she won a smaller percentage of the vote, and the only Governments that have won a greater percentage of the vote other than that Churchill Government have been after short Parliaments, from 1964-6 or February to October 1974, which I think probably, does not count.
That is quite relevant to today, incidentally, because David Cameron, to get an overall majority, needs to improve his percentage of the vote from what he gained in 2010, and as I say, it is only been done once since the War, by the Conservatives in 1955, who gained an extra 1.7% of the vote. It is not easy to do.
In the 1950s, Labour seemed in more trouble than the Conservatives in opposition because of the split between the Bevanites and the Gaitskellites, and I think that was one of the main factors responsible for the defeat in 1955, which was a very quiet and dull election, probably the quietest and dullest of modern times, because it was clear from the beginning that the Conservatives were going to win it. But, in 1959, Labour was more hopeful. The Conservatives, in the 1955 Parliament, had not enjoyed the same success, and in 1956, there was the Suez expedition, and then the replacement of Anthony Eden by Harold Macmillan, and the Conservatives were in such disarray that Macmillan told the Queen, after he was appointed, he didn’t think his Government could last more than six weeks. She reminded him of that after he’d been in power six years! Macmillan was very skilful and he repaired the rift with the United States caused by Suez and held his party together, and that was a matter of great political judgement and sense.
But the Conservatives were also helped by economic progress and social change, which seemed to be going against the Labour Party, and a group of Conservative MPs published, in the 1950s, a pamphlet which was called “Change is our Ally”, and that is how it seemed in the 1950s.
Now, the Labour Party, as we have seen, had said the Conservatives would not maintain full employment, unless they introduced a planned or socialist type of economy, but the Labour Party was forced to recognise that, in the 1950s, rising production and consumption were becoming permanent features of British society. This was most obviously clear I think in the case of housing, where the number of owner-occupiers was increasing very rapidly. From 1948 to 1958, one in six families moved to a newly-built house or flat, most of them owner-occupiers, and by 1964, when the Conservatives finally left office, 50% of the population lived in owner-occupied houses, and there was a strong co-relation between owner occupation and voting Conservative – in other words, if you had bought your house, you were more likely to vote Conservative than if you lived in a council house or in rented accommodation. There was also a considerable spread of ownership of consumer goods. For example, in 1951, just 2¼ million people owned cars; by 1964, eight million people owned cars. In 1951, just a million people owned a television set; by 1964, [13/30] million people owned a television set. By the time the Conservatives left office in 1964, the pension was worth 50% more in real terms than it had been in 1951.
Nor was the public sector ignored because there was an expansion of spending in education, in the schools and building new universities, and more spending on the Health Service. In the thirteen years the Conservatives were in office, there was a 30% increase in the number of hospital doctors, an 18% increase in the number of family doctors, and a 40% increase in nursing staff. I mean, you may look on the 1950s, in some ways, as a golden age of improvement and economic expansion.
Now, the criticism of the Conservatives, made by many economists, I think probably the majority of the economists, and certainly by the Labour Party, was that the British economic growth record was poor by comparison with France, Germany and Japan. They said they were all growing much more rapidly, and they said that a Labour Government, with a policy of planning, would give Britain a better growth record. Now, that may have been a correct criticism, but it did not make much impact on the public, which was comparing its situation not with France or Germany – and one has to remember, few people travelled abroad for foreign holidays in those years – they were not comparing it with that, they were comparing it with the past that they had known under the Labour Government, which seemed marked by rationing, austerity and restriction. This was recognised by Hugh Gaitskell, the Leader of the Labour Party in the 1959 Election, because he said, shortly before the Election, he gave an interview to the Daily Mail in July 1959, and he said: “When, for instance, a working class family buys a motorcar, I believe it may produce a feeling of a more individual and independent status. Its loyalty ceases to be the simple group loyalty,” in other words to the working class. “It begins to function as an independent unit.” That seems to me quite an acute diagnosis.
At the same time as economic progress, you had social change, and in particular, the growth of a white collar sector and the decline of the manual working class. The white collar sector was expanding in areas where trade unionism was weaker, but white collar workers were much less likely to be affiliated to trade unions, and their trade unions were much less likely to be affiliated to the Labour Party. But in any case, if you had full employment and a welfare state, the worker seemed less dependent on his trade union than he had been in the past. He was beginning to think of himself, first, as a consumer, and only secondly as a member of the working class. The sense of class conflict remained strong primarily amongst those in the older industries – the mines, the docks and so on. These were declining industries. But in the newer expanding industries, the sense of class was weaker and this was eroding Labour strength, so that, whereas in the 1940s, the main worry was insecurity – unemployment, poverty, lack of welfare and so on – and the watchword of Labour was “Fair shares for all – do not go back to the inter-War years” and that damaged the Conservatives, in the 1950s, the issue was “Which party can best sustain the new prosperity that we are enjoying?” and that harmed Labour, which was associated, as we have seen, with austerity and restrictions.
The Labour newspaper, the Daily Mirror, after Labour’s defeat in 1959, it abandoned the slogan it had on the front of every newspaper until then – it has a slogan called “Forward with the People”, and after the 1959 Election, it abandoned that. One commentator said that “Forward with the People” hardly rings true in a day when “I am alright, Jack” more accurately expresses the mood of the nation.
The Conservative slogan in 1959 was “Life is better with the Conservatives – do not let Labour ruin it.” One of their advertisements showed a worker in a new steel factory and the headline was “You are looking at a Conservative.” A Gallup poll shortly before the election asked who was best qualified to increase production and prosperity, and 44% said the Conservatives, and only 26% Labour. The fear was that a Labour Government would threaten economic prosperity. One Labour MP said, after the election: “Frankly, the Tory voter was made more afraid of a Labour Government than the Labour voter was made afraid of a Tory Government.”
But even so, the Labour Party entered this campaign, much more than in 1955, in a more optimistic frame of mind, with high hopes. Their leader, Hugh Gaitskell, who we will see talking a little later on, he seemed less remote than Harold Macmillan, less of a toff if you like, and the Party was much more united in 1959. Aneurin Bevan had made his peace with Gaitskell and he was Shadow Foreign Secretary – we will see him later. The Party entered the election pretty united and thought it was establishing much more of a connection with the voters, and the campaign began very well for Labour. Normally, the opening of the campaign benefits the Government. Governments tend to gain support during election campaigns – they win back support they have lost. But this was a remarkable election because the opposition started gaining once the election was called, and Gaitskell personally made a considerable impact, through television broadcasts and in public meetings. They were very large meetings at that time. Gaitskell spoke for Tony Benn in Bristol and 600 people had to be turned away from a public meeting – that is I think even more than are turned away from these lectures… At one of Gaitskell’s open-air meetings, 20,000 people came to hear him.
The gap between the parties narrowed. The election was on the 8th of October. On the 22nd of September, the Conservative lead had been cut from 7% to 3.5%, and on the Sunday before the election, the Gallup poll put the two parties neck and neck. Tony Benn, in his Diaries, said that his friend, the electoral analyst, David Butler, rang him up on that Sunday and said, ““The election is wide-open.” He will even admit that it is possible Labour could win.” Gaitskell, on that Sunday, assumed this trend would continue, and he spent the day drawing up his Cabinet, and in a speech, he said “The spirit of victory is in the air.”
On the day of the election, the Times said it could easily produce a result as close as the General Elections of 1950 and 1951. When the BBC Election Night broadcast began - they replayed it on 2009 on the Parliament Channel and I hope they will again. It was remarkable because Labour supporters who were interviewed before the first results came in said they could detect the spirit of 1945 all over again, and the Conservatives were very surprised that they had increased their majority – they said they had not expected it, very remarkable. So, the apparent trend in the campaign was reversed in the result. Something similar was to happen in 1970, when the Conservatives, under Edward Heath, won against all the expectations, and in February 1974, when Labour, under Harold Wilson, scraped back against expectations, and also I think in the recent Scottish Referendum, when the “yes” won fairly convincingly although it looked quite close a few days before.
There was one episode in the campaign which might help explain the transformation. On the 28th of September, 10 days before the General Election, Hugh Gaitskell said that Labour could pay for its programme without increasing income tax and it could be paid for out of growth, the first of many such promises, which turned out not be very realisable, and three days later, on 1st October, the Labour Party said they would remove purchase tax from essential goods. When Nye Bevan heard that on his election tour, he said to a colleague, “He has thrown it away – he has lost the election.” The Daily Sketch, a Conservative paper – I think it no longer exists – had a headline, “This is Spiv stuff – what next, free fags?”
Macmillan skilfully replied, “If this is an auction, I am not in it.” Lord Hailsham, the Chairman of the Conservative Party, said after the election: “It was like a criminal trial – you had to concentrate on the one weak point in your opponent’s armour and that weak point was Labour’s financial irresponsibility.”
But I think the effect was probably exaggerated and it is probable – of course one can never prove it – that, in this era of consumer affluence, nothing Labour could have done would have made a difference and the Conservatives would have won anyway, but it is impossible of course to tell.
The campaign was enlivened in its last days by an intervention from the victor of El Alamein, Lord Montgomery, who, on the 5th of October, three days before the election, said, and I quote, “Anyone voting Labour must be completely barmy, absolutely off his rocker, and should be locked up in a lunatic asylum as a danger to the country!” The Secretary of the Labour Party replied, with great dignity, that if Labour voters had been locked up during the War, Montgomery would have been left with half an army.
Now the outcome was that the Conservatives gained 28 seats and on an average swing of 1.2%, but the swing did vary in different parts of the country. It was highest in the West Midlands, where the Conservatives gained 10 seats – 10 of the 28 seats were in the West Midlands, and the swing to the Conservatives there was 3.3%. In London also, it was higher than the average – 2.2%. But there were swings to Labour in Glasgow and in South-East Lancashire, where unemployment was higher than the national average. In Glasgow, the swing to Labour was 2.4%, and in Manchester, the swing to Labour was 2%, and Labour won four seats in the Glasgow area and one in Oldham, against the swing. That is the first sign, as I said earlier, of a North/South divide, and the divergence between England and Scotland, which was to become so important later on.
Harold Macmillan summed up the election by saying it showed the class war was obsolete. One cartoon showed him sitting in a comfortable armchair, looking at a television set, a washing machine and a refrigerator, and saying, “Well, gentlemen, I think we all fought a good fight!”
Now, the areas that swung most heavily to the Conservatives were not, as in 1950 and 1951, the suburban parts of London and Birmingham, but the areas of the new light industries. This was very noticeable in London. For example, in Dagenham, there was a swing to the Conservatives of 4.7%, well above the average swing, and in the new towns, the Liberals got their best results. So, what the election showed was that Labour was strongest in the declining areas of Britain, the areas least affected by social change - the mining areas, the shipbuilding areas, the cotton areas of South-East Lancashire – the areas where industrial production was a legacy of the Victorian past, which was geographically localised in the Northern cities and the West-Central belt of Scotland, and that of course is where the Labour Party is still strongest. The Conservatives, by contrast, were stronger in the newer Britain, and the Liberals were gaining in newer Britain. In these areas, the affluent worker was becoming less class conscious, more concerned with his own private consumption – buying a house, a car, television, foreign holiday and so on – and less willing to pay in taxation for public goods. He saw himself not as a member of the working class but as a consumer.
This was a problem for Labour, well summed-up by one of Labour’s Leaders, Richard Crossman, who said: “In this era of Tory prosperity, a Labour opposition has to run very fast in order to stay where it is. Each year which takes us further not only from the hungry ‘30s but from the austere ‘40s weakens class consciousness, and if nothing is done to stop this natural tendency, more and more socialist voters turn into “don’t knows” and then into active Tories.” The Labour Party instituted a social survey after the election, against the opposition of many people, which showed three things about popular perceptions of the Labour Party.
The first was that voters saw the Labour Party as essentially a class party, for the working class, but fewer people thought of themselves as belonging to the working class, and non-Labour working class voters saw the Conservatives as the party of prosperity. The image of the Labour Party was becoming obsolete. More and more people were associating the Labour Party with the class to which they did not belong, particularly in the new housing estates of London and the West Midlands, where the affluent workers were living. Even amongst Labour supporters, almost two-thirds of its working class supporters did not think of themselves as working class – they thought of themselves as middle class or aspiring middle class, not as working class.
The second problem for the Labour Party was the connection with nationalisation. There, the British public were perhaps more sensible than the politicians because they had neither a blind faith in nationalisation, which some said the Labour Party had, and nor did they blindly reject it, which some said the Conservatives did. They took a practical attitude and asked themselves how well did existing nationalised industries work. They said that, in some industries, it appeared successful – they said electricity and atomic energy, but they said, in the mines and the railways, and of course the railways were the industry that probably most people came into contact with in their everyday life, in the mines and the railways, nationalisation, they said, was a failure. They measured success not in terms of ideology but in terms of whether it benefited the consumer and the taxpayer, whether the prices were reasonable for what you were buying and whether you could avoid huge subsidies to keep these industries on their feet. So, that was the second point…
The third point was that they associated the Conservatives with mass unemployment and that was unlikely to recur, so that was not too much of a problem anymore for the Conservatives, but Labour had to do something about the association with class and the association with nationalisation. Now, even amongst Labour supporters, there was little enthusiasm for nationalisation. Only one in five of Labour supporters wanted more and they were mainly middle class Labour supporters. When people were asked the question, “What would have pleased you least about a Labour victory?” 33% spontaneously said “Further nationalisation.” No other topic was mentioned as frequently as nationalisation. Now, Labour did in fact have a fairly moderate policy on nationalisation in the election, and if the IT people can show us, you can see Hugh Gaitskell, before the election, explaining Labour’s policy on nationalisation. It shows his rather logical, rational way of thinking, very different I think from Harold Macmillan. Let us see Gaitskell if we can…
We do think it’s necessary to alter the tax system so that those who get their money too easily by speculative capital gains should pay their fair share of taxation, and those who earn it by the sweat of their brow or by ability, brains and responsibility and so on, should pay less, and the capital gains tax is, in our opinion, long overdue. Of course, there is one, as you know, in America.
Mr Gaitskell, will you be specific about your proposals on nationalisation? Do you intend to touch any industries other than steel and road transport?
We have no plans for any other industries, though we do think that something must be done about water. It is not nationalisation, but it is a national plan, a grid of some kind, to avoid the shortages which we are running into now. But apart from that, we have no other plans, but we reserve the right if, after full inquiry, we find that a particular industry is falling down on its job and that public ownership is the right remedy, either to take it over in whole or in part. I was asked, as you know, “What sort of instances?” Well, supposing you find that an industry is doing very badly and that really all the units are much too small and that you have got to amalgamate them and bring them together, that indeed something like a monopoly is technically the best way, well then, we believe it should be a public monopoly, and that would be a strong case for public ownership. But there will have to be an inquiry first, and as I say, we have no other plans at the moment.”
Well, that fairly rational, and possibly academic, approach, I do not think weighed much with many voters because Clause IV of the Labour Party seemed to commit it to wholesale nationalisation, the nationalisation of the means of production, distribution and exchange, and that was the only domestic commitment in Labour’s constitution, so, in Gaitskell’s view, it allowed opponents to misrepresent the Labour Party’s aims and to claim that Labour was going to nationalise every shop, every pub and so on, and that was not going to happen. So, Gaitskell suggested that Clause IV of that constitution be deleted. He was met with opposition from the left, and in particular from Aneurin Bevan. It is the last Conference speech he made – he was to die the summer afterwards – and this was his last Conference speech in November 1959, a month after the election defeat.
“What message are we going to send to the rest of the world? Are we going to send a message from the great Labour movement, which is the mother and father of modern democracy and of modern socialism, that we, in Blackpool, in 1959, are going to turn our backs on our principles because of their temporary unpopularity in a temporarily affluent society?!
When we realise that all the tides of history are flowing in our direction, that we are not beaten, that we represent the future, then, when we say it and mean it, we shall lead our people to where they deserve to be led.”
Well, that was his last Conference speech, and I think it is possible that, had he lived, he might have overthrown Hugh Gaitskell. But the problem with his view, which was an attack on the affluent society was that of course most voters welcomed affluence, and when Bevan said that the tides of history were moving in his direction, towards socialism, it seemed to many they were moving against it. The dilemma of the Labour Party was summed up by one of Gaitskell’s friends, Anthony Crossland, who said that “Some of Labour’s leaders are radical, but not contemporary. They are discontented, but with a society which no longer exists.” When Nye Bevan died, one Conservative journalist wrote in the Evening Standard: “In the coalfield from which he came, Marx and Engels have been supplanted by Marks & Spencer, and the sound of class war is drowned by the hum of the spin-dryer.” He said, “There will be more Aneurin Bevans.”
Now, Gaitskell said that the secret of Conservative success was that they had made an accommodation with what Labour had done in the 1950s, the welfare state and full employment, and should not Labour now adapt to the new society which had been created, a society which was not a socialist society but it was not a traditional capitalist society either, if you define such a society as based on gross inequality and mass poverty. What you were getting was a new economic order which seemed to be able to provide prosperity. Gaitskell said, in his speech, he was not prepared to give bromides. He said he would rather forego the cheers now to win the next General Election. He could have said, as Tony Blair said in his farewell speech to the Labour Party in 2007, that there was just one Labour tradition I do not like, and that is losing elections. Gaitskell said, “The stark fact is this is third General Election we have lost, and the fourth in which we have lost seats. In the past, the pendulum has always swung against the party in power after one or, at most, two periods of office. It has not been swinging in these past few years.” He said that was due to the changing character of the labour force and the growth of consumer durables and wider changes in the social and economic background, that Labour was associated with issues which had been settled, full employment, the welfare state, and committed to a doctrinaire policy of nationalisation, or seemed to be so committed, to a doctrinaire policy of nationalisation for its own sake, and the unfavourable image of the Labour Party, as social surveys showed, was most pronounced in younger votes, who could not remember the 1930s – talk of what had happened in the 1930s was quite irrelevant to them.
Gaitskell asked fundamental questions: what is socialism, has nationalisation brought us any nearer to it, and if what we have now is not capitalism but works, what is socialism about? Now, he was defeated, and as I said earlier, it took until Tony Blair to remove Clause IV in the 1990s, and Gaitskell – I mean, you can see the difference between Gaitskell and Bevan: he wanted the Labour Party to think; Bevan wanted the Labour Party to feel. Aneurin Bevan is a hero of the Labour Party; Gaitskell, on the whole, forgotten, because the Labour Party wanted a faith to believe in, which Gaitskell could not offer.
I conclude that the 1959 Election had important lessons for both parties. For the Conservatives, for whom the future seemed so bright, the great danger was complacency, the idea that “You have never had it so good”, and they were unprepared for the economic difficulties which were to follow, and the loss of national confidence flowing from Britain’s industrial decline and the failure to modernise. The Conservatives seemed not to be in tune with the idea of modernisation in the 1960s, and the Conservative elite, men such as Harold Macmillan and Alec Douglas-Home, found it difficult to adapt to that new environment of self-criticism in Britain in the ‘60s. The image of the Conservatives was of elderly men in tweeds shooting on the grouse moors, and that was inappropriate, as Harold Wilson was to point out, in an age of the technological revolution. Wilson said that the Conservatives were “…amateurs in an age of professionalism and gentlemen in an age of players”. Before Margaret Thatcher’s victory in 1979, in the next twenty years, the Conservatives were to win just one General Election, under Edward Heath in 1970, and that was a short-lived Government of three and a half years.
But I think probably the problem was much deeper for the Labour Party, because the lesson of the 1959 Election for the Labour Party was that a party of the left, if it was to be successful, needs not just unity, not just fine ideals, not just good leadership, but also an understanding and appreciation of changing popular attitudes. That is an easy thing to say, but as the history of the Labour Party in the post-War period has shown, it is not an easy moral to put into actual practice, and I think it may be that it is a problem that the Labour Party still suffers from today.
© Professor Vernon Bogdanor, 2014