The Last Time the Labour MPs Revolted Against Party Democracy

Submitted by dalcassian on 21 August, 2015 - 12:27 Author: Sean Matgamna

At its Scarborough conference in 1960, the Labour Party voted in favour of unilateral nuclear disarmament by Britain.

This decision had tremendous implications for British politics, for it opened a fundamental breach in Labour-Tory foreign and 'defence' policy bipartisanship, one of the pillars on which class collaboration rests and on which depends the possibility of orderly changes in party government at Westminster.

British unilateral nuclear disarmament implied the disruption of NATO and probably British withdrawal from the western military alliances all of which relied on nuclear weapons. In 1960 Britain still had an empire of sorts, claimed a 'special relationship' with the USA, and in general still had some weight in the affairs of the world. The Scarborough decision committed the Labour Party to challenge policies and commitments which the British ruling class considered fundamental to its interests.

The story of how the ruling class fought back, relying on its supporters in the Labour Party led by Parliamentary Labour Party leader Hugh Gaitskell, and how in a matter of months they whipped the Labour Party back into line with the ruling class's political needs, is a tale that sheds much light on the problem of bringing about change in the Labour Party.

The struggle around the Scarborough decision was one of the most important and decisive political experiences for the post-war Labour left and for the revolutionary left too.

Much of the feebleness, demoralisation and ineptness which characterised the Tribune left in the 60s and 70s can be traced to the events of 1960-61. So can the lurch by the Marxist left away from work in the Labour Party and into "build-an-independent-revolutionary-party" sectarianism. As a result of their bitter disappointment with the outcome of the 1960-1 struggle between left and right in the Labour Party, the major Trotskyist organisation of that time — the Socialist Labour League, later called the Workers' Revolutionary Party — turned away from the Labour Party, pioneering the sort of
politics today expressed by the Socialist Workers' Party.

In the late 1950s a great wave of alarm at the prospect of nuclear war ran through Britain and many other countries. People had not got used to living in a long-term nuclear stalemate, and the idea that it could continue for decades would have been considered improbable. The eruption of the cold war into nuclear holocaust seemed an imminent threat in every conflict involving the USA and the USSR.

Of 443 resolutions at the 1957 Labour Party conference, no less than 127 were concerned with nuclear weapons or general disarmament. A resolution from Norwood Labour Party, inspired by Trotskyists, advocating unilateral nuclear disarmament was defeated at the 1957 conference — but
only after Aneurin Bevan, the personality around whom the Labour left had crystallised since 1951, had marked his reconciliation with the right wing with a speech explaining that he, as a future British Foreign Secretary, could not "go naked into the conference chamber" denuded of British nuclear weapons.

But Bevan failed to carry the Tribune left with him. Even Jennie Lee, his close political associate and wife, explained in Tribune that she had abstained in the vote.

The movement against nuclear weapons continued to grow despite the opposition of the Labour Party (and of the then 35,000-strong Communist Party, which initially denounced the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) for "splitting the peace movement"). At Easter 1958, 59, and 60 there were enormous CND marches from the Nuclear Research Establishment at Aldermaston to London. Each year the march got bigger and bigger, reaching 100,000 at Easter 1960 and 150,000 in 1961. Support for unilateralism became so powerful in the trade unions, partly through the work of Transport and General Workers Union general secretary Frank Cousins, that by 1960 victory at the upcoming Labour Party Scarborough conference was in sight.

Even the Communist Party felt obliged to abandon opposition to CND. That gave unilateralism a big boost in unions like the engineers union and threw the Electricians' Union, then controlled by the CP, behind unilateralism.

At the Scarborough conference the Labour Party National Executive Committee (NEC) resolution of support for the western military alliances and their nuclear weapons was defeated by 300,000 votes. A resolution from the TGWU committing the Labour Party to unilateral renunciation of nuclear weapons was carried by a majority of 43,000.

Moving the NEC resolution, Sam Watson struck the two keynotes of the campaign the right wing was to wage. Witch-hunting - unilateralists should not be in the Labour Party: "We have no right to accept in our movement communists, Trotskyists, and fellow-travellers". And the demand that unilateralists draw the logical conclusions from unilateralism: he asked them if they really wanted to leave NATO. Did they understand the implications of what they were proposing?

In fact, all the leading Labour Party unilateralists wanted to stay in NATO. The politics of the unilateralists tended to be pacifistic and utopian. Generally they did not grasp how fundamental a challenge to the ruling class their proposal and its ramifications were.

From opposite standpoints both the right and the Marxists in the Labour Party pointed out to them what those implications were. Labour's right wing understood what was at stake. They mobilised for a fight to the finish.

Under Hugh Gaitskell, the Labour Party was then led by a hard right-wing sect grouped around the magazine Socialist Commentary, which persecuted even the soft left. Many of them went on 20 years later to found the SDP. They were not used to the "fudge and mudge" techniques of a Harold Wilson, the techniques Neil Kinnock is using now and will almost certainly use if he leads a Labour government to avoid having to carry out the Labour Party commitment to scrap nuclear weapons.

Before the vote at Scarborough, Hugh Gaitskell boldly told the delegates what the right would do if they lost. The Parliamentary Labour Party would, he said, not be bound by a decision it did not agree with. The MPs supported the NEC policy, "so what", he asked, "do you expect them to do? Go back on the pledges they gave the people who elected them from their constituencies? [...] Do you think that we can become overnight the pacifists, unilateralists and fellow-travellers that other people are?" Even if they lost the vote, they would “Fight, fight and fight again to save the party we love".

He told conference in the same speech that the leadership of the Labour Party was none of its business. "The place to decide the leadership is not here but in the Parliamentary Labour Party".

On November 3, the majority of the Parliamentary Labour Party endorsed Gaitskell's revolt against Labour Party conference when it re-elected him as Party leader by 166 votes to 81 (for Harold Wilson) and seven abstentions. The majority of the Parliamentary Labour Party would pursue Gaitskell's policy, not that of the party. But what would the left MPs do? Would they too mobilise and organise and behave like people engaged in a serious political struggle? That was the key
question.

Immediately the right began to organise its supporters. The “Campaign for Democratic Socialism” was set up as a semi-secret right-wing combat organisation which sent circulars marked "Private and Confidential" to key activists, coordinating their fight to reverse the Scarborough decision.
Its secretary was William Rodgers, later an MP and a founder of the SDP.

Gaitskell's campaign benefited from the unanimous backing of the bourgeois press. It was adequately supplied with funds whose origins were, understandably, the subject of many rumours. The Labour Party machine swung squarely behind Gaitskell and against the Party conference, organising meetings for Gaitskell and his supporters. Polite left-wing "requests" that these meetings should also feature supporters of Labour Party policy were turned down. Naturally some of these meetings became rowdy demonstrations against Gaitskell.

Thus unilateralism was shown to have wide and deep implications not only for British politics but for the Labour Party too. Victory at Scarborough brought the left smack up against the unyielding Gaitskellites, fighting to "save" the Labour Party for class collaboration, entrenched in the Parliamentary Labour Party, using the Party machine against Conference decisions, and quite prepared to split the Party in order to "save it".

Before the Scarborough Conference, Anthony Crosland, one of Gaitskell's lieutenants, had written in the New Leader, an American publication, that a conference defeat for the right wing might be to their advantage. It would give the Parliamentary Labour Party the chance to dramatically assert its independence by defying Party conference, and thus the balance of power in the Party would be shifted in favour of the PLP. After Scarborough the Gaitskellites carried out this policy.

They hi-jacked the machinery of the Party and their mixture of intransigence and aggressive action paralysed the Labour left. The NEC decided to back Gaitskell and the PLP against Party conference. (Tony Benn MP, who was not then, so far as I know, a unilateralist, resigned from the NEC in protest at its attitude to party democracy). Using its majority on the NEC. The right went on the offensive immediately after the conference. On November 23 the NEC launched a witch-hunt against the youth paper Keep Left.

The job was to split the left and intimidate the feebler spirits, so they picked on an easily identifiable target, the largest organised Marxist tendency in the Labour Party. (Keep Left was the youth paper of the Socialist Labour League.).

The parallel with the way the witchhunt against Militant has recently been used to split and intimidate the left is very striking. So is the parallel between Tribune's attude to the witch-hunt then and its attitude under the editorship of Nigel Williamson to the witch-hunt now. Faced with the vigorous assault of the right, the Tribunites feebly struck out at their left. Tribune took up the rallying cry that the Marxists had no place in the unilateralist movement because they were not prepared to advocate unilateral nuclear disarmament by the USSR. The AGM of the broad left organisation “Victory For Socialism” in January 1961 appointed one Roy Shaw to review its membership book
to see if any known Trotskyists had joined.

In contrast to the right, the official left dawdled and looked for a way to avoid a full-scale political war. To consolidate its Scarborough victory the left needed to face up to the implications of unilateralism, and to organise. Tribune, the organ of the "official left", at that time still had some serious
influence on the rank and file. But the organised left was quite weak. Only 100 people attended the annual meeting of the Tribunite organisation “Victory For Socialism” in 1961. 50 attended the Scarborough fringe meeting of the Trotskyist-influenced Clause Four Campaign Committee. But the many thousands of CND supporters and activists formed a reservoir from which a mass left wing could have developed, as part of a fight for the Scarborough decisions.

Unilateralism, then, implied a sharp break with the capitalist establishment and with its Labour supporters. Such a radical break could not be confined to one issue if it was to be sustained. Its natural complement was a break with the root cause of war and of the threat of nuclear war – capitalism. In principle all the leaders of Labour's unilateralist left were long-time reform-socialist opponents of capitalism. But there was for all of them a great gap between being "socialists"
in principle and mobilising for a serious anti-capitalist struggle. From that flowed the tragedy that engulfed the Labour left.

If Labour's left had faced up to the fact that unilateral nuclear disarmament could only be carried in society or sustained as Labour Party policy as part of a general anti-capitalist mobilisation of the working class against both Labour's right wing and the capitalists they served, then such a mobilisation could have given real life to a struggle for socialism in the Labour Party. It could have linked up the unilateralists, especially the youth, with activists in the trade unions to transform the Labour Party.

For that to be possible the left would have had to take their own ideas seriously. But they didn't.

In fact the left responded to the Gaitskellites by an ignominious self-disavowal. The left's Scarborough victory on unilateral nuclear disarmament was soon transmuted into a unilateral political disarmament by the Tribunites. Immediately after Scarborough Michael Foot, soon to be
returned to Parliament for Nye Bevan's old seat of Ebbw Vale (Bevan had died in July 1960) declared his libertarian support for the right of MPs who disagreed with the Scarborough decisions to vote in Parliament according to their conscience. In other words, the Gaitskellites had a right to defy conference and hijack the Labour Party!

The necessary response to the revolt of the MPs, a fight to kick them out and replace them, was not even aired for discussion by Tribune. The executive of Victory For Socialism rejected out of hand a proposal by Hugh Jenkins that they should advocate the selection of new candidates where Labour MPs refused to abide by conference decisions. (So Jenkins told a VFS meeting in 1961).

Rejecting such action, that is, a fight with the Gaitskellites, Tribune had nothing else to do but surrender to the unyielding PLP. They did. Tribune's leaders proclaimed there was an alternative to both surrender and a fight to break the stranglehold of the Gaitskellites: a compromise.

Prominent left-winger Anthony Greenwood MP said at the end of October: "I believe it would be a disaster for anybody to split the Labour Party on an issue which changes from day to day. Neither side can be too dogmatic or demanding". Which only meant that he wouldn't be "dogmatic or demanding". The Gaitskellites stood their ground. Talk like Greenwood's couldn't mollify them; it could, however, not fail to dampen down the fighting spirits of those who took Greenwood seriously, and many Labour Party activists did.

Greenwood resigned from the shadow cabinet and told Gaitskell publicly that his behaviour was "quite incompatible with the democratic constitution and spirit of the labour movement". Just so. But what to do about it if you rejected the only serious course, a fight to deprive the PLP oligarchs of their position as MPs? Certainly Tribune didn't know.

"No doubt also there must be consequential changes in the Labour Party itself. It is too early to discern their exact nature”, wrote Tribune after Gaitskell announced that the PLP would defy conference. Since no bilateral compromise was possible with the Gaitskellites, Tribune now opted for what might be called a "unilateral" compromise, by way of unilateral political disarmament.

In December, a few weeks after the Scarborough victory, Tribune began to shift the political focus away from unilateralism. Tribune carried this astonishing piece of front-page advice to Gaitskell on how to do a bit of political fakery: "And here was a proposition [the Tory government proposal, debated in Parliament, to set up a Polaris missile base in the west of Scotland] which could be frontally opposed: not only by those who support the Scarborough decision of the Labour Party but also by the parliamentary leaders of the Labour Party who have criticised NATO's strategy on the technical grounds that it is too reliant on nuclear weapons.

"Gaitskell put down a motion which could not possibly be voted for by supporters of Scarborough... implicitly accepting the nuclear strategy and specifically approving in principle the government's plan accepting Polaris." If only Gaitskell had been a trinner like Harold Wilson!

In the following weeks Tribune and the left leaders like Foot shifted their ground decisively. While they remained nominally unilateralist, their specific focus became a criticism of NATO (within which they wished Britain to remain) for being too reliant on nuclear weapons. Their "proposal" changed to the demand for a British declaration that it would never use nuclear weapons first. Should Prime Minister Macmillan and President J F Kennedy be "pressed" to "declare" that they
would never use nuclear weapons first? That question, Michael Foot wrote in Tribune on March 3 1961, "goes to the root of the recent controversies about defence in the Labour Party".

Foot was looking for a compromise, or rather a ladder to climb down. But the Gaitskellites gave the left MPs no points for their willingness to "compromise" and to climb down from unilateralism. They insisted that they toe the line of the PLP or get out. They gave them no credit, either, for their docile unwillingness to organise to deprive Gaitskell and the PLP of the right to speak for the Labour Party. A few days after Foot's Tribune article, in March 1961, he and four other MPs were expelled from the PLP for daring to defy the PLP whip and vote against the Tory government's air estimates.

Konni Zilliacus, a prominent left-winger, was suspended from the Labour Party for publishing an article in an international Stalinist magazine. In these ways the Gaitskellites gave notice of their willingness to split the party if they didn't gel their way. They kept up the pressure on Foot and company to "compromise" away their victory at Scarborough.

Now a dramatic opportunity to endorse something that could be passed off as a "compromise" presented itself to Foot and his friends - the lyingly misnamed "Crossman-Padley compromise".

In February a drafting committee from the TUC and the NEC agreed by 8 votes to 4 to accept a new right-wing "defence" statement (drafted by Denis Healey) for the next Labour Party conference. The dissident minority — Walter Padley, Tom Driberg, Frank Cousins, and the cynical operator Richard Crossman MP — produced their own defence statement. Though three of them at least were prominent unilateralists, they came out with a "compromise" based on the idea of a British pledge not to strike first.

"While we recognise that the Americans will retain nuclear weapons so long as the Russians possess them, we reject absolutely a NATO strategy based on the threat to use them first and a defence policy which compels NATO forces to rely on these weapons in the field".

Tribune jumped at the chance to advocate the "Crossman compromise". Thus it undercut and in effect abandoned the official Labour Party unilateralist position. Foot wrote that it would be a major step forward if the Crossman document (or a less cynical variant on similar lines worked out by Frank Cousins) could "secure the general backing of the Labour Party”.

In fact there was never any chance that it would get the backing of the Pentagon and Whitehall-linked Gaitskellites. What was happening was that the left leaders were selling a fake compromise to the unilateralist rank and file. The "compromise" now became the left's alternative to the Healey draft of the right-wing position, and it was touted as a basis for unity. The Crossman-Padley “compromise” was a transparently cynical device to get the left off the hook.

Gaitskell? He referred contemptuously to the wriggling of the Tribunites and justly scorned them for their "lack of principle". The right would concede nothing. Padley's union, the shop workers' union USDAW, adopted the "compromise". Once it had done its work of demobilising and undercutting unilateralism, USDAW abandoned the "compromise"; they did not even move it at the Blackpool party conference of 1961.

The unilateralist victory at the 1960 conference had been something of a windfall, for which the left was unprepared. Almost by accident they had begun to pull down the structures and political prerequisites of class collaboration in Britain, and thus provoked a backlash from the ruling-class agents in the labour movement that, as it turned out, they couldn't handle. Intimidated by the right's threat of a split, the official left ran away in confusion.

The Gaitskellites had the interests of the ruling class and its state system to relate to and preserve. They knew where they stood and were in no doubt where the base line was, beyond which they could not move without betraying their own cause.

By contrast the official left was utterly confused, only half-understanding the meaning and implications of the policy they had won the Labour Party to at Scarborough. When the right wing brutally spelled things out for them and told them it wasn't on, they crumbled. Against the hard-bourgeois right wing — the future SDP — the left had no serious programme.

The programme of class struggle and working-class socialism was not adhered to by the mainstream unilateralists, who were at best utopians and frequently conscious left-fakers
like Crossman. Hence it was more than a question of the personal character of the lefts. Foot's record before 1960 was not contemptible. It was fundamentally a question of their left-reformist politics and their characteristic failure to think things through to the end and to draw the necessary conclusions in practice from political positions like unilateralism.

Before the Scarborough Conference of October 1960, Foot wrote in Tribune (in a front page article revealingly entitled "Don't be afraid of victory"): "Scarborough will be momentous. No one can doubt that. Either it will mark the rebirth of the party or the name will become the symbol for tragic and dismal confusion".

In fact it became a symbol for the inconsequentiality of the Labour left and of its dismal incapacity to do other than make "oppositionist" noises.

As early as December 1960 Tribune had tried to give Gaitskell lessons in how to fake if he wanted to lead them gently by the nose; he didn't. He wanted to smash and humiliate them. But soon enough they got Harold Wilson as leader, and he didn't need any lessons on the arts of faking
and bamboozle.

Gaitskell followed up his victory at Blackpool in October 1961 with an anti-EEC [the early European Community] campaign that largely disarmed the left. Wilson, succeeding Gaitskell at the beginning of 1963, proceeded to disarm them completely. A former "career leftist", he knew how to throw them inconsequential sops.

The Labour left counted for nothing throughout the 1960s, and until well into the 70s. No defeat is so demoralising as a craven capitulation without a struggle. The tendency that suffers it must inevitably have its belief in itself sapped and undermined. The Bevanite/Tribune left never recovered. It was a new left that grew in the 70s.

[This is a modified version of an article published in Socialist Organiser in 1980.]