By Ruben Lomas
60 years ago, the 1945 Labour government was voted into power. Staggering out of the nightmare of the Second World War, Britain’s workers — many of whom had fought in the conflict — cast their votes for a party that said it stood for their interests and, in government, would represent them. It is still looked back upon as “radical,” “reforming” and sometimes even “socialist” . But was it?
Many of the reforms that this government introduced were progressive. It undertook a raft of nationalisations, including gas, coal, electricity and the Bank of England. It was under this government that India — for generations the jewel in the crown of the British empire — won its independence. The 1945 Labour government, in what was perhaps its most historically significant measure, also established the National Health Service.
The programme of this Labour government was a genuine step forward for the working class, pushed through by Labour’s instinctively conservative leadership for fear of working class reprisals.
The Labour Party itself also grow during this post-war period: in 1952 its membership rose to over 1,000,000 and its trade union affiliations grew by 100% under the government.
A reforming government it may have been. It was even a government whose reforms were quite radical. But its programme did not equal “socialism”, nor was this a reforming Labour government a “workers’ government” in any meaningful sense.
Extensive projects of reform have often been used by the ruling-class as pressure valves in periods of potentially revolutionary crisis. The NHS, for example, was originally conceived by the Liberal politician William Beveridge and the Labour Party inherited many of its economic plans from J M Keynes, another Liberal. The Liberals had sought to introduce reforms to diffuse the working-class upsurges of the early 20th century and particularly the revolutionary aftermath of the First World War.
Labour’s leaders still suffered from the hangover of the wartime Coalition Government in which they had participated alongside Churchill’s Tories. Clement Attlee, the Labour prime minister from 1945 to 1951, said that “it was very seldom that any Party issue arose to divide us [i.e. the Coalition government]…”
The layer of bureaucrats and state-officials they inherited from that Tory-led government brought a heavy dose of ruling-class conservatism to their plans. After just three years of reform, the Labour government appeared to run out of ideas in 1948.
One reason was that working-class militancy began to subside. Major working class struggles had been defeated in France, Greece and America, and the workers’ movement in Britain was in a state of political confusion after Labour’s radical reforms had left capitalism intact.
Labour’s conservative leadership had succeeded in being just radical enough to appease its working class base, but not so radical as to galvanise and embolden it to push for real power.
The other face of the 1945-51 government is very similar to that of every bourgeois government. The draconian anti-strike Order 1305 of the wartime period was maintained, and the Trades Disputes Act (introduced by the Tories in 1927 following the General Strike) was only repealed in 1951 after protest strikes in which gas workers had been thrown into jail for striking!
The 1945 government was no more strike-friendly than any of its predecessors or successors, and in 1948 and 1949, Labour used the army to break strikes on the docks. In 1948, a wage freeze was introduced.
Even the reform project itself fell far short of the workers’ control that Labour’s 1944 conference had called for. Those in charge of the newly nationalised industries functioned in much the same way as the old private capitalist managers, and in some cases were actually the same people. Subsequent governments worked closely with the managements of the nationalised industries to attack workers, the most prominent example being the miners’ strike of 1984-5.
It was also Attlee’s government that introduced 18-months National Service. There had been a Parliamentary revolt by Labour backbenchers and an agreement to reduce the period to just a year, but it was maintained at 18-months following threats of resignations from army tops. The story gives a clear indication of whose interests and demands Atlee’s government was in thrall to.
The 1945 government’s worst contribution to history was its foreign policy. It was here that it faced the least direct working-class pressure and was freest to serve the interests of capitalism more closely. With one hand, Atlee’s government gave India independence but with the other it waged a brutal colonial war in what was then Malaya in order to keep it under British rule. With one hand, the government established the NHS; with the other it established NATO.
It vacillated wildly in Palestine, first installing a massive army of occupation (100,000 troops) before cutting its losses and leaving the Arab ruling classes and Jewish nationalists to fight it out.
Attlee played Blair to Franklin Roosevelt’s Bush as Britain tailed America in the Korean War, and, closer to home, bolstered the Tory-created Six County bastard-statelet in Northern Ireland by introducing the Northern Ireland Act in 1949 which meant that no constitutional changes to the situation could be made without a majority from within the Six Counties itself.
At home and abroad, the perspective of the Labour government was neither working-class nor socialist.
The experience of 1945-1951 teaches us many things. It teaches us that “socialism” is not something that can be delivered from above by a group of “practical minded men” (as the Labour leaders called themselves in their 1945 manifesto) turning capitalist industries controlled by private individuals into capitalist industries controlled by the state.
It teaches us that even a reforming social-democratic government which pushes through progressive measures with one hand will try to crush working class militancy with the other. It shows us how, under capitalism — no matter how radical their rhetoric, how benevolent their intentions or even how progressive their reforms – governments are still merely the administrators and managers of the capitalist system, even if they sometimes come into limited conflict with the capitalists.
When working class militancy was hamstrung by the fizzling out of the reform process and Labour’s anti-trade union measures, there was a glaring need for a group of organised Marxists within the labour movement to take the arguments for socialism forward. The workers’ movement remained unclear about what type of society it wanted, about the nature of the Labour government and about how to fight for its demands. The absence of this clear Marxist voice meant that this confusion was perpetuated and working class aspirations were not channelled into a clear cut political struggle, and, crucially, the long-term lessons were not learnt.
In the early 1970s, intense industrial struggle smashed the Tory government, but because the ideological battles within the labour movement had not been won, Harold Wilson was able to present himself as the only alternative to the Tories. Massive disillusionment with his government saw the victory of Thatcher.
In our times, the lack of a serious body of organised Marxists in the labour movement has allowed trade union bureaucrats to pander and capitulate to Blairism at every turn since Labour’s landslide victory in 1997.
To avoid similar defeats and setbacks in the future, the workers’ movement and Marxist within it must learn the lessons of 1945. We cannot again let a conservative Labour leadership pass off drips and drabs of reform as “practical” socialism. When we do force governments to deliver reform, we must push through them to demand more and not let our militancy and radicalism be hamstrung or neutered.
Crucially, we must learn that socialism, workers’ control and a government that represents the interests of our class are not things that can be given to us or delivered from above. They are things that we must fight for ourselves on every front, political, ideological and economic.
That means constantly sharpening our ideas and learning the lessons of history. Learning these lessons is as central now as it ever was: in an age of environmental chaos, war, rampant hyper-imperialism and increasingly brutal repression of workers across the world, the need for a workers’ government is posed more sharply than ever.