THE POLITICAL SITUATION 1957-9
In 1957, against a background of turmoil in the wider world, the Conservative government passed the Rent Act, a highly contentious piece of legislation ostensibly designed to resolve the problem of housing shortages by removing restrictions on the rents of privately-let accommodation, which had been operative since the Great War. Now the Rent Act decontrolled the top 10% of the market and also allowed new rents to be set when sitting tenants left. It also increased rents by about 70%, supposedly justified by being the first major increase since 1939. The government argued that landlords would thus be encouraged to maintain, improve, and invest in private rented property and thereby increase its availability. In fact, it was simply a charter for rent increases and Communist readily piled into action to oppose its effects. The London County Council stated in March 1958 that it was not in a position to cope with some three thousand expected “victims of the Rent Act, let alone 30,000, which is the estimated figure for London”. Accordingly, the authority began to requisition empty properties in order to house families evicted in October. [Woman Today, May 1958] Mass protests made the government retreat over concerns about evictions as a result of the Landlord and Tenant Act. Temporary provisions to inhibit evictions were introduced to a few tenants.
In January 1957 Eden resigned as PM, ostensibly due to ill health but actually due to the Suez crisis. The then Chancellor of the Exchequer, Harold Macmillan, had been appointed prime minister. Labour were actually 13 points ahead in the opinion polls, yet by the time the 8th October 1959 election was called the Conservatives enjoyed a seven point lead. Macmillan’s record in office was mixed but the economy had entered an upswing, with consumer products accessible via hire purchase. The Conservative appeal to the electorate was straightforward, summed up by the famous line: “You’ve never had it so good”. Tory electioneering also gave the electorate a clear message: “Life’s better with the Conservatives – Don’t let Labour ruin it”. The Tory manifesto, The Next Five Years, offered few proposals save the introduction of a Ministry of Science.
A contradiction was that in asserting that the country was never more prosperous, it was said that it could not afford any increase in old age pensions. This was absurd in the light of the fact that the Tories had given £300 million tax reliefs, a full year’s worth, in a recent budget. But a flurry of consumer goods was now available and a consumer boom had been actively encouraged. Over the period 1948 to 1959, average rises of 74% had been won in all industries. Employment was now considered to be remarkably stable. Most groups of workers had been able to maximise the advantaged position they were in, although some sections did fall behind as the pace of wage rises generally quickened.
Single young people with ready cash now had their own fashions, music, cafes or `milk bars’ and by time the decade turned would have even their own transport in the form of motor bikes and scooters. Teenagers had begun to dominate style in clothes, haircuts and even travel abroad, creating a generation gap began what would become known as `baby boomers’ and their parents who had known the austerity and gloom of the period before and during the war.
The way that the Tory election manifesto stressed the sight of television aerials over every house – including, of course, slums and near slums—one might have been forgiven for not realising that enormous numbers of working people did not yet possess television. The increase in the number of television licences in the Tory era from almost three million in 1953 almost nine million in 1959 was largely due to a switch of working class purchasing power from other things, for example, the decrease in cinema going aided the process.
Labour’s manifesto, `Britain Belongs to You’, offered voters an increase in pensions and the municipalisation of rented housing. An upbeat campaign, directed in part by a young Tony Benn, hailed Hugh Gaitskell as `the man with the plan’ and, perhaps spooked by the Tory preoccupation with television, for the first time Labour attempted to capitalise on this new medium. Labour advocated lower interest rates, more expenditure on the nationalised industries, the relaxation of hire purchase regulations, and measures for inducing industries to move to areas of high unemployment in its Plan for Progress published in mid-1958. As leading Communist, J R Campbell wrote about this: “The only snag was that in 1959 they had been already adopted in some form or other by the Tories … the Labour Party had no gimmicks that the Tories did not also have.” [J R Campbell, ` The Election For British Labour’, Marxism Today November 1959]
Labour had promised to raise pensions, build more hospitals and keep taxes; but when Gaitskell said he would also reduce purchase tax, the Tories came out with gibe: `A bribe a day keeps the Conservatives away’. In the last few days of the election the Tory counter-attack was based on the theme that history had proved that Labour could not manage the capitalist economy as well as could the Tories. They chose as their proof the inflation of 1950-51 which accompanied the arms boom following the outbreak of the Korean War. Campbell considered that: “Labour’s enthusiastic pursuit of the cold war in 1950-51 destroyed the post-war advance of the Labour movement. It was a betrayal far grosser than that of 1931. Its effects are still with us. Let any Labour speaker declare that it is preposterous to claim that 400,000 unemployed is full employment, and Mr. Gaitskell’s 1951 remarks about 3 per cent unemployment (approximately 800,000) being the top limit of full employment are gleefully quoted.”
Communists pointed to the peace dividend that would ensue, if only Britain followed a course set away from war and towards peaceful co-existence with the USSR and its allies. In Yorkshire, shop stewards at David Brown’s shop stewards, Huddersfield, saw local MPs and called for the lifting of restrictions on trade. The company’s aero division produced gears and the gearbox division tank transmissions. It had also acquired Aston Martin and Lagonda not long before. Holmes Steel Mills shop stewards put forward a resolution for the Sheffield District Conference of BISAKTA on the same question. David Brown’s shop stewards in Leeds had written to the Chinese Embassy, which had expressed its eagerness for trade. The letter was displayed, with permission, on the firm’s notice-board, and created considerable discussion. [World News 12th May 1956] In Lanarkshire, over 100 delegates were elected to a jobs conference, including delegates from local Labour Parties. North Lanarkshire Labour Party accepted a resolution on East-West trade and also called for a forty-hour week. A trade union deputation visited local MPs and the Lanarkshire County Council on the question of jobs. [World News 12th May 1956] In Wales, the Forest of Dean Trades Council has demanded trade with China. A packed meeting of 500 engineers, in the Rhondda, held to discuss redundancy, passed a strong resolution on East-West trade. The notion of boosting trade on a peaceful basis was genuinely popular. Aberdare Communists put out their own local leaflet opposing the transfer of Hirwaun factory to England, linking the issues. Strong pressure, including strike action, at Dialoys foundry, in Cardiff, reduced the number of sackings and forced an agreement on re-engagement procedure. [World News 12th May 1956]
In the run up to the 1958 TUC, the Daily Worker noted that since the previous year’s congress “the Government has got tough and the employers have got tougher. There have been rent rises and price rises and rises in the unemployment figures. Almost all the experts prophesy that this winter will see still more workers out of jobs. Even the smooth-talking President of the Board of Trade. Sir David Eccles, admits that the American recession will hit us this year. Will the full and united strength of the trade union movement be used to defend the working class? This is the biggest issue before the TUC.” [A rare front-page editorial in the Daily Worker, September 1st 1958] The paper had no doubt about the readiness of workers to fight, it argued that this had been proved by the magnificent stand of the London busworkers and “(i)f they did not win complete victory it was not their fault: it was the General Council of the TUC which let them down.”
For Communists, the lesson of this had to be learned by the trade union movement; that is to say that all would face attack from the Tories and employers and the movement would be “unprepared and disunited”. It was clear that the strategy of the Tories was to pick off sections of the working class one by one, at all costs avoiding taking on the whole trade union movement. The paper called for the holding of conferences by trades councils and local unions to discuss “the fight for work and wages and how the strengthen it”. More than this, a whole range of issues in foreign policy raised the real threat of war in one way or another. As ever in this period if not in modern times, ensuring solid policies at the TUC could translate, with care, into similar approaches at the subsequent Labour Party Conference. Getting the policies right would “seal the fate of the Tories. It would be the salvation of the Labour movement and therefore the salvation of Britain.”
But it would not be – Labour’s policy of managed capitalism was identical with that of the Tones and it was unable to show the mass of the electorate that it could manage the economy better than the capitalists themselves. In 1959, Macmillan, now hailed as Supermac, was returned as Prime Minister, the Tories gained what was seen as a historic third term with a majority of over 100 seats, winning 365 seats to Labour’s 258. The Tories did actually see a slight decrease in their share of the vote to 49% but Labour’s fell much more, from 46 to 43%.
The Labour right-wing rushed to say that workers were losing their identity as a class, acquiring middle class tastes and thus were rejecting the Labour Party as a class party. Interestingly, car industry workers were held up as a particular example of this development. To say the least, this was peculiar since this had been an industry experiencing the most intense of struggles. For Communists, the wonder was not that workers could be detached from Labour but that so many of them still adhered to it in spite of the party’s failure to win them by making political appeals that distinguished Labour from the Tories. Confidence in the labour movement had also been stunningly low, arguably reinforced by the self-fulfilling prophesies that socialism was no longer electorally popular. Even Nye Bevan, speaking at the 1957 Labour Party conference, had finally seemingly opposed unilateral nuclear disarmament, saying “It would send a British Foreign Secretary naked into the conference-chamber”. In 1959, Bevan was elected deputy leader of the Labour Party, although he was already suffering from terminal cancer and died on 6th July 1960.
J R Campbell wrote of the 1959 general election, that the majority of delegates at the Trades Union Congress in September did not believe that Labour would win and neither did it. “The significant fact in this election is the continuing drop in the overall Labour vote. In 1950 the Labour Party got 13,265,610 votes; in 1951 it got 13,949,105 votes; in 1955 it got 12,405,246 votes and in 1959 it got 12,216,166 votes. So no less than 1 million Labour votes have disappeared in eight years. Where there was a straight contest there was a swing of former Labour votes to the Tories. Where there was a three-cornered contest in seats where the Liberal had not contested last time, the votes swung to them.”
How on earth could this be the case, Communists reasoned, given the Tory record, whereby the government had recklessly plunged the country into the Suez war, broken an election pledge and passed a Rent Act that simply raised rent prices sharply, conducted a “lying, malicious campaign against the wages movement and had actually inspired the strongest employers’ federation in the country – the Engineering and Allied Employers’ National Federation – to resist the demands of the unions”. [J R Campbell op cit]
The Party noted that any strike, official or unofficial, even though it was the official strikes that caused the most public inconvenience, the Tories had used this as a stick to beat Labour with. But, instead of replying “the Labour Party cowered before the indictment.” Labour’s leadership so concerned to embellish its watered-down versions of Tory policy that it flinched away from combating the reactionary moves of the Tories; so much so that there was actually a recovery in Tory prestige from mid-1958 onwards. Indeed, Labour went into the General Election with what J R Campbell called the “scruffiest social reform programme in its recent history”.
But what of the Communist vote in the election? In some places it advanced slightly. In other cases it declined slightly. Clearly, there was no overall advance. Why then such a comparatively poor vote? Campbell considered that “(t)he main reason … is that the Communist Party was weakened in the constituencies by the crisis which followed the Twentieth Congress of the C.P.S.U. and the attempted counter-revolution in Hungary. Work in the constituencies slumped for a time, while the Party struggled to overcome its internal crisis. Meanwhile the anti-Communist drive continued relentlessly, though assuming different forms.”