The secret conference of the National Council of Labour this weekend is producing the usual crop of inside anticipations and well-informed disclosures of dissension. This intense interest in a conference devoted to Socialist policy is an unconscious tribute to the Labour Party. No one can get very excited when Conservative policy is discussed; for Mr Churchill and his colleagues, policy merely means an election programme, and all they argue about is how many items of Socialist clothing it is expedient to borrow in order to recapture power. After five years of Labour Government, the protagonists of a return to undiluted "free" enterprise have become a completely insignificant clique. That Sir Waldron Smithers, who after all is preaching the Conservative orthodoxy of twenty years ago, should now be ridiculed by his leaders only indicates the triumph of Socialist ideas since 1945.
But this triumph has its dangers. The Labour Party has accomplished all and more than all of the reforms which were envisaged when it was reconstituted in 1918. Like the Liberals in 1910, it has exhausted its mandate, and the question arises - what next? An answer cannot be found either by recourse to party oracles or by calling on the spirits of Keir Hardie and Robert Blatchford. The next stage of Socialism must be firmly based on the practical requirements of 1950.
What are those requirements? To discover them, we must realise that the Parliamentary deadlock is not an accident but the result of the failure of the momentum which carried Labour to victory in 1945. If that momentum is not regained, an actual coalition, or more probably a coalition policy executed by a Government without an effective majority will be the result of the next election. In that case, the historic role of the Labour Party will have been completed and it will go the way of the Liberals before it.
The aim of the conference at Beatrice Webb House must be to work out a policy which will regain the momentum of Socialist change. A Left-wing party cannot survive by squatting timidly on the status quo. In order to win, it must not avoid the awkward issues but be ready to risk defeat by challenging the electorate to face them.
This does not mean merely advocating another and bigger dose of nationalisation. We have argued frequently in this journal that the greatest weakness of British Socialism has been its facile identification of socialisation with nationalisation. The futility of this is proved by the present state of the nationalised industries. The first task of the conference, therefore, will be to view the nationalised industries not as ends in themselves but as instruments of Socialist planning. If it does this, the conference will be forced to demand drastic changes in their present organisation and to realise that - once steel and water have been taken over - further nationalisation of whole industries is irrelevant to the task of the next five years.
Mr Bevan believes that a retreat on this issue would be interpreted as a sign of weakness. It certainly would be, if it were the central feature of the electoral programme. But there is no reason why this should happen if other forms of socialisation, more relevant to our present needs, are given the prominence which nationalisation enjoyed in Let Us Face the Future. These other forms include competitive public enterprise, designed to break monopoly; an extension of municipal enterprise, possible only after a drastic reconstruction of local government; and new developments in Co-operation which could be expected to begin the job of reorganising the distributive trades.
But when all this has been discussed, the central issue will still be untouched. A Socialist full employment policy is impossible, in the long run, without a policy for profits and wages. Neither extensions of nationalisation nor other forms of Socialist public enterprise are any substitute for this. In order to move forward from the present Welfare State, a Keynesian variant of capitalism, to a real Socialist society, we must be prepared to plan the distribution of the national income. The difficulties in the way are obvious enough; it is a great deal easier to nationalise an industry by Act of Parliament than it is to "socialise" either wages or profits. But we believe that British Labour will only regain its momentum if it sets its hand to this task.