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5 January 2021updated 01 Sep 2021 4:14pm

From the NS archive: Labour’s new search for ideas

14 May 1965: Introducing “Socialism for the Seventies”

By Norman Mackenzie

In this article from 1965, the former NS assistant editor Norman Mackenzie introduced a new series in the magazine, “Socialism for the Seventies”. The Labour Party fought the elections of 1950 and 1951, he wrote, “with policies that lacked relevance, coherence and electoral appeal”. A decade and a half on, Labour was in power. “What happens, however, when Labour governs?”, wrote Mackenzie, who went on to discuss what kind of policy Labour needed in the decade to come.


In 1945, the Attlee government put into effect a legislative programme whose main features had been worked out in the previous ten years: the point is simply made by comparing its legislative record with the draft put forward by Clement Attlee in 1937, in The Labour Party in Perspective. Five years later, the basic programme accomplished and its leadership tired and divided, the party found itself fighting the elections of 1950 and 1951 with policies that lacked relevance, coherence and electoral appeal. Who has ever bothered to mention again the inane idea of nationalising sugar? Last October, the Wilson government came in with another comprehensive programme, the fruits of a policy debate that had gone on for 13 years of opposition. Before long (assuming victory in a tactical election this year or next) that programme too will have run its course. With the lesson of 1950 in mind, it is common sense to begin asking what kind of policy the Labour Party is likely to need in the Seventies, and how it should set about devising it.

These questions are worth asking because policy and policy-making play a peculiar role in the Labour Party. New policies have to be formulated to persuade the electorate that Labour has something new and attractive to offer – and also to convince the active membership that the party maintains its radical purpose. These two objectives, as Attlee, Gaitskell and Wilson in turn discovered, are not necessarily compatible: they may sometimes be contradictory. One of the skills required of a Labour leader is to get both types of appeal between the covers of the same manifesto. Policy-making, moreover, has a similar ambivalence. It must be sufficiently discreet to avoid the impression of discord, vague enough to give a Labour government room for manoeuvre, and adequately specific to maintain the enthusiasm of the rank and file. Above all, it must permit the kind of debate which keeps ideas alive in the party organisation, and in the Fabian Society, Young Socialists and all the periodicals and pamphlets of the Left.

For the Labour Party, the actual process of policy-making may matter just as much as the formal policies that are made: it is one of the clearer differences between it and the Conservatives. This process, moreover, often produces policies that are more relevant to the balance of interests and argument within the party than they are to what it should do – or even what it will do – when it wins an election. The contrast between the programmatic aspects of policy and its realities was clearly made in Wilson’s first 100 days.

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After a long period of opposition we know a good deal about programmatic policymaking when Labour is out of office. There is much ignorance about the details, and there has been no systematic study of the power structure and the nature of decision-making wit­hin the party – though there is ample material here to nourish the infant discipline of political sociology. But there is no mystery about its broad outlines. What happens, however, when Labour governs? The differences are so great that one is tempted to suggest that the party in office is really a different party: its constitution remains the same, but the way it works is so radically changed that a completely new set of rules now applies.

There is, first, the obvious shift in power. The ambiguous relationship between the National Executive and the Parliamentary Labour Party (best revealed in the nuclear debate after Scarborough 1960) is certainly resolved in favour of the parliamentary group as a whole, and the parliamentary leadership in particular. The initiative now lies with Downing Street, not Transport House. Other significant changes follow. Almost all the active and articulate figures in the party hold office, and have little time for party committees, preparation of papers and attendance at weekend conferences, let alone long-term thinking. Action today inevitably takes priority over speculation about tomorrow. Even the minor publicists within the party find their timetable changed. A Labour majority has taken many of them into the House, and some to lesser offices. In opposition, the ambitious Labour politician uses policy papers, articles and pamphlets as a means of establishing himself. In government, he will try to make his mark by his attention to current issues and his services to the administration. So he too becomes caught up in the daily grind and, because a narrow majority puts loyalty at a premium, is not disposed to make a serious challenge to the long-run direction of government actions.

In opposition, it is clear, an important role is played by the staff at Transport House, especially in the research department. When someone writes the history of Labour between 1951 and 1964, it will be seen how much was done by this department, despite its meagre resources, to bring Labour’s past principles and present practice into some sort of working relationship. A party wracked by the emotionally loaded issues of Bevanism, Nuclear Disarmament and Clause Four, badly needed a new and generally acceptable policy. By the time Harold Wilson became Leader it had one, not least because Transport House had served as focus for ideas coming from all sections of the party – the National Executive, the constituencies, the Parliamentary Party, the Fabians and academic advisers.

Office changes that situation too. Ministers now have access to a huge civil service machine, capable of feeding them with facts and ideas on a scale unthinkable for Transport House. They can appoint committees and commissions at will. Academics trip over themselves to become consultants, or even to be asked for their opinions, while a host of public and private organisations provide information or advice to government that no party official could hope to obtain from them. The difference this makes to those translated from opposition to office is little short of miraculous, just as the reverse process (the Labour leaders after 1951, the Tories today) can be ruinous: many public reputations cannot survive on their own resources. But, whatever its advantages, the change undoubtedly reduces the role that the party organisation plays in policy-making. (The recent difficulties about the staffing and function of the party’s research department stems precisely from this very problem.) There is no one who can compete with a minister, no part of the organisation which can outbid the ministerial machine; and even if some prominent outsiders are left, all the positions of power in the party are dominated by those who have a stake in the government.

This does not mean that criticism is bound to be ineffective. A Labour government has to take account of the morale of its supporters, just as it must reckon with public reactions to its record. But such criticism will usually be directed against day-to-day decisions – policy on Vietnam, for instance, or the delay in raising pension rates, or the temporary failure to carry out the election pledge of cheaper mortgages. Running controversy on such matters is inevitable and healthy.

Where, however, with much of the party’ talent and almost all authority concentrated in government, is one to look for controversy of a different order – a debate about assumptions and long-term perspectives, about the relation between the programme and the possible? Such a debate cannot be wholly neglected, or postponed until the Seventies are upon us: it took long enough to hammer out Socialism for the Sixties, when no one was distracted by the cares of state. On the other hand, it would be unreasonable to expect Labour leaders who have barely begun to carry out one programme to become heavily involved in arguments about the next.

There is no easy answer to this dilemma, which arises because Labour has never reaIIy classified the relationship between the party machine and its leaders when they are in office. But a party which puts so much public stress on planning for the future ought to have some private idea where it wants to go five years from now, or at least what urgent jobs are likely to remain on the agenda even though the next five years are profitably used. If it does not have a fairly clear conception of the kind of society it wants, and how to move towards it, then it will easily fall into the kind of cycle in which it spends one term of office implementing the ideas conceived in two terms of opposition. Policy, in this context, may become little more than a series of items (each may be admirable in itself) which do not hang together, or which together produce results quite different from those intended. If this is to be avoided, Labour must quickly develop some means of preparing for the follow-on, for assessing what it is doing now and what it should do next.

A good deal of that work can be done in office. Through its command of the machine a government can set inquiries in train that will yield fruit in two or three years – on town planning, for example, or education, or the structure and state of the National Health Service, or the cost of barrages across the Wash and Solway. Some of the policies it has already initiated, moreover, will have logical and necessary successors. But the bias of government is always against asking fundamental questions or raising the controversial issue and towards the administrative routine. That, surely, is where the outsider comes in – and the outsiders in this situation include the active membership of the party (encouraged, one hopes, by Transport House’s research department) and of the Fabian Society, as well as such non-party bodies as the Town and Country Planning Association, the Howard League or trade unions, or individual professionals, academics and journalists.

It is from such quarters that the fresh political winds should blow, creating a climate in which new ideas can germinate. It is none too soon to make a start, if Labour is to offer more than five reforming years in each generation. The function of this occasional series will be to discuss advanced thinking in half a dozen of the principal areas of policy.

Read more from the NS archive here and sign up to the weekly “From the archive” newsletter here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as Statesmanship” (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)

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