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14 July 2021

From the NS Archive: Labour’s opportunity

8 April 1933: "It is no use criticising the Labour Party as it is, unless one can also suggest what could be done to make it a more real and live force for the achievement of Socialism.”

By G D H Cole

On 23 March 1933 the German Reichstag passed the Enabling Act, marking the transition from the democratic Weimar Republic to Hitler’s dictatorship. A fortnight later, the political theorist and economist GDH Cole urged Labour to reaffirm itself to parliamentary democracy in this constructive but bruising appraisal of the party’s inner failings. With Labour stuck in opposition midway through Ramsay MacDonald’s National Government, the Fabian author argued that some “do not know where the party stands” and enjoined it to unleash the potential of its younger members. Some of Cole’s criticisms reflect perennial issues dividing the party: the relationship between constituency organisations and the executive, the party’s constitution, and “jaded, disillusioned” leadership. But, he maintained, if the party’s management heeded his advice there was still an opportunity “to put the power once gained to effective socialist use”.


The defeat and eclipse, for some time at least, of socialism in Germany has inevitably raised in many people’s minds the question of the Labour Party’s future in this country. It has led
to suggestions in some quarters that, in Great Britain as well as in Germany and Italy, fascism is bound to come, and that accordingly British socialists ought at once to begin organising against the fascist danger, to throw over their faith in parliamentary methods, and to prepare for a proletarian dictatorship as the only alternative to a dictatorship of the other side. Others, including apparently the National Joint Council of the Labour Party and the Trade Unions, have drawn the conclusion that now is the time for a reaffirmation of unqualified faith in the efficiency of constitutional and parliamentary methods, and are summoning the workers to rally to the side of parliamentary democracy against dictatorships of any and every sort.

It should, indeed, be clear to every sensible person that it would be sheer madness for the Labour Party to repudiate constitutional and parliamentary action, and give British fascism just the chance it now lacks of becoming a formidable force. The conditions do not exist in Great Britain today for the growth of fascism à la Hitler or à la Mussolini. We have no ruined middle classes on a scale sufficient to provide the necessary recruits; we have no economic suffering, save in a few areas, extreme enough to drive men to desperate ventures out of sheer despair; and, most important of all, we are not suffering under the psychology of defeat which has been at the back of both the German and the Italian movements. The British Labour Party, if it plays its hand with reasonable skill, has a real chance of winning before long a clear parliamentary majority, and of taking over the actual government of the country by constitutional means. It would be insane to throw this chance away by a propaganda of force, since it is absolutely certain that force is the very last thing most of the supporters of Labour want to find themselves compelled to use. British Labour is strongly pacifist in sentiment; and a great mass of support would be alienated if socialists seemed to be trying to climb to power by other than constitutional means.

But, when this has been said and accorded full weight, the fact remains that the mere proclamation, in all truth and sincerity, of pacific and democratic intentions will not carry the Labour Party far, or help it positively to win for a socialist policy the additional body of support which it needs. It is unfortunately true that the Labour Party today, while it is gaining some electoral ground as a result of the growing unpopularity of the National Government, is not effectively rallying behind it the coherent and united body of support which is necessary for the implementing of a real socialist policy when the time comes. Despite the victories of the left at the Leicester Conference last autumn, and despite the good showing of the attenuated Labour Front Bench in the present House of Commons, there is within the party a large and growing mass of discontent, by no means confined to the intelligentsia, upon whom the blame for it is often laid, but widespread among the active local party workers in almost every area. Above all, though there is as yet no pronounced drift towards the Communist Party, which has singularly failed to grasp its opportunities, the Labour Party is showing no aptitude to draw in to its support, and encourage by the granting of influence and responsibility, the younger elements among its potential workers, who are crying out vainly for a clear and courageous lead, in a world never so much as now in need of leadership and courage. These critics want the Labour Party to become really socialist, in a constructive sense, and to give them a plain lead for the achievement of socialism by constitutional means.

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Unhappily the Labour Party, even more than its rivals, still gives the impression of being, and actually is, a party of tired men, as far as its ostensible leadership is concerned. This is most marked of all on the Trade Union side, where it takes a terribly long time to rise to a position of national prominence, and a seat in parliament is too apt to be the restful reward of prolonged industrial service. But it is true on the political side as well that it is hard for a young man to get into parliament, or into a responsible position in the Labour Party machine. Seats that can be won are too apt to go either to those who have Trade Union financial backing or to those middle-class persons who can afford to pay their election expenses and contribute to the support of a permanent agent; and seats on the party executive are almost wholly beyond the reach of anyone who is not either the nominee of a big Trade Union or an outstanding national figure. All this is natural enough; but it results in the domination of the movement by old or middle-aged leaders, and in the effective silencing of the voice of youth within the party.

Age and experience have their virtues; but they are certainly not, undiluted, the virtues which the Labour Party needs today. Their dominance is reflected, in the head offices of the Labour Party and the Trades Union Congress, in a timidity in the advancing of socialist proposals, in an inflexibility of propagandist method, and in an intolerance of outside help, as well as of outside criticism, which strangle the spirit of voluntarist effort among the enthusiasts of the party. The temper of the official elements is suspicious and unwelcoming to any save the most docilely orthodox offers of help. Their propaganda prefers the old familiar ruts to constructive planning for a rapidly changing world; and they are constantly more fearful of antagonising known forces than hopeful of enlisting new and untried forces on their side.

It is, however, of no use merely to criticise the Labour Party as it is, unless one can also suggest what could be done to make it a more real and live force for the achievement of socialism. There is no need to shirk this challenge. The things that need doing at the present time are fairly evident, and there is a large measure of agreement upon them among the younger elements in the party.

First of all, it is necessary so to organise the younger potential members of the party as to make them a really effective force, and one capable of appealing to the imagination of those who are growing up to manhood. The Labour Party has its League of Youth; but at present it forbids this League to meddle with questions of policy, and confines membership to those under an age so low as to preclude the development of any real and coherent leadership within it. The League of Youth should be set free to discuss policy, to propose resolutions to the party conference, and to enrol members at least up to an age at which positions of leadership in the wider movement are effectively open – say 40, at the lowest. If these things were done I am convinced that the League could be made a really powerful force, both in forming opinion within the party and in attracting to it the younger people who are at present repelled or disheartened by jaded and disillusioned leadership.

Secondly, the constitution of the Labour Party should be so amended as to give greater weight to the constituency organisations which do most of its work. The present constitution was devised before anything like the present organisation of the Local Labour Parties – to say nothing of their active and successful women’s sections – had been brought into effective existence. Both in voting and in representation at the party conference and on the party executive the Local Labour Parties ought to carry far more weight than they do. This could be secured without any attack on the rights of the Trade Unions within the party; for the voting power of the Local Parties could be increased enormously while still leaving the Trade Unions a final majority control. What I am urging is in no sense an attack on the Trade Unions, but only an appeal to bring in other elements to help them more effectively in their struggle. If this were done, especially in the election of the executive, it would give the younger elements a far better chance of rising to a position of real influence in the counsels of the party.

Thirdly, in order to reduce the element of buying and selling seats which at present exists, the Trade Union political funds used in support of the party ought to be pooled, and at the same time steps ought to be taken to prevent the sheer purchase of seats by wealthy middle-class backers of the party. Unless this, too, were done the Trade Unions could hardly be expected to agree to the pooling of their own funds. It is wrong for safe seats to go either to elderly officials or to successful middle-class people merely because of their ability to pay, and irrespective of their qualities for useful parliamentary work. I grant that this is a difficult and thorny question, but I am sure it is a question that will have to be tackled if Labour is to get into parliament a body of men capable of carrying through a clear and comprehensive socialist policy.

Fourthly, the Head Office organisation of the party will have to be improved. Its present fault is far less that of inefficiency in detail than of acute suspiciousness of its own supporters and of an absence of any clear and constructive leadership. This may be largely the result of Mr Arthur Henderson’s prolonged absence at the Disarmament Conference, which has left the Head Office leaderless; Mr. Henderson was Transport House, as long as he was there to run the show. But, whatever the reason, the fact remains that Transport House, so far from eagerly welcoming friendly help and giving a constructive lead to the local parties, acts continuously as a wet blanket upon outside efforts – a trait which it shares to the full with its neighbour next door, in the Head Office of the Trades Union Congress.

Fifthly, but by no means least, a far clearer lead than has yet been given is needed in matters of policy. Transport House, without saying as much positively, has diffused the impression that it acutely disliked the left wing resolutions carried at Leicester last autumn, though these clearly represented the preponderant opinion among Trade Union and Local Labour Party delegates alike. There has, at any rate, been no attempt to act on these resolutions, in the sense of using them as a basis for subsequent Head Office propaganda. Consequently, local workers are complaining that they do not know where the party stands, and that they are being left without an effective answer to communist and ILP critics and to the desire of loyal Labour Party members for a more forward socialist policy – so that only the ineptitude of these critics is preventing them from detaching supporters from the party at a rapid rate.

Let the Labour Party by all means repudiate all ambition to play the dictator. Let it affirm as strongly as it likes its belief in constitutional and parliamentary means of attaining to power.

Few will quarrel with it for doing these things, which are obviously right and sensible under existing British conditions. But it must not imagine, when it has done them, that all is done, or that a mere appeal to rally to the defence of parliamentary democracy (however necessary such an appeal may be today) will generate among the younger of its potential supporters the constructive enthusiasm which it must elicit if it is to gain power, and to put the power once gained to effective socialist use. If it is to do that, it must give its young members a place of real responsibility and influence within the machine, increase the power of the men and women organised in the constituency parties, and responsible for most of the hard and unrequited work of the movement, amend its methods of selecting candidates, and, above all, install at Transport House a body of men who will be less fearful of criticism than eager to enlist the new forces of today and tomorrow in the party’s support. I should like to see the “loyal grousers”, as they have been called, within the party concentrating upon this clear-cut programme of internal reform; for I am convinced that there is a great chance for the Labour Party just now to win the active support of the younger workers, and of a large section of young middle-class people as well, and that this chance is being missed chiefly for lack of an effective party machine at headquarters and of means whereby men and women can rise to influence within the party young enough not to be stale, jaded, disillusioned and incapable and suspicious of new ideas arising out of the rapidly changing circumstances of our time.

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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