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12 October 2021

From the NS archive: Challenge to Britain

20 June 1953: The Labour Party’s new policy statement is so unsatisfactory and yet so nearly good.

By John Freeman

“Challenge to Britain”, the 1953 Labour Party policy document that was introduced on TV as Labour’s first political broadcast, is “unimaginatively presented”, “mushily written” and “lecturing” in tone, writes John Freeman. Then Labour MP for Watford and future editor of the New Statesman, Freeman is disappointed about the manifesto. Labour’s failure to produce a readable policy statement, he writes, is “doubly a pity because, in one respect at least, ‘Challenge to Britain’ conceals within its verbiage more realism than any recent Party manifesto, Tory or Labour”. Its analysis of Britain’s economic problems is “frank”, but it is not so clear about how to resolve those issues; there is no real plan of action. Ultimately, it is the core fighting purpose of the manifesto that lets it down. Freeman asserts: “Faith about the future would perhaps come more easily if there were any indication in the document that its authors conceived their purpose as being the fundamental change of society, or even a vigorous assault on accumulated private capital.”

The whole world has been privy to the groaning and grumbling of the mountain in labour. What now of the child? Is it straight and lusty, or twisted and feeble? I set out to judge Challenge to Britain with four questions uppermost in mind. Inasmuch as it purports to be a programme of action, is it based on a realistic analysis, and do its recommendations match the challenge it presents? Inasmuch as it is a statement of political faith, does it affirm the need to hasten the disintegration of capitalist society, challenge the inviolability of private property and build in their place the institutions of Socialism, based on public ownership? Inasmuch as it represents a compromise between the “bureaucratic” Right and the “demagogic” Left, does it suggest a will to action which goes beyond the negative acceptance of verbal formulae? Inasmuch as it is a propaganda document, will it do its job of appealing to the public?

The answer to this last question is, once again, “No.” Challenge to Britain is so unimaginatively presented, so mushily written, so turgid in the lecturing tone of some of its economic passages, that many readers will become bogged down and impatient long before the end. It seems a pity that, with all the literary resources at its disposal, the Labour Party has so consistently failed, ever since Let Us Face the Future, to produce a readable policy statement. In this case it is doubly a pity because, in one respect at least, Challenge to Britain conceals within its verbiage more realism than any recent Party manifesto, Tory or Labour.

For it bases its propositions on an unusually frank analysis of Britain’s problems. There can be no return to “normality”: “Socialism has become a necessity if we are to achieve the security and decent living standards we desire … we must push up the exports which earn us dollars or gold … we must restrain imports … forgo luxuries … tighten our currency controls.” It is recognised that the Sterling Area, properly organised, can, if Britain provides sufficient capital, play a decisive part in expanding the existing output of dollar-earning and dollar-saving materials: “the movement of capital from Britain to the rest of the Sterling Area must be made to fit in with the plan for increasing the welfare and productive resources of the Sterling Area … we must seek a Sterling Area agreement about restricting the movement of capital within the area … encourage primary producers to expand their production boldly through the offer of long-term guarantees.” In a word…

“To grapple with these problems we must:

1. Invest large sums of capital in developing food and raw material resources both at home and in the Commonwealth at maximum speed and so help to balance world production.
2. Increase the efficiency of our production, drive up productivity, keep our prices down and so improve our competitive position in the world.
3. Select those of our industries which have big export prospects – above all engineering and chemicals – expand their productive capacity at the greatest possible speed and ensure that supplies of coal and steel are sufficient …”

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That, as a statement of economic objectives, is good as far as it goes. As an analysis it is challenging, certainly not lacking in courage and realism, but for two significant errors of emphasis which gravely impair it. “The maintenance of large military forces and stores at home and abroad is a heavy burden on our economy,” says the paragraph on the Cold War. But nowhere is the truth stated in blunt terms that, unless the burden of the Cold War can be drastically lightened, the economic goals so bravely set out are the merest illusion. Nowhere is Labour pledged to set as its main policy task the winning of political independence from the US. Yet if the economic objectives are to be taken seriously, that is what they amount to. Why not then say so? Is this perhaps the first example of a compromise on words which conceals a deadlock of wills?

Then again, it is stated correctly that the foundation of our economic policy must be the investment of capital goods in primary producing areas. So said the 19th-century imperialists – and they, too, were right in economic terms. But, though Britain is almost as dependent today as in Queen Victoria’s reign on imported raw materials, the political situation has changed. Economic imperialism is politically impracticable. Successful Socialist investment must be judged by the degree to which it is directed to assisting the backward peoples to achieve their own independence and development; and though, by accepting this direction of policy, we shall thus turn the terms of trade still further against us as secondary producers, there is no other way in which Britain can in the long run survive in freedom. Challenge to Britain, in its eagerness to state the economic case, is insufficiently frank about the more inconvenient political realities that follow from it. How are we to ensure that we achieve Socialist investment and not economic exploitation? Here, too, I detect a flaw in the compromise. The Labour Party of Acland, Hale and Brockway, for instance, is also the Party of those who backed the imposition of Central African federation, and who robbed Seretse of his birthright. Is any compromise, other than a denial of action, possible on these central issues of racial exploitation and imperialism?

In spite of voicing these substantial preliminary misgivings, I still salute the courage and cogency of much of the analysis on which Challenge to Britain is based. The heresies of Professor Cole and the Bevanites are now, it seems, embodied in the corpus of Labour doctrine. But this analysis occupies only five out of thirty pages. The rest of the document is devoted to the exposition of how the Party intends to meet its own challenge. Here one must look for a formulation of policy demonstrably effective and specifically Socialist; and here my misgivings greatly increase. For one cannot judge this document entirely without reference to the strife in which it was conceived. This policy-statement is a compromise, and it is impossible to measure with objectivity its adequacy for its purpose without knowing a lot more than we know yet.

In many ways the Left may be surprised and delighted to see how much its champions seem to have been able to force through a largely hostile Executive. I hope, for instance, that the clear promise to abolish all the Health Service charges “as soon as Parliamentary opportunity permits” really does mark the end of the attack on the free Health Service which disgraced the 1951 Budget. The intention to re-nationalise steel and transport is affirmed without equivocation; and I hope that, coupled with the decision to impose “a substantial degree of public ownership in the chemical industry,” this symbolises the end of the unheroic period in which Labour has shrunk from public ownership and has seemed to prefer the negative controls of a managerial, privately owned economy. I hope so; but I am not sure. The document does affirm at one point that the aim of Socialism is to transfer the keys of economic power from private to public hands. But, in spite of a number of references to the possibility of public ownership, there are too many fluffy and ambivalent passages for the reader to feel certain how far a new Labour Government is committed to anything particular.

Take, for instance, the issue of land nationalisation. One may accept the wide-spread reports that, during the production of Challenge to Britain, there was fierce controversy between the Bevanites (who argued that the huge increases in agricultural investment and food production could never be achieved at reasonable cost without a new deal on the farms, including the nationalisation of rented agricultural land) and the majority, who accepted the conventional view that the target – a one-third increase in output within five years – could be achieved within the existing pattern of farming and agricultural policy. The form of words which appears in the document – “a Labour Government will use more vigorously existing powers – and where required extended powers – to take farm land into public ownership wherever this is necessary to ensure its full use and maximum output” – succeeds only in obscuring the decision. I cannot help feeling that those who drafted this passage hoped that it would lull the Left of the Party into thinking that some form of land nationalisation was contemplated: I am certain that if the implementation of policy is left in the hands of the majority of the present leadership it will prove to mean nothing of the sort.

[See also: From the NS archive: CND and the Labour Party]

This particular passage is a fair example of a kind of double-talk which occurs too frequently in Challenge to Britain. The greater part of the key chapter headed “Programme for Expansion at Home” is too flabby and equivocal for the reader to know whether or not it amounts to a policy effective for achieving the objectives enumerated above. Labour is going to “review” this and “consider” that (even a capital gains tax is only to be “considered”). “Where necessary” (and where will that be?) “particular sections of the engineering industry” will be taken into public ownership; while the heavy electrical industry is going to have steps taken (after review, of course) “to ensure that it is fully at the nation’s service.” To believe that all this amounts to a plan of action which measures up to the challenge of the analysis on which it is based requires a considerable act of faith. That indeed is true of the document as a whole. Credit is due to those who have struggled to achieve a form of words which would permit the implementation of a coherent Socialist policy. But to pretend that they have succeeded in binding their colleagues, requires an optimism and a faith in the Socialist purpose of both Party and trade union leaders which I do not feel.

There are, of course, solid achievements. The section, for instance, on education outlines a sensible and reasonably precise ten-year plan for improving the quality of state education and beginning the all-important task of ending the socially bad segregation of the private schools. But faith about the future would perhaps come more easily if there were any indication in the document that its authors conceived their purpose as being the fundamental change of society, or even a vigorous assault on accumulated private capital. The word Socialism is used from time to time, but never to proclaim the Party’s belief in basic social change. I guess that most of the compromises which have been made are in words only, and conceal deadlock; that the reality will depend on the Party’s leadership when the time comes to implement the policy. The only comfort I can derive from that is the knowledge that in the last resort the voting power in our movement lies with the rank-and-file. I hope that, at both the annual Congress of the TUC and the Labour Party Conference, they will reflect on the lessons to be learned from this tantalising document, so unsatisfactory and yet so nearly good. The principal lesson is, surely, that this is about the best the Party can expect to do while its Executive deliberations are a continuing struggle between Right and Left, and its decisions little more than the regular interruption of the struggle by the majority vote of the Right.

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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