Tuesday, 29 May 2007

FACES OF BEVANISM: Organising the Labour Left, 1950-1960

(Part I: Introduction)

"...a band of cheeky, irreverent and irresponsible outlaws merrily challenged a humourless party establishment... they were anti-upper class, anti-public school, anti-colonial, anti-capitalist and anti-American. The Bevanites delighted in being dangerously equivocal about Communism at the height of the Cold War, and they basked in the knowledge that not only the they have in Aneurin Bevan the most inspiring leader in British Politics, they also had an enthusiastic following among the rank and file in the still flourishing constituency parties" (Pimlott Wilson 1992)

This picture is similar to that often painted of the Bevanite Group of Labour MPs. They were a group which emerged from the meeting of minds between an existing group, Keep Left, formed in 1947 to urge the Labour Government not to retreat from its programme, and three members of that Government who resigned in the Spring of 1951: Nye Bevan, Harold Wilson and John Freeman. Bevan and Wilson, when threatening their resignations in the Cabinet, already talked of backbench supporters before the Bevanite Group came into being. They resigned over Gaitskell's 1951 budget which proposed health charges to pay for a large rearmament programme (the continued campaigns against the extent of the expenditure on armaments and in defence of the social services were important pillars of Bevanism throughout its turbulent existence). They declared then that their backbench supporters would not vote in favour of such changes. (Cabinet Minutes, 1951) Bevan was already a famous figure and something of a hero in the labour movement - the architect of the National Health Service - and to the eyes of observers he assumed the leadership of the dissenting group in Parliament. In fact, while he was a figurehead and a potential leadership candidate, he took a back seat in the organisation of this parliamentary faction. It is for that reason that this study does not begin in 1951 with Bevan's resignation from the Cabinet and end in 1957 with Bevan's inclusion in Gaitskell's leadership team. The 'Bevanism' in this study is the broad, organised Labour Left of the 1950s.

Although Bevanism came into being while Labour was in government, the 1950s was a decade when Labour saw a declining popular vote (from a peak in 1951) and a revival of fortunes for the Conservative Party. Bevanites wanted the Labour Opposition to use arguments based on socialist analysis to provide radical opposition to the Conservative Government's policy. However, certainly regarding economic policy, there was a degree of consensus in the arena of 'high politics' and the House of Commons, leading to the media invention of Mr. Butskell (a mixture of the Chancellor Butler, and his Shadow, Gaitskell). This was not a suggestion with found favour with many Labour Party members. The 1950s saw Labour in turbulent dicision and some of the issues that were fought over continued to recur as they Party's greatest controversies of the latter half of the twentieth century: nuclear disarmament, the power of the trade unions in the party, nationalisation and Clause Four of the party's constitution.

There is a considerable literature on the activites of this Bevanite 'band' although it is mostly in the form of autobiography, biography and diaries. The group that has not recieved so much attention is the 'enthusastic following among the rank and file'. It is my assertion that the legacy and impact of this group of MPs, who never numbered more than 50, cannot be understood without some consideration of Bevanism outside Parliament, and particularly in the CLPs. Through a study centred around the minute books of four chosen parties (Coventry North, Rugby, Pudsey and York) I attempted to uncover something about the organisation and motivation of left-wing constituency activists in the 1950s (the Constituency Bevanites). These were not chosen because they were necessarily consistently Bevanite CLPs - they are a mixture.

Minutes are not always satisfactory (a motion of censure in the Coventry North CLP officers for leaving something from the minutes was defeated, therefore the historian will never know what it was that was left out!) The other concern was that - then as now - there are a lot of 'silent members': the constituency Bevanites were clearly the activists (and at that time activists had rather more power in the party structures than today).

This is a reappraisal of Bevanism as a whole, putting the rank and file centre stage. The Bevanites were variously described as: 'a party within a party', 'no more than a nuisance', 'a major organised rebellious group', 'not much more than a group of congenial friends' or 'half vague emotion, half Mikardo's cunning organisation' (the last attributed to Hugh Dalton). Are any of these descriptions close to being accurate? What lessons can we learn as far as Labour left organisation in this decade is concerned?


ian said...

A good account of Bevanism.
I must though point out that these events happening in the Labour Party were against a back ground of a low level of industrial struggle. It prompted the old 'working class have never had it so good' arguments as the workers became 'bourgieousified' in the eyes of some of the right wing.
The right wing Trade Union leaderships provided a cover for the right wing labour leadership illusions that the class struggle was over.

How all this was to change towards the end of the 60s is of course another story explaining how wrong the right wing were.



Doctor Dunc said...

Absolutely. I'm afraid I'm going to bore everyone rigid with the full piece (in a few instalments) because I do feel it's quite instructive in terms of what we're doing now, both with regard to what worked and what didn't.

grimupnorth said...

Soundsfamiliar.....too familiar!
Uploaded a pic of Nye ( you just click on picture icon, do a Google search and save to your computer.....) to brighten things up!

Doctor Dunc said...

Thanks - how did you get in to upload the pic (I'd like to correct a few typos...)?

Curlew said...

Great piece, Dunc, am looking forward to reading the other instalments. Are there any published histories of the party (from both points of view)? It would be useful to also see how the right see the position we are now in compared to the party's initiation - if they have a logical explanation that doesn't dpeend on "pragmatism" that is...

Jackson Jeffrey Jackson said...

The recent "100 Years of Labour" by Graham Bash and Andrew Fisher is very short but gives a decent account from the point of view of what is now known as the hard left.

Francis Beckett's biography of Attlee is also useful on that front.

There's also a fairly standard History of the Labour Party (11th edition - up to the mid 90s) which I've got at home but can't remember the author.

Robert said...

Then please how the hell we have gone so wrong, perhaps Blair and Brown should read the story, because boy do we need somebody now.