British Labour movement

Clause4 700Ever since the formation of the Labour Party in 1900, there has been controversy on the left over whether or not to participate in the party. To develop a correct understanding of this question, it is important to look at the experience of the past. Our task is to learn from history in order to avoid unnecessary mistakes. History, after all, is littered with the wreckage of small sectarian groups who attempted to mould the workers’ movement into its preconceived plans and failed.

Different “Marxist” groups have made one mistake after another on this key question. Towards the end of the 1960s, a number of left groups abandoned work in the Labour Party in disgust at the counter-reforms of the then Labour government. They wrote off the party and set about building their own independent revolutionary parties, ignoring everything that had been written on the importance of the mass organisations. The more isolated they were, the more ultra-left they became. Rather than connect with the real movement, they continually sought to tear the advanced workers away from the mass. They saw their prime task as to “expose” the leadership through shrill denunciation. This has been the hallmark of all these different sectarian groups. With such antics they end up playing into the hands and reinforcing the position of the right-wing leaders.

— From Britain: Marxism and the Labour Party – Some important lessons for today

On the eve of the 1959 general elections, Ted Grant explained the reasons why workers needed to get rid of the Tories. Only the bosses had gained anything after eight years of Tory rule.

In 1959, the Transport and General Workers’ Union (T&GWU) and the General and Municipal Workers’ Union (G&MWU) gave voice to the growing mass opposition within the labour movement to atomic and nuclear arms. Labour Party leader Gaitskell declared that the pro-Nuclear party policy would not be changed. Ted Grant expressed the Marxists’ critical support for the trade unions’ stand and exposed the right-wing policy of the Labour leaders.

Rising unemployment provoked a parliamentary debate in March 1959. Ted Grant explained the reasons for the growing unemployment and the need to reject bourgeois policies. Unfortunately, Labour leaders were tail-ending the policies of the Tory government, which also explained why the Labour Party was finding it difficult to defeat the Tories, something which was confirmed later that year in the general election.

At the beginning of 1959 the National Coal Board decided to close 36 pits and throw 13,000 miners out of work in Wales and Scotland. Despite the wave of unrest amongst the miners, the reaction of the leaders of the Miners' Union was to "co-operate in minimising hardship caused by the closures". Ted Grant argued that the NUM should strike back and mobilise around the lines set out by the Miners' Charter and enforce workers' control on the Coal Board.

In the run-up to the 1959 General Election Ted Grant criticised the programme of the Labour Party highlighting that promises of reforms were just words, especially in the context of the economic slump, if the bosses' pockets had not to be touched. Unless the big 600 were taken over and production rationally organised according to a democratic plan, with the full participation of the workers and technicians themselves - Grant argued - the programme of reforms was unrealistic.

A few months before the 1959 General Election, after 7 years of Tory rule, their policies in favour of the rich had alienated the mass of the workers. Cracks appeared in Tory rule but the Labour Party under Gaitskell had no real alternative to offer to British workers. Unless a sharp change to the left in policies and leadership was forced by the Labour ranks, Labour would head for disaster, argued Ted Grant.

In 1958, after 7 years in power, Tory rule was shaken by recession. The class character of Tory policies was clear for all to see. At the same time the right-wing orientation of Labour under Gaitskell was frustrating the ranks of the labour movement. Growing criticism was revealed by a Gallup Poll. Ted Grant explained that workers were prepared to fight the Tories but the Labour leaders were not willing to give a lead. The most class-conscious elements should therefore organise in opposition to Gaitskell's policies.

In 1958 the economic recession in Britain undermined the stability of the then Tory government. The combination of rising unemployment and inflation and the Tory government's policies provoked a massive swing against them. Ted Grant urged that all forces of the trade union and labour movement be mobilised to force the Tories out.

In 1958 there were fears of a slump spreading from the US economy. British CP leader Campbell started a campaign in consonance with Russian foreign policy to put the blame for the slump on the "Americans" and protested against the bankers' behaviour and the shortsighted British government's attempt to "create a slump" in the UK. Ted Grant argued against this nonsense that it is not the "obsessions" of the bankers nor the "stupidity" of the capitalists and their representatives which cause them to act in a certain way, but the economic laws of the capitalist system.

The NEC of the Labour Party in 1954 argued in favour of German rearmament against the Soviet "threat". The Labour left argued that a re-armed West Germany, backed by the United States, would be facing a hostile and armed East Germany, backed by Russia, making World War III "inevitable." Ted Grant replied to both, putting forward an internationalist position.

Cutting through the superficiality of the Fabian theories, Ted Grant defends the basic Marxist position, that as long as the market dominated the economy, then there would inevitably be cycles of boom and slump. Explaining the causes for the longevity of the boom, he also points out its limitation and the inevitability, at a later stage, of new recessions and slumps. This article, although directed particularly towards the British economy, was no less relevant to the other main capitalist countries, where similar conditions prevailed and similar arguments raged.

Ted Grant's criticism of the pamphlet "Problems of Foreign Policy" published by Transport House in 1952 exposes the chauvinistic approach in foreign policy of the Labour leaders and their abandonment of a working class perspective.

In early 1952 fifty-seven Labour MPs voted against the Tory motion of endorsement for the rearmament programme, reflecting the deep dissatisfaction of the rank and file members of the Trade Unions and the Labour Party with the policy of the official Labour Movement. Ted Grant analysed the limits and the potential of this opposition developing around Bevan.

In 1949 the new Occupation Statute gave control of the Ruhr region, the powerhouse of Europe, to the British, French and US imperialists. The excuse was to prevent the possibility of German rearmament. Ted Grant exposed the imperialists' interests behind this measure and denounced the chauvinistic policies of both the Stalinist and Labour leaders.

In 1948 Ted Grant, commenting on the debate at the Tory Conference, argued that the Conservatives were trying to disguise with a thin layer of “social” veneer the class character of their policies in favour of the ruling class and warned against the possibility of a Tory comeback if the Labour leaders failed to deliver decisive social change.

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