Labour in 1950: betrayal is inherent in reformism

The following article was published in 1981, shortly after the opening of the so-called Cabinet Papers for 1950. These documents revealed the extent to which the post-war Labour government, so-often heralded by reformists as ‘real socialism in action’, was obsessed with routing communists and radicals out of the party, and ultimately toeing the line of the capitalist establishment. These revelations are proof that even a radical reformist government will ultimately defend the interests of the capitalist system if it is unwilling to break with it.


According to reports, the cabinet Papers for the year 1950, released recently under the 30-year secrecy rule, show that the Labour Government was obsessed by fears of Communist plots at home and abroad. The extent to which the Labour Government of 1950 had departed from the confident, reformist spirit of the heady days of 1945-47 is important for present-day activists to understand. For the Labour Governments of the immediate post-war era are often held up as shining examples of 'real' socialist governments.

In 1945, the Labour Party was returned to power with a massive majority in Parliament. The mood of the overwhelming number of workers and substantial sections of the middle class was for radical change. Amongst some more advanced workers and troops, the mood was for a revolutionary change. The programme of the Labour Party reflected a radical attitude rather than the revolutionary one, but nevertheless represented a powerful attack on the position of the capitalist class. Within three years of coming to power, the Labour Government, impelled by the prevailing spirit, carried through practically its entire programme of nationalisation and social welfare provisions. The Attlee Government, however, was packed with right-wing ministers, whose avowed preference was for gradual progress, seeking to gain respect and acceptance in the eyes of the establishment, rather than transforming the very structure of society. Once the bulk of the programme had been achieved they saw their task as complete and set their sights on consolidation. But society cannot stand still. Britain in 1947 was at a crisis point. Substantial though the reforms were that had already been passed, the problems of post-war capitalist Britain required much more drastic steps. The contradictions clearly posed the issue: either Labour marched on to take the real economic and financial levers of power into its hands and begin the socialist transformation of society, or it would be forced to retreat and pave the way for its own defeat.

Between 1947 and the General Election of 1950, the Labour Government turned more and more to attacks on the working class, and together with the right-wing leaders of the TUC [Trades Union Congress] struck at the militants in its own movement. In 1947, during a bitter dispute on the Docks, Labour declared a State of Emergency (the first since the 1926 General Strike) and used troops to break the strike. In 1948, with agreement by the TUC, a wage freeze was imposed. In 1949 (and again in 1950) a ban on all processions in London prevented the traditional May Day marches from taking place. Within the Labour Party and Trade Unions, various members were expelled as Communist sympathisers. It was in this period that three Labour MPs were expelled from the party. In 1949, the government introduced a ban on employing Fascists and Communists in the Civil Service and proceeded to sack known Communists.

In seeking to take on the Communists and other militants rather than the capitalists, the Labour Government played straight into the hands of the Tories. Their confidence, and that of the class they represent, grew. A flood of propaganda was unleashed, notably by [food processing giant] Tate & Lyle [in response to Labour’s pledge to nationalise the sugar industry], to persuade the public to reject Labour and opt for the Conservatives at the next general election.

Labour went into the February 1950 Election on a limited reform programme, which included the nationalisation of sugar, cement and industrial insurance. In fact, the Labour leaders had no stomach for pursuing even these limited measures, for when they did get back to power they promptly dropped them.

cabinet notes Image fair useThe Cabinet Papers for 1950 revealed the extent to which the post-war Labour government was obsessed with routing communists out of the party and toeing the line of the capitalist establishment / Image: fair use

In a self-fulfilling way, which will be familiar to present-day activists, the failure of the Labour Government to show a firm way ahead on the basis of socialism led to growing disillusionment and a waning of the radical mood. This was then interpreted by the Labour leaders as justification for their weak and hesitant approach. In fact, the election result showed that the vast majority of workers remained loyal to Labour. The vote for Labour reached record levels. But the share of the total vote went down and Labour lost 80 seats and saw their majority reduced to seven. The response of the right-wing Labour and Trade union leaders to the situation in 1950 was to increase still further the attacks on the Communists and the left. The mood of the rank and file grew increasingly restive. In a series of unofficial strikes, dockers, busmen and gas workers sought to regain some of their losses sustained in the period of wage freeze. In 1949 the TUC, against the advice of Council, voted to end the wage freeze. The right-wing leaders of both wings of the movement chose to see in this and in every other manifestation of discontent the hands of an international communist conspiracy. Whilst, as the ETU [Electrical Trades Union, which was at one point controlled by members of the Communist Party] affair was to show, some elements of the Communist Party were quite prepared to adopt fraudulent methods to maintain positions, the Party was only able to conduct industrial struggles on the basis of the genuine grievances of the workers. The Party may have been a willing tool of Stalin but it hardly constituted a major threat to British capitalism in 1950.

However, the Labour Cabinet saw things differently as the released papers show. In 1950 they were actively engaged in discussing how to suppress the Communist Party, and more generally how to limit the right to strike. Throughout most of 1950, the Cabinet considered a draft Bill designed initially to protect the provision of supplies for the Korean War, which had broken out that year. An explosion in Southhampton Docks had been interpreted as attempted sabotage and this prompted the idea for a Bill, which not only protected supplies but prevented propaganda that was intended to persuade people to oppose the Korean War. At one stage the Cabinet went so far as to discuss widening the Bill to make strikes illegal in a wide range of industries, to make the notorious wartime regulation 1305 permanent, which made all strikes illegal unless 21 days’ notice was given, and introducing compulsory strike ballots. If all this sounds like Thatcherite language, it is well that comrades remember that it was also the talk of the 'real' socialist government of post-1945. Nor were the Cabinet discussions merely theoretical. In September 1950, 10 gas workers were convicted under Order 1305 and sentenced to one month in prison during a strike by 1,700 London Gas workers. This was later commuted to fines as the workers returned to work rather than see their comrades go to jail.

The Cabinet abandoned the idea of suppressing the Communist Party and limiting strikes as impractical! But the Home Secretary, Chuter Ede, imposed a secret ban (now revealed 30 years later) on giving known Communist immigrants British naturalisation. Several foreign communists were also expelled and visas were refused to visiting Communists or sympathisers. The cold war at home was but a reflection of the growing international tension between the USA and the Soviet Union. Both Tory and American observers had noted approvingly after the war how similar British foreign policy was under Labour to that of Churchill's. Certainly, the record of the Labour Government, between 1945 and 1950, in international affairs could hardly be called socialist. Whilst the granting of independence to colonies such as India and Ceylon (Sri Lanka), was progressive it was by that time inevitable. Of more significance was the attitude of the Labour Government to the Greek civil war, in which they maintained British troops and aid in support of the monarchists and neo-fascists. British troops were also used in the protracted war against the Communists in Malaya. Ernest Bevin was Labour's Foreign Secretary and his overriding concern was to create a strongly supportive organisation in Europe for America. To this end, he was a central figure in the formation of NATO.

Korean war Image Morning Calm Weekly FlickrThe Cabinet Papers for 1950 also show the Labour Government providing vigorous support for American policy in Korea / Image Morning Calm Weekly, Flickr

It is hardly any surprise, then, that the Cabinet Papers for 1950 show the Labour Government providing vigorous support for American policy in Korea. Apart from their concern about embarrassing opposition from the left in Britain the main worry of the cabinet appears to have been that American Imperialism might be too impetuous and unleash an atomic war against China. Indeed such a strategy was considered and favoured by General MacArthur, the Commander in Chief of NATO forces in Korea but finally rejected by President Truman.

As a consequence of Britain's support for the Korean War, a substantial rearmament programme had to be initiated. Such expenditure imposed a heavy burden on the British economy which in 1950 had still not fully recovered from the dislocations and problems of the second world war. The Treasury, with the support of right-wing Labour Ministers, sought to place the burden on the working class by attacking the welfare system so recently and painstakingly established. Cuts were demanded in the National Health Service. According to the Cabinet Papers, Ministers actively considered imposing a weekly 'hotel' charge on hospital patients. Aneurin Bevan, the sole left-winger in the Cabinet, fought against such a proposal but was forced to agree to 'economies' [austerity] in the NHS. This compromise lasted for the 1950 Budget, but in the following year the new Chancellor of the Exchequer, Hugh Gaitskell, insisted on introducing charges for dental and eye treatment, causing Bevan to resign along with two other members of the Labour Government, Wilson and Freeman.

The Cabinet Papers for 1950 may be a revelation to some but to many in the labour movement they will merely confirm the experience of more recent right-wing led Labour Governments who, faced with the difficulties and problems of a declining economy, turned to traditional Tory solutions. The particular lesson of the 1945-51 Labour Governments is that even a radical government is forced to adopt a reactionary position unless it moves on from its reforms to undertake the socialist transformation of society.

Derek Gunby Loftus Labour Party.

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