Socialist Worker

Nye Bevan’s capitulation and the left’s defeat

In the second part of our series Matthew Cookson looks at the battle in the Labour Party in the 1950s

Issue No. 2104

Nye Bevan

Nye Bevan

The defeat of the Labour government in 1951 led to a huge convulsion in the party.

In the aftermath of defeat, divisions between the right and left within the Labour Party grew. But as always the left within Labour saw the party and parliament as the only way to win change. Ultimately this meant capitulating to the right.

The 1945-51 government introduced the National Health Service and the welfare state, satisfying the left.

But it attempted to backtrack on some of changes it had made.

Nye Bevan, Labour’s first health minister, and two other ministers resigned from the cabinet over chancellor Hugh Gaitskell’s budget, which introduced prescription charges while increasing arms spending.

Labour lost the following election. Despite working class fears, the Tories continued to support the welfare state and even increased the building of housing. An economic boom led to the rise of workers’ living standards.

Leading Labour theorist Anthony Crosland claimed that Britain was no longer capitalist. He believed that socialists should simply campaign for better lifestyles and culture.

His ideas had a big influence on the right within the Labour Party. The consensus between the Labour leadership and the Tories produced bitter conflict in the Labour Party.

Bevan led the biggest rebellion against the leadership in Labour’s history, mainly focused around foreign policy.

He had majority support among Labour Party members, but the trade union leaders’ block vote ensured that conferences would reject Bevanism.

Labour leaders banned the Bevanite MPs from meeting together in 1952 and Bevan and his supporters complied.

The right went on the offensive against Bevan after he challenged Labour leader Clement Attlee in 1955 on whether he would support the use of nuclear weapons against a country that attacked Britain with conventional weapons.

Bevan led a high profile rebellion of Labour MPs who abstained on a key parliamentary vote after the first British hydrogen bomb test.

He was threatened with expulsion from the Labour Party. He hung on in the party by surrendering to Gaitskell, who beat him in the election for new party leader in 1955. He became shadow foreign secretary.

During the Suez Crisis of 1956 when Britain, France and Israel invaded Egypt over its nationalisation of the Suez Canal, Labour led the opposition to the war in Britain.

Huge demonstrations and meetings were held. But both Gaitskell and Bevan showed lukewarm support for the protests.

Gaitskell compared Egyptian leader Gamal Abdul Nasser to Adolf Hitler, while Bevan called him “Ali Baba” and opposed the nationalisation.

At the 1957 party conference Bevan sent a shock wave through his supporters by speaking against a resolution that called for unilateral disarmament.

Many on the left heckled him, but Gaitskell clasped his hand supportively.

It was the end of Bevanism. This and the shock of Labour’s big 1959 general election defeat, led the leadership to go on the offensive against the left.

They believed that Labour’s commitment to the “dogma” of public ownership of industry was behind the defeat.

Gaitskell announced that he wanted to change Clause Four of the party’s constitution, which advocated “common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange”.

While Bevan backed Gaitskell, this move was too much for the union leaders and the Labour left. They defeated the plans.

Bevan’s convulsions demoralised him. “I am heartily sickened by the parliamentary Labour Party,” he told a friend.

“It is rotten through and through, corrupt, full of patronage and seeking after patronage, unprincipled. It isn’t really socialist at all.”

Bevan died in July 1960. His tragedy was that he devoted his life to defending the Labour Party and parliament, even though neither was marching towards socialism.

Harold Wilson, a former Bevanite, became leader after Gaitskell’s death in 1963 on the back of a revived Labour left.

Labour won the 1964 general election, but Wilson then pushed through wage curbs, racist immigration laws and tried to attack the unions.

The Labour left was demoralised once more. It was not until the victory of Thatcherism that it would seriously challenge the right of the party again.

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