Labour: A united, not uniform party

Picture: Chatham House (CC BY 2.0)

As a new YouGov poll suggests a hung Westminster Parliament could be possible, Nye Davies argues that Labour should rally behind their leader before 8 June…

It is no secret that the Labour Party has had its fair share of problems over the last few years.

After losing power at Westminster in 2010, the party has failed to recover and now faces the prospect of losing more seats.

It also faces a very tough fight in Wales, its heartland since 1922 where the party has come top in every single General Election (although the most recent poll has seen Labour’s position vastly improve in Wales).

The election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader has led to the image of a party divided. Corbyn does not have large support amongst his Parliamentary Labour Party colleagues and even a number of candidates seem unsure about supporting him.

Welsh Labour leader Carwyn Jones has even tried to put distance between Welsh Labour and Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour.

Dispute

However, splits in the Labour Party are nothing new. Long before the election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader, Labour’s history has been permeated by disagreements.

From Militant in the 1980s right back to Ramsay MacDonald’s ‘betrayal’ of the party, Labour has been a party characterised by disputes over policy, principles, and goals.

One of these divisions took place during the 1950s, characterised as a battle between the ‘Bevanites’ and the ‘Gaitskellites’.

After Aneurin Bevan’s resignation from the government in 1951 over Chancellor Hugh Gaitskell’s budget, he (rather reluctantly) led the left-wing faction termed the ‘Bevanites’ in trying to change Labour Party policy.

Bevan’s (and future Prime Minister Harold Wilson’s) resignation in 1951 was soon followed by a General Election, where Labour lost power to the Conservatives and Winston Churchill.

Many attributed Labour’s loss at the election to Bevan’s resignation and the apparent disunity it caused.

Bevan’s resignation speech was certainly passionate and he attacked Gaitskell very forcefully (it is not my aim to recount the entire dispute but it is worth reading Bevan’s resignation speech in full).

Tony Benn told Nick Thomas-Symonds: “Without Gaitskell’s budget and the resignations I doubt we would have lost the general election of that year”[1].

Call for unity

However, in terms of Bevan’s resignation from the Government, it is questionable what effect it had on Labour’s chances – Labour’s approval rating actually went up a month after Bevan’s resignation[2].

And despite losing 20 seats, Labour increased its vote share and won more votes than the Tories.

Significant also is the popularity of Labour leader Clement Attlee – his approval ratings also rose after the resignation.

Attlee proved to be a conciliatory force within the Labour Party, being able to unite the many different elements within it.

At Labour Conference before the General Election, Aneurin Bevan had made a call for unity. It was reproduced verbatim in the columns of Tribune[3].

As Bevan highlighted, disagreements were very common in the Labour Party – but he thought that this was in fact healthy. Bevan maintained that these disagreements needed to be put on hold. There was a bigger argument about to take place – the General Election.

“I have been fighting Tories all my life, ever since I was a nipper,” he said.

“My friends and I made up our minds that every single resource we have at our disposal… must be devoted in the next three weeks or a month to destroying the Tory challenge, and to getting a Labour majority back into the House of Commons.

“When that has been done we might resume our discussion.”

Bevan argued that Labour needed to present a united front in order to defeat the Tories.

“We must have a united party, not a uniform party, but a united party, united in the determination to throw back the Tory challenge and send our own people back once more with a good majority to the House of Commons,” he said.

Bevan was considered by some to be a ‘firebrand’ of the left in the party. But at election time, he understood the need to put his grievances aside.

‘Put grievences aside’

Fast forward to today and the Tories are posing a real threat to some key Labour seats, particularly in Wales. Will Bevan’s call for disagreements to be put aside be heeded today?

Uniting behind a common purpose may not be easy when there is clear dissatisfaction with leader Jeremy Corbyn amongst Labour MPs and many candidates have tried to distance themselves from him during this campaign.

It could be argued that Jeremy Corbyn attempted to unite the party early on with his original Shadow Cabinet appointments, but unity has not been achieved and many Labour MPs and candidates do not seem able to rally around him.

The Labour Party should be united in two goals: trying to prevent a large Tory victory and for the Party to continue to be a fighting force at elections.

But, in contrast to the 1950s, there are no signs today of a party united behind its leader.

 

[1] Tony Benn. Interview in Thomas-Symonds, N. 2015. Nye: The Political Life of Aneurin Bevan. London: I.B. Tauris p. 192

[2] Thomas-Symonds, N. 2015 p. 192

[3] Tribune. 5th October 1951.

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