Must Labour Lose?

The Labour Party is in a bad way: it has lost three general elections in a row, it lacks unity at the top, its traditional support base is eroding under the pressure of rapid societal transformations, and it is seen as a party for the poor and old that does not provide space for aspiration.

The year is 1960 and we are in Britain.

Must Labour Lose? is an analysis of the British Labour Party in the late fifties, based on a detailed social survey carried out in the aftermath of the 1959 election. The loss in the 1959 election was the third straight loss for the party, following defeats in ’51 and ’55. Must Labour Lose? is in three parts: the first – by Mark Abrams, a market researcher – discusses the survey data, the second – by Richard Rose, a social scientist – discusses voter behaviour in more general terms, while the third part is a brief commentary by Rita Hinden, a Fabian and then-editor of Socialist Commentary.

Large chunks of the book are eerily familiar, both in detail and in overall thrust. It is interesting to note that the debates about the use of empirical analysis of voter attitudes do not appear to have moved on in the half-century since 1960. The oppositions of poll-driven cynicism against unworldly quixotism remain the terms of our own debates.

The details are sometimes painful in their similarities: ‘The Party concentrated upon an expensive policy document […] The producers of this pamphlet apparently assumed that all their potential supporters were utilitarian or ideological thinkers, carefully checking up on dozens of Labour policies to make sure that they were suitable. Transport House could hardly have reflected upon how many Labour voters would understand a pledge such as: “the next Labour Government will help to stabilise commodity prices which determine the livelihood of many undeveloped peoples, by negotiating long-term bulk purchase agreements”.’ Only 18% of Labour supporters thought it had a “united team of top leaders”. “Often the Labour party has followed the difficult task of hewing the stones to fit a preconceived plan, a task further complicated because some of the masons are inclined to use their mallets on each other instead of on the stones”. A Labour Party effort to win the votes of “non-voters” has failed to show great success.

But merely trawling the book for obvious echoes is superficial. There is a more profound similarity. Abrams argues that the Labour party is identified with values that are not the values of contemporary Britain. Previous assumptions about the working classes’ identification with the Party are breaking down as society changes. Within this changing social system, the party is unable to formulate and articulate a compelling set of values that align with the values of voters. The Conservatives, on the other hand, have marked out a space as an aspirational party aligned with British values.

Looking forward, Hinden answers the question “Must Labour Lose?” with a curt “Yes, it must – at least in the near future”. We now know, of course, that the 1964 general election brought a victory for Harold Wilson’s Labour—in some measure due to Wilson’s adoption of a progressive focus, arguing for the need to look at the future of work, particularly automation, and the Party’s need to adapt to the society that – famously – would be “forged in the white heat of the technological revolution”. This is a useful caution against the tendency to histrionic pronouncements of the “death of Labour”.

But against this optimism, Abrams’ Part I finishes with a worrying suggestion: “there is among young people today a complex of barely conscious Conservative sympathies which still have not fully expressed themselves in overt party affiliations.” One aspect of this is that young people felt that if Labour was the party of the working class, the Conservatives were the party of scientists. In the 1959 election, a young middle class research chemist was elected to Parliament. If the British public saw the Conservatives as the party of those who got ahead, of scientists, and of British traditions, Thatcher would be the leader that welded those Conservative sympathies into two decades of Conservative hegemony, as that cohort aged through the population.

Must Labour Lose?, Mark Abrams and Richard Rose with commentary by Rita Hinden, 1960, Penguin, Harmondsworth. Quotations from, in order, pages 92, 17, 67, 96, 119, 58.

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