Memories of a seminal year

Issue: 112

Stan Newens

For some years prior to 1956 the British labour movement was in overall decline. The 1945 general election had been the crest of the wave for the development of the left in Britain. The British Labour government, which took office, implemented a very radical programme-nationalisation of the Bank of England, coal, gas, electricity, the railways, civil aviation, long distance road haulage, cable and wireless and steel; the creation of the welfare state, the national health service, massive house building, the establishment of the New Town, etc. Even so, electoral support declined before the government had run its course.

Although Labour did not lose any of the 22 by-elections it fought up to 1947, the local elections of that year showed severe Labour losses. Gallup Public Opinion Polls put Labour and the Conservatives at the same level in mid-1947, but thereafter the Conservatives went ahead, until in November 1949 they were ten points in the lead.

Labour managed to rally at this point, however, and in the February 1950 general election actually secured a clear lead of nearly a million votes. Unfortunately, the overall majority of seats fell to five, owing to the concentration of Labour votes in a limited number of constituencies, while many marginals were overwhelmed by small Conservative majorities.

After 1950 Labour also fell back, but once again in the 1951 general election it pulled back and polled more votes overall than the Tories (13,948,833). This time, however, its seats were reduced to 295 against the Conservatives’ 321, which gave the latter a majority of 26 over Labour. As a result, Winston Churchill again became prime minister.

In the years that followed Labour support declined again and in the 1955 general election the Conservatives were returned with a majority of 67. Thereafter the drift to the right continued, with the Labour vote being seriously cut back.

One of the principal reasons for this was the growth of affluence among working people and the coming of age of a generation who were too young to remember the miseries of the inter-war period. Another reason was the Cold War, reports of repressive acts by Communist governments and the trials and executions of leading Communists in Eastern Europe. This destroyed the appeal of the British Communist Party and rubbed off on all who advocated left wing socialist policies—even those who were critics of infringements of human and democratic rights by Communist regimes.

The election of Hugh Gaitskell as Labour Party leader in 1955 and the dominance of right wing leaders in the trade union movement reflected the shift to the right. Great demonstrations or mass struggles for left wing objectives seemed to be remote from reality—the phenomena of an age that had passed. Those who considered themselves to be in the mainstream of post-war life had little sympathy with strikes and mass demonstrations.

In local, ward or general committee Labour Party meetings, in trade union branches and in other areas of activity, it was only too clear that the left was swimming against the tide. There may have been exceptions, but I can vouch from my own experience in urban Stoke on Trent and suburban and rural West Essex that the level of activity and the numbers of members were constantly falling and the majority of those who remained tended to reject left wing proposals. I attended meetings in the old Holborn Hall and such rallies as there were in Trafalgar Square and handed out leaflets, etc. Attendance was sparse and enthusiasm limited to the few.

There was nonetheless an active left throughout this period, albeit in the minority. On 5 March 1952 an amendment in the House of Commons condemning the rearmament proposals was backed by 57 Labour rebels who—despite their variety—essentially represented the Bevanite movement, which had existed as the Keep Left Group even prior to Aneurin Bevan’s resignation in 1951, which gave the group its name. At the Morecambe annual conference of the Labour Party in October 1952 the Bevanites, ie the Labour left, captured six of the seven constituency party seats on the NEC. In 1953-54 the left, joined by some in the centre and even on the right, fought a long campaign to stop German rearmament. In 1955 Aneurin Bevan opposed British membership of the South East Asian Treaty Organisation (SEATO) and was briefly expelled from the PLP.

Other manifestations of the left occurred within the rank and file. In 1954 the Movement for Colonial Freedom was formed at a conference attended by some 300 delegates. Victory for Socialism, originally formed in 1944 by Fred Messer MP and his son, Eric, was still standing in the 1950s to drum up support for domestic and foreign policy objectives. Other groups also existed, including some that began to campaign against nuclear weapons. The Tribune had an influential, if limited, readership and the New Statesman projected leftish ideas for a more middle class audience.

The Communist Party, though isolated in political terms, still commanded the allegiance of large numbers of key trade unionists—mainly at shop floor level but also some in the higher echelons of the movement. It also had a loyal and influential following among academics and intellectuals.

The Trotskyist Revolutionary Communist Party had dissolved in 1948 but several small organisations, which it had spawned, were active in the movement. The most significant of these was the group led by Gerry Healy, which produced the Socialist Outlook and later the Newsletter—sometimes called the Club. The group which became the Revolutionary Socialist League led by Ted Grant in 1957 and the Socialist Review Group formed around Tony Cliff, to which I belonged, were also active. All of these groups were entrist and worked within the Labour Party.

Though the situation at the beginning of 1956 appeared to be relatively stable, with no great upheavals in the wings, it was rapidly transformed by the events of that year. The Suez expedition and Soviet intervention into Hungary created a new situation on the left in Britain and made an impact which lasted for at least a generation.

The Suez crisis first boomed into view when the Americans and the British refused to finance the Aswan High Dam in Egypt in July 1956. The Egyptian president, Colonel Nasser, thereafter nationalised the Suez Canal. Initially Hugh Gaitskell backed the hostile stance adopted by the Conservative prime minister, Sir Anthony Eden. In the House of Commons debate of 2 August 1956 he declared, ‘I do not object to the precautionary steps, which the prime minister has announced today.’ He did, however, warn the government against any breach of international law.

This reflected considerable unease on the back benches and in the spontaneous protests which were voiced outside the House. Here the Movement for Colonial Freedom and Victory for Socialism formed the Suez Emergency Committee, which began to mobilise opinion against the threat of armed intervention by British forces. In the first week of September the TU Congress passed a resolution unanimously against the use of force without UN backing.

However, on 29 October Israeli forces invaded Egypt on the pretext of destroying Egyptian commando bases in the Sinai desert. At this Britain and France, who we now know were colluding with Israel, called on Egyptian and Israeli forces to withdraw to positions ten miles back from the Suez Canal. This was obviously a pretext for armed intervention, which actually began on 5 November with the dropping of British and French paratroops at Port Said and other points on the Canal.

With the prospect of armed intervention imminent, the Suez Emergency Committee booked Trafalgar Square for an anti-war rally on Sunday 4 November. I was in touch with Peggy Rushton, the MCF general secretary, by phone with the object of helping to mobilise support. On Thursday 1 November, when I phoned, she informed me that the Labour Party had been on the line to take over the booking actually, on behalf of the National Council of Labour, representing the TUC and the co-operative movement as well. I was delighted that she had already agreed and carried on with my plans to rally protesters. In addition, using the Epping CLP duplicator, I copied 6,000 leaflets drafted by myself and my Socialist Review colleagues, calling on workers to strike against the Suez intervention.

The Trafalgar Square rally turned out to be a seminal event in British Labour history. My 6,000 leaflets, which a crowd of dockers helped us to distribute, disappeared in a flash. All afternoon people were pouring into the square until it was impossible to move. At the height of the proceedings, a great chant went up in the north western corner of the square as a massive column of student demonstrators began to come in and went on endlessly.

‘One, two, three, four! We won’t fight in Eden’s war’, they chanted. The whole square and its environs were engulfed in a vast array of protesters who were jammed in tight. The sense of mass solidarity in a just cause held us spellbound and instilled in us all a common will to carry our protest forward.

At the end of the protest speeches, part of the crowd made for Whitehall, perhaps hoping to besiege Downing Street, and bitter clashes with the police followed in which 27 people were arrested. It was clear that the rally had awakened many thousands from their apathy and fired them as well as the pre-committed with an unbending determination to oppose British intervention in Suez.

The impetus did not fade as we returned to our homes and it was contagious—inspiring many who were not present, throughout the country, to oppose Eden’s war.

In Trafalgar Square Mike Kidron, a fellow Socialist Review supporter, told me (as he had left home much later) that the Russians were apparently going in to crush the uprising in Hungary, which had occurred in the latter part of October. The British Communist Party was already in deep crisis. Ever since Nikita Krushchev, the new Soviet leader, had repudiated Soviet changes made under Stalin against Tito in Yugoslavia, which the CPGB leaders had supported, there had been widespread unease. Since then there had been Krushchev’s secret speech to the 20th Congress of the CPSU on 25 February, which the Observer had published in full on 10 June. The Hungarian prime minister, Matyas Rakosi, had confessed that the trial of Laszlo Rajk, a Hungarian Communist leader who had been executed, had been rigged. In Poland Gomulka had assumed power in defiance of Soviet wishes after riots in Poznan in June. The Hungarian revolt had been the last straw, particularly when the case of Edith Bone, a British Communist who had been tortured and ill-treated in a Hungarian prison, hit the news. A huge swathe of Communist Party members were in revolt at the unwavering support given by their leaders to Soviet policy under Stalin.

Peter Fryer, the Daily Worker correspondent in Hungary, sent in reports which the paper refused to publish. It found another journalist, Charlie Coutts, who was prepared to defend Soviet action. Peter Fryer resigned from the Communist Party, wrote a book The Hungarian Tragedy in record time and joined Gerry Healy and his group.

Edward Thompson and John Saville were publishing The Reasoner, a duplicated magazine, which they refused to close down. A third of the Daily Worker’s journalists left. Key trade unionists like John Homer, general secretary of the Fire Brigades Union, Jack Grahl, Leo Keely, Laurence Daly (a leading Scottish miner), Les Cannon of the ETU and many others left the party. The historians Edward Thompson and John Saville quit. Christopher Hill, another historian, who with Peter Cadogan and others produced a minority report on inner party democracy, left afterwards. Besides these and other well known figures, thousands of other members were in revolt.

The Newsletter and the Socialist Review Group went into overdrive to try to attract dissident CP-ers into their ranks. With its greater resources and the attraction of its printing press, Gerry Healy and the Newsletter group were by far the most successful. When the April 1957 Communist Party Congress took place in Hammersmith Town Hall many of them, including Gerry Healy himself, were outside selling journals and lobbying delegates.

I met Pat Jordan from Nottingham, for example, and took him back to see Tony Cliff. As a result Socialist Review made contact with a group of dissidents which included Ken Coates and John Daniels besides Pat. We helped them publish a brochure, ‘Why We Left the Communist Party’. Several Socialist Review Group members travelled many miles to meet other dissidents and win them over, as did members of other groups.

Eventually a very considerable number of the rebels joined the Labour Party, though not necessarily immediately after leaving the CPGB. Laurence Daly, for example, would not touch the Scottish Labour Party to begin with, and formed the Fife Socialist League which existed for some time before he decided to become a Labour Party member.

The right wing of the Labour Party was by no means happy about all that was happening. Bernard Dix—then a Socialist Review Group member but later a key official in NUPE—told me of a conversation which he overheard between Sam Watson, a pillar of the Labour right on the NEC of the Labour Party, and a colleague: ‘It’s great!’ said Sam Watson’s colleague. ‘The Communist Party is falling totally apart.’ ‘Not so!’ replied Sam, ‘It’s the worst bloody thing that could happen! We’ll have half of that lot trying to get into the Labour Party!’

Sam Watson’s forecast was basically correct, as later events proved. The revolt in the Communist Party threw up an army of potential Labour Party recruits who were steadily absorbed. But at the same time the protests against Suez politicised and reinvigorated a host of others. Trade unionists, highly experienced political workers, gifted intellectuals and many new, dedicated young people joined the ranks. The experience of the anti-Suez campaign and the fight against repression in Hungary and elsewhere in Eastern Europe generated a new breed of political activists who joined the political struggle throughout Britain.

The New Reasoner, developed out of the Reasoner by John Saville and Edward Thompson, commenced publication in summer 1957 with an editorial board consisting of Ken Alexander, Doris Lessing, Ronald Meek and Randall Swingler. It represented dissident Communists. The Universities and Left Review started in spring 1957, edited by Stuart Hall, Gabriel Pearson, Raphael Samuel and Charles Taylor. They merged after a time to form New Left Review—an extremely influential journal expressing the views of a wide spectrum of writers representative of the New Left.

Many of the New Left joined reinvigorated old lefts to back the struggle against nuclear weapons, and the Campaign for Nuclear Disarm-ament was formed rallying huge support for the first Aldermaston march in 1958 and still more in later years.

The new atmosphere engendered in the Labour Party was reflected in the struggle for unilateral disarmament, which surfaced in the 1959 Labour Party conference and only just failed to win, when Aneurin Bevan stood against it and said it was unacceptable to send a potential Labour Party foreign secretary naked into the negotiating chamber.

A new spirit also permeated the trade unions. Frank Cousins came to the helm in the Transport and General Workers Union, but even in the reactionary National Union of General and Municipal Workers a left wing tendency began to emerge.

It is important to recognise that the new spirit was not automatically reflected in the electorate as a whole. In fact, at the same time as anti-war feeling was generated by Suez, a wave of chauvinism and misplaced patriotism was also produced and this made considerable headway among some working class voters. Although Labour moved temporarily ahead in the opinion polls as a result of the Suez debacle, by 1958 the Conservatives had turned the tide back under Harold Macmillan. ‘Most of our people’, he said, ‘have never had it so good.’ And many believed him.

By the time of the 1959 general election the Conservatives were five points ahead of Labour, and in the poll they increased their seats by 21 to achieve a majority of 100. Labour’s vote actually declined by 12.2 percent to 43.8 percent against the Conservatives’ 49.9 percent.

However, within the Labour Party and across the movement as a whole the reinvigorated left was steadily winning ground. After the 1959 general election Hugh Gaitskell attempted to dump Clause IV and repudiate the wide commitment to public ownership. He failed. In 1960 the annual conference passed a resolution in favour of unilateral nuclear disarmament. Although this was reversed in 1961, the leftward tide was still rolling.

In public meetings, particularly in Manchester and Liverpool, Gaitskell’s views were strongly contested from the floor by left wingers. In 1962/3 Edward Janosik found in a survey that 54 percent of CLPs favoured a move to the left, compared with 46 percent favouring the status quo or a shift to the right. This was reflected in the selection by CLPs after 1959 of numerous left wing parliamentary candidates.

This was not, however, a matter of chance. The left organised through a reconstructed Victory for Socialism, of which I became the organising secretary and This Way to Peace, set up by Richard Fletcher and Walter Kendal in which I also became involved. We had to counter the operations of the right wing group the Campaign for Democratic Socialism under Dennis Howell, Bill Rogers, backed by the Socialist Union, Socialist Commentary and the Fabian Society. Of course Tribune was an immensely important force which organised the biggest fringe meeting at Labour Party conference and kept the left in contact throughout the country.

The 1964 general election was our triumph. Labour regained power—albeit only just—and among those elected was a new intake of left wing Labour MPs who reflected the revival initiated by Suez and Hungary in 1956. John Homer, Norman Buchan and Eric Heffer were in fact former Communist Party members who joined Labour after 1956. Others, including me, had been part of that movement.

1956 was therefore a seminal year in British Labour history and it is appropriate that we should consider its impact and aftermath on its fiftieth anniversary. Of course, the uplift could only last a finite period and it is sad to reflect that we are today more deeply sunk in the mire than we were in the early 1950s before the events of 1956.

But say not, the struggle naught availeth.

We shall rise again.