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The Battle of the Margins

ISSUE:  Winter 1952

ALTHOUGH the voter is never far distant from the mind of the politician, British elections begin with the dissolution of the House of Commons. The reasons leading a prime minister to seek a dissolution are, therefore, a part of the election itself. Though these considerations are not announced with complete candor, political life today is carried on with so few secrets and the political counters so well known that the basis for the decision may be discerned and evaluated. 

The second Attlee government, returned early in 1950, had been carried on under circumstances of frustration and enervating strain. Supported by a majority that at times dropped to one or two and seldom exceeded a baker’s dozen, the government found that any sort of political program pushing toward socialist goals was impossible. Day by day administration and the acceptance of no excuse for absence from a division in the House became the fate of cabinet minister and backbencher alike.  Trying at best, such hand-to­ mouth existence becomes intolerable when carried on during a period of mounting economic pressure at home and diminishing national repute abroad. In time, to escape from such a thankless position   becomes both a personal   desire and a national duty. Mr. Attlee’s request for a dissolution released his followers from a responsibility which they were powerless to exercise and referred to the electorate, as was proper, the task of saying afresh who should act for it. Uppermost was the desire that   the  decision  at  the  polls  would  break  the prolonged balance  of  the  parties and  return a government with  “adequate Parliamentary support…to deal with the important issues with which the country is faced at home and abroad.” 

It was the “home” part of the declaration that loomed larger at the moment. The “biennial dollar gap” had re­opened most ominously; the country was again living beyond its means and decisions would have to be made that could scarcely avoid lowering the standard of living. The question of solvency always brought with it the charge that the nation could not afford the elaborate structure of social services provided by the government. The rearmament issue, also a threat to the standard of living, was like an open wound in Labor’s flanks.  Indeed it had been the controversy over rearmament services and the standard of living that had led to the resignation of Aneurin Bevan and Harold Wilson from the cabinet some six months ahead of dissolu­ tion.  They had not gone quietly, but had used the opportunity to start a fight within the party which was now threatened by a determined struggle for leadership and power. It was expected that this controversy would be the central theme of the party’s annual conference to be held during the first week in October, but by dissolving on the very eve of the conference the Prime Minister forced the rebels to put aside their quarrel with the existing leaders   and to declare   the unity of the party for the coming test with the electorate. Mr. Attlee, in short, forced   Mr. Bevan   into a shotgun wedding.  Thus three tangible gains were anticipated from the decision to dissolve:  there would be a release from the tension of the small majority in the House; the voters would be given a chance to express their preferences in choosing those for the hard tasks immediately ahead; and the internal strife of the party would be smoothed over by the supreme and compelling demands of party loyalty.

The decision did not have the same obvious advantages in the realm of external relations. The situation in Persia was fully developed but it was still possible to hope for some acceptable outcome. The government had pinned its policy on the fall of Mossadegh. As economic stringencies mounted in Persia the collapse would become all the more likely. Should it occur during the course of the election the Labor party would have at hand a dramatic vindication for a policy already under heavy attack.  Such a gamble, while its possi­ bilities were no doubt observed, could not have played an important part in a decision that was completely justified on domestic issues alone.

The announcement released party machines that had continued to “tick over” since the close election of 1950. Almost at once, the party manifestos were on the street. It would be difficult to find a British election in which the plat­ forms showed such reluctance to face the issues and problems that were known to he waiting round the corner for the new government. Only a few points-and these are more illustrative of the temper of the appeals than of their coherence or applicability-merit attention from the Labor and Conservative appeals.

The Labor party could not escape the necessity nor ignore the advantage of defending the six-and-a-quarter-year record of the Labor government. It was strange, nonetheless, to see the party of aggressive social action become the defender of the status   quo.  The key to the manifesto was in its emphasis upon “welfare at home and peace abroad.” Taking credit for full employment, the party pointed to higher pay, a higher standard of living, an ample system of social security, full provision for health, and a tender regard for housing.  These advantages   were to be consolidated and preserved.  Abroad the government   had co-operated with international institutions, promoted the growth of constitutional freedom within the Empire, and strengthened in every way possible the cause of peace. These efforts were to be continued.  Rearmament would he carried through-despite Bevan-and measures taken to protect living standards by the reduction of the costs of marketing and the disruption of monopolies. No specific mention was made of industries or services for further nationalization-a great recession from 1945 and a refusal to repeat the more moderate promises of 1950-although the party reserved the right to enter business where private enterprise was not serving well or where monopoly persisted. This was a position that gave a large area for future action yet presented the smallest surface to attack. All excess profits were to be taxed away and the sharp shears of the Treasury used to make all men somewhat nearer the same size.

No Labor party statement would be complete without reference to the evil days of Tory rule and the mention, in a rather guarded form, that political strife is a form of “class warfare.” Stigmatizing their opponents as a party of privilege still living mentally and spiritually in the Victorian past (perhaps a few of the more advanced might qualify as Edwardians), the warning was issued that the country must save itself from  “the Tories, with their dark past, full of bitter memories for so many people.” The appeal was deliberately made in a moderate vein and was directed toward the middle voter. The Labor party was in a sense in the position of a mountain climber who has surmounted the first slope and emerged upon a plateau. Instead of pressing on to the heights beyond, the climber turns his back to the mountains and resting himself looks back over the scenery below, lost in admiration of the slope which he had ascended. The appropriateness of this attitude will appear later.

The Conservative manifesto had many points of similarity. Upon reading it one wonders if any embarrassment would have ensued had the parties swapped. Little would have been required to boot. There was a difference in the spirit of the Conservative document; at least it was not defending a regime and criticism had wider scope. The bulk of the legislation passed by the Labor government was accepted with the major exception of the iron and steel industry. But even here the most the party promised was to put this great industry under the management of a board made up of representatives of the government, the industry, the workers, and the consumers.  In the other nationalized industries the only promise was to reform administrative structures with the hope that greater   efficiency could be secured.  Truck haulers were to expect increased room for individual effort and transport and coal were to undergo a process of decentralization of control.  The twelve members representing the University constituencies were to be brought back and the House of Lords reformed to provide a body more in keeping with the democratic basis of British political life. Thrift, hard work, careful management, and reward as an encouragement to incentive received official blessings.  There was much talk of freeing   the creative impulses of the nation. The Labor Unions were assured that the Conservative government had no rod in pickle for them and would respect the gains that they had made and the position they had achieved. The social services would become even better with the stabilization of the value of money; subsidies would be examined but no change would be made that would work hardship upon the poor. A vigorous housing program of 300,000 units a year-fifty percent more than Labor promised-would he undertaken. There would be a profits tax, rearmament, and an approach   to the Soviet Union.  National unity-the reverse of the  “class war”­ would be stimulated, the United Nations supported, the Commonwealth nourished, and the harmony of the English­ speaking peoples promoted. Against the Labor offer of “welfare   at   home and   peace abroad” the Tories   placed “freedom and abundance.” While the Labor manifesto was surprisingly and regrettably retrospective, the Tory manifesto was surprisingly radical and regrettably hesitant in facing the future. And for this, also, there was a reason.

The reason for the character of both appeals is found in the prior conclusion that the decisive element in the election would be the unattached voter. The two parties were about equal in size.The advantage would go to the one most sucessful in appealing to the voter with no strong attachment to either party. Such a voter was to be found in the middle. They were the new voters with no established voting habits, the independent who voted for the candidate and platform rather than the party, the lukewarm, party man who might be won from his  tepid  party allegiance,  and  the  Liberal with no Liberal candidate  in his constituency  to  whom he could give his vote. It was this last group that  loomed large in the calculations  of electoral  strategy. To hold out a hand to him, the Laborite had to turn  to the right, the Tory to the left.  One program emerged more moderate, the other more radical, than habit-or desire-would has dictated.

This  decision  became even  more important when  nomination day revealed  that  only 108 Liberal candidates  would stand for office. The number in 1950 had been 475. The prize to be contended for had suddenly grown to about 2,000,000 Liberal voters without a liberal candidate, plus the fringe groups  already mentioned.  The great reduction in Liberal candidates was based upon a lack of funds and the hope held by Liberal leaders that a fight on a narrow front would be more productive than the widely scattered efforts of the previous election. The Communists, no doubt to help Labor and, it is suspected, on direction from abroad, contested only ten constituencies. With nothing to the right of the Conservative party and little to the left of the Labor   party, the decision, more than ever, was to be found in the middle ground now suddenly become more inviting and crucial by Liberal abstention. By the time of the campaign two things seemed settled: there would be little difference in the programs of the two chief parties and neither by choice would advance definite solutions for the problems of the future. Responsible journals-The Economist was foremost-were quick to point out that the election promised a choice between candidates but not between issues. In a sense, ignoring the basic problems now clearly in view on the horizon, the election was to he a hit of political mummery. This deprived the contest of realism but it left the ensuing government with a freer  hand. The only point at the moment is that it resulted in an election variously described as “apathetic,” “dull,” “quiet,” and “serious.”

It was all of these. While the meetings-during the last two weeks they ran to about four thousand a day-were well attended, the audiences were quiet, the questions were more concerned with past errors than future efforts, and the impression prevailed that little political conversion took place. Even the heckling was spoken of as either absent or half­ hearted. Mr. Attlee, perhaps with some thought for President Truman’s campaign of 1948 and the political miracle that it wrought, swung around the circuit, often speaking eight or ten times a day, defending the record of his government and showing to the country the calmness, courage, and faith in the social mission of politics that have made of him a genuinely popular figure. Mr. Churchill saved himself for greater efforts. Into these he put the full measure of his rare abilities and at the end it was clear that he sought for himself a vindication for his rejection in 1945. His return as Prime Minister would be a fitting close-he will be seventy-seven when this is read-to his unmatched world position and would mark the first time that he had attained that office by a free vote of the people. Entirely unlike in character, it is difficult to say whether the quiet defense of Mr. Attlee or the eloquent denunciation of Mr. Churchill was the more effective.

The campaign was devoted to the discussion of four issues. They were Persia, joined by Egypt; Aneurin Bevan; and the status and political affiliations of the trade unions. These topics came up again and again and imposed upon the widely diverse pattern of the 625 constituencies some semblance of uniformity.  The character of the election compels some attention to these issues.

If Labor had hoped for a creditable conclusion to the quarrel with Persia over the Anglo-Iranian oil activities, the hope quickly soured. The withdrawal of Company personnel from Abadan occurred under circumstances  of keen humiliation. The  Conservatives could not  have received a more tempting  issue. The  loss of  British  prestige  was paraded across the hustings from Land’s  End to John O’Groats. The political effect of this withdrawal, even when reinforced by Egypt’s defiant  denunciation  of  the  treaties  of 1899 and 1936, was, to say the least, disappointing. Labor, somewhat rattled by the turn of events, quickly charged that the Tories, in their efforts to force a nineteenth-century solution upon a twentieth-century problem, would have plunged the country into war. Labor became the peace party, the upholder of the United  Nations,  to  which appeal  was quickly  made, and the champion of  the  patient  processes of  negotiation  and restraint. The  Conservatives  became the  war  party,   the advocates of force, and the dangerous practitioners of an outmoded and explosive power politics. This charge of war­ mongering dogged the Conservatives throughout the campaign;  theirs,  it  seemed,  was  the  nervous  finger on  the trigger. There is no doubt that with the electorate the Labor party escaped the penalty for diplomatic ineptitude by shielding itself behind this charge directed at its opponents. Also, it seems quite clear that the appeal to the United Nations was a very popular move.

Foreign policy, however, important  though it was, was not the foremost issue. From constituency after constituency came word of  the problen1 uppermost  in the mind of  the voter-mounting prices. The  Conservatives  attempted   to turn  this issue against  the Labor  party  by blaming it for permitting prices to go up. The answer to this was obvious. Beside the issue of the cost of living Labor candidates placed the standard  of living, and while admitting that  prices had gone up, suggested that it would have been even worse under the Tories. The devaluation of the pound was roundly criticized by the Tories  and  Labor  portrayed  as an  unworthy keeper of the credit  of the nation. While  there  was great uneasiness over  the  inflationary  pressures  of  the  past  six years, this was allayed by the consciousness  that  perhaps never in the history of Britain had the common man enjoyed the security and standard of living that had been his during the same period. Labor voters, invited to switch their ale­ glance, were forced to admit that they had never had it so good. The fears that the Tories played upon were effectively offset by the gratitude  for  the benefits conferred by the Labor government. It is doubtful if many votes were won or lost on this issue.

Aneurin Bevan was an issue personified. Here was the voice and  personality of  the  continuing revolution. His quarrel with his party,  his opposition to the rearmament program carried on, as he insisted, at the expense of social reconstruction, his deep and abiding hatred of the upper classes, and his suspicions of American leadership in world affairs were too well known to be ignored. Bevan and Bevanism were represented as the most disturbing elements in British public life today. There was full recognition that the forces represented by this group might well become dominant within the Labor movement. Bevanism had, therefore, value as a prospect to be held before the moderate and unattached voter. But not only might this voter he frightened by the future  rise of Bevanism, he could be alarmed  by the existing split within the Labor party. Conservative speakers pointed out the danger of returning to power a party at odds with itself. Could the voter becertain that in voting Labor he was voting for Mr. Attlee or Mr. Bevan? In short, was it to be Mr. A. or Mr. B? Although embarrassed by this issue, Labor  defended itself with the contention that  discussion within a party was a sign of vigor and growth. As for Mr. Bevan’s prospects for leadership, Mr. Attlee  assured the nation that he had no intention of resigning. In any case a new leader would have to  be chosen by the members in Parliament of the party, where it was known that Mr. Bevan had little strength, and not by the Labor voters outside, where it was feared that Mr. Bevan had great strength. This wrangle  was given its best turn  by Mr. Bevan’s declaration that  he had never had any  precise political ambitions. This was accorded the same measure of belief that would welcome a declaration that Notre Dame had never aspired to win at football.

The final flurry in the dovecote was caused  by Conservative  poaching  in  the  trade-union   preserves.  This  was an attack upon the very heart of Labor’s electoral strength. The attempt by Tories to represent  themselves as the true friends of the unions led to another  parade  of the ghosts of yester­years. Anti-union legislation from past Conservative governments was exhumed;  the bloody head was shown again  and the ranks  were closed against  the intruder who would lure the  working man  from  his only  safe  refuge. While it is doubtful that the Conservatives  won votes by this appearance as repentants, the controversy  did win from the Tories, through a pronouncement by Mr. Churchill, the promise that a Conservative government would not reopen the question of the financial relationships  between the trade  unions and the Labor  party and  that,  in general,  the Trades Dispute Act would not  be reimposed.  Thus  it  was hoped  that  one old wound was  closed over. This  pledge marked a recognition on the part  of the Conservative party that its political future depended upon drawing  to its support an increasing number of the laboring  class.

These  were the issues that dominated the election. They are important here only because they were important there. Foreign  policy and  the cost of living are certainly  issues of basic importance; in the election, however, it was the past of these two issues that  received attention. Neither  side would, nor perhaps  could, give  any  program  for  the  future. The Bevan issue has a future but one of uncertain  time and dimensions. The  beckoning wink of the Conservatives  to the trade unionists was a bit of necessary political flirtation designed to lead  to something more intimate in the future, but not expected  to give much gratification in the present. Neither  party  bound itself  to deal with the most critical of issues in any particular way. That issue was, and is, the question of trade  and  the standard of living. Thus the successful party  would be returned with a “doctor’s mandate” to do for the patient  whatever the ailment  required.

There  seemed, in the beginning, no doubt as to the hand that  would write  the  prescription. The  public-opinion  poll after the dissolution and three weeks before the polling date indicated  that  if  the  vote were taken  at  that  moment  the Conservatives would receive 49.5 percent while Labor would get 43 per cent of the total vote. The accuracy of these polls in the  past  left  little  question  that  the Conservatives  went into the election with dazzling prospects. Had the electorate actually  voted in these proportions  the Conservatives would have received a majority  over Labor  in the new House  of Commons of some 160-170  seats. A week later  the poll indication  shifted  to 49 per  cent for  the Conservatives and  44 per cent for Labor; this would yield a seat majority of 130. A week before the election a further  change was noted: 50 per  cent for the Tories  and 47 percent for Labor, or a majority in the House of about 90. The final public-opinion poll, appearing on the morning of the election, gave the Conservatives 49.5 percent of the vote and left Labor standing at 47 per cent. Even though the original gap between the two had  narrowed,  the  Conservatives had every right to expect a comfortable working majority in the House. The actual  vote on October  25  revealed that  the poll had  been too optimistic about Conservative strength. The  voters gave Labor  48.7 percent  of their  total  votes while 48 per cent went to the Conservatives. In the House of Commons the Conservatives were thus to have a rather  slim majority over Labor of 27 seats. The large vote received by Labor-more than has ever been received by a party  in a British election­ would ordinarily  have kept  a Labor  government in power had it not been for the “bias” against Labor in the constituency system. Labor has a number of constituencies in which it  compiles  enormous majorities; these  excess  votes  go  to swell the  national  total  of votes  received  by the  party  but they are lost in so far as the composition of the House  is concerned.  This  situation   was  known  in  advance, and the polls pointed out that in a close vote the Conservatives  would probably  win even though  Labor received a larger  share of the  total  vote.  The  bright  prospects  of  the  Conservatives faded from the beginning of the election and their disappointment at  the result  was mitigated only by the fact  that they had  won at  all.

Certain  conclusions suggest  themselves. In  the first  place the  success  of  the  Conservatives,   limited  as  it  was,  came almost  entirely   from  their  wooing of  the  Liberals.  In  the constituencies that changed hands it was usually the distribution of the Liberal vote that did it. The Conservatives won twenty-one  seats from  Labor; seventeen of these seats were won in constituencies contested by the Liberal party in 1950 but  left  to a straight fight between  the  Conservatives  and Labor  in  the  present  election.  In  these  constituencies  the Liberal  vote appears to have gone  rather  uniformly to the Conservatives  in the proportion  of two to one. As the existing Liberal  vote was appreciably greater than the difference between the  Conservative  and  Labor voting  strength,  this distribution between those two parties was the determining factor.  The  real  election,  with  its struggle for  power,  was carried on in these marginal seats. The 1951 election was in reality a “battle of the margins.”

It was expected  that the Conservatives would get the lion’s share of the Liberal vote; it was not expected  that they would get  so few desertions  from  the ranks  of Labor. The Labor  party has emerged from this election with a solid core of voters whose loyalty apparently cannot be shaken even by a disastrous foreign policy and a domestic policy characterized  by bad  judgment and maladministration. This rigidity rests upon the Labor voter’s  approval of his party’s concern for human  welfare  and  an equally genuine  distrust of Tory government. Both parties appear equally compact and matched in size. Any fluidity in the political structure of Britain in the immediate future is thought  to depend  upon the further disintegration of the Liberal party  or upon the development  of  the  struggle for  power  within  the  Labor party  between the Bevan and anti-Bevan factions.

The  meager  scale of victory  will make the  Conservative task of government more strenuous,  but should not leave it impossible. Amajority of  around seventy gives a government  a  sense of  security  and  permits  ministers  to  devote more time to policy and administrative affairs; one of about thirty  makes it difficult to “keep  a house” and places such a premium  upon  party  discipline that  political  vitality  is dissipated  and  a courageous  program  discouraged.  The  close popular  vote is a constant  warning to the government  not to move too far  from the  present  policies. Mr. Churchill  may get a little more ease by securing and keeping the support  of some half dozen Liberals.  Acertain caution is also seen in the decision which sent Mr. Butler  to the Exchequer and Mr. Monckton  to  the  Ministry  of  Labor. These  appointments were more pleasing to Labor than some that could have been made. The present government  also has shown that it intends to mass its strength in the area of defense and foreign policy. Here great  improvement  over  the Labor  record  should be easily possible. If  the Conservatives, however, have any solution for the problem of Britain’s mounting  deficiency in trade, they have not indicated its nature.

By far the most interesting developments await the Labor party  going  into  Opposition  for  the  first  time  in over six years. In a sense it is longer than that, for during the war the traditional functions  of  an  Opposition   party   were  stored away  while the government  operated  as a coalition. Labor gives the appearance of being completely  exhausted  by the strenuous  pace it has set since 1945. It is badly in need of an opportunity to rethink  its program and a chance to combine its experiences of the past  six years with some of the more doctrinaire aspects of the party outlook.  In  Opposition  the Labor  party will have a chance to formulate a policy for the next phase of Socialist development.  While  it is doing so, it can take certain comfort from the fact that the Labor government  did more than any  previous government  to change the social and economic face of Britain.

The circumstances of Opposition,  however, open one momentous  possibility. They tend to exaggerate the characteristics  of  a  party and  push  it  beyond  its  true  center  of gravity.   Labor, from  the  Opposition benches, will sound more radical than its recent voice has indicated it to be. Will not  this  tendency  accentuate the  role  of  Aneurin Bevan, whose personal  qualities  fit him so admirably for leadership in  the  guerrilla tactics  of  Opposition? His success in the elections and the return, without casualty, of his few avowed adherents have already  strengthened his position. It will be surprising if the party is not drawn  increasingly  into the influence of the “wild man of Ebbw Vale.” If so, the movement  to the left  will be accentuated, for  Bevan  is the most authentic  revolutionary figure in Britain  today.

In  passing, it is not without  interest to say that  the fall of the Labor  government removed the last Socialist control of a major European  power. Will the trend to the right continue?


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