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 vs.social 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?