Join the Socialist Party Join us today!

Printable version Printable version

Facebook   Twitter

Link to this page: https://secure.socialistparty.org.uk/issue/1093/31018

From The Socialist newspaper, 1 July 2020

75th anniversary of the Attlee Labour government

Pioneering reforms undercut by adherence to capitalism

Labour PM Clement Atlee (right), along with right-wing Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin (centre) in 1946, photo archives.gov.nz/CC

Labour PM Clement Atlee (right), along with right-wing Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin (centre) in 1946, photo archives.gov.nz/CC   (Click to enlarge)

Tom Baldwin, Socialist Party national committee

The end of World War Two left behind a world in upheaval. Demobilised troops and a war-weary population demanded a better future. Resistance movements in Europe published programmes demanding nationalisation. Workers' strikes broke out across the capitalist West. Former colonies struggled for freedom. The Stalinist USSR emerged from the war strengthened and, despite being controlled by a dictatorial bureaucracy, provided a model for those looking to break with capitalism. Virtually no part of the world was untouched by a revolutionary mood.

It was against this backdrop that Labour won a landslide election victory in 1945. Workers were determined not to return to poverty, poor housing and health. Despite being posed as 'the man who beat the Nazis' - and saying Labour "would have to fall back on some form of a Gestapo" to impose socialism - Churchill was decisively booted out of office at the first opportunity.

The 1945 government, led by Clement Attlee, remains the most radical reforming Labour government ever. Unfortunately, that says as much about the competition for that title as it does for the Attlee government itself.

While the Labour Party at the time declared itself to be a 'socialist party', and had a working-class membership and base of support, its leaders were drawn mainly from the right of the party, and were wedded to maintaining capitalism. Reforms by the Attlee government went as far as they did because of pressure and struggles from below.

Reforms

Nonetheless, the reforms were massive achievements for the working class and improved the lives of millions. Large sections of industry were nationalised, council housing was built, and the welfare state was constructed, with the NHS as its jewel in the crown.

However, the refusal of the Labour leaders to break with capitalism meant that the gains made were constrained by the demands of the profit system. Most of the reforms have now been taken back, a process that began even while the post-war Labour government was still in power.

Britain in 1945 was faced with a multitude of economic problems. Large swathes of housing and industry had been destroyed by bombing. The supply of goods from the US through their costly wartime 'Lend-Lease' policy came to an end. War had been expensive, driving a rise in the national debt from 760 million to 3.5 billion (the equivalent of 152 billion today). Great expense was poured into maintaining a crumbling empire, while the country was unable to compete with the US as a global power. The economy only recovered to pre-war levels in the 1950s.

Labour nationalised key sections of the economy, including coal, steel, the railways and the Bank of England. These measures were popular with the working class, who wanted to be able to get rid of greedy bosses, and to direct the economy in their own interests.

The intense drive for profit in the private coal industry meant miners were exposed to extremely dangerous conditions. The hope was that public ownership would bring an end to such abuses.

Rescuing capitalism

Labour's leadership however viewed these nationalisations differently. State intervention was needed to rescue important parts of the capitalist economy and help rebuild after the devastation of war. They were also pushed into carrying out reforms in order to try and prevent a movement for revolutionary change.

They ensured that reforms remained within certain limits. Nationalised industries were not controlled by workers but by the former heads of private firms. The public sector remained a minority of the economy and was dictated to by the needs of the privately-owned majority.

Had the largest parts of the economy been taken over and placed under the control of workers, production could have been democratically planned. All the wealth of society could have been used to improve people's lives, without the capitalists taking their pound of flesh.

As it was, the economy was left at the mercy of capitalist profiteering, and shortages remained. The immediate post-war period was known as the 'age of austerity'. Rationing continued (until 1954) and was even tightened; bread was rationed which hadn't been the case during the war.

Hemmed in by its adherence to capitalism, the government was unable to afford what was needed to fulfil the popular desire for change. Income tax for workers stayed high to try and plug the gap.

The government borrowed $3.75 billion from the US and received a further $3.2 billion from their Marshall Aid programme (see 'A new world order - global reconstruction after World War Two' at socialistparty.org.uk), at the cost of removing trade barriers for American firms.

House building, while huge by today's standards, was not fast enough to meet demand. There was a shortage of 1.5 million homes by 1951, and slum conditions still remained in major cities.

The idea of an NHS that was completely free at the point of use began to be eroded as early as 1951, just three years after its foundation. The introduction of charges for glasses and false teeth led to NHS founder Nye Bevan and other left-leaning ministers walking out of the government.

While the 1945 government made big domestic reforms, its foreign policy more clearly revealed its capitalist credentials. Despite its dwindling empire, Britain continued to pursue an imperialist agenda.

Forced to concede independence to India, it oversaw the bloody partition of the subcontinent. Troops were sent to crush movements in different parts of the world, including the communist-led resistance in Greece.

Britain became increasingly subordinate to US imperialism, joining the Korean War at its behest in 1950, and helping to found Nato. Labour began pursuing nuclear weapons almost as soon as it entered office, diverting enormous resources away from the fledgling welfare state.

Labour was reelected in 1950 with a reduced majority, but was forced to call another election the following year after the resignation of Bevan. It was defeated by Churchill's Tories despite having won more votes. In fact, its 48.8% remains the highest share of the vote achieved by any party in Britain.

Because the reforms made by the Attlee government remained within a capitalist framework they have been susceptible to attack from the bosses and their representatives. Some were quickly reversed by the Conservatives, such as iron and steel privatisation in 1955. The NHS still exists, but has been battered by successive cuts and privatisations (see pages 8-9).

While the 1945 government ultimately protected capitalism, it was forced to concede huge reforms by Labour's working-class base, and by struggles in wider society. Today, Labour members don't have the same degree of influence over the party's leadership.

The undemocratic constitutional reforms made by Blair were not fundamentally changed under Corbyn. Keir Starmer is now taking Labour back to being an out-and-out capitalist party.

We need a new mass party that represents the working class. But it must learn from the past. Accepting the logic of capitalism restricts the scope of changes that can be made, because profit for the bosses comes first.

The desire for change that workers expressed in the 1945 election could only have been realised in a complete and permanent way by socialist planning of the economy. 75 years on, with capitalism deep in crisis, the Socialist Party's socialist programme is needed more than ever.

Donate to the Socialist Party

Coronavirus crisis - Finance appeal

The coronavirus crisis has laid bare the class character of society in numerous ways. It is making clear to many that it is the working class that keeps society running, not the CEOs of major corporations.

The results of austerity have been graphically demonstrated as public services strain to cope with the crisis.

The government has now ripped up its 'austerity' mantra and turned to policies that not long ago were denounced as socialist. But after the corona crisis, it will try to make the working class pay for it, by trying to claw back what has been given.

  • The Socialist Party's material is more vital than ever, so we can continue to report from workers who are fighting for better health and safety measures, against layoffs, for adequate staffing levels, etc.
  • Our 'fighting coronavirus workers' charter', outlines a programme to combat the virus and protect workers' living conditions.
  • When the health crisis subsides, we must be ready for the stormy events ahead and the need to arm workers' movements with a socialist programme - one which puts the health and needs of humanity before the profits of a few.
Inevitably, during the crisis we have not been able to sell the Socialist and raise funds in the ways we normally would.
We therefore urgently appeal to all our viewers to donate to our special coronavirus appeal.

Please donate here.

All payments are made through a secure server.

My donation

 

Your message: 

 


In The Socialist 1 July 2020:


No going back

A socialist NHS fit for heroes


Workplace news

PCS: Change in leadership needed to secure union's future

Come to the NSSN conference

Sunday trading: Government blinks first

Trade unionists stand in solidarity with Maxine Peake

Equity union president elections

Tower Hamlets council strike

MoJ cleaners' covid outbreak


What we think

Workers need a new mass party to defend their interests


News

Tories put profit before lives

Boris's new big deal

Tory full return to school plans gamble with lives

Yes to self-identity: Fight for trans rights

Benefits system being used to force return to unsafe workplaces

Leeds City Council in danger of bankruptcy

Capitalism and corruption go hand in hand

Plastic waste ignored

News in brief


Campaigns

I left Labour and want to end capitalism - join us in Socialist Party

Cardiff community fights nursery closure: Council must step in

Fighting Fund: Target smashed by half time

Black Lives Matter has not stopped - protesters flock to Socialists

Selling the Socialist

Red flags line road for Ken Douglas


Lessons from history

75th anniversary of the Attlee Labour government


Readers' opinion

From slavery to Black Lives Matter - racism and capitalist injustice exposed

Readers' opinion


 

Home   |   The Socialist 1 July 2020   |   Join the Socialist Party

Subscribe   |   Donate   |   Audio  |   PDF  |   ebook






Related links:

Labour:

triangleLabour payouts: unions must discuss political representation

triangle100 years since the foundation of the Communist Party of Great Britain

triangleTime to relaunch TUSC

triangleLuton Council sunk by airport investment: fight for funding, not speculation!

triangleHugely significant council workers' strike continues

Government:

triangleTories' obesity plans - blaming individuals not the profit system

trianglePCS union: Reject longer DWP opening hours

triangleGE Aviation workers march to save jobs

triangleFighting for over 250 jobs that are under threat at the Wales Millennium Centre in Cardiff. Photo M Kamish

War:

triangleAnniversary of nuclear destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki

triangleCapitalism's 'vaccine war' shows need for socialist cooperation

triangleHow capitalist restoration led to war and 'ethnic cleansing' in the Balkans

Capitalism:

triangleCWI rally: 80 years since the murder of Leon Trotsky

triangleFighting to end racism and capitalism

Historic events

Historic events

22/7/20

Britain

100 years since the foundation of the Communist Party of Great Britain

15/7/20

Bosnia

How capitalist restoration led to war and 'ethnic cleansing' in the Balkans

1/7/20

Labour

75th anniversary of the Attlee Labour government

24/6/20

Civil rights

Lessons from the Black Panthers

17/6/20

Slave trade

Reform or revolt? How was the slave trade abolished?

10/6/20

US

Roosevelt's New Deal programme - reforms to save capitalism

27/5/20

Britain

1920s Britain: A "country nearer Bolshevism than at any time since"

27/5/20

Lucas Aerospace

The 'Lucas Plan'

13/5/20

War

A new world order - global reconstruction after World War Two

13/5/20

War

The Spanish Flu of 1918 and how it "fanned the flames of revolt"

13/5/20

Europe

'Victory in Europe' 75th anniversary: A resurgent workers' movement and the fight for socialism

6/5/20

Obituary

Peter Hadden remembered

6/5/20

Tyneside

The Tyneside apprentices' strike during WW2

29/4/20

May Day

130 Years of May Day in Britain: Fight for workers' rights more relevant than ever

29/4/20

War

No return to the 1930s: World War Two and 'a land fit for heroes'

triangleMore Historic events articles...


Join the Socialist Party
Subscribe to Socialist Party publications
Donate to the Socialist Party
Socialist Party Facebook page
Socialist Party on Twitter
Visit us on Youtube

LATEST POSTS

CONTACT US

Phone our national office on 020 8988 8777

Email: info@socialistparty.org.uk

Locate your nearest Socialist Party branch Text your name and postcode to 07761 818 206

Regional Socialist Party organisers:

Eastern: 079 8202 1969

East Mids: 077 3797 8057

London: 075 4018 9052

North East: 078 4114 4890

North West 079 5437 6096

South West: 077 5979 6478

Southern: 078 3368 1910

Wales: 079 3539 1947

West Mids: 024 7655 5620

Yorkshire: 077 0671 0041

ABOUT US

ARCHIVE

Alphabetical listing


August 2020

July 2020

June 2020

May 2020

April 2020

March 2020

February 2020

January 2020

2019

2018

2017

2016

2015

2014

2013

2012

2011

2010

2009

2008

2007

2006

2005

2004

2003

2002

2001

2000

1999