1952unofficial labour party history
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Whilst Attlee attempted to hold the party together, Party Conferences were becoming increasingly bitter and acrimonious affairs. In 1954, both Bevan and Gaitskell made a bid to become party treasurer and the voting patterns reflected the battle lines within the movement. Whilst Bevin commanded the support of the Tribune/New Statesman intelligentsia and the majority of constituencies, Gaitskell's friends in the TGWU and GMWU ensured Bevan's defeat. This did little to quell the disarray.

This was an internal battle which was to last four years, making it easy for the Tories to hold an election in May 1955 and win comfortably. This led to some degree of nervousness concerning the standard of party organisation, and one of Bevan's "young lions," Harold Wilson, was asked to investigate the organisational structure of the Party. After winning so many votes in 1950 and 1951, yet not achieving a convincing victory in either, Wilson concluded that more attention needed to be paid to marginal seats. He described the Party machine as "at the penny-farthing stage in a jet-propelled era."

Clement Attlee was to feel unable to continue after the 1955 election.A whispering campaign against his leadership amongst some trade unionists and some MPs had undermined his position, with speculation about the date of his resignation well before any intention was signalled or intended. Most crucially, the Daily Mirror had instigated a campaign to install Hugh Gaitskell - even to the extent of throwing abuse at Attlee, dubbing him 'Lord Limpet.' Attlee understandably lost patience.

The timing of this was crucial for Bevan, Gaitskell and Morrison, all competing to be his successor. Hugh Gaitskell won so comfortably that arguments became less public and a sense of fragile unity prevailed. Events were now providing ammunition for an active Labour opposition.

The Suez crisis, with British troops 'invading' Egypt in 1956, led to a huge protest in Trafalgar Square. The British Council of Labour launched a convincing 'Law Not War' campaign, turning public opinion against the government. Both Gaitskell and Bevan effectively demolished Eden in Parliament.

International issues were to prove both contentious and beneficial in these years. The crushing of the Hungarian Revolt in 1956 dispelled any remaining illusions about Soviet Russia. It prompted a re-alignment of the British left as many deserted the British Communist Party, providing an influx of new blood into Labour - which, with the TUC and Co-op, had protested in vain against Russian intervention.

An increasingly vocal section of the party, mainly those of the 'intelligentsia,' had been taking issue with the reliance upon nuclear weapons. In the 1950s, the threat from hydrogen bombs seemed ominous and very real, with poor relations between the superpowers.

The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament largely began in the Co-op and Labour Party branches of London, amid groupings that tended to look to Bevan for leadership. It enjoyed support from celebrities such as Bertrand Russell, Canon Collins and many leading physicists.

Nye Bevan, whilst opposed to Britain's independent deterrent, disagreed with unilateral disarmament. His Conference speech of 1957 brought him closer to the centrist Labour leadership, when he asked not to be sent 'naked into the conference chamber.'

So unity for the 1959 election was preserved. However, the electorate at this time was, if not complacent, then increasingly affluent and weary of change. Harold MacMillan had reminded them that they had 'never had it so good' and, in material terms, it is hard to disagree with this. How Labour would react to the comfortable society, which they had done so much to create, would become a crucial issue.

For only 258 Labour MPs were returned in 1959, representing the worst showing since 1931; despite an improved organisation combined with a united leadership and thoughtful policies. It was now to social changes that people looked for explanation. The number of unskilled manual workers was declining and new white-collar jobs were emerging. Whether this spelt the end of class-based politics and traditional trade unionism was debatable. Hugh Gaitskell thought it did.

Hugh Gaitskell now prodded Labour to modernise its constitution to mark its conciliation with a 'mixed economy.' He also stressed that there were many roads to socialism - nationalisation representing just one of them. The abandonment of Clause IV with its demand for the 'common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange' would, for Gaitskell, lead to a modern social democratic party.

This move was opposed from both the right and left of the Party and the result left Gaitskell effectively undermined and under pressure. This misjudgement was compounded by the sad death of Nye Bevan in the summer of 1960 - Gaitskell losing a valued Shadow Cabinet member.

At the Conference later that year, the concern about the devastating force of nuclear weapons boiled over. With the further deterioration in East-West relations, war appeared a distinct possibility. For the first time ever, the Conference rejected the independent nuclear deterrent; overturning the leadership and the Parliamentary Party's policy.

Labour nuclear disarmers could only look on in October 1962 when the Cuban Missile Crisis threatened the world with imminent nuclear war. When an American U-2 spy plane discovered the construction of 9 Soviet medium-range missile sites around the island of Cuba, President Kennedy was faced with the unappealing options of invasion (which probably would have prompted a nuclear exchange) or an ultimatum and blockade. Kennedy's decision to blockade the islands, overriding the wishes of the military-industrial complex who were demanding an invasion, may have prevented an enormous catastrophe. As NATO forces went up to Defcon 4, the highest state of military alert short of war, it looked like nuclear war was becoming a looming probability.

Whilst Hugh Gaitskell turned intense rhetoric upon the disarmers, vowing to 'fight, fight and fight again to save the Party we love,' the overall feeling amongst the younger membership was that nuclear disarmament had to be achieved or the risk of proliferation, accident or international incidents would eventually ensure worldwide destruction by increasingly powerful missile-launched nuclear weapons. This was to remain an enduring theme for the 1960s Left. Within the the 1961 Conference, enough trade union leaders had been won over to enable the reversal of unilateral disarmament. However, the issue remained alive for as long as the Cold War, and beyond.

It did not take long after the election for people to tire of the Conservatives. The Liberals won a landmark by-election in Orpington in 1962, a safe Tory seat. In addition to this, economic difficulties were emerging after a spell of prolonged rebuilding. By 1963 unemployment was at a post-war peak. The Conservatives seemed out of touch with an increasingly diverse electorate faced with the finish of the post-war boom.


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