The road to Hartlepool pier

The bourgeoisification of Labour isn’t new. It was catalogued in Orwell’s scabrously entertaining dissection of socialism

This article is taken from the June 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

As so often, the best (and of course the funniest) analysis of the runaway Tory victory in the Hartlepool by-election came from Rod Liddle. 

Its theme was that the Labour party has become a vile antithesis, as the party set up to represent working people has abandoned any connection with the working class. The Labour party’s membership is middle class (“the well-orf, the comfortable, the impeccably right-on”); its policies are middle class, with “their obsession with race and interminable gender complexities”; while its leaders old (Corbyn) and new (Starmer) are, in a characteristic Rod-ism, merely the “two cheeks of the same liberal ass”— with liberalism being of course the quintessential middle-class creed.

But worst of all is that this transmogrified middle-class party views its old working-class constituency not simply with incomprehension but with contempt. “Yep”, Liddle quotes a “Starmer superfan” as tweeting about the result, “as expected the working class love a bit of nationalism and racism. Well done Hartlepool, you turkeys. I’ve never been and I never will”.

“The Labour Party we knew is gone,” Liddle concludes, “gone for good. Those votes are not coming back”. Stirring stuff and written from the depths of a Social Democrat’s soul. But there is a problem. The bourgeoisification of the Labour party isn’t as new as he seems to think. Or even newish. Instead every point in his by-election post-mortem can be paralleled and then some in George Orwell’s even more scabrously entertaining dissection of socialism and socialists in The Road to Wigan Pier. 

“The first thing that must strike any outside observer,” Orwell’s analysis begins, “is that Socialism in its developed form is a theory confined entirely to the middle classes.” “The typical Socialist is not”, he explains, “a ferocious-looking working man with greasy overalls and a raucous voice. He is either a youthful snob-Bolshevik … or, still more typically, a prim little man with a white-collar job … [and] a social position which he has no intention of forfeiting.”

George Lansbury

He — and even more it must be said she — is also likely to be odd. Here Orwell is unsparing. And spot on. “There is,” Orwell declares, “the horrible — the really disquieting — prevalence of cranks wherever Socialists are gathered together.” “One sometimes get the impression,” he continues, “that the mere words ‘Socialism’ and ‘Communism’ draw towards them with magnetic force every fruit-juice drinker, nudist, sandal-wearer, sex-maniac, Quaker, ‘Nature Cure’ quack, pacifist, and feminist in England.” 

Oh and vegetarians. And beards. And “high-minded women”. And homosexuals, like the two “dreadful-looking old men”, clad “in pistachio-coloured shirts and khaki shorts into which their huge bottoms were crammed so tightly that you could study every dimple”, whom Orwell encountered on a bus in Letchworth. And so — effortlessly out-Liddling Liddle — on. 

Above all, Orwell identified the same disdain for the working class. “Are these mingy little beasts,” he reflected after attending one Socialist conventicle, “the champions of the working class?” 

“For every person there”, he recalled, “bore the worst stigmata of snobbish middle-class superiority. If a real working man, a miner dirty from the pit, for instance, had suddenly walked into their midst, they would have been embarrassed, angry and disgusted; some, I should think, would have fled holding their noses”.

“The truth is,” Orwell concludes, “that to many people calling themselves Socialists, revolution does not mean a movement of the masses with which they hope to associate themselves; it means a set of reforms which ‘we’, the clever ones, are going to impose upon ‘them’, the Lower Orders.”

George Lansbury was Jeremy Corbyn decades before Corbyn was born

But Orwell was writing in 1937. Not 2021. So how on earth did the Labour party, with even then such a freakish, repellent cadre at its core, survive and thrive as the great mass movement that, for a time, it became and whose passing Liddle laments? 

Because it nearly didn’t. In the 1931 General Election Labour was reduced to less than fifty MPs and, still worse, George Lansbury became its leader by default. Lansbury — pro-Bolshevik, feminist, internationalist, pacifist, staunchly anti-imperialist, an unflagging supporter of Irish and Indian nationalist movements, last-ditch opponent of social security cuts and architect of “Poplarism”, or extra-legal spending by the “Loony Left” local authorities of the day — was Jeremy Corbyn decades before Corbyn was born. 

There was one difference. Lansbury, “the most lovable figure in modern politics”, displayed none of the rancorous hatred which, as Orwell pointed out, characterised the Left even then. But, this saving grace aside, Lansbury was even more catastrophic for his party and his country than Corbyn. 

It took a shattering general election defeat to force Corbyn out of the leadership. Lansbury was summarily removed in a party coup. The blow was given at the 1935 Brighton Labour conference when Ernest Bevin attacked him to his face “for hawking your conscience from body to body asking to be told what to do with it”.

Bevin’s demolition of Lansbury was only one of his many services to his Party and his country. He was viscerally patriotic and had no truck with pacifism: “I am an old member of the Social Democratic Federation,” he declared, “I still believe in the Citizen Army; … I still believe it is a social obligation to defend your own homestead”. 

He was fervently anti-communist at home and abroad. He shared Orwell’s contempt for socialist intellectuals — “our fatuous friends” — and most Labour MPs. Most strikingly, he believed wholeheartedly in Britain’s world role and the Empire as a force for good. He opposed early independence for India and declared of the colonies, which he wished to develop to benefit the British economy, that “our crime is not exploitation but neglect”.

Ernest Bevin

In short, he was a “working-class John Bull”. He even — since he was a big, powerful man who ate, drank and smoked too much — looked the part. No one could have been further from Orwell’s list of freaks or closer to the people he represented.

Bevin’s power base was the Transport and General Workers Union, which by the end of the 30s was the largest union in the country. He was the TGWU’s effective founder, long-term General Secretary and the builder of Transport House. 

Bevin’s name has been virtually excised from the Labour pantheon, but the Party is dead till it rediscovers his values

Transport House was the headquarters of both the TGWU and the Labour Party and, with the tweedy good taste of its neo-Georgian façade in Smith Square in the heart of Westminster, it symbolised the arrival of both organised labour and its political arm at the heart of the Establishment.

That was Bevin’s aim. “They,” he declared of his Tory opponents, “cast the trade unions for the enemy of the State … I have never been an enemy of the state. I have been as big a constitutionalist as any [Tory] and I am fighting to remove the stigma which the [Tories] put upon me as the leader of a trade union.”

What enabled Bevin to realise his ambition was the Second World War. Bevin was Churchill’s first choice as a Labour minister for the wartime coalition and became one of his closest and most valued colleagues: together they symbolised “the national unity of the established classes and labour in fighting fascism”. 

Bevin forced through civilian mobilisation for the war effort “with a speed and efficiency completely unmatched in any of the dictatorships”. He also, since he used mobilisation more or less to universalise trade unionism and collective bargaining, laid the foundations for the post-war economic and social settlement. 

Bevin’s alliance with Churchill survived the end of the war. As foreign secretary in the 1945-51 Labour government, he played a crucial role in embedding the principal ideas of Churchillian policy in the post-war international settlement. 

The Marshall Plan and NATO prolonged the Atlantic alliance; the atom bomb, with, in Bevin’s phrase, “the bloody Union Jack flying on top of it”, confirmed Britain’s place at the top table; while his view that Britain “must remain, as we have always been in the past, different in character from other European nations” kept Britain out of the nascent movement for European integration.

Bevin, Churchill declared, was by “far the most distinguished man the Labour Party have thrown up in my time”. But his name has been virtually excised from the Labour pantheon. This recital of his views and achievements shows why. It also shows why the Party is dead till it rediscovers them.

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