William V Shannon
William Shannon

Fellowship Title:

A Letter from Brighton – I: Liberals and Labor

William Shannon
October 27, 1969

Fellowship Year

Part One: The Liberal Party Conference


If King George IV had not built the Royal Pavilion, Brighton would be just a pleasant, undistinguished seaside resort. If the Liberal Party did not persevere despite nearly fifty years of political adversity, the British people would have a two-party system, which conforms even more than it already does to divisions of class and status. But the Pavilion, a small palace built in a vaguely Oriental style with onion-shaped domes and slender towers, provides a romantic, exotic character to Brighton. Similarly, the Liberals provide British politics with a dash of unpredictable independence, of quixotic idealism, which enlivens the scene and occasionally embarrasses the conventional power-seekers in the Labor and Conservative parties.

The Liberals opened the fall political season with their annual conference in Brighton from September 17 through 20. Labor followed from September 29 through October 2, and the Conservatives wound things up a week later. As in America, these proceedings are televised to the point of boredom for many viewers and probably beyond the point of any profit for representative politics.

The delegates met in The Dome, which as its name suggests is a dome-shaped building constructed in 1808 as the royal stables and situated in the garden behind the Royal Pavilion. (The Pavilion itself, unoccupied by any monarch since early in Queen Victoria’s reign, has long been a municipal museum.) What struck an American observer attending his first British party conference was the extraordinary—by American standards—seriousness and devotion to duty of the delegates. There were no time-killing rituals—no aging war veterans “presenting the colors,” no unknown soprano scaling the heights of the national anthem, no ministers, priests, or rabbis invoking the word of God, no fourth vice-chairwoman making inane and unheard remarks, no musical selections from the band since there was no band, and, of course, no confetti or ballrooms. To an observer familiar with political conventions in Miami Beach and Chicago, the severe simplicity and rationality of Brighton were strange and refreshing. The only religious figure on the platform was Lord Beaumont of Whitley, a wealthy gentleman farmer who in addition to being Liberal Party president this year because of his services as party wheelhorse and financial contributor is also an ordained but inactive Anglican priest. (The Labor Party is also briskly secular, but the Tories did precede their opening session with a divine service presided over by an Anglican minister, a Methodist preacher, and a Catholic priest.)

The Liberals met every morning at 9:30 and moved immediately to business. They tried to wind up the morning meeting by half-past twelve but discussion usually ran later thereby cutting into the lunch hour. But with lunch or without it, the afternoon session invariably commenced promptly at 2:15. Attendance was high. Of the 800 delegates, one-half to two-thirds were present even during the least controversial debates. The delegates voted by raising their hands. If the vote was too close for the chairman to call, tellers passed through the hall tallying the exact votes in their respective sections.

Every debate was heard with close attention and in nearly total silence, punctuated now and again by applause and cries of “Hear, hear.” In the same kind of meeting in the United States, there would have been the buzz and hum of conversation, the flash of photographers taking pictures, and the sight of delegates reading newspapers, smoking cigars, or yawning. Speakers were treated to that perfect attention which Americans achieve only in church. But the British are everywhere a quiet people. Their parks, theater lobbies and other public places are comparatively much quieter than those in the United States.

A preparatory committee had prepared the final agenda based upon resolutions submitted by local parties around the country. The resolutions and the names of those who were to move them were set forth in the printed pamphlet. So also were the texts of proposed amendments to these resolutions. Usually one and never more than three amendments were permitted. Party rules firmly state: “The Assembly Committee shall have final authority to settle the wording of resolutions and amendments selected for debate so that the issues to be debated are substantial, clear and precise.” An amendment, which has not been submitted to the committee in advance, can still be offered on the day of the debate but only with the permission of the chairman. Delegates request permission to speak by filling out a request card and sending it to the platform. As might be expected, rank-and-file delegates periodically grumbled that the chairmen cut off debate too soon. In contrast to the freewheeling arrangements at most American state and national political conventions, these procedures which are much the same for the two major parties tended to put a damper on spontaneity in favor of order. But debates were nevertheless spirited. The clash of opinion was not repressed.

The Liberals have a unique and, in many ways, glorious history. As successors to the Whigs in the mid-nineteenth century, they were one of the two major parties in British politics from 1868 to 1914. Under the leadership of Gladstone, they were the party of practical reform and humane concern at home and of moral principle in foreign affairs. World War I ruined them. In 1916, Lloyd George and a few other Liberals connived with the Conservatives to overthrow Asquith, the last Liberal Prime Minister, and bring in a Coalition Government. This cabinet coup left a sour taste in the mouths of most Liberals. Asquith was out of office but still leader of the party.

In 1918, Lloyd George fought the first postwar election not as a Liberal but as head of a “unionist” coalition largely made up of Conservatives. The regular Liberals under Asquith were decimated. Lloyd George held power for another four years until a revolt of backbench Conservative MP’s overthrew him and broke up the coalition. After some years of inconclusive struggle in which the Conservatives, the growing Labor Party, the Asquith Liberals, and the Lloyd George Liberals all contested for power, the two Liberal factions made peace. Asquith died in 1928, and the following year Lloyd George led the party in its last major thrust for power. The Liberals had easily the best program prepared by a brilliant array of intellectuals led by John Maynard Keynes and the future Lord Beveridge, the father of the Welfare State. They gained seats but were still the third and weakest party in the House of Commons. Although he stayed in the Commons until almost his death in 1945, Lloyd George lost heart and throughout the 1930’s, Liberal strength in Parliament and in the country steadily ebbed away. It became a party of old men and fading memories. Younger men who were in politics to win and whose convictions in an earlier age would have led them into the Liberal Party joined instead one of the two major parties, forming the right wing of the Labor Party or the more progressive wing of the Conservatives. The Liberal Party itself drifted vaguely rightward, as Labor’s more aggressive and comprehensive social program preempted the remnants of Liberal working class strength.

After Labor’s sweeping victory in 1945, the Liberals were reduced to six seats in the House of Commons, and there seemed no valid reason to go on.  A hundred or so determined persons in the entire country made the difference. It is a tribute to their perseverance that the party stayed together and alive. It is also a tribute to the enduring power of the ideals and principles of liberalism. One of these persons was Lady Violet Bonham Carter, the daughter of Asquith and a brilliant orator and political campaigner in her own right. Her son, Mark Bonham Carter, was briefly an MP in the early ‘60’s when the Liberal Party began to revive. Her son-in-law, Jo Grimond, MP for the Shetland and Orkney Islands, became the leader of the Liberal Party in 1956, and the hero of its revival. Another influential personality was Frank Byers, now Lord Byers, an ex-MP and the party’s unflagging organizer during the post-war years.

When he took over the leadership, Grimond promised to give ten years to the post. To the surprise of many, he kept his word and resigned the leadership early in 1967. He remains the party’s most glamorous figure. During his decade as chief, he helped rejuvenate the party and came near to winning for the Liberals the balance of power position which the Free Democrats now hold in West Germany. But unlike their German equivalents, the British Liberals do not have proportional representation to assist them. They have the steadfast support of more than 2,000,000 voters, which on a proportional basis would entitle them to upwards of 50 seats in the House of Commons. As it is, they hold only 13. Scattered in 630 constituencies across the nation their strength is dissipated. Only in the odd by-election when one of the two major parties is exceptionally weak can the Liberals break through. That happened in Orpington in 1962, a London suburban district where the middle class Liberals were in a better position than a weak local Labor Party to exploit rising dissatisfaction with a stale Tory regime. Orpington occurred near the end of thirteen years of national Conservative government. In a sense, Grimond and Harold Wilson, then the new leader of the Labor Party, were rivals to win the support of the younger voters and the independent, non-ideological voters restless for a change. Grimond dreamed of a realignment of the Left to produce a new progressive party, stripped of Labor’s obsolete socialist ideology and its confining organizational tie-up with the unions and providing a new political home not only for Labor’s working class millions but also for the liberal middle classes. With his craggy good looks and idealistic Stevensonian eloquence, Grimond was the more attractive figure, but Wilson had much the wider power base. Labor squeezed its way to victory in 1964, Wilson ignored Grimond’s overtures for a Lib-Lab alliance from 1964 to 1966, and in the latter year won an enhanced majority which enabled him to forget about the Liberals. Grimond resigned the party leadership soon afterward, and under Jeremy Thorpe, the Liberals have soldiered on.

Meanwhile, two parallel influences have been at work within the party. One is a small, quiet but growing renascence of the party in the industrial cities. For two generations, these have been Labor Party strongholds. But obscure local figures have begun to wet nurse these neighborhoods, serving as unpaid ombudsmen and welfare officers, setting up housing cooperatives and investigating complaints against the public agencies which the Welfare State itself has created such as the old age pension office or the housing authority. It is the kind of local politics-through-service which has been the basis of power for every functioning urban political machine and which has began to pay off for some Liberals. Francis Boyd of the Guardian noted that the party’s conference debate on housing was structured to bring to the rostrum three city councilors from industrial areas—Wallace Lawler (Birmingham), Cyril Carr (Liverpool), and Michael Meadowcroft (Leeds).

“Mr. Lawler fought his ward seven times before he got on the council. There are now seven Liberals on the Birmingham council. Mr. Carr fought five times before he was elected—there are now three Liberal councilors in Liverpool.  Mr. Meadowcroft won a seat from Labor at his first fight.”

Since city councils in Britain are unpaid and may have 60 or more members, these gains are still only marginally significant, but as Boyd observed, “Those who know the party history of these cities understand the miracle of the Liberals’ return.”

Lawler built on his local success to win one of Birmingham’s seats in Parliament last spring at a by-election. He was naturally the hero of this year’s party conference in Brighton.

The other new influence in Liberal affairs was an upsurge of participation by youth. After being for so long a dying party with its average membership increasingly elderly, the Liberals suddenly found themselves in the 1960’s in the midst of a youth movement. Some of the youngsters were members of the New Left and of splinter Maoist, Trotskyite, and other radical sects which saw the Liberal Party as a respectable old firm ripe for a take-over bid. Others were young people who could not believe in either Socialist or Free Enterprise dogma, and were looking for a political vehicle in which they could try out other ideas.

The youth invasion reached its peak in the annual conferences of 1966 and 1967, when the youngsters, whom the press dubbed “the Red Guard,” not only pushed through several radical proposals but also distressed many of the older delegates by their noisy, aggressive tactics. By 1969, the invasion had visibly ebbed. Several of the young radical leaders had wearied of conventional party politics even when practiced in the unstructured Liberal fashion. They had drifted into various causes such as Shelter, a pressure group working to focus attention on the homeless and ill-housed or had dropped out of public affairs. But the National League of Young Liberals is still active, and NLYL members made up roughly one-quarter of the 800 delegates registered for the annual conference. Their “radical caucus” held every night in a stiflingly hot, stuffy basement room of a second-rate hotel was much the most lively and stimulating meeting of any of the three party conferences. Although still only in their early twenties, some of the NLYL leaders have genuine political gifts which may make them significant figures in the future.

The Liberals in the past dozen years have performed the usual function of a progressive third party in a basically two-party system. They have pioneered new ideas, which the bigger parties have made off with some years later. The Liberals promoted British entry into the Common Market for years before first the Tories and then the Laborites accepted it. (Winston Churchill was, of course, the progenitor of the United Europe concept in the late ‘40’s, but he showed no interest in it once he returned to office in 1951.) The Liberals were first in the field with the concept of regional government to counter act excessive centralization of power in London. Regionalism is now becoming a fashionable position in the other parties.

This annual conference brought to the fore three additional proposals which won Liberal sponsorship—the negative income tax, the floating pound, and industrial partnership.

Mrs. Margaret Wingfield, an attractive, middle-aged woman with a warm smile and an engaging platform voice, moved the resolution urging the Government to phase out family allowances and instead provide that “low income families, whose total entitlement to income tax allowances and exemptions is in excess of their income, would receive a weekly payment to make up a specified percentage of their ‘income deficiency’.”  Desmond Banks, a wealthy insurance broker and the retiring president of the party, spoke against the negative income tax and favor of increased family allowances. Mrs. Wingfield, the wife of a highway engineer and the mother of four, has fought several constituencies for the party and is personally widely liked. The debate, spirited, brief, and fairly technical, ended in a decisive victory for the negative income tax on a show of hands. Afterward, she smilingly conceded that at least some of the delegates might have been voting for her rather than her proposal.

However, Mr. Richard Lamb who has no special charms as a speaker was equally successful with the even more technical resolution “to abandon the fixed parity of the pound at $2.40 and to allow the pound to float within reasonably wide bands to be agreed with the International Monetary Fund.”  Of course, practical politicians might argue that the negative income tax and the floating pound are proposals too complicated to interest most voters, but Liberals can indulge the luxury of being serious.

Easily the most radical idea now in the Liberal platform is its plan for industrial partnership. In a sense, it could be said that a deeper cause for the party’s decline after World War I than the fratricidal Asquith-Lloyd George Struggle was the grinding class struggle in a mass industrial society. Labor had the backing of the unions and the Conservative Party had the backing of big business, and in this unending conflict the Liberals could find no secure footing, philosophically or politically. “A plague on both your houses” was no adequate answer to this major clash of interest groups. Over the last several years, the Liberals have finally evolved an ambitious policy of their own. It is set forth in a lengthy document, “Partners at Work” and endorsed at the annual conference in Edinburgh in 1968. An attempt to overturn the policy at this conference was decisively defeated. Essentially, the plan calls for shareholders and managers to share power with elected representatives of the workers (not with unions as such). Profits would be divided between shareholders and employees each year after “a previously agreed initial distribution to stockholders.”  This was naturally not radical enough for the Young Liberals who wanted worker control “so that labor employs capital and not vice versa,” but their amendment was voted down overwhelmingly.

Whether this plan could be made to work in reality I have no idea, but it was fascinating to hear it debated. The session was heavily attended. The debate was intellectually of a high order and the delegates paid close attention. No other political party in Britain or in the United States actually involves elected politicians, respected professors and men of affiars as well as bewhiskered youths and suburban housewives in a searching debate on a proposal that is so radical in the true sense of that word.

The Liberals are in the forefront of the unending effort to safeguard civil liberties, an effort which is inherent in every variety of “small l” liberalism. Since socialism and other theories of positive, active government have combined with the ingenuity of modern technology to make the state ever more active, interventionist, and vigilant, the individual citizen’s liberties are in constant jeopardy. Britain is one of the freest countries in the world, but it does not escape these ominous tendencies. It has the greatest safeguard of all—a long tradition of lawfulness—but it lacks many specific protections because it has no written constitution or modern Bill of Rights and because Parliament is theoretically omnipotent.

Liberals have begun to press for a written Bill of Rights spelling out the rights of a citizen. Earlier this year all 13 Liberal members of the House of Commons jointly introduced such a Bill. Much of the work of drafting this bill was done by a young London barrister, John Macdonald. At the party conference he moved the resolution calling upon Parliament to enact the Bill. Macdonald, who fought the London suburb of Wimbledon in the last general election and is again the prospective parliamentary candidate there, is a tall, slim man in his thirties with boney, hawk-like features and a commanding voice. His resolution declared in part: “This Assembly, disturbed by the increasing intolerance shown in the UK to certain racial and religious minorities, concerned with the growing restrictions on the freedom of people to plan and conduct their lives without reference to governmental decrees and regulations, and believing that the present concentrations of power, not subject to adequate democratic control, must, unless checked, lead to attacks on freedom of opinion and thought, on privacy and on the rule of law, calls on Parliament to enact a new Bill of Rights.”

After regaling his listeners for a few minutes with examples of the fantastic devices now available to Government agencies for electronic, remote-control surveillance of individuals, Macdonald pointed out that in Britain there are lO,OOO local and national government officers who have a legal right to enter anyone’s house. Moreover, bureaucracies afford no redress in the courts from their administrative decisions. “Where can you turn if you dispute your position on the housing list? Which body can inquire into the education department’s allocation of your child to a school which you think unsuitable?  To whom do you appeal if you are refused a passport?”

Macdonald disputed the notion that the Bill of Rights would be a mere abstraction. He listed five specific changes which it would accomplish: (1) every British citizen would be entitled to a passport as a right; (2) Courts would have the power to grant injunctions against the Crown, a judicial power which exists in the U.S. but not in Britain; (3) there could be no retrospective liabilities or obligations, thus denying the Government the power to withdraw British citizenship as it did from Kenyans of Asian ancestry: (4) criminal libel which is far more severe in Britain than in the U.S. would be abolished; and (5) administrative tribunals would have to give reasons for their decisions and there would be the right of appeal to the courts.

There were no opposing speakers to the resolution. An amendment was moved to entrench the Bill of Rights in a written constitution since a future Parliament can repeal any bill, even a bill of rights. Most Liberals favor a written constitution for Britain, but since the prospects of getting the Bill of Rights enacted are much brighter than for a written constitution, the amendment was defeated and the resolution passed almost unanimously.

But if the Liberals do good work exploring new issues and upholding libertarian principles, they engage like any political party in a certain amount of what the British call “waffling.” Thus Wallace Lawler, the new Liberal hero from Birmingham, moved a resolution on the cost of living which amounted mostly to double-talk. (I have to confess that to an American visitor Mr. Lawler, a short, bouncy, black-haired man with a humorless manner, has an irrelevant but disconcerting physical resemblance to George C. Wallace.) The Lawler resolution, for example, “demands an end to Government extravagance.” But since most Liberals want to redress the balance between private affluence and public squalor, they logically should favor more, not less, Government spending. It urged the Prices and Incomes Board “to devote more attention to the prices and efficiency of the nationalized industries.” But the PIB has virtually no powers except those of publicity and delay. It demanded an investigation of sectors of the economy such as housing where prices are rising most rapidly. But since there is a housing shortage and a credit squeeze, the price of housing in a free market is bound to rise.

The foregoing critique of the Lawler resolution is not original with me but was developed at one of the nightly caucuses of the Young Liberals. There then followed an agonizing discussion as to whether the Young Liberals were, in conscience, bound to oppose the resolution or should they be good pragmatic politicians and not oppose a resolution which was sure to win whatever they did. Naturally, conscience won and the next day the YL’s sent up a speaker to oppose the resolution. Naturally, it passed overwhelmingly.

The Liberals have several natural orators, some of them like Michael Winstanley in the House of Commons and some, like Richard Moore, who made an impassioned plea for justice and reform in Northern Ireland, are not. Moore, who is on the staff of Jeremy Thorpe, the party leader, makes a practice of running in hopeless constituencies in Ulster where the political prospects for Liberalism are poorest but where its message is most urgently needed. Another outstanding Liberal speaker is Christopher Layton, who has several times made strong but unsuccessful bids in constituencies where Liberals have a fighting chance. Layton, who is about 40 and sports a full brown beard, made the main speech on the Common Market resolution.  He worked for many years for the Economist, for part of that time as its Common Market expert. In an excellent half-hour speech, he made the pure classic case for Britain’s entry into Europe. He argued that it is essential economically if Britain is to have access to a continent-wide market and share in the science-based industries of the future and essential politically if Britain is to play its full part in establishing Europe as an independent force in the world, equal to Russia and the United States.

0pposition came from two opposing viewpoints. The first attacked Layton’s speech as a romantic, nostalgic, wildly optimistic portrait of a Europe that is actually nationalistic, self-centered, and protectionist. Those who shared this view supported an amendment calling upon the Government to settle the issue by a referendum since the agreement of the three political parties deprives the anti-Common Market voters of any political option in the next general election. This amendment was heavily defeated.

The Liberals chose instead a different approach, which accepted as its precise that Europe today, is not the Europe that liberals would like to see emerge. On this basis, they approved an amendment setting forth six liberal objectives. These were a progressive reduction of price levels in the common agricultural policy, a full economic and monetary union, an independent European foreign and non-nuclear defense policy,” democratic control of the Community through increased power for the European parliament and direct election of its members, a European-wide law making international corporations responsible to workers as well as shareholders, and more help for the underdeveloped world through commodity agreements and lower tariffs.

This comprehensive amendment was moved by Peter Watts, the prospective parliamentary candidate for Colchester in northeast England. Watts, the son and grandson of Indian Army officers, is a 33-year old school master who has a degree from Cambridge but by preference chooses to teach sixteen year olds who are about to leave school rather than college-preparatory boys. What does he teach these working class boys? “I teach them how to figure out the interest charges in a hire purchase agreement, what their rights are if they are arrested, who to complain to if they think local government is not treating them fairly, how to run for office in a union—all the kinds of things they will need to know in the world outside school.”

Watts, enthusiastic Common Market supporter, worked out his amendment in consultation with the Young Liberals (he is too old to qualify as a member) after persuading them not to oppose the Common Market as just a white man’s club.

Speaking rapidly in an effort to explain the six points of his amendment within the five-minute time limit, Watts bungled his maiden speech to a party conference. But he and his Young Liberal allies had done such a thorough job of canvassing the delegates that despite his bad speech, his amendment carried easily.

The climax of every party conference is the Speech by the Leader, and the Liberals are no exception. Jeremy Thorpe, who represents a rural constituency in Devon, has suffered in contrast to his more stylish predecessor, Jo Grimmond. There have been recurrent rumors of attempts to overthrow him. But Thorpe made a good fighting speech and received the greatest personal ovation in his career as leader. Prime Minister Wilson, the leader of the Labor Party, and Edward Heath, the leader of the Conservative Party, are also deficient in charisma and have been buffeted by dissatisfaction with their respective styles of leadership. In successive weeks at Brighton, Wilson and Heath also rallied their faithful with effective partisan speeches and were also judged to have strengthened their hold on their respective parties. In this area at least, the Liberals set the pattern for their giant rivals.

Part II—The Labor Party Conference


A delegate to the Liberal Party conference said, “You won’t find the Labor Party conference anything like this one. It is all old men in cloth caps sitting around sucking pipes.”

Unfortunately, this discouraging caricature was not too far from the truth. I had always known in an impersonal intellectual way that the unions are powerful in the Labor Party, but not until I attended my first Labor Party conference did I actually realize how true that is. Rather than a political meeting, the annual Labor Party conference very much resembled a union convention in the United States. A convention, say, of the AFL building trades.

The scene shifted from the Dome to the Top Rank Centre, an ugly modernistic skating rink which can seat the much larger Labor and Tory conferences but which has an oppressively low ceiling under which floated a pall of tobacco smoke. Around the hall hung huge posters reading, “Labour Will Win.”

It is overwhelmingly a male gathering. The chairman this year was a woman and several women decorated the platform but they almost outnumbered the very few of their sex sprinkled among solid row upon solid row of men in the hall. Labor undoubtedly has youthful adherents but they were nowhere in evidence in Brighton. After the dash and fire of the Young Liberals, the stodginess of the Laborites was startling.

The crucial difference between a British annual conference and an American political convention is that Americans gather to choose a candidate for President, and, usually, everything else is subordinated to the scramble for the nomination. Since British parties choose their leaders by vote of their MP’s in the House of Commons, their party conferences are preoccupied with issues. Personalities and factions jockey for power and prestige but ultimately, a party conference is not the locus of power. The three British parties accommodate themselves to this fact of life in different ways. Since the Liberals are underrepresented in the House of Commons and short of nationally known figures, they give wide scope to their rank-and-file. Since the Conservatives are a hierarchical party, they spotlight the leaders in their Shadow Cabinet.

Labor curiously does neither. It provides only a limited outlet for its ordinary members to make their opinions known, and it pays no attention to many of its parliamentary stars. Instead, it is predominantly a gathering of the national leaders, local secretaries, and shop stewards of the various unions. The interests, which these delegates represent, are real and legitimate, but they articulate then in that stilted language which unionists adopt when they have no clear idea for whom or to whom they are speaking.

An officer of the Boilermakers, for example, does not speak for himself as an ordinary citizen although, in fact, he may be voicing only his own opinion. But neither does he employ the skill and artifice of the politician who is accustomed to persuading audiences and cajoling the marginal vote. Instead, the Boilermaker officer gyrates between two extremes, equally unconvincing. He shifts, that is, from making a nakedly selfish appeal on behalf of Boilermakers as such to making a morally self-righteous statement on behalf of “the movement,” the working class, or all mankind. Selfishness turns into ranting and idealism into cant. (Surely no one can feel less fraternal than the man who has been addressed fifty times a day as “Comrade”?) The entire middle ground of politics, the ground of reasonable differences rationally argued, of humor and of compromise, may remain in intellectual view but it disappears from the common rhetoric. How can one argue with a man who makes a blatant argument in behalf of boilermakers—or any other particular interest group—at the expense of the common good except to say he is a hog and deserves a crack across the snout? Or, alternatively, how can one counsel delay or compromise to a man who insists that he is asserting the moral claims of all mankind?

The Labor Party worked its way into this cul-de-sac from the political misconception with which it started. Historically, it began not as just another political party but as a movement to which trade unions, the cooperatives, and miscellaneous organizations such as the Fabian Society could affiliate. Only after the movement had been under way for some decades was the Parliamentary Labor Party founded to achieve the movement’s aims by conventional electoral methods. In theory, the parliamentary party was to be but an arm of the movement. Policy was to be laid down by the annual conference of the movement, and the members in the House of Commons were to carry it out with no room for independent judgment except in day-to-day tactics. In practice, however, as the party grew strong enough to form a government, no leader was willing to abdicate his responsibility and that of his colleagues in Parliament who had been directly elected by the people in favor of any party conference or party directorate. First Ramsay MacDonald and then Clement Attlee made it unmistakably clear that as Prime Ministers, they had the last word on the Government’s program. By now, this is no longer a real issue although some speakers at this year’s conference still made ritualistic allusions to the conference’s authority over the Government.

But if the reality of power has conformed to the practices of Government long ago established by other parties, the inner structure of the Labor Party is still founded on this fiction. Instead of most of the voting strength at the annual conference being in the hands of the local constituency parties as is true of the Liberals and Conservatives, the unions cast five-sixths of the votes. And since each union casts a bloc vote for its total membership, the votes cast are astronomical, running upwards of 5,000,000. Aside from the merits of any discussion, it is dispiriting when one participant in an argument can stand up and cast 500,000 or a million votes.

The apathy and the undemocratic character of most trade unions contrive to deepen the harmful effects of the arbitrary power of the unions at the party’s annual conference. Thus, the two powerhouse figures at this year’s conference were Hugh Scanlon, president of the Amalgamated Union of Engineering and Foundry Workers, and Jack Jones, president of the Transport Workers Union. Between them, they control approximately 2,000,000 votes at the conference. Both are outspoken left-wingers yet everyone knows that the members for whom they profess to speak and whose votes they cast are, in fact, totally indifferent to most of the issues on which their union presidents proclaim their views. Moreover, personal rivalries enter in as Scanlon and Jones try to prove that one is more militant than the other. Jones has also developed a feud with Barbara Castle, the Minister of Employment and Productivity.

As if these power plays were not enough to rob the debates of meaning, the Labor Party Executive carried old and dubious tactics to a ludicrous extreme. Rather than oppose an awkward resolution and risk defeat, the leadership agreed to accept it with reservations. These “reservations” were often so far-reaching and detailed as to vitiate the original proposal. Alternatively, the Executive merged several resolutions to produce a looking-all-ways compromise, which was meaningless. This would be referred to as Composite (pronounced “Comp-o-site”) Resolution Number So-and-So. This tactic reached its perfect form in the Common Market debate when George Brown, deputy leader of the party, ex-Foreign Secretary, and a strong European, and Douglas Jay, ex-President of the Board of Trade and sharp critic of the Common Market, were both able to accept the same resolution and each interpret it to his own satisfaction.

Some Labor Party purists hold to the belief that the membership of the party’s National Executive should be drawn exclusively from the rank-and-file of the movement and that members of the parliamentary party should neither be allowed to serve on the National Executive or join in the debates. In practice, the party is not that severe. Barbara Castle, Home Secretary James Callaghan, Housing Minister Anthony Greenwood, and Minister of Technology Anthony Wedgewood-Benn are elected members of the Executive as well as cabinet ministers, but it is only in the former capacity that they are allowed to speak. An exception was made this year for Roy Jenkins, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, having flown back that day from the International Monetary Fund meeting in Washington had some politically encouraging news to report about the balance of payments. But major figures in the Government such as Defense Minister Denis Healey did not speak while other cabinet ministers such as Richard Crossman did not even attend the conference.

With trade union hacks hogging the microphone, with arrogant leaders like Jones and Scanlon ranting against the Government’s economic and foreign policies, and with the National Executive nervously fudging every issue with “reservations” and “composite resolutions,” the Conference was an intellectual shambles. The important vein of social idealism which undoubtedly runs deep through the past and present of the Labor movement rarely surfaced.

Under these circumstances, Prime Minister Wilson was easily able to dominate the scene. He spoke twice, once on Tuesday morning to deliver the report of the Parliamentary Party, and again on Friday morning to close the conference. His speeches were of the kind to which it is hard to do justice. On delivery, they were immense successes, particularly the first of them. But on reading them later, they seemed shallow. They were full of wisecracks and scored many partisan-debating points off the Conservative opposition. They are not likely to be reprinted in Mr. Wilson’s collected speeches a decade from now, but they served to lift the morale of a party which until a recent upturn has been sagging badly in the opinion polls.

And what of the young Labor MP’s and would-be MP’s who are among the brightest and most interesting persons in British politics? Many of them were present at Brighton, renewing friendships at the bar, lobbying the party agents who can smooth a potential candidate’s way to a nomination, and cracking jokes about the Prime Minister and the labor leaders. In short, they were almost as much outsiders at their own party’s conference as the journalists with whom they traded gossip. Nobody in the party leadership seemed to think of giving them a chance behind the microphone or exposing their talents to a national television audience.

Received in New York on October 27, 1969.

Mr. Shannon is an Alicia Patterson Fund award winner on leave from The New York Times. This article may be published with credit to Mr. Shannon, The New York Times, and the Alicia Patterson Fund.

© 1969 William Shannon