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The Labour Governments 1964–70 volume 1

Labour and cultural change

Steven Fielding

This book is the first in the new series The Labour Governments 1964–70 and concentrates on Britain's domestic policy during Harold Wilson's tenure as Prime Minister. It deals, in particular, with how the Labour government and Labour party as a whole tried to come to terms with the 1960's cultural revolution. The book is grounded in original research, takes account of responses from Labour's grass roots and from Wilson's ministerial colleagues, and constructs a total history of the party at this critical moment in history. It situates Labour in its wider cultural context and focuses on how the party approached issues such as the apparent transformation of the class structure, the changing place of women in society, rising immigration, the widening generation gap, and increasing calls for direct participation in politics. Together with the other volumes in the series, on international policy and economic policy, the book provides an insight into the development of Britain under Harold Wilson's government.

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Rhiannon Vickers

Vic04 10/15/03 2:10 PM Page 80 Chapter 4 The Labour minority governments The Labour Party saw an improvement in its electoral fortunes in the immediate post-war period. At the 1918 election Labour gained 22 per cent of the vote, a tremendous increase from 7 per cent at the last election held in 1910.1 During the war both the trade union and the Labour Party membership had doubled, and working-class militancy had increased in the first few years of peace.2 With the concomitant increase in class-consciousness, the working class now identified far more

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Steven Fielding

Britain remained a society tainted by class. In 1956, Labour’s conference approved Towards Equality, a document broadly in tune with revisionist thinking and which confirmed the existence of ‘a strong, persistent trend towards economic and social inequality’.1 Even Anthony Crosland, who in the same year predicted that ‘primary poverty’ (i.e. insufficient incomes) would disappear by the mid-1960s, still considered inequality a serious problem that only government action could finally eradicate.2 A key element in Labour’s solution to the persistence of class differences

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Steven Fielding

They consider Labour’s prescriptive notions of how the young should think and act inhibited its efforts. In particular, at the start of the decade the party’s ‘residual puritanism’ is supposed to have prevented it evoking a positive response among purportedly hedonistic proletarians.4 At the end of the 1960s, many believed the government’s political caution had estranged middle-class students.5 This chapter questions the exclusively ‘supply-side’ explanation of Labour’s failure evident in such accounts. In fact, the party’s various attempts to evoke a positive

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Introduction

Cultural and political change in 1960s Britain

Steven Fielding

authority was subject to sweeping critique. This book examines the nature of Labour’s response during the 1964–70 governments led by Harold Wilson. Yet, while a work of history, it views its subject with one eye on the debate that began in the 1990s regarding how parties should react to what was believed to be another period of flux. By establishing how Labour thought and acted during the 1960s, it is hoped this work will put into perspective certain issues currently preoccupying those interested in the viability of representative politics. The purpose of this

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Conclusion

The 1970 general election

Steven Fielding

9 Conclusion. The 1970 general election Labour lost the 1970 general election, ending what was then only the second time the party had held office backed by a comfortable Commons majority. Unlike Clement Attlee’s 1945–51 administration, however, Wilson’s had few positive achievements to its name. The consensus among the government’s innumerable critics on the left was that this was a failure of will more than circumstance. As Ralph Miliband wrote, the government ‘could have had all the support it required from trade unionists, had it been seen to be genuinely

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Steven Fielding

8 Engaging with participation Most contemporaries dismissed Labour’s attempts to accommodate demands for government to promote greater popular access to decisionmaking. Those on the New Left presumed the Cabinet opposed greater involvement in the political process; such critics adhered to Ralph Miliband’s contention that the leadership was devoted to the parliamentary system and implacably hostile to those who challenged the constitutional status quo.1 Censure was not, however, restricted to the far left. The backbench MP John Mackintosh was one of an

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Steven Fielding

and nationalisation. Despite that, Labour’s campaign was judged superior to the ruling party’s, up to the point at which Gaitskell made what even sympathisers viewed as a serious blunder. He promised that taxes would not rise under a Labour government, as any extra spending would be financed through growth. This the Conservatives successfully presented as an irresponsible electoral bribe and Labour never recovered its momentum. How important such matters were to the final outcome is questionable, as the contest was held during a period of general, sustained and

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Steven Fielding

output.77 Labour women and working women The Wilson governments introduced numerous pieces of legislation meant to improve women’s lives, most obviously its ‘permissive’ reforms, which liberalised access to abortion and divorce. On the former issue in particular, while broadly in favour of reform, the party still faced a number of ways.78 A delegate to the 1970 women’s conference probably spoke for the majority when she declared that ‘everyone should be thankful for a permissive society which threw open the doors and let out the fear of the unknown and let in the

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Steven Fielding

Harold Wilson’s government further tightened controls and in 1968 it prevented large numbers of Kenyan Asians entering the country. While two Race Relations Acts, meant to discourage discrimination based on colour, accompanied these measures, most authorities consider them palliatives, drafted to salve Labour’s troubled conscience as ministers adhered to an essentially racist immigration policy.2 While in 1960 their party formally embraced a universal ‘brotherhood’, something the 1964–70 governments supposedly betrayed, many working-class activists nonetheless followed