Keep Left Group

At the Labour National Conference in December 1944, Ian Mikardo proposed a resolution that was strongly opposed by the leadership of the Labour Party. It restated the fundamental socialist principles of the party. In his speech he called for the nationalisation of "the land, large-scale building, heavy industry and all forms of banking" as well as transport, fuel and power. (1)

During the debate Harold Laski asked Mikardo to withdraw the resolution for the sake of party unity. Mikardo refused and the "resolution was carried on a show of hands by such a large majority that no-one dared to call for a card vote." Herbert Morrison, the leader of the right-wing section of the party, said to Mikardo: "Young man, you did very well this morning. That was a good speech you made - but you realise, don't you, that you've lost us the general election." (2)

On 7th May, 1945, Germany surrendered. Winston Churchill wanted the coalition government to continue until Japan had been defeated, but Clement Attlee, the Deputy Prime Minister and the leader of the Labour Party, refused, and resigned from office. Churchill was forced to form a Conservative government and an election was called for 5th July, with a further three weeks to allow servicemen to vote. (3)

Aneurin Bevan wrote: "At last, the deadly political frustration is ended; at last the unnatural alliance is broken between left and right, between Socialism and Reaction, in other words between forces which on every single issue (bar only the defeat of Nazi Germany) proceed from opposite principles and stand for opposite policies... The sooner the election is held, the sooner we shall be able to get rid of the Tories and begin in earnest with the solution of the tremendous tasks before us." (4)

1945 General Election

In its manifesto, Let us Face the Future, it made clear that "the Labour Party is a Socialist Party, and proud of it. Its ultimate purpose at home is the establishment of the Socialist Commonwealth of Great Britain - free, democratic, efficient, progressive, public-spirited, its material resources organised in the service of the British people.... Housing will be one of the greatest and one of the earliest tests of a Government's real determination to put the nation first. Labour's pledge is firm and direct - it will proceed with a housing programme with the maximum practical speed until every family in this island has a good standard of accommodation. That may well mean centralising and pooling of building materials and components by the State, together with price control. If that is necessary to get the houses as it was necessary to get the guns and planes, Labour is ready." (5)

The manifesto argued for the state takeover of certain branches of the economy - the Bank of England, coal mines, electricity and gas, railways, and iron and steel. This reflected some of the measures passed by the Labour Conference in December 1944. However, some left-wing commentators pointed out that the "nationalisation measures were justified on grounds of economic efficiency, not as a means of shifting the balance between labour and capital." (6)

The document made it clear that if elected it would pass legislation to protect the working-class: "The Labour Party stands for freedom - for freedom of worship, freedom of speech, freedom of the Press. The Labour Party will see to it that we keep and enlarge these freedoms, and that we enjoy again the personal civil liberties we have, of our own free will, sacrificed to win the war. The freedom of the Trade Unions, denied by the Trade Disputes and Trade Unions Act, 1927, must also be restored. But there are certain so-called freedoms that Labour will not tolerate: freedom to exploit other people; freedom to pay poor wages and to push up prices for selfish profit; freedom to deprive the people of the means of living full, happy, healthy lives".

The Labour Party also stated its commitment to a National Health Service: "By good food and good homes, much avoidable ill-health can be prevented. In addition the best health services should be available free for all. Money must no longer be the passport to the best treatment. In the new National Health Service there should be health centres where the people may get the best that modern science can offer, more and better hospitals, and proper conditions for our doctors and nurses. More research is required into the causes of disease and the ways to prevent and cure it. Labour will work specially for the care of Britain's mothers and their children - children's allowances and school medical and feeding services, better maternity and child welfare services. A healthy family life must be fully ensured and parenthood must not be penalised if the population of Britain is to be prevented from dwindling." (7)

Henriette Hoffman
The Daily Mirror on the 1945 General Election (5th June, 1945).
A copy of this newspaper can be obtained from Historic Newspapers.

On 4th June, 1945, Winston Churchill made a radio broadcast where he attacked Clement Attlee and the Labour Party: "I must tell you that a socialist policy is abhorrent to British ideas on freedom. There is to be one State, to which all are to be obedient in every act of their lives. This State, once in power, will prescribe for everyone: where they are to work, what they are to work at, where they may go and what they may say, what views they are to hold, where their wives are to queue up for the State ration, and what education their children are to receive. A socialist state could not afford to suffer opposition - no socialist system can be established without a political police. They (the Labour government) would have to fall back on some form of Gestapo." (8)

Ian Mikardo believed that the Churchill broadcast helped his election campaign: "In his first election broadcast on the radio he warned the country that if they elected a Labour government they would find themselves under the jackboots of a socialist gestapo. The British people just wouldn't take that. They looked at Clem Attlee, the timid, correct, undemonstrative, unaggressive ex-public-schoolboy, ex-major, and couldn't see an Adolf Hitler in him." (9)

Attlee's response the following day caused Churchill serious damage: "The Prime Minister made much play last night with the rights of the individual and the dangers of people being ordered about by officials. I entirely agree that people should have the greatest freedom compatible with the freedom of others. There was a time when employers were free to work little children for sixteen hours a day. I remember when employers were free to employ sweated women workers on finishing trousers at a penny halfpenny a pair. There was a time when people were free to neglect sanitation so that thousands died of preventable diseases. For years every attempt to remedy these crying evils was blocked by the same plea of freedom for the individual. It was in fact freedom for the rich and slavery for the poor. Make no mistake, it has only been through the power of the State, given to it by Parliament, that the general public has been protected against the greed of ruthless profit-makers and property owners. The Conservative Party remains as always a class Party. In twenty-three years in the House of Commons, I cannot recall more than half a dozen from the ranks of the wage earners. It represents today, as in the past, the forces of property and privilege. The Labour Party is, in fact, the one Party which most nearly reflects in its representation and composition all the main streams which flow into the great river of our national life." (10)

Labour candidates pointed out that the government had used state control and planning during the Second World War. During the election campaign Labour candidates argued that without such planning Britain would never have won the war. Sarah Churchill told her father in June, 1945: "Socialism as practised in the war did no one any harm, and quite a lot of people good." Arthur Greenwood argued that state planning had proved its value in wartime and would be necessary in peacetime. (11)

When the poll closed the ballot boxes were sealed for three weeks to allow time for servicemen's votes (1.7 million) to be returned for the count on 26th July. It was a high turnout with 72.8% of the electorate voting. With almost 12 million votes, Labour had 47.8% of the vote to 39.8% for the Conservatives. Labour made 179 gains from the Tories, winning 393 seats to 213. The 12.0% national swing from the Conservatives to Labour, remains the largest ever achieved in a British general election. It came as a surprise that Winston Churchill, who was considered to be the most important figure in winning the war, suffered a landslide defeat. Harold Macmillan commented: "It was not Churchill who lost the 1945 election; it was the ghost of Neville Chamberlain." (12)

Henry (Chips) Channon recorded in his diary what happened on the first day of the new Parliament: "I went to Westminster to see the new Parliament assemble, and never have I seen such a dreary lot of people. I took my place on the Opposition side, the Chamber was packed and uncomfortable, and there was an atmosphere of tenseness and even bitterness. Winston staged his entry well, and was given the most rousing cheer of his career, and the Conservatives sang 'For He's a Jolly Good Fellow'. Perhaps this was an error in taste, though the Socialists went one further, and burst into the 'Red Flag' singing it lustily; I thought that Herbert Morrison and one or two others looked uncomfortable." (13)

The Labour Government

Clement Attlee, Herbert Morrison and Ernest Bevin, the senior figures in the government, were all on the right of the party. The new intake of MPs included far fewer from working-class backgrounds. According to one historian, "with apparent satisfaction the new prime minister noted that he had appointed no fewer than twenty-eight public school boys, including seven Etonians, five Haileyburians and four Winchester men, to the government." (14)

The most significant figure on the left was Aneurin Bevan, the Minister of Health. He argued for a comprehensive programme of nationalisation as without state control, there could be no true socialism because there could be no planning: "In practice it is impossible for the modern State to maintain an independent control over the decisions of big business. When the State extends its control over big business, big business moves in to control the State. The political decisions of the State become so important a part of the business transactions of the combines that is the law of their survival that those decisions should suit the needs of profit-making. The State ceases to be the umpire. It becomes the prize." (15)

Attlee was also not enthusiastic about the nationalisation programme proposed by Ian Mikardo at the 1944 Labour Conference and in the Labour manifesto, Let us Face the Future. However, it now had the support of the vast majority of its membership and he agreed to put it into operation. As Hugh Dalton pointed out: "We weren't really beginning our Socialist programme until we had gone past all the utility junk - such as transport and electricity - which were publicly owned in every capitalist country in the world. Practical Socialism... really began with Coal and Iron and Steel, and there was a strong political argument for breaking the power of a most dangerous body of capitalists." (16)

Herbert Morrison, the deputy prime minister, had always been strongly opposed to the nationalisation of Iron and Steel. He began negotiations with Sir Andrew Duncan, chairman of the British Iron and Steel Federation, in order to avoid it being taken into public ownership. (17) Aneurin Bevan responded by arguing that the Labour government should keep its manifesto's commitment: "Suggestions will be made that some parts of the industry are efficient and satisfactory and so should be left alone, but I am opposed to the Government taking over the cripples and leaving the good things to private ownership." (18)

Henriette Hoffman
A cartoon by Philip Zec that showed the conflict between
Herbert Morrison and the left of the party (1947)

A few weeks later, Bevan argued: "Democracy means that if you hurt people they have the right to squeal. But when you hear the squeals you must carefully find out who is squealing. If the right people are squealing then we are doing the job properly... So far we have been all right and here is the whole delusion of coalition of national co-operation. You cannot focus the full national will on the main evils of society, because in a coalition there are people who benefit from the very evils themselves." (19)

Keep Left Group

In 1947, a group of Labour MPs who were not members of the government, including Ian Mikardo, Richard Crossman, Michael Foot, Konni Zilliacus, John Platts-Mills, Lester Hutchinson, Leslie Solley, Sydney Silverman, Geoffrey Bing, Emrys Hughes, D. N. Pritt, George Wigg, John Freeman, Richard Acland, William Warbey, William Gallacher and Phil Piratin formed the Keep Left Group. They urged Clement Attlee to develop left-wing policies and were opponents of the cold war policies of the United States and urged a closer relationship with Europe in order to create a "Third Force" in politics. (20)

In 1947 Mikardo, Crossman and Foot published Keep Left. The pamphlet argued for a system of state planning: "Such a planning mechanism, to be successful, needs to be able not merely to co-ordinate the work of the departments of State but also to reconcile conflicts of view between them, and even to override them when the need arises. For this purpose, it must be headed by a Minister who can give the necessary time to the job, and who has a position and prestige above those of the departmental Ministers. We haven't got that yet." (21)

Mikardo later recalled: "In Keep Left the greater part of our discussions was about the basic philosophy of the Party and the sort of broad economic and social order we should be seeking to create. Between 1947 and 1950 we concentrated on the production of a wide-ranging programme for the next Labour government: we worked hard at it, writing and circulating papers, some of them long and detailed, on different policy areas, and discussing and amending them." (22)

In 1948 Mikardo wrote The Second Five Years. In the pamphlet he argued that the government needed to "nationalise the joint stock banks and industrial assurance companies, shipbuilding, aircraft construction, areo-engines, machine tools, and the assembly branch of mass-produced motor vehicles". This was followed by Keeping Left (1950) in which the Keep Left Group advocated the "public ownership of road haulage, steel, insurance, cement, sugar and cotton." (23)

Vicky, cartoon showing Harold Wilson, Aneurin Bevan, Michael Foot, Ian Mikardo attacking Herbert Morrison, Clement Attlee and Hugh Gaitskell (July, 1951)
Vicky, cartoon showing Harold Wilson, Aneurin Bevan, Michael Foot, Ian Mikardo
attacking Herbert Morrison, Clement Attlee and Hugh Gaitskell (July, 1951)

These ideas were rejected by the Labour leadership of "electoral grounds". In the 1950 General Election manifesto, the only candidates for public ownership were "sugar, cement, meat wholesaling and water supplies - a curiously peripheral ragbag which scarcely threatened the commanding heights of the economy". (24) The manifesto failed to motivate voters and they ended up losing 78 seats but still retained control of the House of Commons. (25)

Aneurin Bevan

Ian Mikardo had an uneasy relationship with Aneurin Bevan who joined the Keep Left group after resigned from the government on 21st April, 1951, when Hugh Gaitskell, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, announced that he intended to introduce measures that would force people to pay half the cost of dentures and spectacles and a one shilling prescription charge. (26)

"The trouble with Nye (Bevan) was that he wasn't a team-player: that was a defect which often worried me and occasionally irritated me, though sometimes I wondered me and occasionally irritated me, though sometimes I wondered whether it was too much to expect a man of his incomparable political genius, of the statue head and shoulders above the rest of us and of everyone around him, to have the patience, the restraint, the self-abnegation that teamwork demands." (27)

Richard Crossman agreed with Mikardo and believed Bevan only wanted a group of compliant followers to amplify his own concerns: "He (Bevan) is an extraordinary mixture of withdrawnness and boldness, and he is always advising Ian Mikardo against rushing into action... He cannot stand the idea of uniting with Morrison and Gaitskell. Yet, on the other hand, when it comes to the point, he jibs at each fighting action as you propose it." (28)

The following month, Crossman wrote in his diary: "Nye is an individualist who, however, is an extraordinary pleasant member of a group. But the last thing he does is to lead it. He dominates its discussions simply because he is fertile in ideas, but the leadership and organisation are things he instinctively shrinks away from." (29)

Denis Healey, a former member of the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB), argued against the policies of the Keep Left Group. In 1951 he wrote. "Further 'soaking of the rich' will no longer benefit the poor to any noticeable extent. Further nationalisation no longer attracts more than a tiny fringe of the Labour Party itself; it positively repels the electorate as a whole... A policy based on class war cannot have a wide appeal when the difference between classes is so small as Labour has made it." (30)

In the 1951 General Election the Labour Party won only 295 seats against 302 for the Conservative Party and Winston Churchill became the next prime minister. "In retrospect 1951 was a critical defeat because it put the Conservatives into office at the start of the prosperity and consumerism of the 1950s." (31)

Primary Sources

(1) Ian Mikardo, Richard Crossman and Michael Foot, Keep Left (1947)

The recent setting up of an overall planning mechanism shows that, for more than a year and a half, we have been without an adequate overall planning mechanism. Even now, there is room for some doubt whether this task is being taken seriously enough. Such a planning mechanism, to be successful, needs to be able not merely to co-ordinate the work of the departments of State but also to reconcile conflicts of view between them, and even to override them when the need arises. For this purpose, it must be headed by a Minister who can give the necessary time to the job, and who has a position and prestige above those of the departmental Ministers. We haven't got that yet.

But even more important is the relationship between the overall planning machine and the individual departments of State. This is a problem in management which is by no means confined to the business of government: it is the standard problem of every organisation which has both planning and executive functions. In individual businesses the relationship between "staff" departments, who determine the methods, and "line" departments, who put the methods into operation, has been the subject of continuous and intense study over the last fifty years or more. All that study has led to conclusions which are violated by the new planning mechanisms announced by the Prime Minister a few weeks ago, which is based on the principle of departmental autonomy. This is simply trying to eat your cake and have it, to plan without interfering with preconceptions; and its result is not to integrate the planning machine into the executive machine, but to make it a superstructure which adds to the weight without supplying a compensating increase in power. Departmental autonomy never works in practice, as any managing director knows who has had to resolve conflicts of view between the sales manager, the works manager, the personnel manager, and the accountant; and as the Prime Minister discovered when, in the fuel crisis, he had to set up a special organism which overrode the normal interdepartmental machinery.


(1) John Campbell, Nye Bevan and the Mirage of British Socialism (1987) page 136

(2) Ian Mikardo, Back Bencher (1988) page 77

(3) Anne Perkins, Red Queen (2003) page 79

(4) Aneurin Bevan, The Tribune (25th May, 1945)

(5) Let us Face the Future (May, 1945)

(6) Tony Cliff and Donny Gluckstein, The Labour Party: A Marxist History (1988) page 219

(7) Let us Face the Future (May, 1945)

(8) Winston Churchill, radio broadcast (4th June, 1945)

(9) Ian Mikardo, Back Bencher (1988) page 84

(10) Clement Attlee, radio broadcast (5th June, 1945)

(11) Martin Pugh, Speak for Britain: A New History of the Labour Party (2011) page 274

(12) Harold Macmillan, Tides of Fortunes (1979) page 32

(13) Henry (Chips) Channon, diary entry (1st August, 1945)

(14) Martin Pugh, Speak for Britain: A New History of the Labour Party (2011) page 286

(15) Anne Perkins, Red Queen (2003) page 83

(16) Hugh Dalton, diary entry (12th April, 1946)

(17) Herbert Morrison, An Autobiography (1960) page 296

(18) Aneurin Bevan, speech at Blaenau Festiniog (1st May, 1947)

(19) Michael Foot, Aneurin Bevan: 1945-1960 (1973) page 223

(20) Martin Pugh, Speak for Britain: A New History of the Labour Party (2011) page 293

(21) Ian Mikardo, Richard Crossman and Michael Foot, Keep Left (1947)

(22) Ian Mikardo, Back Bencher (1988) pages 118-119

(23) Tony Cliff and Donny Gluckstein, The Labour Party: A Marxist History (1988) page 239

(24) John Campbell, Nye Bevan and the Mirage of British Socialism (1987) page 136

(25) Martin Pugh, Speak for Britain: A New History of the Labour Party (2011) page 293

(26) Michael Foot, Aneurin Bevan: 1945-1960 (1973) pages 329-349

(27) Ian Mikardo, Back Bencher (1988) pages 118-119

(28) Richard Crossman, diary entry (26th November, 1951)

(29) Richard Crossman, diary entry (17th December, 1951)

(30) Denis Healey, The Time of My Life (1989) page 150

(31) Martin Pugh, Speak for Britain: A New History of the Labour Party (2011) page 301