Labour and Socialism: A History of the British Labour Movement, 1867-1974

By James Hinton | Go to book overview
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10
Labour and the nation, 1939-51

The Second World War opened up new possibilities for the labour movement. In 1940 Labour was brought into the Coalition Government. In 1945 a landslide electoral victory put the first majority Labour Government in power. Full employment stimulated trade union growth, the density of union organisation rising from around 30 per cent in 1938 to 45 per cent ten years later. The proportion of wage-earning women in trade unions doubled during the war, but fell back again after 1945. After the war a sizeable slice of British industry was taken into public ownership, and significant advances in social welfare provision, which had been improvised or promised during the war, were established on a permanent basis by the Labour Government. There was little reason to doubt -- before the re-emergence of mass unemployment in the 1970s -- that the events of the 1940s had given rise to an irreversible change for the better in the position of the working class in Britain.

But there were limits. Those who in 1945 thought they were on the threshold of a gradual transition to socialism were to be sadly disappointed. Part of the explanation for this is to be found in international events. From the outset the Labour Government, caught up in the profound economic, imperial and diplomatic crisis created for British capitalism by the Second World War, acted from hand to mouth with little overall sense of direction. Just as important, though perhaps more difficult to pin down precisely, were the weaknesses in the popular mobilisation underlying Labour's victory in 1945. The curious political conditions of 'People's War', of the war against Fascism, made possible a major shift to the left in popular attitudes, but at the same time involved tensions and ambiguities which served to undermine the capacity of the forces of the left to sustain and exploit the opportunities which had seemed to be opening up towards the end of the war.

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