The Politics of Affluence in 1950s and 1960s Britain
The 1950s can largely be seen as a period when the majority of the UK population benefited from increased living standards and were able to buy a growing number of goods for mass consumption. Despite delivering this change in the standard of living for much of the electorate, it was not inevitable that the Conservatives would stay in power until 1964 – indeed the 1951 election saw the highest number of votes ever cast for Labour. Yet throughout this period, Labour appeared to suffer more from the problems associated with an affluent electorate, compared with the Conservatives. Why?
Labour remained too ideologically welded to its old principles and traditions, embodied in Clause IV, and were unsure of how to adapt and change to the rising living standards of the new electorate. The Labour Party had it within its power to shape a better response to the challenges posed by affluence. In contrast, the Conservatives appeared to adapt easily to the challenges posed by an affluent society, whilst at the same time they went against many of the preconceived expectations held by voters following their time in government during the 1931 economic slump. In response, Labour Party revisionists attempted to adapt and mould some of Labour’s principles to meet the new political situation. Unfortunately, the majority of those within the party were unwilling to adopt these ideas, as they found it difficult to reconcile an increasingly affluent society with their socialist vision for Britain. This was ultimately the source of Labour’s problems.
The early years of the Conservative government were contrary to many people’s preconceptions that the party would reverse the changes made under the Attlee government. This concern about what would happen under Conservative rule is evident in an article published in the Romford, Hornchurch and Brentwood Labour Voice of mid-November 1951, which appeared confident that the people would turn again to Labour, because they perceived that the Conservatives had little concern for social justice. During their first term in office, the Conservatives showed not only that they could preserve the welfare provisions of the Attlee government, but also that they could supplement this with their own agenda of appealing to the electorate on the basis of providing economic growth. Much to Labour’s disgust, the Conservatives proved that they could bring about positive economic change, which undermined Labour’s vision of a socialist society. In short, ‘capitalism was the devil that failed to live up to the left’s expectations, producing not economic crisis, but the goods.’
Indeed, Labour did not know how to respond and offer something more than what the Conservatives had already delivered. Many of Labour’s criticisms at the beginning of the period focused on condemning individualised consumption, which went against principles of collective consumption and ownership. Yet towards the end of the 1950s, the views of Labour politicians like Douglas Jay highlighted that there were sound economic concerns about increasing affluence coupled with Britain’s relative decline in growth, particularly significant in the context of the Cold War. However, the Conservatives chose to respond to this audience by engaging even more in the ‘politics of bribery’, an approach seen in the slogan of the 1955 election poster: ‘Earnings up! Taxes down! Vote Conservative’. This was a tactic with which Labour could not compete as they themselves were not even sure if they could offer something different and more successful.
Crucially, the Conservatives had demonstrated that they could deliver on their promises of increased living standards. The electorate recognised this success at a personal level through being able to buying a home and purchase more consumer goods. The Conservatives also strategically advertised their success at a national level by marking significant milestones such as symbolically meeting their 1951 election pledge of building 300,000 new houses, as captured in the image below.
In face of the challenges posed by affluence, the majority of the Labour Party decidedly stuck to the old socialist principles of collective ownership, even when new ideas were being put forward. It was not until 1958 that the term ‘affluence’ entered the political debate, meaning that it was seven years before Labour was actually able to engage in a meaningful discourse around how living standards impacted the party and start to show how it could respond.
It took a long time before Labour ‘revisionists’ were actually able to offer a reconciliation of affluence with socialist principles. This is most obvious in the case of property ownership, which the revisionists viewed as an important platform for the fairer distribution of property within an egalitarian system. These ideas were certainly innovative for Labour and indicated that the party was coming to terms with the long-term impacts of affluence, and how strategically to adjust their appeal to compete with the attractiveness of the Conservatives. Critically however, the arguments suggested by the revisionists were part of an ongoing and evolving debate, and as such the group were not able to present an all-encompassing argument which could be offered to the mainstream party.
Labour showed itself to be inflexible and too ideologically attached to its traditional principles, and as such were unable to see how these could be adapted to the new affluent society in which they found themselves competing for votes. Even though there was a fountain of new ideas argued by the revisionist element of the party towards the end of the period, they were unable to frame these in a strong and co-ordinated way and thus were not able to effectively challenge the long-held mainstream traditional views. The Conservatives, however, showed themselves able to adapt more flexibly to the situation, understanding that the electorate was largely motivated by short-term material gains. Their electoral victories, moreover, put them in a position to actually deliver these gains to a sizeable proportion of the electorate.