McDonnell, Attlee and radical transformation!

By Rida Vaquas, Oxford East CLP

John McDonnell’s foreword to Clarion editor Simon Hannah’s book A Party with Socialists In It certainly has a lot to say on the importance of radical transformation. Yet I was somewhat surprised to find him locating such a beacon of radical transformation in the “quiet, almost bureaucratic leadership of Clement Attlee”.

I do not mean to downplay the significant achievements of the 1945-51 government: the creation of the NHS,for instance, demonstrates what can be done when we dare to do it. However, it is dangerous to look back upon the Attlee government with uncomplicated nostalgia, or understand nationalisation itself to be symbolic of economic transformation.

The question for socialists is always: where does the power lie? Whilst the Attlee government may have nationalised 20% of the economy, nationalisation did not translate into control by workers.Frequently managers employed by the National Coal Board were the exact same bosses from when coal was privatised! Far from the ideal of serving social need, nationalisation was justified on the grounds of making industries more efficient.

The Attlee government’s mixed feelings (to put it lightly) in relation to independent industrial organising was shown most clearly in the autumn of 1945 – barely a couple of months following Attlee’s successful election. In response to the national strike of the dockers, the Government sent in 21,000 conscript troops to break the strike.This experience was repeated in 1947.The exercise of industrial power was therefore suppressed by a government claiming to act in their interests. This is why political clarity is important – so we don’t mistake replacing private managers with state managers as radical transformation.

Nationalisation alone isn’t automatically a socialist economic policy – it only becomes socialist when the workplaces, and who wields power in them, are transformed. We can’t overlook how the Attlee government consciously perpetuated the foreign policy of their Tory predecessors, in Ernest Bevin’s words, on the day Labour entered government,“’British foreign policy will not be altered in any way under the Labour Government’”. The result of this was a commitment to empire which led a Labour government intervening in support of the far-right in Greece to quash leftist resistance forces. Associalists,the legacy of Attlee demonstrates not only the good a Labour government can do, but the dangers and limitations it faces.

When we talk of radical transformation, we must expand our imaginations well beyond Attlee!

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