Feel the 1950s British Socialism

by Richard Diurba

The 2016 election continues to surprise pundits today through its adoption of populism. Though populism may be new to American politics in the 21st century, Bernie Sanders has quickly become an American inspiration for populism on the left. However, Sanders adopts many of his policies and his campaign from the electoral strategies of the British Labour Party in the 1950s and 1960s. Specifically, Sanders borrows heavily from the Labour Party’s emphasis on the empowerment of the working class. The rise of both of these populist and leftist movements can be better understood by examining the similarities and differences between the Labour Party’s socialist wings and the “Feel the Bern” movement. Essentially, the Labour Party and Bernie Sanders both focused on the re-education of the electorate and a staunch reliance on policy over politics to gain prominence. However, both movements were eventually defeated by their stronger oppositions.

The historical background of each movement both describes and informs us of the reasoning for each movement’s existence. The British Labour Party first gained prominence after winning a forty-seat majority over the Tory Party in the 1945 general election. The socialist wing of the Labour Party wished to continue a platform developed in 1918 that emphasized the role of trade unions, workers’ rights, and a broad growth in equality.[1] A majority of the population at the time belonged to the skilled and unskilled working class and identified as such. After the establishment of the National Health Service and emphasizing workers’ rights, the Labour Party wanted to continue adhering to this platform after the end of World War II. However, wealth had increased, and the growing middle class no longer felt that these policies fit their socioeconomic status. As a result, the Labour Party, after winning a 1950 election that was quickly replaced by an election in 1951, went on to lose the next three British general elections until 1964. The thirteen-year span of being outside the Parliament’s majority ultimately pressured the Labour Party to expand its base by abandoning its leftist platform, allowing the party to win in 1964.

Bernie Sanders gained prominence by successfully capitalizing on voters’ shift toward far-left policies and their dissatisfaction with the Obama administration. The Obama presidency was heavily criticized by the far left for its perceived reliance on centrist policies and its close ties to Wall Street.[2] Obama’s moderate tenure ended up alienating far-left Democrats. causing this young, haphazard voting bloc to look for a champion elsewhere.

Unfortunately, both political movements eventually failed due to their lack of voter appeal. The Labour Party’s commitment to improving the socioeconomic status of the poor and working class lost relevance as the post-war economy surged and the middle class drastically expanded.[3] Other factors that contributed to the Labour Party’s decline were its failure to effectively use mass media as a communication tool and the Conservative Party’s adoption of key Labour Party policies such as a single payer health program through the National Health Service.[4] The Labour Party before World War II mostly advocated for its platform by trying to educate the electorate about the advantages of advancing welfare policies. Although it was nearly a decade after World War II, the Labour Party doubled down on this approach by focusing heavily on educating the electorate on why economically left policies would best benefit workers, even though most appeared content with the transition from working to middle class. Ultimately, the Labour Party failed to reinvent itself, and the Tories cornered the middle class, the largest growing demographic at the time.

To combat Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton adopted a strategy similar to that of the Tories in the 1950s and 1960s. Instead of directly combatting Bernie Sanders, Clinton adopted his most popular ideas and policies. Clinton also emphasized building coalitions with the electorate instead converting the voters on issues.[5] Clinton successfully defeated Sanders by adapting her campaign to the party’s shifting preferences rather than attempting to change the electorate’s political beliefs.

The leadership involved in both movements contained one-trait leaders. The United States movement relied heavily on Bernie Sanders. His outreach largely stayed on the subject of income inequality and campaign finance.[6] His issues did not expand beyond that. He was known as a politician devoted to socioeconomic issues and that was about it. As for the leadership of the Labour Party, Hugh Gaitskell was a prominent figure for several years. Gaitskell also merely stayed on message and was considered a promoter of Labour values, but not much else. In contrast to their opponents, Tory leader Harold Macmillan appeared, to voters, to be a stronger leader and a more polished politician.[7] The same has been said of Secretary Clinton. Her long resume and established connections clearly benefited her, as she did not need ardent campaigning for name recognition.

In summary, both campaigns are examples of far-left partisan stalwarts who faced stiff opposition from more egalitarian, catch-all campaigns. Both movements failed due to their inability to compromise parts of their ideology to gain voters and their oppositions’ successful strategies to paint the movements as too radical. The Sanders movement died out with the adoption of the very campaign finance policies they fought against, while the far-left Labour Party had to reinvent itself and lost its 1918 platform.[8] The important lesson that both of these campaigns teach us is that it is important to focus on gaining voters, not converts, and to prevent the moderate opposition from cornering the political movement.


[1] Mark Abrams and Richard Rose, Must labour lose? (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1960), 70.

[2] Ezra Klein, “Obama Revealed: A Moderate Republican,” Washington Post, April 25, 2011.

[3] Dominic Wring, “From mass propaganda to political marketing: the transformation of Labour Party election campaigning,” British Elections & Parties Yearbook 5 (1995): 119.

[4] Mark and Rose, Must labour lose?, 66.

[5] Alan Rappeport, “Who Won the Debate? Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders Draw Even,” New York Times, April 15, 2016.

[6] Aaron Zitner, Dante Chinni, and Brian McGill, “How Clinton Won,” Wall Street Journal, June 8, 2016.

[7] Mark and Rose, Must labour lose?, 30.

[8] Jonathan Karl and Benjamin Siegel, “Bernie Sanders’ New Political Group Raises Campaign Finance Questions,” ABC News, August 19, 2016.

Photos courtesy of Wikipedia Commons