Just over 65 years ago, in February 1950, Britain experienced its first post-war general election and in one of the 625 constituencies a curious contest took place. In Gateshead East there were only three candidates but two of them were Labour. The official Labour candidate was Arthur S. Moody, a former joiner and an MP whose in Liverpool had been abolished under boundary changes in 1949. The Parliamentary Labour Party was becoming less proletarian but Moody was typical of many of its foot soldiers in that he was working class. His opponent, Konni Zilliacus, standing as the Independent Labour candidate, was a fascinating character. He had been elected as the Labour MP for Gateshead in 1945 but had been expelled from the party in 1949.
Zilliacus’s background was unusually cosmopolitan and he could speak nine languages. His father was a Swedo-Finn and his mother an American of Scottish and Alsatian ancestry. His childhood had been peripatetic: he was born in Japan, schooled in Sweden, the United States and England and graduated from Yale in 1915 first in his class. Arriving in England in 1915, he unsuccessfully tried to enlist in the Royal Flying Corps and instead became a civilian medical orderly, serving in a field hospital on the western front for a year. He was forced to return to England with diphtheria and attached himself to the world of Liberal politics and journalism. Zilliacus moved among left-leaning Liberals, many of whom later defected to the Labour Party. He subscribed to their analysis that nationalism had caused the war and that the best hope of world peace lay in international community-building. He finally joined the Royal Flying Corps in 1917 and was in the middle of pilot training when he was selected by a Liberal MP to accompany him on a fact-finding visit to Siberia. After the parliamentary delegation went home, Zilliacus remained in Siberia on the staff of the British Military Mission and saw at first hand the intervention of Allied forces against the Bolsheviks in the Civil War. He strongly disapproved of attempts by the Allies to subvert the new Bolshevik state.
On his return to Britain in 1919 he joined the Labour Party. It is easy to forget the potency of internationalism as an idea in the 1920s and Zilliacus was one of its fiercest advocates. With Hugh Dalton and Arthur Henderson he attempted to convert the Labour Party in the 1930s to a foreign policy based on the League of Nations and the doctrine of collective security. His view was that the best method of containing German and Italy was to create a triple entente of Britain, the Soviet Union and France within the League, capable of acting as an ‘inner ring.’ He worked for the League of Nations Secretariat but grew increasingly disenchanted and acknowledged that the Abyssinian Crisis marked the effective death of the League. He resigned on the eve of the Munich agreement in 1938. His political ambitions had endured and in 1939 he was adopted as the Labour candidate for Gateshead, though he had to wait until 1945 to be elected. The interim was spent as a civil servant in the Ministry of Information.
Once in the House of Commons, Zilliacus was no timeserver. His outspoken attacks on the foreign policy pursued by Ernest Bevin, Labour’s Foreign Secretary, soon established him as a dissenter. He believed that opportunities for peacemaking with the Soviet Union had been squandered and questioned the Atlanticist thrust of Labour policy. (Had he known then what we know now about Soviet expansionist aims and the brutality of Stalin, he might have been less ready to defend the Soviet Union.) In his opinion British foreign policy was over-ambitious and over-aggressive. ‘We are trying to make the ghost of Palmerston walk again,’ he warned in a Commons speech of 1946. With fellow left-wingers Richard Crossman, Ian Mikardo and Michael Foot, he contributed in 1947 to the Keep Left pamphlet which made the case for a socialist Europe sitting as a ‘third force’ between the United States and the Soviet Union. His critique of the Labour government’s foreign policy was at least intellectually consistent with his views in the interwar period. He had hoped for a new world order policed by the United Nations. Instead a bipolar world had emerged. The formation of NATO in April was a watershed for him. He was one of only six Labour MPs to vote against signing the NATO treaty and four days later he was expelled from the party.
Throughout his life he was a relentless propagandist, always ready to resort to the pen to disseminate his ideas. He published I Choose Peace in the autumn of 1949. The book argued for withdrawal from NATO, disarmament and a rapprochement with the states of eastern Europe. Zilliacus constantly cautioned against re-arming and suggested that the 1950 election had deliberately been called before Labour had to introduce an unpopular budget in the spring ‘because of the cold war and defence expenditure.’ Moreover he pointed to an irony: the misery and deprivation engendered at home by rearmament and limits on social spending would produce the very conditions in which communism was likely to take root. He dismissed ‘the fantastic idea of Communism arriving in a trunk with a man from Moscow.’ It would not be imposed from without by Soviet agents but grow from within.
He returned to these themes during the 1950 election campaign. He warned the voters of Gateshead East that the price of waging the cold war was a freezing of pensions and curbs on wages in the nationalised industries. ‘Mr Bevin’s chickens are coming home to roost on the workers’ standard of living.’ Zilliacus’s rhetoric sometimes assumed an apocalyptic hue. He identified a choice between a warfare state and a welfare state and argued that the ‘world was engaged in a race between the next slump and the next war.’
The Labour Party in the north-east closed ranks against the outsider. Loyalty to Labour was deep-rooted in the Durham and Northumberland coalfields and the Secretary of the Ravensworth Lodge of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) mounted an attack in the letters column of the weekly Gateshead Post, arguing that Zilliacus was a man who thinks ‘he is always right’ and who chose his supporters badly. His meetings had been attended by ‘denounced Catholic priests’ and ‘an American singer’– a reference to Paul Robeson’s visit to Gateshead in May 1949. (MI5 had opened a file on Robeson during his visit on account of his connections to the Communist Party.) Zilliacus replied that Robeson ‘out of friendship for me sang to the people of Gateshead.’
Labour election propaganda was careful to depict their man, Arthur Moody, as ‘The Only Labour Candidate’ and ‘The Official Labour Candidate.’ Moody had cause to fear a split in the Labour vote. His Conservative opponent, Douglas Cliff, enlisted the support of some heavyweights. In the second week of February Anthony Eden addressed 700 people at Town Hall. He was greeted by a chorus of ‘For he’s a jolly good fellow’ but soon had to contend with heckling from Zilliacus supporters who had infiltrated the meeting. Eden maintained that taxes and public spending were too high under Labour – a familiar Tory refrain. One member of the audience interjected,’ What about the £800 million spent on armaments?’ Eden assured him that that was money well spent, while the Tory candidate for Gateshead West, Jack Magnay, played the patriotic card, suggesting that liberty had to be defended and that ‘freedom is the essence of a Britisher.’ One imposter exclaimed, ‘Stop waving the flag and get on with it’; another added, ‘Up Zilly’. Zilliacus too recruited some famous names to help him. Two celebrated leftist men of letters, J.B. Priestley and George Bernard Shaw, visited Gateshead to campaign on his behalf.
Voting took place on Thursday February 23rd. The ballot boxes were taken to Gateshead Town Hall and spent the night there prior to the count on Friday morning. The result was announced in the afternoon and it was close: Moody polled 15,249 votes, Cliff 13,530 and Zilliacus 5,001, leaving Labour with a majority of 1,719. The Tories had certainly benefited from the divided Labour vote. Nationally Labour was returned to power with a majority of only five and Zilliacus forecast that there would soon be another election. There was (in October 1951).
On the eve of today’s poll, it may be worth pondering some of the similarities between 1950 and 2015. There have been complaints that the current six week campaign has been too protracted and has alienated voters. The 1950 campaign was nearly as long, which was unusual. Attlee called the election for February 23rd as early as January 10th. A frequent complaint about politicians is that they spend too much time attacking each other and not enough explaining their policies. Yet there is nothing new here. In the course of the 1950 campaign Zilliacus was not above ad hominem attacks on his political adversaries. He described Winston Churchill as an ‘atom bomb happy reactionary’ and, while acknowledging his gifts as a war leader, said that ‘as a statesman in peacetime he is a bloodthirsty social illiterate.’ It is also important to remember that election campaigns barely impinge on the lives of most voters. In the pages of the Gateshead Post the constituency election did not receive blanket coverage. Everyday life went on. As much attention was paid to a local starlet making her debut at the town’s theatre and the news that trams were no longer to cross the Tyne Bridge.
Yet there are also some stark contrasts between 1950 and 2015 both locally and nationally. There were only three candidates in Gateshead East in 1950. Had Zilliacus not stood as an independent, there may only have been two. This was the heyday of two party politics and there were many seats where the Liberals did not field candidates. In Gateshead East the two main parties shared 85% of the vote. Their share of the vote in Gateshead in the 2010 general election was 69%. In spite of bad weather and a winter election, 85% of those eligible to vote in Gateshead East did so in 1950. In 2010 only 57.5% of the Gateshead electorate bothered to vote. There was no talk of apathy or disengagement in the fifties. Indeed the 1950 general election elicited the highest turnout (84%) since the advent of true universal suffrage in 1928.
The 1950 campaign was both more and less intense than its 2015 counterpart: more in the sense that candidates addressed several public meetings a day in old-fashioned hustings (the Labour leader Attlee, driven around the country by his wife Vi in the family Humber, spoke at seven or eight meetings a day); less in the sense that scrutiny by the media was less insistent. Churchill described the campaign as ‘demure’, not an adjective likely to be used by today’s party leaders as they reflect on a campaign fought in the fierce glare of the media spotlight. The election of 1950 was the last pre-television contest.
The public mood was also different. The electorate of 1950 remained hopeful of gaining something that many of them had never enjoyed. They were optimistic that an era of war and austerity would be followed by an age of affluence. Today we live in an age of anxiety, fearful of losing the prosperity we have and of a permanent erosion of our standard of living. The Labour majority in 1950 might have been slender but it was a working majority. What Miliband and Cameron would give on Friday morning for a majority of five! After 1945 the British first-past-the-post electoral system nearly always delivered viable majority governments – at least until 2010. The old certainties have now dissolved. The visceral loyalty of large sections of the electorate to one of the two main parties has largely vanished: the contemporary voter behaves more like a consumer, switching between parties much as he changes between brands.
In hindsight we can identify 1950 as nearly the end of an era. The post-1945 Attlee settlement based on full employment and the welfare state had been created and the 1950 Labour manifesto was threadbare. Labour had done much of what it wanted to do and some of its leading figures had been in office for 10 exhausting years. The average age of the Cabinet in 1950 was 60. 2015 will probably not mark the end of an era but confirm that we are in the midst of a new age of electoral volatility and permanent coalition politics. Whatever the colour of the government, austerity will continue. An incoming government will inherit a job half done.
What of the man at the centre of this story – Konni Zilliacus? He was certainly a political maverick and something of a troublemaker. He was again suspended from the Labour Party in 1961. But he was also a man of conviction and a tireless evangelist for peace and internationalism. It is easy to dismiss him as at worst a communist, at best an uncritical fellow traveller. In truth he was neither. Interestingly, after meeting the Soviet leader twice in 1949, he confided in his wife ‘that there is not a scrap of humanity in Stalin.’ He was also a patriot. In the First World War he joined the Royal Flying Corps and was commissioned, in the Second he joined the Home Guard. His loyalty to his adopted country – he was naturalised as a British subject in 1918 – ran deep. He was genuinely independent of mind too and unwilling to toe the line of any party. Unlike some of his allies on the Labour left, he defended the right of Yugoslavia to exist outside the Soviet orbit after 1948. As a result, he was denounced by Stalinists, who claimed that the real purpose of his visits to the Soviet Union in 1949 after the war had been to gather intelligence as a British agent. In 1952 he was reconciled to the Labour Party and was elected in 1955 as MP for Manchester Gorton. Until his death in 1967 he remained a man of the left, promoting east-west détente, actively supporting the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and praising Castro’s regime in Cuba while opposing American intervention in Vietnam. His was a fascinating, varied and principled life.
The Gateshead East election of 1950 was a lively affair conducted against the backdrop of a lacklustre national election. The opposite is true of today’s poll in Gateshead. Anything other than a Labour win would be a major surprise but the national result is subject to all sorts of permutations. We live in uncertain but exciting and interesting political times.