Wilfred Wellock on Labour: “Distinctly Disappointing”

Blue LabourThe Falkirk controversy – in which the union Unite are accused of rigging the selection process in the Scottish constituency – has opened up once again the conflict between left and right within the Labour Party. A war of words seems to be going on within Labour, between those on the left who hold still support nationalisation and want to maintain the NHS and Royal Mail as public services, and those on the right who favour the competitiveness offered by privatisation.

The argument came to a head yesterday when Labour MP Simon Danczuk argued in the Telegraph that those on the left of his party were the equivalent of the BNP. Danczuk argued that those who are “firmly opposed to wealth creation, with nothing to say about how to get the private sector growing and fuelled by the belief that 1970s style big government is the answer to everything […] should be viewed in the same way as we view the views of the BNP”. [1]

Yesterday afternoon I was working through The Way Out, or The Road to the New World (1922) by Wilfred Wellock, and came across this quote:

“Official Labour is distinctly disappointing. It is weak in all respects save numbers, and seems quite unable to break away from the obviously futile policy of trying to improve working-class conditions under the capitalist system.” [2]

Wellock’s comment from 1922 seems to speak for many of the left, both inside and outside the Labour Party, today. Wellock argues that Labour has failed to take up a definitively anti-capitalist position – an interesting argument to make roughly three-quarters of a century before Tony Blair took up the Labour leadership. Wellock also identifies Labour’s only strength as being in numbers – in terms of membership and the number of votes it receives compared to other parties of the left.

Wilfred Wellock: Christian Socialist and peace campaigner

This holds true today – even more so – and is the reason why those on the left who choose to operate outside the Labour Party are mocked by those within. What chance do they have of putting in place their policies or of making any difference to the way the country is run?

As an example, when Jake Morrison, a Liverpool councillor, resigned from the party last month he explained that one of the reasons for his disillusionment was that Labour had failed to officially oppose what has been dubbed “the bedroom tax”. Morrison’s comments provoked the scathing response from a Labour Party activist: “Really? So you’re going to repeal it all by yourself?”, who then added that Morrison thinks himself “bigger than the Labour Party, and will go the same way of everyone else who ever thought that.”

Wellock’s suggestion is that Labour’s strength is not ideological purity, or idealism, or desire to replace capitalism with socialism, but simply its size. That remains the clinching argument for those who believe left-wingers should support Labour.

Wellock also argued that Labour’s policy of merely “trying to improve working-class conditions under the capitalist system” was “futile”. But why? Because, as Wellock predicts towards the end of his book :

“Were [Labour] to pursue a merely reformist policy it would court disaster, for it would thereby virtually accept the capitalist system, play into the hands of the capitalists and enable them to prove the ‘failure of socialism’.”[3]

Wellock’s view is that without a genuinely anti-capitalist programme two things would happen: the first is that Labour would almost entirely accept capitalism; the second is that a reformist Labour party would not be able to govern under capitalism, and would therefore allow supporters of capitalism to argue that socialism has failed its test.

Wellock seems to have been proved right. That’s why Danczuk, a Labour MP, can write that “as long as we allow the siren voices of the futile left to continue to beat a loud drum for a state run economy then the public will smell the whiff of bankruptcy and diminishing prosperity”.[4] That’s why he and others can argue that socialism was tried and failed under the post-war settlement, and was rejected by a 1980s electorate which voted for Margaret Thatcher’s Conservatives.

It’s always interesting to find something in your research that fits into a current debate, especially when it comes from more than ninety years ago. While Wilfred Wellock was certainly naive at times, in this instance his predictions appear to have been proved accurate.


[1] S. Danczuk, ‘Labour’s Militant Left No Better than BNP’.
[2] W. Wellock, The Way Out, or The Road to the New World (London, 1922), p.12.
[3] Wellock, Way Out, p.55.
[4] Danczuk, ‘Militant Left No Better than BNP’.



  1. Good research. The more things change, the more they stay the same!

  2. […] The author of the Ballot Box and the Bible blog has unearthed some evidence that Labour weren’t ever that left-wing. […]

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