Skip to Content

The Labour Party and the Unemployed

Labour Statesmanship

The question of unemployment was the first to occupy the preliminary conference of the Labour Party at Hull. “Important” speeches were made by the “statesmen of labour," and a no less “important” resolution was passed.

Mr. Pete Curran said: “Until we are in a position to utilise the legislative machinery of the country for the purpose of curtailing the income of the rich who are in possession, and in adding to the income of the poor, we shall never solve the unemployed problem.”

Mr. J. R. MacDonald, in moving the important resolution said: “Unemployment was now part and parcel of our industrial system; it was produced by the system with the same certainty and accuracy with which the industrial system produced profits.”

Mr. O’Grady in seconding that resolution .said: “The present industrial system was a machine turning out profits on the one hand and unemployed on the other. It was inevitable that it must be so.”

From the foregoing extracts from the most “important” speeches that were uttered on the question, our readers will naturally gather that since unemployment could confessedly only end by the abolition of capitalism, therefore the resolution that was carried by an overwhelming majority urged that steps should immediately be taken to instruct and organise the working class in the work before them, namely, to concentrate upon the capture of the powers of government to the end that the productive powers may be transformed from instruments of oppression and exploitation, into the means of promoting the welfare of those who produce.

But no. That would not have been statesmanlike. It would have been too logical.

This was the resolution actually carried: -

     "That in the opinion of this conference of trade union, Socialist, and co-operative organisations, unemployment is not caused by the free trade policy of the country, and is not averted by periods of good trade, but is a permanent feature of our present industrial organisation. This conference therefore declares that the problem can only be solved by a vigorous use on the part of the Government, and of local authorities, of the legislative and administrative powers, including shortening the hours of labour of public and other employees and protecting the worker from the operation of land and other monopolies, which depopulate the country, overcrowd the towns, lower wages, and increase the share of the national produce which is secured by the idle rich. This conference consequently calls upon the Government to fulfil its promise in the King's Speech of 1906 that it would amend the Unemployed Workmen Act, and it declares that such an amendment to be satisfactory must embody the principles and general policy of the Labour Party's Unemployed Workmen Bill."

And that is so like the Labour Party. The unemployed, you see, can only disappear on the abolition of capitalism, therefore, do not let us take steps to that end, let us ask the capitalists to abolish themselves!

If no unemployed are available, the capitalist loses his great weapon in the cutting down of wages and in the speeding up of the employed, nor is any reserve army available for the expansion of production in busy times, nor are any available to take the place of strikers. Without the deadly competition of the unemployed for jobs, the employed would be enabled to obtain almost the whole available product of their labour. Profits would therefore vanish and capitalism come to an end. Yet the master class are to be asked to themselves abolish the very corner-stone of their dominant existence. This is reasonable, possible, statesman like, reform wisdom.

When we on the other hand insist that since unemployment is inseparable from capitalism, and since from unemployment flow the greatest miseries of the workers, including the wholesale starvation of children, women and men, and since, moreover, the abolition of capitalist exploitation is admittedly the only solution of unemployment, therefore the workers should concentrate upon the capture of political supremacy in order to abolish class exploitation, when we insist upon this, the only logical policy, we are dubbed impossiblists, heresy hunters, or moon-raking rainbow-chasers by those whose hard-headed, practical and "possible” policy consists in requesting of fire that it shall not burn.

A Reform Analysed

But what is one of the principal factors upon which the Labour Party relies in its solution of the unemployed? It is the reduction of the hours of labour. There is nothing to be said against the reduction of the hours of labour as such, but as a solution of unemployment what could be more fatuous?

From the passing of the Ten Hour Act until the present day nothing is more certain than that the reduction of hours has not in the aggregate of cases decreased, but has caused an increase in productivity. That is to say, instead of more workers being required to produce the same amount as formerly, fewer are actually required. This holds good generally. It is partly due to the fact that the very reduction of hours, by allowing a greater time for the recuperation of the strength to the worker, enables him to put forth a greater effort per hour. He is, indeed, usually compelled to do so, and to produce as much or more in the reduced working day as in the former longer hours.

Further, there are in most departments, mechanical appliances ready for adoption which for the nonce are no cheaper to work than the human machines they would displace. When, however, an increase in the wages bill threatens, these appliances are introduced to save such increased expenditure, and by reason of the continual perfectibility of the machine, particularly due to the experience born of its being put into practical daily working, the appliances improve rapidly and bring about considerable reductions in the number of workers the masters need hire in order to produce the same amount of goods as before.

Therefore the reduction of hours, unless carried to such extreme and wholesale lengths as would require a revolution to accomplish, would not reduce the numbers of the unemployed.

Any reduction of the working day that is introduced by the ruling class will, from the very interests which promote it, be only upon such a scale as is consistent with greater output on the part of the average worker employed and greater profit for the possessing class.

So the reduction of hours, as a "palliative,” instead of requiring more workers to be employed to produce the same amount of wealth as before would, in the long run, actually require less, and would have the tendency to increase rather than diminish the very evil of unemployment against which it was directed. It is, indeed, a typical palliative.

F. C. Watts