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Notes on Party History: The Islington Dispute

The Islington dispute occurred in 1906. It revolved around our attitude to Trade Unions, also to the question of whether a Branch of the Party was in order in suspending propaganda activity with the object of forcing the Party to reverse a decision that the Branch considered a fundamental and dangerous mistake.

At the end of December 1905, a certain R. A. V. Morris attended an Executive Committee meeting and asked what was the difference between the S.P.G.B. and the Socialist Labour Party. After his question had been answered he expressed himself as satisfied. A week later a request to form a branch of the Party in the Bexley Heath District was received, and one of the signatories was R. A. V. Morris. On the 9th January, 1906, the Executive agreed to the formation of the Bexley Heath Branch.

From what immediately followed one is forced to the conclusion that the formation of the branch was a shady manoeuvre planned by people interested in the Socialist Labour Party.

In February 1906, the Executive Committee were receiving items for the Party Conference Agenda. On the 20th February the following item was received from the Bexley Heath Branch:

    "That the E. C. be instructed to approach the S.L.P. with a view to the union of the two parties."

The E. C. declined to put this item on the Conference Agenda and gave the reason in the resolution that was passed on the subject, which was as follows:

    Neumann and Jackson moved:

    "That the Bexley Heath and District Branch be informed that the E. C. does not see its way to put their resolution on the Conference Agenda, as it conflicts with the Declaration of Principles of the Party; further that it be pointed out that when R. A. V. Morris attended the E. C. before the Bexley Heath Branch was formed he raised the question of the existence of the two bodies and expressed himself satisfied with the explanation given."

At the 1906 Conference the Bexley Heath delegates brought the matter forward and asked the Conference of the E. C. was in order in declining to put their item on the agenda. The Conference overruled the action of the E. C., restored the item and discussed it. Arising out of the discussion two resolutions were moved and lost.

Before giving the text of these resolutions it should be mentioned that one of the founders of the Party, and a very active speaker and writer, E. J. B. Allen, had been vigorously supporting the ideas of the Industrial Workers of the World, but not supporting the S.L.P. There had already been trouble with Allen and an article of his committing the Party to support of the I.W.W.  had been rejected.

The first resolution referred to above was as follows:

    Humphrey and Hopley moved:

    "Whereas pure and simple Trade Unions foster trade struggles and keep the workers divided, and

    "Whereas the unity of the workers on the economic field, and whereas, only by the unity of the workers in a Socialist Industrial Union, as well as in a Socialist Party is sound progress possible,

    Resolved that the Socialist Party of Great Britain condemns pure and simple unionism, and calls upon its members inside and outside of existing trade unions to carry on an organised propaganda in favour of revolutionary industrial unionism as the first step towards the establishment of a Socialist Industrial Union to work in co-operation with the Party for the overthrow of capitalism."

E. J. B. Allen, I. W. Allen, Leigh and Phillips supported the resolution.

Neumann, Fitzgerald, Jackson and Pearson opposed it.

The resolution was defeated on a card vote: 81 for; 111 against.

It was then agreed that a Special Meeting be called to discuss Trade Unions and a poll of the Party be taken on all resolutions arising therefrom.

Later in the Conference Morris and Carter moved:

    "That the E. C. be instructed to approach the S. L. P. with a view to the union of the two parties."

Fairbrother, Humphrey and Phillips supported the resolution and Jackson, Mrs Anderson, A. W. Pearson, Neumann,  Fitzgerald and Gray opposed it. The resolution was lost by 4 votes to 9.

After the Conference the Islington Branch sent a resolution to the new E. C. [the Executive Committee at that time, and for long afterwards, was appointed by a vote of the membership which was counted at the Conference] repudiating the action of the delegates in discussing a motion which was in direct conflict with the D. of P., endorsed the action of the previous E. C., and called upon the new E. C. to ignore the instructions of Conference to take a Poll of the Party on the Conference findings, and to obtain from Bexley Heath Branch a formal withdrawal of its resolution.

The Executive Committee accepted the proposal and submitted the following question to the membership for a referendum vote:

    "Did the conference, in accepting as in order the Bexley Heath resolution, exceed its power?"

The result of the Referendum was a majority favoured the view that the Conference had exceeded its power. But the majority was a narrow one, 35 to 34, with a large number of abstentions.

The Executive Committee circulated the result to branches and there let the matter rest. The Islington Branch, however, came back again, urging the E. C. to request the Bexley Heath Branch to forthwith rescind the resolution standing on its books. The E. C. replied that this could not be done without falsifying the records, and that they did not think it necessary to go any further in this matter.

The Islington Branch carried on their agitation. They claimed that the Bexley Heath Branch was still unsound and that the E. C.  had failed in its duty by not pursuing the matter. As a protest they decided to suspend all propaganda activity until the Party had taken such action as would absolve itself from any charge of being unsound. They circulated the E. C. and all Branches to this effect. The E. C. pointed out to them that this action was neither in accord with Party discipline nor helpful to the cause of Socialism. Islington them circulated the branches charging the E. C. with criminal neglect and calling for their immediate removal. The E. C. then informed Islington that they would place Islington's unconstitutional action before the next Delegate Meeting for their decision and Party vote.

The E. C. submitted a statement to the Branches on the subject. Islington claimed that they only received this statement four days before the Delegate Meeting and therefore had no time to place their own case in reply before the members.

The Delegate Meeting, which was held in July, 1906, considered the case and decided that the line taken by the E. C. was correct, and carried a resolution expelling the Islington Branch. This Delegate Meeting also expelled Bexley Heath Branch for supporting the S.L.P.

In August 1906, the Islington Branch submitted to the membership a twenty page printed pamphlet called "Rocks Ahead." This was their reply to the E. C.'s statement. They denied that their action was unconstitutional and claimed that they were not interfering with the E. C.'s power to do as much propaganda in Islington as they liked. This statement was addressed to "Comrades" and put their side without engaging in personalities but bad feeling was developing. In December, 1906, while still claiming to be Branch of the Party, they issued another pamphlet with the title "Another Political Wreck." This pamphlet was addressed "to the Working Class" and was badly marred by personal attacks.

Looking back on this dispute now it appears to the writer that the Islington Branch were on the right track when they urged that action should be taken against Bexley Heath Branch but they were wrong in trying to force the E. C. and the Party to take action by suspending propaganda. However, the dispute was one of the penalties that had to be paid in the work of hammering out a sound policy. The pity of it was that, owing to the feeling developed in the dispute, we lost some valuable members.

Gilmac.

(To be continued).