The Labour Party and the Unemployed

Why are there Unemployed ?

Unemployment is the workers’ constant scourge. It is the hauting fear of this that makes the toiler cringe before the tyranny of the master or brutal foreman ; that compels him to accept low wages and degrading conditions of toil; that forces him to blackleg those on strike and become a tool to break the spirit of his fellows. Any attempt, therefore, to seriously grapple with this question must command our closest attention, for it is above all necessary for wage workers to have clear ideas upon this subject.

But what lies back of the unemployed question? Is it that the labour of the worker cannot provide his necessaries of life ? No, it is because he is denied the opportunity to apply his labour. It is because the means of life—land, mines, factories and railways—are the monopoly of a distinct class who will only feed the wage-slave when the conditions of the market enable a profit to be realised on his labour. In his profit hunger the capitalist continually cuts down his labour bill, and the worker is squeezed out of the factory by new machines and other labour saving devices. The enormous increase in the productivity of labour is accompanied by a slackening demand for products. The growing army of unemployed and paupers, the continued crushing of middlemen by company and trust, all tend to seriously restrict purchasing power in the home market; while other nations inevitably take a larger share in the markets of the world, and so slacken demand there also. Supply permanently outstrips demand. Workers must starve because they have produced too much !

What must be done ?

The great social means of production which have now developed, and which are worked by the compulsory co-operation of thousands of workers in factory, mine and railway, are in violent conflict with the anarchy of capitalist distribution, and cry out for the adjustment of Society to the social nature of the new economic conditions.

But to correct this contradiction what must be done ? Is it “practical politics” to deny the class antagonism as does the Labour Party, and to beg the capitalist to get off the worker’s back? Is it to be expected the masters will themselves abolish the unemployed, the keystone of their social arch ?

The only hope for the workers, employed and unemployed, is in their organisation as a class against the class that is organised against them. They must realise that they will only get what they are able to take ; that it is utterly stupid to expect their enemies to legislate or administer against their own interests. The profits of the capitalist class, their income, and even their continued existence as a class depend upon the existence or creation of a reserve labour army.

If there were no unemployed there would be no blacklegs, the “sack” would lose its terrors, wages would rise and profits vanish. Voltaire said if God did not exist it would be necessary to invent one. The modern capitalist can say with more truth that if the unemployed did not exist it would be necessary to create them. How stupid it is then to expect any but the workers themselves to deal seriously with that vital question.

Those who live upon the workers may provide workhouses, or penal colonies as in Belgium and elsewhere, but this means simply that the lash of hunger is partly replaced by the lash of conditions so bad that the victim is glad to accept the worst paid and most wretched toil in the competitive world outside rather than stay.

The Bankruptcy of Labourism

This is the principle of the workhouse stoneyard—it is also the principle of the Labour Party’s Bill.

Never was the bankruptcy of Labourism more evident than in its attempt at legislation on unemployment.

Having by its flabbiness lost much of the confidence of its supporters, and having before it the prospect of meeting its Waterloo at the next election, the Labour Party was at last to make a stand and to do something to regain the lost confidence and prepare for the battle to come. That something is the Unemployed Workmen Bill !

The Labour Party is indeed fortunate in its defeat. Had not the Liberal Party thought it profitable, in view of the great Tory campaign to make a show of opposition to the falsely so-called “Socialist” Labour Party, and had it adopted the Bill, emphasising its penal clause ; the game of the Labour group would have been up ; the rottenness of the Bill could not have escaped exposure, and the hopelessness of peddling Labourism would have been, driven home to the multitude. For what does the Bill amount to ?

One of the great claims for the Bill was that it was a training Bill. J. R. McDonald in seconding the second reading said it was not relief works that were wanted, but to impose a course of training on the unemployed man ; and that it was a mistake to assume “that the purpose of the promoters was to put the unemployed to their own work.” What does this mean ?

It means, since there are unemployed in every calling, that an unemployed navvy, for example, is to be trained for carpentering or bricklaying, while the bricklayer or carpenter is to be trained for navvying ! To attempt to alleviate general unemployment by such means is on a par with the suggestion that men could earn their living by taking in one another’s washing.

A Snare and a Delusion

But the crux of the Bill, according to the Labour Party, is clause 3, and we agree. At first glance the clause appears to provide employment at conditions not lower than those standard in the locality, as demanded by trade unionists ; but a second glance reveals that this is a snare and a delusion. It is so worded as to give a false impression to the trade union worker, while in reality it places no limit to the badness of conditions which the unemployed man must accept under pain of punishment.

In the House of Commons Mr. McDonald confessed that the clause “may be badly worded,” but that it only meant that the trade unionist was not to be victimised because he may formerly have declined work for an outside capitalist at less than current rates. “It did not mean that the local employment authority must provide work at trade union rate of wages.”

No, indeed, the only conditions are such as capitalists may consider “reasonable,” and we know what that means. Under the Bill a man might be offered the wretchedest conditions of both work and pay, and what would be the result if he refused ? The local authority is then empowered under clause 7 to obtain an order “to enforce control over the person named in the order for a period not exceeding six months, which period must be passed in the performance of reasonable work under the control of the local employment authority.”

That is to say, if you will not accept the most degrading conditions that may be offered, they may inflict penal servitude upon you for a period not exceeding six months. This is the “Right to Work” !

And what is there to prevent the local authorities, as of yore, putting men to work at exceedingly low rates (under pretence of unemployed relief) at work which must otherwise have been done at full rates by men now transformed into “unemployed” ?

So long as there is a capitalist Parliament the Local Government Board will be its tool, while there is no more bitter enemy of the workers than its president. Yet the Labour Party in their Bill place enormous powers of control and in the framing of rules for carrying out the Act, in the hands of the L.G.B. Even were the Bill otherwise of any use, this would suffice to damn it.

The Only Hope

Unemployment is the big stick that the master class use to break strikes, to beat down wages, and to make the employed “get a hustle” on them. The ruling class is not going to burn that stick. For the abolition of unemployment there is only one way, and that is not to follow the Will-o’-the-wisp of Labourism, but for the workers to organise as a class for Socialism. The workers must therefore organise to themselves capture political power in order that they may cease to be the despised beasts of burden of the propertied class, and become freely associated producers in a cooperative commonwealth.

Socialism is your only hope.

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