After The Poll
The election is over and the result has left each of the aspirants to governmental power faced with a situation probably unique in our political history. Of the three parties—Conservative, Liberal and Labour—not one has a majority over the rest.
The writhings and squirmings of the different groups, in the endeavour to find a way out of the difficulty, enlivens the
dullness of our lives.
Immediately after the election the official papers of the different parties united in the view that of course Mr. Baldwin would resign, as his main proposals for dealing with the unemployment, trade stagnation, and the Ruhr, had been turned down by a majority of those voting.
The Observer, a supporter of Baldwin, lays the defeat of the government at the door of a “Trust-controlled Press.” In its issue of 9th December, Garvin complains that the Unionists were deprived of their chief resort at previous elections, the popular newspapers. This is a peculiar admission, particularly for a paper that has the Astor millions behind it. This is equivalent to admitting that the interests behind the Trust-controlled Press swept the Unionists into power, and have now swept them out of power!
The same issue of the paper, uses up considerable space to prove that there is no point in Mr. Baldwin retaining office until kicked out, that the obvious policy is for him to hand in his resignation immediately and go into opposition.
Mr. Baldwin, however, has declined to oblige either friends or foes, and proposes retaining his position. This has destroyed the beautiful Unionist and Liberal schemes of “sympathetic opposition.”
The Observer promised the Labour Party or Liberals, whichever took office, a sympathetic assistance in the carrying out of certain general proposals for dealing with unemployment, Russia and the Ruhr. It finally recommended that the Liberals should take over the government because, as they, with the assistance of the Trust Press, had made the mess, they should be left to clear it up.
The Liberals, however, are not anxious for office; there are too many reasons at present, from the capitalist standpoint, in favour of letting the Labour Party take over office.
Writing of the Labour Party the Daily News, Dec. 10th, 1923 says:—
One of its chief claims to national confidence is the way in which, under its present leadership, it has rallied elements which might have drifted into disruption and dangerous discontent to the support of constitutional charges to be attained by constitutional means. To pretend otherwise is merely to obstruct this laudable and valuable service.
For either Liberals or Labour men, on the other hand, to contemplate a fresh dissolution now, with the tariff issue eliminated, would be a piece of unspeakable folly, fatally destructive of the reputation of those guilty of it for sanity and common sense. The only possible course open to them is such a degree of co-operation between them as shall keep this Parliament with its progressive majority in being for the enactment of the wide range of social and political reforms on which they are agreed.
So spoke the Liberal journal, but the Unionists spoke in an even more amiable way to the Labour Party.
The Observer (9th Dec., 1923) had the following :—
There is not the smallest fear of a capital levy, or of any other proposal of Marxian Socialism. In these circumstances, the majority of Unionists would prefer to see the Labour party in office during the six months of transition between now and another general election. The extraordinary thing is the growth of personal sympathy between Unionists and Labour. Unionists recognise that Mr. Ramsay MacDonald from his own point of view has made a fair and decent fight, if he were sent for by the King and took office, Unionists would be prepared to give him every facility for dealing with the Budget and routine business. He might propose a new electoral law. In the Unionist Party there is no fear of it. It is bound to come. Unionists stand to gain by the transferable vote more than any other party.
The Observer gave the Labour Party a further suggestion. It may be remembered that Mr. Ramsay MacDonald declared a short time ago that the Labour Party’s aim was to develop the resources of this country. The Observer has met this view by pointing out:—
What this country requires above all is cheaper power and cheaper transport. (9th December, 1923.)
This cheaper power is to be provided by the use of coal for generating electricity, and the application of electricity as far as possible to means of transport.
The Observer further points out:—
Nothing like a wrecking policy on the part of Labour is possible, if the leader of the Labour Party were consulted by the Sovereign, it would be an historic but not an alarming event. (9th December, 1923.)
How has the Labour Party met the offer of this olive branch?
In the first place there have been assurances of no coalition or agreements with Liberals or Tories. Those who remember the times when the Labour voted against their own amendments to save Liberal governments from defeat will not give serious attention to the “no coalition” attitude.
However, fierce protestations are often but the prelude to an inclination to negotiate. But a suggestion of the way the Labour Party would meet the situation was given in the New Leader on the 7th December (before the secret of the poll was revealed) which harmonises with the Liberal and Unionist view given above:—
The reform of our grotesque electoral system is necessary for the restoration of honest politics. . . . The problems of the moment are too grave for tactics of wrecking or negation. We should certainly not refuse in the lobbies a discriminating support to a minority government, so long as it was realising ideas common to both our programmes.
The nearness of Labour to Liberals is suggested by the following quotation from the same issue of the New Leader :—
In some constituencies, where Liberals are strongly attached to Free Trade, it is probable that some of them have voted for Labour in the absence of a Liberal candidate.
and, we may add, the same is probable in the absence of a Unionist candidate.
After the Labour Party’s victory at the polls they found themselves in a dilemma. The New Leader (7th Dec.) stated :—
If Labour had a chance, it is not in the Ruhr that it would begin to save the Ruhr. It would recognise Russia. It would stop the fortification of Singapore. It might offer to demilitarise the Dardanelles and the Baltic. It might give Cyprus to Greece. It would quit the oil wells of Mosul. It would make India a Dominion and lift the yoke from Egypt.
There is a more or less definite statement of things it might do and things it would do. Now that Labour looks like having a “chance,” what is the position? The boot is now on the other leg, and they frankly admit that they don’t know what to do. Various views of the situation are put forward by different writers in the New Leader (14th Dec.). The following lengthy extracts from the editorial article by the New Leader‘s £1,000 a year editor may be useful for present and future reference :—
We are facing one of those situations which admit of no ideal solution. Any proposal which any section puts forward can be riddled with destructive criticism. Government by coalition is an evil which the party rightly and unanimously rejects. Government by minority is no less an evil. An immediate election might be fatal to the party which precipitated it. It is in the last degree unlikely that at this stage any Liberal-Tory combination will be formed. It is theoretically open to us to allow the Baldwin Cabinet to retain office on terms; but this solution would expose us to grave misunderstanding. To allow the Liberals to take office would be interpreted as a confession of our own incapacity.
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For any wide and comprehensive programme it will not suffice that Liberals should refrain from Votes of No Confidence. We must be able to reckon on a measure of goodwill. It is easy to say that we contemplate no arrangements. Face to face with Liberals, side by side with them, our Party would have to realise that they too have their point of view, their interests that must be considered. We shall be every hour at their mercy.
To talk of ignoring the Liberals and refusing any understanding with them seems to me difficult, if we are contemplating as much as six or eight months of office. If we are going to walk down this long road we should have to carry them with us, halting, limping and breathless perhaps, but not jostling or tripping. With any weighty programme on our backs we should soon find ourselves consciously drafting our Bills with the fear of Mr. Asquith before our eyes Would he object to this or jib at that Then out it must go.
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But the moment one faces public works, to say nothing of any increase in the dole, then money must be found. An adequate housing scheme cannot be cheap. Apart from unemployment and housing, we have denounced the cruel economies of past Governments on education, child welfare and every social service. We have given pledges as to the removal of the thrift restriction on old-age pensions and the abolition of duties on sugar and tea.
Oh! Those awful pledges! How some of the Labour members must curse themselves for their election pledges. Without these pledges and their campaign against “broken pledges” the situation would be much easier.
We have not forgotten our own campaign for the Levy. Are we going to undertake to compose a Budget without it ? The alternative would be a tremendous addition to the unpopular income tax, which the Liberal Party would not assist us to vote.
Evidently one of the pledges must go; but which? That is the question. According to the Labour programme the Levy was to provide the means to carry out certain reforms which were alleged to be of advantage to the workers. In fact, it was a corner stone of their programme. Now that they have secured their “chance,” the Levy is beginning to retreat into the distance along with most of their other “pledges.”
The struggle with France, however, would be no easier for us than for our predecessors—indeed, the inclination of M. Poincaré would be to treat us as an ephemeral administration, a passing episode in the life of Europe. America would regard us as “radicals,” the sort of people whom the Ku-Klux-Klan would deal with, if we lived beneath the statue of Liberty. Nor could events march swiftly. We should aim at a conference at least as wide as that which General Smuts proposed; but would it be wise to call it before the French general election decides in May whether M. Poincaré is still the Dictator of Europe ? One hope I see, and only one, for a conference. It is that we should first create, before it meets, an atmosphere of expectation throughout the world.
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The recognition of Russia and the symbol of Singapore would help. Dare we next make Egypt truly “independent” by withdrawing the British garrison from Cairo? What if we were to give Greek Cyprus to the Greek motherland, or offer to discuss the demilitarisation of the Black Sea? When we had relaxed our hold on the oil-wells of Mosul, we might with less inward hesitation invite M. Poincaré to quit the coalfield of the Ruhr. By such calculated acts we should rally the peoples behind us, and might without hypocrisy organise at a conference moral pressure against French militarism. But we should fail, as Mr. Wilson failed, and for the same reason, if our Parliament, like his Senate, were hostile. Everything once more turns on our relations with the Liberals; would they, sitting in the shadow, help us to face the Tory assaults on such a policy ? We cannot accept their alliance. It follows that we must limit our own ambitions.
On paper, for months before the election, the above matters were easily settled by airy statements—and “moral” flourishes. But now the situation has changed ! “Evolution”—blessed word !
Brailsford winds up his “ifs” and “mights” as follows — with a mournful remark on the pre-election programmes and speeches :—
By April the problem of the Budget would overtake us, and we should compromise our own case if we undertook to solve it without a capital levy. The danger before us leaps out from some of the extensive programmes which have already appeared in Labour speeches and in print. If we set our hopes on a big agenda, if we talk even of six or eight months of office, then inevitably we shall drift into the fatal attitude of buying it on the only possible terms — by arrangement with Liberals, which would obscure our Socialist policy, compromise our independence, and make us in the end mere caretakers of a capitalist and Imperial system. (Italics ours.)
In the same issue of the New Leader as that from which we have just quoted, Clifford Allen, Sidney Webb, Pethick Lawrence, and Ramsay MacDonald contribute articles on the situation.
Clifford Allen says :—
We must only take office with a definite and publicly declared design, namely, that we will form a purely temporary and emergency Government for a few months to deal with two or three selected urgent questions, such as unemployment and the European chaos. The War Debt could be submitted to a Commission.
This is certainly a handy way out of the Capital Levy difficulty. But the Capital Levy was to provide the means for dealing with unemployment. How then are they to raise the necessary funds? And what about “reduced taxation”?
Sidney Webb informs us that:—
I am quite sure that we need fear no bias or dislike at the Palace that would cause the Labour Party to be treated with any unfairness.
With this view we could hardly disagree in view of the fact that Labour members have so frequently had their knees under the same mahogany as Royalty !
Webb joins the chorus of mourners and points out :—
the plain impossibility of passing into law in this Parliament any large and contentious measures.
Pethick Lawrence states that he addressed “a meeting of business men, most of whom were Liberals or Conservatives, to a discussion limited to the Capital Levy” and heard privately afterwards :—
that many of them entirely changed their view as to what the Levy was, and not a few actually voted Labour for the first time on this issue alone.
Under the heading “Sacrificing Luxuries” he is careful to point out:—
In this it is essential to make it clear that we are not animated by hostility to any section or class of the community. We are merely calling for a sacrifice on the part of the wealthy to meet a national emergency.
Finally Ramsay MacDonald sums up the difficulties as follows :—
At times it is as necessary to preserve the forms of government as to produce legislative changes, even when the latter are very pressing. Can the Labour Party devise a policy which would enable it to do some useful and urgent work, like helping to settle Europe and increase the provision for dealing with unemployment, without compromise in any shape or form?
Having put the question, one would expect MacDonald, as the leading figure in the Labour Party, to give us an answer. But this is all he has to say :—
That is the difficult problem which we have to face now, and I venture to ask our supporters in the country to help us with their trust.
A very satisfying answer, is it not? Note, too, the slimy appeal for “trust,” proving once more how leaders depend upon a sheep-like following.
The plain fact of the situation is that the Labour Party is in a fix. It is composed of individuals with a hotch potch of ideas and has been voted into its present position by individuals similarly placed. Its fundamental weaknesses have placed. it in the dilemma. It has been voted to Parliament on a vote catching programme and not on fundamental questions. If it does not justify these vote catching pledges it will lose a good deal of the support so far given. Had the Labour group been voted in on a Socialist programme by class-conscious workers, the voters would have understood the position themselves; they would have defined the path to be followed ; there would have been no dilemma.