1930s >> 1931 >> no-317-january-1931

Editorial: The Labour Party Drops Its Programme

A very significant declaration has been made by Mr. Ramsay MacDonald in the House of Commons. He was asked by Mr. Kirkwood whether the Labour Government are prepared to introduce legislation for the purpose of preventing reductions in wages. The Prime Minister replied:—

  Wages, either real or nominal, cannot be fixed by legislation for the wage-earners generally. The Government’s policy is to maintain standards of living and secure as equitable a distribution of wealth as is possible. (Hansard, 26 November, 1930.)

This declaration of policy—or lack of policy—is tantamount to the abandonment of the whole Labour Party programme so painstakingly built up by the efforts of its members during the past thirty years. The Labour Party in office at a stroke sends tumbling down the castle of cards that the Labour Party in opposition had set up. If wages cannot be kept up by legislation, for what purpose did the Labour Party take office? And for what purpose, other than their salaries and to qualify for Cabinet Ministers’ pensions, do they remain there? How does the Government propose to “maintain standards of living ”? Mr. MacDonald does not say. He does not know. His Cabinet have been in office since June, 1929, and during that year and a half, standards have not been kept up. According to the records of the Ministry of Labour, published monthly in the Labour Gazette, nearly two million workers have had their wages reduced between June, 1929, and October, 1930 (the last published figures). The number who have had increases is not one-tenth as large. The net decrease in wages, after deducting the increases, is equivalent to more than £6 million a year; to which must be added the decreases in pay of clerical workers, agricultural workers, shop assistants, Civil Servants, and others not included in the Ministry’s figures.

To that must be added, again, the far greater losses to the workers caused by the growing volume of unemployment under the Labour Government. On a most moderate estimate, the increase in unemployment has meant a loss in wages amounting to £100 million a year over and above the loss in wages which was going on before the Labour Ministry came in.

The Labour Party’s own “Index of Real Wages,” published monthly in the Labour Bulletin, shows the industrial workers to be 6 per cent. or 7 per cent. worse off now than they were when the Labour Government took office. The Index in question allows for the percentage of unemployment and also for the decline in prices, but takes no account of short-time working.

It may be said that the workers’ losses are not the fault of the Labour Government; they have done their best. But that is only another way of saying that the Labour Party has not got any policy which will meet the situation in which the workers find themselves under Capitalism.

It is also urged in their defence that the Labour Government do not enjoy a Parliamentary majority. They have to depend on Liberal votes, and therefore the Labour policy cannot be applied. But taking office as a minority is itself part of the Labour policy. They are there by the unanimous vote of the Parliamentary Labour Party (including Maxton and his group), taken at the first meeting after the General Election.

From the right wing to the most left of the several fragments into which the I.L.P. is now split, the Labour policy is the one of trying to improve the workers’ standard of living by an accumulation of reforms. But of what use are reforms if every reform is accompanied or followed by a fall in wages? Of what use is a reformist political party which cannot use its political power for the purpose of preventing reductions in wages? Mr. MacDonald’s reply to Mr. Kirkwood is an admission of abject failure; an intimation to Trade Unionists that they have supported the Labour Party to no purpose; a curt reminder that they must fight their own battles without help from those whom they have lifted into eminence.

In practice they have not been helped, but hindered. The wages of large bodies of workers in the woollen and cotton industries, in agriculture, and in the Civil Service, have been reduced by the Government itself or by bodies appointed by the Government.

The Government’s failure is fast exposing the hollowness of the case put forward by all the parties which believe in reforming Capitalism. They promised that a period of “practical work” performed by a Labour Government would convert the workers to Socialism. Experience of Labour Government, if we may judge by the elections, is fast converting the Labour supporters back to Liberalism and Toryism.