Labour Party and the Crisis
Duplicity of the Leaders
Since August 24th, when the National Government was formed, the Labour Party, under its new leader, Mr. Henderson, has sought to explain the collapse of the Labour Government as the refusal of the bulk of the Labour Ministers to sacrifice the unemployed to the demand of the banks and of the Tory and Liberal Parties. We are asked to believe that the Labour Party, innocent of any intention to compromise with the capitalist class or the openly capitalist parties, was suddenly invited by Mr. Snowden and Mr. MacDonald to enter into an unholy compact, and met this invitation with stout opposition and indignant resignation. So the Daily Herald has fulminated against the National Government’s callous reduction of unemployment pay, and of the pay of policemen, teachers, soldiers and sailors, and Civil Servants. The Labour Party have proclaimed themselves the defenders of the workers and the upholders of independent working class political action against the parties of wealth and privilege.
It is a story which crumbles to pieces on investigation. Everything that MacDonald and his associates have done, the majority of the present leaders of the Labour Party were prepared to do. Not one word or one action of the Labour leaders in the National Government but can be paralleled from the history of the Labour Party and its present leaders.
Mr. MacDonald entered a Coalition Government with Liberal and Tory associates and depending upon their votes; Mr. Henderson and Mr. Clynes and others were members of the war-time Coalition Governments with the support of the Labour Party. In 1924, and again from 1929 to August, 1931, the Labour Governments held office solely on condition that their policy met with the approval of the Liberal M.P.’s on whose votes the Governments depended. Did Mr. Henderson protest? How could he when he was one of the Labour Ministers appointed for the purpose of carrying on formal negotiations with the Liberal leaders. (See Daily Herald, March 23rd, 1931.)
Moreover, the discussions and negotiations with Tories as well as Liberals were going on without a word of protest from Mr. Henderson or the Daily Herald for weeks before the National Government was formed. The Labour Magazine, official organ of the Labour Party, in its issue for September, records that members of the Government, on the instruction of the Cabinet, met the Liberal and Tory leaders for a joint conference on August 13th. Mr. Henderson and his associates made no protest and did not resign.
On August 14th, 1931, Mr. J. R. Clynes, who now denounces Mr. Thomas for entering into the National Government, made a speech at The Dome, Brighton, appealing for co-operation between the three political parties. The Times (August 15th) gave a report of Mr. Clynes’s speech, from which the following is an extract:—
My sincere belief is that all of us attached to different parties. Conservative, Liberal, and Labour, are in earnest when we say that, although serving through parties, we are seeking to serve the country. Just as I believe that of myself, I believe the same of my political opponents. But at a time like this we want not separate, not single nor hostile and conflicting action; we want to act in co-operation in order that we shall guarantee that the nation’s interests shall be served by that united action which we know our condition demands. Parties must act co-operatively when the nation is faced with a financial crisis or a crisis of any other kind. The country has the right not merely to seek but to expect and to demand co-operation on the part of the three great political parties.
It is said that the Labour Government fell because the Trade Union M.P.’s threatened to form a new political organisation.
But by what right can the members of the General Council of the Trades Union Congress condemn the policy of collaboration with the representatives of the capitalist class? What of the negotiations for industrial peace carried on first with the late Lord Melchett and later with the organised employers? As recently as July 22nd, 1931, the News-Chronicle published an interview with Mr. W. Citrine, Secretary of the T.U.C., in which Mr. Citrine expressed views about industrial disputes resulting from attempts to reduce wages:—
But Mr. Citrine, looking ahead, believes that these difficulties in the relation between capital and labour can be and will be overcome. The modern trend towards large industrial units, towards the separation of the ownership of capital from its administration, towards greater regulation of control, will make it possible. He looks forward to the time when great industrial units will be able to speak with the united voice of capital and labour, and actually bargain for trade on that basis.
He refuses to accept the old definition of “capitalism” or the old dogmas about it. It has changed out of all recognition.
Mr. Citrine here repudiates the very basis of working-class organisation and looks forward to the time when the exploiters and the exploited will speak with a “united voice.” Socialists appreciate the absurdity of this. But on what ground does Mr. Citrine denounce Mr. MacDonald for trying to apply the same absurd policy to politics ?
We are told that the late leader of the Labour Party has carried out the wishes of the City and the banks. True! But which of the Labour leaders is in a position to protest? As early as August 11th, on the instructions of the Cabinet, certain Ministers met the bankers (see Manchester Guardian, September 8th). The Hendersons and Lansburys, who now proclaim so loudly their detestation of consulting with the workers’ enemies, made no sign of disapproval. They continued to cling to their highly paid posts, held at the pleasure of the Liberal Party.
On August 14th the Daily Herald reported, without any expression of disapproval, that the Cabinet were to place their economy proposals before the leaders of the other two parties. The Herald said:—
Whatever steps are taken finally, the Cabinet is as one man on the policy which will govern its decisions. The Budget must be balanced on the basis of equal sacrifices by all. In this it has the complete support of the City. To this extent, also, it is certain it will have the concurrence of all Opposition leaders.
The Herald, it will be observed, had no objection then to a policy of .sacrifices from all, including the workers, so framed that it would have “the complete support of the City.”
The Labour Party under Mr. Henderson self-righteously repudiates the policy of balancing the Budget at the expense of the workers and the unemployed. But for how long have they held these views?
On Monday, August 14th—a week before the resignation of the Labour Government—the Daily Herald came out with this great thought:—
Nobody likes tightening his belt. But the British do it better than most people. They will do it cheerfully if it is plain beyond doubt that they are engaged in a common effort in a common need.
The Labour Press Service, issued by the Labour Party and the Trades Union Congress, in its issue dated August 19th had the following :—
The nation’s Budget must be balanced. The task is urgent; success depends upon sacrifice, and sacrifice is seldom agreeable. But the Government cannot shirk its duty because of the disagreeableness of the task. The Labour movement would not desire it to shed its responsibility ; on the contrary it will be more confident of a just and equitable handling of the emergency if it knows that its own trusted leaders are in control.
The “sacrifices” agreed to by the whole of the Labour Cabinet included the reductions in the pay of teachers, the police, the Army and Navy, the Civil Service (5-point drop in cost-of-living bonus), increased unemployed insurance contributions, and the imposition of a “needs test” to transitional unemployment pay after 26 weeks. Mr. J. H. Thomas in the House of Commons on September 11th showed that the proposals of the old and the new Governments differed only in respect of the 10 per cent. cut in the amount of unemployment pay. (See Hansard of that date.) The lame reply of the Labour Party opposition was that they had only agreed “provisionally,” i.e., they were still bargaining with the Liberals and Tories and the bankers about their economy programme. Moreover, a clear majority of the Labour Cabinet had agreed to the 10 per cent. cut in unemployment pay. The Daily Herald on August 24th gave the names of the minority of eight Ministers who opposed the cut, leaving a majority of twelve who supported it. The Times of the same date also gave these figures. On the following day the Herald apologised for omitting one name from the minority.
Let it not be forgotten, too, that these economy cuts had all been prepared for by the former Labour Government and its supporters. The Economy Committee under Sir George May was set up and its members chosen by the Labour Government. The two Labour Party members on it, Mr. Arthur Pugh and Mr. Charles Latham, in their Minority Report, specifically recommended lower pay for Government industrial employees, and a 12½ per cent. cut for teachers (the National Government announced a 15 per cent. cut subsequentlv reduced to 10 per cent.). They also endorsed the majority’s acceptance of further reductions in Civil Service pay in accordance with falls in the Ministry of Labour Cost-of-Living Index.
The seven Labour Party members of the Civil Service Commission likewise endorsed the recommendations which fixed the pay of the lower grades at a level about 9 per cent. below that at which it stood when the Commission commenced its work.
One of the Ministers who resigned was Mr. A. V. Alexander, who as a representative of the Co-operators gave tacit endorsement to their policy of reducing the wages of their employees earlier in the year, justifying the reductions on the ground that prices had fallen. This was the excuse used by the National Government.
As recently as July, 1931, the Labour Government itself introduced the so-called Anomalies Bill, which was for the purpose of reducing expenditure on unemployment pay by £5 millions.
In short, the Labour Party does not differ in any important respect from those of its leaders who joined the National Government. The difference merely is that one body of leaders found that their policy was leading them into conflict with the workers and Trade Unions, without whose support their careers would be endangered. They were willing to carry on capitalism and to do all that that implies, so long as the workers could be hoodwinked into accepting the results of that policy. At signs of revolt, Mr. Henderson and his supporters withdrew into safety. Mr. MacDonald and his associates either interpreted the workers’ state of mind differently or have got beyond the stage of needing the support of the Trade Unions and the Labour Party.
The Labour Party remains what it always was, a party composed of all sorts of reformers, only agreed in being prepared to accept the continuance of capitalism.
Their withdrawal into opposition was hailed by them as a timely re-uniting of dissident groups. Actually it disclosed once more the rotten foundation on which the Party is built. Just as the National Government contains capitalist elements whose interests demand free trade, and others whose interests demand tariffs, so also the Labour Party is divided on this question of two alternate methods of conducting capitalism. While Lord Beaverbrook’s Evening Standard (September 10th) was holding out an invitation to the Labour Party Protectionist group to join forces with him, Reynolds’s Illustrated News (September 6th), the organ of the Co-operators and strongly Free Trade, was denouncing tariff advocates as “the enemies of the people.” The same issue of Reynolds’s confessed that tariffs have powerful advocates among the Trade Unions and their leaders. To meet the activities of the Labour Party Protectionists, the Free Trade Labour M.P.’s have now formed their own Free Trade group inside the Parliamentary Labour Party. (See Manchester Guardian, August 22nd.)
The Labour Party is not a Socialist Party. It is not even united in its views as to the best way of running capitalism. Its record shows that its leaders are willing and able to use it against the interests of the workers. Workers who take to heart the lessons of the recent crisis will abandon it and join the Socialist Party.