The Labour Party and the London Count Council

It is a curious circumstance that the forcible removal of the Austrian Social Democrats from the Vienna City Council was followed within a month by the entry of their British counterparts into control of the London County Council for the first time. The major issue before the voters in London was the same as that on which the Austrian party was elected and kept in office, the problem of housing and slum clearance. By promising to build more houses at low rents and to dear away slum areas, the London Labour Party, under the leadership of Mr. Herbert Morrison, managed to get about 340,000 votes against 300,000 cast for the Conservatives and 23,000 for the Liberals. They now have a comfortable majority on the Council and have three years in which to try to carry out their pledges and prepare for the next election.

The position of a party controlling local councils while an opposing party controls the central Government is a dangerous one for reformist parties. In a country like Great Britain, where the control of finance and the armed forces is strongly centralised, the capture of a local council means little in itself, because the central Government is always in a position not only to enforce the existing narrow legal restrictions on the local elected body, but— if need be—to alter the law so that the restrictions are made narrower still or the powers entirely abolished. If we were dealing with the control of a local council by Socialists elected solely on the demand for Socialism, the position would be understood by the voters and no difficulty for the party would arise. The voters would know that while the control of the machinery of local Government will be a useful support for Socialists when they control the machinery of central Government, control of local councils alone does not open up the road to Socialism. Such control would be valued by Socialists for its propaganda value and for the part it would play in the larger scheme of control of the machinery of Government. There would, therefore, be no possibility of Socialist electors expecting great present benefits from capturing the L.C.C. or any other body, and no danger of them turning away disappointed when benefits failed to accrue. With the reformist parties the situation is different. The workers who voted for Social-Democratic candidates in Vienna, or Labour candidates in London, expected two things: firstly, that the reform programme would be carried out, and, secondly, that this would materially improve their position. On the first point the Austrian Social-Democrats can claim that they did their best to fulfil their pledges, and there is no reason why the London Labour Party should not carry out many of its promised housing schemes.

That, however, is only half the problem. It is the second part that is fatal to the reformist parties. The Austrian party erected its huge modern flats for Viennese workers, and hired them out at very low rents, far lower in many cases than would have been charged by private builders.

The flats were subsidised by the Vienna municipality, the cost being raised by taxation, largely from landlords. This, on the surface, looks like a gift to the tenants in the flats, and so it has been understood by the superficial admirers of the Vienna scheme to be found in the I.L.P. and Labour Party. Actually, the workers gained little or nothing financially, for, with a lowered cost of living, the employers were able to reduce wages without making the workers less efficient wealth producers. The subsidy was not a gift to the workers, but a levy on one section of the propertied class, to be handed over, indirectly, to the industrial capitalists. A similar position happened in Germany and elsewhere, as testified by the International Labour Office in a report published in 1925: “The Workers’ Standard of Life in Countries with Depreciated Currency.”

The result was that the hardships of the Austrian workers were not materially lessened, and they were in exactly the same subject position after long years of Social Democratic rule as they were before. That is one of the reasons why the Social Democrats were losing members to the Austrian Nazis during the past 12 months, under the attraction of new and more seductive promises.

Mr. Herbert Morrison will find that the same causes will have the same effects in London. Not that we expect to find him three years hence manning machine guns at the County Hall, but that those who voted for the Labour programme will turn from it sooner or later when they realise that its fulfilment does not solve their problem of poverty and insecurity—in short, when they find that capitalism goes on in very much the same way as before.

One feature of present-day local elections in Great Britain is the small number of voters who trouble to use their local vote. Whereas in 1907 some 55 per cent. voted, in the present election it was only a little over 30 per cent. This, of course, makes the tenure of office of the Labour Party still more precarious. If they do anything whatever to rouse the fears of the apathetic thousands of Conservatives and Liberals who did not go to the poll this time, at the next election these voters will be stirred into activity and the small Labour majority will be swamped. On the other hand, unless the Labour Party makes some show of activity its own supporters will drift back into apathy again.

Other features of the election call for comment, the first being the calm way in which the leading Conservative newspapers took the “victory for Socialism.” Although they declared in their usual misleading fashion that the Labour voters had voted for “Socialism,” their placid acceptance of it showed that they knew they were lying. The Times, for example, devoted its comments largely to chiding its own party for faulty organisation, inactivity, and, in. particular, for its inadequate housing programme.

It was noticeable how little support the I.L.P. and Communists obtained. Their total vote was less than 7,000 and, in most areas, it was only a tiny percentage of the votes cast for Labour and Tory candidates. The Communist, Saklatvala, formerly M.P. for Battersea (which he won only because the Labour voters then had no candidate of their own and voted for him), polled 577 votes in the present L.C.C. election, against 8,334 Labour votes and 4,549 Tory votes.

Another interesting feature is provided by the leader of the Labour Party, Mr. Herbert Morrison. After the crisis of 1931 many of the Labour Party leaders, including Mr. Morrison, and also all the I.L.P. and Communist leaders, lapped up the silly theory that capitalism could afford no more reforms, with the consequence that the workers would be driven to accepting the revolutionary position. Now, one by one, they are recovering their nerve and their sense of proportion and are entering the fight again with the same old list of reform measures. They do it, of course, for the reason that they cannot win elections any other way, and reformist parties cannot live unless they are always able to hold out to their members the prospect of early electoral victory. Hence we find Mr. Herbert Morrison, who so recently told us that “the Labour Party must place Socialism in front of social reform, and must achieve much more clean-cut, reasoned Socialist propaganda,” (News Chronicle, August 2nd, 1933), leading his army to victory in the L.C.C. election behind a programme in which, as usual, social reform was everywhere and Socialism nowhere.

Now, one last word for those who believe that reforms are stepping stones to Socialism, and those who believe that what they call “revolutionary reforms” lead to revolution. The Social Democratic Federation held these views half a century ago and, among the points in its programme of palliatives, was one calling for the “compulsory construction of healthy dwellings for the people, such dwellings to be let at rents to cover the cost of construction and maintenance alone.” After all these years of wasted efforts leading to no tangible result, and helping Socialism not at all, even the modest demand for “healthy homes” is as far from satisfaction as ever it was, and still the “practical” men of the Labour Party, and the mock revolutionaries of the I.L.P. and Communist Party can think of nothing better to do than fight elections on such issues.


(Socialist Standard, April 1934)

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