Editorial: Labour Party Dissensions
Nearly thirty years ago the Labour Party was formed out of the various organisations which had made up the Labour Representation Committee. Before the formation of the Labour Party, trade union leaders seeking to become members of Parliament did so mostly under the patronage of the Liberal Party. The change meant that there was now a working-class political organisation with trade union backing aiming to get control of the machinery of government in the interests of the working class—or so it appeared to its optimistic supporters.
Many thousands of working men and women believed that it provided the solution to their economic problems. With all its faults and limitations the early Labour Party was of a distinctly working-class character, and most of its prominent members were workers from the factory and mine. There were also a sprinkling of “intellectuals” and the inevitable political adventurer (Mr. R. MacDonald in his letter to Keir Hardie when applying for membership stated as his reason for joining the Labour Party the fact that the Liberal Party would not choose him as a candidate for Parliament!).
Time has brought changes. The Party has grown, has been the Government and has tasted the sweets of office. Many of its prominent members whose chests in their youth wore the sashes of their trade unions, now wear the decorations of another sort. A few erstwhile “reds” and “enemies of society” have reached the House of Lords. Much anxiety is shown on the important questions of what to wear for royal and State functions by former working men who in the ’eighties were anxious about obtaining a “tanner” a day for the dockers.
That the Labour Party is not, and never was a Socialist party we have shown all along. Nevertheless, it was quite probable in its early days that many of its leaders believed it to be the only party which the worker, in his own interests, could support. To-day, however, after holding the reins of office, the appearance of the Labour Party to its members has changed considerably. A series of incidents connected with a by-election at Putney in November, 1934, illustrate this change.
Putney had always been regarded by the Labour Party as a “middle class” area, and its candidates had never been successful there. When the seat at Putney became vacant the Labour Party’s candidate was a Mr. Mander who had been chosen by the local organisation twelve months earlier. Other by-elections in 1934 in areas similar to Putney caused officials of the Labour Party to believe that their chances of success were considerably improved, partly because there had arisen quite a lot of anxiety about war. Despite its own war-time record, and relying on the proverbial short political memory of working-class electors, the Labour Party came out as a party of peace, and exploited the peace sentiment for all it was worth. The chances of success at Putney having improved, high officials of the Party intervened and persuaded Mr. Mander —not without the use of pressure—to stand down in favour of another candidate. Members of the Putney Labour Party resented the back-door methods used to induce Mander to stand down. They also flatly refused to accept as their candidate the nominee of the officials, a Mr. Bowles, whose claims for fitness to represent the Labour Party in Parliament, according to statements submitted by the officials to the Putney Labour Party, were his wealth, his financial connections in the City and the numerous motor-cars at his command. The Putney Labour Party was successful in thwarting the Headquarters officials, but the result was that the Putney Party was suspended.
Many lessons are to be learned from the Putney by-election. The Labour Party has reached the stage at which it is unwilling to be associated with ideas of destroying the private property rights of the capitalist class. Its chief business more than ever now is to get itself elected. It chooses its programme of social reforms solely with an eye to getting votes. In this it is little different from the openly capitalist parties.
There are, of course, members of the Labour Party who criticise the way the machine is run, among them the expelled members of the Putney group. They say that they do not want the Party to seek electoral success on a non-Socialist programme, nor do they want candidates foisted on the local organisations by the Headquarters officials.
They want men chosen by themselves for their principle, not for their wealth and social standing. All of which sounds very well, but is really an empty dream. A movement such as the Labour Party can be successful or unsuccessful at elections according to the swing of the political pendulum and the nice choice it exercises in drawing up its programme, but it cannot turn itself into a Socialist Party. Its membership and officials, its funds and its structure are what they are because of the theories on which the Party has been built up. It cannot cut itself off from its past and become something entirely different. Even were it possible for the Party now to be run in the way the Putney rebels say they desire—on a strictly Socialist non-reformist programme—that would be the end of the Party. It would disappear as the largest opposition Party and potential future Government, and its millions of votes would attach themselves elsewhere, to a Party offering the reforms they have been taught by the Labour Party (and by the Putney group) to value. The Putney rebels are deceiving themselves.
Their choice is not between running the Labour Party as a great vote-catching machine or running it as if it were a Socialist Party, for the latter is impossible. If they want the kind of immediate electoral success the Labour Party offers they must seek it in the Labour Party and work for it by the methods they profess to dislike. If, on the other hand, they want Socialism they must seek it in the Socialist Party of Great Britain.