1930s >> 1937 >> no-399-november-1937

Labour Party and T.U.C. in Conference

This year’s Labour Party and Trades Union conferences showed more clearly than ever that whatever policy the Labour movement in this country formulates on questions of importance the result is a policy compatible with the continuance of capitalism.

At the Trade Union Conference held in September, at Norwich, matters connected with domestic affairs received scant attention from the delegates. The usual resolutions, such as demands for holidays with pay, were passed unanimously as matters of routine business. A resolution urging a “United Front” of “working-class bodies” was debated in a half-empty hall and was defeated on a show of hands, without a card vote being demanded. Communist influence in trade unions shows no signs even of moderate strength. At the Labour Party Conference at Bournemouth in October, this question, which appeared in the form of a resolution in favour of unity, received drastic treatment: the resolution being defeated by 2,116,000 votes to 373,000.

The question which provoked the keenest discussion and aroused the most confusion was rearmament. The National Council of Labour, a Labour Party and Trade Union Body, submitted a report to both conferences, which said: —

A British Government, basing its policy on the declarations of the Labour movement, must be in a position to make a powerful appeal to the Fascist States to agree to the abandonment of the arms race and accept a general disarmament treaty. Such a Government must be strongly equipped to defend this country, to play its part in collective security and to resist any intimidation by the Fascist powers designed to frustrate the fulfilment of our obligations.

Quite clearly the Labour Party is committed to rearmament and the defence of capitalist interests, and in no essential way differs from the National Government and the Colonel Blimps in this respect, despite ingenious attempts by some to show that “Labour’s” policy was “different.” The latter argued in favour of a strong League of Nations, with a rearmed Britain able to fulfil its obligations to the League. That argument alone illustrates the futility and poverty of Labour Party policy. For years it has argued that the strength of the League of Nations was the fact of its being a combination of powers who would use their “combined” strength to take action against one of their number that chose the rôle of “aggressor.” The bubble of that illusion has-been sadly burst by events. The League of Nations has become a clearing house where capitalist nations are sorting themselves into opposing groups. The combined strength of the League has failed to arrest that process and the Labour Party now thinks a rearmed Britain will be in a “position to make a powerful appeal to the Fascist States.” Others who supported rearmament did so with arguments, which for sheer jingoism would have embarrassed a Conservative conference.

Mr. Clynes said, at the Labour Party Conference: —

He asked them to state openly and frankly whether they were prepared to defend British democratic institutions, or whether they were ready to let the Fascist war lords ride roughshod over everything that the Labour movement—over a hundred years of toil and struggle—had succeeded in building up inside the Empire.
The Imperialism of Great Britain in the past was not in any way the Imperialism or the Toryism of to-day.

Mr. James Walker, for the Labour Party Executive: —

   Look at New Zealand. Shall we allow Labour in New Zealand to be destroyed by the Fascists of Japan? Shall we allow Australia to be overrun by the marauders of the East? What is the biggest thing that these people can attack? It is the British Empire, where there is more democracy than there is in Russia. (More dissent.)—News Chronicle, October 8th, 1937.)

Unctuous Mr. Clynes represents the possible future armed struggle between capitalist nations as a defence by the Tories of the achievements of the Labour movement “over a hundred years of toil and struggle” ! Mr. Walker, in a further brilliant contribution, said: —

  Mr. Lansbury will not go down to Bow and Bromley and tell the citizens “There are burglars in every street, but you do not need to lock your doors.”

Forward, the Scottish Labour paper, which backs Lansbury’s idea, answered that by asking why Mr. Walker did not follow it up and ask: “What would Lansbury do if a German attacked his mother-in-law?”

Referring to patriotic speeches by Mr. Marchbank, Forward (October 16th) commented that Mr. Marchbank “will soon be as progressive as Mr. Churchill.” And Mr. Hugh Dalton, who wound up the Labour Party Conference, said: “What we have done has been to dispose of all our internal differences—all.” Perhaps Forward would like to find an answer to that! One other piece of sparkling brilliance deserves mention. Mr. A. Horner, Communist and delegate for the South Wales Miners’ Federation, said he would “support expenditure of £1,500,000.000 to fight Fascism.” “Fighting Fascism” means supporting the British capitalist class in a war with the German or Italian capitalist class, or both. No more than that—though it would be too much to expect a simple-minded Communist, like Arthur Horner, to see that simple fact.

Vote for the Labour Party and Rearmament!

But what has really been agitating the minds of Labour leaders for a long time has been the lack of any sign that the Labour Party is gaining in popularity. To get power they must have votes, and it appears very obvious: to the observer that Labour leaders and officials are willing, quite cynically, to subordinate the merits of a policy with an eye to getting votes. A quotation from one speaker (among many) will illustrate this point. Sir Walter Citrine said: “The people who give the idea that Labour is against rearmament are handicapping our candidates” (Reynolds, October 10th, 1937). Quite. And whilst Labour Party policy is governed by what voters want, or what they believe they want, the Labour Party will continue to expose itself for what it is—the tool of capitalism. No other path could be open to it.

Many lessons are to be gained from the Trade Union Conference. One, which Socialists have always emphasised, that the capitalist class cannot intoduce any major policy without the support, or at least the acquiescence, of the workers came out glaringly. Sir Walter Citrine said: “I believe it would be impossible in this country to start a war without the consent of the Labour movement.”

The Dangers of Leadership

One incident at Conference illustrated how far the initiative on policy in the Labour movement falls upon the leaders. The A.E.U. had an amendment on the agenda which stated that “it would be a crime to support the National Government’s arms policy.” It was withdrawn by arrangement with officials behind the scenes before it could be voted upon by the delegates. The anxiety to withdraw this amendment must have been puzzling to delegates who had listened to leaders condemning the National Government’s policy. Anyhow, a grateful capitalist Press chorused its approval of this statesmanlike manoeuvre. Unquestionably, having the workers’ approval of war preparations strengthened the hand of the British Government in its threats and blusterings with its rivals. This incident emphasised another tragic fact—the power wielded by Trade Union leaders. In an organisation which is democratic and whose policy is decided by its members, officials would not dare to have so completely reversed an important decision. It shows the willingness of workers to be led, and, especially where war is involved, the terrible responsibility that rests upon leaders. It explains the sensitiveness of the capitalist Press to Trade Union opinion. Sir Walter Citrine’s statement is not a boast. In the light of the present understanding of the Labour movement in this country, it is an unfortunate fact. War—with the consent of the:Labour movement. No war without that consent. Ponder upon the implications of that, Sir Walter. Make a note of it; to remind you to ask yourself, after millions of men and women of the class from which you sprang have fertilised the lands of Europe with their blood in the last war, and any future war, what working-class interest justified it.

The friction that has been developing between the Trade Union and political sections within the Labour Party since the 1936 conferences came very close to creating an ugly split. The enormous power wielded by the block vote of the Unions so overwhelmed the votes of the constituency Labour parties that, after the Edinburgh Labour Party Conference in 1936, the constituency parties organised under the chairmanship of Sir Stafford Cripps in an effort to remedy the situation. Thus, at the 1937 Conference, a resolution appeared which proposed an increase in the constituency parties’ representation on the Executive from five to seven, and that those representatives be elected directly by the constituencies. This change, in effect, meant Trade Union representatives being in a minority of one on the Labour Party Executive. The proposed change had the blessing of the Party leaders, but Trade Union leaders had not been so encouraging. Mr. W. Lawther, at the Trade Union Conference, had said: —

“The movement is reaching a stage when the members of the Parliamentary Labour Party, both trade unionists and non-unionists, ought to be informed very frankly and fearlessly that the decision of the Trade Union movement are the decisions that have got to be accepted.”

Mr. Bevin and other Trade Union leaders at the Labour Conference opposed the change vigorously. Mr. Bevin’s attitude was threatening. “ Trade unionists,” he said, “were not tied to a political party in the same sense that the individual party member was tied ” (The Times, October 5th). Naturally, this threat to take his support elsewhere caused jitters among the “leaders.” After the lunch adjournment the Executive announced that it had withdrawn its support for the proposals. Despite this, the Conference carried the proposals and also moved that they be put into immediate effect.

Pacifists Turned into War Lords

Each succeeding conference of the Labour Party shows more clearly the capitalist path the Labour Party is treading. Forward pointed out that the pacifists of twenty years ago are the increased-armament advocates of to-day. Forward, however, overlooks the fact that twenty years ago the Labour Party was apparently decades away from the chance of being called upon to be in the Government. To-day it might be called at any time. Those who would administer capitalism can only do it in the way marked out for them by capitalism. The realisation of this is the emanation of many a Labour leader’s desertion of pacifism. It is called “facing realities.” It means no more than the fact that, as the majority of leaders and led have no real knowledge of how capitalism works, they can only judge social problems within the narrow limits of their understanding, and not as relations bound up with the workings of capitalism and its continuance. Hence once committed to capitalism, and being called upon to administer it, the Labour Party will have no alternative but to prosecute war when capitalist interests demand it. Erstwhile pacifists will become war ministers and recruiting agents. To them, in their ignorance, it will seem the logical thing to do. But just as they are like the ostrich with head in the sand, unable to see further ahead than becoming the Government, just so are they incapable of seeing the Nemesis that will overtake them as a result of their present ignorance and folly. Millions of workers have been educated to believe that the solution of their problems is in a Labour Government. Wrongly they regard a Labour Government as the political expression of organised workers’ interests. The failure of two Labour Governments has strained the loyalty of many who would not have given that failure a second thought had it not ‘been the failure of a party whose only justification for existing was to serve working-class interests, who claimed to be able to do so much and yet did so little. A future experiment in Labour Government, which also includes calling upon workers to suffer the untold sacrifices and tortures of modern warfare, is likely to rapidly disillusion the workers and bring the Labour Party to a more rapid and even more ignominous decline. And no amount of assurances from Mr. Herbert Morrison, no Etonian chants on unity being achieved from Mr. Hugh Dalton, nor the fact that Sir Stafford Cripps has toed the Party line, will prevent iL

The Labour Party Conference concluded with the traditional singing of the “Red Flag”—not, as would have been logical—with “Rule Britannia” or “We don’t want to fight but by jingo if we do.”

Harry Waite