After half a century of continuous effort to build up more or less independent working-class political organisations, the electors of this country—of whom at least 85 per cent, are wage or salary earners or their dependants —have returned to power
the Conservative Party with its allies, the small National Liberal and National Labour groups. The Labour Party, which in the public estimation holds the field as the party of the workers and of Socialism, received about 8,300,000 of the votes cast in contested constituencies, equivalent to 38 per cent., and succeeded in winning 155 seats, about 25 per cent. of the total. While the total Labour vote (in a smaller number of contested constituencies) equalled the high record reached in 1929, and thus retrieved much of the ground lost in 1931, the position of the Labour Party cannot be regarded by them with much ratification. It is evident that the bad showing made by the Labour Cabinet in 1931 is still something of a millstone round the necks of Labour candidates, and few now credit the once popular delusion that a Labour Government in office would go on from strength to strength by virtue of its solid achievement.
Between 1929 and 1935 the total electorate grew from 28,850,870 to 31,305,527, an increase of nearly 2½ millions, and the electorate in the reduced number of contested constituencies grew by upwards of 600,000. It is evident that the Labour Party has not succeeded in capturing many of the new voters, or if it has then this has been offset by the loss of former supporters who still follow MacDonald and Thomas. It is true that the percentage of votes in the contested constituencies which went to Labour candidates rose from 37 per cent, in 1929 (the previous high record) to about 38 per cent., but the proportion of electors who troubled to go to the poll at all, declined substantially. Whereas, in the past three General Elections, about 80 per cent, have voted, this time it fell to 71 per cent., the lowest in any year since 1918. The Manchester Guardian in a survey of the results from the Labour Party’s point of view, sums up as follows:—
Taking 1929 as the standard, it would appear that the Labour poll increased mainly in two classes of constituency—the mining areas, which are Labour already (or were only temporarily defected in 1931), and the rural and semi-rural constituencies of the south, which are the strongholds of Toryism and have large Tory majorities. In the urban industrial constituencies, both in those which Labour holds, and in those which it has still to win, 1935 was, on the whole, a much worse year than 1929. Not only has the Labour vote declined in constituencies fought under the same conditions in 1929, but it has received only slight (sometimes no) benefit from the Liberal vote released by the standing down of a Liberal candidate. (M.G., November 18th, 1935.)
That there should be increasing apathy in elections is itself a condemnation of the Labour Party. Electors have seen Labour Government, and it has increased their indifference to politics!
The opposition Liberal vote changed little as compared with 1931, being about 1,400,000 on each occasion, but it represents a huge decline from the Liberal strength in 1929. Then, before they were split into three or four factions, they polled over 5,000,000. There seems little likelihood of a Liberal recovery, but the way the Liberals give their favours will continue to be of great importance to the rival suitors, the Labour and Conservative Parties.
The Conservative candidates, quite apart from their allies, obtained about 48 per cent, of the votes cast, thus bringing them to the level reached in 1924, and well below the high point of 1931 (54.9 per cent.). It is, however, obvious that a good deal of this vote is due to the support of the National Liberal and National Labour groups.
As some observers long ago realised, the Conservatives cannot normally expect to get even half of the votes unless they can receive the allegiance of other groups—hence their fondness for Coalitions and National Governments.
Why do Workers Vote Tory ?
Why do the workers vote in such large numbers for the National Government? Traditional confidence in the party of wealth and privilege, feelings of patriotism and the uncertain international situation, these sentiments played their part, but alongside and overshadowing them was the workers’ estimate of their own self-interest. They judged that more work, steady wages, and some slight additions to the body of social reform are the things that matter, and will always matter, and they believe that these are best looked after by a stable, Conservative Government. In that respect the continued trade depression, perhaps, helped the National candidates, and if the next election takes place when trade is better and the workers are more confident, they might be more inclined to turn to the Labour Party. Nevertheless, it still seems probable, as was indicated in 1931 by that election, that the Labour Party has as little chance as the Tories of getting a majority of votes on its own programme and without Liberal backing. So long as the contest is about questions of wages, social reforms and foreign policy, all of which are within the framework of capitalism, the workers are bound to be divided. Those whose immediate interests appear to be served by tariffs or armament expenditure will vote one way, and those who think they will make some small gain by free trade or more social reforms will vote the other. The only chance, therefore, of a Labour majority of votes would seem to be some situation which hopelessly discredits the party in power in the way that the Labour Party was discredited in 1931. Then the Labour Party may get substantial Liberal support and some from disgruntled voters who formerly voted Tory.
What is the remedy? It will come through changing the face of the struggle. When Socialists can force forward the issue Socialism versus Capitalism so that it becomes the issue at elections and between elections, the workers will be on the high road to greater unity than has ever been known before.
What lessons and encouragement can Socialists draw from the election? The first is that the electorate were comparatively apathetic. In the three elections from 1924 to 1931 about 80 per cent. of the electors voted. This year it fell to 71%, and many observers commented on the lack of interest during the contest. If it means that voters are less moved by scares, and by the promises of politicians, that is a welcome change, provided that Socialists can use it to interest the workers in the fundamental problem. Otherwise, however, it may only help such people as the Fascists, who thrive on mere apathy and disgust with the older parties.
The Communists and I.L.P. candidates who opposed the Labour candidates did comparatively well, especially in Scotland, and if we consider the difficulties of fighting the party machine and the Trade Union organisation which supports it. As, to some extent, the appeal of the I.L.P. and Communist candidates was to a vague feeling that the Labour Party fails through not being Socialist, this is an encouraging feature, even though the two parties are themselves tarred with much the same kind of brush. The I.L.P. group is increased from three M.P.s to four, and W. Gallacher was returned as Communist.
Judging from the votes of certain candidates who had stood prominently against the idea of military sanctions and war (e.g., Mr. George Lansbury), their attitude was a decided asset with the electors, who are not enamoured of the Labour Party policy of backing the League, if need be, to the point of war.
The three Douglasite, Social Credit candidates did not do well. Perhaps even sympathetic voters are awaiting developments in Alberta before throwing over Labourism or Toryism for Douglasism.
The Co-operative Party put forward 20 nominees, running as Labour and Co-operative candidates, and nine were returned.
Summing up the whole situation, Socialists perceive that the task before them is a huge one, but time and circumstances are on our side. The Labour Party has shown the possibility of winning over millions of workers from a traditional Liberal or Tory loyalty to an entirely new political party, claiming to represent the workers specifically. By hard and persistent effort the Labour Party propagandists have taken the separate problems of the workers, hammered out a piecemeal programme for them, and offered it as a solution. Of course, their solution is a wholly mistaken one, but the achievement of winning so large a measure of support is one which should encourage us. What they have done for their mistaken programme we can do for Socialism.