December 1931 issue of the Socialist Standard
A Lesson of the Election
The one thing that most clearly marks off the Socialist Party of Great Britain from the other organisations which claim an interest in Socialism, is our view that the only possible basis for a Socialist Party is an understanding of socialist principles. When the founders of the S.P.G.B. decided on our present Declaration of Principles as the minimum condition of' membership, they had already had long experience of alternative forms of organisation. They had seen the disastrous results of bringing together people without socialist knowledge who were attracted merely by one or other of a long list of political and social reforms. Such an organisation cannot be more advanced than its members, and therefore cannot take action for the furtherance of Socialism. Indeed, it can take action at all only with the greatest difficulty, for it rarely happens that all the members are agreed upon any one of the reform demands. Every attempt to be definite provokes internal friction or secession movements. The electoral success of such a party is its aim and also its undoing. For with office comes the demand from the members that steps be taken to fulfil all the promises. Of course they cannot be fulfilled; capitalism stands in the way. The elation of victory gives place quickly to angry criticism of the men or the programme. So every such party meets its fate sooner or later at the hands of the workers who gave it life and strength. The last election, coming after more than two years of Labour Government, shows us the internal contradictions of the Labour Party, working out to their necessary conclusion. Those who still cling to the belief that an organisation of non-socialists, brought together upon a programme of reforms, can work for Socialism should ponder over the Labour Party’s collapse.
"Forward," the Scottish I.L.P. journal, in its issues dated November 7th, 14th and 21st, published articles from a large number of Labour candidates in Scottish constituencies telling why they lost seats and votes. The collection is a very powerful justification for the position of the S.P.G.B. Below we give some brief extracts:—
Mr. Thomas Johnson (West Stirlingshire) : “We lost, inter alia, because about 15 per cent, of our abnormal vote in 1929 transferred itself to our opponents.”
Mr. T. Henderson (Tradeston) gives as one of the reasons for his defeat, “warring elements within the movement.”
Mr. Michael Marcus (Dundee) says: “Recent events prove conclusively that our first task is to convert certain socialists to Socialism.” He records that panic at the thought of a Labour victory seized even the poorest workers who had not so much as a few pounds in the Savings Bank.
Mr. James C. Welsh (Coatbridge) tells that the unemployed and their wives voted against him, although, as he complains bitterly, “ I think I can claim that nowhere have the unemployed had better services given them.”
Mr. D. N. Mackay (Inverness-shire) confesses that the electors voted for the National candidate because they still regarded MacDonald and Snowden as “typical Labourists ” and “their views were accepted as final.” But what a confession to make! To admit that the party supporters had been recruited simply on the name's of its former leaders.
Mr. John Winning (Kelvingrove) says that working-class voters, employed and unemployed, after two years of Labour Government, flocked to the poll "to protect their few pennies in the Savings Bank and Post Office from confiscation by a Labour Government ”: not only the old and decrepit, but also "the young and vigorous." He finds it a chastening thought, and wonders what is wrong with the Labour Party’s "socialist” propaganda.
Mr. R. Gibson (N. Edinburgh) found that the unemployed voted Tory because they were promised jobs, and, it seems, were more impressed by this than by the Labour promise to look after their unemployment pay. It is a saddening discovery for reformers that the workers positively dislike their particular brand of reforms. Mr. Gibson had the support of the local Liberals, and paints a touching picture of a "Liberal woman . . . pleading with a Communist to vote Labour.”
Mr. J. S. Clarke (Maryhill) says "Prominent members of the I.L.P., including the Glasgow organiser, not only abstained from voting for the Labour candidate, but conducted a virulent campaign against him.” Mr. Clarke is one of those who in the past have told us that we ought to get together with the great united Labour Party. But even if we wanted to, how could we now that it is "united” into several furiously battling fragments?
Mr. J. Pollock (Kilmarnock) attributes defeat to the Labour supporters having been won over to tariffs, and to the deadly blow administered to the local Labour Party in 1929 when the Labour Head Office forced a particularly anti-working class Labour candidate on the division.
Mr. A. Woodburn (Leith) says that in his constituency the workers felt that they had had just about enough of Labour Government "and it was time to see what another Government would do.” That is confirmation of our own often expressed view of the results of Labour Government.
Mr. J. Sullivan (Bothwell) lost his seat because he had quarrelled with the other reform party, the Communists, and they ran a candidate against him.
Mr. G. Mathers (W. Edinburgh) relates that certain of his own dissatisfied supporters, instead of helping him, came to his meetings "trying to concoct trick questions.” He saw with surprise that the unemployed, the teachers, and others who were affected by the National Government’s economy plans, nevertheless voted "Nationalist.”
In South Ayrshire, Mr. James Brown suffered from the effects of his own party’s propaganda. The Labour Party, having decided to be Free Traders, were promising to keep prices down, so the farmers and fishermen—who wanted high prices, not low ones—voted against the Labour Party,, which was expecting to get their votes.
Dissatisfaction With Labour Government.
Mr. F. Martin (E. Aberdeenshire) gives the following reasons for the shrinkage of the Labour vote :—
The general scare; support for Ramsay MacDonald, which caused a certain number of Socialists to vote for the Conservative, and which also induced many abstentions; dissatisfaction with the record of Labour in office.
The chief Tory asset was, in Mr. Martin’s view, the prospect of tariffs.
In Galloway, Mr. H. McNeill was beaten by a combination of factors. There was a Mosley candidate preaching "scientific capitalism” (and seemingly some voters thought this must be better than capitalism badly run by the Labour Party). Numbers of Co-operators voted Tory "to save the pound, and at the same time their divi” from their Labour friends.
In Motherwell, which the Communists used to declare had a solid Communist majority (although they won it on the usual Lib.-Lab. reform programme), the Rev. James Barr was up against a Liberal who is chairman of the local football club, and therefore popular. Then, it appears, the electorate failed to realise that a National victory meant protectionist capitalism instead of free trade capitalism, and “they paid no heed to the warning of the 'Manchester Guardian.’ ” The Liberal candidate won other votes by declaring that the rich are having a bad time; he "gave out grossly inaccurate figures as to additional burdens imposed on surtax payers.” And finally he tried to take away Catholic voters from the Protestant Rev. J. Barr.
May we offer to this Labour candidate what would seem to be a simple but certain road to victory next time? Let him become chairman of a football club, declare himself a Protectionist-Free-Trader and a Catholic-Protestant, and train all his supporters to read the Liberal "Manchester Guardian.” Then, no doubt, we shall soon have Socialism!! The chief obstacle from the Rev. Barr's point of view is that, if he discovers a vote-catching stunt, his opponents will use it too.
Mr. J. Gibson (S. Lanark) was defeated because, among other things, the workers did not like what they saw of Labour Government. He says :—
The Labour Government did not help us. It had attempted to operate capitalism only to find itself faced with a crisis that demanded Socialist action.
Mr. Gibson does hot explain how, having been elected to operate capitalism, they could have taken socialist action even if they know what it is and wished to do so. It was only the disgust of the voters that prevented Mr. Gibson from being returned like the others “to operate capitalism." That was what he was offering to do.
“They Had No Savings."
In Berwick and Haddington, Mr. G. Sinkinson had a different experience from some of his colleagues elsewhere. He found that the miners solidly resisted the panic about Savings Banks, “for the very simple reason that they had ho savings." Mr. Sinkinson does not explain what the Labour Government had been doing for over two years that the miners should have been thus pauperised.
Mr. J. Rankin (Pollok) describes the “huge Labour majorities of 1929 melting like snow upon the desert's dusty face." The fall in the Labour vote was due to the following: “The ongoings in the Labour Cabinet during the crisis." At every meeting he was asked, “Did your own Cabinet not agree to nine-tenths of the cuts you are now opposing?" He describes the election as being “simply a vote of confidence in MacDonald"; and like others who for years and years had been telling the voters to trust blindly in MacDonald, Mr. Rankin was caught in his own trap.
Miss Jennie Lee, in N. Lanark, failed to get the votes of electors in a new district, and suffered from “the general disappointment caused by the spirit in which the Labour Government had applied itself to its tasks." It will be recalled that Miss Lee, when she was elected in 1929 on a programme of reforms which did not so much as mention Socialism-, claimed her election as a “socialist " victory. Of course, neither her victory then nor her defeat now had anything to do with Socialism.
In West Lothian Mr. Shinwell expected the shale oil workers and miners to be disappointed with the results of Labour Government whose “reforms" had, in fact, worsened their conditions. He saw the miners voting for a royalty owner, and Catholic workers voting for a Protestant Orangeman.
In Shettleston the Labour man was beaten by Mr. McGovern, who fought with the backing of the I.L.P. and its leaders (and the Catholic Press). The I.L.P. parent trying to kill its own overgrown child, the Labour Party!
In Bute and N. Ayr, Mr. A. Sloan attributed his defeat, partly at least, to the spectacle of the Labour Government putting its programme into operation.
Frankly, I must say that the action or in- action of the late Labour Government had quite a lot to do with it. There was resentment in the minds of the workers that they had been badly let down by the Labour Government.
The Labour Government's "Means Test."
With regard to accusations against the Labour Cabinet that they had agreed to the economies, he says :—
I have yet to see, hear, or read any reasoned reply to the accusation. I also struck the first fruits of the Anomalies Act. . . It is a means test of far reaching effect imposed by the Labour Government.(Italics his.)
Mr. Sloan gives it as his view that the Labour Government, if judged simply on its merits, would have had an even worse defeat at the polls. Only the unpopular National Government economies saved the Labour candidates some loss of votes.
In East Renfrewshire, Bailie Strain had to fight the “fighting marquis of Clydesdale," a popular sporting man, and also the I.L.P. The branch of the I.L.P. not only decided to take no part in the election, but refused to lend or hire out its hall for Labour meetings, this being done as “a protest against the actions of the Parliamentary Labour Party."
Bailie Strain, who was the Co-operative nominee, found himself up against Cooperative opposition. He says :—
The Tories undoubtedly took full advantage of the elements, hundreds of motor cars and fine- dressed ladies, among whom were many prominent co-operators, helping to rush the electors to the polls.
Mr. A. Fraser Macintosh, at Montrose Burghs, gives a fine illustration of the dangers of depending upon leaders. His party has always told the workers to trust in MacDonald. So large numbers of Labour supporters continued to do so in this election. You cannot unmake a god in a few weeks. Other Labour supporters had become apathetic and would not vote, because the Labour Government had "let them down.’’ All that Mr. Macintosh and his helpers could do was to say that it was not the Labour Party which had betrayed the workers, but only its leaders. To which, as Mr. Macintosh confesses, the workers replied that you could not separate the leaders from the Party.
Our little band showed them, but it was of little avail—we did not count, it was the leaders who counted, and they had let them down and would do so again.
The Labour Party cannot have it both ways. If they build a party on its leaders, they must put up with the devastating consequences when the leaders desert.
Reforms Which Hit The Miners.
Mr. J. Westwood (Peebles and S. Midlothian) was up against the opposition of the miners, whose sufferings had been aggravated by one of the Labour Government’s "reforms.”
There was also a feeling of bitterness amongst the miners at the inadequacy of the Coal Mines Act to deal with the problem of the mines, made more difficult by the short time worked, low wages received and recent reductions applied to our men in the Scottish coalfields.
There was also strong anti-Labour feeling, because of the Labour Government’s Anomalies Act, withdrawing unemployment pay from married women.
Helen Gault, the I.L.P. candidate for East Perth, lost 4,500 votes as compared with 1929. In that year she was official Labour candidate, and had the benefits of having MacDonald on her platform, and "generous financial assistance” from the trade unions. This time her official Labour Party endorsement was withdrawn, and with it the trade union money. She says that the greatest factor in causing former voters to desert her was the action of the Labour Government—"My greatest handicap was undoubtedly the record of the Labour Government.” She makes the frank admission that, although she and her helpers knew that the charges against the Labour Government were true, they carefully refrained from admitting it.
The Same Thing Over Again.
The above extracts from "Forward” should serve to show what the workers actually think about the Labour Party, and how little they understand their class position and the socialist case. Here we can see the falseness of the I.L.P. and Labour Party belief that you can lead along non-socialist workers by giving them the "practical benefits” of Labour Government. Labour administration of capitalism antagonises the workers, just as speedily as Tory or Liberal administration.
An incredible amount of work has been devoted to building up the Labour Party and I.L.P. on a basis of reforms, and when they have their chance of giving effect to their programme, capitalism simply smashes their fiddling schemes out of all recognition. It is obvious that in the election the complex jumble of plans and promises contained in "Labour and the Nation” had little effect on the voters.
They simply voted on what they conceived to be the issue of the moment. The Labour Party had been thrust through the natural unpopularity of being the Government, or had manoeuvred itself, on to the wrong side as regards electoral success. Now they are taking stock and preparing to get back again into office when the National Government also fails to solve the insoluble problems of capitalism. But the Labour leaders are not learning the real lesson of the election. They are not even aware that it has proved once more that the only basis for a Socialist Party is an understanding of Socialism. All they are doing is to mix up another mess of reforms, calculated to capture the largest number of votes.