At the Trades Union Congress of 1899 a resolution was carried calling for the formation of a Labour Representation Committee. In 1900 a conference was held at which this latter body was formed. According to H. R. S. Phillpott, writing in the Daily Herald, February 27th, 1940, “the concrete thing that came out” of the conference was a declaration in favour of “establishing a distinct Labour Group in Parliament, who shall have their own Whips, and agree upon their policy, which must embrace a readiness to co-operate with any party which for the time being may be engaged in promoting legislation in the direct interest of Labour, and be equally ready to associate themselves with any party in opposing measures having an opposite tendency.” Arising from this the Labour Party was formed in 1906. In regard to this, Mr. C. R. Attlee, in his book, “The Labour Party in Perspective” (Labour Book Club Edition, 1937. p. 40), says : —
“The new Labour Party was formed on a very simple basis—that of the return of Labour members to Parliament. For all the years up to the end of the war this simple object sufficed. In 1917 as in 1906 its object is stated to be : ‘To organise and maintain in Parliament and the country a political Labour Party.’“The conception of the Labour Party at that date is well expressed by Mr. Wardle in his presidential address in 1911 : —“‘From the very first, the ties which bound the Party together were of the loosest possible kind. It has steadily and, in my opinion, wisely always refused to be bound by any programme, to subscribe to any dogma, or to lay down any creed. Its strength has been its catholicity, its tolerance, its welcoming of all shades of political and even revolutionary thought, provided that its chief object, the unifying of the workers’ political power, was not damaged or hindered thereby.'”
According to Mr. Attlee (p. 45), in 1918 “the Party now adopted Socialism as its aim. No longer is the mere return of Labour members sufficient. In 1918 the objects of the Party were set out approximately as they stand to-day,”
Object No. 4, which gave expression to this newly adopted aim, was as follows : —
“To secure for the workers by hand or by brain the full fruits of their industry and the most equitable distribution thereof that may be possible, upon the basis of the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange, and the best obtainable system of popular administration and control of each industry or service.”
We shall return to the contents of this object later.
Mr. Attlee goes on to describe the “very lengthy and diffuse” manifesto issued by the Labour Party at that time, Labour and the New Social Order in which “all Labour adherents could find their own particular reforms,” as “an uncompromisingly Socialist document” which, amongst other things, “did not consider for a moment the re-establishment of pre-war capitalist industry. The war, it stated, saw the culmination and collapse of a distinctive industrial civilisation, which the workers will not seek to reconstruct.”
In 1928 this manifesto was replaced by “Labour and the Nation”
Once again, even though Mr. Attlee states that it differed considerably from its predecessor it was “a very long document, and, though not so all-embracing as its predecessor, comprised a bewildering number of subjects. A four-page summary set out no less than seventy-two proposals that a Labour Government, if elected, intended to carry out. It was obvious that nothing short of a miracle could have enabled the Party, even with an overwhelming majority, to get all these measures passed into law within the life of one Parliament, yet there was no suggestion as to which of them was to be given priority. It was, indeed, designed to rally to the Party a great variety of supporters.” (Page 53. Italics ours.)
After his description of the earlier pamphlet Mr. Attlee makes the following statement: —
“Allowing, however, for the difference in the country’s position in 1918 and to-day, the programme shows that as far as general principles are concerned Labour stood then where it stands to-day.”
We have quoted at length in order to establish from the best possible sources the basis of Labour Party policy, both at its formation and at the present day. Let us now consider a very brief history of the Party in the political field, and the results obtained as a consequence of attempting to follow such a policy.
At the election following the 1914-18 War the Labour Party became the official Opposition, and in 1923 was elected into power as a minority Government. Regarding its activities whilst in power, Mr. Attlee says (p. 52) : “The greatest success was scored in foreign affairs. . . . On the home front there had been no real decision as to what should be done first. Useful work was done, but nothing very striking.” And this was after the publication of that “uncompromisingly Socialist document” and the adoption of Object referred to above ! We must suppose that “all Labour adherents” were busy sorting out “their own particular reforms.”
In 1929 the Labour Party again formed the Government, this time being the largest party in the House of Commons, 288 members; the Conservatives totalled 267, the Liberals 59.
In Mr. Attlee’s opinion there were “three possible courses open to the Labour Party: to refuse office, to accept office and invite defeat by putting forward a Socialist programme and place the onus of rejecting it on to the Liberal Party, or to come to some agreement with the Liberals on a programme which would secure joint action in the House.” After discussing the pros and cons of these courses of action, he says : “No one of these courses was followed.” (P. 54 et seq.)
Regarding the activities of this Government Attlee records how “MacDonald was right in thinking that in the sphere of foreign affairs a great lead for peace and disarmament could be given, but he had no clear idea as to what course to follow in domestic affairs.” As a consequence those members of the Labour Party who wished for a “vigorous lead in home affairs found themselves side stepped and frustrated at every turn.”
Further on in his book (p. 109) we find Mr. Attlee describing the democratic constitution of the Parliamentary Party. In regard to this he says : “Party action in the House is therefore decided by the whole body of the members. … In practice a considerable degree of latitude is given to members, and the Party shows much toleration of individual vagaries. It insists, however, on majority rule.”
Relating this democratic procedure to the activities of the 1929 Government it would appear that the majority did not desire a “vigorous lead in home affairs” but preferred to peddle League of Nations theories on the Continent. No doubt they spent their week-ends sorting out the “bewildering ” “four-page summary” of “seventy-two proposals” in Labour and the Nation, or studying the Bible to find out how miracles were performed.
It seems, however, that this democratic procedure failed to function in 1931, according to Mr. Attlee. He attributes the lack of success and ultimate collapse of the Labour Party almost entirely to the ineptitude of Ramsay MacDonald, culminating in his betrayal of “those who had given him their trust.” “Mr. MacDonald had led the Party into an acceptance of gradualness …” Earlier Attlee says that MacDonald had “got more and more out of touch with the rank and file.” We may well ask, what was the rank and file doing, through the medium of democratic procedure, to allow MacDonald (and others) to so drift away, and yet remain1 the official spokesman of Labour policy ? It seems as if the Parliamentary Party was somewhat analogous to a sheep farm, with the flocks being driven hither and thither by a few “trustworthy” shepherds.
What was happening, in fact, was that the Labour Party was reaping the harvest from seeds it had sown in its early days and had since carefully tended.
If the quotations at the beginning of this article are studied it is evident that at no time did the Labour Party ask for the support of the working class for the abolition of the capitalist system and the establishment of a socialist system of society. Throughout the whole of its history it has sought to gain the votes of the workers, not for Socialism, but for reforms within the existing system. It has sought to gain political power at well nigh any price. It has stood for a reformed capitalism, a State capitalism, a nationalised capitalism, but never for the establishment of a system of society based on the common ownership and democratic control of the means of production and distribution.
Even in the Party Object No. 4 quoted above, which is to some extent similar in wording to the object of the Socialist Party of Great Britain, we would draw attention to the very important point that it does not call for the establishment of a system of society based upon the common ownership of the means of production, etc. With regard to the phrases, “to secure for the workers,” “the most equitable distribution,” and “the best obtainable system of popular administration,” when these are placed in relation to the rest of Labour Party ideology, which does not visualise the need for social revolution, they imply only one thing. The “most equitable” and the “best obtainable” under capitalism.
Under Socialism there can be no question of the “most equitable” distribution, there will be only one distribution, and that will be in accordance with the needs of the individuals comprising society: and than that nothing can be more or less equitable. Under Socialism there will be no “best obtainable” system of administration; the system of administration will of necessity be fully democratic and consequently the best possible. Also, there can be no question of securing for the workers under Socialism the full fruits of their labour; everybody capable of working will work as a social duty and will receive in return as a social right a proportion of the fruits of the labour of society, in accordance with his or her needs. Lastly, let us point out that the use of the word “exchange” in relation to political economy can have only one meaning : that is the exchange of commodities. If exchange is retained, commodities are retained, buying and selling is retained, capitalism is retained.
(To be continued next month)