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Labours first taste of power: Bosses of workers government

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Part four of a history of the Labour Party

The Labour Movement emerged from the first world war greatly strengthened in numbers. Trade union membership rocketed in the years 1913 to 1920, more than doubling to reach just over eight million. The status of the full-time officials shot up too. Their co-operation as recruiters for the slaughter of the Western Front and more importantly as policemen of the production line had been invaluable to the bosses.  

With the Liberal Party split into two warring factions the trade union bureaucracy finally abandoned its long love affair with Liberalism. The State Capitalist measures of the war period had, it appeared, converted Britain's bosses to "collectivism." The cautious trade union officialdom, never wishing to demand from the bosses and the bankers what they had not previously signalled their willingness to grant, felt emboldened to accept that labour should have a "socialist" programme. "Labour and the New Social Order" was just what they were looking for.  

It had a bit of idealistic rhetoric - an essential ingredient to combat Bolshevism. It stated that "what has to be reconstructed after the war is not this or that government department, or this or that piece of social machinery... but society itself."  

How was this to be achieved? On this the programme was evasive. It had what it termed "four pillars of the house of tomorrow." Firstly was “the universal enforcement of the national minimum", i.e. a minimum wage or income. Secondly came the "democratic control of industry." This was a watered down version of the clause four "socialist objective." It was spelled out to mean "the immediate nationalisation of railways, mines and production of electrical power." The rest of industry - ie the decisive bastions of capitalist wealth and power - were merely to be subject to parliamentary and government 'controls' such as had existed during the war. The third pillar was "a revolution in national finance" which amounted to a capital levy and proposals to make taxation more steeply progressive and direct (ie to tax higher incomes and relieve the taxation which fell heavily on the poorest via indirect taxation of food, clothes etc). The last pillar proclaimed the need to win "the surplus wealth for the common good." This was a watered down version of gaining for the producers "the full fruits of their labour." What was "surplus wealth."? Certainly not the profits of the capitalist class. It was simply government resources, in effect taxation yet again, to be spent on housing and public service projects.  

Thus 'Labour and the New Social Order' in no way threatened expropriation or destruction to the capitalist class. Indeed it was eager to motivate these state capitalist and social reform measures in terms of avoiding or softening class conflict. Thus when it called for the securing of the requisite of "healthy life and worthy citizenship" it was eager to assert that "this is in no sense a class proposal."  
Also when warning against any reduction in the standard rates of wages the authors warned that failure to do so "will certainly lead to embittered industrial strife, which will be in the highest degree detrimental to the national interest... the government of the day must not hesitate to take all steps to avert such a calamity."  

In fact as we shall see even these reform proposals proved wild utopian fantasies. In 1924 and 1929-31 Labour did not even attempt to implement them. They did however keep their promise to promote "industrial peace" by attacking strikers and using the Emergency Powers Act. The problem that the Labour Party faced was that the ruling class had no intention of following Sidney Webb's doctrinaire schema of the inevitable increase of collectivism. Indeed it was about to demolish 'all the war-time controls and to denationalise and de-control as much of profitable industry as possible. The question facing Labour was could it even defend the state capitalist controls that it thought so highly of? This question was answered in the great industrial and political battles of the years 1918 to 1921. In each years between these dates nearly two million workers were involved in industrial disputes. In 1919 and 1920 key international political issues faced the labour movement.  

The intervention by British Imperialism against the young Russian workers state and the war in Ireland against British rule were the most important. The Labour Party was no friend of the Bolshevik Revolution. In the Labour daily the Herald H. N. Brailsford, a prominent ILP 'left-winger', condemned the Bolsheviks "reckless uncalculating folly in seizing power," and declared later that, "they have shown no trace of statesmanship". The Labour Leader the IlP's weekly carried similar denunciations by Snowden and others. To top the lot, at the Labour Party conference in July 1918 Kerensky leader of the Provisional Government overthrown by the Bolsheviks, was introduced by the platform to plead for anti-soviet intervention in the name of "democracy." Yet the Labours leaders' attitude to the Russian revolution did not go unchallenged. 

As Lloyd George and Churchill threw their support, in terms of money and men, behind the White Armies and sent troops to Archangel and ships into the Black Sea the alarm of the whole working class movement mounted. In March of 1919 the Miners Federation demanded the withdrawal of British troops from Russia. At a joint Labour Party TUC conference in April, backed by other unions, they called tor emergency action to carry out this demand. In fact it took the immediate threat of British intervention alongside Poland in 1920 to shake Labour into action. Again the initiative came from the rank and file. On May 10th London dockers refused to load a vessel called the Jolly George taking munitions to Poland. By June the Polish offensive had been halted and reversed by the Red Army. On August 6th the British Government issued an ultimatum to the Soviets with threats of intervention if they did not cease military ·operations. On August 9th a joint session of the TUC and Labour Party leaderships issued their own ultimatum: “...such a war (against Soviet Russia) would be an intolerable crime against humanity; it therefore warns the government that the whole industrial power of the organised workers will be used to defeat this war.” 

The combined leaderships convened a national Conference which in turn elected a Council of Action. In the principal towns and cities local councils of action were formed. Faced with this massive and unprecedented show of resistance Lloyd George backed down - much to Churchill's fury. The British Labour movement had just threatened to do what it had forsworn with the most solemn oaths.  

It had threatened - and indeed set about organising a political general strike in defiance of the constitutionally elected government. Indeed, leaders like J.H. Thomas almost gloried in their actions: "No Parliamentary effort" he told the delegates to the national conference "could do what we are asking you to do, and desperate as they are, we believe that the disease is so desperate and dangerous that it is only desperate methods that can provide a remedy." He continued, to cheers, that what was being proposed was no "mere strike" but "a challenge to the whole constitution of the country." This incident demonstrates just how far mass pressure can, in certain circumstances, force even Right-wing union leaders to go. It shows that "fighting talk" is not an exclusive monopoly of the left-wing leaders. Fortunately for the TUC and Labour leaders their fine words were not put to the test of action. The necessity for British intervention was lessened by a Polish victory in the Vistula and Soviet-Polish peace talks.
Sankey Commission
The same miners conference back in 1919 which first called for action in defence of Russia also threatened strike action if the government refused to meet Kent demands for the nationalisation of the mines, higher wages and shorter hours. The government's response to the miners demands was to buy time through the appointment of a Parliamentary commission of the mines, the Sankey commission. The immediate strike threat was averted, since the MFGB, with the support of the Labour Party, agreed to co-operate with the commission.  

The interim report of the Sankey commission agreed in favour of nationalisation. The government, though, were not prepared to concede. Yet again the miners union backed off from confrontation. It decided instead to appeal to the TUC for concerted action by the whole movement. The September 1919 TUC Congress 'supported the miners' by calling a special congress for December to decide on action! When this met it decided against industrial action and in favour of "political action" - ie a "Mines for the for the Nation" propaganda campaign. The campaign was a total flop. The moment critical had passed. The employers and the government rallied their forces and passed over to the offensive. The miners were, in little over a year, to be forced to fight but on ground of the employers choosing. Thus in 1919 and 1920 the militant trade unionism of the miners failed to secure the objective they had been striving for throughout the war - the full nationalisation of the mines. The Reformist politics of the Labour Party like wise prevented it from combining with the miners to win this demand of 'Labour and the New Social Order." At the point where an industrial, direct action battle for a political objective was posed albeit a reform which did not challenge capitalism in its fundamentals, the most militant union in Britain backed off. The MFGB passed the buck to the TUC and the "political wing." The latter promptly sold out the struggle.  

The next two years of strikes and lock-outs were defensive economic battles. They were sectional struggles ones which it proved difficult or impossible through 'normal channels' to mobilise solidarity action around. Indeed when the Triple Alliance was put to the test on April 15th 1921 - to resist the coal-owners unilateral imposition of wage reductions and lengthening of hours, the railwaymen and the transport workers left the miners in the lurch.  

"Black Friday", as this incident was called, was a crippling blow for the whole labour movement. It shattered nearly a decade of growing belief and confidence in militant industrial unionism. It strengthened illusions in the need to 'turn to politics' in the shape of the Labour Party and electoralism. The exclusive, or preponderant reliance on trade union action which had characterised the syndicalist militants from 1912 onwards had led to enormous missed opportunities in the years 1917 to 1920. Now these militants were to learn the hard way.  

A minority however were learning, not only from bitter experience, from the defeats of 1921 and 1922 but from the new experience of the victory of the Russian revolution and from the political party that led it - the Bolsheviks. Here they discovered an altogether different politics and party. It was a politics not hide bound by respect for the bosses' parliament. Rather it was a politics that knew how to combine economic and political demands into a mass offensive against capitalism and its state. It could lead and promote a class struggle trade unionism which could transcend the purely economic and trade union issues in struggle.  

Naturally enough the Labour leadership waged a merciless fight against the emerging, tiny forces of British Bolshevism at all levels, just as they did the Russian revolution at an international level.  

MacDonald and Henderson, eager to contain the influence of the Bolsheviks played a central role in 1919 in the resurrection of the 2nd international which they saw - in MacDonaIds words “as the only real bulwark against Bolshevism short of military execution". (Labour leader - 14.8.1919) The Berne conference in 1919 which MacDonald and Henderson attended to accomplish that task issued the following statement of principle: “… firmly adheres to the principles of Democracy. A reorganised society more and more permeated with socialism cannot be realised, much less, permanently established , unless it rests on the triumphs of Democracy ... Those Institutions, which constitute democracy are a government responsible to parliament."  

The problem for the Labour Party was an immediate one. At the height of the Polish intervention in Russia the Communist Party of Great Britain was formed in August 1920. They wrote to the Labour Party requesting affiliation. The Communist Party sent with its request three resolutions adopted at the Convention which defined the objects, methods and policy of the party. The sum of these was a declaration for the Soviet system and a repudiation of the reformist view that socialist revolution can be achieved by the ordinary method of parliamentary democracy.  

Doctrinal purity
Henderson on behalf of the Labour Party Executive rejected the application - on the grounds that the objects of the CPGB "did not appear to be in accord with the constitution, programme and principles of the Labour Party". To this the CPGB replied with a series a questions: "Did the Labour Party Executive rule that acceptance of Communism was contrary to the party's constitution, principles and programme?" - of course - it would mean a negation of the sham of parliamentary democracy. Did it decisively and categorically reject the soviet system and the dictatorship of the proletariat?' - of course had it not explained its great respect of the Constitution. Perhaps most important in the light of recent witch-hunts in the party - "Did it propose to exclude from its ranks all those elements at present in the Labour Party who hold this means to be necessary in order to achieve the political, social and economic emancipation of the workers and did it impose acceptance of parliamentary constitutionalism as an article of faith on its affiliated societies?" The honest answer to all these questions was "yes", though Henderson didn't dare put it so frankly. Instead he simply replied that there was an "inseparable difference between the two parties."  

Of course there was. Lenin himself had made this clear when he described the Labour Party as a workers party only in the sense that it s membership was comprised of workers, its policies and leaders were thoroughly bourgeois. The Labour Party never declared to be an exclusive party based on a unified political doctrine.  

It allowed affiliation of political parties with wide differences to it and it had the affiliation of millions of trade unionists. As the "political wing of the trade unions", as it liked to call itself it showed no desire to defend its doctrinal purity. Only against the communists was it such a stickler. Lenin advised the young CPGB to continue to apply for affiliation whilst they could continue to criticise the Hendersons and MacDonalds from within.  

The latter half of 1921, 1922 and the first half of 1923 were bleak years for the working class. A massive slump threw over two million on the dole (17.8% of the insured population in March 1922). Even by the end of 1922 the figure had only fallen to just below one and a half million and was never to fall below the million mark throughout the 1920's and 1930’s. Union funds were swallowed by the payment of unemployment relief £7 million in 1921 alone. Union membership slumped by over two million. A bitter series of defensive struggles against an employers offensive, most notably the Engineers' lock-out, resulted in defeat after defeat. Not until mid 1923 was there important signs of a recovery of fighting strength.  

A series of strikes broke out in this year which were mainly unofficial - led by rank and file militants, often communists. The builders, the farm workers, seamen, boiler makers and most dramatically the dockers came out on strike demanding wage increases. This growing strength of the rank and file was reflected in the growth of a Miners Minority Movement in 1923. 

Class war
Meanwhile the electoral growth of Labour continued. The general election of 1922 which followed the decision of the Tories to ditch Lloyd George and his 'National Liberals' once the post-war crisis had passed, saw a big advance for Labour. The Labour vote shot up from 2,370,000 to four and a quarter million. Its total share of MP's went up from 75 to 142. The new Tory Government was unstable, divided and unlikely to last for long. At Labour’s 1923 Conference the party, for the first time seriously contemplated the prospect of office. Sidney Webb set the tone with a presidential address; "The inevitability of gradualness cannot fail to be appreciated. The translation of socialism into practicable objects is the task on which we have engaged for a generation with the result that fragments of our policy have been successfully put into operation by town and county councils and the government itself. The whole nation has been imbibing socialism without knowing it. It is now time for the subconscious to rise into consciousness." Labour was, said Webb, on the "threshold of power." When it took power it should remember "that the founder of British Socialism was not Karl Marx but Robert Owen. Owen preached not class war but the doctrine of human brotherhood."  

The working class was soon to gain its first experience of just how gradual the Labour Party's 'socialism' was. Indeed it quickly became apparent that it was not capitalist society that had been imbibing socialism without knowing it for decades. Rather the Labour Movement had been imbibing capitalist liberalism under the Fabian label. The result far from being socialism was not even a serious dose of social reform.  

An election was called for the December of 1923. Labour's manifesto revealed the effects of the lure of power. For the first time since 1918 the manifesto contained no mention of public ownership. Gone were the promises to nationalise the mines, the railways and the power industry, it did promise an international conference to revise the infamous Versailles Treaty which had imposed crushing reparations on a defeated Germany. It promised full diplomatic recognition and the opening of commercial relations with Soviet Russia. It promised minor reforms at home and in the Empire which Philip Snowden promised would "be gradually grafted on to the existing system.” This was of a piece with the sentiments expressed by J.H. Thomas in October 1923: " We love our empire. We are proud of the greatness of our Empire." Labour might reform aspects of the colonial administration but had no intention of freeing the enslaved colonies.  

When the election came Labour enjoyed only a marginal increase in votes - 4,348,000 - but received a substantial increase in seats - up to 191. This left it in a distinct minority with the Tories still the largest party. Nevertheless the ruling class politicians In the Tory Party and in the Liberal Party calculated it was best to allow Labour to take office without having any real power.  

Thus Baldwin, the Tories new leader was of the opinion that the Labour Party's 'calculations ware that the discontent in the country coupled with want of action on our part would have swept them into power and us out by 1926. And I believe myself that that would have happened." Asquith one of the Liberal leaders, noted that Labour was being allowed in “… with its claws cut. The experiment could hardly be made under safer conditions". Neville Chamberlain a leading Tory put his finger on it when he observed that Labour in office "would be too weak to do much harm but not too weak to get discredited".  

Philip Snowden later recalled the private cabal at the Webbs where Labour's strategy was decided "there ware two courses open to us. We might use the opportunity for a demonstration and introduce some bold Socialist measures, knowing of course that we should be defeated upon them. Then we could go to the country with this illustration of what we would do if we had a Socialist majority. This was a course had been urged by the extreme wing of the party, but it was not a policy which commended itself to reasonable opinion. I urged very strongly to this meeting that we should not adopt an extreme policy but should confine our legislative proposals to measures which we were likely to be able to carry. We must show the country that we were not under the domination of the wild men".  

Ramsay MacDonald announced his intention of acting as a proxy Liberal Government: “I want to gain the confidence of the country. I shall suit my policy accordingly." What this meant was soon to be clear enough. He was seeking the confidence of the bosses. To gain this he was quite prepared to lose the confidence of workers in struggle against these very bosses.  

Macdonald started as he meant to continue by assuring King George, who was alarmed by the singing of the Red Flag at a celebratory Albert Hall rally, that “they had got into the way of singing this song and it will be by degrees that he hopes to break down this habit.” 

The Government's attitude to workers' struggles was straight forward. It opposed them. In fact a railway strike was in progress when it took office. ASLEF was opposing wage reductions for locomotive men. Jimmy Thomas' NUR had accepted them. Many NUR drivers and firemen joined ASLEF on strike. Tom Shaw for the government stated "we had no sympathy for this unofficial strike, and that all the resources of the Government would be used to prevent the four essential services, light, water, food end power from being stopped."  

In February a national dock strike was given the same treatment. MacDonald announced that the Government would "take what steps are necessary to secure transport of necessary food supplies" - ie he would break the strike.  

The union leaders - Ernest Bevin and Ben Tillet caved in. Tillet claimed he had never "heard the same menacing threats or the same expressions of fear" from Tory or Liberal ministers. Bevin used the excuse - to become only too familiar to future generations - "We were bound to listen to the appeal of our own people".  

The miners were swindled with a Minimum Wage Bill. Their leaders called off a strike on the promise of this legislation only to see the Liberals and Tories chop it up in the committee stage in the Commons. The worst and most glaring proof that this government was a capitalist government came with the London Traffic strike -  Tramwaymen, and busmen struck in March 1924. The tube workers threatened sympathy action and asked the government to intervene and take over all transport services in the capital. MacDonald intervened all right - on the other side! He announced that "the major services must be maintained" and invoked the hated Emergency Powers Act. On April 1st the King signed a proclamation declaring a state of Emergency. This 'April Fool' message from the Labour Government, to the workers who elected it shattered many illusions.  

Abroad Labour was as trenchant in its defence of the bosses' Empire. MacDonald telegrammed India, where nationalists' expectations had been aroused by the advent of a 'socialist' government, saying: "no party in Great Britain will be cowed by threats of force or by polices designed to bring Government to a standstill." And to prove his point he introduced detention without trials in Bengal. In Bombay during a cotton workers strike troops opened fire with a resulting fifty casualties. Indian Communists were arrested and jailed for "conspiracy to deprive the King of his Sovereignty."  

Only under considerable pressure was MacDonald persuaded to start the process of normalising Anglo-Soviet relations. When he did he demanded the reparations of all British (bosses) investments and debts from the days of the Tsarist regime. His speech at the Anglo-Soviet conference was hailed by The Times as "firm". MacDonald, who acted as his own Foreign Secretary was an easy tool of the Foreign Office. One senior official remarked. "He is the easiest Foreign Secretary I have ever had to manage".  

Even Labours opponents were shocked at the weakness of its actions in government. Lloyd George wrote; "They have come in like a lamb. Will they go out like a lion? Who knows? For the present, their tameness is shocking to me".  

The underlying reason which eventually decided the Liberals to get rid of MacDonald was the Anglo-Russian Treaty. Fundamentally the capitalist parties did not want any breach of the economic blockade of the Soviet Union. However they had to await a pretext as this issue was not one that could increase their popularity. They found it in a foolish anti-communist measure of the Government. J.R. Campbell acting editor of the Communist Party's paper Workers Weekly had written an article calling on soldiers not to turn their guns on fellow workers in the class war. The Government opened a prosecution for sedition, then dropped It.  

The liberals, seeing their pretext, voted against the government in the Commons. MacDonald himself forced this vote into a vote of confidence and called a general election. At the height of the election campaign the Foreign Office produced a forged letter from Zinoviev, president of the Comintern, purporting to be encouraging mutiny in the army under the cover of restored diplomatic relations. MacDonald accepted its authenticity and protested to the Soviet Government. By thus confirming the Tory and liberal press outcry, he unleashed an anti-communist campaign that had disastrous results for Labour.  

The election resulted in a loss of forty Labour seats though Labour's total vote increased by over a million due to it contesting more seats. It was the Liberals who were really trounced, losing over two thirds of their seats and thus giving Baldwin and the Tories a solid majority for their anti-working class crusade.  

The first Labour Government had proved a number of things. That it was not a workers but a bosses' government was shown by its actions at home and abroad. Not only did it take measures of repression like a Liberal or Tory Government against strikes and nationalist struggles. It had an added weapon. It could persuade the union leaders to listen to the appeals of 'our own men'. MacDonald, Snowden, Clynes and Henderson were 'the enemy within' inside the labour movement and doubly dangerous at that. They were bosses men leading the labour movement. Their 1924 fiasco opened the gate to a Tory Government which was to inflict the bitter defeat of 1926 on the working class.