How Labour Governs. Vere Gordon Childe 1923

Chapter 1. Origin and General Structure of the Political Labour Movement

THE Labour Movement in Australia takes on its specific character only from the date of its entry into the political arena with the formations of Labour Parties in most of the States in 1889-90. It is therefore convenient to make this date the starting for our study. Up to this point the history of unionism in the Australian colonies presents no features to make it worthy of any special attention from students of industrial and social questions. By the end of 1888 Labour had achieved a considerable degree of organisation especially in the skilled trades. Craft unions on the English model had been set up for the majority of the occupations requiring any degree of training in their employees. A start had also been made in organising the bush workers by the establishment of unions for shearers and miners. Moreover, while mainly confined to the skilled workmen, unionism was not entirely unknown among the unskilled. On the waterfront in the main seaports, the wharf labourers and coal-lumpers had unions, and in Queensland the shed hands or roustabouts – the unskilled workers employed beside the shearers in the country woolsheds – had an organisation of their own. Intercolonial Trade Union Congresses had been held regularly since 1879, and within the several States the forces of labour were given some sort of co-ordination, at least in the chief towns, by the existence of Labour Councils. In Queensland still further unity had been achieved by the formation of the Australian Federation of Labour, “Northern Province,” commonly spoken of as the A.L.F. At the same time new ideas were being spread by the Australian Socialist League formed in Sydney in 1887, by the writings of William Lane in Brisbane, and by the visit of Henry George. Labour was now a force to be reckoned with in the community and had already achieved several notable victories in these years of booming trade by industrial action. The A.L.F. had in particular demonstrated its power in the northern State at the beginning of 1890 in connection with a shearing dispute and a general spirit of solidarity as well as a confidence in the irresistible might of the organised workers prevailed.

This confidence was rudely shaken by the failure of the Maritime Strike of the same year. This dispute was occasioned by the refusal of the shipowners to permit the Mercantile Marine Officers' Association to continue its affiliation with the Melbourne Trades Hall Council. The seamen and the waterside unions resolved to assist the marine officers, and ceased work in their defence. In Sydney the issue was complicated by the attempt of some pastoralists to shear their sheep by non-union labour and the boycotting of non-union wool by the transport and waterside unions. In sympathy with the maritime workers, who thus came out on strike in a body, the coal miners also ceased work, and at a later date all the members of the Shearers' Union were withdrawn from the sheds. Even the Broken Hill A.M.A. was asked to join in, and the militant miners unanimously downed tools. In the end the unions were defeated all along the line. The Employers' Federation and the Pastoralist Union had displayed perfect solidarity, and they had at their disposal the whole force of the State – the police to guard their property, soldiers to protect the strike-breakers collected by the Federation, and the State railways to convey them wherever they were needed.

“The N.S.W. Labour Party of 1891,” says George Black, “was the creation of the Maritime Strike of 1890.” Its failure had convinced the unionists of the futility of attempting to extort reforms by direct industrial action in the teeth of a hostile Government and all the powers of the State. It had further shown that, however ready bourgeoise ministries might be to receive deputations from trade unions with smiles and to promise reforms in return for working-class votes, when the fundamental issues of the class struggle were raised, they would be solidly behind the employers and lend them every assistance to defeat the toilers. The workers had been defeated by the use of the Governmental machinery in the hands of the master class; but in a democratic country, where every man had a vote and the workers outnumbered the employers, there seemed no reason why they should not wrest that machinery from the masters' hands and control it themselves. The very manifesto which declared the strike off suggested this policy. “We would also call attention,” runs the manifesto of the Strike Congress, “to the actions of the Governments of each colony in regard to the strike, and would recommend active, energetic work throughout all Labour organisations in preparation for taking full advantage of the privileges of the franchise, by sweeping monopolists and class representatives from the Parliaments of the country, replacing them by men who will study the interests of the people, and who will remove the unjust laws now used against the workers and wealth-producers, and administer equitable enactments impartially.” 1

The public, sick of the disturbance to life and business caused by constant strikes, welcomed this idea, and the Press applauded it. On the face of it, it seemed feasible enough. There was no class of hereditary or quasi-hereditary legislators in the colonies such as had grown up in older societies. Payment of members had been introduced in all the States by 1890. Working-men representatives had sat in several of the State Assemblies before this time, though they had tended to drift into one or other of the political parties of the middle-class world. In South Australia candidates had been wont to woo the votes of unionists, and eagerly sought “endorsement” from the Trades and Labour Council before elections, though it is by no means clear that they afterwards displayed any anxiety to fulfil the promises on the strength of which this endorsement had been given. It was quite possible that Labour, if it formed a distinct and independent party, would at least control the balance of power between the middle-class parties, and thereby be able to exact concessions in return for support on the policy initiated by Parnell. This was especially likely in N.S.W. where there were two, and only two, parties sharply divided on the fiscal issue. Accordingly the recommendation of the Strike Congress was adopted. The workers determined to have a political party of their own, with their own independent representatives in the House. Steps to this end were accordingly taken in all the self-governing colonies except Tasmania. A brief account of events in N.S.W. and Queensland will sufficiently illustrate the manner in which the energies of the Labour Movement were diverted to attain the conquest of political power.

In the former State, the Parliamentary Committee of the Trades and Labour Council, immediately upon the settlement of the Maritime Strike, formulated a scheme for the foundation of a Labour Electoral League, with branches in every electorate. A platform was drawn up, and both were submitted to and approved by the Council. Organisers were accordingly sent into the electorates to establish branches and enroll members. Membership was not to be restricted to unionists, but any one who was in sympathy with the aims of the League and would subscribe 5s. a year was eligible. The branches were given the right of selecting candidates, from whom a pledge was demanded that they accepted the Party platform. For the present the executive of the Trades and Labour Council acted also as the executive of the Labour Electoral League. The elections were held in the middle of 1891, and Labour contested forty-five seats and succeeded in securing the return of thirty-six of its candidates, thus being in a position to sway the balance of power between the Protectionists and the Free Traders. Thus was the first Labour Party formed in N.S.W. The steps taken in Victoria and South Australia were similar.

In Queensland the circumstances were somewhat different. At the meeting of the Provincial Council of the A.L.F. in August, 1890, W. Lane, a journalist of great power and strong Socialist convictions, who had already been appointed editor of the Federation newspaper, The Worker, persuaded the organisation to adopt political action for the attainment of Socialism. A programme of “aims” of a pure collectivist character was adopted, as well as an immediate platform for submission to the electors, demanding simple constitutional reforms in the direction of broadening the franchise and abolishing all limitations on the popular will. The A.L.F. sent organisers all over the country to organise what were called Workers' Political Organisations (W.P.O.'s) which corresponded to the Electoral Leagues in N.S.W. It was decided that all Labour representatives must sit on the crossbenches, no matter what party was in power, and pledge themselves to resign if so required by a two-thirds majority of their constituents. Four Labour candidates were returned by this Party in the elections of 1892, but the Party was not finally constituted till the following year. Then the A.L.F. called a conference of the W.P.O.'s, which adopted its own platform and constitution. This included an executive representative of the W.P.O.'s, the A.L.F., and the Parliamentary Party.

The Labour Parties in all the States were agreed in adopting a novel view of democracy and in a determination to remain separate and independent entities, not connected by any permanent bond with any of the older parties. The new theory of democracy which distinguished the Labour Party is well stated by W. G. Spence, himself one of the founders of the political movement. “The idea of self-government,” he writes (A.A., p.220), “came to the worker in a new light, and he saw that he must not only vote, but must make the platform and select his own political war-cry.” Previously the democracy had been asked to choose between policies framed by the Party leaders on their own responsibility. At most the workers had been able to extort promises of particular reforms in return for union votes. This was not self-government as understood by the proletarian democracy of Australia. The issues to be submitted to the people must also be determined by the people if true democracy is to exist. The Labour Party sought to make provision for this. “There is no other party,” said T. J. Ryan in his address to the Queensland Labour-in-Politics Convention of 1913, “that has a policy which is formed on the initiation and at the instance of the people themselves.” The realisation of this ideal has been found to require a system of checks and controls which grew up gradually to meet the demands of the situation. A conference of representatives of all the Party members chosen by the leagues and unions frames the policy; an executive interprets the platform laid down by conference; a meeting of the Parliamentary Party – the Caucus – supervises the execution of the policy by the members in the Houses of Parliament. We shall in the next few chapters examine more in detail this machinery, and try to decide how far it fulfils its purpose. At this stage, however, it will be desirable to study the early history of the N.S.W. Labour Party, as there the several organs of control were developed to meet emergencies at first unforeseen.

When the Parliament of 1891, met it was found that there were fifty-five followers of the Free Trader Parkes, and fifty supporters of his opponent Dibbs. Hence the thirty-six Labour members held the fate of the Government in their hands – on one condition, that they were a united block who could be relied upon to vote solidly on every question. Given that condition, they were clearly able to demand very substantial concessions in return for support. The policy of the other parties on the other hand was obviously to try and divide the Labourites by raising issues not included in the Party platform. These tactics were easily foreseen, and at the first meeting the following pledge was adopted at the instance of G. Black:

“That, in order to secure the solidarity of the Labour Party, only those will be allowed to assist at its private deliberations who are pledged to vote in the House as a majority of the Party sitting in Caucus has determined.

“Therefore we, the undersigned, in proof of our determination to vote as a majority of the Party may agree, on all occasions considered of such importance as to necessitate a Party deliberation, have thereunto affixed our names.”

This pledge was signed by nineteen out of the twenty-seven members present.

When Parliament met it was found that Parkes had included in the Governor's speech a number of Labour measures, including electoral reform, a Bill for the establishment of courts of arbitration and conciliation, a Factory and Shops Act, and so on. But it was soon evident that the fiscal issue was seriously threatening the unity of the Party. This question had been deliberately left out of the Labour platform because of the great division of opinion among the workers upon the subject. Individual members of the Party had therefore felt themselves free to adopt one side or the other in their electoral campaigns. Many of them were protectionists, and were returned as such. When, then, Dibbs moved a protectionist amendment to the Address-in-Reply the latter found themselves torn between two duties. If they voted for Dibbs they risked sacrificing the reform legislation promised by the Premier. To support Parkes, on the other hand, would be to betray the pledges given to their constituents. Some protectionists like McGowen were prepared to do that in the interests of solidarity, but others were less tractable. Six left the Party on this question.

Yet it was evident that the policy of “support in return for concessions” adopted by the Party implied continuous support to one side of the House or the other. A group that was prepared to support the Government in respect of a fraction of its policy alone, but held itself free to allow that Government to be defeated on another issue, would have little bargaining power. That implied further that, if the Labour Party was to be any use at all, members were not free to adopt any attitude they chose, even on questions on which the Party's platform was silent, but that the Party must act as one body even where the platform gave them no guidance. That presupposed a body capable of determining how the Party should speak and vote on such issues. The body best adapted to serve the purpose seemed to be Caucus, and that was the intention of the pledge proposed by Black. On the other hand, the adoption of this system would do away with the old theory of representative Government and the responsibility of the member to his constituents. He would no longer speak freely for these alone, but would have to speak for the Labour Movement as a whole. For the time being, many members of the Party were unwilling to accept this theory of the subordination of the individual member to the whole Party, and as a result the Party was hopelessly divided on the fiscal question.

The division in the ranks of the parliamentarians practically invited the Electoral League outside to interfere, and when a conference of delegates from the local leagues met in January, 1892, it set out to try and control the politicians. It declared that it was the duty of the Labour Party to support “any Government on condition that a good portion of the Labour platform was carried into law.” As the dissensions within the ranks of the Parliamentary Party still continued, the next conference declared “that the Labour Party shall be a distinct Party and not allied to any other party, and that the sinking of the fiscal issue shall mean that any Labour members elected to Parliament shall support any Government that would give Labour measures and should vote as a solid Party till the fiscal question should be settled by referendum of the people.” It further recommended “that the Labour Party in Parliament expel any members from that Party who do not abide by the rule of a majority of the Caucus.” These resolutions were a confirmation of the attitude implied in Black's pledge. But they raise a further consideration. The Labour member is responsible not only to his constituents and his fellow members in Caucus, but also to an outside body – The Annual Conference of the League. As we shall see, this third body serves to reconcile the apparently conflicting loyalties to electors and to party. The authority of Conference, however, was challenged next year.

In preparation for the elections a special Conference met in November, 1893. It adopted the following pledge that all candidates who wished to run under Labour's banner must accept:

A. “That a Parliamentary Labour Party, to be of any weight, must give a solid vote in the House upon all questions affecting the Labour platform, the fate of the Ministry, or calculated to establish a monopoly, or concede further privileges to the already privileged classes as they arise; and

B. “That accordingly every candidate who runs in the Labour interest should be required to pledge himself not only to the fighting platform and Labour platform, but also to vote on every occasion specified in Clause A, as the majority of the Parliamentary Labour Party may in Caucus decide.”

The Parliamentary Party met at once and determined to resist this interference. They held that their duties were to their constituents, not to Conference or Caucus. As they had shown no inclination to vote against the Labour platform, the leagues had no excuse for complaint or interference. Joseph Cook, the leader, issued a lengthy manifesto on behalf of the Parliamentary Party, stating inter alia:

“That the pledge was both absurd and impracticable, and calculated to thwart the desires of the workers,

“That the pledge destroyed the representative character of a member and abrogated the electoral privileges of a constituency;

“That the effect of the pledge had already been to drive from the leagues some of the staunchest members of the Party who were now called traitors because they refused to be slaves.”

The open revolt of the politicians created a ferment in the League. The manifesto was described as a declaration of war, “after which nothing remained but to fight the signatories as traitors to Labour.” J. C. Watson, President of the League Executive, explained that the pledge was necessary to prevent a split in the Party, and would not have been insisted upon but for the fact that present members did not work solidly without it. The Executive circularised the leagues, and found that seventy-two out of eighty-four endorsed the “solidarity pledge.” Thereupon they declared that the recalcitrants were “rats,” and outlawed them from the organisation. Cook found support in his own league. Hartley a coal-mining centre, and this league, together with four others, was declared “bogus.” Only those candidates who signed the pledge were recognised and endorsed by the central body to run as Labour representatives at the forthcoming General Election. They included but four of the original Party: McGowen, Cann, Davis and Kirkpatrick. Many of the recusants ran as “Independent Labour” candidates.

At the July elections of 1894 fifteen “solidarities” as the pledged men were called, and twelve independents were returned. Among the former were W. M. Hughes and J. C. Watson, who had come into prominence as champions of the Executive against the Parliamentary Party. We shall find later that the championship of the organisation outside Parliament against recalcitrant sitting members has often been a road to Parliamentary honours for the champions. The 1895 Conference modified the pledge to read as follows :

“I hereby pledge myself not to oppose the selected candidate of this or any other branch of the Political Labour League. I also pledge myself, if returned to Parliament, on all occasions to do my utmost to ensure the carrying out of the principles embodied in the Labour Platform, and on all questions, and especially those affecting the fate of a Government, to vote as a majority of the Labour Party may decide at a duly constituted Caucus meeting.”

Three of the “independents,” Black, Brown, and Edden, accepted this modified pledge and returned to the Labour fold. The remnant either disappeared from political life or became merged in one or other of the bourgeoise parties. Cook, in particular, was rewarded for his apostasy by the portfolio of Postmaster-General in the Reid administration of 1894.

Accordingly, the contentions of the pledge party were amply vindicated. It was proved that the pledge was essential in order to maintain the individuality and identity of a Labour Party in a middle-class Assembly. Without it the Labour Party would have gone the way of the “workingmen” candidates in the past and become mere hangers-on of one or other of the older parties. In the future the only recognised Labour candidates were those who had not only been selected by the local Labour leagues, but had also received the endorsement of the Central Executive; for, as we have seen, the latter body in 1894 was obliged to restrict the choice of the local leagues and refuse recognition to those which, like Hartley, supported the candidature of men who had not signed the Executive's pledge. Hereafter, too, it was admitted that Labour members spoke not for their constituencies alone or for the little leagues that had actually selected them, but for the Political Labour Movement as a whole. In compensation the local leagues had the right of sending delegates to the Annual Conference and instructing them how to vote as well as themselves sending in proposals for embodiment in the platform and policy of the Party. Thus the local bodies were given a voice in framing the policy of the movement. For the limitations placed upon their separate representation on the floor of the House, they received instead effective representation on the controlling authority of the whole Party.

Conference had won for itself the right to be considered the supreme governing power in the whole organisation, framing the policy which Labour's parliamentary representatives had to further and advocate, and thus exercising a certain control over their actions. In the intervals between Conferences, the Executive was accepted as the guardian of the integrity of the movement, with the right in particular to grant or refuse endorsement to would-be Labour candidates. The oversight of the details of parliamentary tactics was left to Caucus, whose decisions the individual Labour member was pledged to obey. The same general theory and the same system of triple controls was adopted in the other States, copied in most cases from N.S.W., where alone the logic of its evolution as an adaptation to circumstances can be clearly exhibited.

We shall see in the sequel that the elected representatives of the Labour Movement showed a continual inclination to revolt against the discipline which was so essentially involved in the whole theory of democracy adopted by the Party. To check this there was a steady process of tightening up the control exercised over the individual Labourite by the organs of the whole Movement. A widening cleavage between the Parliamentary representatives of Labour and the Party outside the sacred precincts of the House makes itself apparent, leading to fresh struggles, in which the Conference and Executive constantly arrogate to themselves additional powers of oversight and direction with respect to the politicians. As a further phase we shall observe a conflict between the genuinely working-class elements as represented in the unions, upon which and for which the Party was originally founded, and the middle-class voters whose support had been secured through the leagues. In the next three chapters we shall trace the history of these dialectic developments from a purely formal point of view and inquire how far the various controls set up have served their purpose. In a later work I hope to examine more in detail the actual aims and ideals of the Labour Parties, and then to present some data to enable the reader to judge how far these parties have been successful in realising the objects they have been sent out to strive for.

NOTE.–For convenience I shall always speak of the local branches of the parties as “leagues,” though this term is not used in all the States. For instance, in Queensland the name W.P.O. is used. Similarly, there are differences from State to State in the nomenclature of the Party organisations. Queenslanders spoke of the Labour-in-Politics Convention and the Central Political Executive (C.P.E.). In N.S.W the term used was Political Labour League (P.L.L.) Conference and Executive. Victorians had a Political Labour Council (P.L.C.) corresponding to the Executive and a P.L.C. Conference. All these, however, since 1918 have been State branches of the Australian Labour Party (A.L.P.).