Frederick Engels in Der Volkstaat 1874

The English Elections

Source: Marx Engels On Britain, Progress Publishers 1953;
Written: in German by Engels, February 22,1874;
First Published: unsigned in the Der Volksstaat of March 4, 1874;
Transcribed: by Andy Blunden.

London, February 22, 1874

The English Parliamentary elections are now over. The brilliant Gladstone, who could not govern with a majority of sixty-six, suddenly dissolved Parliament, ordered elections within eight to fourteen days, and the result was — a majority of fifty against him. The second Parliament elected under the Reform Bill of 1867 and the first by secret ballot has yielded a strong conservative majority. And it is particularly the big industrial cities and factory districts, where the workers are now absolutely in the majority, that send Conservatives to Parliament. How is this?

This is primarily the result of Gladstone’s attempt to effect a coup d'état by means of the elections. The election writs were issued so soon after the dissolution that many towns had hardly five days, most of them hardly eight, and the Irish, Scotch and rural electoral districts at most fourteen days for reflection. Gladstone wanted to stampede the voters, but coup d'état simply won’t work in England and attempts to stampede rebound upon those who engineer them. In consequence, the entire mass of apathetic and wavering voters voted solidly against Gladstone.

Moreover, Gladstone had ruled in a way that directly flouted John Bull’s traditional usage. There is no denying that John Bull is dull-witted enough to consider his government to be not his lord and master, but his servant, and at that the only one of his servants whom he can discharge forthwith without giving any notice. Now, if the party in office time and again allows its ministry, for very practical reasons, to spring a big surprise with theatrical effect on occasions when taxes are reduced or other financial measures instituted, it permits this sort of thing only by way of exception in case of important legislative measures. But Gladstone had made these legislative stage tricks the rule. His major measures were mostly as much of a surprise to his own party as to his opponents. These measures were practically foisted upon the Liberals, because if they did not vote for them they would immediately put the opposition party in power. And if the contents of many of these measures, e.g., the Irish Church Bill and the Irish Land Bill, were for all their wretchedness an abomination to many old liberal-conservative Whigs, so to the whole of the party was the manner in which these bills were forced upon it. But this was not enough for Gladstone. He had secured the abolition of the purchase of army commissions by appealing without the slightest need to the authority of the Crown instead of Parliament, thereby offending his own party. In addition he had surrounded himself with a number of importunate mediocrities who possessed no other talent than the ability to make themselves needlessly obnoxious. Particular mention must be made here of Bruce, Minister of Home Affairs, and Ayrton, the real head of the London local government. The former was distinguished for his rudeness and arrogance towards workers’ deputations; the latter ruled London in a wholly Prussian manner, for instance, in the case of the attempt to suppress the right to hold public meetings in the parks. But since such things simply can’t be done here, as is shown by the fact that the Irish immediately held a huge mass meeting in Hyde Park right under Mr. Ayrton’s nose in spite of the Park ordinance, the Government suffered a number of minor defeats and increasing unpopularity in consequence.

Finally, the secret ballot has enabled a large number of workers who usually were politically passive to vote with impunity against their exploiters and against the party in which they rightly see that of the big barons of industry, namely, the Liberal Party. This is true even where most of these barons, following the prevailing fashion, have gone over to the Conservatives. If the Liberal Party in England does not represent large-scale industry as opposed to big landed property and high finance, it represents nothing at all.

Already the previous Parliament ranked below the average in its general intellectual level. It consisted mainly of the rural gentry and the sons of big landed proprietors, on the one hand, and of bankers, railway directors, brewers, manufacturers and sundry other rich upstarts, on the other; in between, a few statesmen, jurists and professors. Quite a number of the last-named representatives of the “intelligentsia” failed to get elected this time, so that the new Parliament represents big landed property and the money-bags even more exclusively than the preceding one. It differs, however, from the preceding one in comprising two new elements: two workers and about fifty Irish Home Rulers.

As regards the workers it must be stated, to begin with, that no separate political working-class party has existed in England since the downfall of the Chartist Party in the fifties. This is understandable in a country in which the working-class has shared more than anywhere else in the advantages of the immense expansion of its large-scale industry. Nor could it have been otherwise in an England that ruled the world market; and certainly not in a country where the ruling classes have set themselves the task of carrying out, parallel with other concessions, one point of the Chartists’ programme, the People’s Charter, after another. Of the six points of the Charter two have already become law: the secret ballot and the abolition of property qualifications for the suffrage. The third, universal suffrage, has been introduced, at least approximately; the last three points are still entirely unfulfilled: annual parliaments, payment of members, and, most important, equal electoral areas.

Whenever the workers lately took part in general politics in particular organisations they did so almost exclusively as the extreme left wing of the “great Liberal Party” and — in this role they were duped at each election according to all the rules of the game by the great Liberal Party. Then all of a sudden came the Reform Bill which at one blow changed the political status of the workers. In all the big cities they now form the majority of the voters and in England the Government as well as the candidates for Parliament are accustomed to court the electorate. The chairmen and secretaries of Trade Unions and political working-men’s societies, as well as other well-known labour spokesmen who might be expected to be influential in their class, had overnight become important people. They were visited by Members of Parliament, by lords and other well-born rabble, and sympathetic enquiry was suddenly made into the wishes and needs of the working-class. Questions were discussed with these “labour leaders” which formerly evoked a supercilious smile or the mere posture of which used to be condemned; and one contributed to collections for working-class purposes. It ,thereupon quite naturally occurred to the “labour leaders” that they should get themselves elected to Parliament, to which their high-class friends gladly agreed in general, but of course only for the purpose of frustrating as far as possible the election of workers in each particular case. Thus the matter got no further.

Nobody holds it against the “labour leaders” that they would have liked to get into Parliament. The shortest way would have been to proceed at once to form anew a strong workers’ party with a definite programme, and the best political programme they could wish for was the People’s Charter. But the Chartists’ name was in bad odour with the bourgeoisie precisely because theirs had been an outspokenly proletarian party, and so, rather than continue the glorious tradition of the Chartists, the “labour leaders” preferred to deal with their aristocratic friends and be .'respectable,” which in England means acting like a bourgeois. Whereas under the old franchise the workers had to a certain extent been compelled to figure as the tail of the radical bourgeoisie, it was inexcusable to make them go on playing that part after the Reform Bill had opened the door of Parliament to at least sixty working-class candidates.

This was the turning point. In order to get into Parliament the “labour leaders” had recourse, in the first place, to the votes and money of the bourgeoisie and only in the second place to the votes of the workers themselves. But by doing so they ceased to be workers’ candidates and turned themselves into bourgeois candidates. They did not appeal to a working-class party that still had to be formed but to the bourgeois “great Liberal Party.” Among themselves they organised a mutual election assurance society, the Labour Representation League,[1] whose very slender means were derived in the main from bourgeois sources. But this was not all. The radical bourgeois has sense enough to realise that the election of workers to Parliament is becoming more and more inevitable; it is therefore in their interest to keep the prospective working-class candidates under their control and thus postpone their actual election as long, as possible. For that purpose they have their Mr. Samuel Morley, a London millionaire, who does not mind spending a couple of thousand pounds in order, on the one hand, to be able to act as the commanding general of this sham labour general staff and, on the other, with its assistance to let himself be hailed by the masses as a friend of labour, out of gratitude for his duping the workers. And then, about a year ago, when it became ever more likely that Parliament would be dissolved, Morley called his faithful together in the London Tavern. They all appeared, the Potters, Howells, Odgers, Haleses, Mottersheads, Cremers, Eccariuses and the rest of them — a conclave of people everyone of whom had served, or at least had offered to serve, during the previous Parliamentary elections, in the pay of the bourgeoisie, as an agitator for the “great Liberal Party.” Under Morley’s chairmanship this conclave drew up a “labour programme” to which any bourgeois could subscribe and which was to form the foundation of a mighty movement to chain the workers politically still more firmly to the bourgeoise and, as these gentry thought, to get the “founders” into Parliament. Besides, dangling before their lustful eyes these “founders” already saw a goodly number of Morley’s five-pound notes with which they expected to line their pockets before the election campaign was over. But the whole movement fell through before it had fairly started. Mr. Morley locked his safe and the founders once more disappeared from the scene.

Four weeks ago Gladstone suddenly dissolved Parliament. The inevitable “labour leaders” began to breathe again: either they would get themselves elected or they would again become well-paid itinerant preachers of the cause of the “great Liberal Party.” But alas! the day appointed for the elections was so close that they were cheated out of both chances. True enough, a few did stand for Parliament; but since in England every candidate, before he can be voted upon, must contribute two hundred pounds (1,240 thaler) towards the election expenses and the workers had almost nowhere been organised for this purpose, only such of them could stand as candidates seriously as obtained this sum from the bourgeoisie, i.e., as acted with its gracious permission. With this the bourgeoisie had done its duty and in the elections themselves allowed them all to suffer a complete fiasco.

Only two workers got in, both miners from coal pits. This trade is very strongly organised in three big unions, has considerable means at its disposal, controls an undisputed majority of the voters in some constituencies and has worked systematically for direct representation in Parliament ever since the Reform Acts were passed. The candidates put up were the secretaries of the three Trade Unions. The one, Halliday, lost out in Wales; the other two came out on top: MacDonald in Stafford and Burt in Morpeth. Burt is little known outside of his constituency. MacDonald, however, betrayed the workers of his trade when, during the negotiations on the last mining law, which he attended as the representative of his trade, he sanctioned an amendment which was so grossly in the interests of the capitalists that even the government had not dared to include it in the draft.

At any rate, the ice has been broken and two workers now have seats in the most fashionable debating club of Europe, among those who have declared themselves the first gentlemen of Europe.

Alongside of them sit at least fifty Irish Home Rulers. When the Fenian (Irish-republican) rebellion of 1867 had been quelled and the military leaders of the Fenians had either gradually been caught or driven to emigrate to America, the remnants of the Fenian conspiracy soon lost all importance. Violent insurrection :had no prospect of success for many years, at least until such time as England would again be involved in serious difficulties abroad. Hence a legal movement remained the only possibility, and such a movement was undertaken under the banner of the Home Rulers, who wanted the Irish to be “masters in their own house.” They made the definite demand that the Imperial Parliament in London should cede to a special Irish Parliament in Dublin the right to legislate on all purely Irish questions; very wisely nothing was said meanwhile about what was to be understood as a purely Irish question. This movement, at first scoffed at by the English press, has become so powerful that Irish M.P.’s of the most diverse party complexions- Conservatives and Liberals, Protestants and Catholics (Butt, who leads the movement, is himself a Protestant) and even a native-born Englishman sitting for Golway — have had to join it. For the first time since the days of O'Connell, whose repeal movement collapsed in the general reaction about the same time as the Chartist movement, as a result of the events of 1848 — he had died in 1847 — a well-knit Irish party once again has entered Parliament, but under circumstances that hardly permit it constantly to compromise A la O'Connell with the Liberals or to have individual members of it sell themselves retail to Liberal governments, as after him has become the fashion.

Thus both motive forces of English political development have now entered Parliament: on the one side the workers, on the other the Irish as a compact national party. And even if they may hardly be expected to play a big role in this Parliament — the workers will certainly not — the elections of 1874 have indisputably ushered in a new phase in English political development.


1. Labour Representation League: Founded in November 1869 by the London trade-union leaders who stood on the platform of “liberal labour politics.” It stopped functioning at the end of the seventies.