J. T. Murphy

The Labour Party Conference

Source: The Communist Review, August 1923, Vol. 4, No. 4.
Publisher: The Communist Party of Great Britain
Transcription/Markup: Brian Reid
Public Domain: Marxists Internet Archive (2006). You may freely copy, distribute, display and perform this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit “Marxists Internet Archive” as your source.

TO all outward appearances the London Conference of the Labour Party took great strides to the “right.” Every leading speech was keyed to the note sounded by Mr. Webb: “We are on the threshold of power.” The Press boomed the rejection of the Communist Party affiliation, the pledge to constitutionalism, the loyalty to the Empire, the obeisance to the monarchy, the willingness to repeat 1914, and to vote war credits in “a defensive war.” What more could the capitalist class desire than this?

The opening speech of Mr. Webb was at once parochial and Utopian, apparently a profound theoretical exposition of the evolution of capitalism to socialism; actually a complete surrender of the Labour movement to capitalism. At the very moment when political democracy throughout Europe lies completely stripped of its hypocritical trappings and the capitalist class is armed to the teeth and sweeping constitutions aside; at this moment to talk of “the inevitability of gradualness” reveals a condition of political myopia little short of amazing. To hold the Conference with dreams of perfect economic organisation free from the political barriers of jealous nations, and assert that these dreams could come true through Fabian gradualness smacks of a Wellsian novel and not of the realities of the economic and political life of Europe of to-day. To set Owen against Marx, the Utopian against the realist, is to emulate Canute in his efforts to sweep back the tide with a broom. But never a word came from any leader to check this flow of nonsense or to remind the Conference of the grim realities of the daily struggle of the workers against the most vicious forms of reaction yet manifest in the history of capitalism. Although Mr. Jowett, the retiring chairman, had told the Conference the previous year, “It is no use now expecting to remove this massed collection of evil imposition by gradual ameliorative reform. We can make little impression on it that way in the life time of a generation. It is like mowing ripe thistles. As you cut down this year’s crop you scatter the seed of the next.”—not a word came from a single I.L.P. leader in opposition to the Webbian philosophy of the comfortable.

Indeed, the Conference is as remarkable for its omissions as for its affirmations. Only a few weeks before the Labour Party and I.L.P. leaders hard played a very important part in the formation of “the Labour and Socialist International.” This is a wonderful organisation which Mr. MacDonald welcomed in glowing terms, but whose decisions appear to be of very little concern to the Labour Party or the I.L.P. For example, the Hamburg Conference pledged the Labour Party and the I.L.P. to the class struggle. But there was not the slightest reference to this fact in the Conference by those who had committed the Labour Party to the constitution of this new organisation. Clause 1 of the new Labour and Socialist International reads: “The Labour and Socialist International is a union of such parties as accept the economic emancipation of the workers from capitalist domination and the establishment of the Socialist Commonwealth as their object, and the class struggle, which finds its expression in the independent political and industrial action of the workers, as a means of realising that object.” And the Labour Party and I.L.P. leaders were silent. And, like Brutus, they are “honourable men,” “right honourable men.”

Were this the only glaring omission, things would not look so bad. But in the Executive Report, which includes their international obligations, there is a resolution on the Imperialist peace, which reads, after a long preamble: “This struggle of the International Working Class against imperialist policy will be most effective if Labour everywhere fights against the imperialism and capitalism of its own country, with all the Parliamentary and extra-Parliamentary means at its disposal for the class struggle, and if this struggle is ever more and more united internationally.” The Labour leaders said never a word about this important declaration issued by the International which they dominate. And, like Brutus, they are “honourable men,” “right honourable men.” A few days after the Conference every Labour leader who was on the platform, including Mr. MacDonald, were making thundering declarations concerning the immanence of war. The columns of the Daily Herald blazed startling headlines, and the “honourable men” of the “gentlemanly party” followed Mr. MacDonald in orderly procession with articles written in a similar key. The Hamburg Conference, held before the London Labour Party Conference, had also considered the war business, and in its resolution on the matter said: “The Labour movement must organise the struggle for peace, must oppose all wars which may threaten to break out in the future with all the means at the disposal of the Labour movement and prevent the actual outbreak of such wars by proclaiming and carrying out a general international strike.”

The Conference, ignoring this international obligation, voted under the leadership of Henderson and Brownlie in favour of war credits for “defensive wars” in the name of practical politics. What had become of the Hamburg committal, and where were the “honourable men” who everlastingly beat the moral drum, but appear to have such short memories. Or could it be that for once they remembered when Comrade Pollitt spoke and reminded them of Fimmen, who once promised that in the event of an Allied or French invasion of the Ruhr 25,000,000 workers would put into operation the Rome and Hamburg resolution for a general strike, and were ashamed or too “gentlemanly” to intervene?

Their silence is eloquent, especially when related to their deeds and pledges to the League of Nations. This is where their memory recovered, for the Hamburg Conference introduced the League of Nations, too. It may seem to be in contradiction to the class war resolutions, but we will not dwell upon this point. Let Mr. MacDonald tell you of the League of Nations:—

Before the agenda is drawn up the topics which the Governing Body propose to put down for discussion are submitted, four months before the date of the conference, to the various State Members; and the Governments are entitled to object to the inclusion of any particular item they think it inexpedient to discuss. Such a provision makes it quite impossible for any topic to be introduced which any capitalist Government desires to exclude.

The composition of the Governing Body and the character of the annual conference furnish further safeguards against its becoming an appendage of the Labour and Socialist movement. The Governing Body, composed at present of 24 members, gives only six seats to representatives of organised Labour; 12 of the seats are given to representatives of the Governments, and the remaining six are held by representatives of employers’ organisations. Similar distinctions are observed in the annual conference, from which the draft conventions and recommendations issue. Every Government is entitled to send two delegates, the employer organisation sends one, and the workers’ organisation one, making a delegation of four from each country. Thus the workers’ representative can only hope to carry his point of view if he can convert the two Government delegates or one of these delegates and the employers’ representative. To make it still more improbable that the conference may be captured by the Socialists, the constitution provides that a two-thirds majority must be obtained for any proposal to be embodied, either in a draft convention or in a recommendation for submission to the national Parliaments. The draft conventions and recommendations have to be accepted by the Governments and endorsed by the Parliaments before they can become operative.

A most hopeful institution to which to send problems in the interests of the workers. Nevertheless, this kind of thing is characteristic of their leadership, as witness their lead on the Ruhr situation. Having been recruiting sergeants throughout the war, they have been parties to the continuation of war in the name of peace since the bugles sounded “cease fire.” From the Amsterdam and Frankfurt Conferences of 1921 and 1922 to the latest speech of Mr. MacDonald, as leader of the opposition in Parliament, welcoming the statement of Mr. Baldwin, there has not been a single proposal put forward by him or his colleagues with reference to reparations or Ruhr invasion which has not had for its purpose the stabilising and reconstruction of capitalism. Their disagreement with the robber Treaty of Versailles has not been a disagreement of principle, but only of amount. “The principles upon which the Labour policy regarding reparations are founded are briefly as follows:”

(1) The amount and form of reparations required two sanctions -the first, that of justice; the second, of economics.

(2) The sanction of justice must be limited by the pre-armistice negotiations.

(3) The sanction of economics must be limited not only by what Germany can pay, but by what we can receive without damage to our own people, and by what forms indemnity can safely take.”

Thus Mr. MacDonald, on behalf of the Labour Party, and thus the approval by the Conference of the resolutions which plead for diplomatic intervention, if possible with the cooperation of the U.S. Government and the reference of the whole problem of reparations to the League of Nations. On no occasion have the Labour Party leaders attempted to mobilise working-class action against either the Ruhr invasion or the imperialist policy of the British Government. The nearer they get to power the worse they become. The reply to Comrade Pollitt’s criticism of their Ruhr policy was a mockery of the working class, whilst there is not a single proposal in their programme of governmental diplomacy which is distinguish able from the proposals of Liberalism. The nearer to power they become the less do they express the interests of the working class. It is this fact which characterises the London Conference.

This is equally clear in its treatment of the current industrial problems in Britain. Although the railway men were about to hold their annual conference, and are faced with the beginning of a wholesale attack on their wages and conditions, their position was not mentioned. Although the miners were being faced with a critical conference immediately after the Parliamentary Labour Party had signally failed to remedy the miners’ conditions by parliamentary action, the miners’ conference was entirely disregarded. Although the boiler-makers had been locked out since April, they were entirely ignored, and the unemployed were dismissed with a collection and a resolution. As if to stamp upon the pages of history the unreal character of their approach to the workers’ problems the Conference had only just closed its doors when a spontaneous revolt of the dockers throughout a number of principal ports broke through the indifference to the class struggle in forcible fashion. From tacitly ignoring the struggle, they became immediately partisans in the fight, but without a single moment’s hesitation they line up against the workers who have dared to revolt. The full story of their actions in this struggle has yet to be written. Sufficient for the moment to observe that here was a glorious opportunity to line up for common action the dockers who had struck work; the boilermakers who, were locked out; the railway men and railway shopmen faced with severe cuts in wages; and the miners whose claims both the Government and mine owners had rejected in no uncertain terms. The present leaders of the Labour movement have not only moved to the “right,” if ever they were away from it, but have discouraged to the utmost anything in the form of industrial action, and are busy transforming the unions into subsidiaries of the Parliamentary Party. With every growth of the Parliamentary Party it has intervened in the industrial struggles of the workers, to a greater extent, not to strengthen the workers in action as a rallying force to their parliamentary agitation, but as a mediator to stifle and close down industrial action of any form. Now that the mantle of Mr. Lloyd George has fallen upon the shoulders of Mr. MacDonald, the weight of the Parliamentary Party has fallen upon the Labour Party and the industrial movement. At no time has this been more manifest than at the London Conference. The parliamentary leaders dominated the situation and have become the masters of the Labour Party. This process was very clearly outlined by Page Arnott in the June issue of the Labour Monthly. It is a process which makes doubly significant the debate on Communist Party affiliation, the question of the Labour Party Whip to Newbold, and the withdrawal of Clause (b) of the Edinburgh resolutions. The fight against the Communist Party is the continuation of the fight to subdue the workers within the ranks of the Labour Party. Mr. F. Hodges claimed that we must be rejected because we do not believe in the political democracy of capitalism, and that we are prepared to fight with other than parliamentary means. That there are legitimate excuses for our scepticism of political democracy the workers can test for themselves by referring to what the Labour Party has subscribed in the new International, already cited in this article. Upon this phase we will not dwell. Suffice it for the moment to point out the open admission of the leaders that they are the defenders of capitalism, and that their action coincides with their deliberate efforts to smother every revolt of the workers.

Equally clear was MacDonald’s reply concerning the refusal of the Labour Party Whip to Newbold. To alter the Labour Party is apparently something which no constituent body is entitled to suggest. To have different principles and policy is riot permissible, although the flagrant contrast between Mr. Jowett’s declaration and Mr. Webb’s “philosophy of the comfortable,” is most glaring for all to see. The reason lies deeper in the hatred of the middle class leaders for anything that savours of stiff fighting on behalf of the workers.

But this is only one phase of the situation. The voting on these issues, in addition to the withdrawal of Clause (b), reveals the other. The card vote shows 2,880,000 against affiliation, 366,000 in favour. This outwardly reveals an increase of 100,000, as compared with last year, in favour of the Party. Two unions pledged to vote in favour, viz., the N.U.D.A.W. and the Garment Workers, were unavoidably absent, or at least another 100,000 votes would have been added. But it must be added that Mr. Hodges threw nearly a million votes against us, and we lost the miners’ vote by 66 to 50. The N.U.R. cast over 300,000 votes, and we were defeated in the N.U.R. meeting owing to the absence of one delegate, as was shown in the voting on the question of the L.P. Whip for Newbold when the voting was 3 to 3, and thus railway men did not vote on this question. When these facts are considered and we further remember the large number of local Labour Parties and Trades Councils which voted in favour, plus the fact that there were 36 party members as delegates as against 6 at Edinburgh last year, the C.P. has little need to be alarmed with the block vote figures. Our influence with the rank and file of the organised Labour movement has grown enormously. It was this influence manifest in the Conference which compelled the withdrawal of the Edinburgh ban. The E.C. of the Labour Party in their anxiety to dictate a middle class liberalism to the organised workers in the union, blundered badly in their tactics against the C.P. at the Edinburgh Conference. In striking at the Communists they hit the unions and endeavoured to interfere with the operation of their constitutions. In effect they had declared, “Give us your money, and we’ll decide your politics.” Unions were in revolt against this, and it was known that at least two unions would have withdrawn their delegates from the conference if any of their members were interfered with because they were Communists. Coupled with the fact that some E.C. members who were not Communists were tripped up with this regulation, no wonder it was unanimously withdrawn. The Communist Party thus scored heavily in the Conference. Not only in the positive support secured, but in the modifying of resolutions. For example, the composite resolution based upon the E. C. report omitted the S. R. resolution which had figured at Hamburg and Edinburgh, and Mr. MacDonald forgot his beloved Georgia both in speech and resolution. The significance of these developments makes clear the growth of a leftward movement among the working masses, coincident with the rightward movement of the middle class leaders as already outlined.

The importance, of these movements cannot be over-emphasised. They justify the policy of Communist affiliation to the Labour Party, and provide the positive evidence of the theoretical predictions of the Communists. The approach to power by the leaders of Labour and the struggle of the Parliamentary Labour Party to dominate the Labour Party Conference stands in sharp contrast to the growth of class consciousness in the rank and file. A further growth of the leftward tendency amongst the masses cannot help but reflect itself in the Labour Party Conference by increasing the number of Communist delegates and sympathisers, such as Maxton, Wheatley, Buchanan. With this growth the Labour Party and the trade unions will stand in marked contrast to the Parliamentary Party, which will become the Labour Government. That the Parliamentary Party will be homogeneous is not likely, as witness the rift with the comrades already named, but it is already written that the day is not far distant when the Labour Party Conference will find itself in marked contrast to the Government it will have thrown up by its own labours. This is bound to happen. The Labour Party and the unions thrive on the struggles of the working class. The more acute the struggles, the more the class interests will rise and find expression, whilst its present leadership destined to become the Labour Government is more and more pledged to the interests of capitalism. The Labour Party Conference does not control the Parliamentary Party, but vice versa. That it will be possible to modify the Parliamentary Party from time to time, that the left wing will grow in Parliament as well as out of it, is certain. But the fundamental challenge between the working class organisations, the Parliamentary appendage is bound to come. The London Conference shows the alignment of the forces in their beginnings, and these destined to grow and sharpen until the workers are face to face with the task of creating a real workers’ government with its own apparatus against a Labour Government with the apparatus of capitalism.

The struggle for affiliation to the L.P. and for winning the trade unions to the support and leadership of the Communist Party must be intensified. It is the guarantee that the working class interests shall find the fullest possible expression within the ranks of the mass organisations of the workers and for the transformation of the Labour Party into a Workers’ Party capable of waging the class war. We must renew our application for affiliation, both nationally and locally. We must continue the policy of winning the confidence of the union branches and be elected to the local Trades Councils and Labour Parties. Every obstacle placed in the way by our opponents must be used to show that this opposition is really opposition to the interests of the workers and an embargo in favour of the capitalists. The London Conference of the Labour Party has shown quite clearly that the Communist Party alone is the real custodian of the interests of the working class and its entrance into the Labour Party is the one guarantee that the Labour Party will one day become a Workers’ Party.