Harry Pollitt 1938

The Coming General Election

Source: International Press Correspondence, Volume 18, no 3, 22 January 1938. Scanned, prepared and annotated for the Marxist Internet Archive by Paul Flewers.

The National Government intends to rush through a general election some time this year. [1] No one in British politics questions that fact any longer. Furthermore no one should fail to realise that whenever it comes, the election will be conducted in such a manner that the ‘Red Letter’ stunt of 1924 [2] and the ‘Gold Standard and Post Office Savings’ election of 1931 and the ‘Defend Collective Security’ election of 1935 will shine out as examples of honesty and political integrity in comparison.

When we consider the issues at home and abroad – the rising cost of living, the forgotten army of two million unemployed workers and their families, the encroachment on the liberties of the people, Spain and China, the National Government’s rearmament policy, and its sabotage of collective security, its desertion of democracy where attacked by fascists – when we consider all these burning questions can we deny that this will be the most important general election of our lives?

And supposing that the National Government were replaced by a government keen to attack poverty and to defend peace and democracy, there is no doubt that the whole world could take on a new aspect. It is not difficult to envisage powerful peace forces, capable of protecting democracy, compelling the fascist governments to hesitate before provoking a new combination of countries vitally opposed to war.

But having described a picture of what might be, we must review the actual situation. Can any sincere member of the labour or progressive movements solemnly declare that we are ready to face the challenge of a general election? Are we certain of decisive victory over the National Government?

If there is any doubt about our capacity to win, it is time for the most serious and critical examination of present policies, of the relation of forces. It is urgent that we set aside past prejudices and concentrate our efforts on gathering together every man and woman in Britain opposed to the National Government in one immense united attempt to overthrow it.

In my speech at the Congress of the Communist Party last May [3] I made the following statement, which I repeat because I believe it is substantially true. I was referring to the possibility of an early general election:

The consequences of that election can decide the fate of humanity, and therefore, with that perspective in mind, we have additional arguments as to why we should bring about unity in the British labour movement.

Since last May the situation has not improved but steadily deteriorated. Unfortunately this fact has not penetrated our political consciences. No one can be satisfied with the results of the municipal elections in November when the political barometer showed ‘stagnant’. And the National Government has not been slow to take advantage of this fact as everything that has happened since all too clearly shows. There is no need to enlarge on these events here; they ought to be familiar to every reader of the Inprecorr.

Time presses. The Conservative Party is already putting its machine in order. The Labour Party and the Liberal Party are no doubt also taking steps to prepare for the contest.

But this is not enough. We must insist that everybody carefully consider this question – would it not be criminal if any split in the progressive vote were allowed to occur for want of preliminary discussion and a sincere attempt to reach understanding? There can be but one answer. It would be a crime for which all responsible leaders would be rightfully condemned by millions of people whose lives would be in the greatest jeopardy.

A common understanding can and must be found for the basis of a short-term programme, because in no other way can the democratic political parties stand a chance of winning a majority in the next Parliament.

This programme must be clear and incisive and include the formation of a really effective world peace bloc, the fight against poverty, malnutrition, unemployment and the protection of wages and working hours.

But in addition to the formulation of this programme other preparations for the election are immediately necessary. It is the duty of every Labour Party not only to overhaul its electoral machine but also to review the present members of Parliament and new candidates.

The House of Commons must no longer be looked upon as a place to which faithful but elderly stalwarts of the labour movement are sent as a recognition of past services. Candidates today should be chosen from the most virile, militant, trustworthy and progressive men and women amongst us. Parliamentary constituencies must no longer be regarded as the holy preserve of some powerful trade union, but as areas that should only be represented by men and women capable of securing the largest mass backing of responsible voters.

It is owing to our failure to appreciate this point of view that we lack a real fighting opposition in Parliament that might already have roused the whole country through its resistance to the National Government.

Surely when that old and astute Parliamentarian Lloyd George [4] can declare the following it is time to take fresh stock of the position:

I cannot understand the tranquillity of this Parliament, I cannot understand it at all. Hundreds of thousands of simple working men are fighting for democracy in Teruel, [5] sacrificing their bodies and their lives for human liberty. Are we not concerned about that? Does it signify nothing to us in the very home of democracy? (News Chronicle, 12 January 1938)

Millions of people in Britain believe that it does. But they wait for a lead, they grope for some policy of unity that can help them develop their gigantic latent power.

It is our duty to come to the assistance of these people. There has never been more instinctive opposition to the National Government, but it is diffused, muddled and unorganised.

Now is the moment to set to work. We must scrap old ideas and prejudices, we must help the labour movement to bring about this coordination of the common forces. Our programme must be practical, and related to the realities of the actual situation today. We must attract new blood into our movement, interest the young people, let in fresh air to blow away the fog of doubt and despair. We must face the fight with confidence and answer the challenge of the National Government without hesitation: ‘Organise your general election when you like. We are ready. We will fight you, expose you and defeat you. We will give the democratic people of Britain, of the world, a new hope and inspiration, by electing a truly representative democratic government. We are ready.’


All notes have been provided by the MIA.

1. Britain was governed by a series of National Governments from 1931 to 1945. The first emerged from the collapse of the Labour Government in August 1931 through a deep Cabinet division in respect of public expenditure cuts following the Wall Street Crash of 1929, with the former Labour Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald at its head, leading to his expulsion from the Labour Party. A general election was held in October 1931, and although the Conservatives won a resounding victory, MacDonald remained Prime Minister. MacDonald resigned in June 1935, and the Conservative leader Stanley Baldwin took over. The Conservatives won another victory in the general election of November 1935, Baldwin remained Prime Minister, and was replaced in May 1937 by Neville Chamberlain, who was himself replaced by Winston Churchill in May 1940. No general election took place in 1938; the next one was held in 1945.

2. During a general election campaign in October 1924, the Daily Mail published a letter purportedly by Grigori Zinoviev, at that point Chairman of the Communist International, addressed to the leadership of the Communist Party of Great Britain to the effect that an agreement between the Soviet Union and Britain would help the cause of world revolution. It was a crude forgery, but it helped to whip up an anti-communist atmosphere in Britain, and helped to achieve a Conservative victory in the election.

3. The CPGB’s Fourteenth Congress was held on 29-31 May 1937. Pollitt’s speech, ‘The Way Forward’, can be found in the conference report, It Can Be Done (CPGB, 1937).

4. David Lloyd George (1863-1945), a Liberal, was Prime Minister from 1916 to 1922, during which time he headed Britain’s wartime Cabinet and that which oversaw Britain’s involvement in the Wars of Intervention against the Soviet republic. During the 1930s, he veered between a positive attitude towards Hitler and advocating a Popular Front against Nazi Germany.

5. Teruel, the capital of the Province of Teruel (Aragon), was the scene of a lengthy battle that commenced with a Republican bid to seize the town in December 1937. Republican forces took the town, but were forced back by late February by a Nationalist counter-attack.