Tom Quelch


The British Labor Party Conference

(17 July 1922)

From International Press Correspondence, Vol. 2 No. 57, 17 July 1922, pp. 420–421.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.
Public Domain: Marxists Internet Archive (2020). 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.

The Annual Conference of the British Labor Party was opened on Tuesday, June 27th, at Edinburgh. Delegates from trade unions, I.L.P. and Fabian Societies, Trades Councils and Land Labor Parties were there assembled, representing over 4,000,000 members. Mr. J.W Jowett, the veteran of the I.L.P., acted as president.

The majority of the delegates consisted of the general officials and the petty officials of the trade unions. In addition to these there were a number of middle-class Fabians, etc. The proportion of workmen delegates coming direct from the workshop was necessarily small.

The conference was held in the shadow of the General Parliamentary Election, and the motives determining the conference speeches of the Labor Party chiefs, and the setting of the agenda, were undoubtedly those which made for “window dressing” for the electoral campaign.

Britain is the land of smug bourgeois responsibility, and one of the main tasks of the Parliamentary labor leaders is to convince their petty-bourgeois supporters that their responsibility is without reproach. A lively fear of being “painted red”, of being denounced as “Bolsheviks”, “wild revolutionaries”, and so on, at the forthcoming election was ever-present in their minds.

The main issues of the Conference – questions that aroused the greatest discussion and most animated debates – were those issues raised by the Communists. The questions of foreign policy, of Communist Party affiliation, of Privy Councillorships, and the amendments of rules for the purpose of keeping Communists out of Labor Party conferences were all matters which Communist Party members, as members of their trade unions or local Labor Parties had forced for discussion on the Conference. Unfortunately, the numerical strength of the Communists at the Conference was not very large, and this enabled the reactionaries to use their “big guns” to the best advantage.

Mr. Arthur Henderson submitted the proposal for the alteration of the rules by the addition of the following:

“Conditions of eligibility of delegates from Constituent Bodies to either local Labor Parties or to any National or Local Conference of the Labor Party:

  1. Every person nominated to serve as delegate shall individually accept the constitution and principles of the Labor Party.
  2. No person shall be eligible as a delegate who is a member of any organization having for one of its objects the return to Parliament or to any local Governing Authority of a candidate or candidates other than such as have been endorsed by the Labor Party, or have been approved as running in association with the Labor Party.”

This occasioned a lengthy debate, and was ultimately carried by an overwhelming majority. While some speakers professed that it was aimed at capitalist-subsidized bodies masquerading as Labor organizations, all realized that it was really proposed to exclude the Communists.

The Bill before the House of Commons to prevent the trade unions from making a levy on their members to assist the Labor Party financially was made the occasion for a resolution by J.R. Clynes; the Conference agreeing that everything should be done to oppose the measure.

Typical Labor Party resolutions were carried on “universal disarmament” and the “repudiation of all treaties or understandings” between Governments.

The Moscow Social Revolutionaries

C.T. Cramp, of the Railwaymens’ Union, moved a resolution on behalf of the Executive against “the injust treatment of the Russian Social Revolutionary prisoners of the Government of Russia” regarding their “trial as nothing short of scandalous, and is of the opinion that the execution of any of these comrades would be an outrage to the working class sense of justice, and a tragedy which Socialist and Labor Parties would remember only with shame and dishonor”. Sidney Webb seconded this, saying that the adoption of the resolution would have a helpful influence on the Russian Government, which was particularly susceptible to the expression of working class opinion in other countries”. Harry Pollitt opposed, alleging that the resolution was being rushed on a conference which did not know the facts. They had no right to interfere in Russian affairs. He was convinced that Vandervelde had only left Russia because he had learned from documents on the spot that the accused men were really guilty.

The resolution was carried.

Communist Affiliation

The debate on whether the Communist Party of Great Britain should be permitted to affiliate to the Labor Party or not arose on the Executive report dealing with the correspondence which had taken place on the subject between the Labor Party and the Communist Party.

Harry Pollitt moved that the report of the Executive on the matter be remitted back for the consideration of the new Executive. He said that that question had to be considered from the point of view that the Communist Party was a party of the working class. The whole method of approach had been to submit a series of questions to the Communist Party, and the whole thing resembled two trade unions haggling as to who was to get best terms out of an amalgamation. They had to consider the question from the point of view of the situation in which the working class movement of this country found itself at the present time. They were grappling for a way out. He maintained it was the business of that Conference to see that a straight question, without any haggling or quibbling on either side, was put to the Communist Party as to whether they would or would not accept and abide by the constitution of the Labor Party. If they said “Yes” and violated that, then they would be expelled; and if they said “No” then they would know where they were. He wanted to submit that the Communist Party was an integral part of the working class movement. It was time it had candidates in the field opposing official Labor Party candidates, but these were questions which could he made the subject of negotiation if the Communist Party were affiliated. The real objection was that they were afraid that if they took the Communist Party in, then they would lose votes at the next election. What was the situation they were confronted with? It was that when the Labor Party were in power they would not depend upon the Fabians for the power which was to translate their demands into action; they would depend upon the men in the mines and the shipyards, and that was where the votes of the Communist Party happened to be. That party, whether they liked it or not, must in the future make itself felt, and that force ought to be expressed, in his opinion, inside the Labor Conference and inside the labor movement.

In supporting, H. Hinshelwood said that so far as the Communists were concerned, they were for the unification of the forces of Labor, and would fight resolutely against anything which would tend to the disintegration of these forces. There would be no more loyal individual members working in the ranks of the Labor Party than those of the Communist Party, even although the affiliation was rejected. They were pledged morally and in every other way to do all they could to secure victory for Labor, to stop the rot in connection with working class organization, and to hasten the victory of the proletariat.

Frank Hodges of the Miners’ Federation and Ramsay MacDonald led the opposition. The former declared that the British Communists were the intellectual slaves of Moscow, and that, so long as they were bound by the Theses of the Third International, there could be no reconciliation. The British Labor Party, as the opponent of any government by dictatorship, must engage in propaganda against them. “They want to come in”, said MacDonald, “because they think they can wage war against us more effectively from within than from without. They tell us quite candidly that they want to shake hands with us, and, at the same time, they have a dagger in the other hand to stab us”.

The card vote resulted: Against affiliation, 3,086,000; in favor of affiliation, 261,000. In reference to this vote the number in favor of affiliation would have been much larger had the minorities in many of the big organizations, like the Miners’ Federation and the Amalgamated Engineering Union, been given the right to express themselves in the voting.

No Political Alliances

On the motion of Robert Williams a resolution was carried affirming the decision of the Conference to refuse to permit the Labor Party to enter into any alliances with either of the capitalist parties.

The question as to whether a member of the Labor Party should be a King’s Privy Councillor was carried by an overwhelming majority in the affirmative, Henderson declaring that it was a “pure” honor and Thomas stating that he was going to remain a Privy Councillor in spite of any decisions that might be made.

The whole tendency of the Conference was towards the Right. The appointment of the Fabian bureaucrat, Sidney Webb, as its chairman is indicative of this. How long this will remain so is uncertain. The condition of the masses is growing more terrible as the days go by. The miners are seething with discontent – a discontent which must find expression in their organizations and sooner or later have its effect on the Labor Party. As with the miners, so with the engineers, the railwaymen, the printers, and so on. The Communists will voice this discontent in the trade unions and the trade unions will be compelled to re-shape the policy of the Labor Party.

Such questions as the problem of the unemployed, the condition of the miners, and the decline in the membership of the trade unions, received almost no attention at the Conference, and this fact demonstrates a detachment from the masses which undoubtedly is a great weakness of the Labor Party and is the natural outcome of the petty-bourgeois policy of its dominating elements.