Harry Quelch 1903

Liberalism & Labour


Source: 1903 Liberalism & Labour, pamphlet with articles reprinted by Twentieth Century Press, 19pp.
Copied from Bishopsgate Institute Library http://www.bishopsgate.org.uk/index.asp.
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.

The question of the relations which exist, or those which should exist, between the political forces of Liberalism and. Labour practically resolves itself into the question as to whether a Labour Party, an independent working-class political party, is necessary or not. The answer to that question depends entirely upon the point of view. Messrs. Howell and Fenwick declare in the negative, and it is easy to agree with them – if we accept their point of view, “I must live,” said the peasant. “I don’t see the necessity,” was the cynical reply of the supercilious minister. And, from his point of view, he was quite right. In his world the peasant had no place; therefore it was not necessary that the peasant should live. In the abstract nothing is necessary. But, given a certain end, certain means are necessary to attain that end. Messrs. Howell, Fenwick, and their colleagues are imbued with the ideas of a middle-class Liberalism; capitalist Liberalism is their political creed, and certainly from the standpoint of that creed an independent working-class party is not necessary. Indeed it scarcely needed the written word of these gentlemen to inform us of their opinion on the matter. Actions speak louder than words, and the whole, of the political career of Messrs. Howell, Fenwick, Burt, Wilson, and the other “Labour members” appears to have had but the one object of showing that not only a “Labour Party,” but Labour representation, is unnecessary and useless.

The Labour Members

To an impartial observer it must at first sight appear strange that of all European countries possessing Parliamentary institutions. England stands alone in having no distinct working-class political party. At least a century ahead of other countries in economic, social and political development, and with generations of political liberty behind us, we have been outdistanced in the progress of political organisation, and we see the people of other countries displaying a clearness of perception of the actual, as against the nominal, divisions in modern political life to which we have not yet attained. Strange as this may seem, an explanation of this state of things would be afforded, even if no other could be offered, by the attitude taken up by those “Labour members” whom the people of this country, in moments of hopefulness, have elected to the House of Commons. Let me not be misunderstood. I have not a single word to say against those men personally. I believe them to be all very able and worthy men – “all honourable men,” and respectable withal. Indeed, I sometimes think that if they had not been quite so respectable, they might possibly have been more useful. But there they are; all good, nice, respectable, honourable men; perfect Bayards, without fear and without reproach, and the only effect of their election has been to convince people of the futility of Labour representation! Not only have they not formed an independent political party, but they have persuaded the electorate that it is not worth while to take any trouble to add to their number. The most difficult task set for anyone advocating Labour representation at the present time is to combat the arguments drawn from the attitude and conduct of present-day “Labour members.” Apart from Socialist agitation, nothing but the hostility of the powers that be to Trade Unionism has given any life to the present movement in favour of Labour representation. Our “Labour members” have not only failed to inspire any enthusiasm for the movement in favour of Labour Representation. Our “Labour members” have not only failed to inspire any enthusiasm for the movement; they have killed whatever enthusiasm there may have been in the past. People quite naturally reason that if these men go to the House of Commons simply to re-echo the political sentiments of their masters, it is scarcely worth while bothering about sending them. If it is Liberalism that the people want – and Messrs. Howell, Fenwick, and the rest assume that it is – they can have Liberalism free, gratis and for nothing. There are plenty of wealthy Liberals prepared to pay for their seats, and a bit over; and it is not worth while for working people to tax themselves, to be constantly putting their hands into their pockets to raise funds, and to do voluntarily all the drudgery work of an election in order to send a needy man to Parliament to say and do precisely what a wealthy man is prepared to say and do a great deal better. And that is the lesson which “Labour members” of Parliament have been drilling into the working people for the last thirty years!

Middle-Class Liberalism

The reason for this is not far to seek. It is simply that, imbued, as I have said, with middle-class Liberalism, these “Labour members” have no conception of the proper function and object of a “Labour party.” They do not see that the only raison d’etre of a Labour party is an aim, an end, an object, differing essentially, fundamentally, from the aim and object of all capitalist parties. And they do not see this, because they do not see what is essential to such a raison d’etre, the antagonism of interest between the working class and the master class. It is this antagonism of interest – which our “Labour members” fail to recognise, but of which we see the evidences on every side, which manifests itself in every trade organisation, in every dispute between Capital and Labour, and which extends through all the relations of social life – which constitutes what we Socialists call the Class War, and which affords the only adequate reason for the formation and existence of an independent working-class political party. A working-class party which does not recognise this class war, this essential antagonism of interest between the class which lives by labour and that which lives on labour, has no excuse for its existence; and even if formed, cannot remain independent, and so must soon perish. But a working-class party which does recognise this antagonism, will also be conscious of its mission – will recognise the political rôle it has to fill, will carry the class war into the political arena, and will wage it there until the struggle is ended by the overthrow of classes and the emancipation of the workers by the Socialisation of all the means of production.

Labour Representation Committee

A political party which is prepared to do this – which shows that there is a function for a working-class party to fulfil which no other party can undertake – will, once formed, soon rally the working classes to its support. But such a party can have nothing in common with the capitalist Liberal Party, or with any other party whose political function it is to support capitalist interests. Between these parties, as Mr. Balfour said recently, there is no fundamental, no revolutionary difference. But between these parties and a working-class party, based on a recognition of the class war, there is a fundamental difference. This is what men like Messrs. Howell and Fenwick do not grasp. They are not revolutionists; they accept the present division of Society into two great classes as sort of divine and eternal order of things, capable only of slight modification. They do not understand that the mission of a working-class party must be a complete social transformation, which will put an end to the existing relation of master and slave. Therefore they plead, and not without some show of reason, for friendship with the Liberal Party and with Liberalism; although neither of them defines the Liberalism with which we are to be friendly, not even Mr. Howell who sets out with a half promise to do so. Failing to recognise a fundamental ground of difference between Labour and the middle class political parties, they fail to see any reason for an independent working-class party. Even my friend Curran, who may be suppose( to have a clear perception of the essential basis of a working-class party, fails to present this in his contribution to the discussion. His reticence in this respect may be due to a sense of loyalty to the Labour Representation Committee, seeing that that Committee hat declined to commit itself to the principle which can alone justify its existence. Curran makes a point of the Newcastle resolution to which so much objection has been made. That resolution is very well as far as it goes; but it is not difficult to see that by itself, and without being based upon the fundamental principles which make independence essential, it must appear to be a some what unwarrantable and unnecessarily irritating interference with the liberty of action of individuals. Unless the Committee is prepared to accept the class war as the basis of its constitution, it should content itself simply with claiming that none of its members should oppose any other member in a political contest. It seems foolish to give the support of the Committee to a “Labour man” who is a good Liberal, and at the same time forbid that man giving support to a fellow-Liberal. It is simply an attempt at fictitious independence and futile unity, for sooner of later the political leanings of such an adherent will prove stronger than his political independence, as has already happened in more than one instance.

What is a Labour Representative?

Of the sympathy of Liberals for Labour representation, so touchingly dwelt upon by Mr. Fenwick, it is scarcely necessary to say anything. Apart from an independent working-class party, with aims separate from and hostile to, those of the capitalist parties, Labour representation is a matter of very little importance. And, apart from ideals, principles, and aims, it is very difficult to define a Labour representative. But I may be permitted to point out in this connection that the Liberals never allow a “Labour Man” to be nominated, if they can help it, for a seat which can be won by a wealthy Liberal. “Labour Men,” even Liberal-Labour men, are the enfants perdus, the forlorn hope, sacrificed to make with their bodies, a road over which the forces of plutocratic Liberalism can march to victory. Mr. Sam Woods was good enough to fight Walthamstow, where it was understood no plutocratic Liberal had a ghost of a chance; but for Dewsbury, which offered a safe seat for a Liberal, a wealthy ship-owner was preferred Cheesman will do for Epping because no Liberal with money-bags can be got to pay for a hopeless fight. The same with Crooks at Woolwich, Hodge at Preston, Steadman at Maidstone, and many another. The Liberals make a great deal about allowing Shackleton a walk-over at Clitheroe; but they only did so with a bad grace, and after they had left no stone unturned to get a capitalist candidate to stand against him. And, after all, Shackleton was a Liberal, and at least as much merit belongs to the Tories, seeing that he is not a Tory, for allowing him a walk-over, as to the Liberals.

The same may be said when we come to consider the respective merits of Liberal and Tory administration. There is no crime which the latter has committed which could not be matched from the records of the former, and there is no reform with which the Liberals can be credited, for which a counterpart could not be found in Tory legislation. The bond-holders’ war in Egypt, if not so costly, was quite as criminal as the late Boer War, and Chamberlain is only a greater criminal than Asquith because his opportunity has been greater. But columns could be filled in comparing the respective merits and demerits of Tweedledum and Tweedledee.

Party Distinctions Non-Existent

Messrs. Howell and Fenwick to the contrary notwithstanding, I am still convinced that there is little to choose between the two orthodox parties; less difference now, indeed, than ever there was. They are simply the two wings of one party, the capitalist party, they are the political expression of capitalist interests, and if working-class interests are to be safeguarded, that can only be done by the formation of a class-conscious working-class party, not only independent of, but hostile to, both Liberal and Tory. Of the possibilities which lie before such a party we have an example in the Irish Parliamentary Party: It is not necessary to approve of either the object or the principles of that party, to admit that they have adopted the right method to gain their ends against a powerful, wealthy, and well-organised enemy. We see them setting aside every other consideration except the special end they have in view. To-day they are the allies of the men who yesterday were sending them to prison. Why? Simply because these men are pledged to use British credit and British wealth to abolish existing Irish landlordism. To-morrow we may see the same party again in bitter antagonism to the men with whom at present they are allied. If so it will be because they believe that there is something to be gained for their cause by the change of front. No other consideration weighs with them at all. They do not pretend that they think the Liberals better than the Tories or the Tories better than the Liberals. They are playing their own game. When we have even the nucleus of a working-class party in the House of Commons prepared to do the same, recognising what Working-class interests are, and determined to serve them regardless of every other consideration, a great stride will have been taken towards the emancipation of the working-class.


Last updated: 26 May 2021