Harry Quelch November 1908

The Future of the Labour Party

Source: The Social-Democrat, VOL. XII., No. XI., November, 1908, pp.481-487, (2,005 words)
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.
Markup: Chris Clayton

Several circumstances combine just now to call attention to the present position of the Parliamentary Labour Party and to excite curiosity as to what its future is to be. On the one hand we have the International Socialist Bureau agreeing to waive the essential condition of membership of the International Congress in order to admit the British Labour Party. On the other hand, we have the Labour Party group, by its own lack of independence, its supineness and ineptitude, provoking a violent outburst of protest, not only from Social-Democrats, but from a consider­able section of their own constituents. That the first consideration makes it necessary for the Social-Democratic Party to carefully review its relations alike with the Parliamentary Labour Party, and the International Bureau, appears fairly obvious; that the second vitally affects the continued existence of the Labour Party itself in its present form, there can be no question.

As to our relations with the Labour Party, however they may be affected by the decision of the Bureau, they must ultimately be deter­mined by the attitude and course adopted by the Labour Party itself. Therefore, the important ques­tion just now is, what is to be the future of the Labour Party?

There are not wanting those who declare the Labour Party to be already played out. That is a very extreme view to take. It would be, probably, much more correct to say that it has never played itself in. This, in any case is certain, that as a political instrument of the working class it has conspicuously failed. As such an instrument, the one question the Labour Party should have made its own was that of the unemployed. It was the duty of that party to have made legislation impossible until this burning urgent matter — this question of the lives of multitudes of the people — had been drastically dealt with. It is idle for them to pretend that they have had no time or opportunity. The question of the unemployed is not one of this Session only, or of this year, or even of this Parlia­ment. Nearly four years ago, on the eve of the meeting of the last Tory Parliament, the members of the Labour Party who were then members of the House of Commons were appealed to to raise their voices there on behalf of the unemployed, and to demand that the deputation which the organised workers of London were sending there should be heard at the bar of the House. With supercilious superiority they declined to do anything. The present Parliament is nearly three years old. At the opening of its first session the Government promised legislation on this all-important question of the unemployed. That promise has not been kept, and the Labour Party has done practically nothing to enforce its fulfilment. It is true they, last session, introduced a Right to Work Bill, but they must have known that there was not the slightest chance of getting such a Bill through Parliament, unless it was taken up by the Government. And it was quite out of the question for the Government to adopt the Labour Party’s Bill when it was not prepared to formulate proposals of its own.

The introduction of this Bill, indeed, was characteristic of the Labour Party’s policy, and indicative of its utter misconception of the role which a working-class party is called upon to play under present circumstances in the House of Commons. The majority of the House of Commons is representa­tive of the master class, of capitalist interests; and the House of Commons as a whole exists to promote the interests of capitalist property and to safeguard and consolidate the capitalist class State. In such an assembly a Labour Group which is true to the interests it claims to represent must be a hostile force, a party of revolt. Its mission there is not to legislate — being but a small minority it is impossible for it to do so; its mission is to oppose, criticise, and amend the legis­lation of the Government; to thwart the efforts made in the interest of the capitalist class, and to force action to be taken in the interest of the working class. Such a party should be a driving force for any legis­lative movement on behalf of the working class, and an obstructive force to any movement in the opposite direction. With quite different aims, the policy and tactics of the Labour Party should be analogous to those of the Irish Party as led by Parnell and Biggar. By their policy of obstruction those two men practically brought the British Government to its knees, made the work of Parliament impossible, and gave a real, literal, practical meaning to the phrase that “Ireland blocks the way.” In similar fashion the Labour Party should have obstructed all Govern­mental business until this urgent question of the unemployed had been dealt with. It is the one question that matters; a question of life and death to thousands of our class; yet the Labour Party, the party which specially represents that class, is content with a mild protest at the inaction of the Government; to make a few speeches and to sit down quietly under the sneers and jibes and insults of the President of the Local Government Board, who affects to make light of the misery of those whose cause the Labour Party so half-heartedly champions.

It is all very well for members of the Labour Party to sneer at the action of Mr. Victor Grayson, in his disorderly irruption into the debate on October 15. That action may have been theatrical, irresponsible, inconsequent and, worst of all, futile. But their chief objection must necessarily be that it was a stinging reproof of themselves. That it was futile so far as it has had any influence on the Government, may be admitted, but it is quite clear that it has had an immense effect in the country in calling attention, not only to the urgent need of the unemployed, but also to the failure of the Labour Party to give expression to that crying urgent need. That is the secret of the immense enthusiasm which Grayson’s action has evoked, and the shoals of letters and resolutions of congratulation which have poured in upon him. The writers of those letters, and the people who pass those resolutions, do not desire disorder for the mere sake of disorder, as some of the Labour members affect to believe. They do not see anything specially grand, in itself, in a man defying the ruling of the Speaker, and getting expelled from the House; nor have they any desire that the whole Labour. Group should go out of their way to court this or any other indignity or punishment. They do, however, think that the stand which Grayson made on October 15 was one which ought to have been made by the Labour Party as a whole, not merely three days, but at least nine months earlier. Had this been done, we should not be hearing now of “panic legislation” and of the need for mere tiding-over palliatives; the Government would certainly have been forced to introduce legisla­tion of a more or less permanent character. And to that end the Labour Party should have been prepared to have gone any lengths; to have outraged every form of the House, to have been suspended or im­prisoned — not that any of these things are good to do in themselves, but because they would have been effective in achieving the end in view.

To the highly-respectable and “tone-of-the House” leaders of the Labour Party who object that such action would have been useless and that the methods they have pursued have been more effective, we would suggest that they should ask themselves what would have been the action of any other party in like circumstances. Why, if an old woman’s pig had been killed by a member of the R.I.C. on a hill-side in Connemara, the Irish Party would have made more stir over it in the House of Commons than our Labour Party have made over the starvation of tens of thousands of the class they claim to represent. And does anybody suppose that if it had been Irish landlords or English or Scottish capitalists who were suffering instead of mere working-people, that the representa­tives of those respective classes would have permitted the House of Commons to go doddering and droning on with a Licensing Bill, instead of at once taking in hand remedial measures?

Of course in their case no disorderly action would be necessary. We know how readily responsive a capitalist House of Commons is to any cry for help from any section of the capitalist class; but in no circumstances would the representatives of that class have remained silent while the needs of their con­stituents were neglected.

But the Labour Party could do nothing drastic on behalf of the unemployed, nor could it work up any enthusiasm over the subject. Its enthusiasm is reserved for puritanical bourgeois measures for the repression of any small pleasures the working class may now have. The Labour men would not risk suspension on behalf of the unemployed. They are prepared to risk the loss of their seats over the Licensing Bill. From a tactical point of view, to put it on no higher ground, this is a great mistake. Whatever may be said, from a working-class standpoint, in favour of what have been called the confiscatory provisions of the Bill — and these have been whittled down considerably — the sumptuary clauses ought to have been strenuously fought, not supported, by a really representative working-class party. The Labour Group has, in this connection, a clear and definite mandate from the Party Conference, and that mandate is scarcely in accord with the provisions of the Government Bill, which the Labour members have supported so enthusi­astically, and for which they have been willing to forego their political independence. They will find, unless we are greatly mistaken, that in so unreservedly supporting the Government on this and other matters they have “put their money on the wrong horse,” and are courting the defeat which unques­tionably awaits the Liberal Government at the next election.

With an independence based upon definite prin­ciples, and the unflinching maintenance of that inde­pendence, the Labour Party might at least have avoided sharing the fate of the Liberals. Although it is true that a number of the members of the Labour Group owe their seats to the acquiescence of the Liberal Party, that acquiescence must not be taken as the same thing as active good-will. The Liberals per­mitted a Labour man to be elected, not because they desired him in preference to a Liberal, but because they preferred him to a Tory; and they hoped, more­over, to get something of a quid pro quo. So far they have certainly not been disappointed, and the Labour group have done their best to give the lie to the pro­verb that there is no gratitude in politics. To their gratitude for past favours they have been prepared to sacrifice even the negative independence which alone differentiated them from the Liberal Party. The question now is, how much farther is this going? Is the Labour group prepared to “cut the painter” by which it now appears to be attached to the stern of the Liberal Party? It is too late to undo the mistakes, the errors of omission and commission, of the past, nor can the Parliamentary Group do now what it should have done at the beginning of the Session. But if it will profit by the warning it has now had, will assert its independence, adopt definite revolutionary principles and a policy of hostility to all capitalist parties, it may shed some of its present adherents, but it will consolidate its real strength, attain an assured position, and guarantee its future as a political instrument for the emancipation of the working-class.