Harry Quelch February 1910

The Election and Its Lessons

Source: Social Democrat, Vol. XIV, No. 2, February 15, 1910, pp. 49-58;
Transcription: Ted Crawford
HTML Markup: Brian Reid
Public Domain: Marxists Internet Archive (2008). 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 great fight is over, the general election of 1910 has been fought and has practically ended in a draw. The Government were delighted when the Lords suspended the Budget; delighted to be provided with such a “cry” with which to go to the country, and with the opportunity of glossing over their misdeeds by an appeal to the people against the Peers.

It must be with a feeling of chagrin that the Liberal chiefs review the result of this appeal, and find themselves—but for their faithful vassals of the Labour Party—entirely bereft of their majority. Apart from the question of the House of Lords and the Budget, Tariff Reform has won all along the line. But for the mass of working class voters diverted from Socialism to the Liberal side in order to save the “Socialistic Budget” and deal a blow at the Lords, the Tariffists would undoubtedly have secured a majority. Leaving the Irishmen out of account, the Government have a majority of 40. But the Irishmen may be counted on the Government side as against the Lords, and this would give them a majority of 122. This, however, does not mean that the Government has a majority on every question which was made an issue in the election. The Irishmen would join with the Labourists in supporting the Government against the Lords; but the Irishmen are by no manner of means enthusiastic supporters of the Budget, nor are they Free Traders, and if, on any fiscal question, the 82 Irishmen joined the Opposition, that would put the Government in a minority of 42. It is scarcely likely, in the circumstances, that the Government will dare to attempt any very drastic measures, even if they had wished to do so. The election has been for them a drawn battle.

However it had gone, the election was of no moment to us as Socialists, so far as its main issues were concerned, one way or the other. We are against the House of Lords, and in favour of its abolition, because we are democrats, because the hereditary principle in government is an absurd anachronism, and because any Second Chamber is either useless or mischievous, or both. In a contest, therefore, between the Government and the House of Lords simply, we Social-Democrats should, perforce, be against the Lords. Moreover, as between Free Trade and Protection we, without in any way subscribing to all the nonsense indulged in by Free Traders, are opposed to Protection.

So far as the immediate issues of the election went, therefore, we were rather on the side of the Government than on that of their opponents. These issues, however, were but of minor importance, and by comparison with the great class issue which we have striven to push to the front on every possible occasion sink into complete insignificance. The House of Lords may be remodelled—nay, it may be completely abolished—and the House of Commons, with a possible revision by referendum, may be supreme, and yet no change whatever may have taken place in the lot of the worker, except to rivet the chains of capitalism more firmly upon him. Free Trade may continue to flourish, or Protection may reign supreme, and the worker will continue to sweat and toil and suffer, condemned to sell himself day by day for a bare subsistence, and only most happy when he can find a customer.

The actual issues of the election, therefore—the questions on which the contest was actually fought—were, from the point of view of the working-class, and from our standpoint as Social-Democrats, of only infinitesimal importance. Yet they served to divert the working class elector from the all-important class question, even in the constituencies where he had a chance of voting on that. For the striking feature of the General Election—the one outstanding fact that presents itself amid all the changes and surprises—is the failure of every independent candidate, Socialist or Labour, in a triangular contest.

For nearly thirty years now, in season and out of season, we Social-Democrats have been propagating the principles of Socialism; and the effect of our efforts, though largely imperceptible, has really been enormous. We have practically converted the general body of organised labour to our principles. There is scarcely a trade union of any importance which has not by its representatives endorsed the fundamental principles of Socialism as expressed in the programme of the Social-Democratic Party; such a body as the Miners’ Federation of Great Britain—perhaps the largest trade union organisation in the world—has declared in favour of Socialism at its annual conferences, as has the most representative body of trade union opinion, the Trades Union Congress.

There can, therefore, be no doubt of the extent to which Socialism has permeated the ranks of organised labour. And yet, when the opportunity presents itself of voting for Socialism in a political election, the opportunity is rejected. Why is this? Why is it that in some forty constituencies in which a Socialist or a Labour man has been contesting against both Liberal and Tory, either the Liberal or Tory—in most cases the former—has been elected, and the Socialist or Labour candidate has been rejected?

When the question only concerned the candidates of the Social-Democratic Party our good friends had an answer pat and ready: We were much too extreme; too narrow; too sectarian; too intolerant. Instead of winning the organised working-class we had alienated them, especially by our hostility to trade unionism. And this in spite of the fact that the overwhelming majority of our members are trade unionists, and active and influential trade unionists, too, in most cases.

That answer, however, will not serve in the case of the Labour candidates who have been rejected in this election. There were some thirty of these rejected in triangular contests—opposed by both Liberals and Tories. In many cases they were not Socialists at all; in every case they had the nominal support of the local working-class organisation at their back; in most cases they had the endorsement of the national Labour Party; and yet they fared every whit as badly as did the Social-Democratic candidates. Evidently it was not the extreme or sectarian and intolerant form of their Socialism which accounted for their defeat. .I n many cases it will be found that the trade union which was responsible for putting forward and financing the Labour candidate had a controlling vote in the constituency. And yet the Labour candidate was defeated—beaten by the votes of the very men who had endorsed and were paying for his candidature! How did that come about? That is the question.

The reason, to my mind, is self-evident. It is not because the working class are opposed to Socialism that they have declined to elect our candidates, but because they have been persuaded that they can get Socialism, or as much of it as is practicable at present, by voting Liberal. And that had certain advantages. The Socialist candidate might have no chance, in which case a vote given to him would be thrown away, and might, moreover, serve to “let the Tory in.” The latter contingency was too dreadful to contemplate. Far better to make sure of the half-loaf offered by the Liberals—even though that half-loaf should turn out not to be bread at all, but a stone—rather than risk getting nothing at all by letting in the hated Tory. That was the argument hammered at day after day, dinned into the ears of the workers persistently in every constituency in which there was a Social-Democrat. The result was that the Liberal, in most cases, was elected by a majority consisting chiefly of Socialist votes; and where the Liberal failed the Tory managed to scrape in by a narrow majority in spite of the Socialist votes given to his Liberal friend and opponent. That was the situation so far as our candidates were concerned, and it is not too much to say that in at least seven instances our candidates were defeated by the votes of sympathisers who lacked confidence, and that, had there been no Liberal in the field in those places, our candidates would have won with large majorities.

But if those arguments and influences could have such an effect on Social-Democratic candidatures, they would clearly have as great, or greater, an effect on Labour candidatures. As a matter of fact, in most cases they had a greater. It must be borne in mind that the Labour candidates were better equipped for the electoral struggle than were our men. The Labourists had more money and a numerically stronger organisatiou, and yet they fared no better than we did. And there was no reason why they should. We, at any rate, while carrying on our Socialist propaganda, had not failed to call attention to the sins of omission and commission of the Liberal Government, and to emphasise the everlasting truth that for the workers there is nothing to choose between any of the capitalist political factions, and that the only hope for the workers, politically, lies in independent political action—independent of and hostile to all capitalist factions.

The Labourists, however, in spite of the fact that their very existence as a party was due to the dawn of a glimmering class-consciousness among the workers; a perception of the real object and aspirations of a working class political party; lost no opportunity, for four years, of glorifying and extolling the Liberals.

The result, of course, was that their followers could not see that there was anything to choose between them and the Liberals. When, therefore, the election came, with such living issues as the House of Lords and the Budget, the bulk of the electors among those who had been got to agree upon the fundamentals of Socialism voted Liberal rather than risk letting in the Tory, and defeating the great democratic and Socialistic Budget.

The result, as we have seen, is that independent candidatures of any kind have been entirely snowed under in the election. The hope born with the S.D.F, nearly thirty years ago, and revived by the formation of the Labour Party some ten years ago, of an independent working-class party in English politics has been once more extinguished by the General Election. The British working class, convinced of its own subject position, convinced of the need of an economic revolution, is not yet conscious or confident of its own power politically, and is not yet detached from the capitalist Liberal Party. For that fact—the transcendant fact of the election—the Labour Party are largely to blame, for their toadying to the Government. The only asset of the Labour Party—having refused to agree to principles and having repudiated any programme—was independence; and that they h ave bartered for the privilege of retaining a few seats in Parliament at the goodwill of the Liberals.

On the other hand, it must not be forgotten that the Liberal Party have marched. In this country, as we have been more than once reminded, we have the most astute governing class in the world, and the Liberals are the special representatives of the present dominant class. They are astute enough to discern the tendencies of popular opinion; to detect which way the wind is blowing and to trim their sails accordingly. And that is what they have done with a considerable degree of success in this election. In any constituency where the Socialist movement was strong they did not violently and aggressively attack Socialism. Oh, dear, no. On the contrary, they expressed a most lively sympathy with Socialist ideals. But those ideals could only be realised in the far distant future, and, in the meantime, progress towards those ideals could only be made along the road which Liberalism had prepared and was preparing. Therefore, the defeat of the Liberal was a defeat for Socialism. It was better, therefore, to vote for the Liberal, even though he was theoretically opposed to Socialism, than to vote for the Socialist—or the Labour man—who had not even the remotest chance of winning, and whose intervention in the election might have the disastrous effect of letting in the Tory, and thus at once defeating both Liberalism and Socialism.

Unfortunately this line of argument found favour with a large number of avowed Socialists, and was supported—unwittingly, maybe—by those who advised Socialists to vote Liberal in constituencies where there was no Socialist candidate, on the assumption that the Liberal Party really is the better of the two. And this, notvvithstanding all the teaching of experience, which has gone to prove the absolute truth of our contention, that there is nothing whatever to choose between the capitalist parties from a working-class or Socialist standpoint. That does not mean that Socialists should always abstain from voting where there is no Socialist candidate in the field, and should never, under any circumstances, vote either Liberal or Tory. But it does mean that when a Socialist vote is given to either Liberal or Tory, it should be so given simply as a matter of party tactics, and not on the ground that the one party is better than the other.

Once this latter is admitted, once it is assumed that there is an important reason, apart from party tactics, for voting Liberal, that great harm to the cause of progress would result from the defeat of the Liberalsonce admit that, and it naturally follows that all Socialists who are influenced by that reasoning will, even where a Socialist is standing, vote Liberal, for fear that by voting for what they believe in they will simply be wasting their votes and letting in the Tory. And, as a result, their action usually fulfils their anticipations, and they, by voting Liberal, put their own man at the bottom of the poll.

That, of course, would not happen if we had even the Second Ballot, to say nothing of Proportional Representation, but so long as the single ballot works so admirably for the “Ride and Tie” parties as it has hitherto done, and especially in this last election, neither party is likely to display any zeal for altering it.

For that is exactly what has happened in all industrial constituencies on this occasion. Wherever the Liberals have won they have won by the votes of working men who are more Socialist than Liberal, but who were afraid of “letting in the Tory.” And the Labour Group and avowed Socialists are mainly responsible for the defeat of Socialist and Labour candidates in the triangular contests in which they have been beaten. Trade unions and trade union officials have refused to support their own nominees against this great and good Asquithian Government, of whose greatness and goodness they had been so eloquently and persistently assured by the men whom they had paid to represent them in Parliament. Surely never before was there so great a betrayal!

Mr. Ramsay MacDonald, writing in the “Labour Leader,” says that “The party has paid dear for the Pyrrhic victory in the Colne Valley.” I should say, on the contrary, that the party and Colne Valley, as well as ourselves, have had to pay dear for the truckling and trimming, the fulsome eulogy and enthusiastic support of the Government by the Parliamentary Group of the Labour Party. If the Liberal Government and the Liberal Party were so good, so earnest, so zealous for the workers’ cause, so determined and enthusiastic for political and social progress, how unreasonable and, indeed, mischievous it was to put any Labour candidate in the field against them anywhere!

That was the quite natural conclusion arrived at by the rank and file of the Labour Party—chiefly Socialists by conviction. The more so as the Liberals had kindly allowed the Labour Party to retain practically all the seats they had previously held.

No party, except an intransigeant set of wreckers like the S.D.P., could reasonably oppose so good and generous a party as the Liberals. The result is that the Labourists were as badly beaten in every triangular contest as were the “wreckers,” and they do not hold a single seat—outside that we conquered for them in South West Ham, with Will Thorne—except by the goodwill and on the sufferance of the Liberal Party. They have ceased to be an independent party. The Liberal Government holds them in the hollow of its hand.

The Labour Group returns to Parliament stronger in number simply by virtue of the accession to its ranks of the Miners’ representatives. Apart from this fictitious strengthening of that particular group, the actual representatives of Labour are seven less than in the last Parliament. But this numerical reduction is by no means the full extent of the loss which Labour has sustained. As was predicted would be the case when the Miners decided to join the party, this strengthening of numbers means a weakening of position. It is not that the Lib.-Lab. members have ceased to be Liberals but that the Labour Group has become part of the Liberal Party. Of the forty members now forming the Labour Group in the House of Commons, at least twenty-four are Liberals! The Socialists in the group are Barnes, Clynes, Duncan, Hardie, Jowett, MacDonald, O’Grady, Parker, Pointer, Roberts, Seddon, Snowden, Thorne, Walsh, Wilson, and Wardle. I imagine, at least, that none of these would deny the soft impeachment. But the fact remains that at least two-fifths of the Labour Group are Liberals; and it must be borne in mind that it is the Parliamentary Group which decides the policy of the Party. Therefore, the erstwhile “independent” Labour Party is now essentially a Liberal-Labour Party, and occupies precisely the same position in Parliament as was occupied by Broadhurst, Wilson, Fenwick, Burt and their colleagues, years before the Labour Party came into existence. That is the net result of ten years’ political activity on the part of the organised workers—drawn, as they have been, off the track of aggressive revolutionary Social-Democracy and of working-class emancipation by the will-o’-the-wisp of mere Labourism.