Harry Quelch October 1910

The Labour Party’s Surrender

Source: Social Democrat, Vol. XIV, No. 10, October, 1910, pp. 433-439, (2,057 words)
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.

Quite a sensation has been caused by the decision of the Executive of the Labour Party to propose to the next Party conference the abandonment of the written constitution and pledge. The idea of those responsible for this step appears to be that by abandoning the pledge the chief ground upon which the Osborne judgment against trade union contributions to the Party was based will be removed and a reversal of that judgment made easy.

Of course it is pretended by the leaders of the Party that the Osborne judgment has not affected their decision at all; that there really was no “pledge” in the strict sense of the word; that if there was it never has been and could not be enforced, and that its abandonment has been contemplated for some time. All this is mere bluff which deceives nobody. If the pledge was never enforced it was simply because it was more honoured by the leaders in the breach than the observance, and there was no penalty attached to any such breach other than the expulsion of the offending member from the Party. Nevertheless, the constitution which every candidate had to sign was a very distinct and explicit pledge, and so far from any contemplated abandonment the tendency in recent years bas been to make it more rigid and narrow. Thus, for instance, prior to the Portsmouth Conference, the Party members were prohibited from giving any support to the candidates of any Party “not eligible for affiliation,” At Portsmouth these words were altered to “not affiliated,” thus restricting the electioneering activities of the members to the support of their own Party candidates, no matter what claim the candidates of any body “eligible for affiliation,” but not actually affiliated, might have upon them.

No matter how the leaders may now try to belittle the Constitution, or whatever reason they may have for making light of it, the fact remains that the “Constitution” was the only common “platform” the Party had; the only thing that really constituted it a Party, and that to it was attached a very distinct and explicit pledge, At the Conference in London at which the Party was launched, the Constitution was formulated as follows:—

“The establishing a distinct Labour Group, who shall have their own Whips, and agree upon their policy, which must embrace a readiness to co-operate with any party which for the time being may be engaged in promoting legislation in the direct interest of Labour, and be equally ready to associate themselves with any party in opposing measures having an opposite tendency; and, further, members of the Labour Group shall not oppose any candidate whose candidature is being promoted in terms of Resolution.”

We Social-Democrats endeavoured to make it a distinctly Socialist Constitution, and from time to time we pressed for the adoption of definite Socialist principles, and of a programme. Our efforts in this direction have always been ineffectual, and so the Constitution has remained practically the same, a pledge of united and independent action in Parliament in any direction that may from time to time be decided upon. This Constitution, therefore, is the only asset that the Party possesses, as a political instrument, and once abandoned its theoretical raison d’etre disappears, as its practical reason for existence was long since surrendered by its subservience to the Liberal Government.

The pledge attached to the Constitution which a candidate had to sign exacted that:

1. Candidates and members must accept this Constitution; agree to abide by the decisions of the Parliamentary Party in carrying out the aims of this Constitution; appear before their constituencies under the title of Labour Candidates only; abstain strictly from identifying themselves with or promoting the interests of any Parliamentary Party not affiliated, or its candidates; and they must not oppose any candidate recognised by the National Executive of the Party.

2. Candidates must undertake to join the Parliamentary Labour Party, if elected.

It is quite clear that should this Constitution and pledge be abandoned, the Party necessarily loses all cohesion and resolves itself once more into its several elements. Liberal members of the Party will be quite free to support Liberal candidates, and Tory members will be equally free to support Tories. There may then be “Labour members,” just as there were before the L.R.C was formed, but there will be no Labour Party. Men like Mr. Charles Fenwick, who refused to sign the Constitution, who stuck to their Liberal Party as well as their Liberalism, may well say that had there been no pledge there would have been no Osborne judgment.

Whether the Party Conference will agree to the abandonment of this written pledge remains to be seen. There is but little doubt that it will. Seldom if ever have the delegates to the Conference rejected the recommendations of their Executive, and there is little reason to expect them to do so in the present instance, even though the abolition of the pledge means the surrender of the last claim to unity and independence. The Parliamentary Labour Group has always been a go-as-you-please party, notwithstanding the pledge, and the rank and file of the Party may reasonably conclude that a pledge which means so little may very well be abandoned, especially if there is anything to be gained thereby.

Whether their expectations in this latter particular will be realised is quite another matter. It is very generally assumed that there has been some assurance on the part of the Government that if the pledge is abandoned a measure will be introduced to reverse the position in which the unions have been placed by the Osborne decision. There may be good ground for this assumption, but the Labour Party will not be wise to rely too much upon any such assurance. It is scarcely likely that the Government, however well-intentioned, will be able to do anything effective in the matter before the election, and after the election, we may anticipate, the whole situation will be altered.

Whatever the Labour Party may or may not do, therefore, we see no reason for anticipating an early reversal of the Osborne decision. Nor are we greatly concerned about it so far as it affects the maintenance of the present Labour Group in the House of Commons. We Social-Democrats have no desire to compel non-Socialist trade unionists to contribute to the maintenance of Socialist members of Parliament, and that is the only ground of complaint of the supporters of the Osborne decision, who claim to speak on behalf of the “oppressed unionists,” groaning under the intolerable burden of a compulsory contribution to the Labour Party of less than twopence-halfpenny per year! We certainly do not complain that such contributions—paltry as they are—cannot be enforced. On the contrary, we maintain that a genuine working class party could rely upon the voluntary contributions of its members—the Socialist organisations have no means of enforcing levies—and that had the Parliamentary Labour Group been worth its salt, its members would be able to snap their fingers at the Osborne judgment. There is no other working-class political party in the world which depends upon the compulsory levies of trade unions, or that would be in any way affected by a legal decision similar to that in the Osborne case. It is not the more or less spurious revolt of the minority against the levy, but the indifference of the enormous majority of the affiliated trade unionists, which constitutes the indictment of the Labour Party, and so strikingly demonstrates its failure. The Labour Party boasts an affiliated membership of a million and a half; but not one in ten of the members is prepared to sacrifice a pint of four ale once a year for the maintenance of the Party! It is idle, in the circumstances, to pretend that the rank and. file of the trade unions regard the Osborne judgment as an intolerable hardship, or are burning with indignation and seething with revolt against it. The Osborne decision does not prevent any trade unionist contributing to the funds of the Labour Party if he wishes to do so. It only prevents him from being compelled so to contribute. If there were any strong feeling in the trade unions, therefore, against the judgment, that judgment could have no detrimental effect upon the funds of the Party, but rather the reverse. The quite pathetic concern shown by the Parliamentary Group over this matter, which excels any they have shown in relation to any other question whatever, is a measure of their own failure and of the indifference of the rank and file.

On the other hand, the Osborne decision is, in our judgment, fundamentally wrong and unjust because it interferes with the right and liberty of a trade union to dispose of its funds according to the decision of the majority of its members. The object of a trade union is to promote the industrial interests of its members. A trade union which affiliates to the Labour Party regards that affiliation as a means of promoting those interests. That would appear to be quite as legitimate a use of its funds as the support of members in a strike which had been agreed upon by a majority. And the hardship to the minority is no greater in the one case than the other. It is, indeed, absurd to talk about hardship at all in this connection. The total contribution to the Labour Party by any affiliated body is less than twopence-halfpenny per member per year. The levy made upon the members is more than that, but that is simply because the election expenses have to be borne by the organisation to which the candidate belongs, and not by the Party. As a matter of fact, several of the larger unions, with one or more members in Parliament, receive from the Labour Party in the salaries of these members almost as large a sum as they contribute to the Party funds. Thus the Amagamated Society of Railway Servants paid in 1908 in contributions for their 97,000 members 886; while their three members of Parliament, Messrs. Hudson, Thomas, and Wardle, draw 660. The A.S.RS. is the union of which Mr. Osborne was a member, and against which the famous judgment was given. How little cause for complaint Mr. Osborne and his friends of the minority had is seen when these facts are borne in mind, and when it is further remembered that the three railwaymen’s members of Parliament are members of the Railwaymen’s Union; that they were selected by that union, and not by the Labour Party, to be Parliamentary candidates; and that only one of the three, Mr. Wardle, is a Socialist. With other large unions the conditions are even more favourable, as some actually draw more than they contribute.

In truth, if there is any section of the Labour Party which has a right to complain it is the small unions who are quite unable to nominate Parliamentary candidates of their own; who have little weight or influence in the Party, and whose only privilege is to pay their contributions. It has been more than once suggested that these should be permitted to group together with the Party for electoral purposes; but that proposal has found little favour in the Party counsels. The small unions, therefore, help to supply political funds to the larger unions who dominate the Party. If the pledge is abandoned there will be no reason for these smaller unions to remain affiliated, because the control that pledge apparently gave them over all members of the Party will have disappeared. On the other hand, with the disappearance of the pledge the Parliamentary members of the big unions will regain that liberty of action of which the pledge explicitly deprived them. There will thus be no need for affiliation and no bond of union more definite or rigid than that which existed between the trade union members of Parliament before the Labour Party existed. The abandonment of the pledge, therefore, is a policy of despair entered upon in order to save the revenues of the Labour Party, but which, whether it succeeds in attaining that end or no, must inevitably lead to the break-up of the Party.