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Workers’ International News, March 1940


The Ballot Box Test


From Workers’ International News, Vol.3 No.3, March 1940, pp.6-8.
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


The successful attack by the British capitalist class on workers standards has been achieved not as in France and Germany by frontal assault and a brutal smashing through, but, by taking the working class in the rear. It has been accomplished by relying heavily on the apparatus of the Labour and Trade Union movement. That is the meaning of the political truce. With the masses immobilised and held tight by the sabotage and obstruction of Labour officialdom, it has been possible for the capitalists to proceed on their murderous course.

This is strikingly revealed by the results of by-elections held since the war began. And those by-elections have been useful barometers to the capitalists to test the reaction of the masses. The fact that elections can be held at all and the EPA and other emergency regulations held in abeyance is an indication of the firm hold which the National Government still has on the internal situation for the present.

The truce has meant that in a large number of cases the National Government has been returned unopposed. In Southampton, Wells, Streatham, Macclesfield and other constituencies the labour leaders have allowed the National government to retain seats without a struggle. Murmurs from the rank and file at a policy which commits them to support Chamberlain and Churchill have had a certain effect on the labour leaders compelling them to deny any collaboration with the Government whatsoever, and to affirm support “for the struggle against Nazism only.”

Meanwhile the fact that the “struggle against Nazism” has meant an enormous increase in the fabulous profits made by the trusts and combines has not escaped the notice of the working class. The gift to the food combines of 1,000,000 a week “to keep down prices,” the coal owners, Railway share-holders, banks; armaments manufacturers, big cotton employers, the large trusts and combines none of whom has been left without a share, have enormously benefited already, though the war has scarcely begun. And yet the paradox remains, there is no mass movement against the war and the masses remain resentful but passive.

A study of some of the contested by-election results gives us the key to this problem. On October 14th the first contested election was held at Clackmannan. The opponent of the Labour Party which held the seat was a pacifist. The Labour candidate was returned with 15,645 votes. The pacifist received only 1,060 and forfeited his deposit. At the previous election the ILP had received, 1,513. So that the anti-war vote had failed even to reach the modest figure attained by the “Socialist” candidate previously. It is true that the war had just begun but an analysis of the figures of the total poll suggests that numbers of Labour voters did not poll and that it was not the fact that the election came soon after the outbreak of war came soon after the outbreak of war which had meant such a low poll.

The masses have been completely unenthusiastic about the war, accepting it because they do not see any alternative. The programme on which the pacifist stood was “peace now” with Hitler to remain in possession of Poland and Czechoslovakia and to be given colonies if necessary to achieve a cessation of hostilities. Bad as the continuance of war seemed to the workers the surrender to Hitler which policy implied seemed infinitely worse. A solution which meant victory for German imperialism was obviously no solution. The negative and utopian character of pacifism was alien to the mass of the people.

The stupidity of the ILP in standing down and supporting the pacifist candidate at Clackmannan was revealed by the Stretford result of December 8th. In a Conservative seat the Tory dropped from 34,874 to 23,408. In the absence of a Labour candidate the ILP received 4,426 and the Communist candidate only 1,519. Nevertheless the continued “Stop The War by Negotiation” Platform of the semi-pacifist ILP receiving many votes less than they would have done on a clear unambiguous revolutionary socialist platform. The Communist Party was discredited by the Hitler-Stalin Pact and the invasion of Finland. The obvious fact that their policy was directly inspired by the interests of the Kremlin proved that they too stood for a policy which could only mean victory for the Germans instead of victory for British imperialism. The fact that in the fourth month of the war almost a third of the labour vote in this election was anti-war and that a large section had not voted at all indicates the strength of the still inarticulate and unformulated opposition of the workers.

In Central Southwark we once again have a candidate standing on almost the same platform and with the full support of the Communist Party but nominally disguised as a “Stop the War” labour candidate standing as an official candidate of the Labour Party. Less than a quarter of the electorate voted at all. The Labour Party vote declined by more than half, the candidate only receiving 5,285 votes. Apart from evacuation and the call-up a very large percentage must have abstained. The Stop-the-War advocate received only 1,550 votes, slightly more than the freak National Independent candidate who also stood.

In Silvertown, the most recent of the elections, once again the conclusion emerging from the previous elections is confirmed. The Labour candidate received 14,343 a drop of a little less than 4,000 over the previous election, Pollitt, former leader of the Communist Party but now under a cloud, 966, and a fascist, who had been rashly put up in a working class stronghold, 151. The ILP in one of the few areas in London in which they possess some influence, fearing the accusation of the Communist Party “that they were splitting the anti-war vote” revealed their abject incapacity to give a fighting lead to the masses by taking no part in the contest.

All the elections show that the masses, although critical, are not prepared to support a policy which they can interpret in any way as meaning victory for Hitler. Even the incorrigibly pacifist ILP has been compelled under mass pressure to recognise the futility of this policy, at least in words. But they retain it in practice, thus further bewildering and disorienting the masses.

The stock argument used by the Labour leaders with a certain measure of success has been that their opponents had no alternative to offer except peace on Hitler’s terms. They exploit to the full the hatred of the British masses for fascism and all that it has come to mean to the workers of Britain and of Europe.

Here it is revealed in practice that only a flexible Marxian programme can clarify the mind of the masses and make the issues simple and understood. The treachery of the Communist Party platform which plays into the hands of the labour leaders and capitalists, the confusion of the ILP can only further facilitate the victory reaction. The only programme which the masses will understand is one which demands on the one hand the breaking away of the Labour Party leaders from all collaboration with the National Government and the taking of full responsibility for the war on their shoulders with a concretisation of the demagogic threats of Bevin, Attlee and others against unnamed “financiers and industrialists” who are making fortunes out of the war at the expense of the people.

A demand must be made that the labour leaders shall expose such criminals and not shelter them under a vague anonymity. Their programme of salvation must be put to the test of action, A campaign on the lines of the Transitional Programme of the Fourth International backed with the figures of the almost incredible gains made by big capital, and a demand that the Labour leaders should put such a programme into action would soon put them under the critical gaze of the already suspicious masses. The Labour leaders, we are certain will never carry out such a programme, a programme which we must explain can only be carried out by the seizure of the land, mines, factories, railways, banks, by the workers themselves. This is inseparable from the struggle against the war, which can only be ended by the victory of the workers of Germany and Britain over their own exploiters, by the workers and soldiers taking control into their own hands and then stretching out the hand of friendship to the German workers. Such a clear-cut programme can alone rouse an echo in the minds of the working class. Meanwhile it is necessary to give critical support to all “anti-war” candidates, not only in those cases where Labour stands down and allows the Conservative to get in unopposed, but also, as long as the political truce lasts, against the official Labour candidate.

We have previously in these columns urged the necessity for a majority Labour Government to replace the National Government, in order to educate the masses as to the true role of the Labour Party. But where the Labour Party openly abandons even the pretence that it is fighting the Tories, adopts their programme and concludes a truce with them, it becomes impossible to support an official Labour candidate, because a vote for Labour then means a vote for Chamberlain.

But does not a vote for the “Stop-the-War” candidate mean a vote for Hitler? Yes, is does. Nevertheless those workers who record such vote do not thereby try to make a pro-Hitler gesture. They vote that way because it is one way open to them to express their abomination of the war. And in the absence of a revolutionary Socialist candidate we advise all workers to do the same, voting not for the policy of the stop-the-war candidate, but against the war.

In the last resort, votes are but gestures. The real arena of the struggle is in the final analysis outside Parliament. It is only workers’ action to end the war that can bring peace.

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