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Reg Groves

The Brighton Labour Party Conference

(April 1929)

First Published: R.G. (Reg. Groves), The Brighton Labour Party Conference, Labour Monthly, April 1929, pp.678-685.
Editing, proofing & HTML markup: Ted Crawford and D. Walters in 2009 for the Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line.
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The Annual Conference of the Labour Party assembled this year, according to the Press, “in high spirits.” It was a “victory” conference and in harmony with its decisions was the setting. An adoring capitalist Press, an admiring Mayor of Brighton and a docile conference.

The President, in his opening speech, “sounded the note of victory.” He referred in glowing terms to Mr. MacDonald’s “mission of peace,” to Mr. Snowden’s” great success at the Hague.” He scorned the suggestion that Labour was losing sight of its objective and ended by declaring that:–

Our object, in brief, is to establish justice among the nations and to save the people of the world from the horror of another war ... The Labour Government is acting in the spirit of Socialism. Socialist education is being conducted by the Party throughout the length and breadth of the land, the trade union movement is better led and directed to-day than ever before. The Conference to-day meets in high spirits; the party and the Government are doing well. Success is not spoiling us ... Let it be understood by everybody that the purpose of the Labour Party is as much as ever to secure the conquest of our country for the people of our country, the conquest of the world for the workers of the world ... We aim at a new society – the Socialist Commonwealth.

This speech was featured in the Daily Herald with the headlines: Our Aims a Socialist Commonwealth.

The Labour Government “Does Well”

In India, thirty-three working-class leaders, British and Indian, are on trial. This trial is only part of the imperialist offensive against the Indian and British working class. Since the Labour Government took office, the reign of terror, existing in India under the Baldwin Government, has been intensified. The attack on hours and wages has extended, public meetings prohibited, newspapers suppressed. Further arrests have taken place, strikers have been assaulted and imprisoned. One political prisoner has died in a brave protest against the vile prison conditions.

“Our Party and the Labour Government are doing well ... the purpose of our Party is to secure the conquest of the world for the workers of the world.”

500,000 cotton workers, after years of low wages and short time – years of semi-starvation for thousands – have received a reduction of 1s.3d. in the pound. The Trade Union leadership, the cotton bosses and the Labour Government combined to reduce their wages and through the triumph of the arbitration board set up by the Labour Government the cotton workers have been driven one step further towards the abyss of misery now being endured by the miners. The sacred cause of “Peace in Industry” has been vindicated; the profit-mongers have been temporarily satisfied; the Cabinet Ministers continue to receive the munificent salaries that capitalism pays to its faithful servants.

The purpose of our Party is to secure the conquest of our country for the people of our country.”

In Palestine, the Labour Government has continued and intensified the traditional policy of British imperialism. It has fostered religious differences in order to split the Jewish and Arab workers; it has suppressed all militant working-class bodies. It has armed the Jewish Fascists and has wiped out whole Arab villages with its Air Force. It has greeted the rising provoked by its own policy with bombs, troops and warships. It is now engaged in trying, convicting and shooting scores of Arabs daily.

Our object, in brief, is to establish justice among the nations and to save the people of the world from the horrors of another war.”

The Trade Union leaders are openly working with the Labour Government, are everywhere assisting the bosses to drive down the standards of the workers. In the name of Rationalisation, wages are being reduced, hours increased, production being speeded up and labour displaced. Strike after strike is being broken by the shameless treachery of the Union leaders. The “Socialists” of years ago, the “militants” of 1925, no longer pretend resistance to the bosses’ demands, no longer conceal their association with the employers. They are openly doing the work of their masters and driving the British workers down into unemployment, starvation and world war.

Socialist propaganda is being conducted throughout the length and breadth of the land. The Trade Unions are better led and directed than ever before.”

What is the meaning of this seeming contradiction? How is it possible for Morrison to exalt the Labour Government’s actions in this way? A few years ago it would have been said that this marks the isolation of the Labour leadership from the class struggle. To-day it shows how close to the class struggle is the Labour Party; only on the side of the ruling class. To-day there is no longer any contradiction between the policy and the actions of the Labour Party. The Labour Government is “doing well.” The suppression of the Indian and Arab peoples, the wage-cuts, the continuing of the brutal policy of Baldwin towards the unem-ployed, the attempts to impose the conditions of the bondholders on the Russian workers – these are in no way a contradiction of their policy. The logical fulfilment of the policy of the Labour Party is unfolding itself before the eyes of the working class.

The “Minister for Employment”

While the Labour Government is fulfilling its promises to the bourgeoisie, the emptiness of its promises to the workers are now being revealed. Thomas’s return from Canada and his much awaited declaration of the results achieved are an example of this. It was once a commonplace on Labour platforms that the fundamental cause of unemployment was private ownership of the means of production. During the election this was noticeable by its absence. The Labour Party promised to give work and relief to the unemployed without the struggle to abolish capitalist control of industry. The failure of the Government to check the brutalities of the Labour Exchanges, their failure to alter the conditions surrounding the payment of benefit or to improve in any way the general lot of the unemployed have already caused profound uneasiness in the movement, as was even revealed at the Conference. Equally the high hopes raised and fostered about the achievements of J.H. Thomas were dashed to the ground.

J.H. Thomas stated, after speaking at length on nothing in particular:–

I am not juggling. I do not say that a million people will be found work in the next two years. I do not know how I can do that. I do not believe this Government or any other Government can do it. You cannot deal with an evil of centuries, accentuated by a hundred and one different circumstances, in such a short time. You can only make a contribution to its solution. (Evening Standard, October 1.)

Here, clearly stated, is the position. There is nothing new in this declaration. The newest Socialist recruit could have explained that no government of capitalism, no government with the capitalist class in control of industry, can solve a problem that arises directly from the control of industry by the bosses. It is “an evil of centuries.” Neither “this Government nor any other Government” can solve it. Precisely, Mr. Thomas. The only hope for the millions of unemployed is class organisation. To the extent that they are organised and led by the revolutionary workers will they force concessions from the bosses and their Labour Government. To the extent that they are linked up with the whole of their class in the struggle for the overthrow of the ruling class they will be making their “contribution,” and a permanent one, to the ending of the misery of unemployment. No wonder the delegates at the conference were disappointed!

“Socialism” and the Bankers

The recent rise in the Bank Rate was greeted by a storm of fury by the “Lefts” in the Labour Party – especially by the ILP. Tillett denounced it as a plot against the Labour Government; Brailsford described it in the terms “City Challenges Labour” and said, “All hope is gone of a speedy reduction in the rising tide of unemployment.” E.F. Wise said at the conference that “the rise in the Bank Rate was a disaster, especially to the Labour Government.” Labour’s Chancellor of the Exchequer replied with a direct defence of the rise in the Bank Rate. He stated that: –

In no quarter where opinion is informed has there been any suggestion that in the circumstances any other course was possible ... it was admitted that given the system we have, then the directors of the Bank of England had no other course.

The Committee of Inquiry set up had nothing to do with the Bank Rate and implied “no reflection whatever upon British banking and financial institutions.”

Thus are the critics of banking and bankers answered not only by a defence of this particular action of Finance-Capital, but by a plain declaration that as long as the present system continued such things were inevitable and that there could be no question of the Treasury or the Labour Government interfering with the sacred rights of capitalism in the slightest degree.

The only possible answer to this was an answer in the terms of the class struggle and so the ILP withdrew its resolution which drew attention to the “disastrous effect of the raising of the Bank Rate on trade and employment.” The critics were routed. The “Socialist” Chancellor had vindicated that beneficent group who control the banks and on whom “no reflection” must be cast.

Labour and India

The reply of Drummond Shiels, Under-Secretary for India, to the attempts of the ILP to refer back that section of the Executive’s report dealing with India is particularly illuminating. He said, in connection with the Meerut trial: –

The prisoners in the Meerut case were arrested in March, before the Labour Government came into office, but the Government accepted full responsibility for their present position. These men were not in prison because they were trade union leaders; they were not charged with being agitators or Communists, but with having engaged in a con-spiracy to change the Government of India by armed force. The Communist Party were making strenuous efforts to capture the Trade Union Movement in India. The Government of India was anxious to encourage genuine trade unionism and that trade unionism should escape from the present troublesome and dangerous conditions. They were in favour of the utmost freedom of speech in India consistent with the preservation of public order ... they took that attitude on the broad principles applicable to every civilised community, but they also took it in the interests of the uninformed humble people of India. (The Times, October 2.)

No declaration could be more open and unashamed. Even accepting the plea that these workers were not imprisoned for their trade union activities (and the facts point very clearly otherwise), no worker would argue that this justifies to him their imprisonment. In Britain the Labour leadership proudly points to the franchise as the “peaceful way to Socialism.” In India even the pretence of democracy does not exist. The Government of India shoots and batons strikers, imprisons strike leaders, suppresses newspapers and prohibits public meetings. The Indian workers must accept this terrorism with folded arms and must leave their emancipation to their gentle, kind-hearted rulers! The Government, we are assured, “is anxious to encourage genuine trade unionism.” What is meant by genuine trade unionism? Did not the Tory Govern-ment pass the TU Act in order to encourage “sane,” “genuine” trade unionism? Is not “genuine” trade unionism now being used to break the strikes of the British workers?

The Government of India has shown only too clearly what it means by the encouragement of genuine trade unionism in its support of the reformist textile union, led from outside, with its 5,000 members, and its imprisonment of the leaders of the Girni Kamgar Union with over 70,000 members. It has shown what it means by “genuine” trade unionism by its arming and protecting of blacklegs, its brutal treatment of strikers and by the imprisonment of thirty-three workers who are building up unions of struggle as against the company unions of the British and Indian Labour leaders.

The Government, we learn, is in favour of the “utmost freedom of speech consistent with the preservation of public order.” So was the Russian Tsarist Government so is every Government. What is meant, as experience has shown British workers, that any attack on property right is considered inconsistent with the preservation of public order. Propaganda in favour of industrial peace or acceptance of wage cuts, servile petitioning for Dominion status, such things are not suppressed – only meetings of the workers demanding bread, demanding freedom of meeting and organisation, demanding the ending of British rule and its attendant horrors, are smashed up and prohibited as not being “consistent with the preservation of public order,” as not being in the interests of the “uninformed, humble people of India.” Strike breaking, ten hours a day for less than a shilling, an infantile death rate of over 800 in the 1,000, victimisation, shooting and imprisonment for strikers, these are in the interests of the humble workers of India, Mr. Shiels. No worker, knowing the issues, could read this speech without a feeling of disgust and fury.

The “Opposition”

This conference was marked out from previous conferences most clearly by the complete absence of militant workers sharply attacking the policy of MacDonaldism. For the first time since the war the task of rallying the rank and file against the platform fell completely to the ILP. In what way was the opposition conducted?

In the first place the circumstances at this conference were entirely different to those at any previous conference. The con-ference was faced with the fact of a Labour Government and the opposition with the fact that to maintain their role they must attack not merely policies and programmes but must condemn the actions of the Labour Government. This they did to a point. The numerous rank-and-file delegates, dissatisfied with the Labour Government, in many cases indignant, looked for leadership against the platform. The ILP fulfilled its normal function – the safety valve for the dissatisfied elements – and harnessed these delegates behind their attack. What exactly did the opposition achieve? Did they change the Labour Government’s policy towards India? Did they make any change at all in the programme of the Labour Party? The answer is clearly no. What was achieved by the opposition? Firstly, it is clear that they diverted any dissatisfac-tion into their own channels – that is behind the leadership of the ILP. Secondly, they are now the recognised Left opposition inside the Labour movement.

But yet one point remains that will stamp the ILP, for the militant workers, not as the working-class opposition to MacDonaldism but as MacDonald’s chief allies. The ILP condemned, as it was forced to in order to maintain its position, the policy of the Labour Government on various issues. But the ILP remains behind the Labour Government; its M.P.’s support it in the House; its propagandists and newspapers call on the workers to vote Labour, and because of this its policy and action stand condemned in the eyes of the workers.

It might condemn the action of the Labour Government in cutting the wages of the cotton operatives, but did the ILP call on the cotton workers to resist the arbitration award? It might condemn the Labour Government for its actions in India, but beyond words of protest (uttered with apologies), what does it do to strengthen and assist the revolutionary section of the Indian Labour movement? It is on these concrete questions that the real rôle of the ILP can be gauged.

In the face of the new constitution; a constitution which brings the Labour Party more completely into line with the Social Democratic Parties on the Continent; a constitution which tightens the discipline of the Party; which gives the Executive still more power to deal with real critics and the rank and file less; in the face of this and the fact that the present actions of the Government are a natural logical outcome of their policy, the ILP continues to urge that it is still possible to alter the policy of Labour; that the place of militants is inside, accepting the discipline and policy of the Labour Party. The meaning of this should be clear to all workers, and in the fight against the Labour Government, as the enemy of the working class, the revolutionary section of the workers must bring its sharpest weapons of attack to bear on the so-called “Left Wing” inside the Labour Party.

Fight the Labour Government

That it was possible for this “victory” conference to meet in “high spirits,” at a time when the working class is facing heavy attacks and is entering a period of mighty class conflicts, reveals only too clearly where the Labour Party and the Labour Govern-ment stand to-day. With the struggle now taking place in the coal-fields; the isolated fights in the textile areas; the approaching woollen crisis and the developing attack on the railways, together with the development of the Rationalisation offensive in all industries, the working class must strengthen its forces, prepare its army and build its leadership. The rôle of the Labour Government has already been revealed. It is the Government of Rationalisation, of wage cuts and war. In these circumstances the central point of the coming battles will be the Labour Government; the greatest obstacle to the successful struggle of the workers will be the Labour Government; the most bitter and ruthless enemy of the workers will be the Labour Government.

In the face of this it is necessary that the forces of the revolutionary workers must be mobilised against the Labour Government and its servant the Independent Labour Party.

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Last updated: 11 March 2010