Saturday, 7 December 2013

Labour Party: a history of working class betrayal

In December 1923 Britain went to the polls in a General Election.

The incumbent Conservative Government, led by Stanley Baldwin, had fought on its policy of economic protectionism, but the party failed to secure a majority. The Conservatives had emerged as the largest party in the House of Commons, with 258 seats to Labour’s 191 and the Liberals on 159. However, Baldwin considered he had failed to receive the endorsement of the people for his party’s proposals and, as such, he declined to form a government. As the next largest party – and one that had fought the campaign supporting ‘free trade’ as opposed to ‘protectionism’ – Labour leader Ramsay MacDonald was summoned to Buckingham Palace where he accepted King George V’s invitation to form a government.

Reports at the time suggested the meeting between socialist leader and hereditary monarch gave a strong indication of what was to come from the first Labour Government. It was said that King George raised concerns over the singing of the Red Flag at a Labour rally in the Albert Hall, but MacDonald sought to reassure the monarch by indicating that Labour members had simply got into the habit of singing the song, a habit the new Prime Minister, apparently, said he hoped to break.

The election of a government bearing the name of those who made their living by selling their labour had raised great expectations within the working class. But very quickly the hopes and aspirations of ordinary men and women were to be cruelly dashed.

Despite a majority of Labour MPs being members of the Independent Labour Party, including Ramsay MacDonald and five other Cabinet Ministers, the ILP’s more socialist ideology was crushed as the Scottish Prime Minister lost no time in telling Capitalist bosses they had nothing to fear from a Labour Government. On taking office, MacDonald stated, “I want to gain the confidence of the country. I shall suit my policy accordingly.”

One of the first actions taken by the Labour Government demonstrated the chasm between the so-called party of labour and the working class who had elected it. As the Labour Party assumed electoral power a strike by rail-workers was already taking place. Privately-owned rail companies were attempting to impose wage reductions, a move that, understandably, was opposed by the workers and their trade unions. However, far from supporting the workers, the new government’s Minister of Labour, Tom Shaw MP, stated, “We have no sympathy for this unofficial strike,” and made clear that “all the resources of the Government will be used to prevent the four essential services – light, water, food and power – from being stopped.”

Days later, in February 1924, Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald himself showed his Labour Government would not tolerate even ‘official’ industrial action when, referring to a national strike by Dockers, he said, “We will take what steps are necessary to secure transport of necessary food supplies”. Subsequently, when underground rail-workers threatened to take strike action in sympathy with the Dockers, MacDonald announced that “the major services must be maintained”. On March 31st 1924 the Labour Government proclaimed a State of Emergency and, by use of ‘emergency powers’, took action to break the strike.

The disillusionment of the British working class was echoed abroad, where colonised peoples had hoped the election of a ‘socialist’ government in ‘Mother England’ would, at the very least, loosen the controlling grip of Empire.

Instead, MacDonald himself confirmed that capitalist exploitation within the British Empire would continue under Labour. In the face of Indian agitation for independence, Ramsay MacDonald made clear in a telegram to colonial civil servants and British military officers stationed in the country that “no party in Great Britain will be cowed by threats of force or by policies designed to bring Government to a standstill”. Subsequently, the Labour Government introduced detention without trial in Bengal, and put down a cotton workers’ strike in Bombay by authorising troops to open fire on strikers. In addition, Indian communists were arrested and jailed on charges of ‘conspiracy to deprive the King of his Sovereignty’.

In July 1924, a botched prosecution (subsequently dropped) by the Attorney General against J.R. Campbell, editor of the Workers’ Weekly newspaper, led to the Liberal Party withdrawing support for the Labour Government in the House of Commons. The Workers’ Weekly had published an anonymous open letter – actually written by Harry Pollitt, leader of the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) – in which soldiers were urged to “let it be known that, neither in the class war nor in a military war, will you turn your guns on your fellow workers”. The failure of action to prosecute Campbell for sedition, although the fault of the Attorney General, allowed the Liberals to claim Labour was under the influence of the CPGB.

Three months later Ramsey MacDonald and the Labour Government lost a ‘Confidence’ motion in parliament. A General Election was set for October 29th 1924.

Just days before the election, both the Times and the Daily Mail published a letter, ostensibly from Grigory Zinoviev, chairman of the Comintern (the Communist International) in the Soviet Union. The letter urged British communists to promote revolution. Undoubtedly the letter had a significant bearing on the outcome of the General Election, which saw the Conservatives returned to power with 412 seats to Labour’s 151. The ‘Zinoviev Letter’ was subsequently proved to have been a forgery.

The first Labour Government had lasted little more than 10 months and its only significant legislation had been the Housing Act, introduced by Glasgow socialist John Wheatley, which began a programme of mass housebuilding designed to provide homes at affordable rent for the working class.

With the Tories back in power, the ground was set for unparalleled social and industrial upheaval, leading to the General Strike of 1926.

** Originally published as part of the Hidden History series in the Scottish Socialist Voice..

1 comment:

  1. So now we know British governments have always worked against the interests of the people - and will use any means to achieve their foul aims!
    Be careful Scotland - be very,very careful!