The British Elections and the Labor Parties
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The British Elections and the Labor Parties
By H. Kelly
WE are a left-center country; we live by compromise."
The above statement was made by an aged member of Parliament to Kropotkin some years ago, and the present elections testify strongly to the truth of that remark. For a country which produced the father of political economy, Adam Smith—for Scotland is included in our generalization—Robert Owen, the father of libertarian Socialism, which in the forties stood almost at the head of the Socialist movement in Europe, which has been the scene of so many Socialist and workingmen's congresses and has furnished a refuge for so many distinguished exiles, it is passing strange, to say the least, that up to the present no one has been elected to Parliament on a purely Socialist platform; this notwithstanding that, in the elections just past, of forty-three labor members elected nineteen are members of the Independent Labor Party and one of the Social Democratic Federation. John Burns was elected to Parliament just after the great Dock Strike on his trade-union record and has been elected regularly ever since, although he has long since ceased to be a Socialist. Keir Hardie was elected for West Ham as a Radical, and when he stood for re-election as a Socialist was defeated. In 1900 he was elected again as member for Merthyr Tydfill, a radical mining district in Wales, on a trade union-Socialist platform, and undoubtedly received a large number of votes on the ground of having been a miner once himself. R. B. Cunningham-Graham, probably the ablest Socialist who has yet sat in the British Parliament, was elected as a Radical, announcing himself a Socialist some time after his election.
The British workman, true to his traditions, has consistently demanded compromise before electing anyone, and where that has been refused, the candidates have gone down to defeat. Hyndman, founder of the Social Democratic Federation and the ablest Socialist in public life; Quelch, editor of "Justice," the official organ of that party, for more than a decade, and Geo. Lansbury, one of their oldest, ablest and most respected members, refused to compromise in the recent election, and paid the inevitable penalty. Hyndman's case was really remarkable, he is a man of exceptional ability, has devoted himself for twenty-five years to the Socialist and labor movement, was endorsed by all the labor bodies of Burnley, and Mr. Phillip Stanhope, recently created a lord and one of the ablest Liberal politicians in the country, did him the honor of declining to stand against him. Still he was defeated—while politicians of an inferior stamp like John Burns, Keir Hardie, J. R. MacDonald and two score of others were triumphantly elected on a labor platform. Therein lies the secret, they were elected on a "Labor Platform!" Eight-hour day, trade-union rate of wages, better factory legislation, secular education, annual sessions of Parliament, paid members, one man, one vote, etc. All excellent things in themselves, but not Socialism and in no way disputing the right of one man to exploit another and leaving untouched the basic principle of Socialism, real Socialism, the right of labor to the fruits of its toil.
Under conditions such as those described, is it to be wondered at that many Anarchists are frankly cynical as to the benefits labor will derive from the labor parties? There will be at least two, that have suddenly forced the gilded doors of the "Mother of Parliaments" and about which the guilty middle class grew nervous. We know that men like T. Burt, H. Broadhurst, W. Abraham, F. Madison and a score of others are but nominal labor men not having worked at their various trades for years and are middle class by training and income, that others like Keir Hardie, J. R. MacDonald, John Ward and many more are at best labor politicians so steeped in political bargaining and compromising that the net results to labor from them will be very small indeed. It is not necessary nor would it be just to question the honesty or well-meaning of many of the forty-three labor members, to prove that a distinct disappointment awaits those who elected them. Past history foretells the future clearly enough. We have seen John Burns, hero of the Dock Strike, who entered Parliament as a Revolutionary Socialist, becoming in a few short years as docile as a lamb to those above him in power and as autocratic as a Russian provincial governor to those who needed his assistance, finally enter a Liberal Cabinet with the "hero of Featherstone," H. H. Asquith, by whose orders striking miners were shot down in real American fashion, Sir Edward Grey, and other Jingo Imperialists—and the end is not yet. There are our other friends (?). H. Broadhurst, special favorite of the King; W. Abraham, ex-coal miner, who so endeared himself to the coal operators of Wales in his capacity as official of the Miners' Union and Scale Committee that when his daughter was married several years ago she received a cheque for £100 from one of the aforesaid operators, and others whom space forbids mentioning. Such is the material of which the labor parties now in the House of Commons is formed, and it requires a violent stretch of imagination to see any real, lasting benefit can accrue from the forty-three men now sitting there as representatives of the oppressed masses. An inability to see this, however, by no means implies a lack of inherent good in the formation of the Labor Representation Committee and the Miners' Federation, their fraternization with the Socialists and the forces which impelled that organization and fraternization. It is the agitation which preceded it, and we hope will continue, and the growing desire on the part of the workers for a larger share of the product of their toil and a part in the management of industry that we see hope. The form that movement has taken or the beneficial results from the efforts of the elected are details. It is scarcely five years since the Labor Representation Committee sprang into existence, and it says much for the solidarity of labor that over a million trade unionists, thirteen thousand members of the Independent Labor Party and eight hundred Fabians could be got together on a political program in so short a time.
For good or ill the British workingman has gone in for political action and will have a try at that before he listens to the Anarchists. Slow of thought and used to compromise, he is a stern taskmaker and will exact a rigid account of the stewardship entrusted to those who sought his suffrage. When the disillusionment comes, as it surely will, real progress may come. The process of disillusionment does not come with geometrical precision. To some it comes over night, to others it is a process of years, and to some it is denied altogether. For years the Anarchists have been scoffed at as impossible dreamers for advocating the General Strike as the only effective means of overthrowing the present system. The glorious fight of the Russian people for freedom has changed all this, and we find even Bebel threatening the German Government with a general strike if they attempt to withdraw the franchise; and Hyndman, who opposed it for years, has finally admitted its effectiveness. The effect has been felt in Great Britain in the shape of the unemployed agitations and demonstrations, and although temporarily allayed by the elections, it will blossom forth again.
If the advent of the Liberal party to power, backed by the Home Rule and Labor parties, causes an undoing of the harm of the Balfour-Chamberlain government, it will be more than can reasonably be expected. The trade unions can never be restored to quite the same legal immunity they had previously. The forty thousand Chinese imported into South Africa to take the places of white miners will remain even if no more are brought in. The Education Act, passed with the assistance of the Irish Archbishops and attacking secular education, will be amended and not repealed. The endowment of the brewers will continue, and my Lords Bass, Burton and the rest will merely await future opportunities to plunder the British public. In short, little constructive legislation, even of that mild and tentative character one might expect from a Liberal party, made up of capitalistic units can be expected after the ten years of corrupt and extravagant rule of this band of modern pirates.
They who advocate the complete reconstruction of society are under no illusions as to the time and trouble required to overcome the superstitions of the past. Being imbued, however, with the belief in what Christians call "the eternal righteousness of their cause," they meet the future with smiling face; and far from being downcast over the turn of events in Great Britain, see hope in the formation of the Labor Parties.
Harry Kelly, “The British Elections and the Labor Parties,” Mother Earth 1, no. 1 (March 1906): 44-48.