(5th November 1859)
Voting used to be so simple. Either Conservative or Liberal. That was it.
But now, in 1918, you have Lloyd George’s pro-coalition liberals, Asquith’s anti-coalition liberals, women, and demobilized soldiers to vote for. And, of course, Labour.
Labour had attracted a lot of attention during the War. The party secretary, Arthur Henderson, was part of Asquith’s war cabinet, and many other members had some junior roles, attracting attention to the fledgling party.
But success will not be easily won, even despite the schism that is to engross the Liberal party. It will have to choose its policies wisely.
“Labour has warned the Coalition that opposition towards the young democracies of the Continent will be disastrous. Labour demands the immediate withdrawal of the Allied forces from Russia. It stands for the immediate restoration of the Workers’ International.”
Extracts from the Labour Party’s Election Manifesto. Chairman of Executive, Mr. J. McGurk.
[As far as I can tell, John McGurk seems to be a miners’ delegate]
It is almost remarkable that Britain did not descend into political extremism in the interwar period. Throughout Europe, the general populate were becoming increasingly disenfranchised with the status quo, after a horrific war brought about by imperialist governments. In the UK, the liberal party – the party of opposition for many years – was tearing itself apart over the coalition made with the conservative party. So, voters – among them, many women voting for the first time – are looking for a radical new party to vote for, to rebuild Britain for the people.
How was it that Britain never succumbed to extremism? At this period, the Unity Campaign is pushing for integration with the Communist Party. On the continent, Hitler and Mussolini rose out of the turmoil of World War One. How did the Labour party remain so moderate?
Below is a poem; the “protest of a British workman who loves his country even better than he loves the Labour Party.”
AT times a backward look I cast
Upon the days that are no more,
The relatively peaceful past
When we were still engaged in war;
For then with patriot hearts at one,
Pledged to our land, the common Mother,
We fought our common foe, the Hun,
And now we ‘re fighting one another.
People with memories one-month-long,
Who still recall the Golden Age
When Britain’s valour, going strong,
Enhanced her freedom’s heritage,
Dazed by tho hustings’ hideous hum,
View with regret these changed conditions
By which our new-born souls become
The sport of party politicians.
Myself, a simple labouring man,
Working with what I call my brain,
I ‘d hoped to figure in the van
Of Reconstruction, sound and sane;
But, just as I, with that fair aim,
Was putting to the front my best toe,
Into my eager hands there came
Labour’s Election Manifesto.
In this amazing screed I trace
That we have let our life-blood flow
To make the world a nicer place
For our dear brothers, SOLF and Co.;
That England spent herself for this.
That Labour might delight to babble
Of love with TROTSKY’S crew, and kiss
The reeking lips of LENIN’S rabble!
O days with precious memory fraught,
When still we nursed, with faith serene,
Peace in our hearts because we fought
To keep our English honour clean;
And now and that is why I weep
To think those happy days are over
They ‘d have us fight like cats to keep
The Bosch and Bolshevist in clover.
Dearly I love my honest toil
(And seldom underrate its worth),
But dearer yet I hold the soil
Where I was planted out at birth ;
So if, in England’s cause, I shirk
The claims of other lands that hate her,
Forgive me, Mr. J. McGURK,
For proving such a sorry traitor.
(December 4th, 1918)
Part of the reason for the success of Hitler and Mussolini was that the moderate left in both respective countries was in disarray. In Italy, the moderate left stirred up the latent power of the extreme right by association with them, but failed to be strong enough to make a grab for power. Whereas, the extreme right was strong enough to snatch power – and did.
Crucially, Labour knew this, and wisely rejected the continued appeals of Marxists and communists.
In fact, the Labour party at the top levels was actually composed of rather moderate individuals, despite the humble origins that many had. Had there been any representation of the more bolshy groups that formed its core base, such as the South Wales miners, the party might have been more militant in intent. But these groups were fragmented and poorly unionised.
Indeed, Labour at this period fundamentally disagreed with Marxism. Marxists believed that socialism would arise from the collapse of capitalism. Labour believed that socialism would emerge from the success of capitalism.
Here’s one of my favourite quotes, from the first Labour prime minister Ramsay Macdonald, writing in 1921,
Democratic government is an essential principle, not an accidental accomplishment of any just society. […] [T]he democratic method is an inherent part of socialism and cannot be separated from it, – any more than batting can be separated from cricket or love from life. They are necessary parts of a complex whole.
Labour remained staunchly democratic socialist, and fundamentally opposed to Marxism. As the poem shows, despite the loud voices of the extreme, most of Britain was not keen for a revolution.
Despite their meagre performance at the 1918 elections, they were propelled to being the second largest party at the next election and to win the election after that.