The British Parties in Conference

by Harold J. Laski | November 9, 1927

THIS may be regarded as the pre-presidential year in English politics. All parties are aware that a general election cannot be postponed for much more than a year; and all are searching furiously for issues, programs, measures, which may prove palatable to the electorate when the moment for decision arrives. The recent week which saw the Annual Conference of the Conservative and Labor parties was, therefore, of peculiar importance as an indication of their mood. It told us the direction in Avhich the wind is blowing, the ends that each has set before itself. And since each conference had the great merit of reflecting clearly the mind of its members, save for the not unlikely interposition of a new situation, we can be tolerably certain of the road along which each will travel.    

The Conservative Conference is a body for securing an index to opinion, not a body for making decisions. The leaders do not pay it the compliment of taking any essential part in its proceedings. Mr. Baldwin, it is true, came to Cardiff, but it was merely to uddress a public meeting. He had not much to say, though he said it vigorously. He believed that England would one day become prosperous again. He had told Canada—a great country —with emphasis, that this was the case. He was going to enfranchise women between the ages of twenty-one and thirty. Maybe he Avould do something about the House of Lords; at any rate, he would look into it again this winter. He hoped the farming industry would do better; and he informed Lord Rothermere that if he was not prepared to accept the present Conservative leadership, he wanted no advice from the Daily Mail. All in all,  it was a pleasant speech from a pleasant man, blind to the future and bankrupt of ideas. He had nothing to say of the terrible position in the coal industry, with its 250,000 unemployed; he said not a word to defend the lamentable British showing at Geneva. He is the Micawber of English politics,  waiting, with a wordy optimism, for something to turn up. He seems to feel that British trade is so bad that it cannot conceivably be worse. Things, therefore, must sooner or later improve, and he hopes to benefit by the good will the improvement must engender. But his own Ministry of Labor is clearly less optimistic; for its draft revision of the Blanesburgh scheme for unemployment insurance specifically rejects an estimate of 6 percent as normal and calculates upon a much larger number of unemployed.    

The Conference itself was pathetic. It sulkily accepted the widening of the franchise. It passionately demanded the reform of the House of Lords,  and contemptuously rejected a proposal of Lord Londonderry for its postponement. What reform it had in view was not specified; but it was clear to the delegates that property must be safeguarded against a future Labor government while there is yet time. A majority such as this, the delegates seemed to argue, is a gift the gods are unlikely to repeat; what is the good of it if it is not used to destroy the prospects of your opponents? The Conference was enthusiastic about the safeguarding of industries, Mr. Baldwin's dubiously honest substitute for a protective tariff; and it heaved a sigh of relief when Lord Eustace Percy (surely the worst Education Minister of modern times) confided to the delegates that for five, or seven, or ten years at any rate, he would not raise the school-leaving age to fifteen (as the Hadow Committee in a recent unanimous report demanded). The Conservative idea of education is that: (a) we cannot afford it; and (b) there is too much of it already. The Conference ended by going on record in favor of an adequate navy; no disarmament, said a delegate, until we are sure our neighbors are disarming likewise. A demand for leasehold enfranchisement, a safeguard which every small householder and shop-keeper has had for ages in America, was turned down with contempt. The land-owner, so far as Conservatism is concerned, is still to remain the residuary legatee of other people's energies.    

The Conservative Conference may fairly be described as reactionary; that of the Labor party was not less definitely conservative. Throughout, it was dominated by the executive, or, in American parlance, the machine. The voice of the Communist was hardly heard; and such proposals as the left wing ventured to make were annihilated by crushing majorities. The Conference would have nothing to do with the plan (passed three times, almost unanimously, by the National Women's Labor Conference) for making information on birth control available, where desired, at Maternity Welfare Centers. It rejected out of hand a proposal from the Independent Labor party for a further attempt at unity with Russia. A demand for a general strike in the event of war was laughed out of court. What the Conference did was to accept a proposal for placing a surtax on unearned incomes of more than £500 a year; to agree to inquire into the feasibility of nationalizing the Bank of England; to affirm its faith in the nationalization of the mines and demand, meanwhile, an extended application of the Samuel Report; to demand the raising of the school-leaving age to fifteen years; and to ask Mr. MacDonald and the executive to find a program for the party, reporting, if need be, to a special conference.    

I think it is true to say that not a single proposal was accepted by the Conference which could even remotely be called socialistic; one eminent delegate, indeed, definitely asked for the exclusion of such proposals, on the ground that they antagonized Tory trade-unionists. The surtax apart, the executive has a free hand to do what it likes. It will keep its present voters, using the new Trade Disputes Act and the fear of a reformed House of Lords, as the levers to safeguard their allegiance; and it will seek new voters, especially in the agricultural districts and the suburbs, by constructing a program which will not frighten the reader of the Daily Mail. The present mot d'ordre is respectability. "We have no dealings," the leaders want to say, "with Russia; our taxation schemes are the model of 1922; we may not even (though it would worry no one) nationalize the mines; and a little educational reform will really harm no one." Anyone who reads the famous program of 1918 and compares it with the proceedings of the present Conference will be driven to wonder if it is with the same party that he is concerned.    

What is the explanation? I believe it lies in three things. First, there is the widespread irritation with Russia and the Communists. They lie, they intrigue, they falsify, they distort, they indulge in vile personal abuse, and then express astonishment that a fraternal hand is not extended to them. Whatever comes just now from a source suspected of Communist leanings is sure of a wholehearted rejection from any Labor conference. Second, the aftermath of the general strike has lowered the vitality, and, consequently, them optimism of Labor. Its partisans now believe that a thorough-going victory lies in the distant future. Capitalism is far stronger than they realized; they are unwilling to risk anything which seems remotely like a frontal attack upon its citadel. Third, the leaders have a view of the present political situation which calls imperatively for moderation. Mr. MacDonald himself has something like a horror of ideas; he is interested in the play of the parliamentary arena. He does not welcome anything which might jeopardize his power to dominate it. Mr. Snowden has largely ceased to be a socialist, and, in any case, he is a convinced adherent of Liberal-Labor cooperation; he wants nothing which might endanger its possibility. Mr. Thomas never was a socialist; he is a brilliantly clever Trade Unionist Imperialist, a thorough political democrat, but without any profound interest in schemes or theories of economic reconstruction. What interests him is the moment; he can always take care of the morrow by an expedient invented twenty minutes before it is necessary. Mr. Henderson, than whom no party ever had an abler or more devoted organizer, is naturally concerned with its mechanical rather than its intellectual problems.  

The next election is bound to be a contest with two unknowns. There will be the 5,000,000 new voters, and there will be the Liberal party. On a balance of probabilities, the situation of 1924 will repeat itself. Labor will be, as now, the second largest party; but it will be unable itself to control the House. The present leadership seems to be striving for two things. This is an age of vast electoral turn-overs, and it is gambling on moderation to win for it a real majority. Alternatively, it wants an increased membership which will enable it to take office in comfortable relations with a possibly increased Liberal representation, or, if need be, to act as the predominant partner in an attempt at a joint administration. Hence that it is, I believe, fashionable to call a "realist" policy, which means a small number of small measures which are radical in the sense of 1906 and do not outrage the non-socialist conscience. Power, in other words, lies nearly ahead; and the machine cannot bring itself to think and dare boldly lest it lose the chance of power. Ideas and ideals are, therefore, for the moment at a discount.   

It is exceedingly probable that the "realists" will win office on the view they are taking. The present government is so bad, and the electorate so much in advance of its opinions and legislation, that any mildly progressive party is bound to deflect numberless votes from it. If wisdom, therefore, consists essentially in winning the next election, Mr. MacDonald and his colleagues are wise. But there are other things to remember. The driving-power of Labor in the country is its idealism. It has offered, especially to the young, the prospect of translating great hopes into fruition. It is because that was the case that it won the allegiance of men like Massingham, Bertrand Russell, H.G. Wells, H.N. Brailsford. If it is merely to become the alternative to the Conservative party, with a philosophy that is as related to socialism as a jerry-built house to Westminster Abbey, it will not continue to attract those who still venture to dream of a new world built by high courage and arduous effort. The Blackpool Conference seemed to me very like a meeting of Kerenskys; and it was the good fortune of the Labor party that there is no one among the Communists with the tactical skill and organizing power of Lenin. And even so moderate a leader as Keir Hardle, looking at the resolutions, would have thought that he was back in the nineties of the last century. If the Labor party is to fulfill its historic mission, it will have to seek a new temper and a more audacious policy. Its present mood makes Mr. Lloyd-George look like a reckless Bolshevist. 

Harold J. Laski is a writer at The New Republic. 

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