lørdag den 23. august 2008

Questions of the Day (part 9)

Tory, Liberal and Labour political parties

IT is A COMMONPLACE political observation that, in and even out of office, the Conservative and Labour parties pursue very similar policies. There is a simple reason for this. Both stand for capitalism and both are used by the capitalists, with the support of the workers, to control the State in the interests of the capitalist class. The wide sectional differences which divided the ruling class in the nineteenth century have gone, with the landowners turning their land-owning into a capitalist business. The Conservatives tend to favour the farmers and the financial interests of the City of London while the Labour Party tends to favour nationalised or State capitalist industries, but the policies of the two parties are basically the same because they are both trying to solve the trading, financial and military problems of British capitalism. A further reason for their similarity is that, in order to get elected, they must compete for the votes of the workers.

Before examining the historical origins of the Tory, Labour and Liberal parties, a word about party politics. Working class problems arise out of capitalism and will last as long as the system does. Tory governments have failed to solve them; so have Liberal and Labour governments; so have coalitions of all three parties. The Tories argue that the Labour Party fails because it is incompetent and doctrinaire. Labour says the Tories fail because they do not want to solve workers' problems anyway. Labour excuses its own failures by blaming sabotage from Tory civil servants, city financiers or foreign bankers. The Socialist Party of Great Britain says that all capitalist governments must fail because working class problems cannot be solved within capitalism. No government, however well-meaning or efficient, can make capitalism work for the benefit of all. All capitalist governments must sooner or later come into direct conflict with the workers as they must run capitalism in the only possible way: as a profit-making system in the interests of the privileged few who draw a free income as rent, interest and profit from their ownership of the means of production and distribution.

Thus most political discussion about the alleged merits and demerits of the various parties is irrevelant. It is not just governments which cause workers' problems or are to blame for not solving them. It is the economic system of class monopoly and profit-making. Once this is grasped it is easy to see why no capitalist party deserves the support of the workers and why the Socialist Party has always been opposed to all other political parties whatever their label.

Before the rise of the Labour Party in the past half-century or so the two main parties in Britain were the Liberals and the Tories. Modern parties, with their centralised organisation and mass membership, only came into being after the passing of the Second Reform Act of 1867 which meant that from then on, most electors were workers (but not that most workers were electors). Before then parties were loose parliamentary groupings that altered with the changing interests of the sections of the propertied class they represented. However, two distinct groups, dating back to 1688 — the year parliamentary control of the government was firmly established — were discernible: the Whigs and the Tories. Very roughly, the Whigs represented the interests of trade and banking and the Tories the interests of landed property. The Whigs were for parliamentary control and the Tories were royalists, and so for many years were regarded as potential subverters of the constitution.

With the industrial revolution a third propertied group emerged, the factory-owner or manufacturer. Under-represented in Parliament and so excluded from political power
the manufacturers agitated for the reform of Parfiament. The outcome, the First Reform Act, 1832, gave them a share in political power along with the jumped-up speculators and landed aristocrats. The Tories opposed any concessions to the industrial capitalists and the latter formed an uneasy alliance with the Whigs. These manufacturers were determined to shift some of the burden of taxation on to landed property and to deprive the aristocrats of their political privileges. Their first victory was the Repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846, an issue which split the Tories with a section, including Gladstone, going over to the Liberals.

The Liberals thus became the party of industrial wealth and plutocratic privilege. The Tories became the party of landed property and aristocratic privilege. This division did not involve the workers though they were able to use it to get such reforms as the early factory acts (pressed for by the Tories to avenge for their defeat on the Corn Laws issue).


It seemed that in time the economic and political development of capitalism would lead to the demise of the Tory Party. This is certainly what the Liberals wished people to believe, painting themselves as the party of progress and the Tories as the party of privilege. The success of this Liberal propaganda can be judged by the fact that to this day anti-Toryism is exploited by the Labour Party. It was Marx who pointed out that it was a feature of the British political scene that any miserable compromise could be justified merely by pointing out that it upset the Tories!
However, the Tory Party did survive and it was the Liberals who went under. The backbone of the Liberal Party had been the alliance between the textile manufacturers of the north and the metal-working firms of the Midlands. For most of the nineteenth century their interests coincided in opposing aristocratic privilege and in demanding free trade. Britain, as the first capitalist power, was the workshop of the world and its goods were unrivalled on world markets. Towards the end of that century competition in world markets, especially from Germany and America, became tougher. The Birmingham capitalists, led by Joseph Chamberlain, began to turn against free trade and laissez-faire, and to call for State intervention to help them retain old and gain new markets. They wanted protective tariffs and imperialist expansion. The Lancashire capitalists, relying on cheap imports, remained committed to free trade. So Chamberlain took a section of the Liberals over to the Tories. The specific issue was Home Rule for Ireland. Hence the dissidents were called Unionists, a name which still appears in the official title of UK Tory Party. The Tories had thus acquired an industrial base and were in fact better equipped to survive than the Liberals who were squeezed out by the rise of the Labotn Party and the loss of industrialist backing as more anc more industries suffered from free trade.

The Tories are openly a capitalist party, clearly supported by the vast majority of industrialists and wealthy property owners. They are the party of the rich, though since the last war they have had to spend great sums of money to create the image of a popular reform party.

The Liberals have become a pathetic remnant, sustained only by discontent with failures of both the Tories and Labour and desperately trying to find some programme that will mark them off from the two main parties. But the fate of most of their policies has been for them to be stolen by their rivals. Only in co-partnership have they come up with a proposal so impractical that neither Tories nor the Labour party wants to touch it. Profit-sharing is merely a device for ensuring that workers work harder to provide greater profits for the owners. To imagine that the conflict of interest between workers and capitalists can be reconciled by handing out a few shares or appointing a few workers to the board of directors is indeed wishful thinking.

Those workers who had the vote in the last quarter of the nineteenth century found themselves at election times confronted with a choice between two rich men: Sir Graball D'Encloseland and Mr. Samuel Sweater as one wit called them. Many of the politically aware workers asked why they should not also have their own party and,after a number of false starts, the Independent Labour Pirty wa formed in Bradford in 1893. The ILP played a major role in bringing together the trade unions which in 1900 set up the Labour Representation Committee. When it won some support in parliament the LRC in 1906 became the Labour Party. The ILP left the Labour Party in 1932 and soon lost all influence on that party's affairs.


At the start the Labour Party was intended merely as a trade union pressure group in Parliament. It had no socialist pretensions, and was indeed merely the tail-end of the Liberal Party. Nearly every Labour MP returned before the first world war owed his election to Liberal votes in accordance with a shady deal Ramsay MacDonald had made with that party.

In 1918, under the influence of the Fabians, the Labour Party adopted a new constitution which included the now notorious Clause Four. This clause in fact committed it not to Socialism, but to nationalisation or State capitalism which was the real aim of the Fabians. Thus the Labour Party, committed on paper to a programme of the gradual introduction of State capitalism, began its rise at the expense of the Liberals.

By 1922 Ramsay MacDonald was official Leader of the Opposition, instead of Asquith, the Liberal leader, and by 1924 he was Prime Minister. Sections of the capitalist class were alarmed by the prospect of a Labour government and this worried the Labour Party. Led by MacDonald they were determined to show that they were fit to govern capitalism. They had themselves photographed in full court dress. But more seriously they prepared to use troops to break a threatened transport strike and they sanctioned the bombing of tribesmen in Iraq. They did not even make a start on their State-capitalist programme. This was plausibly justified on the ground that they were only a minority government dependent on Liberal support — in other words, only a Liberal government, and indeed a number of Liberal MPs as well as voters went over to the Labour Party.

The Liberals also supported the second Labour government, returned in 1929, which was to collapse ignominiously two years later after helplessly seeing unemployment rise to record levels. They might be fit to govern in the interests of the capitalists but they could not make capitalism work in the interests of the workers.


When in 1945 they were returned with an overall majority the war in the East was not yet over and Prime Minister Attlee had a personal representative at the atomic bombing of Nagasaki. With the coming of peace they nationalised a large section of industry; but those who thought that State capitalism coupled with a Labour government was in the interests of the workers soon learned the truth. In administering capitalism Labour did what was required to protect and further the interests of the British capitalists. They retained war-time legislation banning strikes; they sent troops into the docks; they put gas workers and dockers on trial; they imposed wage restraint and then a wage freeze; they introduced peace-time conscription for the first time; they began the development of the British atomic bomb; they sent troops to help American imperialism in Korea — but they did not solve the housing problem as Bevan had promised.

Disgruntled workers turned to the Tories in 1951 in sufficient numbers to throw Labour out. For thirteen years the Labour leaders were in the wilderness. They fought viciously amongst themselves — the Bevanite episode, nuclear disarmament, Clause Four — but behind the scenes the Labour leadership decided it was time to stop attacking private enterprise and the profit motive. Elected in 1964 they were once again able to show their commitment to capitalism — another wage freeze, incomes policy legislation, proposed trade union legislation and a tougher immigration bar.

The Labour Party is now obviously just another party of capitalism. Its leaders (and the bulk of its members and supporters) accept the class ownership of the means of production, the profit motive, the wages system, the armed forces including nuclear weapons, and have proved willing and able to do whatever the interests of British eapitaism demand. The Labour Party, from the capitalist point of view, is a useful alternative government to the Tories for the capitalists realise the dangers of a long period of one-party rule. They have, for instance, cynically exploited their link with the trade unions to try to get tbem to accept measures which they would not have accepted passively from a Tory government.

The evolution of the Labour Party is a practical confirmation of the theoretical case against reformism. With a working class that has never at any time understood or
wanted Socialism, the Labour Party, instead of gradually transforming capitalism in the interests of the workers, has itself been gradually transformed from a trade union pressure group into an instrument of capitalist rule. It was the chairman of the Parliamentary Labour Party, Mr. Houghton, M.P. (now Lord Houghton), who claimed in 1967: "Never has any previous government done so much in so short a time to make modern capitalism work" (The Times, 25 April 1967). The result has further confused workers as to the real nature and meaning of Socialism.

The miserable failure of the Wilson Labour government has led in Scotland and Wales to growing support for nationalist parties, the Scottish National Party and Plaid Cymru. The basic argument of the nationalists is that social problems in their areas are caused by London government. The implication is that with an independent government in Edinburgh and Cardiff a start could be made in solving their problems. This is not so. Social problems in Scotland and Wales are caused not by government from England but, as elsewhere, by capitalism. Re-arranging frontiers or constructing new States is no more a solution to working class problems than electing a new government of capitalism or changing the Prime Minister. Such political changes, no matter how far-reaching, are irrelevant from a working class point of view since they leave the economic basis of society, the class monopoly of the means of production, unchanged; and it is precisely this that is the root cause of their problems.

The Socialist Party no more supports Scottish and Welsh nationalism than it does British nationalism which, of course, is supported by the Tories, Labour and the Liberals. We are opposed to all nationalism and insist that the solution lies in the establishment of Socialism throughout the world.


In 1977 a new stage was reached in the Labour Party's abandonment of its 'principles' in order to hold on to office. In the years immediately following the end of the sscond world war the overwhelming majority of electors voted Labour or Tory. At the General Election of 1951, for example, only three per cent of those who voted supported the Liberal Party and other minor parties. But discontent with Labour and Tory Government enabled the Liberals and the Scottish and Welsh Nationalists to increase their support. The consequence was that between 1951 and 1974 the Labour vote declined by 2 1\2 million though the electorate had grown by 5 million. (The Tory vote fell by 3 million in the same period.) After the election of October 1974 the Labour Government had only a bare majority in the House of Commons, and had to depend on support by M.P.s of one or other of the minority parties. Among those who on occasion supported the Labour Government was Mr.Enoch Powell. His opposition to Britain joining the European Community, and his too extreme opposition to the immigration of coloured people, had led to his leaving the Tory Party and urging electors to vote Labour at the two elections in 1974.

On 23 March 1977 the possibility arose of the Labour Government being defeated on a vote of confidence, and in the week before the vote was held discussions took place between the Government and the Liberals, the Ulster Unionists (including Mr. Powell), and the Scottish Labour Party, with a view to getting their support on the vote of confidence. The outcome was a 'deal' with the Liberals. In return for Liberal votes in the House of Commons an arrangement was made with the Liberal Party for regular consultations on measures to be introduced by the Government. (The Liberals had had similar discussions with the Tories after the February 1974 General Election which. however, came to nothing.) According to Mr. David Steel, the Liberal leader, the arrangement made with the Government would have the effect that the Labour Government would not proceed with "the granting of more power to local authority direct-labour organisations, the nationalisation of some banking and insurance compnies, and what the Queen's Speech described loosely as other measures that would be laid before Parliament" (The Times, 25 March 1977).

Thus did the Labour Party demonstrate not only its acceptance of capitalism but also its acceptance of the cynical political manoeuvrings that it had long ago denounced when practised by Liberals and Tories.

Further Reading
Is Labour Government the Way to Socialism? SPGB pamphlet 1946 (.pdf)
Labour Government or Socialism? SPGB pamphlet 1968 (.pdf)
Should the Working Class Support the Liberal Party? SPGB pamphlet 1911 (.pdf)

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