POLITICAL PARTIES IN BRITAINCategory: Politics
The modern party system inBritainis a result of the Industrial Revolution, the emergence of financial capital to leadership of the state and the organised political struggle of the working class. Political parties are the reflection of class divisions within society. The Industrial Revolution brought into being the industrial proletariat and with it the fight for civil and political rights, trade-union organisation and the right to vote. The subsequent political struggle brought about the consolidation of capitalist power behind the Tory Party as its political expression, the decline of the Liberal Party into a middle class, small capitalist party, the emergence of the mass Labour Party.
Despite all the claptrap of the Conservative publicists, the Tory Party is the class party of big business, staffed, financed and led by big business, carrying out the policy of big business. The characteristic of the Tory Party is its lack of any semblance of democracy, and its complete domination by the top clique of company directors, aristocrats and professional big-business politicians.
A glance at the historical development of the Conservative and Liberal parties helps to explain their present constitutions. In the eighteenth century the Tory and Wig parties were nothing more than groups of M. P.’s within Parliament. There was no national organisation whatever.
The fight for democratic rights, for universal suffrage, created a new position; party organisation arose as a necessity. With wealth and property overwhelmingly concentrated in the hands of the tiny minority, and the parliamentary majority necessary to form a government dependent on the mass of the voters, the capitalist parties, by fair means or foul, had to win the votes not only of the rich, but of the small capitalists, the middle class and professional people, small business men, shopkeepers and even backward sections of workers, and organise them into or around the party.
Before 1884 the principal method was wholesale bribery and corruption, supplemented by economic pressure and social influence. After the passing of the Ballot Act, 1872, and the stringent Corrupt Practices Act, 1884 (reflecting the democratic influence of the working class exerted through the Radical M. P.s’ in the Liberal Party), bribery and economic pressure — though never wholly abandoned — became less effective, and the modern system of wholesale deception, comprising a mixture of promises, flattery, jingoism1 and irrational appeals to emotion was developed. By the end of the century the Conservative and Liberal parties had become powerful propaganda instruments designed to foster those ideas, illusions and beliefs among the common people which best suited the purpose of their parliamentary leaders.
For both capitalist parties of the time, the danger existed that their party organisations, with a membership more broadly based than the top dominating clique and potentially antagonistic to them, could well come in conflict with the clique at the top. It is this basic contradiction of the aims and interests of the numerically small top monopoly capitalist circles with those of even the mass of Tory voters which explains the dictatorial and completely undemocratic structure of the Tory Party. These circles will not even consider sharing power with the Tory masses in any way. The power over the Party is concentrated completely in their hands as a prerequisite for the concentration of state power in these same hands.
Under the constitution of the Conservative Party the relation between the ordinary members and the parliamentary leaders can only be described as one of outright dictatorship. All power is concentrated in the hands of the leader of the party. He personally appoints the holders of the key positions in the Central Office. The decisions of the Party Conference and of the various organs of the party are “conveyed” to him so that he may be kept constantly aware of the moods and opinions of his followers, but the leader is in no way bound by these resolutions. Endorsements and pronouncements on party policy are the prerogative and the responsibility of the leader. There are no means whatsoever for the conservative annual conference or the executive committee to control the activities of the leader and his parliamentary colleagues whether they form the Government or the Opposition. The leader does not even normally attend the annual conference, except to deliver a speech at the end of the conference which is not open to discussion.
No picture of the Tory Party is complete without taking into account the fact that all the employers organisations, the great agencies of mass propaganda, the press, films and advertising and innumerable “public” bodies are owned by the trusts and are, therefore, vast capitalist, Tory propaganda agencies essential for maintaining an ideological grip on the people. Virtually every company meeting, especially those of the big banks, propagates capitalist policy which is then widely disseminated throughout the press.
But what of the Labour Party?
The origin of the Labour Party was entirely different from that of the Conservative and Liberal parties. They began as groups of M. P.’s already inside Parliament and only subsequently extended outwards into national organisations. The Labour Party was founded in 1900 to enable the working- class movement to send its own representatives into Parliament.
Owing to the very nature of the Labour Party as an alliance of the trade unions and the Socialist groups and the policy of the reactionary labour leaders it was not a clean break (as demanded by the rank and file of the movement) that took place. It was accompanied on all sides by dependence on capitalist policies and influences.
In the sixty years of the Labour Party’s existence, the conflict between working class politics and the politics of the leadership, reflected in the struggle between right and left in the movement, has always been inherent in the Labour Party.
The Labour Party has always been an association of different class elements — the working class and groups of the petty bourgeoisie. The working class mass organisations, the trade unions, provided the main body of the membership and the finance; and petty bourgeois reformist politicians (who in the main were the policy makers, publicists and the leading parliamentarians), in alliance with the most right-wing trade union bureaucrats, formed the dominant leadership. Although the Labour Party was formally established to secure the representation of the workers in Parliament, the right-wing leadership, while occasionally using socialist phrases, always repudiated the class struggle, expressed its hostility to strikes and all other forms of working class action, and rejected socialist policies in favour of liberal capitalist reforms.
The right-wing leadership from the beginning reflected the effects of imperialism and imperialist ideas within the working class movement. It always rallied to support imperialism, backing whatever foreign and defence policies were essential for this purpose, and seeking to spread an imperialist outlook in the movement.
The constitution of the Labour Party provides great opportunities for the rank and file to influence the leadership, but it leaves the Parliamentary Labour Party — which is made up of all the Labour M. P.’s — a free hand in Parliament. In this vital respect the Labour Party constitution fully reflects the outlook of the right-wing leaders and accords with their actual practice.
Neither the Annual Conference nor the National Executive of the Party has any right to elect the leader of the Party, who exercises the enormous powers of Prime Minister when the party takes office; this is a matter solely for the Parliamentary party. Thus it is justifiable to conclude that the independence of the parliamentary leadership of the Labour Party is assured under its present constitution.
The Labour Party Executive, dominated by the leading group of the Parliamentary Labour Party, so arranges its business that the union conferences never really have the opportunity of discussing Labour Party policy.
Debates at Labour Party Conferences are mainly based on resolutions or policy statements from the Executive, and resolutions from Constituency Labour Parties. Resolutions from trade unions are generally few in number, the usual attitude of the right-wing trade union leaders is to support whatever the Labour Party Executive puts forward.
The most important development in British politics in recent years has been the advancing strength of the militant section of the labour movement reflected in the growing opposition votes at successive Trade Union Congresses and Annual Conferences of the Labour Party. The policy of the right-wing leaders of collaboration with the Tories has been systematically attacked and the basis for a socialist home and foreign policy put forward. If the left wing became the majority in the trade unions and the Labour Party, the two-party system would be transformed into its opposite, the present shadow-boxing between the Front Benches, serving to conceal the fundamental identity of their outlook, would give place to the real battle of two parties openly representing the two opposed classes in society contending for power.
The undemocratic features of the Labour Party are a serious obstacle to the advance of the left-wing movement. The fight against the influence of the right-wing leaders is bound up with the struggle for democracy within the Labour Party and the trade unions. If the left wing grew sufficiently strong, the successful outcome of this struggle could at long last make the electoral system serve the interests of the working people ofBritaininstead of the monopoly capitalists, and thus realise the fondest hopes of the Chartists who fought so bravely for universal suffrage as a means to a better order of society.
From The British Political System and What Next? by John Gollan; World News, Jan. 23, 1960