British Communists and Elections, 1920-1935
Mike SquiresThis article was first publised in the Spring 2004 issue of Communist Review, the theoretical and discussion journal of the Communist Party of Britain. It was evidently intended as a contribution to the debate within the CPB over whether or not to abandon its longstanding policy of advocating a Labour vote in elections and instead join Respect – the Unity Coalition, the electoral alliance put together by the Socialist Workers Party, George Galloway and others.
Should socialists and people with left, or progressive ideas continue to vote Labour? Many both inside and outside the labour movement are posing that question. It is a question that communists have grappled with for years and, to be honest about our history, it is a question that we’ve answered in a number of different ways depending on the circumstances. There has never been a consistent party line about whether or not to vote Labour. In the main, throughout the history of the Communist Party in Britain, there has been tacit electoral support for the Labour Party – but that has not always been the case. There was one distinct period in the party’s history, from 1928 until 1934, when voting Labour was considered an act of betrayal to the working class and the Labour Party was regarded as a "social fascist" organisation.
What has determined communist electoral tactics over the years has been the differing assessments of the Labour Party, and the ability of communists to work either within or alongside the larger organisation. The party’s electoral strategy vis-ŕ-vis the Labour Party has been moulded by the communists’ continued efforts over the years to come to terms with the painful fact that the Labour Party, throughout most of its existence, has been the party through which the British working class has expressed its desires. Communists have remained on the political, if not the industrial, edge of the working class movement.
Whether or not to participate in elections was one of major issues that was discussed at the founding conferences of the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB), in 1920 and early 1921. The delegates, by a large majority, voted in favour of participation, and the communists’ first electoral intervention was a short time later, in the Woolwich by-election of February 1921.
At this election, there was no call by the newly formed Communist Party to vote Labour, in the absence of a Communist candidate. Instead, the workers of Woolwich were told in no uncertain terms "that while the coalition [Tory/Liberal] candidate stands openly and avowedly for capitalism in all its ramifications, its industrial autocracy, its attacks on trade unions, its exploitation, its predatory imperialism, the Labour candidate stands for Capitalism and all its manifestations, none the less surely because its purpose is hidden under high sounding words".1 Rather than vote Labour, communist supporters in the constituency were urged to abstain. There was no support for the Labour candidate, Ramsay MacDonald, as the lesser of two evils.
A year later, this was still the Communist Party’s position. In a statement on its electoral strategy, there was no tacit support for Labour. Instead the CPGB proclaimed its determination to stand against Labour candidates and particularly Labour leaders: "the Communist Party holds itself free to enter into electoral contests, both in cases where it is imperative to oppose and expose proven traitors in the constituencies where the workers are turning in increased numbers towards the Communist policy, and the election of Communists to public bodies can be secured. To the degree that we achieve the removal from positions of influence of the reactionary leaders and secure the election of avowed Communists, to that degree shall we be in a position to influence the wide masses of the workers represented in the Labour Party".2
The Communist Party’s aim during its first few years, as the above statement showed, was to build an electoral base, and by so doing increase its influence over the Labour Party. There was no automatic call to vote Labour, and the party was prepared to stand candidates in opposition to the nominees of the Labour Party. What tempered this approach, and caused some anxiety in the new party, was the other contentious issue at the party’s formation – Labour Party affiliation.
Over this issue, delegates at the first of the foundation conferences were much more evenly divided, and a decision to seek Labour Party affiliation was only carried by 100 votes to 85. In pursuit of this objective, the most important of the party’s strategic aims, all else became secondary. When the Labour Party, both at Conference and Executive level, rejected the communists’ demands for affiliation, and gave as one of their reasons that the party stood candidates against Labour candidates, this caused the communists much concern. Harry Pollitt, the future party leader, attending the 1922 Labour Party conference as a delegate from the Boilermakers Union, and speaking in support of Communist Party affiliation, said that the question of communist candidates was an issue that could be resolved. He told the delegates that "it was true it [the CPGB] had candidates in the field who were opposing Labour Party candidates, he happened to be one of them, but these were matters which could be made the subject of negotiation".3
That conference, which again rejected the CPGB’s application for affiliation was in June. Two months later, without any of the negotiations referred to by Pollitt, the communists declared that they would no longer stand candidates against Labour. This decision caused a rumpus in the new party.
A report to the Communist International on the activities of the British party showed just how deep the divisions were over whether or not to contest against the Labour Party in elections.4 The party leadership was evenly split 6:6 over the issue, and such was the opposition against any change of policy that it was decided to establish a commission that would look at all points of view. The commission, as part of the consultation process, circulated the party locals for their views on the subject of communist candidates standing against Labour. At the time, there were 180 branches and of those that responded there was significant opposition to a change of policy. Some branches even wanted a special congress before such a change took place. The commission found that there was amongst many party members a "deep rooted prejudice against any form of association with the Labour Party".5 Despite this opposition, the commission recommended acceptance of the Central Committee’s change of line. So, from August 1922 onwards, in order not to jeopardise their chances of gaining Labour Party affiliation, the communists agreed to no longer contest at parliamentary or local elections those seats where they would be in opposition to Labour. This meant dropping their only two parliamentary candidates at the 1922 General Election.
This policy was to remain in place for six years. It did the communists little good. Not only was Communist Party affiliation continually rejected at Labour Party conferences, but at the 1924 Annual Labour Party conference, the decision was taken to expel communists as individuals from the party. Until then communists could be members of both parties – there was nothing in the Labour Party rules that precluded them being members of both organisations. There were a number of examples where known members of the Communist Party were also parliamentary Labour candidates. Shapurji Saklatvala was the most famous of these, being elected as a Labour MP for the London constituency of Battersea North at the 1922 General Election. After 1924 all that changed, and over the next few years communists were gradually driven out of the Labour Party.
During the first two years of its existence, the young CPGB had undergone a turnaround in its attitude towards electoral support for Labour. In Woolwich in early 1921, it urged workers to abstain from voting Labour, while at the Caerphilly by election in August 1921, the party’s first contest, it made a credible intervention with the veteran militant Bob Stewart as its candidate. Stewart, who had been serving a jail sentence for his part in a demonstration, at the time of his nomination, received nearly 20% of the Labour vote. Despite this promising start, by the time of the General Election in November 1922 the line had changed and communists and their supporters were urged to vote Labour and no communist contested against a Labour candidate.
From the General Election in late 1922 until 1928 the communists stuck with their new strategy. In their endeavours to gain admittance to the Labour Party, they forfeited any opportunity to contest against Labour candidates. For almost six years the CPGB made no independent intervention in the electoral struggle where it would mean competing against Labour for the working class vote. But by the end of 1927, their unstinting support for Labour was beginning to wane – and no small wonder. In the view of the communists during the intervening five years, the Labour Party had moved steadily to the right, and had taken measures to curtail not only their rights, but also those of other militants within the party.
The Labour Party, from being an open party where communists as individuals could be members, had slowly shut the doors on communist participation. The 1924 Annual Conference decision to bar communists as individual members was reaffirmed the following year, and from 1926 onwards communists and their supporters were expelled from the Labour Party. This was not done without a tremendous fightback, led by the National Left Wing movement, which included not only communists but also Labour left-wingers who were opposed to any witch-hunt. Often, to implement the conference decision, the Labour Party National Executive Committee would need to expel whole Constituency Labour Parties and over the next few years, from 1926 until 1929, Labour Party Conference Reports show that a large number of Constituency Labour Parties and Trades Councils were disaffiliated for refusing to implement the ban on communists. In some areas, for a time, there were two Labour Parties and Trades Councils operating, one affiliated to the National Labour Party, the other not.6
At first the communists were optimistic that the ban on their expulsion as individuals could be overcome, and that sooner or later they would win the fight for affiliation. But by the latter half of 1927, after numerous defeats at Annual Labour Party Conferences, realisation was beginning to dawn that their expulsion from the Labour Party was likely to be permanent. At the party’s Ninth Congress, in October 1927, a radical step was taken that was to prove the first move towards what became known as the New Line, or Class against Class strategy. This was the decision to stand a number of communist candidates against Labour at the next General Election.7 This decision, taken completely independently and without any knowledge that the Communist International in Moscow, was also seeking a change of line towards international Social Democracy. This change of heart by British communists over their electoral tactics meant, effectively, the end of any hopes that may have still maintained about the possibility of Labour Party affiliation. To stand candidates in opposition to Labour was the one sure way of inviting rejection.
This decision by the party’s Ninth Congress had been taken against a backdrop of increasing resentment against the Labour Party, not only over the expulsion of communists but other matters as well. There was the betrayal of the miners during the 1926 General Strike, which figured large in the emotions of communists, who had witnessed the leadership of the Labour movement let down, on the brink of victory this important section of the working class. They were resentful too that their efforts on behalf of the locked-out miners was continually denigrated and undermined by the Labour Party and its leadership. Almost a quarter of the Communist Party membership had suffered police harassment or imprisonment during the General Strike and its aftermath. So grateful were the locked-out miners to the communists for their efforts on their behalf, that party membership rose to an all time high, and the recruits that were made were overwhelmingly miners.
Another factor that contributed to the communists’ disillusionment with Labour was their experience of the first Labour Government in 1924. The party had supported Labour taking power, even though, in order to govern it had to rely on Liberal support. The communists were however, sadly disenchanted that this Government achieved so little for those that it allegedly represented. The CPGB, with its internationalist aspirations was particularly disappointed that nothing was done to alleviate the lot of workers in Britain’s overseas possessions, and that the workings of the colonial empire were left virtually untouched by the first Labour administration.
This accumulated resentment by the communists against the larger working class party was the background to the ready acceptance in Britain of the Communist International’s new strategy of Class against Class, and its depiction of the world’s labour and social democratic parties as social fascists. Already by late 1927 the British party had unilaterally declared that it would compete against Labour for the working class vote – from there, it was no great leap to say that it would also challenge Labour for the leadership of the working class.
Over the next year or so a combination of rank and file antagonism towards Labour, coupled with directives from the CI, moved the CPGB by 1929 into a position of outright hostility toward the Labour Party. This was helped to some extent by the increasing bans and proscriptions that were placed on communists and the organisations that they worked in by an increasingly anti-communist Labour and Trade Union movement.
By the time of the party’s Eleventh Congress in December 1929, things had changed a good deal. Gone was the support for Labour candidates and the wish to affiliate to the Labour Party. Gone too was the pledge not to stand a communist candidate in opposition to Labour. The previous year, six years to the month since the CPGB leadership had taken the decision not to stand against Labour candidates, the CPGB had contested the Aberdeen North by-election in August 1928. JR Wilson, a leading party member explained in the party weekly Workers Life that the decision had been taken because of the liberalising process in the Labour Party and the increasing anti-communism as expressed at the recent annual Labour Party Conference.8
At the by-election, the communists did well and their candidate, Aitken Ferguson, polled 2,618 votes compared to 10,646 votes for the victorious Labour candidate. It was so encouraging that another party leader, Tom Bell, sent a telegram from Moscow which said "congratulations on excellent result of first independent participation of the British party in election under the banner of Class against Class against all three political parties which stand for imperialism".9 Bell’s comments make clear that the Labour Party was seen as just another prop of capitalism and no different to the Tories and the Liberals.
For the next six years during the Class against Class phase from 1928 until 1934, the communists waged their most determined battle to win over the working class to vote communist. They fought at parliamentary and local level to win workers away from their adherence to Labour and it must be said they were not without their successes. The New Line, whatever else it did, galvanised the communists and, ironically, it was in the arena of electoral politics that they made their greatest intervention. Throughout the years of the New Line, the communists contested wherever they could, at the two General Elections that marked the period, at numerous by-elections and at local elections. They would have contested more had not the lack of finance prevented such action.
From 1929 onwards, at elections where no communist was standing, there was no call to vote Labour and instead workers were urged to write "communism" on their ballot paper. The Labour Party was now considered just another party of capitalism, and the Labour lefts, previously allies of the communists, were considered the worst danger of all, as they harboured illusions in the working class that the Labour Party was the "lesser of two evils". These lefts thus acted as a barrier to workers joining the Communist Party.
The electoral and political strategy of the communists was clear – to defeat the Labour Party both politically and electorally, and to win over the working class to the Communist Party. For the first and only time in their history the communists threw down a challenge to the Labour Party that was unequivocal – they wanted not an alliance with the Labour Party, not to be part of it, but to replace it as the workers’ party. There were to be no more requests for affiliation, and no more urging of their supporters to vote Labour. It was to be a battle between the two parties to win the hearts and minds of the working class.
During this period the communists mounted many imaginative campaigns, which were helped in no small part by their newly founded paper, the Daily Worker, itself a direct product of the new strategy. Apart from the battle for the vote, the communists were active in the Workers’ Theatre movement and the British Workers’ Sports Federation, two organisations that flourished during the New Line years.
What was significant about the electoral struggle, particularly in local contests, was that the communists adopted policies that were often ahead of their time, and were the forerunner of some of the reforms that were implemented by the 1945 Labour Government. At municipal elections in November 1928, the CPGB’s election programme included the demand for more municipal washhouses and laundries. The party urged that there be free midwifery services, free school milk, and special foods at reduced prices for mothers and children. It also wanted improved Maternity and Welfare centres. There was also a call for the stabilisation of rents and for the democratic control of the police and public officials. All very reasonable and realistic demands.
0verall, in 1928, in the areas where it contested the CPGB secured 18% of the Labour vote and in the Scottish Parish Council elections, which took place in November, the party did even better, and gained 42% of the Labour vote. This was the first CPGB local election contest on any kind of scale since the party was created and it boded well for the future. This was particularly so in view of the lack of work put in by the communists in the localities. The party leadership complained that the party locals (branches) did not take up local issues and were often completely isolated from the electorate. What was particularly interesting was that the party Central Committee claimed that wards were chosen to contest, not on the basis of regular par y work in the area, but because there was hostility to the local Labour candidate. It once again confirms the view that amongst the communist rank and file there was widespread hostility towards the Labour Party and that the soon to be adopted slogan "social democrat equals social fascist" was not without its supporters.
During 1930, the CPGB contested numerous by-elections wherever it was financially possible. At the first of these, J.T. Murphy, a leading party member, with a power base amongst the Sheffield engineers, contested a constituency in his hometown. He was supported by the Sheffield District Committee of his own engineering union, the AEU, which could have had serious implications for Labour Party/Trade Union relations. A similar situation occurred in Whitechapel, in London, some months later, when Harry Pollitt, contesting another by-election, was supported by a number of local trade union branches. Pollitt’s vote was a respectable 25% of Labour’s and the campaign led to many new party and YCL recruits in the area.
Both campaigns must have given the party optimism that support for the Labour Party was not a matter of certainty for the Trade Union movement. It could be possible to win the Trade Union movement away from automatic support for Labour. The party had already dropped its backing for the political levy on the basis of its changed assessment of the Labour Party. Why, it argued, should workers contribute money to a political organisation that does nothing for them? The arguments were not dissimilar to those we hear today coming from a number of trade unions about paying money to the Labour Party.
A third by-election in 1930 contested by the CPGB gives an indication of just how the communists’ attitude towards the Labour Party had changed. They were now not just hostile to the Labour leadership but to Labour left-wingers as well, who were considered even more venomous and dangerous than their right-wing counterparts.
It was this analysis that led the CPGB to contest the Shettleston constituency in Glasgow at a by-election in 1930. Saklatvala, the Communist ex-MP for Battersea was the candidate, and one of the main reasons for the contest was that Shettleston was a stronghold of the ILP and the Labour left, and in addition the Labour candidate was an ILP left-winger, John McGovern. Shettleson’s previous MP had been another veteran left-winger, John Wheatley, who had died and his passing was lamented in the Daily Worker with the unsympathetic headline, "John Wheatley – A Sham Left Dies". The paper went on to echo the party’s position regarding the need to expose those on the Labour left as no friends of the workers: "the passing of Wheatley will not be regretted by the revolutionary workers. It serves to remind us of the pressing necessity of a relentless struggle against these ‘left’ leaders who are the most dangerous enemies of the working class".10
For communists at this time, participation in elections was not about winning votes: this was now a low priority. It was about the making of recruits, and the spreading of the party’s message. The party was afforded an ideal opportunity to do this at the 1931 General Election, which was called midway through the Class against Class period. For almost as the communists had predicted, the Labour leadership in the face of an economic crisis had demanded cuts, not from the wealthy but from the least well off. This was too much even for a number of Labour leaders and to resolve the crisis a general election was called. At this election the communists mounted their biggest ever election campaign. For them it was a very favourable situation. What the communists had been saying about the Labour Party for the past four years seemed to some on the left to ring true. So, with this almost heaven-sent background, the party fielded twenty five candidates, which were as many as it could afford, and in addition there were to be fifteen "demonstrative candidates" in selected constituencies where it was impossible to raise the one hundred and fifty pounds deposit. Of the communist candidates, six were in prison, jailed under various anti-conspiracy laws, and one, Shaukat Usmani, the candidate for South East St Pancras, was in jail in India. He was one of the famous Meerut conspirators who were being tried in India for bringing the "monarchy into disrepute". As part of the CPGB’s internationalist aspirations, the candidature of Usmani would ensure that freedom for India, and the plight of the Meerut prisoners, would be well to the fore in the St Pancras campaign.
At this election, the communists polled seventy five thousand votes, which was a 50% increase on the previous, 1929 General election figure. The party was dismayed at the result. Harry Pollitt, the new party leader had expected that between one hundred and fifty thousand and two hundred thousand would vote communist. He was shocked, and told a meeting of the British Commission of the Communist International that he could not understand why after two Labour Governments, and the betrayal of the General Strike, that still almost seven million workers could vote Labour. For Pollitt and the CPGB, however, there was no acquiescing to the Labour Party, no attempts at working together, no calls to vote Labour. The recipe was still the same, the communists must win the leadership of the labour movement, replace the Labour Party as the workers’ party, and cease to be isolated from the broad masses. An article in the party journal, Communist Review, written just after the election, explained the communists’ electoral tactics during this period: "the victory of revolution in this country is not possible without the destruction of the mass influence of the Labour Party, and without winning the greater part of their supporters for communism".11
The party rank and file, in their endeavours at local level to destroy the "mass influence of the Labour Party", were sometimes a little too enthusiastic even for the party leadership. The same article complained that at the election party members, instead of entering into a dialogue with Labour Party supporters, and explaining communist policy, had contented themselves with the smashing up of Labour party meetings: "often our comrades satisfied themselves with the breaking up of Labour Party meetings, with hostile interruptions, without concentrating themselves upon the difficult task of finally convincing the Labour Party supporters. There has been very little personal discussion and so on".12 It gives a flavour of just how hostile communists were to having anything at all to do with the Labour Party or its membership.
Another of the failures of the CPGB at the General Election, according to the party leadership, was that it had not sufficiently convinced the working class that the Labour Party was just another party of capitalism. The CPGB bemoaned the fact that many millions of workers had voted Labour, because they still believed that the Labour Party was the lesser of two evils. The party had failed in its attempts to get across its New Line strategy of seeing the Labour Party as worse than the Tories. For the communists social democracy stood in the way of the workers adopting a revolutionary way out of the crisis and accepting the CPGB as its liberator.
The same article continued: "it is obvious that our explanation of the policy of Class against Class has been weak. This is a mistake. Many of the workers who are sympathetic to us voted for the Labour Party only because they wanted to prevent a Tory victory. This means that many hundreds of thousands of workers still believe that the Labour Party is indeed a ‘lesser evil’ in comparison with the Tories or other National candidates".13
Although disappointed by the election result, one very positive feature was that the communist vote had increased by 60% from the last election. The communists were pleased that in the constituencies that they contested their vote had gone up, while the Labour Party’s had declined. In some areas, the communists were a serious challenge to Labour. In West Fife in Scotland, for example, Willie Gallagher’s vote had steadily increased and he polled 22%. In 1935, thanks to the hard work put in during the Class against Class period, Gallagher won the seat and became the first communist MP since Saklatvala’s defeat in 1929. Another popular communist leader, Arthur Horner, gained almost 32% of the poll in Rhondda East. The party also took comfort from the fact that in the election they had scored sufficiently high enough votes to deny Labour victory in a number of constituencies. One of these was West Fife, where Gallagher’s almost seven thousand votes denied Adamson, the Labour candidate, victory. It must have given Pollitt too some sense of pleasure to know that in Whitechapel, which he contested for a second time, his 2,658 votes stopped the Labour candidate winning the seat.
One of the notable features of the election and its immediate aftermath was that the membership of the CPGB increased dramatically. An excited Daily Worker editorial reported that "thousands are joining the Communist Party".14 Party membership increased from just fewer than four thousand to seven and half thousand by the end of 1931 and many of these recruits were made because of the CPGB’s election campaign. Just to give a flavour of how easy it was to recruit to the party, the Daily Worker reported that at a mass meeting in Dundee just after the election Saklatvala addressed an audience of almost a thousand people, of which one hundred applied to join the CPGB.15 Two days later, addressing another meeting of a similar size in the Vale of Leven, two hundred people applied for membership.16 The following month at a packed meeting at Glasgow City Hall, with more than 2,500 present, nearly 300 people applied to become party members.17
Throughout 1932, the communists continued with their efforts to rout the Labour Party at elections. This time the emphasis was on local contests and the party achieved some surprisingly good results. In Wales, the communist vote as a percentage of Labour’s in areas where the CPGB contested, went from 31% in 1931 to 41% by April 1932. So important was it to defeat Labour Party electorally as a step towards replacing them as the workers party, that the communists decided to postpone their forthcoming National Congress until mid-November in order to concentrate on the municipal elections of 1 November. This decision was taken after representations by the party districts to the leadership to move the date.18
At these municipal elections, armed with a manifesto that was reasonable and aimed at those that the party wanted to attract, the communists contested 150 council seats. The demands the candidates campaigned on were almost a blueprint for the future Welfare State. They included "the abolition of the Means Test, free fares, gas, light and water for the unemployed, free medical services, free maternity and children’s clinics in working class areas, free milk to working class children of five years and under, relief to all destitute families".
The election manifesto certainly touched a chord with some, and in Scotland, the communist candidates received twenty nine thousand votes. In Glasgow, there had been a fourfold increase in the number of those voting communist, with over 1,500 voting for CPGB candidates.
The Class against Class strategy of seeking to destroy the Labour Party, and seeing it as yet another capitalist party, did seem to be paying off for the communists. Their vote was increasing and so was party membership. In addition, the newly founded Daily Worker, with its sharp line of hostility towards the Labour Party, was increasing its readership and appeared to have overcome its initial financial and distribution problems. The new policy, in marked contrast to the old, had led to an upsurge in the communists’ fortunes. Whether this trend would have we shall never know because on the horizon both at home and abroad loomed the storm clouds of fascism. This danger led to a change of policy by the Communist International, and in Britain communists made a reassessment of their attitude towards the Labour Party.
Hitler’s coming to power in Germany in 1933 had a traumatic effect on the world communist movement. In the immediate aftermath of the Nazis’ triumph, the CI issued an appeal for working class unity against fascism. Every Communist Party in the world was urged to make overtures to other working class parties. Gone was the idea that social democrats were just another variant of fascism – Hitler had began incarcerating and murdering not just communists but others on the left, including socialists and trade unionists, no distinction was made between them all. The days of the Class against Class period were clearly numbered, but in Britain such was the hostility towards the Labour Party that it took almost two years before the old policy was finally buried, and then not without some opposition.
True to their obligations as part of a disciplined international body, the CPGB issued its own appeal for unity to the Labour Party, the Trade Union Congress, and the Independent Labour Party. This appeal was rejected by the first two organisations, but sympathetically received by the ILP. The appeal itself was not just motivated by the triumph of the Nazis; in Britain too the homespun variety of fascism, under the leadership of Oswald Mosley was beginning to make inroads. The communists were aware of this danger from the right, and the menace that the "blackshirts" posed to all working class organisations. A combination of the external advance of fascism, and the internal threat from the British Union of Fascists, led the British communists to look around for allies. But it wasn’t easy for the communists to disregard their view, born of bitter experience, that the Labour Party, whether in power or not, had done little to advance working class interests. They still remembered the betrayal of the miners, the rooting out of communists from the Labour Party, and the bans and proscriptions that they still faced in the trade union movement. They remembered too the inadequacy of the two minority Labour governments, and the ultimate siding with capital of a number of prominent Labour and Trade Union leaders during the 1931 debacle. So, Britain’s communists made their appeal for unity, but how convinced they were about the CI’s turn towards a united front is a matter of speculation. What is not speculative is that in the field of electoral politics it was not until November 1934, some eighteen month after the appeal for unity, that communists could finally and reluctantly bring themselves to urge their supporters to vote Labour, in an area were there was no communist candidate.
Even in the changed situation, there were good reasons why the communists didn’t urge immediate support for Labour. Throughout 1933 and much of 1934, after its appeal for a united front had been rejected by the Labour Party and TUC, the CPGB continued with its New Line strategy. This policy, particularly in the electoral field, in certain localities looked as if it was beginning to work.
In March 1933, Arthur Horner, the popular miners’ leader contested the Rhondda East by-election on behalf of the CPGB. At one of Horner’s many meetings, Saklatvala was quick to point out that despite Hitler’s accession to power the communists’ view of the Labour Party and the previous Labour government remained unchanged.19
Despite just two weeks of campaigning, Horner received 11,228 votes compared to Labour’s 14,127. It was a very good result and reinforced the widely held view by the communists that in militant areas they could overtake the Labour Party as the party of the working class. Rhondda was not just an isolated example. At the local elections in Wales the CPGB doubled its vote, and scored, in the areas where the party stood candidates, 61% of the Labour vote. It was all very encouraging for the New Line.
It is difficult to say what would have happened had the communists continued with their anti-Labour crusade. There is no doubt that electorally, and in terms of membership and circulation of their daily paper, things were beginning to look up. We are still talking about a very small party, with a membership of less than five thousand, but despite that, during the years of the New Line the CPGB had almost doubled in membership and reversed the steady decline that had taken place from 1927 onwards. The party was beginning to build an electoral base, had gained a number of local councillors, and in some constituencies was a serious challenge to the Labour Party. In addition, the Daily Worker was firmly established, despite a wholesalers’ boycott, and weekend readership was up to fifty thousand. The party was portraying itself not as a ginger group that would push the Labour Party to the left, something that it could be accused of in the earlier period, but as a revolutionary party that had the aim of displacing the Labour Party as the workers’ party. In addition, it told its supporters unequivocally that the Labour Party was just another party of capitalism; it was not a lesser evil than the Tories but in many ways even worse. Communists and their supporters did not vote Labour in the event that there was no CP candidate. The communists’ message was clear, clearer than at any time since the party’s formation. They would have nothing to do with the Labour Party and set about during the years of Class against Class with a renewed vigour to build their own party.
Despite their rejected overtures to the Labour Party, in March 1933, the New Line remained the cornerstone of communist strategy until well into 1934. At the London County Council elections in March 1934, the party contested widely, and London voters were urged to vote communist. In spite of appeals for unity from the CI, the Labour Party was still looked upon by British communists as an anti-working class party.
The Daily Worker told its readers on the eve of the London elections: "the Communist candidates are also challenging the anti-working class policy of the Labour Party ... every London worker should support the communist fight against the parties of capitalism by going to the Poll today and unhesitatingly voting communist".20 There was still no call to vote Labour in the absence of a communist candidate.
It was not until eight months later that a perceptible change in communist electoral policy occurred. This was brought about, in part, by the increasing street battles with the fascists, and the rise of the BUF. The Mosleyites, buoyed by the famous Daily Mail headline "Hurrah for the Blackshirt", were a threat, not only to the communists, but also to others on the left. At Mosley’s famous Olympia meeting, not just communists were violently evicted from the hall, but Labour supporters as well. And meanwhile in Germany the Nazis were tightening their grip and Hitler’s political opponents of all descriptions were filling the jails. These changes, at home and abroad, convinced the communists that a reappraisal of their strategy towards the Labour Party was necessary.
In the Borough Council elections in November 1934 the first sign of a change in communist thinking was apparent. In London, agreement had been reached between the communists and the Independent Labour Party to support each other’s candidates – so there was a left united front. As for the Labour Party, for the first time in six years, the communists recognised that there were differences within the Party; there was a left and a right. The New Line had viewed Labour left-wingers as even worse than their rightwing counterparts, because they acted as a barrier to people joining the CPGB. Now voters were told, "where there are no communist candidates – vote for those Labour candidates who pledge themselves to build up the united front of struggle".21 It was not yet outright support for Labour, but it was a significant turn from the old strategy.
Once the shift had been made, it was not long before the CPGB offered unqualified support to Labour candidates. By the time of the party’s Thirtieth Congress, in February 1935, the policy was one of working together to defeat the National Government. In general, this meant support for Labour candidates in the absence of a communist.
In reality, this meant that in most places communists voted Labour. At the General Election in November 1935, the party contested just two constituencies, Rhondda East and West Fife. Everywhere else their supporters were told to vote Labour. Even Saklatvala did not stand in his old seat of Battersea North – instead he wrote a letter to his supporters in the area urging them to support the Labour nominee. In the two constituencies that the party did contest, the candidates received very good votes.
In West Fife, Willie Gallagher beat his Labour opponent and represented the area in Parliament until 1950. In the Rhondda, Harry Pollitt, although not a miner, or a miner’s leader like Arthur Horner, gained 14,000 votes. No wonder some communists questioned the wisdom of unqualified support for Labour. in a debate conducted in the pages of the Daily Worker one participant expressed the view of many when he said, "there is no implication however, that we Communists should say to the workers Vote Labour indiscriminately where there are no Communist candidates and regardless of programmes or policy".22 But that was to be the practice of the CPGB from 1935, until its demise in 1991. It remains the position of the Communist Party of Britain (CPB).
It was an interesting conundrum of Class against Class, often described as the party’s most revolutionary period, that during this time British communists gave a greater prominence to building an electoral base than at any time before or since. The party during this phase made a tremendous effort to try and gain communist representation at parliamentary and local level. With fewer than five thousand members, most of whom were unemployed, and hindered by lack of money, the communists attempted to fight virtually every parliamentary by-election that took place. The party’s electoral intervention at a local level was more sustained and widespread, and its presentation of local policies was far more professional. In some ways, it could be considered ironic, that a party, who deplored those who thought that socialism could be achieved through parliament and whose main campaigning slogan was the call for a "revolutionary workers government", should be so obsessed with the winning of working class votes. Yet, the fact remains that the whole rationale of Class against Class in Britain was the destruction of the Labour Party as a workers party. If that could not be achieved electorally then there was little chance that it could succeed in other areas.
What can we conclude from this look at the Communist Party’s electoral strategy over the first fifteen years of its existence? Well, firstly that the strategy was driven by the party’s assessment, some may say obsession, with the Labour Party. Following Lenin’s advice, the newly formed CPGB applied for affiliation to the Labour Party soon after the party’s foundation. This aim of affiliation was the main strategic target that the party set itself during the first eight years of its existence. During its first two years, the CPGB did not urge its supporters to vote Labour in the absence of a communist candidate – but in its endeavours to gain affiliation it was made clear to the communists at successive Labour Party Conferences that they would never be admitted as long as they stood candidates against Labour. It was the same kind of argument that was used almost eighty years later to obtain Ken Livingstone’s expulsion from the Labour Party. Livingstone was prepared to stand against a Labour candidate and so he was expelled. There may have been other reasons for his expulsion but that was the one that was put forward by the Labour Party Executive. Equally there were many reasons why the Labour Party NEC did not welcome Communist Party affiliation, but the one they used at the time was the communists’ opposition to Labour candidates.
In order to overcome this opposition and to achieve its main objective of affiliation, in August 1922, the CPGB, after much soul searching and disagreement, decided no longer to stand candidates against the nominees of the Labour Party. This policy was to remain in force for the next six years. During that time, communists and their supporters were urged to vote Labour. The Party even lent its support to the formation of the first Labour Government, dependent though it may have been on Liberal support.
In 1928, all that changed, and in a complete turnaround the CPGB, over the next few years, contested as widely as its finances would allow. There was no support whatsoever for the Labour Party, who were considered worse than the Tories, and nothing more than social fascists. In the absence of a communist candidate, communist supporters were asked to write "communism" across their ballot papers. Labour Party meetings were broken up, and the Labour left were deemed the worst kind of class traitors. During this Class against Class phase, the CPGB doubled it membership and firmly established a daily newspaper, and one with a rising circulation.
From 1935 onwards the electoral policy of the CPGB until its demise in 1991 (and thereafter of the CPB) has remained pretty much the same. That is, vote communist where there is a party candidate, and everywhere else vote Labour.
In terms of representation in Parliament, the results have been disappointing. Gallagher was joined in Parliament by Phil Piratin, representing the Stepney Mile End constituency in 1945, but both were defeated at the General Election in 1950. Since then there has been no communist elected to the House of Commons. At local elections too a CKB presence on local councils gradually declined from its zenith just after the war.
The lessons of the CPGB’s early history show that communists need not fear to be vocal about their concerns about the Labour Party. They have been antagonistic before and it did them no ill service. They have aligned with others on the left in the past to oppose labour candidates, as with the ILP in 1934. They have even not distinguished between left- and right-wing labour candidates and condemned them all. None of this affected the party’s fortunes – if anything it made the CPGB more popular. In 1936, just after the conclusion of the Class against Class period, at the annual Labour Party Conference the communists received more votes in favour of affiliation than at any time in their previous history It could be argued that a period of hostility towards the Labour Party and the stressing of the importance of the Communist Party had yielded the party a very good result.
In conclusion, let’s not forget Harry Pollitt’s advice at the 1945 General Election, "Vote As Red As You Can".23 It was sound advice he was urging support for the communist candidates, and for people to vote Labour everywhere else. What Pollitt wanted was a Parliament transformed by workers’ representatives who would introduce progressive change, "in order to get the practical measures which will bring a new era to Britain, we need a Parliament with a majority of representatives drawn from the Labour movement".24
At that time, the Labour Party was a very different organisation to what it is today. Pollitt paid tribute to its democratic mechanisms, "the Labour Party is one of the most democratically elected executive committees in the country. Who is to be elected is discussed in the local Labour, trade union, and co-operative organisation. For months the elections take place".25
Pollitt would not say that about the Labour Party today. But I’m sure that he would stand by the view that what was needed was a "Parliament with a majority of representatives drawn from the Labour movement".
1. ‘The Communist Party and the Woolwich By-Election’, Communist Party Statement, 1921, Marx House
2. ‘Communist Parliamentary Policy and Electoral Programme CPGB’, June 1922, Marx House
3. Report of the Twenty Second Annual Labour Party Conference, 1922, p.196
4. ‘Report to the CI on the CPGB’s relationship with the Labour Party’, 4 September 1922
6. See Annual Labour Party Conference Reports 1926-1929
7. Report of the Ninth Congress of the Communist Party of Great Britain, CPGB 1927, p.96
8. Workers Life, 17 August 1928
9. Workers Life, 24 August 1928
10. Daily Worker, 14 May 1930
11. Communist Review, ‘The Fight Against the Labour Party’, December 1931
14. Daily Worker, 14 November 1931
15. Daily Worker, December 17 1931
16. Daily Worker, December 19 1931
17. Daily Worker, January 19 1932
18. Daily Worker, 7 October 1932
19. Daily Worker, 28 March 1933
20. Daily Worker, 8 March 1934
21. Daily Worker, 7 October 1934
22. Daily Worker, 24 November 1934
23. Daily Worker, 4 July 1945