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Saklatvala: A Communist Candidate on a Labour Ticket

Jim Mortimer

THIS YEAR marks the 80th anniversary of the election to Parliament of Shapurji Saklatvala, a memorable figure in the history of the British labour movement. He stood in 1922 as an officially endorsed Labour candidate for the constituency of Battersea North, though he was also a member of the Communist Party, which he had joined in March 1921. At that time it was not against the rules of the Labour Party for a candidate to be a member of the CP.

Saklatvala was born in 1874 into a wealthy Indian family. He came to England in 1905 to work in the family firm. He was a supporter of the movement for Indian independence from British colonial rule. He became a socialist and in 1907 joined the Social Democratic Federation which later became the British Socialist Party. The BSP played a leading role in the formation of the Communist Party in 1920.

In 1909 Saklatvala had also joined the Independent Labour Party, which at that time was the main point of entry for individuals to became members of the Labour Party. The Labour Party itself was a federal organisation of trade unions and socialist societies and did not accept individual members until years later. Saklatvala was active in the ILP and helped to campaign for socialist ideas and policies.

The October 1917 socialist revolution in Russia had a big influence on Saklatvala and he argued unsuccessfully in the ILP, together with a group of others, for affiliation to the Communist International. In 1921 Saklatvala was adopted as Labour parliamentary candidate for Battersea North. There was no evidence of significant Communist influence in his adoption, though there was a tradition of left-wing activity in the constituency. He was endorsed nationally by the Labour Party.

In the 1922 general election Saklatvala fought in support of Labour’s election manifesto. He was elected with 11,311 votes. He had a majority of more than 2,000 over his National Liberal opponent. A separate Liberal candidate came third with 1,760 votes. Saklatvala thus had an absolute majority of votes cast in the election. In his first class autobiography of Saklatvala (published by Lawrence and Wishart in 1990) Dr Mike Squires observes: "He was elected not because he was a Communist but because he was the local labour movement’s parliamentary candidate."

At the 1923 general election Saklatvala was again endorsed by the Labour Party nationally but was narrowly defeated even though he increased his vote by more than a thousand. In this election the opposition to Saklatvala united around a single candidate, as against two candidates in 1922.

There was yet another general election in 1924. Saklatvala again stood as the locally selected Labour candidate, though by this time he was well known as a Communist. He was elected with an increased vote and with a majority of more than 500 over a single Liberal opponent.

Saklatvala was a good constituency MP. He was assiduous in taking up issues of concern to working people and he combined this with his unique role as a well-informed supporter of Indian independence. Saklatvala observed parliamentary procedures and was always courteous in manner.

By the mid-1920s the Labour Party had decided that Communists should be excluded from the Party, though the decision was not immediately implemented. The Communist Party from its formative days, and following the advice of Lenin, had sought affiliation to the Labour Party on the grounds that the Labour Party was a federal organisation and that it should be broad enough to embrace organisations that supported socialism and independent working class action.

The view of the Labour Party was that the aims and policies of the CP were incompatible with the constitution of the Labour Party. The CP, they pointed out, was committed to a revolutionary path to socialism, to a dictatorship of the proletariat, to a Soviet system of government and to the right to control its own MPs. In contrast, the Labour Party sought a parliamentary majority for social change, was committed to democracy, and all Labour MPs were expected to observe the standing orders of the Parliamentary Party. There was, in my view, no possibility of these sharply contrasting conceptions being reconciled. The Labour Party’s view was much closer to the requirements of British conditions.

In February 1926 the Battersea Labour Party was disaffiliated by the Party nationally, and following the defeat of the General Strike the Battersea Labour Party and Trades Council was reconstituted. There was some resistance to the reconstitution but there was also some local support for it.

From the very beginning Saklatvala had shown strong support for the miners and the General Strike. On the eve of the strike he had been arrested, allegedly because of a speech he had made in Hyde Park. He was released on bail, provided by George Lansbury, who later became leader of the Labour Party. Saklatvala was sentenced to two months’ imprisonment.

Saklatvala became more and more critical of the Labour Party and was a leading advocate of a "new line" of open hostility to Labour. This "new line" eventually became the official policy of the CP.

At the 1929 general election, which Saklatvala fought as a Communist, his vote was reduced to 6,544. His proportion of the vote had been cut from more than 50% to 18% of the votes cast.

In 1930 the CP decided that Saklatvala should stand as a Communist candidate for Glasgow (Shettleston). This working class constituency had been held until his death by John Wheatley, an ILP left-winger, who many regarded as the best of Labour ministers. The Labour candidate in the by-election was another ILP member, John McGovern.

Saklatvala conducted his election campaign on the "new line" of outright hostility to Labour. The CP was optimistic that Saklatvala would attract thousands of votes, partly because of his personal qualities and record and partly because of workers’ disillusionment with Labour. In the outcome, Saklatvala came bottom of the poll with 1,459 votes, not only behind the victorious Labour candidate but behind the Tory and the Scottish National candidates.

In the following year Saklatvala returned to Battersea North to fight for one of two seats on the London County Council. He received a mere 728 votes, less than a fifth of the defeated Labour candidates. In his book Dr Squires concluded that: "The Communists were now totally isolated in the local labour movement."

Saklatvala contested Battersea North for the last time in the general election of 1931. He received just over 3,000 votes and lost his deposit. The seat was won by a Tory with 18,688 votes. The Labour vote was 11,983.

There are lessons to be learnt from the electoral experiences of Saklatvala. He was a dedicated socialist, who worked for the welfare of working people and in opposition to imperialism. He was incorruptible and he was tireless in his efforts. He demonstrated, particularly in his earlier years, that a left-wing militant could win influence within the broad stream of the labour movement. But once he was opposed by Labour or stood in opposition to Labour his support declined. The reasons deserve discussion. They are of contemporary relevance.

This article first appeared in the July-August 2002 issue of the Islip Unity Group Political Newsletter. Thanks to Jim Mortimer for permission to reprint it.

Jim's biography A Life on the Left is available at the bargain price of £5 from Housmans Bookshop, 5 Caledonian Road, London N1 9DX. Email: shop@housmans.idps.co.uk