Harry Quelch May 1908

Social-Democracy and Political Action

Source: Social Democrat,Vol. XII, No. 5, May, 1908, pp.193-197;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.

From time to time the value of political action to the Socialist movement is called in question, and doubt is expressed as to whether some more speedy means or more effective method might not be adopted with advantage.

This question and these doubts arise from two entirely different points of view from which political action is regarded. On the one side are those who expect nothing, and who never expected anything, from Parliamentary action, and on the other those who expected everything from it. The former have always maintained that participation in Parliamentary action was a waste of proletarian time and effort, and they exult over the disappointment manifested by the latter at the poor results Parliamentary action has so far has achieved.

In either case, however, the cause is at bottom the same, and lies in attaching undue importance to purely political action, or in assuming that too much import­ance is attached thereto. And the effect is the same, in the attempt to substitute some other policy for that of political action. In recent years we have heard a great deal, in this connection, about "direct action," the "general strike," the "mass strike," "the struggle on the economic field," and so on, as if the method of action denoted by these terms constituted something quite new and original, instead of being a harking back to means which had been tried, and frequently proved to be futile, long before any practical effort was made to organise the working-class into a separate and dis­tinct political party. In reading some of the attacks upon Parliamentarism of the advocates of direct action, one is frequently and forcibly reminded of the fulminations against "politics" of our old trade unionists of 30 years and more ago. It would seem that we are only just beginning to get the organised workers of this country to take a leaf out of their masters' book, and to resort to political action for their economic advantage and social emancipation, when some of our friends discover that political action is useless and that the only thing that will do is that "direct action," the ineffectiveness of which has been demonstrated by experience.

The truth, in this as in so many other instances, lies in the middle. Because one trusts in God that is no reason why he should not keep his powder dry; and because the workers organise politically, to conquer and use that political power their masters have found so effective, that is no reason why they should abandon the right to strike, or should not resort to "direct action" whenever circumstances justify such action. The master class do not refrain from locking out their hands, or cutting down their wages, because they wield political power pretty effec­tively; they do not find zeal in political action in any way incompatible with equally zealous and vigorous "direct action" whenever their class interests are to be served thereby.

The masters find "direct action" and political action complementary to each other - supplemented occasionally by organised force - and so may the workers. There is no antagonism between the two methods; the mistake is in attaching too much or too little importance to the one or the other.

Admitting the utility of both lines of action, it is essential to make both as efficient as possible. Thorough organisation, politically and in trade unions, with the most perfect possible democratisation of the political machinery, is the immediate task of the proletariat if both these means of action are to be made the best use of.

In this country we suffer, politically, under one of the penalties of the pioneer in having the most archaic electoral system of any country possessing parliamen­tary institutions. That makes our political machinery ineffective and cumbrous to use. In spite of the theory that there is no longer any property qualification, moreover, the cost of elections is so heavy as to consti­tute a very formidable obstacle and frequently a com­plete barrier to the election of any but wealthy men.

In these circumstances it is rather curious to find democrats and even Socialists, instead of working for such political reforms as will remove this gold bar, seeking simply to make it more tolerable by reducing the frequency of elections. An old democratic cry was "shorter Parliaments," and we Social-Democrats have adopted it and incorporated it in our programme. Yet nowadays it is not uncommon to hear complaints about the frequency of elections because of the expense involved.

In this connection some outcry has been raised recently against the constitutional "technicality," as it has come to be called, by which a member of Parlia­ment vacates his seat on being appointed to an office of emolument under the Crown, and, as a Minister, has to seek re-election. So strong is the feeling which gave rise to this outcry, that some indignation was expressed, even by certain Socialists, that a man like Mr. Winston Churchill should have been opposed, and should not have been allowed a walk-over. It was not "good form," it was argued, to oppose a Minister who, through a mere technicality, had to seek re-election.

But this provision is something more than a mere technicality. Social-Democrats do not find much in the British constitution to admire, probably, but this so-called "technicality" certainly should command their approbation. There may, possibly, be something to be said against this usage when a Minister has to appeal to his constituents immediately after a general election, but when, as in the present instance, the bye-elections take place when the party in power has held office for several years, they afford a Minister's constituents an excellent opportunity of expressing their opinion upon the work of the Government of which he has been promoted to be a member. But even when they take place under other circumstances they repre­sent an important democratic principle. Every mem­ber of Parliament is supposed to be a free untrammelled representative of his constituents, and, whatever his party allegiance, he is supposed to be free to criticise the Government and to share in the duty of Parliament as custodian of the public purse. But as soon as he becomes a member of the Government he is obviously precluded from perform­ing these services for his constituents. As far as these matters affect them, his constituents are disfranchised by his promotion to the Ministry, and surely it is for them to say whether they regard the honour of having a Minister for their member as adequate compensa­tion for being in a measure disfranchised. In any case there appears no reason why the custom of sub­mitting Ministerial appointments to the judgment of the constituencies should not be maintained, and I for one cannot share in the indignation which has been so widely expressed at recently-created Ministers having had to fight for their seats.

So far from desiring to secure less frequent elections we should aim at having elections as often as possible. From this a number of good results would flow. Elections would have to be cheaper. No one would care to spend thousands of pounds on a single election, the result of which might be reversed a few months later. The effect would be that there would be an almost universal demand, too, for the payment of official expenses out of public funds. At present there is little demand for this outside our own ranks, because, heavy as they are, owing to the infrequency of elections, they form to-day but a microscopic part of the election expenses of a Liberal or Tory candidate. And even "Labour" candidates find them­selves vieing with their capitalist competitors in lavish expenditure. When we find a Labour candidate's election expenses running up to four figures, and amounting to four, five, or six times the amount of the Returning Officer's charges, we are forced to the con­clusion that greater cheapness and simplicity in elec­tions is one of the first essentials of political reform, and the first step towards the effective exercise of political power by the proletariat.