In 1921, aged 47, after 16 years in the UK, Shapurji Saklatvala was selected as Labour’s Parliamentary candidate for Battersea North. This came shortly after his very public decision to leave the Independent Labour Party and join the Communist Party of Great Britain. He would become both Labour's first "BAME" MP and one of Britain's first avowedly revolutionary socialist MPs.
How did these things fit together?
Communists and Labour
Saklatvala had become active in the London Labour Party in 1918, through the ILP (which was affiliated to Labour) and the National Union of Clerks. He was a delegate to several London Labour conferences. In 1919, he successfully moved an amendment to commit the party to public house-building.
Labour was much livelier and more open then than now, but, until 1918, did not even claim to be socialist. “Even before the war”, noted the Communist International in 1922, Labour “had become quite distinctly a class organisation of the proletariat which was dominated by that section of the middle class whose profession it was to organise trade unions… entirely divorced from the socialist or revolutionary idea”.
The 1917 Russian revolution, upheavals in Europe and rising class struggle in Britain pushed things temporarily to the left. A powerful but undefined socialist collectivism held sway over much of the British labour movement – and the Labour leadership adapted.
In 1918 the party adopted a formally “socialist” aim, in its famous Clause 4 call for “common ownership”. Its 1918 document Labour and the New Social Order called for the system of "wage slavery" and "private ownership" to be "buried". Many of Labour's growing army of supporters took these things very seriously; but they never represented a serious commitment or intention on the part of most of the leaders. As they rode out the retreating post-war radicalisation, the leadership became increasingly disinclined to fight for radical reforms, let alone any kind of social revolution.
Many CP members saw Labour as too conservative to be worth getting involved with, but the CP’s 1920 founding conference voted 100-85 to accept Lenin’s advice to seek formal affiliation to the party.
The British Socialist Party, the largest of the organisations which merged to form the CP, had been affiliated since 1916. The CP could simply have informed the Labour Party that the BSP had changed its name. Instead, concerned to raise a clear, visible banner for Communism, the CP leaders emphasised their party’s separateness and applied for affiliation performatively. They wrote the National Executive Committee a letter about the “dictatorship of the proletariat” and their right to control future Communist MPs. Communist leader J T Murphy made a speech about taking Labour “by the hand the better to take them by the throat tomorrow”.
The Labour leaders were able to get away with refusing affiliation, and every Labour conference from 1921 to 1925 rejected affiliation by a large majority. At the 1923 conference Saklatvala – an MP for seven months – spoke in favour of affiliation as a delegate from St Pancras Labour Party and Trades Council, but to no avail.
Yet at that conference 38 delegates were individually CP members. In many Labour Parties and Trades Councils, Communists were a significant factor. It made sense to many Communists to be active in a large, relatively open party with a strong working-class activist base, particularly when many had been members of the BSP or ILP, both affiliated, before 1920.
Communists became elected Labour representatives. In Poplar, two of the thirty council members jailed during the 1921 rates struggle, Minnie Lansbury and Edgar Lansbury, were CP members, as was A A Watts, who remained free. So was Joe Vaughan, mayor of neighbouring Bethnal Green. Some CPers became councillors in Battersea, and A A Watts became Battersea North's representative on the London County Council.
In the 1922 election, five CP members stood as parliamentary candidates with one degree or another of local or national Labour backing: Joe Vaughan in Bethnal Green SW, Walter Windsor in Bethnal Green NE, Alec Geddes in Greenock, John Walton Newbold in Motherwell, and Saklatvala. In addition to Saklatvala, Newbold - his old comrade from City of London ILP - was elected.
Later, from about 1925, frustrated by his experience of Labour in Parliament and the party machine’s determination to drive out his comrades, Saklatvala would become an early advocate of the CP turning away from Labour. In 1921-2 he strongly supported a Labour orientation.
The Battersea labour movement
A range of Battersea activists and organisations had participated in the founding of the CP, but when Saklatvala was selected for Battersea North in June 1921 the party as such was not strong in the borough. It had some active members, with influence in the labour movement - both unions and Labour Party - but its two branches had collapsed. In March 1921 The Communist advertised: “wanted, Communists to form branches in Lewisham, Lambeth and Battersea”. A Battersea branch was re-established at the end of 1921; a couple of years later there was also an active Young Communist League.
However, the broader Battersea labour movement contained strong elements of revolutionary radicalism, internationalism and anti-imperialism.
In 1892, when Keir Hardie was elected as Independent Labour MP for West Ham South, Battersea also elected an Independent Labour candidate - John Burns, a well-known socialist and leader in the 1889 London docks strike.
Back then, Battersea's labour movement had a Lib-Lab (or more accurately Lab-Lib) character. Trade unions grew: the main industrial employment for women was in factories producing various small goods, and for men on the railways. Battersea Trades and Labour Council took control of the "vestry" (forerunner of the borough council) the same year it formed, 1894. However, as well as unions and socialist organisations it included the Battersea Liberal and Radical Association; its control of the council was via a "Progressive" alliance including both Labour and Liberal representatives, which continued with one break until 1915.
After 1892 Burns quickly moved over to the Liberals. He became the first working-class cabinet minister, but in a Liberal government. In 1906, Battersea Labour was expelled by the Labour Representation Committee for too blatant support for Liberal candidates. But it was moving left: in 1926 it would be expelled from the party for refusing to purge Communists.
The Progressive administration carried out reforms which put today’s Labour councils to shame, including London’s first health visiting service, free school milk, a council house building program, and extensive directly employed council labour for construction projects. Moreover, it developed a policy of mobilising the electorate in meetings, demonstrations and protests, helping to develop widespread political awareness and left-wing sentiment.
Battersea was an early stronghold of the Marxist Social Democratic Federation, with many members and regular, very large public meetings and demonstrations, plus a major infrastructure of social organisations and activities built up around the political core. By the war, several socialist groups were operating in the borough. By the early 20s, although the CP as such was weak, a more diffuse revolutionary socialism was influential among activists in the Labour and Trades Council, the Labour Party's local unit.
A major strand in all this was internationalism, including specifically anti-imperialism. Battersea was a centre of opposition to the Second Boer War (1899-1902). Many local organisations campaigned against the war, as did the council. George Lansbury addressed a demonstration of five thousand in Battersea Park. (John Burns opposed the war, but on a basis bound up with virulent antisemitism.)
In 1902 Battersea was the only council which refused to celebrate Edward VII’s coronation, reported by one newspaper with the headline “Battersea versus the British Empire”. In 1907 it refused to fly the Union Jack on Empire Day or give school children time off to celebrate. During the First World War, both the council and most of the labour movement settled on a stance of neither support nor active opposition, but they did defend anti-war activists against repression.
The council passed a resolution protesting the massacre of Russian workers during the 1905 revolution. After 1917 it supported the campaign to block British military intervention in Russia.
Part of the context for all this was the fact that a large section of Battersea’s working class, and labour movement activist base, was Irish. In 1912 a left-wing Liberal councillor who was a prominent Irish nationalist, Thomas Brogan, was elected mayor (council leader). The Battersea North Labour candidate in 1918 (when the Liberals held onto the seat) was Charlotte Despard, a pioneering socialist feminist, of part-Irish descent, later a republican activist in Ireland.
In 1913 a Labour councillor of Barbadian and Irish descent, John Archer, succeeded Brogan. Archer was a supporter of the Pan-African Congress, a high-profile campaigner against colonialism. In his victory speech, he told the council: “You have made history tonight… a man of colour has been elected as a mayor of an English borough. That will go forward to the coloured nations of the world and they will look to Battersea...”
This kind of anti-racism and internationalism was far from universal in the working class and labour movement. The post-war period saw an upsurge of racism as well as nationalism and pro-imperialism; there were major outbreaks of organised violence against ethnic minorities in several cities in 1919. This bigotry was accepted and sometimes, in 1919 in particular, driven by important sections of the labour movement. Battersea's labour movement was an important part of resistance to this and of an organised drive in the opposite direction.
Saklatvala in Battersea
There would have been no shortage of working-class figures, based in Battersea or elsewhere, who could have stood for Battersea North. However, given the Battersea labour movement's politics and traditions, Saklatvala was in many respects a natural fit, despite his bourgeois background.
Though he lived and was active in North London, he was well known in Battersea. In 1920 he had spoken at meetings of a local labour movement campaign against unemployment. In April 1921, he addressed a huge meeting at Battersea town hall in support of the locked out miners; on news of his selection, South Wales miners sent a resolution congratulating the Battersea labour movement on its choice. In addition, he was friendly or connected with many labour movement and left activists in the area through years of activity in the ILP and other organisations. Several people he worked with in the Workers’ Welfare League of India lived in Battersea, including the treasurer of the Labour and Trades Council.
Charlotte Despard was an ally of Saklatvala, despite herself being considered to stand for Battersea North again. In the election she would work to mobilise Irish voters for him. The consensus is that John Archer was the prime mover in the campaign to select Saklatvala. Archer also helped broker national Labour support for his candidacy in 1922 and 1923, and de facto support in 1924 when he was elected as a Communist. He was the election agent all three times.
In July 1921, shortly after Saklatvala’s selection, Archer introduced him to speak in a session on colonial liberation at the Pan-African Congress conference organised in London by WEB DuBois.
Saklatvala’s 1922 election address discussed possible prejudice against him as an Indian (calling Labour “the Party of International Brotherhood”), but that seems to have been a relatively minor factor in Battersea. Anti-communism was more important.
The capitalist parties and the press attempted to drive a wedge between the Communists and the broad labour movement - at that stage, without success. Saklatvala had been selected by a large majority and Battersea Labour was enthusiastically united around him.
CPers were prominent in his campaign, but emphasised unity with the broad labour movement. The CP’s 1922 manifesto was titled “A United Front Against the Capitalist Enemy”. Saklatvala’s leaflet used the headline “Labour’s United Front”, above statements from a spectrum of labour movement and other figures, including Arthur MacManus on behalf of the CP but also J R Clynes, chair of the Parliamentary Labour Party. It also quoted a resolution from the first All-India Trade Union Congress, held in November 1920.
Saklatvala’s campaign emphasised left-wing elements in Labour’s program: nationalisation, a wealth tax, public housing and welfare, freedom for India, Ireland and Egypt. He demanded equal suffrage and a program of measures to guarantee “equal opportunity” for women. In the 1923 election he would explain this rather moderate approach: he supported Labour’s manifesto, “with the only criticism that this is the least that one can demand under the present conditions of life all over the world”.
In 1918 the Liberal candidate won Battersea North with 66.6%. In 1922, there were two rival Liberal candidates; but bourgeois forces united around the “National Liberal”, Henry Hogbin, who in 1923 would win the seat back from Saklatvala for one year. The Tories mobilised in Hogbin's support.
Although the Tories won the election, Labour’s vote share rose from 20.8% to 29.7%, and Battersea North's militant, mass-mobilising campaign elected Saklatvala with 50.5%. That night thousands thronged Battersea’s streets to celebrate the election of their first independent Labour MP for thirty years.