Shapurji Saklatvala: A tribune of the working class

Submitted by AWL on 9 September, 2020 - 11:46 Author: Sacha Ismail
October 1925 Mirror front page

Part three of our series. Part one here. Part two here.

In rapidly shifting post-war conditions, as Labour displaced the Liberals as Britain’s second party, there were three general elections in 1922-24. Chosen as the standard-bearer of a strong and radical local labour movement, Indian revolutionary socialist Shapurji Saklatvala was elected Labour MP for Battersea North in 1922; narrowly lost it to his “Constitutionalist” opponent in 1923; and won it back in 1924, as a Communist candidate with local Labour backing.

Saklatvala was Labour’s first “BAME” MP, but not the first MP with membership in the then-revolutionary Communist Party of Great Britain. Peculiarly, that was Cecil Malone, an airforce colonel and OBE elected in 1918 from the wing of the Liberals then in coalition with the Tories, on a militantly anti-socialist platform. He visited Russia, was won over by the Bolsheviks, and on his return helped found the CP! In 1922 John Walton Newbold became Communist MP for Motherwell, with local Labour backing.

Malone and Newbold quickly lost their seats and left the CP soon after. Saklatvala sat for his until 1929 and remained extremely active, a Communist by his own lights, until his death in 1936. What kind of MP was he?

“Report back”, not “MP’s surgery”

“During my strenuous work in the Labour Movement”, finished Saklatvala’s 1922 election leaflet, “I have always remembered one thing, that I have to fight for and to work for the Working Classes, as through them alone I see a chance for a truly humane world.” He would use his position to help workers organise, champion their struggles, and fight to end the capitalist system exploiting them.

For Saklatvala, the working class he represented was not just that of his constituency, or the UK, but of the whole world, and in particular the British empire. He consistently attempted to link the material interests and struggles of British and Indian workers. I will look at this central part of his work in my next article.

After the First World War, led not just by remarkable “politicians” like Saklatvala but a large number of grassroots working-class organisers (many of them also elected to office), the distinctive labour movement built in Battersea from the 1870s experienced a radical flowering.

This working class and labour movement, and Saklatvala's relationship to them, were vividly described by Communist and Trotskyist veteran Harry Wicks, who in 1922 worked in Battersea’s important railway industry:

In the twenties, to the consternation of the Liberal-minded Labour leadership... Battersea North elected as their member of parliament the Indian Saklatvala. Not only was he an Indian but a Communist, and he was sponsored by the united Battersea labour movement.

The link that Saklatvala established with his worker constituents was not that of the proverbial surgery: ‘Can I help you?’, ‘Have you any problems?’ At that time the entire working class had a problem, that of survival against the employers’ lock-outs, widespread unemployment and the downward slide of the sliding scale of wages agreements.

Saklatvala spoke at factory gate meetings and introduced the monthly report-back from Westminster. There were great meetings. Long before the doors of the town hall opened, queues formed just like they used to at Stamford Bridge.

The platform was always crowded. Sak, as he was affectionately known, was flanked by the entire executive of the Trades and Labour Council and numerous representatives of Indian and colonial organisations. He was… a magnificent orator.

Those monthly report-back meetings on the doings in Parliament stirred hundreds into activity. The Battersea labour movement pulsated with life and was united. Marxist classes held by the old Plebs League flourished. Trade union branches were crowded.

Holding monthly report-back meetings for his “Labour electors” had been an election pledge. Saklatvala and the local Labour and Trades Council organised regular canvassing, not primarily for electoral purposes but to discover the concerns of and engage in dialogue with the constituency’s wider working class.

Taking only a “worker’s wage” was not really an issue then. Payments for MPs had only been introduced in 1911, in response to the rise of Labour; although the salary was high, it remained the same until 1937! (Between 1996 and 2020, it increased 238%.) Moreover, until 1971 MPs had to pay all their own expenses. Saklatvala, constantly travelling around the country to speak and support struggles, would have had a lot of expenses. He continued to do a minor job in the Tata corporation until 1925.

In Parliament

Saklatvala energetically used the platform of Parliament itself to raise a wide range of issues in the class struggle – local, national and international.

In his maiden speech (23 November, 1922), he discussed growing UK unemployment; the state of post-war Europe; the anti-democratic nature of empire; the shared interests of textile workers in Scotland and Bengal; the Irish Treaty establishing de facto but limited independence; and the Russian revolution.

The next month, responding to a loan for “economic development” in Sudan, he spoke about British imperialism, the interests of working people in Britain and Sudan, and the problems of “private enterprise”. The last was a consistent theme in many of his speeches, widely noted.

In his first years in Parliament, when the CP was still enmeshed in the Labour Party and the Battersea labour movement united around him, he regularly raised local issues, often in consultation with the borough council. He repeatedly raised housing, for instance the council’s conflicts with private landlords refusing to pay for repairs. He intervened against attempts by Battersea South’s Tory MP, Viscount Curzon, to hinder the council from running local energy services, again using the chance to indict private ownership.

Later, as the CP was pushed out of Labour, Saklatvala’s relationship with the council soured and he became less inclined to raise purely local issues. India became more and more central to his interventions.

He used Parliament to champion working-class and liberation struggles. In 1923 he played a major role in the fight against deportation without trial of Irish republican activists in Britain. In 1925-26, during the miners' struggle that sparked the General Strike, the CP collected 300,000 signatures to protest the arrest of many working-class activists, including twelve of its leaders. Saklatvala got wide publicity by presenting the petition to Parliament and raising the issues in the chamber. He regularly raised strikes and workers’ issues. Attempting to coordinate parliamentary with extra-parliamentary struggles, he was in continual consultation with working-class organisations and activists.

Saklatvala loved parliamentary-style debate and his general courtesy and politeness were widely acknowledged. This “form” should not obscure the content of his speeches and activity. In his maiden speech he warned: “I would therefore appeal to you, Sir [the Speaker], to realise that if we are found especially wanting in certain mannerisms or our phraseology is not up to the standard, it is not for want of respect… but simply because we of the people shall now require that the people’s matters shall be talked in the people’s voice.”

He regularly used his speeches to mock ruling-class (and increasingly right-wing Labour) figures and institutions, indulging his impish sense of humour. This was part of indicting the system of which they were part, to help mobilise workers against it. He consistently brought class conflict and the wider question of capitalism and socialism to the fore.

In general his work was in line with the approach set out by the CP in 1924: a socialist MP “enters Parliament not in order to delude the workers that they can achieve their emancipation by its means, but to use Parliament as a tribune whence to issue rallying calls and watchwords to the masses.” There is no MP doing quite the same today.

A Communist MP

Even before his re-election as a Communist, the CP regarded Saklatvala as a Communist MP. From the start he was very open about his political ideas and his affiliation. In 1922-3, although Saklatvala was accepted into the Parliamentary Labour Party and John Walton Newbold was not, they cooperated closely as what the CP called its “Communist Fraction in Parliament”.

After 1924, Saklatvala’s struggle must often have been a lonely one, particularly as the Labour leadership and the bulk of the PLP were moving further to the right. But as the CP put it when he was first elected, “even one good fighter can be enough to expose the workings of the system and to show up the intrigues of the government” – if backed and pressured by workers and “not left isolated in the struggle in the enemy camp”.

As a result of having MPs, the prestige of the CP in the labour movement (and the Communist International) was increased, along with interest in its ideas. Saklatvala and Newbold received numerous invitations to speak from a wide range of non-communist organisations. Their parliamentary speeches were often reported in the press, giving heightened opportunities for wider propaganda.

CP publications regularly carried extracts from Saklatvala’s speeches, and the party published three pamphlets of his speeches – The Class Struggle in Parliament, With the Communist Party in Parliament and Socialism and “Labouralism” – selling tens of thousands of copies.

From 1925 Saklatvala was on the CP’s Central Committee. The party was was not afraid to criticise him when it felt he went off the rails. When the (Liberal) Commons Speaker retired in 1928, Saklatvala made a glowing speech about him, and there widespread criticism in the party, including calls for his expulsion. The CP leadership formally resolved to exercise greater control over the MP. Soon after this controversy subsided he was criticised by the German Communist Party for a speech at a meeting in Berlin, and the CP discussed disciplining him again.

In 1927, when Saklatvala had his five children initiated into Parsism at a large public ceremony in Westminster, the CP published a statement saying that, while religious workers could join the party, a leader like Saklatvala should know better. He replied publicly that he fully agreed, but it had been unavoidable for family reasons...

Saklatvala had a very strong personality and will of his own, but at the same time remained strongly committed to revolutionary socialism and to the CP. He resisted serious pressure to break from the party. This ranged from widespread vilification, to suggestions he could receive a safe Labour seat and become a Labour minister, to being barred from international trips for MPs. Eventually, he was banned from his home country, for the last decade of his life.

The General Strike

Saklatvala worked hard to support the 1926 General Strike, suffering repression as a result. More broadly, too, the strike and its defeat were a turning point for him.

The first Labour government (1923-4) had done nothing to dismantle the system of organised strike-breaking the state had gradually built up to prepare for industrial unrest. Saklatvala repeatedly raised the question of strike-breaking organisations in Parliament.

On 3 May, the day before the strike started, the Manchester Guardian reported the “unusually large” May Day demonstration in London:

Saklatvala seemed to be the hero of the day. He was followed to his platform by a swirling wake of enthusiasts, and his meeting was much the biggest. He is, one imagines, the most powerful mob orator of the day… he harangued for a good half hour. With a sort of sombre joy, he acclaimed the General Strike as the definite rising of Labour against their oppressors, to a chorus of “Good old Saklatvala!”

Saklatvala’s speech called on soldiers to support the strike. He was quickly charged with sedition and sent to Wormwood Scrubs for two months.

On his release, he went literally straight to Parliament to attack the Tories and the ruling class. Speaking at mass meetings in Battersea and across the country, he was hailed as a hero by angry labour movement activists. But as the impact of the strike’s defeat set in, organised labour weakened – with major consequences for Battersea, the CP and Saklatvala.

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Submitted by AWL on Tue, 08/09/2020 - 16:14

"Battersea versus the British empire" - radical walking tour of Battersea, South London, looking at Saklatvala, Charlotte Despard and John Archer

Saturday 19 September - meet 2pm outside Clapham Junction station, St John's Hill, London SW11 2QP

www.facebook.com/events/607545813280500

Book at: www.eventbrite.com/e/battersea-vs-the-british-empire-radical-walking-tour-in-sw-london-tickets-118046254525

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