Pluralism and Planning: The Impact of Political Franchise and Mass Politics

 Petroleum Times (January 9, 1953).
Petroleum Times (January 9, 1953).


Author: Kaveh Ehsani, Leiden University 
[ From “The social history of labor in the Iranian oil industry : the built environment and the making of the industrial working class (1908-1941)” ]


In the previous sections I have outlined the impact of public health measures, military conscription, the dramatic expansion of the labor market and trade union activity, and the social and material crises such as housing and inflation that affected the daily lives of working people in wartime Britain. These issues made a deep and lasting impact on the attitudes of the political and economic elites, as well as ordinary people, toward the role of government in civil society, the economy, and the social responsibilities of large corporations regarding the general welfare. In this section I will turn to the discussion of how these developments affected the political domain directly. After a costly and ruinous war that had to some extent brought into question the legitimacy of the old political and economic order, what did the enfranchisement of working people, women, returning soldiers, and paupers (the poor and the propertyless), imply for class politics, corporate attitudes, and government policies? How did the political advances made in the era of mass enfranchisement affect the post war habitus?
The rising social expectations of a more decent life in exchange for the sacrifices demanded of ordinary people only added to the malaise resulting from the shambolic and mismanaged conduct of the Great War[116]. The poor performance of military and political leaders had disillusioned the general public who were asked to shoulder most of the human and material costs. However, side by side with this general cynicism, an alternative and far less complacent political imaginary was also taking shape. This militant political culture was inspired by the grassroots networks build by trade unions during the war and the relative gains in wages and job security that had marginally improved workers lives, as well as the utopian horizon of possibilities opened by the Russian revolution[117]. Severe labor shortages during the war years had given labor a greater advantage in negotiations over working and living conditions, and its share in the political and administrative domains of policymaking[118].

Once the carnage ended there was no way back from franchise reform and for the elites to ignore the new power of mass politics[119]. The widespread sentiment was captured by the novelist John Galsworthy, who wrote in the aftermath of the 1926 general strike: “Everything now being relative there is no absolute dependence being placed on God, free trade, marriage, consoles, class, coal, or caste”[120]. Britain had suspended elections since 1910. The fear of the revolutionary consequences of electoral democracy and voting rights for the common people had been a source of great anxiety among the elites throughout the 19th Century and the pre war years. Although the franchise had incrementally expanded in the 19th century it still did not include women and the propertyless, while the effectively rigged system was skewed to favor the propertied classes who enjoyed the privilege of having multiple votes[121]. The 1918 franchise reforms and the accompanying general election established for the first time a near universal voting right for all the males, and for most women above the age of 30[122]. The electorate increased nearly threefold at one go, from 8 million to nearly 22 million. It included nearly 8.5 million women, as well as paupers and returning soldiers, most of who had been previously disenfranchised[123]. This electoral reform severed the long established and ideologically enshrined connection between property and citizenship and, at least theoretically, opened the parliamentary system to direct representation of the general population[124].
The newly enfranchised population demanded secure jobs, better pay, decent and affordable housing, improved living conditions and social services. Politically, reneging on these new social demands by the working population was risky, but also vested capitalist interests were ambivalent about rolling back the preferential advantages they had gained during wartime. Feinstein,, estimate that during the war up to 40% of the entire economies of the belligerents had been directly or indirectly controlled by governments. The withdrawal of this demand would have caused havoc on the large engineering, mining, chemical, metallurgy, munitions, ship building, and engineering corporations that had expanded to supply the war needs. These powerful interests were highly weary and opposed the immediate withdrawal of public demand for their products. As a result of these intensifying frictions, and the significant contraction of the economy, social unrest and class conflict became one of the most pressing post war problems, with significant long lasting repercussions[125]. The period 1918-1926 was an era simmering with intense social unrest, but in spite of great anxiety about the stability of the ruling order after near universal enfranchisement, the 1918 elections returned to power the Liberal-Conservative coalition and the franchise did not lead to radical political change[126]. The main reason for this was the depth of social divisions and the lack of consensus among both the political and economic elite as well as the laboring masses. There were simply too many differences of opinions and proposed strategies to allow any radical consensus to take shape, and to bring about a unified and militant change of direction[127]. The 1918 election results should not be interpreted as an indication that no meaningful political changes had taken place, on the contrary. But the radical and fundamental changes were latent and subtle, rather than spectacular and manifest at the pinnacles of social and political institutions, thus creating a new social habitus. For one thing, the Empire’s periphery was rocked by the aftershocks of the war. General conscription in Ireland had precipitated the Irish political settlement and led to the country’s eventual independence. In the more distant colonies, and especially in India, which supplied the bulk of the British army[128], conscription and mass recruitments had contributed to social protests and energized the nationalist
movements[129]. The brutal repression of nationalist and labor protestors in India over the question of political representation had direct and lasting repercussions in Abadan. Angered by their poor living and working conditions, skilled Indian workers and employees in Abadan were further energized by events in India, and went on a series of strikes beginning in 1920. The virulence of these labor protests prompted the Oil Company to begin expelling the strikers, and to rethink its long-term labor policy through a protracted process of replacing Indians with Iranian laborers (see chapters 1 and 5).
Within Britain, the more significant political reconfigurations of the exercise of power were taking place not so much in the electoral domain as in the proliferation of technocratic and administrative institutions that were planning and regulating civilian life to an unprecedented degree[130]. The poor military performance during the first two years of the war had paved the way for the emergence of a new system of government no longer dedicated to the appearance of constitutional niceties and minimal interference in civil society, but intent on establishing an efficient command economy focused on winning the war[131]. Already in 1915-1916 the government had begun regulating an increasing range of issues that had hitherto been considered the exclusive domain of the private sector and local authorities, such as improving controls on prices, rents, profits, wages, labor contracts, conscription, the recruitment of women in the industrial and clerical labor market, liquor licensing, food rationing, etc[132]. These governmental regulations were carried out in tandem with large business, although trade unions had also become increasingly involved in mediating labor negotiations and exercising a voice in matters related to the working and living conditions of their members.
As we will discuss in the next section, the coordinators and agents of this increasingly interventionist state policy were the new professional classes. These were, on the one hand, full time trade unionists and professionalized labor negotiators who could stay in command of increasingly complex negotiated rules and regulations governing the labor process and workplace relations. On the other hand, they consisted of the new professional middle class with formal education and institutional accreditation from the expanding universities[133]. It is ironic that Lloyd George’s governing Liberal Party and its Conservative coalition partners presided over this shift to a more centralized and planned political economy, making [classical] “liberalism a casualty of war”[134]!
If the elite were divided over the necessary boundaries of social policy reforms[135] and the proper extent of government involvement in the economy, so were trade unions, labor activists, and the Labor Party[136]. Labor was deeply suspicious of governmental power, which it viewed as repressive and a tool of employers. But workers also had a strong sense that they needed a collective countervailing power to defend their interests and to check the employers. The Labor Party’s buildup began in the prewar years not in the parliament but among the grassroots, where it established local chapters and its members entered local government authorities. Asa Briggs sees the first three decades of the 20th century as the formative period in the building of “historical organizations that became the scaffolding of the modern labor movement”[137]. The dramatic rise in unemployment after the war caused major setbacks and somewhat eroded the negotiating power of labor. But by the mid 1920s the political landscape of Britain had changed and labor and its representatives in trade unions and the Labour party had become an integral part of the political and administrative system, at local as well as national levels. Labor’s electoral gains, and the rising militancy of the unemployed and the precariously employed, meant that employers as well as the political elite had to take into consideration labor and its political representatives in a manner that would have been inconceivable a generation before.


Notes :
116. This point is greatly emphasized by Perkin in his social history of the rise of the professional society in England. Perkin frames the period as “the crisis of class society” which led to the emergence of a “corporate society”, managed by technical and professional experts. See Perkin, The Rise of Professional Society, 171–357.

117. By 1918 trade union membership had increased to 6 million by 1918, as had the funds channeled to the labor party. Women were now 29% of the official workforce in factories, offices, and hospitals. Briggs, A Social History of England, 262.

118. Thane, The Foundations of the Welfare State, 127–130.

119. Taylor, The Oxford History of England. 1914-1945, 163–180; Briggs, A Social History of England, 263; Thane, The Foundations of the Welfare State, 129-130; Feinstein, Temin, and Toniolo, The European Economy Between the Wars, Chapter2.

120. John Galsworthy, The Forsyte Saga: The White Monkey, vol. 4 (London: Headline Book Publishing, 2008 [1924]), Preface.

121. Saville, “The Welfare State: An Historial Approach,” 13–14.

122. Taylor, The Oxford History of England. 1914-1945, 93, 125–128; Thane, The Foundations of the Welfare State, 145; Briggs, A Social History of England, 262.

123. Jose Harris, “Society and State in Twentieth Century Britain,” in Cambridge Social History of Britain: 1750-1950, ed. F.M.L. Thompson, vol. 3 Social Agencies and Institutions (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), 74.

124. T.H. Marshal s es this period as an important stage betw en political, economic, and social citizenship. The latter, according to his analysis, was realized only after WW2 and the eventual adoption of Keynisian welfare and full employment policies. See Marshall and Bottomore, Citizenship and Social Class.

125. Feinstein, Temin, and Toniolo, The European Economy Between the Wars, 28–29, 60–64.

126. For the range of established political formations in Britain at the time, Liberals, Conservatives, New Liberals, Labour, and various radical, socialist, Fabian, and communist formations, and their shifting attitudes toward the economy and the role of the state in setting social policies and regulating the social question, especially in the pressing domain of urban reforms see Cherry, Town Planning in Britain since 1900, 43–65.

127. Harris, “Society and State in Twentieth Century Britain,” 75.

128. Elizabeth Monroe, Britain’s Moment in the Middle East, 1914-1971, 2nd ed. (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1981); Adelson, London and the Middle East, 45–46; Sugata Bose, A Hundred Horizons: The Indian Ocean in the Age of Global Empire (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006).

129. Taylor, The Oxford History of England. 1914-1945, 150–160.

130. Michel Aglietta highlights this ensemble of class frictions and conflicts as the centerpiece of the structural shift in the regime of accumulation of capital and the gradual but unmistakable transition to Fordism, and a system of mass consumption, full employment, and the maintenance of effectively high demand through deficit financing. Aglietta’s focus is on the US, and his explicit unit of analysis is the nation state. However, and somewhat questionably, he de-emphasizes the revolutionary significance of the WWI and its aftermath, emphasizing instead the post WWII era marked by Keysian economics, as the key period in the new regime of accumulation. But, as I will argue in a subsequent section on the structural changes in the political economy of capitalism, many of th earlier structural shifts he highlights also characterized inter war Britain. See Aglietta, A Theory of Capitalist Regulation, 25–33, 116–117, 179–186.

131. Harris, “Society and State in Twentieth Century Britain,” 71.

132. Taylor, The Oxford History of England. 1914-1945, 34–38.

133. Perkin, The Rise of Professional Society; Aglietta, A Theory of Capitalist Regulation; Christophe Charle, La Crise des Sociétés Impériales: Allemagne, France, Grande-Bretagne : 1900-1940 (Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 2001), Chapter 3; Charles S. Maier, “Between Taylorism and Technocracy: European Ideologies and the Vision of Industrial Productivity in the 1920s,” Journal of Contemporary History 5, no. 2 (1970): 27–61.Aglietta makes the same point regarding Taylorist time and motion managers within the workplace. This shift toward the professionalization of various domain of political and socio-economic life had a long precedence. In 19th century England the utilitarianism of Jeremy Bentham and his numerous disciples such as Robert Owen (industrialist and ‘utopian’ socialist), Alfred Marshall and John Stuart Mill (economists), Ebenizer Howard (urban planner and garden city theorist), among others, had advocated the bestowal of greater influence and power of decision-making upon professional experts. In France, positivism and the followers of Saint Simon and his disciple Auguste Comte had likewise forwarded the notions of the ‘scientific’ analysis of a bounded entity they labeled ‘society’, and the burden of ‘trusteeship’ that befell on the shoulders of scientific experts to formulate and implement collective policies in the name of science and universal benefit to all. Lenin’s “What is to be Done?”, which precipitated the seminal break with fellow Social Democrats the Mensheviks, as well as with other syndicalist and socialist currents, was likewise predicated on the call for full time and professional revolutionaries to formulate and carry forward long-term party strategy. For an extended discussion see Kaveh Ehsani, “A Critique of Planning, Development and Progress” (MA Thesis in Regional Planning, University of Massachusetts- Amherst, 1986).

134. Briggs, A Social History of England, 257.

135. For example George Nathaniel Curzon, Conservative Foreign Secretary in the coalition government, former Viceroy of India, and the self-described foremost authority on Persia, was the president of the National League for Opposing Women’s Rights.

136. Vocal and organized opposition to government planning and involvement in the economy were very much part of the mainstream intellectual discourse of the post war era. See Thane, The Foundations of the Welfare State.

137. Asa Briggs, “Introduction,” in Essays in Labour History; 1886-1923, ed. Asa Briggs and John Saville, vol. 2 (London: MacMillan, 1971), 1–16.

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