World War I and conscription: How the unions fought to expel a Labor Prime Minister

Tom Orsag begins a series on Labor Party history with a look at the major split in the party during the campaign against conscription in WWI

Labor under Gillard and Rudd has been a disappointment—and the sense that the Labor government doesn’t stand for anything is widespread.
But the party’s history shows that Labor in government has disappointed its supporters right from its beginning. Few of the betrayals of Labor governments have been more bitter than that of Billy Hughes’ government during World War I.
The slaughter and hardship of the war provoked social upheaval even in Australia—and this crisis was reflected inside the still young Australian Labor Party, which only began to form in the 1890s. The war would lead to a rank and file rebellion culminating in an historic split, with both the Labor Prime Minister and NSW Labor Premier expelled from the Party.

Labor and the war
Historian F. B. Smith described the enthusiasm for the start of WWI, “The nation had entered the war outwardly united. Leaders of the Liberal and Labor Parties, the daily press, churchmen of all Denominations, spokesmen for friendly societies, sporting associations and trade unions, all supported the stand of the Mother Country.”
Even pro-Home Rule Irish leaders such as Melbourne’s John Gavan Duffy argued the Irish should forget their historic grievances with England and fight with “the great Empire to which they belonged.”
Few were more enthusiastic than the Labor Party leadership. The election campaign of 1914 was under way when the war started. Labor leader Andrew Fisher told a campaign meeting, “Australia is in the war to the last man and the last shilling”. Labor’s manifesto said, “Our interests and our very existence are bound up with those of the Empire.”
Even Labor Party branch meetings would end with a singing of the then national anthem, “God Save the King”.
From the party’s inception, Labor leaders had wrapped themselves in nationalism, declaring Labor the party of nation, as opposed to an identification based on the working class the party was meant to represent.
This reflected the aim of the Labor Party to take hold of government, which, in turn, meant accepting the logic of managing capitalism, and looking after business owners and the rich.
The Labor leadership’s loyalty to Australian nationalism meant they were loyal to the British Empire, as a powerful imperial sponsor who would protect Australian capitalist interests in the South Pacific.
The Australian ruling class saw “blood sacrifice” as its rite of passage into the club of nations. The Sydney Morning Herald, in August, declared, “It is our baptism of fire”.
This blithe willingness to join the imperialist carnage meant that only 7000 of the first 32,000 volunteers returned home.
But the logic of running capitalism clashed with the aspirations of working class Labor Party members and voters for genuine social change. The war exposed those contradictions even more graphically.
The initial enthusiasm among the population for the war saw Andrew Fisher and Labor win the 1914 election. The only Labor member who lost his seat, Senator Arthur Rae, had spoken out against the war.
Fisher, due to ill health, was replaced with the warmonger Billy Hughes in late 1915.
But cuts to living standards as a result of the war began to turn the working class against it. In the first year of the war, prices rose by 12 percent and by 29 per cent over the course of the war. The annual consumption of meat per head in NSW fell from 260 pounds (weight) in 1913 to 162 pounds in 1917-18.
Profiteering by business only sharpened workers’ discontent. Shipping company profits increased by twelve-fold between 1913 and 1916. In 1907, wage earners received 56.2 per cent of national income. By the end of the war, this had fallen to a low point of 48.4 per cent.

Trade union officials
The hardships felt by working class people began to open up the divisions between trade union leaders and the Labor Party leadership. The union leaders themselves are no radical layer—their position as paid officials who negotiate with employers exerts a conservative influence on them, and there are plenty of careerists among their ranks.
But the immediate interests of union officials are different to the interests of Labor parliamentarians. The unions had been the basis for forming the Labor Party, as the big strikes of the 1890s were defeated. They looked to Parliament and political action to provide some defence from the aggressive employers. But once in Parliament, Labor politicians were more strongly committed to running the system, rather than legislating to defend the workers who voted for them.
Labor parliamentarians are two steps removed from the day-to-day struggles of the working class. Elected union officials are more immediately accountable to the union membership and elected shop stewards. As the workers moved to the left under the impact of WWI, union officials felt the pressure to move to represent their members’ interests.
In addition the Labor MPs were not delivering the kind of pro-union legislation wanted by the union officials. So they moved to bring the Labor MPs into line by forcing the issue inside the party.

The fight inside the party
The NSW State Labor conference in May 1915 was stormy as the unions expressed their disappointment with NSW Labor Premier William Holman’s failure to legislate to control prices.
Holman outmanoeuvred the unions, avoided a censure motion, and maintained overall control of the conference. But the conference carried a call for the federal Labor government to hold a referendum to give the federal government the power to control prices—something that the federal Labor leaders had promised at the 1914 election.
But soon after he became Prime Minister in October 1915, Hughes broke that promise and abandoned plans for the referendum. Only his threat to resign prevented the Federal Labor Executive from condemning him. But, as the left-wing Labor MP, Maurice Blackburn, wrote, “The rank and file were not appeased.”

The fight against conscription
A few months earlier the government had legislated for a “War Census” to determine how many men were available to enrol into the military. It was highly unpopular, as one of its questions asked, “If you able to enlist, what reason do you have for not doing so?”
This raised suspicions that Hughes intended to introduce conscription, and was the signal for the anti-conscription campaign to begin in earnest.
Revolutionary left groups like the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) had opposed the war from the beginning, exposing it as a war fought by workers for the benefit of the rich, saying, “Let those who own Australia do the fighting”.
In 1916, Tom Barker, the editor of the IWW paper Direct Action, was jailed for “prejudicing recruitment” with an anti-war poster reading “War! What for?”
In 1915 the IWW in Sydney and the Victorian Socialist Party in Melbourne seized the opportunity, and set up anti-conscription leagues, which went on to win motions against conscription in the Victorian and NSW Trades Councils by late that year.
The fight to get the Labor Party to oppose conscription gave the union officials another reason to assert their control over the party.
In November 1915, the NSW branch of the conservative Australian Workers Union (AWU) called a meeting of the unions to form an “Industrial Section” of the Labor Party with the aim of taking control of the branch away from Premier Holman.
In March 1916, PM Hughes left Australia to go to Britain. Meanwhile, the campaign against conscription inside the unions and Labor Party built up to the point where the overwhelming bulk of union and party members were against it. By the time Hughes returned in late July, the tide had turned against conscription.
The Dublin Easter Uprising for Irish independence in 1916 and the subsequent British crackdown helped turn the local Irish population against the war—and against conscription. Dr Daniel Mannix, the Catholic Archbishop of Melbourne, was their outstanding spokesperson.
In April 1916, there was only one dissenter when the Victorian State Labor conference voted to dis-endorse any MP who supported conscription.
In May, the NSW State Labor Conference voted for a similar motion. The Industrial Section captured the NSW State executive and requested a Federal Conference to deal with conscription; officially the Federal Parliamentary Labor Party platform had no position on the issue.
Maurice Blackburn summarised, “Each Conference elected to its Executive a number of new men, filled with anti-conscription ardour and determined to carry out their [ie the Industrial Section] instructions.” State Labor Executives in Victoria, NSW and Queensland demanded anti-conscription pledges from all Labor MPs.
Unity against conscription was growing across the labour movement. In June 1916, an open-air meeting in Sydney’s Domain attracted 6000 people to hear speakers from the NSW Trades and Labour Council, the AWU, the Executive of the Political Labor League of NSW (Labor Party) and the IWW.
In Broken Hill, Mick Considine, the head of the Miners Association, told a meeting he had started to raise an army of “eligibles” to fight conscription and defend unionism.
In the First Battle of the Somme, July 1916, the Australian Imperial Forces lost 28,000 killed or wounded in seven weeks. Hughes returned to Australia the next day, July 31, but did not put conscription to a vote in Cabinet.
By then a majority of Labor parliamentarians, including the pro-war Minister for Trade, Frank Tudor, had promised their State Executives that they would oppose conscription. Tudor’s Richmond branch and others in his Yarra electorate had given him an ultimatum he couldn’t refuse—campaign against conscription or be disendorsed for his parliamentary seat!
In August, the NSW Labor Party held its first anti-conscription meeting in the Domain attended by between 60,000 and 100,000 people.
So Hughes announced a referendum, or technically a plebiscite, for late October 1916, hoping that a successful “Yes” vote would silence opposition to conscription inside Labor.
Hughes tried to seek support from the state Labor Executives and the unions for his pro-conscription position. But when he met the Victorian State Executive on September 1, he did not get one vote. He went to Sydney the next day and won only five of 26 votes on the NSW State Executive.
He was so distrusted that the Victorian Labor Secretary Arch Stewart had taken the “precaution” of travelling to Sydney on the same night to prevent Hughes giving the impression that he had won the vote in Victoria!
When Hughes ignored the party’s anti-conscription position and continued to promote a yes vote for the referendum, the NSW Executive expelled him from the party—and banned NSW Premier William Holman and two other MPs from standing again as Labor candidates.
Hughes remained the Prime Minister, and would do anything to win the plebiscite. John Arrowsmith, the left-wing historian of the anti-conscription campaign, wrote, “The full weight of war-time regulations were used against supporters of the ‘no’ case. Violence—trumped up charges resulting in gaol sentences—deportation in some cases—and censorship—were some of the measured used.”
There were 3442 prosecutions under the War Precautions Act, including Broken Hill miners’ leader and future NSW Labor MP for Broken Hill, Percy Brookfield.
In response to an order by the Governor-General, instigated by Hughes for all “single and childless men” to enlist in the armed forces, the trade unions called a one-day general strike on October 4. In Melbourne, a crowd of 50,000 rallied on the Yarra Bank.
Two weeks before the referendum 12 IWW members were arrested for arson in Sydney. The frame-up was opposed by the anti-conscription movement, especially by Henry Boote, editor of The Australian Worker, paper of the AWU.
Despite the viciousness of Hughes’ campaign, heroically, out of the 2.5 million votes cast, the “No” vote won by a small majority of 72,476.
But Hughes was unrepentant. He called the result, “A black day for Australia. It was a triumph for the unworthy, the selfish and treacherous in our midst.”
At the Caucus meeting of Federal Labor MPs on November 14, Hughes, the quintessential Labor rat, walked out with 24 pro-conscription Labor MPs to form National Labor. Hughes won an early election in May 1917 and combined with the Liberals to form government and later a new party, the Nationalist Party.
Having lost the first conscription vote in October 1916, he held a second in December 1917. But conscription was again rejected, this time by a much bigger margin, 166,588 votes.
Conscription could not have been defeated in two referenda if the unions and rank and file Labor members had not asserted themselves against Hughes. The expulsion of Hughes was a victory inside the Labor Party against the right and against the war.
It had taken an enormous fight to bring the MPs under the control of the party itself. This has become a historical pattern, the result of the basic contradiction at the heart of Labor. It is a party that represents workers, yet sets out to run the capitalist system through control of parliament, an institution that leaves real power in the hands of the business owners who control the economy.
This has led Labor governments again and again to capitulate to the demands of big business and to attack their working class supporters.
But it also shows the gulf that exists between the Labor Party’s leaders and the labour movement.
A mass campaign of industrial and political action deepened the contradictions inside Labor and fed divisions between Labor governments and members of Parliament on the one hand and union leaders and the mass of party members and supporters on the other—ultimately defeating conscription and the right of the Party.

Racist fears drove Australia’s rulers

Billy Hughes was feted in Britain because of his belligerent speeches in favour of the war.
Henry Boote, in the Australian Worker, argued that Hughes had been “duchessed”—seduced by the attention. Some even argued that Hughes had been bribed by the British.
In fact Hughes was a loyal servant of Australia’s ruling class, sharing their fear at Japan’s defeat of Russia in their 1905 war. The rise of a serious military competitor in the Asia-Pacific, and a non-European one at that, filled them with terror.
Conscription was a way of showing Australia’s loyalty to the British empire and also securing a place at the Peace Conference at the end of the war, which would allow the government to limit Japan’s expansion into the Pacific.
At a “secret session of Parliament” in 1916, reporting of which was banned, Hughes set out his reasons for wanting conscription.
Major Piesse wrote that it was, “widely believed that an authoritative statement had been made to the meeting that Japan would challenge the White Australia Policy after the war… Australia would then need the help of the rest of the Empire, and that if she wished to be sure of getting it she must now throw her full strength into the war.”
Hughes calculated that once Britain and all the other Dominions of the Empire (Canada, South Africa and New Zealand) had adopted conscription, Australia would appear to be avoiding its share if it did not.
Socialist historian Humphey McQueen has written, “Hughes ‘referred to the danger to which Australia was exposed, owing to her close proximity to hordes of the coloured races, with particular reference to Japan, who although our ally in the then World War, might at some future time be our enemy’.”
Hughes put upholding the racist White Australia Policy, and Australia’s imperialist desire to grab German colonies in the Pacific, ahead of ending the suffering imposed by the war.


Solidarity meetings

Latest articles

Read more

Palestine movement should welcome dissenting Labor members

Palestine activists should encourage Labor members to support our demands and seek to draw them into the movement.

Albanese still backing Israel’s onslaught despite ceasefire gesture

Anthony Albanese has shifted his position on a ceasefire under pressure from sustained protests at Israel’s genocidal onslaught on Gaza—but still won’t demand Israel stop the bombing.

‘Labor has blood on their hands’: why I quit the ALP

Labor’s support for Israel’s horrific war on Gaza is creating tensions within the party. Solidarity spoke to one member about why she quit the ALP.