Dr SJ Reddi

Ideology and the Mauritius Labour Party

“Even though it has abandoned the nationalisation agenda, MLP under its present leadership believes in state economic intervention to civilise capitalism, in welfare measures to alleviate poverty and in positive freedom to be achieved via the state’s extended control over the important economic institutions” — Dr SJ REDDI 

On the 13 February 1931, Pandit Cashinath Kistoe wrote an article, under the title ‘The Labour Party’, in Arya Vir calling for the creation of a Labour Party in Mauritius. There was no response. We have to wait for another five years for Dr Maurice Curé to give the country the Mauritius Labour Party (MLP). 

The Party is celebrating its 75 years of existence and during that long period of its history, it has shaped and made modern Mauritius what it is today. This is incontrovertible. This article is not going to dwell on the achievements of the MLP or its role in the making of this country, but will instead focus on the ideology/ies that have inspired the party, its leaders and supporters to realise their vision. Obviously the ideology of the party can be something of a puzzle to both its supporters and adversaries. It is even preferable to speak of ideologies rather than ideology for a party of government which has been in power for most of its existence and which has had to face a variety of challenges affecting the economy, society and politics in an ever-changing world. Not unsurprisingly, therefore, that its ideologies and values, which remain fundamentally on the left, have always been informed by a strong dose of pragmatism. Four strands can be identified in the ideologies of the party namely liberalism, labourism, socialism and welfarism. Each will be discussed in the way it has impinged on the Party’s policies.

Right from the outset, it is appropriate to set the context which led to the foundation of the MLP. That helps to explain the practical blend of democratic liberalism and labourism that characterised the early ideologies of the MLP. Long before Dr Maurice Curé founded the MLP on 23 February 1936 and adopted labourism as its programme, he had been a democratic liberal and had been in politics for more than a decade and a half. During those years, politics in Mauritius rested principally on the antagonism between the white oligarchy and the coloured middle class, and conflicts had both class and ethnic dimensions. A good example: the 1921 retrocession elections, where the retrocessionists wanted Mauritius to revert to France, were about class, democracy as well as ethnicity.

Dr Curé himself has been inspired by the British Liberal Party of Lloyd George that dominated British politics before the advent of the British Labour Party. British labour supporters and the workers voted the Liberal Party in the famous Lib-Lab alliance. After all the Liberal Party under Lloyd George was the founder of the early British welfare State and Lloyd George’s famous ‘People Budget’ and health and education reforms were very popular. The professor who inspired Dr Curé most was Dr Addison, a liberal who later joined labour, and with whom he was engaged in correspondence while he was also busy with the foundation of the MLP. One can therefore argue that many of the reforms advocated by Dr Curé in his campaigns in favour of the democratisation of the Municipal boards, against the high salaries of the top civil servants or for the appointment of an English Judge at the Supreme Court were, in the true liberal tradition, an attack on privileges.

If Dr Curé was inspired by liberalism even before the foundation of the MLP, one distinctive strand of that liberalism was the championing of the cause of the working class. During the brief period that he was elected in the Council of government in 1934, his was the lonely voice defending the working classes following the great depression of 1929. In the Council of government he took up a radical stance by asking for trade union legislation and the replacement of the Protector of Immigrants by a director of labour and minimum wages. The MLP’s manifesto in 1936 was equally radical. He asked for an extension of the franchise to workers, and the creation of an agricultural bank for small planters. After his defeat in 1936, he became disillusioned with coloured and middle class politics. He subsequently, at the request of workers, founded the MLP to defend their interests. The founding fathers of the MLP included doctors, intellectuals and those who may be defined as forming part of the ‘Aristocracy of Labour’

The programme of the MLP in 1936 committed itself to labourism, specifically to fulfilling the aspirations of the working class. Too often it is assumed that in its early years the MLP was a more doctrinal and socialistic party when in fact it was committed to labourism. Labourism differs from socialism in that it is meant to advance specific policies to the benefit of the working class and organised labour, in other words looking after wages and conditions of work, trade union rights, unemployment benefits as well as social service benefits like family allowances, pensions and housing. It also incorporates a strong element of workerism, the main goal of which is to extract as much advantage as is possible from the capitalist system in the name of the workers rather than trying to change the fundamentals of the system.

The resolutions of the MLP read out and adopted on 23 February 1936 at the Champ de Mars clearly spelled out its commitment to labourism. The resolutions called for (1) the nomination of two members to represent the interests of labourers in the Council of government, (2) the right to vote for the working class, (3) the right to form trade unions, (4) the labour laws to conform to the recommendations of the ILO, and included provisions for old-age pensions and the replacement of the Immigration Department by a Department of Labour to promote the welfare of workers.

At camp Rabaud, two resolutions were voted, one being a demand for a minimum wage and the other calling for a revision of the Constitution. The sensitising campaign that the Party launched in 1937 in its 51 meetings did not go much beyond these demands. The reform of the constitution was important to secure adequate representation of the workers and the small planters. The various petitions in 1936 emphasised the same concerns. After the foundation of the MLP, the Party widened its political base to include other social groups besides workers and intellectuals, like small planters and civil servants.

Industrial associations set up and organised by the MLP in 1938 in the wake of the Hooper Report, became the workers’ arm of the Party and quickly came under the influence of the British TUC. Dr Curé had established a first contact with the British Trade Union Congress (through student Rajmohunsing Jomadar in the UK) in June 1937 after the shooting at Union Flacq during the same year.

Since its inception in 1938 the trade union movement was dominated by Anquetil, who had acquired a wide experience as a trade unionist in Britain. The British trade union movement too was committed to labourism. The influence of the British Trade Union Congress on trade-unionism here ensured that the Mauritian industrial associations engaged in law-abiding, moderate activities, which were nevertheless severely curtailed by the employers and also the colonial administration. Admittedly, the language of Anquetil was violent and threatening: he spoke of “spilling blood” and of “sacrifice”, but such language, though very effective to whip up crowd enthusiasm, did not have the ambition to radically change the economic and social order.

Moreover after the 1938-dock strike, the influence of the British TUC was dominant in both trade union activities and the Mauritius Labour Party. Contacts re-established between Creech Jones and his fellow trade unionist Anquetil (whom he had personally known in Wales) deepened the influence of the TUC on trade union activities here. Not only did Anquetil abandon his language of violence, he collaborated with Baker, the trade union adviser, a former president of Fire Brigade union, a member of the TUC and someone who had been recommended by the TUC to the Colonial Office, to establish moderate and responsible trade unionism in Mauritius. The strike at Ferney in 1946, organised with exemplary moderation and order, became a model for moderate trade unionism, and won Anquetil the title of the Father modern trade unionism, albeit of moderate trade unionism. However ‘unrevolutionary’ were the MLP unions and the Party’s ideology, given that unions were well established in parts of the Empire with the blessings of the imperial government and integrated into the capitalist structure, the foundation of the MLP and the emergence of its unions were nonetheless revolutionary developments and marked a turning point in the history of the working classes. They gave the Party a moral leadership over all progressive elements, a lead at the head of progressive opinion and provided workers with an idiom of contestation and self-confidence to assert their rights.

When the MLP prepared its 1948 electoral programme, one of its demands specifically mentioned the nationalisation of the means of production. We are not in the presence of the whys and wherefores regarding how the issue of nationalisation came up on the agenda of the MLP; we do know however that it was mainly Renganaden Seeneevassen and Dr Millien who had drafted the Party’s Manifesto. Seeneevassen was known to be an admirer of Stalin. Was it his admiration for the Soviet Union that prompted the inclusion of the demand for nationalisation? Or was it the nationalisation of industries by the British Labour government under Clement Atlee in 1945? Or indeed was it the MLP leaders’ commitment to the principle of State ownership of the means of production that did the trick? Difficult to answer! In any case the inclusion of the demand for the social or collective control of the means of production made the Party a democratic-socialist party.

The socialist programme was approved by the Executive Committee and received the support of a few intellectuals among whom were Renganaden Seeneevassen, Dr Millien and Dr Ramgoolam. Others just did not subscribe to the socialist agenda or simply did not feel the need to do so as the MLP did not command great electoral support outside Port-Louis, whether in the Plaines Wilhems or in the rural districts. Nationalisation also appeared in the 1953 electoral manifesto but it was dropped from the 1959 manifesto. Why is that so? Was the inclusion of nationalising the means of production in the MLP’s electoral manifestoes of 1948 and of 1953 mere rhetoric or was the Party indeed serious about it? One could argue that the MLP initially pinned high hopes on the feasibility of nationalisation, which epitomised and embodied the hopes of those who might have seen in it a means to a better society. Others had opined that the non-inclusion of nationalisation in subsequent manifestoes could have been due to changes in leadership or motivated by the failure of the nationalisation programme in Britain, which was confined mostly to loss-making industries and utilities. Nationalisation had thus lost its appeal both in Britain and in Mauritius. It might equally have been a political strategy adopted by the MLP to weaken the virulent and racist propaganda of its adversaries.

As the MLP grew in experience in the exercise of power, it became more realistic and worked towards improving what already existed. Under the leadership of Seewoosagur Ramgoolam, it adopted the Fabian approach and welfare socialism by making the state the major agent for reform. In Britain, the Fabian dream promised a new society based on collectivist solutions organised by the state with the support of social scientists such as Beveridge and Keynes who were both liberals. A number of British experts, namely Titmuss, Meade, Balogh, Chesworth and Colin Leys drew up blueprints for Mauritius. The 1950s and 1960s saw the building of a Welfare State together with the implementation of a number of reforms in education, health, social security, housing and infrastructure and also the launching by the State of major initiatives following the Meade Report for implementing policies relating to economic development. The MLP became the party of the underdog, the disadvantaged as well as the party of the working class — in fact of all those who considered social justice as a central part of politics.

Even after Independence, the party pursued its agenda to bring about a fairer and better society within the framework of capitalism. It did not seem concerned with any wider socialist doctrine. It wanted to tackle privilege and inefficiencies while striving to improve the fairness of society. The great number of State enterprises and other forms of social ownership in appropriate sectors of the economy as well as strategic ownership of natural resources for the benefit of all Mauritians has remained the paramount objective of the Party. The role of the state in the economy has not been reduced. Even though it has abandoned the nationalisation agenda, MLP under its present leadership believes in state economic intervention to civilise capitalism, in welfare measures to alleviate poverty and in positive freedom to be achieved via the state’s extended control over the important economic institutions. The party still retains a strong resentment against social privilege, a disdain for the primitive and rentier capitalists and strong commitment to egalitarian values. Its present welfare programme adopts an inclusive community development strategy and universal old-age pensions. All these constitute some kind of democratic socialism while others may describe it as being more social democratic.

Even in the face of globalisation, when socialism has fallen out of favour, the MLP can be seen intent to bring about transformation of a different kind in a situation where governments have to find answers to problems where no clear solutions exist and where there is no credible alternative strategy. All these policies are not free from criticisms from the unreconstructed left who could argue that welfarism had not brought qualitative changes or altered in any real way the unequal distribution of economic and social power.

In 1936 the MLP began life as a party for the working class and not of the working class, as the founder of the party was himself a democratic liberal. It has been a party of government for most of these 75 years. Starting with labourism as its ideology, it has adapted and incorporated new ideas to suit changing economic and social conditions. With the exercise of power, it adapted itself to the aspirations of the electorate and under Sir Seewoosagar Ramgoolam welfare socialism was on the ascendant. Controlling the commanding heights of the economy in the interests of the workers was pursued with varying degrees of success with the state still playing a developmental role.

For an electorate whose major concern remains economic security, the MLP has had to face the dilemma of often doing what was possible rather than what was desirable. Under the present leader of the party Navin Ramgoolam, the MLP has had to create a more efficient economy for the long-term benefit of the working class and the economic security of all Mauritians while keeping in mind social and economic priorities without reneging on the traditional ideals of social justice and equity. The MLP remains the genuine party of social reform, a strong proponent of universal welfare system and gender equality. It may certainly be criticised for the demerits of certain specific policies but on the other hand by placing the economy on a new developmental track for the long-term benefit of the workers it has won the full support and retained the confidence of its members and of its electorate to stay in power.

Dr SJ REDDI

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