The Labour Party & The Plural Society

Mauritius Times – 60 Years Ago

The Labour Party is producing a series of policy pamphlets on colonial problems. The first was published on July 22, for presentation to the Labour Party Conference in October at Blackpool. It is entitled The Plural Society; the Party prefers the word ‘plural’ to the word multi-racial.’

The primary aim of the Party is defined: “to encourage the people concerned, in their political life, to forget race and colour and to think and act as human beings”. But, you may ask, what has the problem of the plural society to do with the British Labour Party? The answer to this natural question is given: “Because British Governments are formed by the respective British political parties, it is essential that these parties should recognise the problems of the plural societies and state clearly their politics for them.”

This the Party does. It says, “In the colonial territories, where Britain has direct responsibility and a strong influence, it is our primary duty to lay the foundations of full democracy… The peculiar problem of the plural society is not whether, but how, it should become fully democratic”.

This problem is, indeed, recognised as being the “major political difficulty in British colonial policy”. There are territories with weak majorities and powerful minorities; there are also territories with powerful majorities and weak minorities.

There is also the question which Socialists must face: is the Socialist belief in social justice, human dignity and democratic representation to apply only in Britain, or do we demand these fundamental tenets of Socialism for the colonies also? Do we not only demand them, but insist on them, for the colonies?

Plural societies are defined. They are simply “societies in which peoples of different racial origins live together”. Kenya has a plural society; so have the West Indian countries; especially Trinidad. Malaya and Mauritius have plural societies; also Tanganyika. Briefly, the pamphlet traces how the West Indies acquired their plural society: Negro slaves from West Africa, then Indians (indentured labourers for the sugar estates after the abolition of slavery) from Asia. There is reference to the “great resentment” roused in India by the system of indentured labour. In Malaya, the Europeans are numerically small but economically of outstanding importance; the Chinese moved south to mine tin, and now outnumber the Malays.

In Africa, plural societies contain Europeans, Africans (the indigenous races), Indians who came as indentured labourers mainly in connection with the construction of the railway from Mombasa into Uganda, and Arabs who are specially numerous along the coastal strip and who were the earliest immigrants, as they have a long history of trading along the eastern shores.

“Politically, economically and socially”, however, declared the pamphlet, “The Europeans have been the most important immigrants to Africa during the past hundred years.” Their influence and importance are out of all proportion to their small numbers. In some countries, they have abused their power: in South Africa, for example, and in Kenya. (In Southern Rhodesia, too, there are signs of a growing abuse of power). It is pointed out that though the Europeans had the experience and the knowledge to develop Africa, they could not have achieved anything without the cheap labour of the Africans — in other words the Europeans have enriched themselves at the expense of the natives.

Racial discrimination is dealt with. Race discrimination may have begun for economic reasons; but it has developed into a rigid colour bar which does not rely on any distinction except the colour of the skin. When Europeans first came to Africa, they had a higher standard of life than the natives, and the colour bar was introduced to preserve that higher standard. But, as the Africans and Indians and Arabs have begun to achieve higher social status and higher standards of life, the colour bar has not been broken down. Even the most highly educated Indian or African in Kenya cannot meet Europeans in Mombasa’s hotels; he is considered inferior even to the least educated European — solely on account of his skin not being white.

The colour bar is the greatest obstacle to democratic progress in Africa; it affects not only purely social and political relationships, but also such things as residence and land-ownership. In the West Indies, except for the Bahamas, race discrimination has almost disappeared, thanks to two things; inter-marriage, which has not debilitated the white races, as some gloomy prophets forecast it would; and cricket. (In believing that cricket has helped the development of the West Indies, I am in company with Sir Hilary Blood). But in Kenya, the colour bar is clung to desperately by the white settlers, who have segregated schools, hospitals, hotels and so on.

Constitutional set-ups, and the pattern of constitutional progress, show that it is possible for a plural society to develop political institutions that do not reflect racial differences. The pamphlet refers especially to Malaya, Singapore and the West Indies; and also considers various territories — Fiji, British Guiana, Mauritius and the East and Central African territories — where the difficulties have not yet been all overcome. In British Guiana, the disintegration of the PPP. (since the suspension of the Constitution) into two factions has given rise to the “danger that the two sections of the party may tend to represent the two major racial groups”. This would of course, be a tragedy, for the PPP was a multi-racial party; it was in its comprehensive appeal to all races in Guiana that its danger (to the Tories and the businessmen) lay.

About Mauritius, the pamphlet says:

“All the people of Mauritius are immigrants, or descended from immigrants, for the island was unoccupied when the French took it early in the 18th century. There are twice as many Indians as Europeans, Africans and Chinese put together. Adult suffrage is restricted only by literacy qualifications, but some electors have more than one vote through the additional business premises qualification. Instead of single-member electoral districts, there are five-member electoral districts from which nineteen representative are elected to the Legislative Council.

“As elected members are given greater responsibility in Government, the main problem is to find a satisfactory method of election. In discussions on the new constitution, fears have been expressed that Hindu Indians may gain complete control and that the minority groups may be denied representation. It has now been suggested by the British Government that some form of proportional representation might be used to protect minority rights.

“At present the Mauritius Labour Party has a majority (of elected seats – Peter Ibbotson) in the Legislative Council. The Labour Party is mainly composed of Hindu Indians. Yet membership of the Party is open to people of any race, and members of other races belong to it and represent it in the Legislative Council. The Government’s proposal, therefore, is opposed by the Mauritius Labour Party, who point out that the use of proportional representation in this context would encourage racial consciousness by stimulating the growth of racial parties. The electorate would increasingly tend to think communally. If, moreover, proportional representation were extended to the Executive Council (as it is – P.I.), the whole basis of government would be racial rather than political. In this kind of plural society, therefore, proportional representation would frustrate the efforts of such organizations as the Mauritius Labour Party to lift politics above racial groundings.”

After examining the problems of the plural society and declaring that it intends to establish democracy in the colonies, the Party outlines its policy. It refers to the British system of political democracy based on universal adult suffrage with single-member constituencies and the simple majority. It refers also to alternative methods of voting, including proportional representation. After considering these, the Labour Party has come to two conclusions: that the colonial peoples themselves must decide indeed have the right to decide, which form of Constitution best suits their particular requirements; and that “the best way of giving the people of each colony the opportunity of deciding what final form of Constitution they desire is to provide for the election of representatives, by universal adult suffrage, on the principle of one person, one vote.”

Additionally, the Party declared that “the common electoral roll is indeed the vital test of political democracy in the plural society”. Where there are racial discriminations, the party declares that they must be ended — schools, hospitals, clinics, and so on must be open to all races, in fact as well as in theory. Colonial Education Departments must accept the principle, and work on it, that education at all levels should be interracial.

(This would mean a reorientation of ideas in the Mauritius Education Department, for whatever the theory may be, secondary education in Mauritius is in fact conditioned by racial influences, even though these racial influences stem from economic circumstances and not from blatant racial discrimination and a colour bar).

The whole existence of the plural societies is a challenge to the British people, declares the Party. Britain has a responsibility to establish democracy in the colonies, and to retain ultimate control until conditions for the establishment of full democracy exist. South Africa is the awful warning of what can happen if control is handed over without any guarantees of democracy continuing. White settlers in Kenya are agitating for Colonial Office control to be removed — this is dangerous, and could lead to the tragedy of South Africa being repeated in East Africa if Colonial Office control were to go altogether.

In dealing satisfactorily with the problem of the plural societies, the Labour Party (which means, of course, the next Labour Government, which will surely take office in 1960 if not before) will “have made a contribution to the future peace of the world and shown in practice the historic significance” of its colonial policy.


* Published in print edition on 10 August 2018

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