The Common Wealth Party was a Christian socialist political party founded in July 1942, by the alliance of two left wing groups: the 1941 Committee, supported by Picture Post and J. B. Priestley, Spanish Civil War veteran and Communist Tom Wintringham and the neo-Christian Forward March movement led by Liberal MP for Barnstable, Richard Acland.
It appealed to egalitarian sentiments and hence aimed to be more appealing to Labour’s potential voters, rather than voters leaning Conservative. Common Wealth stood for three principles: Common Ownership, Morality in Politics and Vital Democracy. Disagreeing with the electoral pact established with other parties in the wartime coalition, key figures in the 1941 Committee began sponsoring independent candidates in by-elections under the banner of the Nine Point Group.
Following the electoral success of Tom Driberg in Maldon with this support in 1942, there was a move to form the Committee into a political party, through a merger with Forward March. Led by Sir Richard Acland, Vernon Bartlett, J. B. Priestley and Tom Wintringham, the group called for common ownership, “vital democracy” and morality in politics. Its programme of common ownership echoed that of the Labour Party but stemmed from a more idealistic perspective, later termed “libertarian socialist”. It came to reject the State-dominated form of socialism adopted by Labour under the influence of Sidney and Beatrice Webb, increasingly aligning itself instead with co-operative, syndicalist and guilt socialist traditions.
Vernon Bartlett was elected as an independent in Bridgwater in 1942. Common Wealth intervention in by-elections allowed a radicalising electorate to return socialist candidates in Conservative heartlands, in Eddisbury, Skipton and Chelmsford. In the 1945 general election, Common Wealth held the Chelmsford seat, but the MP, Ernest Millington, joined the Labour Party in 1946. Before the 1945 election, Common Wealth had asked the Labour Party to let it have a free run in 40 seats, a proposal rejected by the latter. Acland joined the Labour Party as did Driberg. Bartlett kept his seat as an independent.
Very little has been written about Common Wealth. A 1968 PhD by Angus Calder has never been published. Vincent Geoghegan’s Religion and Socialism: Roads to Commonwealth is a study of four radicals who were involved in the party. The Common Wealth party had no significant impact after 1946 and was finally closed down in 1993.
“The age that is ending is based on competition between men and nations. It was the age of capitalism and monopoly, nationalism and imperialism. It has greatly increased the productive capacity of the world: built railways; grown cotton; dug coal. It has also built slums; grown hatred; dug graves for two generations of youth. It was not without value in its growth and flowering, but it is now outgrown and decayed. The beliefs and forms of authority that shaped it are today shackles on humanity.
Our proposals, we gladly admit, do not make sense in terms of the ideas of the City or the Foreign Office. They cannot be understood by those who think that if all men and nations pursue their own interests, universal prosperity and good will must result. Our programme is based on completely different ideas. We say that it is no use patching up a way of living that has changed into a way of death. We believe the British people will not turn back towards the old world; they will pioneer towards a new social order.
In this new social order:
Fellowship will replace competition as the driving force in our community.
Co-operation with our fellows, not the pursuit of self-interest, will be the driving force in the lives of men and women.
Life will come before property.
A society built on these principles will be inspired by vital democracy, a democracy which is a living freedom, not dead, formal or buried in red tape.
Work, responsibility and wealth will have to be shared according to the needs and abilities of all men, women and children. Today this means the common ownership of the great productive resources, with democracy in industry as well as in politics.
There will have to be security and equality for all citizens. There will have to be colonial freedom and an advance towards world unity.”