The 1947 parliamentary elections in colonial British Guiana

By Tota C. Mangar

Colonial British Guiana in the immediate post-World War II era witnessed an intensification of constitutional and political struggle aimed at ensuring a greater measure of democracy and the attainment of internal self-government. This struggle which had begun at a much earlier date was accelerated after 1945. Elected representatives within the colonial state were previously prepared to accept their colonial status in return for a certain measure of constitutional and political flexibility and a greater degree of economic development.

It was clear that nationalist politicians were beginning to demand internal self-government to be followed by complete political independence. Colonial demands, at the time, coalesced around a number of pressing issues including the need to have elected representatives enjoy a greater degree of authority in the Legislative Council, the urgent desire to have liberal francise and representative qualifications and a speedy passage to self-government. These concerns were perceived as pre-requisites to attaining economic development.

As a consequence of wartime extensions, the life of the local legislature as constituted after the 1935 general election was extended and there was an intense clamour for fresh elections immediately after the war.

However, because the last census was taken in 1931 and in view of the 1944 Franchise Commission Report and the growth in population, the electoral roll at the time was considered outdated. At the same time there was a limited liberalisation of the franchise qualification which led to a significant increase of the electorate from 9,514 in 1935 to 59,193 in 1947. The majority of the newly registered voters were wage earners throughout the country which at the time was divided into fourteen constituencies or electoral districts. Taking all factors into consideration the colonial administration decided to hold elections on 24 November, 1947.

Two quasi political parties contested the 1947 General Elections. The first was the British Guiana Labour Party under the leadership of Dr Jung Bahadur Singh and Dr JA Nicholson and prominent trade union leaders, Hubert Nathaniel Critchlow and Ashton Chase. This party was formed in June, 1946 primarily to contest the election. Exploiting the trade union credentials of a few of its leaders it claimed to represent the working people. The party was at best, a broad and fragile coalition of forces professing opposition to both British colonial polity and the former upper, middle class conservatives who served in the local legislature.

In its manifesto the British Guiana Labour Party advocated immediate changes in the constitution of the colony to provide for 24 members elected on the basis of adult suffrage, the abolition of the nominated seats and the attainment of full self-government within a minimum period of five years. It supported a programme of land preparation and the immediate distribution of available lands to the landless. Drainage and irrigation, potable water extension schemes, an improved health service with special provisions for the rural poor and an aggressive house-building programme were among the chief concerns of this party.

The second proto-party was the Manpower Citizen’s Association Party which was formed in February, 1947. Named after the sugar union from which it drew its membership and, depending primarily on the support of sugar workers it represented, this party also claimed to represent the working class. It advocated the nationalisation of key industries, the expansion and improvement of the transportation and communication sectors, drainage and irrigation network and the creation of land settlement schemes.

A third element was that of independent candidates. Among the 31 independent candidates facing the electorate four were drawn from two small political groups: the Political Affairs Committee (PAC) and the Women Political and Economic Organisation (WPEO). These two organisations owed their origins to the political activism of Dr Cheddi Jagan and Mrs Janet Jagan (both subsequently became presidents of independent Guyana). The WPEO was essentially a protest organisation located in the city of Georgetown while the PAC, though not deliberately divorcing itself from the urban middle class dialogue, undertook the organisation and political education of the British Guianese working people. It established political discussion groups throughout the colony but was best organised and strongest in Georgetown and on the East Coast Demerara.

The British Guiana Labour Party contested 13 of the 14 seats or constituencies while the MPCA Party fielded seven candidates, most of them members of the union’s executive. Since neither the PAC nor the WPEO conceived of themselves as a full-fledged political party neither contested the elections. They did however, support the independent candidacy of Dr Cheddi Jagan and Mr HJM Hubbard of the PAC and Janet Jagan and Frances Van Battenburg Stafford of the WPEO.

The results of the 1947 general elections make very interesting reading. Of the 14 members elected, five were successful Labour Party candidates, one from the MPCA Party and the rest were all independents. The relative success of the Labour Party was attributed, in part, to the assistance received from the Grenadian anti-colonial firebrand, Theophilus A. Marryshow, who travelled to Guiana to celebrate the anniversary of the then British Guiana Labour Union. He seized the opportunity to canvass on behalf of the Labour Party which was undoubtedly the better organised and more concerned of the groups.

A notable feature of the 1947 elections with seemingly wider and more lasting implications was the role of the church which exploited its collective influence in an urban constituency virtually unaffected by the recent reform in the franchise qualifications. The church mobilised its international resources and imported the anticommunist crusade in the colony.

The other disturbing feature surrounding the elections was the exploitation of ethnic differences for political advancement. In the urban constituency many Labourites pursued sectional voting preferences with undisguised vigour while in the rural constituencies both the MPCA Party and some independent candidates pursued a similar policy with identical enthusiasm.

A significant development at this election was the success of Dr Jagan, as an independent candidate. He contested the Central Demerara constituency under the “first past the post system” and was victorious in spite of the limitation of the franchise due mainly to high property and income qualification. In his victory speech he quite modestly and prophetically declared “the people have won. Now the struggle will begin”. Indeed, his long, passionate and dedicated struggle for the people and nation really began then. At the age of 29 he became the youngest representative in the Legislative Council at the time. The stage was therefore set for Dr Jagan to emerge as the architect of Guyana’s independence movement.

Of added significance was the fact that the post-election Legislature was dominated by several newcomers. These were Dr Jung Bahadur Singh, Hubert Nathaniel Critchlow, Dr JA Nicholson, Theophilus Lee, Dr Cheddi Jagan, WOR Kendall, Daniel Debidin, Rev AT Peters, Captain JP Coglan and CV Wright. Victorious candidates Dr GM Gonsalves, CP Ferreira, W Phang and John Fernandes represented the old brigade.

It was not surprising that the local nationalist struggle was to enter a far more militant stage in the post-1947 period with the twin demands of adult suffrage and full internal self-government gaining prominence.

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