The Living Wage and the pursuit of a ‘Revolutionary Policy’

A Socialist History Society Public Meeting with Speaker Ian Bullock author of Under Siege The Independent Labour Party in Interwar Britain took place on Saturday 16th March

A Report of the Meeting from Duncan Bowie:

Ian gave a talk based on his recent book, Under Siege, which was a history of the Independent Labour Party between 1918 and 1940. He focused on two aspects of the ILP’s history: the living wage campaign in the 1920’s and the development of a ‘revolutionary’ policy in the early 1930’s. The book’s title referred to the fact that in the 1920’s the ILP was under siege from the Labour Party which in 1918 had agreed a new constitution with individual membership (the ILP having previously been the main body for socialists who were not members of affiliated trade unions), while in the early 1930’s the ILP was under siege from the Communist Party. In both periods, the ILP had a continuing struggle to justify its continuation as a separate organisation. In the early 1920’s this justification was a role as a left pressure group within the Labour Party. The central focus was the development of a ‘living wage’ campaign seeking to move the Labour Party leadership of Macdonald and Snowden to a more radical position. The authors of the Living Wage report published by the ILP in 1926 were H N Brailsford, J A Hobson, Arthur Creech Jones and Frank Wise. The report, as well as advocating a minimum wage, also supported the introduction of family allowances and the nationalisation of the credit and banking systems. It also drew on Keynes’ under-consumptionist theory. While Macdonald, who had severed their ILP links, considered the proposals to be impractical, in Macdonald’s phrase ‘a programme of flashy futilities’ the proposals were promoted in Brailsford’s book Socialism for Today and were revived by the Socialist League in the mid 1930’s.
In 1926, James Maxton became chair of the ILP, taking over from Clifford Allen (who was to side with Macdonald in the 1931 crisis) and the ILP moved to a more radical position. In 1928, Fenner Brockway in a pamphlet Socialism with Speed argued for a two-year timescale for the introduction of the living wage. This pamphlet was a summary of the ILP’s Socialism in our Time manifesto. By 1929, the ILP MPs were in practice operating independently of the Parliamentary Labour Party. They promoted a private members bill advocating a living wage with a rate to be set by an independent commission, but this failed to make progress. With the collapse of the Labour Government in 1931, the ILP entered into a vigorous internal debate as to whether or not they should stay affiliated to the Labour Party. The ILP in effect split with the Lancashire and Scottish regional groups supporting continued affiliation but with a London based Revolutionary Policy Committee, led by Dr Carl Cullen and Jack Gaster supporting disaffiliation. The latter group was supported by John Paton, the ILP general secretary who wanted the ILP to replace the Communist Party as the main left-wing group and by the author and critic, John Middleton Murry, who was to publish a book on The Necessity of Communism in 1932. Brockway also supported the revolutionary perspective that parliament should be supplemented or even replaced by workers councils on the soviet model. So, in 1932, the ILP dis-affiliated from the Labour Party. All the authors of the Living Wage report resigned from the ILP and took on leading roles within the Labour Party, Creech Jones becoming Colonial Minister in the 1945 government. Brailsford was a leading member of the Socialist League. Wise died prematurely in 1933. Hobson died in 1940. In the late 1930’s, the ILP was little more than a rump, as the Revolutionary Policy Committee members joined the Communist Party. By then the ILP had moved to the left of the Communist Party with Brockway supporting the Workers Front in 1938 but opposing the Popular Front with the Liberals advocated by the Communist Party. The remaining four ILP members of parliament were all based in Clydeside. A special conference scheduled for September 1939, which was expected to lead to the dissolution of the ILP was abandoned with the outbreak of war, which the ILP, unlike the Labour Party, opposed. Four ILP’ers were elected MPs in 1945 and 1946:, Maxton, Campbell Stephen, John McGovern and James Carmichael, but by the 1950 general election , all had re-joined the Labour Party, together with other former ILP MPs, including Brockway and Jennie Lee.

Ian’s talk generated a vigorous discussion, including questions as to why the ILP disaffiliated in 1932, the relationship with the Communist Party, the activities of the ILP League of Youth and the ‘redshirts’ and the role of Trotskyites within the ILP in the later 1930’s.

Ian Bullock’s previous publications include the Democratic Ideas and the British Labour Movement, 1880-1914 (co-authored by Logie Barrow) and Romancing the Revolution: The Myth of Soviet Democracy and the British Left.