SOCIALIST HISTORY SOCIETY
SOCIALIST HISTORY OCCASIONAL PAPERS SERIES
THE FORMATION OF THE LABOUR PARTY –
LESSONS FOR TODAY
(original ISBN of printed version: 0 9523810 8 7)
1. The history of labour representation
This short essay has three main purposes. Firstly, it seeks to join in the celebration of the formation approximately one hundred years ago of the Labour Representation Committee as the forerunner of the Labour Party and to set out the sequence of events that led to that significant development. Secondly, it draws attention to, and discusses the relationship between ideas and the orientation of the trade union movement. This relationship was of fundamental importance in the formation of the Labour Representation Committee. Thirdly, it suggests that the experience surrounding the formation of the LRC and the early development of the Labour Party has relevant lessons for today’s labour movement.
The first part of this essay looks briefly at the background to, and the circumstances surrounding the formation of the LRC. The story has already been told in detail by many authors, such as G D H Cole and Henry Pelling.1 I hope this pamphlet will encourage readers to consult these works.
A concern about the need for parliamentary representation as a political weapon for workers’ interests had deep roots in the history of the British labour movement. It dated from long before the formation of the LRC. The Chartist movement, for example, which emerged in the second half of the 1830s and developed with wide support from the new industrial working class, had a programme entirely centred on the need for parliamentary reform. The six points of the Charter, it will be recalled, were manhood suffrage, voting by ballot, annual parliaments, equal electoral districts, the payment of MPs, and the abolition of property qualifications for MPs. Chartism was a movement that expressed the protest of the working class against the cruel exploitation of early capitalism but it put forward its political demands exclusively in terms of parliamentary reform.
This emphasis on parliamentary reform was undoubtedly influenced by the success of an earlier social movement culminating in the passing of the Reform Act of 1832. The benefit of this success was not extended to the working class. It widened the franchise to the middle class of the towns who owned the new industries and it gave increased parliamentary representation to the urban areas. The lesson was, however, that political influence in British society could be shifted by parliamentary reform. The failure of the 1832 Reform Act to bring any benefit to the working class contributed to the development of trade union organisation and struggle in the immediately succeeding years but the aim of more ambitious parliamentary reform was never submerged.
After the Chartists
There is not sufficient space to describe the many attempts made after the decline of Chartism to revive the movement for workers’ representation and parliamentary reform. The important point to note is that the formation of the LRC many years later at the turn of the century was the culmination of many different efforts following the decline of Chartism. At the same time it was the beginning of a qualitatively different development. This qualitative change, however, emerged with many of the features of earlier years.
In the 1860s reform organisations existed in different industrial areas and attracted working class support. It was also a period in which, despite periodic industrial depression and continuing exploitation, the living standards of many workers were rising. Capitalism was strengthening its grip and Britain claimed to be the ‘workshop of the world’.
Eric Hobsbawm has described one of the social consequences of the further industrialisation of Britain between 1840 and 1895 – after the earlier phase centred on the textile industries – in the following terms:
‘The second consequence of the new era, it is therefore evident, was a remarkable improvement in employment all round, and a large-scale transfer of labour from worse to better-paid jobs. This accounts largely for the general sense of improvement in living standards and the lowering of social tension during the golden years of the mid-Victorians, for the actual wage-rates of many classes of workers did not rise significantly, while housing conditions and urban amenities remained shockingly bad.’2
The 1860s also saw developing pressure from the unions for legislation on a wider range of issues, including safety, employment contracts, the right of trade union organisation, the protection of trade union funds and the extension of the franchise. All these demands required parliamentary action for their fulfilment. The Reform Act of 1867, which extended the franchise to sections of the male urban working class, came not from the Liberals but from Disraeli’s Tory Government. It was followed by significant social reforms. The Tories, with their main power base in the countryside, sought to widen their support against the Whigs and the Liberals by introducing reforms likely to win sympathy among the working class.
In 1867 a number of leading trade unionists issued an appeal for the direct representation of ‘Labour in Parliament’. The appeal not only included the long-standing demands for the extension of the franchise and parliamentary reform but also put forward a programme of claims affecting working class interests. It was, however, in no sense a socialist manifesto.
In a General Election in the following year two trade unionists and a cooperator stood in support of the appeal for labour representation. None was elected. In 1868 the Trades Union Congress was formed. It was an indication of the thinking of the trade union leaders at that time that the elected executive of the TUC was known as the Parliamentary Committee. It was not until many years later that this title was changed to what is now known as the General Council.
Labour Representation League
In 1869 there was yet a further attempt to promote labour representation. It was known as the Labour Representation League and it included among its leaders a number of prominent trade unionists. Its objective was to promote the registration of working men as voters and to secure the return of qualified workers to Parliament. There was, however, no suggestion that it should form an independent party. Indeed the leadership of the League emphasised that it would also, where necessary, recommend support for candidates from other classes that had studied labour problems and proved themselves friendly ‘to an equitable settlement of the many difficult points which it involves’.3
When the LRC was formed in 1900 it traced its descent in its first annual report from the Labour Representation League of some thirty years earlier. It described the League as ‘essentially a Trades Union Congress offshoot’ which had failed in its efforts ‘to get its candidates recognised by the managers of either political party’ (i.e. the Liberal or Conservative parties) and had been forced into three-cornered contests.4
Cole said of the Labour Representation League that it started practically without a programme and that it was singularly vague about the causes its candidates were to support.5 He doubted whether some of the leaders of the League wanted it to be a powerful body. They certainly had no intention of allowing it to become an instrument of the policies of the more militant George Potter (formerly a leader of the London building trade workers) or of the International Working Men’s Association, associated with Karl Marx.
The Labour Representation League sought to put forward its own candidates in a couple of by-elections but failed to get Liberal support. The candidates were withdrawn. In a by-election in Southwark, with a large working-class vote, the Labour Representation League persisted and, though the Liberal Whig candidate withdrew just before the poll, the result was a victory for the Tory candidate.
In the 1874 General Election there were fourteen candidates of the Labour Representation League. Two were elected to Parliament, Alexander Macdonald for Stafford and Thomas Burt for Morpeth. Both were miners’ officials and, though both were elected with Liberal support, they can be regarded as the first Labour MPs in British history. They were both re-elected in 1880 and were joined by Henry Broadhurst, the secretary of the Parliamentary Committee of the TUC. Broadhurst was elected with Liberal support at Stoke-on-Trent, a two-member constituency.
In the mid-1870s the Labour Representation League made no secret of its wish to be associated with the Liberal Party. In a manifesto it stated:
‘We have ever sought to be allied to the great Liberal Party, to which we, by conviction belong. If they have not reciprocated this feeling, the fault is theirs, and the cause of disruption is to be found in them and not in the League…’6
Thus the formation and activity of the Labour Representation League in no way represented an assertion of the independence of labour representation from the party of capitalism. That struggle had still to come. The declarations of the Labour Representation League were indicative of the very limited political outlook of British trade unionism in the 1870s and 1880s.
By the time of the 1885 General Election – in which Gladstone was again elected as Liberal Prime Minister – the Labour Representation League had been allowed to wither but trade union representation in Parliament was increased by the election of Lib-Labs. There were now eleven of them, of whom six were miners. One of the trade unionists, Henry Broadhurst, was given a junior post in the government and thus became the first representative of labour to hold government office. With the exception of the year 1885-86 Henry Broadhurst acted as secretary of the Parliamentary Committee of the TUC from 1875 to 1889.
Though the trade unionists in Parliament were little more than a voting appendage of the Liberal Party, occasionally applying pressure on specifically labour issues, the trade union movement in industry found itself in a succession of disputes with employers in the 1870s and 1880s.
The nature of the disputes varied from year to year as the economy moved between periods of economic growth and recession. Nor were all areas of employment affected at some time or another by strikes or lockouts. It would be wrong to give the impression that the 1870s and 1880s were years of uninterrupted struggle and militancy. On the other hand, the reality of the conflict of class interests was present and was beginning to bring into question the wisdom of tying labour representation to the Liberals.
In the first half of the 1880s a new socialist movement began to take root. It was not confined to a single organisation. There was a Labour Emancipation League in East London, and there were small groups, usually including foreign workers, meeting as social-democrats in London discussion clubs. There was also a group of Christian socialists organised in the Guild of St. Matthew. The best known of these early organisations was the Democratic Federation, founded in 1881. By 1884 it had adopted a socialist programme and become the Social Democratic Federation. Its leader was H M Hyndman, a Cambridge graduate from a wealthy family. Another source to challenge the existing social order was a book, Progress and Poverty, by an American, Henry George. It influenced, among others, the young Tom Mann, who said that he ‘devoured’ it.7 It led him to start a society for the discussion of social questions while he was an engineering worker at Thorneycroft’s in Chiswick. The importance of these various groups was not in the number of their adherents but in the way in which they influenced individuals who were later to play an important part in the movement for independent labour representation.
By the mid-1880s debates on independent labour representation were becoming a regular feature of the TUC. Resolutions in favour of working-men’s candidates for Parliament were sometimes passed but in the main the idea was that trade unionists should seek adoption as Liberal candidates. There were some who favoured adoption either by the Liberal Party or the Tory Party. At the 1887 TUC, Keir Hardie, a new delegate attending the congress for the first time on behalf of Ayrshire miners, supported the minority who wanted not only working-class candidates but also a separate party and programme.
In 1888 Hardie, who was then 32 years of age, stood as an independent third-party candidate in a by-election in Mid-Lanark. Hardie had originally been put forward as a miners’ candidate for adoption by the Liberals. The Liberals turned him down and even the Labour Electoral Association, which was associated with the TUC, sought to persuade him to stand aside. Hardie refused. In the election he polled 617 votes against 3,847 for the successful Liberal candidate. The Conservative came second with 2,917 votes. In his election address Hardie wrote: ‘Why is it that in the richest nation in the world those who produce the wealth should alone be poor? What help can you expect from those who believe that they can only be kept rich in proportion as you are kept poor.’8
Hardie’s role in the eventually successful effort to establish an independent party appealing to working-class interests and with substantial trade union support was very considerable indeed. It was not that at the outset he proclaimed a clear socialist message. On the contrary he emerged as a workers’ candidate seeking Liberal support but prepared, when this support was refused, to give priority to the independent interests of workers. His embracing of socialism developed in the ensuing battle of ideas. Moreover, he articulated his developing views by reference to current problems affecting working-class people and in language likely to be understood by them.
At the 1888 TUC the delegates again debated the issue of labour’s independence of the other political parties and again Hardie took a prominent part, this time in cooperation with John Hodge of the Scottish Steel Smelters. The advocates of independence were heavily defeated.
Also in 1888, the Scottish Labour Party was formed with Hardie as its secretary. His biographers have emphasised that this new party was not explicitly socialist in its programme. Kenneth Morgan, for example, says of the programme that it ‘was largely a mirror image of advanced radicalism…’. It included proposals for adult suffrage, the payment of MPs, ‘home rule all round’, the disestablishment of the church, a graduated income tax and free public education. Demands of special interest to labour included an eight-hour working day, national insurance and wage arbitration courts. The programme also gave special emphasis to proposals for land reform, offering an appeal to Scottish crofters and land tenants.9
The Scottish Labour Party was not a major influence in Scotland. It was torn by differences of view about relations with the Liberals. Hardie himself still showed on occasions an inclination to seek the support of the Liberal Party for labour candidates. This usually ran into opposition from local Liberal organisations. The Scottish Labour Party was eventually overtaken by the formation of the Independent Labour Party in 1893.
Before the formation of the ILP Hardie continued to argue at the TUC for independent labour representation. At the 1889 congress he moved that the secretary, Henry Broadhurst, be removed from office because he had allegedly supported bad employers at elections. Hardie’s proposal was overwhelmingly defeated. At this same congress strong opposition was shown by some trade union leaders to the attempts of the advocates of labour independence and of socialism to extend their influence in the trade union movement.
The growing influence of the advocates of labour independence and of socialism was demonstrated at the 1890 congress of the TUC. The militant trade union upsurge of the previous two years, which had seen the organisation of the gas workers and the London dock strike, was reflected in the decisions of the TUC. Many resolutions were carried for social reforms dependent upon state or municipal action. The debate continued throughout the first half of the 1890s and by then the independents and the socialists (often, but not always, the same delegates) were a significant influence.
At the 1892 General Election, even before the formation of the ILP, labour independents secured their first victories, though these victories were not quite the triumph for the principle of labour independence which its advocates might have wished. Keir Hardie was elected for West Ham South but he faced only a Conservative opponent. Similarly John Burns was elected for Battersea but he too was opposed only by a Conservative. Joseph Havelock Wilson was elected for Middlesborough against opposition from both a Liberal and a Liberal-Unionist.
These three independent labour MPs were by no means united in their attitude to the Liberals or in their views on social policy. John Burns was sympathetic towards the Liberals and Havelock Wilson was not a socialist. The most left-wing of the three was Hardie. He was strongly committed to the independence of the labour movement, was very much concerned with current working-class demands and had moved towards an acceptance of a wider socialist objective.
In addition to the three independent labour MPs elected in 1892 other trade unionists were elected as Lib-Labs. They supported the newly-elected Liberal Government.
Although Hardie, Burns and Havelock Wilson had won parliamentary seats at the 1892 General Election it could be argued that an even more significant vote for labour independence was secured by Ben Tillett at Bradford. He faced both Liberal and Conservative opponents and, though he came at the bottom of the poll in a close contest, his vote was within 600 of the successful Liberal candidate.
The Independent Labour Party
At the 1892 TUC Hardie convened a meeting to consider what further might be done to further the cause of labour independence. The outcome was a decision to call a national conference of delegates from local organisations with a view to forming a labour party independent of the Liberals and the Conservatives.
This conference met in Bradford in January 1893 and decided to form a new party, to be known as the Independent Labour Party. Hardie was elected as the chairman of the new organisation, a fitting tribute to his pioneering role and to his independent stance as the MP for West Ham South. Most of the more than 120 delegates came from the north, and more than one-third from the textile towns and villages of the West Riding of Yorkshire. At that time the movement for labour independence had stronger support in the textile district of the West Riding than anywhere in Britain. The wool textile industry had faced a major depression and most of the mill owners were supporters of the Liberal Party rather than the Conservative Party. Bradford had also been the scene of a major dispute at the Manningham Mills in 1890-91 from which a number of trade unionists had emerged as strong advocates of labour independence.
The ILP adopted a programme designed to bring together the various groups favourable to labour independence. First and foremost it was to be a party drawn primarily from the ranks of labour, committed to the interests of labour and independent of the Liberals and Conservatives. It included in its programme a range of demands of direct and immediate concern to workers, including an eight-hour day and the abolition of sweated and child labour. It endorsed the traditional radical political demands for adult suffrage and the payment of MPs. It fixed its flag firmly to the socialist mast by expressing its support for the collective ownership of the means of production.
The formation of the ILP in 1893 was thus a historic step forward towards the establishment of a labour party, based primarily on workers’ interests and with a socialist objective. The one missing but vital factor was that in the 1890s it still did not enjoy majority trade union support. Even less could it claim to enjoy the support of a substantial section of the working class, except in very limited areas. At the founding conference of the ILP not a single national trade union responded to the invitation to be represented.
At the 1895 General Election there were 28 ILP candidates. All were unsuccessful, including Hardie. He lost his seat in West Ham South even though there was no Liberal candidate. The Conservative candidate was elected, securing 4,750 votes against Hardie’s 3,975. ILP candidates polled reasonable votes in a number of contests in the West Riding of Yorkshire, in a small number of Lancashire constituencies and in Newcastle, Bristol and, Leicester. The only other London constituency contested by the ILP was Fulham, where its candidate secured 191 votes. There were seven ILP candidates in Scotland but the highest vote, for Robert Smillie in Glasgow Camlachie, was only 691.
In the 1895 General Election Burns and Havelock Wilson, unlike Hardie, were both re-elected. By then, however, both had ceased to be associated with the movement for labour independence. They were for all practical purposes part of the Lib-Lab group of MPs. The more left-wing sectarian organisation, the Social Democratic Federation, also fought four seats, all of them unsuccessfully, though in Burnley Hyndman secured nearly 1500 votes.
By 1895 the dominant group in the TUC leadership were also mustering their forces against the militants associated with the movement for labour independence. Many of the advocates of labour independence were the trade union activists who were influential in the earlier upsurge of trade union organisation among the unskilled and semi-skilled, and, moreover, they were self-proclaimed socialists. The reaction of the ‘old guard’ of the TUC was made easier by defeats suffered by the unions of the unskilled in disputes during the depression of 1892-93.
New standing orders for the TUC, deliberately introduced by the dominant leadership of the TUC in 1895, resulted in the exclusion of Hardie as a delegate on the grounds that he was not ‘working at the trade’, nor was he by then a full-time official of his union. Trades council delegates were also excluded. Many of them were supporters of labour’s political independence. The block vote was also introduced.
For a time it seemed that the movement for labour’s political independence based on trade union support had suffered a serious reverse. The ILP did not appear to grow significantly, although it conducted vigorous activity, particularly at the local level, and was able to secure the election of municipal councillors in certain industrial areas.
The counter-attack of the employers met resistance in the mining industry, in engineering and on the railways. The trade union struggles conducted in these industries encouraged trade union active members to think again about the rights of labour and the need for independent representation. In 1899 both the Scottish TUC and the British TUC adopted resolutions calling, in effect, for new efforts to secure an increased number of labour MPs.
Between the 1895 General Election and 1900 the ILP fought four by-elections and in all of them advanced the claim for the political independence of labour. Three of these by-elections were in the West Riding of Yorkshire and one was in Scotland. Tom Mann was the candidate both at North Aberdeen and at Halifax. Keir Hardie was the candidate at East Bradford and Pete Curran was the candidate at Barnsley. The ILP candidates were thus not only supporters of labour’s political independence. They were also candidates with trade union experience – and they were socialists.
At North Aberdeen Tom Mann received 2,479 votes to 2,909 in a straight contest with a Liberal. It was a good result for the ILP. At East Bradford Keir Hardie received 1,953 votes against 4,921 for a Conservative and 4,526 for a Liberal. At Halifax, Tom Mann, who again stood for the ILP, received 2,000 votes against 5,664 for a Liberal and 5,252 for a Conservative. At Barnsley the ILP candidate, Pete Curran, received 1,091 votes against 6,744 for the Liberal and 3,454 for the Conservative. All these votes demonstrated that the ILP was not a negligible electoral force, but they also showed that the majority of the working class, even in strong industrial areas, still gave their support either to the Liberals or to the Conservatives. Nevertheless, the activity of ILP members within the unions was a vital factor in winning the TUC decision which led to the formation of the LRC.
TUC decision – 1899
The TUC’s decision in 1899 to establish a Labour Representation Committee was passed by a far from unanimous vote of 546,000 to 434,000. The sponsors of the motion were the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants and the National Union of Dock Labourers. The main opponents were most of the district unions in the mining and cotton textile industries. This was a serious deficiency because mining and cotton textiles were two industries in which the unions were relatively strong.
The successful resolution called upon the leadership of the TUC to invite cooperative, socialist, trade union and other workers’ organisations to join in convening a special congress ‘to devise ways and means for securing the return of an increased number of labour members to the next Parliament’.10 The terms of the resolution expressed both the strength and the limitations of its supporters.
The resolution was focussed on parliamentary representation. It was clearly based upon the assumption that Parliament could and should be used as an instrument for advancing workers’ interests. To this extent it could be said that the resolution saw the political way forward in constitutional terms. There was no suggestion that Parliament might be little more than a ‘talking shop’ and no substitute for workers’ organised strength in the workplace. That argument was to become more familiar later with the growth of syndicalist ideas. Nor was there even a hint of revolutionary objectives.
Labour Representation Committee
At the founding conference of the LRC, held at the end of February 1900, the number of trade union members represented was approximately 545,000. In addition, the ILP were represented on a membership of 13,000, the Social Democratic Federation on 9,000 and the Fabian Society on 861. The two largest unions represented at the conference were the Amalgamated Society of Engineers with 85,000 members and the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants with 54,000 members. The significant absentees were most of the district organisations of the miners and most of the organised cotton textile workers. The number of members represented at the 1899 TUC was 1,200,000 and at the 1900 TUC, 1,250,000. Thus fewer than half the membership of the TUC were represented at the founding conference of the Labour Representation Committee.
At the founding conference of the LRC it was reported that the Cooperative Union, who had been invited to attend, were not present because they were ‘moving in the direction of Parliamentary representation in their own particular way’.11 The ILP, the SDF and the Fabian Society had, however, accepted the TUC’s invitation and had worked with the Parliamentary Committee of the TUC in drawing up the arrangements for the conference.
At the conference a number of motions were debated. The outcome was the adoption of resolutions expressing support for ‘working-class opinion being represented in the House of Commons by men sympathetic with the aims and demands of the labour movement’ and whose candidatures were promoted by organisations within the constitution of the LRC: and the formation of a distinct Labour Group in Parliament, with their own Whips and policy. This latter resolution went on to say, however, that the Labour Group ‘must embrace a readiness to cooperate with any party which for the time being may be engaged in promoting legislation in the direct interest of labour…’.12
The proposition that that there should be a distinct Labour Group in Parliament with its own Whips and policy was moved by Keir Hardie as an amendment to a motion from the SDF insisting that the ‘distinct party’ of labour should be ‘based upon a recognition of the class war’.13 In his speech proposing the amendment Hardie was clearly seeking maximum support among the affiliated trade unions and did not want the unions to be divided on ‘recognition of the class war’. He left no doubt, however, of his intention that the proposed new Labour Group should be independent of other political parties. He said:
‘It aimed at the formation in the House of Commons of a Labour Party, having its own policy, its own Whips, and acting in all that concerned the welfare of the workers in a manner free and unhampered by entanglements with other parties’. Hardie said that he wanted to avoid ‘the scandal which in the past had pained earnest men on both sides of seeing trade unionists opposing socialists and vice-versa’. Keir Hardie’s amendment was carried.14
Other decisions of the founding conference confirmed that the LRC should be a federal organisation, drawing together affiliated trade unionists and members of socialist organisations, including in particular the Independent Labour Party, the Social Democratic Federation and the Fabian Society. The new LRC was not committed to a socialist objective, though the inclusion of socialist organisations implied that it was not anti-socialist. The main guiding principle was to seek independent labour representation. It was hoped that in due course cooperative organisations would become affiliated to the LRC.
Between the founding conference of the LRC in February 1900 and the 1906 General Election, after which the successful candidates endorsed by the LRC began to describe themselves as belonging to the Labour Party, the labour movement moved forward towards more effective political independence. Even so, it co-existed with continuing strong sentiment among many workers and trade unionists in favour of the Lib-Labs. Many trade unionists supported cooperation wherever possible with the Liberals with a view to securing local Liberal support for candidates drawn from the trade union movement.
Taff Vale judgement
The decisive factor in strengthening the trend towards support for independent labour representation came not from debate on ideology but from the need to do something about the judgement of the courts concerning the Taff Vale railway strike of 1900. In 1901 the highest court in the land, the judicial bench of the House of Lords, held that the funds of the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants were liable for damages arising out of a strike of its members. This decision reversed the hitherto common understanding of the law – at least for the previous 30 years – that trade unions could not be sued for damages in such circumstances.
The crucial importance of the Taff Vale judgement was that it enfeebled by legal decision the ability of trade unions to protect and advance their members’ interests by strike action. In effect it took away the right of workers to withdraw their labour in an industrial dispute. There was little point in having a nominal right to strike if, when exercising this right, the workers’ trade union became liable for damages. This simple but fundamental lesson on the need to secure independent labour representation for a change in the law did more than anything else between 1900 and 1906 to attract trade union support for the LRC.
At the first annual conference of the LRC held in February 1901 – as distinct from the founding conference held a year earlier – the affiliated trade union membership was reported as 339,579. At the founding conference unions with a membership of more than 550,000 had been represented. The biggest union at the founding conference, the Amalgamated Society of Engineers, was not represented at the 1901 conference. There was still no sign of the big increase in affiliated membership which was to take place before the next General Election in 1906.
The House of Lords’ judgement on the Taff Vale case was given in July 1901, approximately six months after the LRC conference. It had the immediate effect of awakening sections of the trade union movement to the need for political representation to help change the law and restore trade union immunity against such claims for damages. At the 1902 conference of the LRC it was reported that the affiliated trade union membership had risen by more than 115,000 to 455,000.
During the following two years support for the LRC among the unions continued to grow. At the 1903 conference it was reported that the affiliated membership had jumped to 847,315, far exceeding the number represented at the founding conference in 1900. For the first time the majority of trade unionists affiliated to the TUC were now also affiliated to the LRC. Among the new affiliates was the Association of Lancashire Textile Workers. With an affiliated membership of 103,000 it was the largest union affiliated to the LRC. The Amalgamated Society of Engineers, with 84,000 members, also returned to the fold. At the 1903 conference there were 65 trade unions affiliated to the LRC. By 1904 this number had risen to 127. In the course of one year the number of affiliated Trades Councils more than doubled from 21 to 50.
By the time of the 1904 conference of the LRC, held in Bradford, it was reported that the affiliated trade union membership had again risen significantly; this time to 956,025. The number of affiliated trade unions had risen from 127 to 165 and the number of Trades Councils from 50 to 76.
By now the LRC had attracted the support of the main textile unions in Lancashire. Most of the organised miners were, however, still outside the LRC, though the Lancashire and Cheshire Federation of Miners, who were represented at the founding conference in 1900 and then dissociated themselves from the LRC, had rejoined in 1904.
At the 1905 conference of the LRC it was reported that there had been a slight reduction in the affiliated membership. This was due, however, to a change in the funding arrangements. It did not indicate any real decline in support.
An immense task
Despite the growth of support for the Labour Representation Committee from among the unions there was still an immense task to win the wider working class for independent labour political action. At the 1900 general election only two LRC candidates were successful. They were Keir Hardie at Merthyr and Richard Bell, of the railwaymen, at Derby. At Merthyr Hardie won one of two seats. The other seat was won by a Liberal. There was no Conservative candidate but there were two Liberal candidates. At Derby, where there were also two seats, Bell was elected together with a sole Liberal candidate against two Conservative opponents. Eleven other LRC candidates, mostly fighting under ILP auspices, were defeated. At the same General Election five miners were elected from mining areas but none of them fought under the banner of the LRC. Three other Lib-Labs were also elected. Two independent socialists who contested the 1900 General Election were defeated, including George Lansbury, who lost to a Conservative at Bow and Bromley.
The 1900 General Election was admittedly fought under difficult conditions for the LRC. Most of its candidates were opposed to the Boer War at a time when ‘jingo’ sentiment was being aroused among the population. The result of the election, which represented a setback from the advances secured by the ILP in the General Election of 1895, was a measure of the task facing the political labour movement even in predominantly working class areas.
Despite the uphill task before it, the LRC made some significant electoral advances between the 1900 and the 1906 general elections. It had three by-election victories, most notably in Barnard Castle where Arthur Henderson narrowly defeated both Liberal and Conservative opponents in a three cornered contest. Arthur Henderson came from the Ironfounders’ Union, and the LRC report presented to the 1904 conference said that Arthur Henderson’s victory had given a great impetus to the movement.
The 1906 General Election
At the 1906 elections the Liberal Party swept to victory. A Conservative majority of 74 in the previous parliament was replaced with a Liberal plus Labour majority of 271, including no less than 30 Labour Members. There were also 83 Irish Nationalist MPs, giving the new Liberal Government a potential overall majority on most issues of 354. In addition to the new MPs elected as Labour candidates there were also 24 successful trade union candidates, including 13 miners, who fought as Lib-Labs.
Behind this electoral victory of the Liberals and the advance registered for Labour candidates were a number of important social changes. Britain’s leading role in world trade was being challenged by other industrialised countries, notably Germany. Germany itself, however, went through a serious depression in the early 1900s. In Britain there was a rise in unemployment. All kinds of remedies were being suggested, including the introduction of tariff protection in place of free trade, the introduction of controls on immigration, the curbing of drunkenness, and measures by local authorities to reduce the working hours of their employees to not more than eight per day. The mood in Britain was also affected by the outbreak of unrest in Germany and the 1905 revolution in Russia. In the aftermath of the Boer War there was also serious questioning about the motives of imperialism. For trade unionists there was the very important issue of the challenge represented by the Taff Vale judgement of the House of Lords.
Sections of the ruling circles in Britain, principally around the Liberal Party, saw the need in these circumstances to offer and to pursue a programme of social reform. In this way, as they saw it, they would be better able to maintain their economic power whilst accommodating to some extent the demands for social improvements being made by the developing working class movement.
The 1906 election was fought by the Liberals on a programme of support for free trade and sympathy towards limited social reform. This programme won a wide response, not least among the enfranchised section of the urban working class. Many workers feared that tariff protection would lead to a fall in international trade and British exports and would thus result in increased unemployment. Similarly, they feared that protection would lead to higher prices for imported food and thus bring about a rise in living costs.
Although the Labour Party, as it was now called, registered a marked advance in the 1906 General Election it did so very much in the shadow of the Liberals. Of the newly elected 30 Labour MPs no less than 24 had not had to face a Liberal opponent in the election. In addition to the Labour Party candidates there were also 13 candidates who fought independently under the auspices of the Social Democratic Federation or as socialists. They were all defeated.
The results for Labour were significantly different in various regions of Britain. In Lancashire, where nearly all the Labour candidates had straight fights with the Conservatives, 13 out of 16 were elected. It was an indication of the strength of feeling on the issues of free trade and social reform. In the industrial districts of Yorkshire, on the other hand, the majority of the Labour candidates and all the independent socialist candidates had to face both Liberals and Conservatives. In Scotland there were no Liberal-Labour partnerships and only two Labour candidates were successful.
Thus although the 1906 General Election marked a significant step forward for Labour the struggle for real political independence and, even more, for a commitment to socialism was far from over. It was the socialists, in their various identities, who had led the struggle for an independent political labour movement. However, the winning of majority trade union support had been secured around the issue of the right of trade unions to undertake strike action without liability for claims for damages from employers.
The commonly-held notion that it was the unions that formed the Labour Party contains an important element of truth but it is not the full truth. Without the ideas of the socialists and the ideological struggle they conducted in earlier years, both inside and outside the unions, there would have been no independent political party associated with the working class movement.
2. Labour representation and socialism
The efforts made before 1900 to win support for the idea of an independent political party of the labour movement have already been outlined. These efforts did not cease, nor did the arguments about a socialist commitment cease, with the formation of the LRC. They found expression in one form or another at every annual conference of the LRC up to the time of the 1906 General Election when the LRC transformed itself into the Labour Party.
The controversy was not only between the socialists and the non-socialists. It was also between those, identified mainly with the Social Democratic Federation, who wanted to proclaim a commitment to socialism and the waging of the class struggle, and those, around Hardie for example, who were also socialists but who felt that it was essential to ‘keep on board’ the trade unions with more limited or even different objectives.
At the 1901 LRC conference, the ILP sponsored a number of successful resolutions in favour of municipal trading, adult suffrage, opposition to imperialism and opposition to the continuation of the Boer War. The ILP was not successful with a motion calling for the transfer of private monopolies to public control and the substitution of cooperative production for competitive production for profit. The conference declined to take a decision on the motion by carrying a proposition for the ‘previous question’. It did so after an amendment had been moved by the SDF urging that candidates who did not recognise ‘the class war as the basis of working class political action’ should not be supported by the LRC.15
At the same conference a successful resolution was moved by James Sexton on behalf of the Dock Labourers, recognising the need for the unions to use political power to defend their existence but deprecating ‘the introduction of mere party politics into the trade union movement’.16 It was an indication that some active trade unionists had more limited political objectives than the socialists. Nonetheless, they continued to support the LRC.
In the late summer of 1901 the conference of the SDF decided to withdraw from the LRC. This took place at the very time that more unions were beginning to support the LRC as a result of the Taff Vale case. It was a sectarian mistake which separated a group of socialists from the effort to create an independent federal party of the working class movement.
At the 1902 conference the LRC reported that there had been controversy surrounding a by-election at Dewsbury because of the insistence of the SDF in putting forward its own candidate, whereas the ILP and the local Trades Council wanted agreement on an LRC candidate. The ILP and the Trades Council finally decided to take no part in the contest. Harry Quelch stood for the SDF and polled 1597 votes. The LRC said that the vote would have been ‘materially increased’ had the forces of labour been united.17
The ILP attempted but failed at the 1902 conference of the LRC to amend a motion calling for trade union and labour support for the LRC by including a reference to socialist organisations. The defeat of this attempt may have been a reaction on the part of some trade unionists to the withdrawal of the SDF but it was also an indication that many unions had not yet been won for a socialist commitment.
At the 1903 conference of the LRC there was an even clearer indication of the divided views of unions about a socialist commitment. Jack Jones of the West Ham Trades Council moved a motion expressing support for the replacement of capitalism by a ‘system of public ownership of all the means of production, distribution and exchange’. The motion was seconded by the ILP but on a card vote was defeated by 295,000 to 291,000. Another motion, moved by the Electrical Trades Union, calling for ‘the recognition of the class war’ and the socialisation of the means of production, distribution and exchange was defeated on a hand vote by 86 to 35.18
By the time of the 1904 conference of the LRC, when trade union support for independent political action had reached a new high level, there was something of a change in mood among delegates. The chairman of the conference, John Hodge of the Steel Smelters, said in his opening address that ‘the success of our movement has been phenomenal’. He referred to ‘our socialist friends’ as part of the total membership, spoke of the need for a newspaper ‘which would voice our opinions and be under our control’, and contrasted the position of labour in the House of Commons with ‘the strength, power and determination’ of the labour movement outside Parliament.19
Arthur Henderson MP, on behalf of the Ironfounders, moved a successful resolution calling for a compulsory levy on all affiliated societies for a Parliamentary Fund. Philip Snowden, on behalf of the ILP, moved a successful resolution which pointed out that tariff protection would not help working people but would enable the landlords to extract a heavier toll than ever from the labour of the nation. The resolution also pointed out that under free trade the position of the working class remained deplorable. It concluded with a call for ‘the complete emancipation of labour from landlordism and capitalism’.20
The West Ham Trades Council again sought to commit the LRC to overthrow the capitalist system and to replace it with a system of public ownership of ‘all the means of production, distribution and exchange’. The ‘previous question’ was moved but was defeated. On a hand vote the resolution of the West Ham Trades Council was lost by 413 votes to 300.
At the 1905 LRC conference there was an important debate on a proposal to confine the LRC to affiliated trade unions. This would have meant the exclusion, among other organisations, of the ILP. This proposal was submitted by the General Union of Carpenters and Joiners and its spokesman argued that if the LRC were confined to unions it would attract more support. It brought a vigorous reply from George Barnes of the Amalgamated Society of Engineers. He said that the purpose of the proposal was to ‘chuck out’ the socialists. He was opposed to it.
Barnes emphasised that that before the LRC was formed the socialists had everywhere been raising their voices in preparation for the formation of such a body. He particularly singled out for praise the members of the ILP. The Carpenters’ resolution was overwhelmingly defeated.21
In another debate Harry Quelch, who was now representing the London Trades Council, objected to the LRC being represented at an international parliamentary group of socialists. Quelch, who was himself a socialist and supporter of the SDF, felt that it was inconsistent for the LRC, which he said had repudiated socialist principles at home to pose as a socialist organisation on the continent. Keir Hardie replied by pointing out that it had been accepted that bodies representing the need for independent working class organisation would be eligible to participate. On a card vote the criticism voiced by Quelch on behalf of the London Trades Council was rejected by 600,000 votes to 194,000.
The 1905 conference of the LRC also debated the extent of the independence of the labour movement. The issue was not, however, clearly posed in a motion and amendment tabled for debate. The debate was notable for speeches from Hardie and Snowden, both speaking on behalf of the ILP, appealing for strict independence from both the Liberal Party and the Conservative Party. Some of the other speakers in the debate suggested that in the absence of an LRC candidate in a constituency support might be given to a candidate not associated with the LRC but who, nevertheless, had shown sympathy for trade union policies on specific issues. Hardie urged that the delegates should ‘not mix up their movement with either Liberalism or Conservatism’ but should ‘magnify and glorify the policy of independence’.22
The debate reached an inconclusive end. The ‘previous question’ was moved as a way of avoiding a decision. It was carried on a show of hands, but with many delegates abstaining.
The 1905 conference was notable for two decisions expressing international solidarity. The first was with Russian trade unionists in their demands for elementary political and social rights, ‘so long and so shamefully withheld from them by the Government of the Czar’.23 Only a few days earlier demonstrators in Russia, including striking workers, had been killed following repression by the authorities. The conference of the LRC decided that a fund should be opened to help the strikers and the widows and orphans of those who had been killed. In another resolution the conference expressed support for German miners who were on strike.
Another significant decision taken by the 1905 conference was a commitment to public ownership. The successful resolution, moved by W Atkinson of the Paperstainers and seconded by Will Thorne of the Gasworkers, read as follows:
‘This annual conference of the LRC hereby declares that its ultimate object shall be the obtaining for the workers of the full results of their labour by the overthrow of the present competitive system of capitalism and the institution of a system of public ownership of all the means of production, distribution and exchange.’24
This resolution appeared to commit the LRC to the objective of socialism. But this decision should be considered in conjunction with the decision of the same conference to avoid a straight declaration of political independence. A delegate from the Amalgamated Society of Engineers had reminded the conference during the debate on independence that they should not forget that the bulk of trade union members were divided into Liberals and Conservatives. The 1906 General Election, though it marked a significant advance for Labour, demonstrated that the bulk of working class voters were still inclined to give their votes to other parties, particularly to the Liberals. Even when they voted for successful LRC candidates it was more likely than not that it was with the sympathy of the local Liberal Party.
The role of the socialists
The emergence in 1906 of the Labour Party (the name adopted by the group of MPs elected with LRC support) was the culmination of approximately 40 years of effort to secure labour representation in Parliament. The creation of a party of labour capable of winning representation in Parliament had been made possible by the support of a substantial section of the trade union movement following the judgement of the House of Lords in the Taff Vale case. In other words, experience of the reality of the hostility both of employers and the highest court in the land towards the fundamental human right of workers to withdraw their labour in an industrial dispute was the decisive factor in bringing change.
Nevertheless, such a change would not have been possible without the persistent advocacy of independent labour representation over a number of years by a minority, not only in society as a whole but also within the trade union movement. This minority, at least from the middle 1880s onwards, consisted predominantly of people who described themselves as socialists.
i. The ILP
Foremost among this group, though they did not establish themselves as a political party until 1893, were the members of the Independent Labour Party. A central role was played by Keir Hardie. The ILP articulated a preference for the independence of the political labour movement. This was in spite of the lack of strong theoretical or even practical coherence among its adherents, and the fact that some of its leaders were inclined to seek Liberal sympathy and support. It also expressed a commitment to socialism. It often did so in terms which emphasised the immorality of capitalism, for example the gross inequalities in society. This kind of appeal aroused a response from the Nonconformist working class of the northern cities.
Another feature of the ILP was that it unashamedly directed its appeal to the industrial workers. Among its leaders were people who had been drawn to the labour movement by their experience of trade unionism and industrial struggle. The ILP, throughout the early years of its existence, never lost its roots among industrial workers and among active trade unionists. It conducted vigorous propaganda, even though its official membership around the turn of the century was not more than about 13,000. The number of members that regularly paid their dues may have been even less.
There were also ILP leaders who continued to believe that wherever possible accommodation should be sought with the Liberals, and that policies should not be adopted that might alienate Liberal sympathies. The most prominent such leader was Ramsay MacDonald, whom the ILP successfully nominated as the first secretary of the LRC. MacDonald eventually succeeded to the leadership of the Labour Party, and became Prime Minister in the first Labour Government in 1924.
MacDonald was influential in ensuring that in the 1906 General Election a substantial number of LRC candidates, including some members of the ILP, did not have to face Liberal opponents. To this end, he conducted negotiations secretly with the Liberal leadership. It has been said that Keir Hardie himself had knowledge of these negotiations but did not object.
MacDonald could not have maintained his influence over so many years if his viewpoint had been repugnant to all others in the leadership of the ILP. The plain fact was that among the leaders of the ILP there were different views, ranging from left to right.
Lenin was highly critical of the ILP, though not of all its leading people.25 In 1912, for example, he wrote sympathetically of Fred Jowett, a former textile worker who became a Labour MP and eventually a Cabinet Minister, and had been associated with the ILP from its founding conference in 1893. Lenin also recognised that among the rank-and-file of the ILP were many who opposed the Lib-Lab inclinations of some of the leaders. Nevertheless, his view was that the ILP was ‘very frequently independent of socialism but dependent upon the Liberals’.26
This trend was reflected even more strongly in the Labour Party after 1906. It was reinforced in 1909 when the Miners’ Federation decided at long last to affiliate to the Labour Party. Most of the miners’ MPs, who were Lib-Labs, joined the Labour group in the House of Commons.
My own view is that the ILP, despite the weaknesses and equivocation of many of its leaders, played an important role in establishing the LRC in 1900. Without the ideas it helped to popularise – ideas about independent labour representation, criticism of the failings of capitalism and the importance of the industrial working class as a force for social change – the movement towards an independent political party based upon workers’ interests and committed to a socialist objective would have been even further delayed.
ii. The SDF
The SDF had originated in the Democratic Federation, founded in 1881 by H M Hyndman, a wealthy stockbroker who had been strongly influenced by Marx’s Capital. Unfortunately Hyndman interpreted his new-found beliefs in a dogmatic manner and was intolerant of any trend within the developing labour movement that he felt was not doctrinally pure. He had also offended Marx by presenting Marx’s economic ideas in a pamphlet, England for All (1881), without acknowledging their source by name. In a letter written in 1883 Engels described Hyndman as ‘an arch-conservative and arrantly chauvinistic but not stupid careerist, who behaved pretty shabbily to Marx’.27
In the very early stages of the LRC the Social Democratic Federation sought to commit the new organisation to an acceptance of the ‘class war’. It did not succeed. In August 1901 the SDF withdrew from the LRC and thus isolated itself from the growing number of unions that were being won for the idea of independent political action through the LRC.
Nonetheless, the SDF was important in the history of the Labour Party. Despite its sectarianism, the SDF helped to train numerous men and women who played an outstanding part in the development of the labour movement, nearly always on the left. It also contributed in large measure towards the early circulation of militant socialist ideas. Among those who at various times were identified with the SDF were Will Thorne, Tom Mann, George Lansbury and Harry Quelch.
At the 1895 General Election the SDF fought unsuccessfully in four seats. Its best vote was at Burnley, where Hyndman polled 1,493 votes against more than 5,000 each for a Liberal and a Conservative. Lansbury, who fought Newington Walworth, polled 203 votes. This represented less than 5% of the combined Conservative and Liberal vote. In the 1900 General Election, when standing as a socialist candidate in Bow and Bromley, Lansbury was again unsuccessful. On that occasion, however, he polled 2,558 votes against 4,403 for a successful Conservative. There was no Liberal candidate. At the 1906 General Election the SDF contested seven seats, but again without success. Their vote, however, showed a substantial increase. Hyndman narrowly missed being elected in Burnley, where he fought against a successful Lib-Lab candidate and a Conservative.
Among the rank-and-file of the SDF there was a significant body of opinion at various times in favour of unity with the ILP. It did not, however, secure majority support. The ILP was regarded as too compromised with non-socialists. However, in 1911 the SDF’s successor organisation, the Social Democratic Party, was joined by a breakaway group from the ILP and a number of independent socialists to form the British Socialist Party. Hyndman’s views on foreign policy were not popular in the BSP, and he was soon displaced from its leadership. In 1916 he was expelled from the BSP; that same year the BSP affiliated to the Labour Party.
iii. The Fabian Society
The Fabian Society was founded in 1883-84, at much the same time as the SDF. It was, however, a very different organisation. A very good summary of its early history and of the distinctive views that it advanced are to be found in Cole’s British Working-Class Politics, 1832-1914. The society was formed by a small middle-class group who advocated the public ownership of a wide range of services, much greater equality in society and the promotion of social welfare and what would now be called social security. They rejected revolution as a means of social change in Britain and instead urged that public support should be sought by the exposure of the failings of capitalism and the advocacy of carefully thought out measures of social reform. They were of the view that these necessary social reforms could be secured by persuasion within the existing institutions of society or by developing and changing these institutions.
The early Fabians drew much of their inspiration from the English Radical tradition. It has been widely accepted that they owed very little or even nothing to the ideas of Marx and Engels. This contention, however, was challenged in 1962 by A M McBriar. His examination of the evidence led him to the view that ‘the initial Marxist influence on the Fabian society is a reason why the Fabians took up a definitely socialist standpoint, why they did not content themselves with a left-wing Radical position.’28 Even so, the commitment of the Fabians to gradualism is hardly compatible with the dialectics of Marxism and its recognition of the relationship between quantitative and qualitative change. There is no question also that the early Fabians did not accept Marx’s theory of value.
G D H Cole, who had a very detailed knowledge of the history of the Fabian Society, said that the Fabians ‘were from the very beginning, above all else, collectivists’.29 This distinguished them from many of the exponents of the Radical tradition. On the other hand, one of the most influential of Radicals, Joseph Chamberlain, was as early as the 1870s a firm advocate of municipal ownership and enterprise, despite his success and wealth as a manufacturer. These ideas enabled him to initiate far-reaching municipal reforms in Birmingham. He was sometimes described as the father of municipal or gas and water socialism.
The early Fabians were not of one mind. There were differences between them. They never sought a large membership and their influence was gained largely as a result of the publication of informative and well-argued tracts. At various times many of the prominent figures in the ILP and later in the LRC passed through the ranks of the Fabian Society. The society supported the formation of an independent labour political party and was, for example, represented not only at the founding conference of the LRC but also, earlier, at the founding conference of the ILP. Nevertheless it was not prepared to sink its identity within any one political party.
In this short review of the organisations that initiated the formation of the LRC no reference has so far been made to other organisations that contributed to the growth of opinion for a politically independent labour movement and for socialism. In 1884 some critics of Hyndman within the SDF, led by William Morris, broke away to form the short-lived Socialist League. They included Eleanor Marx and Edward Aveling. Fred Jowett, later to become prominent in the ILP, was also involved.
An important influence in the 1890s in the spread of socialist ideas was the journal, The Clarion. It was founded in 1891 and the main inspiration behind it was the journalist Robert Blatchford. It was a weekly publication and it was a measure of the support it aroused that auxiliary organisations came into existence to promote its message. The best known were the Clarion Cycling Club and the Clarion Vans, both of which carried the socialist message from one area to another. Blatchford’s book, Merrie England, achieved the remarkable sale of more than a million copies.
3. The lessons for today
For today’s labour movement the first lesson to be drawn from the formation of the LRC in 1900 is of the importance of socialist ideas among those who are seeking change. The LRC was not committed to a socialist objective; its goal was independent labour representation. But the main advocates of independence and the main organisers of the movement for independence in the 1890s were socialists.
This was not an accident or a mere coincidence. The socialists wanted to establish an independent labour movement because they recognised that without independence the labour movement would continue to exist as an appendage of the two main political parties, the Liberal Party and the Conservative Party. The closest relationship had tended to be with Liberal Party, although but this had not precluded support for the Conservative Party by a few union leaders in special circumstances.
Most of the socialists in the years immediately before the turn of the century accepted that there would be issues on which they would take a view similar to the Liberals. However, they held that there was a fundamental divergence between socialists and Liberals on the need for a different kind of social system. The socialists believed that the elimination of periodic mass unemployment and gross inequality was impossible so long as the economic system was based upon the private ownership of productive resources and so long as the dominating motive of economic activity was the pursuit of private profit.
Thus independent labour representation was seen by socialists not as an end in itself but as an essential staging post on the road to an effective socialist movement with policies clearly distinguishable from the Liberals and the Tories.
A socialist commitment
Despite occasional successful resolutions in favour of the extension of social ownership it was not until 1918, with the adoption of Labour and the New Social Order, that the Labour Party finally formally asserted its independence and socialist commitment. By this time Keir Hardie, who personified in his own history the struggle towards independence and a socialist objective, had died. However, some Labour Party leaders, not least Ramsay MacDonald, were still influenced by the old ideas and were not committed to a socialist transformation of society.
Between 1906 and 1918 there were a number of contributory causes to the change in the orientation of the Labour Party. Immediately after 1906 the newly elected Labour MPs, with significant exceptions, found it difficult to differentiate themselves from the Liberals. The First World War, with its imperialist rivalries and enormous loss of life – and against which many socialists had warned – gave an impetus to radical social ideas and to the desire for change. The Russian revolutions of 1917, particularly the October Revolution, shook the world edifice of capitalism and opened a new era in world history.
Roots in the labour movement
The second lesson for the contemporary labour movement is that socialists should work and seek support for their ideas in all organisations where opinions and actions can influence the course of events. In other words, there should be no place for sectarian exclusion. This was the historic error of the SDF in 1901-02. In contrast in these early years the ILP had roots in the trade union movement and did not sever its links with organised labour. Experiences from the early life of Keir Hardie and the part played over many years by Tom Mann are particularly instructive. They knew how to link immediate issues of concern to working people with their longer-term social vision. In the case of Hardie his own progress was illustrative of the connection between the aspiration for independent labour representation and his growing conviction of the need for socialist commitment.
The third lesson to be drawn from the formation of the LRC is the need for conviction politics. Hardie and those who fought with him knew that they wanted independent labour representation as an instrument for immediate reforms within capitalism but also as a means for bringing about a change in the social system. They took account of opinion outside their own ranks, and this influenced their immediate policies. However, they did not submerge their commitment to socialism because of what they were told about the hostility of the majority of the public. Their publicity at its best exposed social evil and was persuasive, but had nothing in common with the false art of the modern ‘spin-doctor’, whose main purpose is often to deceive rather than to tell the truth about reality.
The fourth lesson is of the importance of democracy, both within society and within the labour movement. The LRC was concerned with winning representation in the institutions of the state and local authorities. Parliament was seen as a body through which it was possible to introduce social changes for the benefit of the common people. Hence Parliament should be elected by universal adult suffrage from equal electoral districts and its members should be paid so that eligibility was in reality open to all. This support for a representative parliament does not imply that democratic activity outside it is in some way in conflict with the notion of democracy. On the contrary, Parliament and extra-parliamentary activity are complementary. The early advocates of independent labour representation rightly saw the importance of trade unionism as an instrument for the advancement of workers’ interests. Parliamentary representation and activity outside it were both regarded as necessary.
The task today
The main task today, following the tradition of the men and women who contributed to the formation of the LRC, is to win the labour movement for policies that will serve the independent interests of working people and help lay the foundations of a socialist society. This is very different from the policy of the present Labour Government, which is to consolidate capitalism whilst avoiding some of the excesses of the Thatcher regime. New Labour is not a socialist party. The leaders of New Labour are continuing the politics of the SDP that broke away from the Labour Party in the early 1980s. The SDP was finally submerged in the Liberal Democrats but the ideas and policies of its founders are very similar to those now dominant in New Labour.
New Labour has introduced a number of changes to modify the harshness of the Thatcherite legacy. They include the national minimum wage, the removal of some of the provisions of the anti-union legislation, their replacement with new provisions affecting trade union recognition and employment rights, a scheme to promote youth employment, the lifting of the ban on trade union organisation at GCHQ, limited improvements for pensioners, more funds for education and the NHS and constitutional changes affecting the House of Lords and devolution for Scotland and Wales.
All this and other changes do not represent any kind of fundamental challenge to capitalism. They are no more – and in some respects a good deal less – than changes introduced by earlier governments in Britain that made no claim to represent the labour movement. The purpose of this kind of reform, though not to be rejected, is primarily to make capitalism more acceptable.
New Labour’s commitment to the consolidation of capitalism is shown by its decisions to extend private ownership and influence through the so-called Private Finance Initiative, affecting new hospitals and local services, through the introduction of private capital into London Underground and the partial privatisation of air traffic control. It is shown also by the role given to private firms in parts of the prison service and even in the public sector of education.
Whatever the limitations of the former Clause IV, part 4 of Labour’s constitution it contained a clear commitment to the extension of social ownership. It was replaced by a new clause that speaks of the ‘enterprise of the market and the rigour of competition’.30 This was a symbolic change to mark the abandonment of Labour’s traditional advocacy of a widening area of social ownership.
Not surprisingly, New Labour has done nothing to reverse the extensive programme of privatisation of Conservative governments between 1979 and 1997. All the utilities and enterprises privatised by the Tories remain in private ownership.
The pledge of New Labour not to increase the top rate of direct taxation, following the steep cuts introduced by the Conservatives, coupled with the continuing failure to do anything effective about the big increases in rewards given to the top ‘fat cats’ of industry and commerce has meant the perpetuation of the Thatcherite legacy of gross inequality. Indeed, inequality has continued to widen in Britain under New Labour. Millions of children, according to official figures, live in conditions of poverty.
The failings of the National Health Service are still the subject of widespread public comment. Despite increased funding there remains an acute shortage of resources for health care. Millions of pounds could be found for bombing Yugoslavia, and thousands of British troops can still be stationed overseas, but every discussion about the funding of the NHS and education is met by official warnings about costs. The education system in Britain is still grotesquely deformed by the division between the public and the private sectors.
Since New Labour came to office welfare reform has been seen not as a means of extending and improving social provision against the hazards of life, deprivation and poverty in retirement but as a way of saving money. Means-testing is being extended and the way is being prepared for an ever-increasing role for insurance companies and other private organisations.
On trade union rights, Tony Blair said before the last General Election that after the promised changes the law on industrial relations in Britain would remain the most restrictive in the Western world. How right he was! The main framework of the Tories’ repressive laws remain intact.
Within days of assuming office the government of New Labour abdicated responsibility for interest rates and handed over control to a committee of unelected bankers and academics with terms of reference that pay no regard to the level of employment. Britain’s manufacturing industry has continued to decline and the low level of investment in industry suggests that this decline will continue. On constitutional changes the signs are that New Labour’s preference will be for a second chamber with a substantial element of appointees. On voting systems they sought the views of a committee headed by the prominent Liberal Democrat, Lord Roy Jenkins. So far New Labour has dithered between one system and another.
On European Monetary Union the Government appears committed in principle to joining, with all the consequences that might have on employment. The rate of unemployment in Europe is higher than in Britain. The real restraint on the Government in relation to the single currency is the hostility of the majority of the electorate.
In international affairs New Labour has proved itself to be the most enthusiastic supporter of American policy for the expansion of capitalism throughout Eastern Europe. One instrument for this is NATO. New Labour’s bellicose support for the bombing of Yugoslavia marked its rejection of the Charter of the United Nations. NATO has become the focus of its policy.
New Labour is not a socialist party but within its ranks there are thousands of socialists. In the effort to change the policies of the labour movement the socialists of today need to act in the same manner as the socialists of 100 years ago. They must seek to extend their influence within the organisations of the labour movement. Events will provide the opportunities.
1 See e.g. G D H Cole British Working Class Politics 1832-1914 (Routledge, London, 1941); Henry Pelling, The Origins of the Labour Party (OUP, London, 1965). Shorter but, nevertheless, informative accounts are to be found in chapters of Clement Attlee’s The Labour Party in Perspective (Gollancz, London, various eds) and A L Morton and George Tate’s The British Labour Movement 1770-1920 (Lawrence & Wishart, London, 1956). Additionally, the reports of the foundation conference of the LRC and the early annual conferences up to and including 1905, were reprinted in one volume by Hammersmith Bookshop in 1967.
2 Eric Hobsbawm, Industry and Empire, (Penguin, London, 1975), p. 118.
3 Cole, op. cit., p. 50.
4 See Report of the Labour Representation Conference 1900, in The Labour Party Foundation Conference and Annual Conference Reports 1900-1905 (Hammersmith Bookshop, London, 1967), p. 31. (Pagination as in original reports.)
5 See Cole, op. cit., p. 53
6 ibid., p. 72.
7 Eric Hobsbawm Labour’s Turning Point 1880-1900 (Harvester, Brighton, 1974), p. 35
8 ibid., p. 118.
9 Kenneth Morgan, Keir Hardie: Radical and Socialist (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London, 1975) p. 34.
10 Cole, op. cit., p. 153.
11 Report of the Labour Representation Conference 1900, p. 9.
12 ibid., pp. 10-13.
13 ibid., p. 11
14 ibid., p. 12.
15 Report of the Labour Representation Conference 1901, p. 21.
16 ibid., p. 19
17 Report of the Labour Representation Conference 1902, p. 11
18 Report of the Labour Representation Conference 1903, pp. 35, 36.
19 Report of the Labour Representation Conference 1904, p. 30.
20 ibid., pp. 40, 41
21 Report of the Labour Representation Conference 1905, p. 45.
22 ibid., p. 49.
23 ibid., p. 40.
24 ibid., p. 52
25 See V. I. Lenin, Collected Works Vol. 18, (Lawrence & Wishart, London, 1968), p. 361
26 ibid., Vol. 19 (1963) p. 272
27 Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, Marx and Engels on Britain, (Lawrence & Wishart, London, 1954), p. 516.
28 A M MacBriar, Fabian Socialism and English Politics 1884-1918, (CUP, Cambridge, 1962), p. 8.
29 Cole op. cit., p. 121.
30 Quoted from revised Clause IV of Labour Party constitution.