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Part one of a History of the Labour Party: The road to Labour Representation

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Part one of a History of the Labour Party : The road to Labour Representation

The History of the original Labour Representation Committee, by Jon Lewis

The British Labour Party, officially formed in 1906, was a late developer. On the continent, mass workers' parties, most under some sort of Marxist leadership, had existed from the 1860s. From the outset, the British Labour Party was steadfastly reformist, geared to gradual reform of the worst abuses of capitalism rather than over-throwing it. Despite the fact that both Marx and Engels spent much of their later lives In Britain, in no major capitalist country except the United States was the Influence of Marxism weaker. Not only was Marxism weak but the forces in favour of an independent working class political party were weak too. Why was this?  

The root cause for the late development of a working class party in Britain as well as its reformist polities when it was formed, lay in the special nature of 19th century British capitalism.  

Around 1850 Britain, the pioneer capitalist nation, entered a period of marked expansion, based primarily on the export of goods to developing capitalist nations such as America. For nearly three decades after 1850, British capitalism was "in the happy position of living in a world in which an expanding market and ever increasing profits seemed to be a law of nature." (A.L. Morton and G. Tate).  

But side by side with Britain's economic expansion there developed inside of the British working class a mood of quiescence, even servility towards the ruling class. In contrast to the great revolutionary workers struggles of Chartism in the 1830s and 40s, the decades after 1860 witnessed the disappearance of an independent working class outlook in the field of politics.  

There were good material reasons for all this. Quite simply the profits which accrued from Britain's industrial monopoly allowed the bosses to improve the conditions of whole sections of the working class. As Engels noted, English workers '"gaily share in the feast of England's monopoly of the world market and the colonies."  

However while all workers gained some benefit from this monopoly (between 1850-1875 real wages rose by a third) the lion's share went to the skilled workers, the "labour aristocracy". This "labour aristocracy" made up some 15% of the working class as a whole. Its wages were as much as four times those of unskilled workers. Conscious of its greater earnings and special position at the top of the working class, the labour aristocracy tended to be both socially and politically satisfied with capitalist society.  

The labour aristocrats were organised in craft unions, and thus dominated the labour movement as a whole. These craft unions excluded the great mass of unskilled workers. Whilst British capitalism was expanding, the craft union proved to be a rewarding field for class collaboration. In trade union matters the leaders of the craft unions, labour aristocrats to a man, sought to promote industrial harmony and minimise class militancy. The views of William Allen, secretary of the Amalgamated Society of Engineers, were typical: "We believe that all strikes are a complete waste of money, not only in relation to the workers but also the employers." (Emphasis added-WP). Class collaboration and class peace necessarily spilled over into the field of politics.  

After a radical phase in the 1860s which led to the formation of the TUC and the Reform League Agitation the union leaders settled for an extension of the franchise which was far short of the universal suffrage. With the passage of the Reform Act of 1867, at most 30% of adult males in urban working class constituencies got the vote. Yet this enfranchisement satisfied the Labour aristocracy for the rest of the century. With the passage of the Trade Union Act of 1871 the unions settled down as a political appendage of Gladstone's Liberal Party.  

The Trade Union Congress itself was inevitably impregnated with this Lib-Labism as it was called. In 1874 the first of a generation of trade unionists entered parliament as Liberal MPs. These men, as Frederick Engels pointed out, “ceased, to be workers’ candidates and turned themselves into bourgeois candidates."  

Thus the period 1860-80 was one in which the working class lacked an independent class outlook. The upper strata of the working class, the labour aristocracy, had become bourgeoisified and acted as a conduit for bourgeois ideas into the working class. Indeed, so far had this infection of bourgeois ideas proceeded that Engels was moved to remark that "The English proletariat is becoming more and more bourgeois, so that this most bourgeois of all nations is apparently aiming ultimately at the possession of a bourgeois aristocracy and a bourgeois proletariat as well as a bourgeoisie."  

The great mass of the British working class played no role either in trade unionism or in politics. Yet the conditions for this slumber to be broken were maturing. The onset of the Greet Depression in 1874 ended the golden high noon of British Capitalism. The Great Depression itself was a direct result of Britain losing its monopoly of world trade. Rival capitalist powers such as America and Germany were beginning to catch up. As Engels had foreseen, the loss of Britain's monopoly position would undermine the hold of the labour aristocracy and its pro bourgeois politics. When this happened, he predicted, there would be “socialism again in England” Although the rise of Imperialism would give the labour aristocracy a new lease of life, something Engels could not have been expected to anticipate, the intensified period of class struggle which followed the Greet Depression was to see the revival of British socialism, the spread of trade unionism to the un-skilled workers and towards the formation of the Labour Party.  

During the Great Depression the working class experienced the highest unemployment levels for forty years. Even the privileged labour aristocracy had come under attack. In one year alone the Amalgamated Society of Engineers had lost 13% of its membership. Taking advantage of changed labour market conditions, employers had ruthlessly intensified exploitation.  

New Unionism
A mild economic recovery in the 1880s allowed the bitterness and frustration of the working class to be translated into action. A wave of strikes followed. In 1888 there were 517 strikes involving some 120,000 workers. By the next year this had increased to 1,121 strikes involving 350,000 workers.  

Out of this wave of militancy arose the "New Unionism". In contrast to the old exclusive craft unions, the New Unions were large general unions of the unskilled. Between 1888-92 trade union membership doubled to include nearly two million workers. The New Unions tended to be more militant than the old craft unions and would prove to be a powerful lever in wrenching apart the alliance between the Liberal Party and the trade unions. However In this period of increased militancy, even the old craft unions were forced to take up a more militant stance.  

But perhaps the most important consequence of the Great Depression was that it had shown that the capitalist class had become "unable to manage the immense productive system of this country" (Engels) and that a Liberal employer when his profits were squeezed was as bad as any other. Nor were these lessons lost on the British working class. An advanced minority of workers turned to the establishment of socialist organisations.  

As early as 1881 Engels, in a series of articles in the Labour Standard had been urging the formation of an independent workers party in Britain based on the trade unions: "At the side of, or above, the unions of the special trades, there must spring up a general union, a political organisation of the working class as a whole...” Engels realised that in Britain it was necessary to take the fight for a workers party into the unions - indeed to get the unions to break with the Liberals and take in hand the fight for a workers party.  

Engels hoped that by leading such a struggle revolutionary socialists could win the independent workers' party to the Marxist programme. Unfortunately, the first Marxist organisations to originate in Britain, the Social Democratic Federation and the Socialist league, proved both unable to understand, and unwilling to implement Engels’ tactic. 

The Social Democratic Federation (SDF) founded in 1884, had its origins in a grouping of radical workingmens’  clubs called the Democratic Federation. The programme of the latter was a mix of old style Chartism and left Liberalism. The man responsible for winning it to socialism was Henry Mayers Hyndman, the "Father of British Marxism". No more curious figure could be imagined for this role.  

Hyndman himself was the son of a rich merchant and started his political life as a Tory. He became attracted to Marxism after reading Capital. Hyndman's understanding of Marxism always remained narrowly "economic" end therefore incomplete. He accepted the internal contradictions of capitalist economy led to economic crisis. Sooner or later one of these would lead to a decisive collapse.  

In 1889, for example, Hyndman wrote in the SDF's paper Justice: "A very, very few years in any case must bring us to another economic crisis. … That is why Social Democrats should never cease to point out to workers that this very collapse, if they educate themselves and make ready in earnest to make an end to the class war, will enable them to take hold once and for all of the great means and instruments of production and transport…..” 

Hyndman and the SDF did involve themselves in the unemployed agitation of the 1880s, perhaps because they saw in this the imminent collapse of capitalism. Yet their greatest weakness lay in their attitude to the trade unions. The SDF was resolutely hostile to them until late in the 1890s.  

The 1889 Manifesto of the SDF declared that in the victorious outcome of the class struggle the “trade unions as they now are cannot hope to participate”. 

At one level this was understandable. The old craft unions continued to be bastions of the pro-Liberal labour aristocracy. However the New Unions were beginning to understand the need for an independent workers party and pressurise the old unions in this direction. The possibilities this opened up for Marxists were tremendous. But in turning in back on the trade unions, the very bed-rock of working class organisation, the SDF showed itself to be hopelessly sectarian. The SDF's sectarianism was to prove to have important consequences for the formation of the Labour Party.  

Preaching on the sidelines
By failing to develop a socialist policy for trade unions, by failing to take up the struggle for a mass working class party based on and supported by the unions, Hyndman and the SDF left themselves little to do except preach Marxism. To limit oneself to propaganda in the midst of a powerful revival of working class struggle was the height of folly. Hyndman’s lectures on Marxist economics and the inevitable collapse of capitalism remained abstract. He turned the SDF into a sect preaching on the sidelines. Worker militants learnt Marxist economics but had to guide themselves when it came to the actual class struggle. As Engels commented the SDF did not know how "to fasten on to the needs of the people."  

Yet if the SDF stood aside from the struggle others did not. The SDF's sectarianism opened the spontaneous movement of the working class to deeply opportunist currents.  

By the fate 1880s there was a powerful movement inside the working class for a party which would carry on in the political sphere the struggle the unions had started. The bitter struggles of the New Unions, such as the Great London Docks Strike of 1889 (incidentally led by SDF members in clear opposition to the party's policy) continued to weaken the hold of Liberal ideas on the working class. Independent labour organisations such as the Bradford Labour Union were starting to spring up all over the proletarian heartlands of Britain. In Lancashire and Yorkshire a bewildering variety of organisations sprang up. The brief "Labour Church Movement" saw working class chapel-goers split away from the hold of Methodism.  

The I.L.P. 
Finally in 1893 the Independent Labour Party was formed. It represented an important advance for the working class and Engels greeted it with approval. He urged Marxists dissatisfied with the sectarianism of the SDF to fight for their politics within the new party. Yet the number of Marxists in Britain who did not owe allegiance to the SDF were tiny and unable to influence the direction of the ILP. Consequently the ILP bore the political imprint of its founder and leader, Keir Hardie.  

Hardie, a miner and then a Miners Agent, produced a paper The Miner in the struggles of the 1880s. In 1889 he changed its name to the Labour Leader and helped found a Scottish Labour Party. The sole consistent thread of Hardie's politics was the need for a separate Parliamentary Party representing Labour. He never fully understood or sympathised with Marxism. His, and the ILP's outlook was summed up in the statement: “The ILP aims at the creation of a Co-operative Commonwealth founded on the socialisation of land and capital. Its methods of realising its objects are to educate the community in the principles of socialism and to secure the return to Parliament and to all elected bodies of members representative of its principles.” 

Hardie remained throughout his life besotted with the idea that parliamentary representation was the method par excellence of achieving Socialism. To this end Hardie was to tailor his socialist principles, such as they were. In particular, he was willing to adapt to the Lib-Lab union leaders and to the non-conformist religious background of the emerging Labour Movement of Northern England. This led him to denounce the idea of class struggle and to argue that socialism was "practical Christianity".  

"The propaganda of class hatred is not one which can ever take root in this country. Mankind in the main is not moved by hatred but by love of what is right." Clearly, this “ethical” socialism, the means of righting wrongs, owes everything to Methodism and nothing to Marxism. Moreover it leads right back to subservience to the interests of the bosses. It makes Labour's independence purely organisational. Since Hardie's "socialism" was to be achieved by the steady accumulation of reforms, strictly on the parliamentary road, this allowed for endless compromises with the Liberals.  

Since the ILP had little to guide it getting MPs elected to Parliament except a distant prospect of socialism sometime in the future, it soon found itself dependent for its ideas and programme on the middle class socialists of the Fabian Society.  

The Fabians 
The Fabian Society had been formed in the same year as the SDF - 1884. Its leading lights Sidney and Beatrice Webb. Bernard Shaw and a number of other self-consciously middle-class intellectuals. They early on rejected Marxism and the whole conception of class struggle. Its outlook is well summed up in a statement of policy issued in 1896: "The Fabian Society is perfectly constitutional in its attitude; and its methods are those usual in political life in England…. It sympathises with the ordinary citizens desire for gradual, peaceful changes as against revolutionary conflict with the army and police, and martyrdom. It recognises the fact that Social Democracy is not the whole of the working class programme and that every separate measure towards the socialisation of industry will have to compete for precedence with numbers of other reforms. It therefore does not believe that the moment will ever come when the whole of socialism will be staked on the outcome of a single General Election or a single Bill in the House of Commons as between the proletariat on one side and the proprietariat on the other. Each instalment of Social Democracy will only be a measure among other measures.... ".  

Since socialism would come on the instalment plan and since no class, let alone the "crude and ignorant" workers would bring it about, the Fabians logically opposed the formation of a separate Labour Party. Their policy was that of permeating the existing parties - Liberals and Tories with socialist ideas or rather with projects for socialist measures. Thus until 1906 they worked on the London County Council with the Liberals in a "progressive Party". At every step the working class took towards political independence the Fabians were to be found urging the working class not to do it.  

In this they did not succeed. But they did influence the content of the ILP's politics. And it was the ILP that put its stamp on the Labour Party from the outset.  

Typically sectarian
Yet there was nothing inevitable in this. If the SDF had implemented Engels' tactic, Marxists could have won the political leadership of the ILP. But instead in typical sectarian fashion, the SDF refused to participate in the formation of the ILP.  

Proving at least consistent, the SDF decided to display its sectarianism at an even more critical point in British working class history. An economic slump in the 1890s furnished the conditions for a renewed capitalist offensive that was to culminate in the Taff Vale Case of 1901. In the space of a few years, all the legislation protecting trade unions the bosses had so magnanimously handed out in the period of capitalist prosperity, were wiped out. Since the Liberal Party was impotent to stop this attack, hardly surprising given that its backbone was the very employers leading the offensive, the trade union leaders reluctantly moved to form an independent workers' party. The 1899 TUC narrowly passed a resolution to convene a special congress "to devise ways and means for the securing of an increased number of Labour members in the next parliament."  

A year later this special congress, the Labour Representation Committee, was convened and over 250,000 trade unionists were affiliated to it. At the Conference held in London on 27th and 28th February 1900 the SDF proposed a resolution that the "representatives of the working class movement in the House of Commons shall form there a distinct party based on the recognition of the class war and having for its ultimate object the socialisation of the means of production, distribution and exchange."  

The ILP delegates opposed this with a resolution "in favour of establishing a distinct Labour Group in Parliament who shall have their own whips and agree upon their policy, which must embrace a readiness to co-operate with any party which, for the time being, may be engaged In promoting legislation in the direct interest of Labour.” 

The ILP motion was carried by 53 votes to 39. The chronic parliamentarianism of the ILP's position is obvious with its nod in the direction of the Liberals. "Independence" would be purely organisational. The SDF's resolution was much more principled and at least they sought to win the Labour Party to socialism. The ILP delegates vote as they were to do up to the First World War against any commitment of the Labour Party to socialism. The SDF's mistake was their sectarianism and tendency to give ultimatums to the mass organisations of the working class. A year on from this conference they presented the same resolution and when it was again rejected they walked out. This exit occurred just at the point that the Labour Party was about to "take off" in terms of affiliations to it by the unions. Once again the SDF absconded from the arena of class struggle just when it was needed.