Saturday, 23 January 2016

Working-class politics and the rise of the Labour party

The creation of a working-class electorate posed challenges to the Conservatives and the Liberals, in Europe as well as Britain. In the last three decades of the nineteenth century Socialist parties were founded on the Continent. The Marxist-inclined German Social Democrats, founded in 1875, were the most influential of these parties. 

Socialist ideas met with more resistance in Britain. Most British Socialists were not working class and were frequently hostile to the unions. Henry Hyndman, the Cambridge graduate who, along with Eleanor Marx, founded the Marxist Social Democratic Federation (SDF) in 1883, openly despised what he saw as their narrowly reformist agenda. Other middle-class socialists were William Morris, leader of the Socialist League and the anarchist Edward Carpenter.  The Fabians, founded in 1884, were middle class intellectuals (George Bernard ShawSidney and Beatrice Webb, Hubert Bland) with little contact with trade unionism. (Bland's wife is much better known!)

However, these were a minority. The British trade union movement was less ideological than its continental counterparts.


The 'new unionism'

For a while it looked as if working-class voters and activists would support the Liberals. However, Liberal constituencies were slow to adopt working-class candidates. The Liberals were also reluctant to adopt socialist policies such as the eight-hour day, being preoccupied instead with issues such as land control and public control of denominational schools rather than with workers' rights.


The end of the nineteenth century saw the rise of the 'new unionism', trade unions of the unskilled, that proved more militant than the older craft unions. In 1888 the match-girls at Bryant and May walked out of their factory. In 1889 a strike of the gas workers led by Will Thorne forced the Metropolitan Gas Company to reduce the working day for stokers to eight hours. Above all, the successful London Dock Strike of 1889, in which over 130,000 dockers brought the Port of London to a standstill, showed the growing power and militancy of the unions.  






Kerr Hardie



Keir Hardie (1865-1915)

The new activism was represented politically by James Keir Hardie, the illegitimate son of a servant from Lanarkshire. In the general election of 1892 Hardie abandoned the Liberal party and stood as independent candidate for the constituency of West Ham. Because the Liberal candidate withdrew, the election was a straight fight with the Unionist (Conservative) and he won 57% of the vote. 


The Independent Labour Party

In January 1893, 120 delegates from various local socialist societies came together in Bradford to form the Independent Labour Party. Though the word ‘socialism’ was not in the programme, the party committed itself 

‘to secure the collective ownership of the means of production, distribution, and exchange’. 
This was a much more socialist programme than the one put before the West Ham electors. (It was not until 1918 that it would become Labour Party policy.)

The ILP performed poorly in the 1895 election, with Hardie losing his seat.  ILP strategists determined that future success depended on drawing more substantial support from the trade unions. 

Many trade unionists were worried about the long-term prospects of the movement in the wake of more aggressive attitudes on the part of employers. Some unions, notably the miners, already had their sponsored Lib-Lab MPs, but others needed little persuading to vote for the resolution at the TUC Congress of 1899 that ‘a better representation of the interests of Labour in the House of Commons’ was desirable. The resolution went on to call for a special congress of unions and socialist societies to secure that objective. 


The Labour Representation Committee 

The congress convened on 27 February 1900 at the Farringdon Street Memorial Hall, and established the Labour Representation Committee (LRC). 




The key resolution stated that ‘a distinct Labour Group’ should be established in Parliament, ‘who should have their own Whips and agree upon their policy’. There was no mention of socialism, and nothing  about nationalisation of the means of production, distribution and exchange. 

The LRC was a compromise between trade unions, mostly suspicious of socialism, and the socialist societies that operated outside the union movement.  It was not clear that it would replace the Liberals as the preferred working-class party.


James Ramsay MacDonald (1866-1937)
the first Labour Prime Minister

Ramsay MacDonald, the illegitimate son of a farm servant and a housemaid, became the General Secretary of the LRC.


The Taff Vale Judgement

In July 1901 the House of Lords handed down their decision in the Taff Vale judgement. A South Wales railway had successfully sued the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants through its officials for damages sustained through picketing in the course of a strike in August 1900. The decision was reversed by the Court of Appeal, but reinstated by the Law Lords. When the damages were finally settled in January 1903 they amounted to £23,000. This reinforced working-class opinion that the law was something imposed from above.

The case gave the LRC a boost. Ramsay MacDonald told the unions that their very existence was at stake and that this made a Labour party in Parliament ‘an absolute necessity’. By early 1903 the number of affiliated unions had risen to 127, with a membership of 850,000. A parliamentary fund was set up based on a penny levy per affiliated member.

There were still many tensions. The SDF withdrew from the LRC over Labour’s refusal to accept the doctrine of the class war. The ILP remained within the LRC but continued to argue for full-blooded socialism, while MacDonald wanted to maintain contacts with the Liberals.

This seemed a realistic strategy as the Liberals were beginning to stand aside in elections for Labour candidates. Already in August 1902 a Labour MP was returned unopposed for Clitheroe. In March 1903 Will Crooks, sponsored by the Woolwich Trades Council, captured the Conservative seat of Woolwich. Two months later the President of the Ironfounders’ Union, Arthur Henderson, who was to be the leader of the Labour Party from 1914-22, was returned for Barnard Castle.

In the spring of 1903 negotiations began between MacDonald and Herbert Gladstone, the Liberal Chief Whip. In the summer they reached an informal (and secret) understanding that each party would use its influence to prevent the running of ‘wrecking’ candidates’ whose intervention would risk handing seats over to the Unionists. It was provisionally agreed that in 23 seats Labour should be given a free run. Was the pact a grave mistake for the Liberals, allowing Labour a toehold inside Parliament in the next general election?


Click here for James Connolly's socialist anthem, The Red Flag.


Working-class politics: overview

  1. From 1884 large numbers of working men had the vote. The Liberals assumed that most of these men would vote for them, but they made it hard for them to be adopted as parliamentary candidates.
  2. Throughout western Europe socialist parties were on the rise. Some of them were potentially revolutionary but others wished to achieve their aims by constitutional means. 
  3. The rise of the 'new unionism' and the more aggressive actions of the employers created the conditions for the formation of a new political party.