Socialism Today - How the Labour Party was formed
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Issue 45

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Issue 45, September 1999

How the Labour Party was formed

    New conditions, new consciousness
    The socialist pioneers
    The Independent Labour Party
    For a new mass party of the working class

One hundred years ago, on 27 February, 1900, a conference of trade unionists and socialist organisations met to establish the Labour Representation Committee, the forerunner of the Labour Party. This was to be a culminating step in a long struggle by workers in Britain to break with the Liberal Party and establish their own party. CHRISTINE THOMAS looks at how the Labour Party was formed and what relevance this has for the political struggle today.

'THE CLASS WAR is over', declared Tony Blair at New Labour's conference last year. 'The 21st century will not be about the battle between capitalism and socialism, but between the forces of progress and the forces of conservatism'. For Blair an independent party of labour, forged out of class struggle, was an historic mistake. His 'Third Way' represents an attempt at turning back the clock to before the Labour Party was formed.

Blair's aim is to recreate a 19th century-style Liberal or 'progressive' party which can convince the working class that their interests and those of the capitalist class coincide and that they can be represented within a single pro-market party. His project, however, is doomed. It was the inability of late 19th century capitalism to meet their needs which 'reactivated' the class war and pushed workers into forming their own independent political party. Today global capitalism is even less able to answer the needs and aspirations of working class people. Blair has succeeded in transforming the Labour Party into a capitalist party, but he cannot abolish the class struggle, anymore than the Liberals could in the 19th century. And it is through struggle that workers will once again draw the conclusion that they need their own independent mass party to represent their specific class interests.


Blair chooses to ignore the economic and social realities which gave rise to the Labour Party. But for workers today, faced with the task of building a new mass workers' party, those historical processes can shed some light on how a new party might be formed. Of course historical comparisons should always be accompanied by a health warning. No two historical periods are ever exactly analogous. The working class today has the benefit of a further 100 years of national and international experience, which was not available to Marxists and socialists at the end of the 19th century. Crucially, they did not have the experience of the Russian revolution of October 1917, which clearly illustrated the essential role a revolutionary party must play in the struggle to overthrow capitalism and begin the process of building a new society. Nevertheless, while bearing historical differences in mind, there is still much that is relevant for contemporary struggles.

top     New conditions, new consciousness

THE IDEA OF common class interest and 'partnership' between workers and employers dominated the organised working class throughout the 1860s and 1870s. The Liberal Party, an alliance of industrial capitalists and the urban middle classes, claimed to represent the concerns of the better-off male workers newly enfranchised by the 1867 Reform Act. In the early 1880s Scottish miners' leader Keir Hardie, who was to become just a few years later one of the foremost advocates of independent working class representation, echoed the prevailing ideology when he stated that 'employers and employed will recognise their interests are identical'.


The basis for these class collaborationist ideas had been created by two decades of almost continuous economic growth. Amassing enormous profits, British capitalism could afford to make some concessions to a layer of skilled workers in the form of higher wages, shorter hours and improved working conditions. Permanent, full-time officials emerged within the trade unions, keen to maintain social peace and their own privileged position in the social hierarchy. Speaking in 1867, William Allan, the general secretary of the engineers union, summed up the outlook of this new breed of trade union leaders when he said, 'we believe that all strikes are a complete waste of money, not only in relation to the workers, but also to the employers'. These union leaders epitomised 'dependent' class politics, known as 'Lib-Labism'. They stood for parliament as Liberals and, defending the existing social order, represented what Engels described as the 'tail' of the Liberal Party.

It was under the dual impact of a new wave of struggle, brought about by the changed economic position of British capitalism in the later third of the 19th century, along with the intervention of socialist activists, that working class political consciousness began to change and the link with the Liberal Party was broken. The political evolution of Keir Hardie gives an indication of the processes at work. Hardie moved from promoting class collaboration to the idea of an independent workers' party as a result of his own experiences in the workers' movement, and the influence of individual socialists and general socialist propaganda. He had come into contact with the Social Democratic Federation (SDF) (although he never became a member) and discussed with Friedrich Engels, Marx's life-long collaborator.


In 1887 a strike of Lanarkshire miners was brutally attacked by the army. While women, children and strikers were battened by the forces of the state, the Liberal Party remained silent. Only the socialists protested. In parliament the Liberals, through fear of antagonising the mineowners, were equivocal in their support for the Mines Bill. As a consequence the eight-hour clause, a vital demand of the miners, was lost. It was through experiences like these that Hardie became aware that the interests of both bosses and workers could not be represented in the same party. The working class needed an independent party of its own.

In 1888 Hardie took the initiative in setting up the Scottish Labour Party, which was pledged to support independent working class candidates in elections. It marked an important step on the road to a mass independent workers' party. But breaking the link was a painful process. In the Mid Lanark by-election earlier that year, Hardie had initially attempted to win the Liberal nomination and only stood as an independent candidate when the Liberal association rejected him. In his election material he declared that 'a vote for Hardie is a vote for Gladstone'. Hardie eventually made the organisational break and played a key role in the formation of an independent party of labour. However, he never really made the break ideologically with the liberal idea of gradual reform of society.

There were many 'radical' Liberal-supporting workers like Hardie who learned through experience the need for an independent workers' party, some moving much further than him in their political evolution. But for consciousness to be transformed on a mass scale, a combination of objective and subjective factors was necessary. A key factor was the economic crisis which broke out in 1873, heralding the beginning of the 'Great Depression' which lasted until 1896. The depression was punctuated with cycles of economic recovery, but the crises appeared more severe and the recoveries shorter and weaker than in previous decades. In fact a new stage was opening up in the development of British capitalism, with its industrial monopoly, markets and profits now being threatened by competition from the USA and Europe.


The effects of the depression disrupted the whole of society, shaking the psychology and outlook of all classes. Industrial and social struggles shattered the illusion of a society without class conflict, with the prospect of gradual reform. All the old certainties were turned upside down and capitalism itself was called into question by a small but growing section of the middle and working classes. In 1885 Engels had written that 'during the period of England's industrial monopoly the English working class have, to a certain extent, shared in the benefits of the monopoly' but they 'will lose that privileged position... and that is the reason why there will be socialism again in England'. Engels prediction was born out over the next few years as the economic and social consequences of the depression awoke both class and socialist consciousness.

top     The socialist pioneers

WORKERS WHO COULD maintain their jobs benefited from the falling prices that were a feature of the depression. However in each crisis job insecurity and unemployment hit not just the unskilled and sweated labourers but skilled workers too, placing financial strains on the old craft unions and laying bare the bankruptcy of their leaders' policy of rejecting strike action as a means of defending jobs and conditions. The depression reached its lowest point in 1886-87, affecting London especially severely. In his social survey, Charles Booth revealed that 35% of Londoners in the East End were living in a state of abject misery and 100,000 in acute distress. Eleanor Marx painted a human picture of what this suffering meant, in a letter to her sister Laura: 'Eight children who for days have tasted nothing but bread, and who have not even that now; the mother lying on some straw, naked covered with a few rags, her clothes pawned days ago to buy bread. The children are little skeletons. They are all in a tiny cellar'.


The unemployed began to organise against such dehumanising conditions. They marched to local churches, disrupting congregations to denounce the effects of unemployment and demand action. Daily demonstrations and meetings in Trafalgar Square were met by police repression. Shaken by the potentially destabilising force of the unemployed protests, the ruling class denounced 'rioting' and 'disorderly' conduct, banning all gatherings in Trafalgar Square. However, on 13 November 1887, 'Bloody Sunday', as many as 100,000 protesters defied the ban and were brutally charged by thousands of mounted police. One hundred and sixty demonstrators were imprisoned and three workers later died. In the words of the engineer and 'new union' leader Tom Mann, there was 'something buzzing' in London. Struggles against the economic and social consequences of the depression, for the eight-hour day, for the extension of democratic rights, in opposition to imperialist expansion (particularly in Ireland), all contributed to the development of a socialist consciousness amongst politically aware workers and sections of the middle classes on the radical wing of Liberalism.

The earliest and most influential socialist organisation of the period was the Social Democratic Federation (SDF), formed in 1881. Its founder Hyndman, was an ex-Tory barrister and company director, one of the few people in Britain to have read Marx's Capital (it was not available in English). The SDF espoused a distorted and dogmatic brand of revolutionary Marxism which, according to Engels, they attempted to force 'down the throats of the workers at once... instead of making the workers raise themselves to its level by dint of their own class instinct'. Its mechanical interpretation of Marxism meant that it predicted an 'inevitable' collapse of capitalism, with no understanding of the role that the working class and a revolutionary party would have to play in that process. It didn't, as Engels pointed out, 'fasten on to the real needs of people' and show how revolutionary consciousness develops from the day to day experiences of the working class. It was, therefore, principally a propaganda organisation incapable, as Engels put it, of becoming anything more than a sect.


Nevertheless, in a period of social ferment, when a thinking minority were searching for an explanation of society's problems, the SDF was for many workers a first introduction to independent class politics, revolutionary class struggle and the ideas of scientific socialism. Engels estimated that over a period of 14 years, perhaps one million members had past through its ranks, although it was never more than a few thousand strong at any one time. Its sectarian politics, especially towards the trade unions which its leaders considered irrelevant, caused many to leave. Yet almost all of the key organisers of unskilled and semi-skilled workers in the industrial wave which took place in the late 1880s came to socialism through the SDF. And most of those were at the forefront of the struggle for a mass independent party of labour.

The forces of socialism were small at the start of the 1880s, and even those were split into different parties and groups. 'There are two main sources of dispute', explained the Socialist League member William Morris. 'We cannot agree as to what is likely to be the precise social system of the future and we cannot agree as to the best means of attaining it'. This didn't prevent socialists from working together, however, in various campaigns, raising as individuals, although not as members of an organised party with a clear strategy, the idea of an independent workers' party. In 1887, against a background of protests over repression in Ireland, unemployment and free speech, Engels wrote 'it is now an immediate question of organising an English working-men's (sic) party with an independent class programme. If it is successful it will relegate to a back seat both the SDF and the Socialist League'. For Engels, the building of a mass, independent workers' party was not an end in itself, a sufficient condition for the success of the socialist revolution. But achieving political independence would speed up the process by which workers would become aware, as a class, that a revolutionary change in society was necessary. The role of Marxists was to lay the basis for such a party, to participate in its creation and, most importantly, to organise to convince workers of the need for a revolutionary programme for change.


top     The Independent Labour Party

DEDICATED SOCIALISTS SUCH as Eleanor Marx were touring the radical working men's clubs in London, making the connection between the day to day struggles which workers were involved in and the need for an independent labour party. The idea was catching on fast amongst a small layer of workers, but it was still patient propaganda work which socialists were involved in, preparing for a change in conditions. It took mass movements for the seeds which they were planting to really take root and flourish. In anticipation of the kind of events that were to take place later on a much larger scale, the North of England Socialist Federation was formed to promote the idea of a national and international socialist party. It arose out of a strike of Northumberland miners who refused to pay the parliamentary wages of their liberal leaders. The federation disappeared once the strike was over but it was an indication of how consciousness was to change on the basis of struggle.

The demand for an eight-hour day formed a crucial link between industrial and political consciousness. The leadership of the SDF nationally might consider unions an irrelevance, but individual members could not ignore the new situation which was maturing in the unorganised workplaces amongst unskilled and semi-skilled workers. In the gas industry, for example, workers were employed on shifts lasting anything from 12 to 18 hours. Previous attempts at unionisation had been crushed. But in 1889, SDF member Will Thorne organised a meeting of gas workers in East London to form a union and fight for an eight-hour day. 'The news of the meeting spread like wildfire', wrote Thorne. 'The idea caught on: enthusiasm was at a high pitch and within two weeks we had over 3,000 men in the union. Never before had men responded like they did. For months London was ablaze'. The gas workers won a reduction in the working day to eight hours and news of their victory spread throughout the industry and infected unorganised workers in every sector. It was, said Thorne, 'the culmination of long years of socialist propaganda amongst the underpaid and oppressed workers'.


The movement spread rapidly to the dock workers with thousands becoming organised and taking strike action. Transport workers, shop workers, jam and pickle bottlers, few unskilled or semi-skilled workers, male or female, remained unaffected by the 'new union' epidemic which swept London and then the rest of the country. The new methods of militant, fighting class action also impacted on the more established, conciliationist unions. In one year the number of trade unionists more than doubled from around 860,000 in 1889 to just under two million in 1890. The new unions were later severely weakened as the employers launched a counter-attack, but some of the most exploited groups of workers had proven that they could become organised and their legacy of militancy lived on.

The industrial wave also gave a huge impetus to the political struggle, creating a mass basis for the idea of an independent workers' party to become a concrete reality. The demand for the eight-hour day, around which workers were organising internationally, ran like a thread through new unionism. It raised the need for political action to back up and maintain the gains which workers were winning through collective industrial struggle. As thousands prepared to demonstrate in 1889 for the eight-hour day, Engels wrote: 'The masses here are not yet socialist, but on the way towards it, and are already so far that they will not have any but socialist leaders'. He was not far off the mark. Socialists such as Will Thorne, Tom Mann and John Burns were leading the struggle to unionise the gas and dock workers. In East London, Eleanor Marx was agitating amongst super-exploited women workers, supporting their strikes and helping to organise them into the union. In almost every struggle, it was socialists and Marxists who took the initiative in raising finance and securing solidarity support for striking workers. As a consequence they gained enormous respect, their ideas now reaching a mass audience.


In 1890, the Trades Union Congress (TUC) voted in support of the eight-hour day. This was a significant victory for the new union leaders who had to battle against the likes of Henry Broadhurst, secretary of the TUC parliamentary committee, who insisted that 'politics has nothing to do with trade unionism'. The 1892 general election resulted in three independent workers' candidates being elected, giving a further impulse to the movement towards a party of labour. Hardie and others stepped up their agitation for independent labour representation, moving resolutions at the TUC, which were, however, consistently voted down.

In London there were attempts at making the eight-hour league a permanent organisation which would stand candidates in elections. But it was in the North, where large scale industry was more extensive, that the movement towards an independent workers party went furthest. Through struggle workers came to question a political set-up where they were expected to vote for a party supported by the very bosses who were brutally attacking their wages and conditions, with the state forces behind them. A dispute which took place at Manningham Mills in Bradford, illustrates this process. Just before Christmas 1890, the Liberal-supporting bosses informed the textile workers that their wages were to be cut by 33%. Although most weren't members of a union the workers embarked on a bitter strike which lasted six months, during which police were called in to smash strike meetings. The workers were eventually starved back to work. But the experiences of this strike and the gas workers strike in Leeds a year earlier, led to the formation of the Bradford Labour Union, which stood independent candidates in the general and local elections. They included Ben Tillet, leader of the dockers union, who came within 600 votes of the Liberal candidate. On the initiative of socialists other Labour Unions and Independent Labour organisations were established across Northern England.


In 1893 these organisations came together with socialists, Keir Hardie's Scottish Labour Party and others supporting an independent party of the working class, to form the Independent Labour Party (ILP). The ILP voted against calling itself a socialist party, although its programme was anti-capitalist, supporting the collectivisation of the means of production, distribution and exchange. Its ideology was confused and uncertain. Hardie considered it a strength that the party had no worked out theory. In reality this was an enormous weakness, allowing the 'liberal' idea of gradual reform of capitalism which was held by himself and others in the leadership, to predominate. But, as Engels pointed out, behind them 'stand the masses'. The party itself was born out of class struggle and as such constituted an important advance for the working class. The role of Marxists was 'to represent the movement of the future in the movement of the present'. This was in complete contrast to the attitude of the SDF leadership, who replicated the sectarian approach they had taken to the trade unions. They adopted a position of 'benevolent neutrality', standing aside from the movement, criticising the ILP's failure to call itself a socialist party but incapable of influencing it otherwise. Later the SDF participated in negotiations for the formation of a Labour Representation Committee (LRC) but withdrew after one year because the committee refused to adopt a socialist programme. This sectarian attitude left the leadership of the party in the hands of 'evolutionary' socialists who repudiated class struggle and advocated instead gradual reform within the existing capitalist framework.


top     For a new mass party of the working class

ALTHOUGH THE ILP was the political end product of a mass movement, the party itself did not become the mass workers' party that its founders hoped for. In fact it came into being just as the movement was ebbing, which undoubtedly affected its electoral prospects and its political evolution. The Labour Representation Committee, on the other hand, formed in 1900 before being renamed as the Labour Party in 1906, grew on the basis of a counter-offensive by the capitalist class.

Dealing first with the new unions, they then moved to take on the 'old' ones. Industries such as engineering and mining were especially affected by the economic depression. In order to maintain profit levels the employers needed to 'reorganise' industry, introducing new production techniques, holding down wages, and undermining working conditions. To do so they imported union-busting methods from the USA. The bosses organised themselves into federations within industries to challenge the collective strength of the unions. They locked out workers and employed scab labour in a systematic way, to weaken the workers ability to organise and fight back. Above all they used the full force of the state in the form of the police and the courts to back up their class attacks. It was this political offensive which provoked a political response on the part of the trade union leaders.

In 1899 the British TUC, following the lead of Scotland, passed a resolution moved by the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants. The resolution called on the TUC parliamentary committee to take the initiative in convening a congress of all organisations which wanted to promote labour representation in parliament. The founding conference, an alliance of socialist organisations and the unions, took place on 27 February, 1900. To begin with less than 50% of TUC trade unionists were affiliated. Three of the largest unions representing engineers, miners and cotton workers, remained outside. The Clarion, a popular socialist newspaper of the time, commented that 'at last there is a United Labour Party, or perhaps it would be safer to say, a little cloud, no bigger than a man's hand, which may grow into a United Labour Party'.


The Labour Representation Committee's development into a mass party was not assured. One year after the founding conference affiliated trade union members had fallen from 570,000 to 350,000. But the decision by the courts to allow the Taff Vale Rail Company to sue the railway workers' union for damages incurred during a strike swung the balance. By attacking the financial basis of the unions the state was seriously affecting their ability to defend their members' interests. And of course it threatened the privileged position of a layer of trade union leaders themselves. Affiliated membership more than doubled in the two years to 1903. By 1906 when the Labour Party was founded, it had reached 900,000.

The Labour Party was from its inception a bourgeois workers party. At its head were the 'liberal' leaders such as Ramsay Macdonald and Philip Snowden, through whom the pro-capitalist ideology of the ruling class could be transmitted to the working class below. In parliament those leaders succumbed to opportunism, following the lead of the Liberal Party which they had separated from organisationally but not ideologically. But at the same time the party had its roots in the working class, with its working class base acting as a certain counter-weight to its bourgeois tops. One hundred years later, however, in the wake of the collapse of Stalinism and the boom of the 1980s, the pro-capitalist leadership is now completely dominant. The channels through which the working-class base of the Labour Party could hold the leadership in check have been cut off, and the party has made the transition to an openly bourgeois party. The historic task of building an independent mass workers' party is posed once again.


But not under the same conditions. Despite the lowering of socialist consciousness generally in society over the past decade, a capitalist workers' party has been in existence for almost a century and that experience will influence the character of a new workers' party, especially in its early stages. In addition, the leadership of the trade unions today is more integrated into the capitalist state than it was at the end of the 19th century. That too will affect the process towards a new workers' party, making it much less likely that the leadership of large national unions would move to embrace a new party as they did in the past.

Nevertheless, as in the 1880s and early 1890s, it will be mass struggle arising from economic, social and political crisis which will create the conditions for a new mass workers' party to emerge. And, as then, the intervention of revolutionary socialists in that process will be crucial. Socialists paved the way for an independent workers' party through their propaganda and involvement in the day to day struggles of the working class. But however determined they were to see a new party come into being, they could not transcend the limits of the objective situation. It was the interplay between mass struggle and socialist propaganda and activity which created the conditions under which they could take concrete initiatives to create an independent party of the working class.

At the time, socialists and Marxists were acting mainly as individuals, without the guidance and collective experience of a party with a theoretical understanding and worked out strategy. This weakened their effectiveness and, crucially, their ability to politically influence the character of the mass party once it was formed. A mass workers' party speeds up the development of an awareness on a mass scale of the need for a revolutionary transformation of society. Because of its broad nature, however, it will, even in its preliminary stages, inevitably contain contending ideological trends. If the SDF had not taken a sectarian approach to the emerging mass movement - if it had been able to unite the thousands of radicalised and class conscious workers who joined its ranks into a cohesive and united force - it could have mounted a serious challenge to the reformist ideas which permeated both the ILP and the Labour Representation Committee, and hastened the development of revolutionary consciousness.


Today the forces of Marxism, though numerically small, are ideologically and organisationally stronger. Strengthening those forces, by building the Socialist Party through daily struggle, will significantly influence the future development of a new workers' party. As at the end of the 19th century, changes in consciousness will occur under the impact of capitalist crisis. Building now a cohesive revolutionary party with a clear national and international programme; uniting with other socialists and class conscious workers and youth in industrial, social and political struggles; patiently explaining the need for a new mass workers' party at every opportunity; these are the immediate tasks we face today, which will prepare the way for the establishment of a genuine mass workers' party when objective conditions inevitably change in the future.

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