Building a workers’ political voice: Lessons from the early Labour Party

CHRISTINE THOMAS outlines how, despite their entrenched conservatism and pro-capitalist outlook, the trade union leaders were pushed by events at the end of the 19th century into taking steps towards the building of an independent political voice for the working-class.

In 1899, the Trades Union Congress (TUC) approved a resolution on political representation moved by the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants (ASRS). This instructed the TUC’s Parliamentary Committee “to invite the co-operation of all co-operative, socialistic, trade union and other working-class organisations… in convening a special Congress of representatives… to devise ways and means for securing an increased number of Labour members in the next parliament”. The Labour Representation Committee (LRC) was established the following year, eventually leading to the formation of the Labour Party in 1906.

While recognising its political limitations, in particular a reformist leadership that had not ideologically broken from the capitalist Liberal Party, Vladimir Lenin nonetheless welcomed the creation of this “parliamentary representative of the trade unions”, “the first step on the part of the really proletarian organisations of England [sic] towards a class-conscious policy and towards a Socialist Labour Party” (International Socialist Bureau, 1908). When, in 1920, small groups of revolutionaries united to form a Communist Party (CP) in Britain, Lenin urged the infant party to affiliate to the much larger Labour Party, with its mass trade union base, on the condition that it could maintain its own independent political identity and activity, as Labour Party rules at that time allowed. Unfortunately, still conditioned by the sectarian history of some of its constituent groups, the CP worded its request for affiliation in such a way that the Labour Party leadership could reject it without provoking significant opposition from the rank and file who were striving for workers’ unity.

Before Lenin, Friedrich Engels – who died in 1895, and therefore did not live to witness the formation of the Labour Party – had, alongside supporters such as Eleanor Marx and her partner Edward Aveling, been consistently promoting the idea of an independent workers’ party to represent the specific class interests of the British working class. Writing in the Labour Standard in 1881, Engels argued that the working class “has interests of its own, political as well as social”. “But its political interests it leaves almost entirely in the hands of Tories, Whigs and Radicals, men of the upper class, and for nearly a quarter of a century the working class of England has contented itself with forming, as it were, the tail of the ‘Great Liberal Party’.” The working class, Engels pointed out, had to prepare itself for taking economic and political power, for the task of democratically running society, and part of this preparation was “to use the power already in their hands, the actual majority they possess in every large town in the kingdom, to send to parliament men of their own order”.

Engels went on to explain that although the Chartists, “the first working men’s party which the world ever produced”, had declined from 1848 onwards, half of their programme for democratic rights had been eventually realised. “If the mere recollection of a past political organisation of the working class could effect these political reforms, and a series of social reforms besides, what will the actual presence of a working men’s political party do, backed by forty or fifty representatives in parliament?”

Political reform

The process leading to the trade unions creating such a party was to experience many ebbs and flows, impacted primarily by the changing objective situation, but also shaped by the conscious intervention of socialists.

While Chartism had placed political reform, including adult male suffrage, to the fore, this was inextricably linked to the question of political power and a desire for a better society, drawing together struggles for political democracy, for a ten-hour day, for trade union rights, and against the hated Poor Law. After the 1832 Reform Act had given political representation to the industrial capitalists and middle class, but excluded workers, the cross-class alliance for political reform broke down and the working-class took the lead, participating in in their tens of thousands in the mass Chartist protests.

Twenty years after the end of Chartism as a mass movement the very first meeting of the TUC took place, in 1868. The year before, the Tory government had been forced under mass pressure, with trade unionists again in the front line, to introduce a second Reform Act, which this time gave the vote to better-off workers in the towns. This granting of the franchise to a large section of the male working-class (around 60%) – effectively reform from above to prevent revolution from below – objectively created the potential conditions for a workers’ party, independent from the two main parties of the ruling class: the Tories, the traditional party of the landowning class, but which increasingly came to represent finance capital, and the newly constituted Liberal Party, an alliance of free-trade industrial capitalists and middle-class Radical reformers.

Both of these parties were now fighting for the votes of newly enfranchised workers, and against an economic backdrop that enabled the granting of some economic, social and political concessions. The expansion of free trade after the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846 had cemented British capitalism’s economic hegemony in international markets. Up until 1873, the economy in Britain experienced unprecedented growth, with just two short and shallow crises in 1857 and 1866. Their profits rising, the capitalists were prepared to concede some wage increases and advances in working conditions, such as shorter working hours, for sections of skilled and semi-skilled workers, as well as improved trade union rights, in order to buy industrial peace. Growing economic prosperity, and crumbs from the table of the capitalist class, sowed illusions amongst the trade union leaders, and layers of workers themselves, in the gradual betterment of workers’ conditions within the capitalist system, without the need of strikes and militant class struggle, and without the need of an independent party of their own.

In reality, only a small minority of workers were organised in trade unions, the main areas of unionisation being in the cotton industry and mining, where the distinction between skilled and unskilled workers was less demarcated, and the skilled trades, where small, localised craft unions were now amalgamating in ‘New Model’ centralised unions with high dues, closed off to anyone but workers employed in a particular craft or trade. These unions became increasingly controlled by a layer of full-time officials whose outlook was shaped by both the economic situation and their own lifestyles, divorced from the union rank and file. This was the material basis for class collaboration, ‘social peace’, and the ‘tailendism’ which Engels spoke of.

When the TUC set up a Parliamentary Committee in 1871 its aims were to lobby whichever capitalist government was in power and to get more trade unionists into parliament. But the union leaders looked primarily to the Liberal Party, which many of them were members of, to continue to grant reforms in the interests of their members. So when the first trade unionists stood, unsuccessfully, as candidates in the general election of 1868, they did so under the banner of the Liberal Party. Likewise, the two miners elected in 1874, and the eleven trade unionists returned to parliament in 1885, were also so-called ‘Lib-Labers’.

New era

It was the ‘Great Depression’, beginning in 1873 and, according to most historical accounts, lasting until around 1896, which acted as the ‘Great Disrupter’, opening up a new era of economic insecurity; crisis in the existing trade unions; new forms of industrial struggle; mass social movements; a rebirth of socialist ideas and organisations; and a new attitude towards independent working-class political representation. But because its effects were not uniform, awareness of the necessity of creating an independent workers’ party developed at varying speeds depending on where and how workers were organised.

The term Great Depression conjures up images of acute poverty, mass unemployment, and widespread hunger and homelessness. And these were features of the period, especially during the slump of 1878-79, and in particular in London, where social investigator Charles Booth estimated that a third of the population were experiencing severe destitution. As one capitalist commentator, Sir Robert Giffen, exclaimed at the time: “No one can contemplate the present condition of the masses without desiring something like a revolution for the better”.

But it was not a simple question of economic slump leading to increased industrial and political radicalisation. From a world perspective, economic production continued to expand enormously; it was just that Britain’s global industrial dominance was now beginning to be seriously challenged by its more productive US and German capitalist competitors. Over the more than two decades of the ‘Great Depression’, the British economy experienced several booms and slumps, but the periods of upswing tended to be shorter and shallower and the downswings deeper and longer-lasting than before.

The spectacular and unprecedented wave of strikes by previously unorganised, unskilled and semi-skilled workers, which exploded first in London and then set the whole country alight, began at a time of expanding trade (1888-1892), with workers gaining confidence from the economic upswing and falling unemployment following several years of acute depression. And not all industries were equally hit by crises, the harshest affecting heavy industry – mining, iron, engineering, where unemployment reached around 10% in the worst phases, and export sectors. Those workers who managed to keep hold of their jobs actually saw their standard of living improve as plummeting prices (a fall of 40% between 1873 and 1896) led to a rise in real wages. But job insecurity was rife in most sectors.

In general, the onset of economic crisis exposed the total inadequacy of the unions’ existing structures and strategy of class-collaboration; their inability to defend their members as jobs were axed and the capitalists acted to shore up declining profits through savage wage cuts and an intensification of labour. In 1874, TUC membership was just over half a million (less than 2% of the population). By the end of the decade this had declined to a mere 381,000 as the unions haemorrhaged members.

New Unionism

The first significant transformation in industrial and political consciousness came not amongst unionised workers but the most exploited, unorganised layers – in the words of Engels, “the broken down ones… the lowest stratum”, “neglected, looked down upon by the working-class aristocracy”. From 1889 gas workers, dockers, railway workers, factory girls, shop assistants and many others rose up in their tens of thousands to form and join ‘new’ unions: new in the sense that they prioritised militant strikes and class action over conciliation and social benefits, and were open to all workers regardless of skill, gender, income or sector. But their new methods of struggle also impacted the ‘old’ unions, with total trade union membership doubling in one year from 860,000 in 1889 to two million in 1890. Throughout the country 60 new trades councils were established, bringing together trade union representatives in specific towns and cities.

The founders and promoters of the new unions, wrote Engels, “were socialists, either consciously or by feeling”. Socialist ideas were growing but the main groups were still extremely small propaganda organisations. Where socialists were leading or helping to form unions they did so as individuals rather than as representatives of an organised party with a worked-out strategy. In the case of the Social Democratic Federation (SDF), which most of them were members of at some time, they did so despite the party’s official policy of ignoring the trade unions. But their consistent practical work of organising, fundraising, publicity etc, raised the profile and credibility of individual socialists and of socialism.

Of course, socialists weren’t only involved in supporting strikes and new unions. During the most acute periods of unemployment they worked together to organise distress committees and mass demonstrations. Thousands rallied in Trafalgar Square on 13 November 1887 – known as bloody Sunday because of brutal police violence meted out to the protesters, resulting in 200 being hospitalised and three dying later from their injuries. Free speech and the right to protest were central campaigns of the socialists at that time, alongside Home Rule for Ireland and other anti-imperialist causes.

Political action

The fight for a legal eight-hour working day formed an important bridge between new unionism and political struggle. The newly formed Socialist (Second) International declared May Day 1890 a global day of protest for eight hours. 250,000 people flooded into Hyde Park in London. “On May 4”, declared Engels, “the English working class joined up in the great international army… The grand-children of the old Chartists are entering the line of battle”.

New trade unionists, and increasingly many old ones, were coming to the realisation that industrial struggle alone was not sufficient to defend workers’ interests. In 1889, the gas workers, who were toiling up to 18 hours a day, seven days a week, had, through militant strike action, forced the employers to concede an eight-hour day throughout London. But a strike which began at the South Metropolitan Gas Company at the end of the same year was defeated and the union smashed. It was becoming clear that for gains won through industrial action to be consolidated political action was also needed. At the TUC Congress in Dundee in 1889, a motion for a legislated eight-hour day, moved by Scottish miners’ leader Keir Hardie, won 42% of the vote, despite opposition from many of the ‘old’ union leaders, such as Henry Broadhurst, TUC secretary, who argued that “politics have nothing to do with trade unionism”. A year later, however, the resolution was passed by 193 votes to 155, now supported by the big battalions of the miners and cotton workers.

The Eight-Hour League in London began to discuss standing its own independent candidates in elections. The first political breakthroughs, however, occurred not in London but in the north of England and in Scotland. Keir Hardie’s experience of army repression and Liberal Party silence during the 1887 Lanarkshire miners’ strike propelled him on a political trajectory which gradually took him from looking towards the Liberal Party to becoming one of the most vociferous advocates of independent workers’ political representation.

It was not a straightforward journey, however. When blocked from becoming the Liberal candidate in the Mid Lanark by-election in 1888 he stood as an independent, but still declaring that “a vote for Hardie is a vote for Gladstone” (William Gladstone was the Liberal Party leader at this time). Hardie got 617 votes, 8.3% of the vote. But that same year he was instrumental in forming the Scottish Labour Party, although, like many of the organisations that arose in that first phase of changing political consciousness, it never became a mass force.

Workers’ experience

However, the concrete experience of strikes – especially witnessing Liberal employers brutally deploy the forces of the state against striking workers – shattered the illusion that the Liberal Party could represent both bosses and workers, and became the catalyst for the creation of several independent workers’ political organisations which had the aim of standing their own candidates in local and national elections. As early as 1887, striking Northumberland miners had refused to pay the parliamentary wages of their Liberal leaders and formed the North of England Socialist Federation. Although the Federation disappeared not long after the strike finished, it was nonetheless symptomatic of the changes to come.

A strike of mainly unorganised female textile workers at Manningham Mills in Bradford in 1890-1891, in response to their Liberal employers imposing a 30% wage cut just before Xmas, was of more significance. Although the strike was crushed after 19 weeks, through a combination of repression and starving the workers back to work, they then went on to form the Bradford Labour Union – a more permanent organisation that stood candidates in two out of the three Bradford constituencies. Independent labour organisations also sprang up in Colne Valley, Swinton and Pendlebury, and in Manchester and Salford. In 1892, the gas workers voted at their national conference in favour of standing candidates in local and general elections.

In a significant step forward for independent working-class representation, nine workers’ candidates stood independently from the Liberals at the 1892 general election, and three were elected – Hardie in West Ham South, seaman’s leader Havelock Wilson in Middlesborough, and ‘new union’ leader John Burns in Battersea. Dockers’ leader Ben Tillet was also only narrowly defeated in Bradford. However, these independent workers’ candidates all went into the election promoted by separate organisations. Moreover, the other ten workers elected, five of them miners, were still standing under the Liberal ticket, and Wilson and Burns rapidly accommodated themselves with the Liberals, leaving Hardie as the lone parliamentary representative of independent workers’ politics.

Ebbs and flows

When, in 1893, trade unionists, labour unions, and socialist organisations came together in Bradford to form the Independent Labour Party (ILP) many saw it as just another new organisation among many. It wasn’t explicitly socialist, although it did come out in favour of the collective ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange, which prompted Engels to declare that “the programme in its main points is ours”. He could see that the significance of the ILP was not in its size, its leadership, or whether or not it had socialism in its name, but the fact that it was the political progeny of new unionism, born out of the class struggle. Regarding the ILP leaders he wrote: “The majority of the best of them… are not strangers to an inclination to intrigue, closely bound up with the parliamentary regime; but behind them stand the masses, who will either teach them decency or throw them overboard”. The ILP clearly had political and organisational weaknesses, but the main reason it didn’t win over the trade unions and become a mass workers’ party, which was the aim of Hardie and others, was the objective situation, the fact that it was formed just as the mass movement was ebbing.

In the 1895 general election, the ILP stood a slate of 25 candidates, while the SDF stood five. Not one was elected, and Hardie lost his seat in West Ham. These defeats emboldened the trade union ‘old guard’, still wedded to the Liberal Party, to strike back at the new unionists, who every year were challenging their authority on the floor of the TUC congresses, consistently pushing the idea of the TUC backing independent trade union political representation in elections. The new unionists and socialists were out in force at the TUC congress in Liverpool in 1890 at which the eight-hour day resolution was finally passed. It is estimated that in the early 1890s the new unionists had around 25% of the congress votes.

In 1891, Hardie moved a motion at the TUC congress calling for a penny levy on trade union members in order to set up a parliamentary fund to finance workers’ candidates: it was defeated by 200 votes to 93. Undeterred, he doggedly returned at the following congress, and this time the motion was carried. More victories ensued with the passing in 1893 and again in 1894 of resolutions asking that the unions only support candidates who pledged to “the collective ownership and control of the means of production, distribution, and exchange”.

However, despite these successes, the TUC Parliamentary Committee was firmly in the hands of the old guard, who did nothing to pursue either resolution. In fact, the 1894 congress in Norwich was where the old guard in the Parliamentary Committee launched a counter-offensive, securing (by just one vote) rule changes which replaced a show of hands with the card block vote, thus weighting votes in favour of the ‘old’ unions in mining and cotton; abolishing representation from trades councils; and barring delegates who weren’t practising their trade, ie Hardie. Consequently, at the 1895 congress socialist delegates declined by 25%

Bosses’ offensive

This clearly marked a setback in the battle for independent workers’ political representation, but only a temporary one. As Tom Mann wrote in the socialist newspaper Labour Leader: “Both the cause and the men will continue to make themselves felt”. A battle of living forces was taking place, with the general tide turning against the union bureaucracy’s attempts to cling on to the Liberal Party, fuelled by the capitalist offensive against labour.

The opening shots were fired against the new unions. Not just gas workers but dockers and the newly formed Miners’ Federation suffered heavy strike defeats. As the bosses fought back the new unions lost many members, some smaller unions disappeared, and those that remained tended to become more like the ‘old’ unions with membership concentrated in a particular industry, although with a more militant leadership. Conversely, the Amalgamated Society of Engineers (ASE), one of the first old-style ‘model’ unions, opened its membership more widely and elected an ILP general secretary in 1897. When, in their attempts to smash the unions and introduce mechanisation and new production methods, the capitalists turned on the ‘old’ unions, particularly in heavy and export industries, the ASE was at the centre of the storm.

The bosses drew on the vicious anti-union methods of their US counterparts, combining in trusts to increase their strength; setting up the National Free Labour Association as a supplier of scab labour to break strikes; lobbying for anti-union legislation, and resorting to the capitalist state to both physically attack strikes and rule in their favour in the courts. It was class war. Locking out the engineers in 1887-1888, the Employers Federation of Engineering Associations claimed their “right to do what they want with their own [machines]”. Siemens declared that the lock-out was “to get rid of trade unionism altogether”. The strike was a serious defeat but the bosses failed to destroy the union.

Through court rulings the capitalists gradually chipped away at the union rights supposedly guaranteed by the 1871 and 1875 trade union acts, raising confusion as to whether unions could be liable for damages, and curtailing the right to picket. All of these attacks made the need for political representation to defend union rights more evident than ever, and were the immediate backdrop to the vote at the 1899 TUC congress in favour of organising a special conference to discuss workers’ political representation. After a three hour debate, the motion won the support of most of the new and smaller unions, but the ‘big two’ – the miners and cotton unions – voted against, the former saying they could elect their own MPs, which of course they were doing through the Liberal Party, and the latter, who were closer to the Tory party and even stood as Tories in elections, refusing to engage in ‘party politics’. The engineers were absent because of a trade demarcation dispute, so at least a sixth of the delegates were either absent or abstained.

Tentative beginnings

The labour representation conference itself, held in 1900, was to be purely voluntary, and was attended by 129 delegates representing around 570,000 members in 41 unions and seven trades councils. This was less than half the TUC membership, and only around ten percent of the workforce were unionised at the time. There were no delegates from the cooperative movement, and the only large unions represented were the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants, the gas workers, engineers, and boot and shoe operatives, who between them had around a third of the vote. The three ‘socialist’ organisations, the ILP, SDF and the Fabian Society, together claimed 22,861 members.

The reality is that with the South Africa war raging (1899-1902, also known as the Boer war), hardly anyone was aware the conference had even taken place. The socialist weekly newspaper The Clarion described it as “a little cloud no bigger than a man’s hand, which may grow into a United Labour Party”. This was far from guaranteed, and the LRC may well have suffered the fate of the ILP. The engineers decided not to join and one year later trade union affiliation was only 350,000. Most of the trade union leaders were still firm Liberals, while in a by-election in Oldham in 1899 a member of the TUC’s Parliamentary Committee had stood as a Tory candidate. In the ‘Khaki’ election of 1900, the LRC supported 15 workers’ candidates, four of whom were general secretaries of trade unions. Only Hardie and Richard Bell of the railway servants were elected, in Merthyr Tydfil and in Derby, and Bell was later expelled for his relationship with the Liberals.

It took an existential threat to the trade unions themselves for a decisive shift to occur. After a string of anti-union court judgements, the House of Lords ruled in 1901, in the case of the Taff Vale Rail Company Vs the ASRS, that unions could be held liable for damages caused by strikes, and the rail union was ordered to pay £23,000 in damages plus costs. Within a year affiliations to the LRC had increased to 469,000, reaching 861,000 by 1903. Now the engineers’ union came on board, alongside the Lancashire textile workers. Also influencing the latter’s decision was the election of cotton trade unionist David Shakleton in a by-election in Clitheroe the previous year, in which textile workers, mostly women who themselves didn’t have the vote, played an important role in securing his victory.

In those early days it wasn’t at all clear whether the LRC would be a pressure group in parliament, effectively an appendage of the Liberals, or develop into a genuinely independent workers’ party. In the 1906 election, LRC-backed candidates, which then became Labour Party candidates, increased from four to 29. Yet still 24 other trade union candidates were elected as Liberals, 13 of them miners. It wasn’t until 1909 that the Miners’ Federation finally affiliated to the Labour Party, and it was not alone in changing political organisation while continuing to support Liberal reformist ideas.

Real pressure

Nevertheless the 1906 election marked a watershed. The Liberal Party secured a landslide victory, but it could not ignore the block of Labour MPs in parliament. A workers’ party, however embryonic, was a threat to the Liberal’s monopoly of the working-class vote, and potentially much more, having witnessed the Russian workers rise up in a revolutionary movement the previous year. Liberal leader David Lloyd George could not have articulated the thinking of the Liberals, and behind them the ruling class, more clearly: “If at the end of an average term of office it were found that a Liberal parliament had done nothing to cope seriously with the social condition of people… then would a real cry arise in this land for a new party”.

“But if a Liberal government tackle the landlords, and the brewers, and the peers… and try to deliver the nation from the pernicious control of this federacy of monopolists, then the independent Labour Party will call in vain upon the working men of Britain to desert Liberalism”.

With the hot breath of workers’ MPs on their necks the Liberals were pressurised into passing a number of social policies which, although they didn’t always go as far as the unions and socialists would have wanted, were nevertheless significant and symptomatic of the effect even electing a small number of workers’ MPs could have. These measures included old age pensions, health and unemployment insurance, and free school meals, as well as, in the wake of the Taff Vale judgement, the 1906 Trades Disputes Act. Initially the bill put forward by the Liberals still allowed the bosses to sue unions and fell short of the organising rights the unions were fighting for. But when the Labour MPs drew up their own bill, the Liberals felt compelled to accept it in its entirety – a significant victory for independent workers’ political representation.

Drawing conclusions

The subsequent evolution of the Labour Party, the dynamic between its mass working-class base and pro-capitalist leadership, is not within the remit of this article. One obvious conclusion for today, however, now that the pro-capitalist leadership under Keir Starmer has crushed any trade union and rank-and-file working-class influence over the Labour Party, is the importance of the existence of an ideologically cohesive revolutionary organisation that can fight to affect, through democratic debate and discussion, the political evolution of any future new workers’ party – something that was clearly lacking when the trade unions and socialists originally formed the Labour Party.

The experience of Starmer’s Labour in opposition, refusing to support workers fighting the cost-of-living crisis, Labour councils drastically cutting services to the bone and attacking striking workers, and now its stance over the war in Gaza are, as Patrick McGuire wrote in the Times, just a “dress rehearsal” for the shocks a Starmer government will face.

As in the last part of the nineteenth century, conditions, not least an intractable economic crisis and the demands of the capitalists that the working-class shoulder the burden, will push workers further towards concluding the need for independent political representation. As then, it’s likely to be a messy process, with ebbs and flows, and with different sections of workers drawing conclusions at different speeds, depending on their concrete experiences. But the objective factors are there and growing, propelling workers and trade unionists once more in the direction of creating a mass party of their own.