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'Old' Labour - born out of workers' struggles
To most people today, the phrase 'Labour politician' brings to mind a sleek well-paid career politician.
But that was not the way the Labour Party started out. For at least the first half of its life the Labour Party was built and maintained by dedicated self-sacrificing volunteers, collecting the pennies and halfpennies of working people to keep going.
Geoff Jones, a Labour Party activist from 1963 to 1991, takes a look at the origins of the party, and comments on the need for a new workers' party to be created today.
In the 1970s, I asked why elderly Labour councillors were keen to keep long council robes. One answered: "Son, when we first got in, half of us had the arse out of our trousers." For much of its life the Labour Party was no mere vehicle for career politicians. It was seen by working people as 'our party' whose leadership, however flawed, worked in their interests.
But from its foundation, Labour was a battleground between people with a vision of a socialist future and those who believed only in ameliorating the worst evils of an 'unchallengable' capitalist system.
In February 1900 a conference called by the Trades Union Congress in the Memorial Hall, Farringdon Street, London, founded the Labour Representation Committee (its name changed to Labour Party in 1906). But this founding conference only came about after 20 years of struggle for an independent political voice for the working class, a struggle in which the main opposition came from within the trade union movement itself.
At the turn of the 20th century, two national political parties, Liberals and Tories, vied for power in Parliament. Both were parties of the ruling class although Tories tended towards 'old money', the landowning aristocracy, and Liberals towards 'new money', factory owners and businessmen.
It was quite possible for politicians such as Winston Churchill to pass easily from one to the other and back. The working class had no independent representation.
By the 1880s, a number of strong trade unions had been built among skilled workers. The leaders of these unions (particularly the engineers and the South Wales Miners) did not believe that independent 'labour' candidates could defeat the established parties. They saw their best hope for workers' interests, in acting as the loyal junior voice of organised labour in the Liberal Party.
They negotiated with the Liberals to be allowed to stand a number of workers' candidates with Liberal support in working class constituencies.
At the 1885 election, 10 'Lib-Lab' MPs were elected including officials of the South Wales Miners, the Amalgamated Society of Carpenters and Joiners and the general secretary of the TUC. These MPs loyally supported Liberal policies.
They gained support from the Fabian Society founded in 1884, an organisation of middle class intellectuals espousing an 'English' socialism, opposing Marxist ideas of class struggle and dedicated to peacefully and gradually 'permeating' the ruling class via the Liberal Party.
There existed many small socialist and semi-socialist groupings, of which the most important was the Social Democratic Federation (SDF). This was founded in 1883 and took its inspiration from Marxist ideas.
The SDF comprised a mixture of trade unionists, leaders of new 'general' unions which were springing up, like Tom Mann and John Burns, and intellectuals like William Morris. In the same period, an independent socialist, Robert Blatchford, set up a paper, the Clarion, to put forward socialist ideas, which soon gained a weekly circulation of 30,000.
But the major force inspiring the development of socialist ideas was the rising tide of working class struggle.
There was a succession of economic slumps in 1875, 1880 and 1884, each followed by a very feeble 'stabilisation'. The effect was the destitution of unskilled and casual workers, particularly in London. Mass demonstrations of the unemployed became common.
In 1886 the government was so scared of an impending demonstration in Trafalgar Square that four leaders of the SDF were arrested and charged with sedition. In 1887, on 'Bloody Sunday', the police smashed a workers' demonstration organised by the SDF, with many injured.
At the same time, shunned by the older 'craft unions', workers in their thousands were flocking to join new general unions with leaders untouched by ideas of conciliation with the bosses.
In 1889, London dockers struck for "the dockers' tanner" - a basic hourly wage of sixpence (equivalent to under £2 an hour today). Led by Ben Tillett, John Burns and Tom Mann (with Eleanor Marx secretary to the strike committee) they scored a victory after a bitter struggle, gaining support from around the world.
These battles led socialists to realise the importance of unity. In 1893 a conference in Bradford set up a new organisation, the Independent Labour Party. Of the 115 delegates, 91 were from already existing groups, including the Scottish Socialist Party.
The others came from other political organisations including the Fabians and the SDF (neither of which agreed to support the new party which was too socialist for the Fabians and not socialist enough for the SDF).
Nevertheless, the ILP soon developed into a party of some tens of thousand members under the leadership of Keir Hardie, who had become an Independent Labour MP for West Ham South in 1892.
At the same time, the debate within the TUC on independent representation for workers was finally being won, with the fact that the Liberal government had reneged on all the promises made to Lib-Lab MPs having a powerful effect.
Finally, in 1900, the TUC convened the founding conference of the Labour Representation Committee. This conference comprised delegates from 12 trade unions and 10 cooperative organisations, together with the ILP, the SDF and the Fabians.
The schism which was to mark the Labour Party throughout its existence was clear at the day of its birth. Socialists (particularly the ILP and representatives of the new trade unions) wanted labour representatives to be:
"...a distinct party based upon a recognition of the class war and having for its ultimate object the socialisation of the means of production, distribution and exchange".
On the other hand, the older union leaders merely wanted: "Men sympathetic with the aims and demands of the labour movement". (Quotes from conference minutes in The History of the Labour Party, edited by Herbert Tracey, Caxton 1948).
A compromise resolution was finally accepted by the conference, proposed by Keir Hardie. It proposed the standing of Labour candidates who would form a group in parliament with their own agreed policies independent of any other party, but dropped any mention of socialism. Unwilling to accept this compromise, the SDF walked out and eventually split into tiny warring sects.
The history of the Labour Party for the next eight decades was one of continuous battles. The Labour Party was never a socialist party but an uneasy compromise. At times of heightened class struggle, socialists made gains.
In 1918 in the shadow of the World War and the Bolshevik revolution, a new party constitution was agreed.
This included the famous Clause IV: "To secure for the workers by hand and by brain the full fruits of their industry and the most equitable distribution thereof that may be possible upon the basis of the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange, and the best obtainable system of popular administration and control of each industry or service".
(In 1995 the clause was removed and hence any pretence that the Labour Party was socialist).
But at the same time, party chairman Arthur Henderson moved to allow people who were not trade unionists or members of socialist societies to become members. Henderson, supporting the war, had accepted a minor post in the Liberal war cabinet in 1915.
His aim was to swamp the ILP (which had steadfastly opposed the war) with hundreds of 'safe' delegates from Labour Parties with no roots in the labour movement. For a time this succeeded.
Later, however, local Labour Parties became a strong left wing force which necessitated regular purges of 'dangerous marxists' (including myself) through to the 1990s.
The Labour Party was born on a wave of working-class struggle at the beginning of the twentieth century. There are many parallels with the present day. In the 1890s the Lib-Lab trade union leaders put their trust in false Liberal Party promises. In the 1990s, Labour Party promises made to trade union leaders were discarded once 'New Labour' got power.
On the left, many of the same arguments over political compromises are heard today. One thing is certain, British workers facing a desperate crisis of jobs, homes and living standards will once again move to gain a political voice independent of compromised trade union leaders and big business backers.
In The Socialist 25 June 2008:
Socialist Party editorial
Unison Conference 2008
Socialist Party campaigns
Socialist Party Marxist analysis
International socialist news and analysis
Socialist Party NHS campaign
Origins of the Labour Party
Socialist Party workplace news