1900 – 2000: Fighting for a new workers party

ON 27 February 1900, the Labour Representation Committee met for the first time, beginning the Labour Party’s 100-year history.

Steve Score

The party was born out of workers’ mass struggles against the system, which showed the need for the working class to take independent political action. Today Tony Blair sees his “modernised” New Labour as a “progressive” party, re-uniting Liberalism and Labourism, balancing an “enterprise economy” with “fairness”.

How much has the Labour Party changed in character? And does the history of how Labour was created teach us how a new party of working class people could grow?

Inside Labour magazine quotes Blair: “Why is it that 100 years after Labour came into being to eradicate poverty there are still millions who live without hope? Why is it that thousands of adults still cannot find work because they cannot read or write? Why is it that people still have to live in run down estates, in unfit housing…?”

Blair’s answer is that Labour’s 22 years in power have not been long enough to tackle these problems. He says: “At times we failed … to keep the trust of the people… because the ideology on which [our ideals] were built became fossilised and out of date.” The ideology he attacks is a socialist one of a party representing and fighting for working-class people.

In reality, when Labour’s leaders lost “the trust of the people” it was because they failed to stick by those principles, instead carrying out polices in favour of big business and the so-called “enterprise economy”.

The massive achievements under Labour governments such as the creation of the NHS and the welfare state, came because of the mass movement’s pressure on past Labour leaders.

Blair has now created an out-and-out capitalist party that insulates the leaders from those pressures.

His anniversary speech blamed those who spoke out against pro-capitalist polices in the past: “The revolt against the 1924 government on unemployment benefit cuts; the 1949 resignations over health charges; the disputes over public spending in the 1960s; to the winter of discontent in the 1970’s”.

He doesn’t see anything wrong with Labour governments’ attacks on working class people, just the criticism inside the Labour movement!

Blair has returned to 19th-century ideas of “progressive liberalism”, of “partnership” between bosses and workers. But the Labour Party’s establishment originally broke with those ideas.

Breaking with class collaboration policies

IN THE years up to the 1870’s there was a big economic upswing for British capitalism. Millions of workers still faced appalling poverty but small sections of skilled workers improved their living standards.

The old craft unions maintained wages by restricting entry to the union; their leaders saw no conflict of interests with the bosses. These union leaders, such as TUC leader Broadhurst, supported the Liberal Party.

But British capitalism’s heyday was passing and the economy went into depression. From 1889 to 1913 real wages fell 10%. This precipitated a massive upsurge in the class struggle. It also prepared the ground, with the help of active socialists, for a change in working-class people’s consciousness.

From 1886 Burns and Hyndman, leaders of a small Marxist group the Social Democratic Federation (SDF) led demonstrations of up to 100,000 against factory closures and conditions facing the unemployed. The police brutally attacked these mass protests, resulting in the deaths of some demonstrators.

Burns and Tom Mann, socialists who wanted to break with class collaboration policies, launched the “Eight Hour League” with policies of “work sharing without loss in pay” to tackle unemployment by reducing long working hours.

Ayrshire miners, who previously supported the Liberals, were threatened by bosses that union members would be replaced by the unemployed.

The miners then took up the campaign for an eight-hour day. The army attacked their strike and the workers received no support from the Liberals. These events affected the ideas of miners such as Keir Hardie, who set up the Scottish Labour Party in 1888.

New mass unions, organising millions of the unskilled into ‘general’ unions, came into being. The gasworkers, led by SDF member Will Thorne, won an eight-hour day. New sections of workers organised and went into struggle: Bryant and May ‘matchgirls’, agricultural labourers, textile workers and railworkers.

In 1889 dockworkers, exploited by the casual labour system, struck for “the dockers’ tanner”- 6d an hour. They marched through the streets carrying red flags and stinking fish heads – showing what they had to live on – and won a victory with the support of other workers.

Need for an independent party of Labour

THESE STRUGGLES raised the need for an independent party of Labour. They came up against not just the bosses but also their government, laws, police and army. Workers needed to fight for political power to change the laws, the government and the system that created their exploitation.

However, the creation of the Labour Party was no easy task. Whilst socialists in the new unions fought for an independent party of Labour, the TUC leaders, still linked to the Liberals, opposed it.

SDF members as individuals played key roles in these events, but the sectarian SDF itself opposed the creation of a new mass workers’ party.

The SDF failed to link workers’ day to day struggles to the need for socialism even though these struggles developed workers’ understanding of the need for socialism. In contrast Karl Marx’s collaborator, Friedrich Engels, advocated a Labour Party as a step forward for the working class, helping it come to revolutionary conclusions about the need to change society.

Many SDF members such as Tom Mann left after their journal condemned strikes as a “diversion” from the struggle for socialism.

In the Manningham Mills strike in Bradford, workers fought cuts in wages imposed by bosses who supported the Liberals. The police attacked them and starved back to work, but workers learned the need for a new party of labour.

In Bradford in 1893, a number of workers’ organisations and socialists including Keir Hardie’s Scottish Labour Party, met to form the Independent Labour Party (ILP).

Following its formation though, the movement ebbed and the ILP didn’t develop as the mass party itself, although it played a key role in fighting to create the Labour Party. It also meant, along with the SDF’s sectarian role that more “gradualist” leaders came to the fore.

Over the next few years, the bosses responded to economic crisis by increasing their attacks on the unions, using scab organisations, the police and the law. Eventually in 1899 TUC conference passed a resolution calling for a Labour Representation Committee to be established.

Taff Vale judgement

WHEN THE LRC met in 1900 only half the TUC was affiliated. The Taff Vale judgement in 1901 was a turning point. The courts allowed Taff Vale Railway Company to sue the rail union for thousands of pounds for lost trade and damages in a strike – threatening the very right to strike.

Such events pushed more workers towards the LRC. By the time it was renamed the Labour Party in 1906 900,000 workers were affiliated.

Unfortunately people like Ramsey MacDonald and Lord Snowden, who originally opposed the Labour Party, were now in its leadership. Politically they were close to Liberalism, and still did deals with them.

From the start there was a struggle with those who stood for socialist ideas and independent class action.

In 1908 conference passed a resolution calling for: “… socialisation of the means of production, distribution and exchange, to be controlled by a democratic state in the interests of the entire community, and the complete emancipation of Labour from the domination of capitalism, and landlordism, with the establishment of social and economic equality between the sexes.”

This was echoed in the famous Clause Four, put into the constitution at the 1918 Labour conference following the mood for socialism after the 1917 Russian revolution.

So Labour always had this dual character: a pro-capitalist leadership with a working-class base. At times Labour’s base could push the leadership towards achieving reforms such as those of the 1945 government. But, under the bosses’ pressure, the leaders always went from reforms back to counter-reforms.

Swallowing market ideology

IT IS different today. The world political situation changed after Stalinism collapsed in the former Soviet Union. The triumphant pro-market propaganda of the capitalists affected the former mass workers’ parties internationally.

In Britain, Blair led the way in swallowing market ideology and destroying any real chance of workers being able to influence Labour’s leadership. Labour is now an openly capitalist party.

Working class people need to create a new mass party to represent their interests. This will not be an easy task; it will need the impact of big events and struggles. The process will not simply repeat that of 100 years ago; much has happened since then and even a century ago, it was no straight line development.

However socialists will play a key role in building this party. Socialists can’t create something out of thin air where the forces don’t yet exist but Blair has not abolished the class struggle and future events will have a big effect on consciousness.

But we don’t just wait for events either. In the past socialists played a crucial role – intervening in events and putting forward socialist propaganda.

Today the Socialist Party can have an important effect in raising the need for a socialist alternative. That will not only speed up the creation of a new mass workers’ party but lay down a marker in the inevitable battle of ideas within that party.