History: How the British Labour Party was formed

In the late nineteenth century, British imperialism found it increasingly difficult to provide a few crumbs to the working class from its very rich table.

Peter Taaffe, general secretary of the Socialist Party, looks at the lessons workers can learn from how the Labour Party first came into existence a century ago.

How the British Labour Party was formed

Up to then, a layer of the working class – the ’aristocracy of labour’ – had been reconciled to capitalism through concessions given by the capitalists as a result of their virtual monopoly and economic privileges in the world economy.

However, the weakening of their position in the late nineteenth century, partly through the challenges from emerging imperialist powers like Germany, no longer made this feasible. Under the surface well-being of British society an army of low-paid, sweated unskilled workers grew in the industrial centres.

Their anger boiled over in the explosion of ’new unionism’, involving the match girls, dockers and gas workers. This was a revolt not just against the flint-hearted employers but also against the Liberal Party, which claimed the allegiance of significant sections of the working class.

The Liberals, the party of so-called ’laissez-faire capitalism’ in its most extreme form, were much like New Labour today. Trade unionists and workers came up against Liberal employers, particularly in the industrial centres, in the struggle for a living wage and improved rights and conditions. This fuelled the opposition to the Liberal Party and the movement for the creation of an independent party of the trade unions and the working class.

The pioneers for this demand battled for over two decades for the realisation of this goal. The struggle for this did not proceed in a straight line but was full of zigzags, of steps forward and sometimes two steps back. Keir Hardie, a miners’ leader from Scotland and the ’father of the Labour Party’, was originally a Liberal who tried to ’reform it’ but concluded that this was impossible.

He first of all established the Scottish Labour Party and then, in 1893, established with others the Independent Labour Party (ILP). Present at its founding conference in Bradford were five members of the Social Democratic Federation (SDF), nominally Marxist but in fact sectarian and alienated from both Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Fabians and a handful of trade unionists.

Liberal coat tails

Hardie and the ILP pursued a protracted battle to break the trade unions from the Liberal Party’s coat-tails. The British working class often moves slowly, then and now, drawing conclusions ponderously. They often move from the industrial plane when they are thwarted to the political plane.

For instance, the South Wales miners elected Keir Hardie as MP for Merthyr in 1898 after his defeat in his previous seat of West Ham. They saw the need for political action after their defeat in a strike. However, the South Wales miners as a whole were not freed from illusions in the Liberal Party even when they set up their own political fund in 1901.

Hardie hammered away each year at the Trades Union Congress for ’independent labour representation’, the formation of a labour party. This was eventually successful and a conference to form the Labour Representation Committee (LRC) took place in 1900, attended by trade union delegates, the co-operative movement and socialists of various kinds.

The miners’ union, however, abstained and kept their connections with local Liberal associations. This lasted almost a decade.

In fact, there was limited trade union membership of the LRC at the beginning, with only 353,000 out of nearly two million trade unionists in all affiliated to this body. The ’new unions’ joined but the long-established skilled workers’ unions initially stayed aloof.

The turning point was the Taff Vale judgement of the House of Lords when heavy financial damages were awarded against the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants for alleged damage done to the Taff Vale Railway Company.

By 1903, the affiliated membership of the LRC had risen to 873,000. But the LRC, known as the ’Labour Party’, was "still a long way off constituting a party". [GDH Cole, The Second International]

The flexible way in which the Labour Party was created is a warning to those who wish to impose prematurely rigid structures on any new formation in Britain.

Cole comments: "[The LRC] was no more than a committee, each of whose constituents kept the full right to manage its own affairs. Each affiliated body – Socialist Society or Trade Union – put forward and paid for its own candidates. There was no central fund for financing candidates or even for engaging in any propagandist or organising activities.

"There was not even a Programme – only an affirmation of willingness ’to co-operate with any party which, for the time being, may be engaged in promoting legislation in the direct interest of Labour’."

Nor was there much organisation "at all under the party’s control. Although Local Labour Representation Committees or Labour Parties existed in a number of areas, they were not admitted to affiliation to the national party or represented at its Conferences. Only in areas where the local Trades Councils had joined the party had it any formal local machinery."

One of the reasons for this was the trade union leadership’s fear that "local LRCs… would more easily pass under socialist control". Therefore, they preferred that local trades councils, more under their control, would join the party. Later, the conservative officialdom feared the trades councils, which gathered trade unions together alongside political activists.

The ILP also initially saw local Labour Representation Committees as a threat to the influence of their own branches and so Cole correctly concludes "that right and left combined to block the growth of any effective constituency organisation".

This federal, seemingly amorphous, method of organising remained for more than a decade and a half. This meant that the nucleus of a local LRC, based on wide individual membership, built up a nascent party in the structure of individual supporters working directly for it and "not merely for one of its affiliated organisations".

Broad structures

Only during the First World War did Arthur Henderson, who was originally a Liberal Party agent, as treasurer, reorganise the party. Full recognition was therefore granted to local Labour parties as an integral part of the party’s structure.

As Cole comments: "This change was impractical up to 1914 because it was opposed both by many trade unions and by the ILP, and also by the trades councils in a number of areas – all three groups fearing from their different standpoints, the growth of a powerful party machine."

This step forward for independent political representation of the working class was not at all ideal, was not neat and tidy but reflected the reality of the situation at the time. Because it was not ’pure’ some sectarians of the time, such as the leadership of the SDF, stood aloof. However, the mass of the working class, through experience, saw this as a colossal step forward.

It would be a mistake today to base the programme or structures of a new party on an identical repetition of what happened over a century ago. However, the method of moving forward cautiously at the beginning, with the creation of broad structures, is something to learn from today.

It is one of the reasons why the Socialist Party supports in the initial period a loose federation in which genuine forces can collaborate, by gradually building confidence between the constituent parts possibly leading later to a rounded-out party.

Absolutely essential in this era is that it should be open and democratic, with the right of platforms, etc, as we have explained elsewhere.

It is necessary to learn from the past, of course, but not to live in it. Nevertheless, the history of how the Labour Party was formed is a refutation of those who wish to develop immediately a perfect rounded-out ’party’ that will spring forth in an ideal form like Minerva from the head of Jupiter. Reality makes this highly unlikely in Britain and in many other countries, as the recent development of the Left Party in Germany shows.

Nevertheless, the development of a genuine formation of this character could take the whole of the British working class forward and prepare the grounds for a serious struggle against neo-liberal capitalism and all the parties that rest on this.

From The Socialist, paper of the Socialist Party, cwi in England and Wales

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November 2005