THE LABOUR PARTY was founded in 1900, first as the Labour Representation Committee (LRC) then changing its name to the Labour Party in 1906. It emerged as a broad-based organisation, reflecting the diverse range of existing organisations already developed by working people under capitalism. It encompassed the varied working-class political trends: the newly organised, militant, unskilled workers; the more traditional skilled workers; others focused on the co-operative movement; and others focused on issues such as education. Within its ranks were socialists, both Marxists and reformists such as those in the Fabian Society. The Labour Party, in this sense, became an arena within which the political arguments for socialism, and the different policies and tactics to achieve it, were argued and debated. The working class increasingly saw it as a tool with which it could fight, as a class, for change.
An extended period of struggle had preceded this foundation of the Labour Party; this struggle was centred around the idea of establishing an independent political representation of the working class, separate from the existing capitalist parties. In the 1890s the significant obstacles to the new worker’s party were two-fold: the organisational support given by the traditional trade unions to the Liberal Party and the mass vote at elections for the Liberal and Tories by those working-class men who did have the vote.
In an ironic twist of history, the situation in the 1890s has similarities a hundred years later in our present-day politics. Once again, socialists and class-conscious trade unionists have begun struggling for the creation of a new workers party. But this time, the major obstacle is not from the Liberal Party, but New Labour. This party has become a clone of the very capitalist parties it was set up to replace!
In the 1890s the major trade unions of the day saw themselves as being attached to the Liberal Party. Although the trade unions were not formally affiliated to the Liberals, they saw them as the political party which would most represent their interests. Trade union officials both at a national and local level were often Liberal Party members and were wined and dined by the Liberal Party hierarchy. Trade unionists would put forward a version of Liberal ideology, that the economy of ‘the country’ was important, and within this, that the interests of capital and labour could often be the same.
This attachment of trade union officialdom to the Liberal Party had begun forty years earlier in 1867, during the culmination of a mass working-class movement demanding the right to vote. The years 1866 and 1867 had witnessed large scale demonstrations all over the country and a mass rally in London which ended with a riot in Hyde Park. The establishment parties were fearful of a growing mood that hinted at revolution; to stem the tide, they quickly passed legislation giving the vote to millions of urban working-class males. The victory was incomplete, not least the exclusion of women and rural workers from the franchise, but in the ensuing general election the Liberal Party establishment moved quickly to absorb the trade union leadership in a successful attempt to capture sections of the new working-class voters.
Throughout the following three decades the links between the trade unions and the Liberal Party remained solid. Over this period the Liberals were seen by many as the ‘natural party’ for the working class. Some workers became Liberal councillors, and in mining areas where the working class vote was overwhelming, trade unionists became Liberal MPs (to become known as the Lib-Lab MPs). Trade union leaders would argue that their relationship with the Liberal Party was beneficial, and would point to minor pieces of legislation, passed by Liberal governments, that helped the working class or the trade unions directly. The term used by these working-class liberals was ‘labour representation’. This concept was expressed year after year during the 1880s and early 1890s at the TUC annual conference, as the TUC parliamentary committee reported on its work with the Liberal establishment.
Yet within this convivial partnership, there were constant tensions. A relationship between a capitalist party like the Liberals and the working class was full of contradictions. When it came down to a direct decision about favouring profits and capitalism against working-class interests, it was always the former which was supported. Often employers headed the local Liberal Party establishment, or at a national level, the Liberal Party would ignore calls for more deep-seated reforms such as the call by the trade unions for the eight-hour day. The antagonism was also expressed in an attempt by the Liberal Party to ‘keep out’ the undesirable working class from representing the party as councillors or MPs; not dissimilar to the control on these positions exercised by the contemporary New Labour machine, who regard socialists as an alien species who should not belong to their party.
Some of these tensions and conflicts would eventually spread into annual TUC conferences. As early as 1887, the president opened that year’s congress by arguing: “One thing is certain, this labour movement is the inevitable outcome of the present condition of capital and labour, and seeing that capital has used its position in the House of Commons so effectively for its own ends, is it not the strongest policy of labour now that it has voting strength to improve its surroundings?”. This speech set the tone of a debate to set up a new workers party headed by the then young delegate, Kier Hardie, representing the Ayrshire miners in Scotland. But the idea was soon squashed by a series of delegates, who were Liberal Party members. They put forward the argument, later often repeated, that a new party would split the Liberal vote and let the Tories in. The voters were not ready for a new party of labour and it would be much better to keep with the Liberal Party. Indeed Hardie was ferociously attacked by the Liberal MP, C Fenwick (delegate of the Northumberland miners), because he dared raise the anti-working class record of a Liberal parliamentary candidate recently supported by leading Liberal trade unionists at a by-election in Northwich.
A change came in 1889, in what would later be seen as a historic turning point. This was the victory of newly organised trade unionists in the gas workers’ dispute, leading to the formation of the National Union of Gasworkers and General Labours. Later that same year came the London dock strike, which also saw the setting up of a new union. These disputes brought previously unorganised workers into the trade union movement, led by men who were both socialists and supported the demand for a new workers’ party.
By the 1893 TUC congress one of these leaders, Ben Tillett, was moving a motion calling for a separate fund to support independent labour candidates and an elected committee to administer these funds, with a worked-out process to select candidates who pledged to support the policies of the trade unions.
James MacDonald, later an early leader of the Labour Party, put forward an amendment, (passed by 137 votes to 97) calling for all candidates to “support the principle of collective ownership and control of all the means of production and distribution”. It was the first move in the creation of what would eventually become the Labour Party. But in the manoeuvrings of the congress, the Liberal Party members would ensure that this resolution became a dead letter. This was signalled in the defeat of a further resolution by Kier Hardie calling on labour members of parliament to sit in opposition to the Liberals.
The next few years was spent by the socialists and militant trade unionists attempting to put flesh on the bones of this resolution and by the obstruction of the Liberal Party trade unionists in blocking its effectiveness. A critical issue centred on finance; the Liberal Party trade unionists prevented the funds of the trade unions they controlled from being used to support working-class candidates who were standing independently of the Liberal Party. Unlike today when MPs make themselves rich by gaining a parliamentary seat, being an MP was a non-paying job. Only the rich could afford to sit in parliament, so it was necessary for trade unions to find the money, not only for the election campaign but to pay a salary to the candidate should they be elected. By holding up funds, the Liberal trade unionists could hold up the creation of a new workers’ party.
Equally the Liberals were able to curtail further debate within the TUC on this issue, defeating resolutions and proposals at the 1894, 1895 and 1896 congresses. Indeed in 1895, the congress president, councillor Jenkins, a Liberal and a delegate from the Shipwrights’ Society and also president of Cardiff trades council, used his opening speech to carry out a full-frontal attack on the Independent Labour Party (ILP) for standing candidates in the 1895 general election. He even attempted a slur that because standing independent labour candidates undermined Liberal Party votes, that the ILP was being funded by the Tory Party.
But the tide of history was about to turn against the Liberals in the trade union movement. The conflicts between labour and capital were intensifying as the economic upturn of the early 1890s took a dip towards the end of the decade. Additionally, British manufactures were experiencing sharpened competition from the expanding economies of the USA and Germany. As a squeeze on their profits developed, the bosses turned to recoup their losses by reducing wages and attacking the power of the trade union movement to defend their member’s interests. Although it was the Conservatives who were in power, having won the 1895 and subsequently the 1900 general elections, the Liberal Party was reluctant to commit themselves to reverse the attacks on the labour movement. Many Liberals Party members, also employers, were the very people carrying out some of these attacks.
At the same time over the decade of the 1890s in one local area after another, small but determined groups of socialists were beginning to influence the organised movement, enabling them in a few places to replace liberal trade unionists with socialist representatives. This activity by socialists on the ground combined with the numerical growth of the new trade unions, such as the gasworkers and dockers, helped transform the situation. This process, combined with the alienation of some of the more traditional unions from the stance of the Liberal Party in the late 1890s, began shifting the ground of support within the TUC.
The eventual formation of what would become the Labour Party was not automatic; rather there was a dialectic between the general economic forces creating a conflict between labour and capital, the old and new trade unions, and the conscious intervention of socialists acting as a catalyst of change. As the famous phrase of Karl Marx states, ‘man makes his own history, although not in circumstances of his own choosing’. But within this, it is necessary that he does indeed ‘make his own history’.
Historians often cite two legal judgements as being critical in the development of the Labour Party, the Taff Vale judgement of 1900-1901 and the Osborne judgement of 1909, both of which were strident attacks upon trade unions. But these judgements acted more to rapidly increase a trend which was already underway than to spark the creation of the Labour Party itself. The creation of the Labour Representation Committee had been agreed a year before the Taff Vale judgement at the 1899 TUC congress. This laid the foundation for what would become the Labour Party, and it brought to an end the period of the pre-birth of the new worker’s party.
The next two decades would see the growth and spread of the new party in working-class communities, reflected within trade unions, in local council elections and increasingly in parliamentary seats. But like the previous decade, success would not be automatic. The working-class voter was still embedded to the habits of the past and remained attached to the capitalist Liberal Party. Many of the old Liberal trade unionists were still influential. They would continue to claim that the Liberal Party remained the party for workers, citing as evidence the fact that large numbers of workers still voted for the Liberal Party, mistaking the habits of voting as a zodiac sign which determined the character of the party.
Looking back at this history of the Liberal Party, which by its policies and ideology supported the interests of capitalism, you might wonder how little has changed today. We see the Labour government and Labour-controlled councils acting like ruthless employers, affecting millions of public sector workers, who have endured low pay, significant pay cuts through below-inflation pay awards, alongside real and threatened job losses. Labour stands by as employers close down businesses and sack workers. Yet at the same time Labour gives away billions of pounds to prop up the banks. Their stated intent is restoring the profits of firms, and they ask the working class to pick up the bill. It is this context that poses once again the need for a party which can represent the interests of working people. In an irony of history the Labour Party, originally set-up to replace the Liberal Party, never a commited socialist party of revolutionary change, but only at times that of reform. It has now, some one-hundred years later itself become a Liberal-Capitalist party. Conscious socialists should now be looking to work with and build a party of the working-class, and look to achieve this achieve this objective.