Tony Cliff & Donny Gluckstein

The Labour Party

2. ‘Out of the Bowels of the TUC’

A Background of Defeat and Passivity

BY THE LATE 1890s, the ‘socialist boom’ fuelled by new unionism was tailing off. The ILP dropped from 11,000 subscription paying members in 1895 to 5,000 in 1901 [1] and was bankrupt, its National Administrative Committee having to curtail meetings to a quarterly basis.

In the 1895 general election 28 ILP candidates stood, but all lost, including Hardie, until then the party’s only MP. Together they received 25,000 votes, not a discreditable total if the aim was to rally the advanced section of the class. But for a party which muted its principles to gain seats in parliament the result was disastrous.

[This fact did not escape the ILP’s rivals on right and left. Jenkins, Lib-Lab president of the 1895 Trades Union Congress, crowed about the election result: ‘Was it possible to conceive a greater exhibition of impotence or a smaller justification for the pretension to speak and act in the name of universal labour.’ [2] The SDF was pleased too. Being open about its socialism and committed to a definite theory (although posed in sterile sectarian fashion) it survived the difficult years better than its rival. In 1898, the SDF could claimed that in five years it had doubled its number of branches to reach 137, two thirds of the ILP’s total. [3]

So at a time when the Labour Party was in the making, even watered down socialism was narrowly based. The ILP’s check on the electoral front was matched by the rout of its new unionist supporters at the TUC. After 1889 the new unions fought regular battles with the old. At first the laurels went the way of the left. In 1890 a motion for the legal eight-hour day, which had been defeated by 88 votes to 63 at the previous year’s TUC, passed by 193 to 155. [4] [The 1893 TUC voted ‘for Socialism’: ‘the principle of collective ownership and control of all the means of production and distribution.’ [5] The 1894 Congress added land and mines nationalisation.]

But the retreat of the mass movement allowed a counter-attack. The presidential address at the 1895 TUC denounced the ILP as: ‘an anti-Labour, anti-trade-unionist movement ... The Congress had been in danger of being exploited by men who were really outside the labour movement ...’ [6]

This old unionist offensive took the form of a rule change. Until then each delegate had a single vote, and political representatives as well as Trades Councils could attend. Now the card vote system was introduced and all delegates not directly from unions expelled. Instantly control moved to the giant right-wing unions of coal and cotton. The small unions under ILP influence were powerless to prevent this or keep the proponents of a Labour Party at Congress. It is ironic that the same card vote system should turn up later as the chief weapon in controlling Labour Party conferences.

In 1895 all hope of a Labour Party seemed lost. Yet five years later the TUC set one up. What had produced the dramatic turn around? The answer was a ruling-class attack which, in sharp contrast to 1889’s mass activity, left the rank and file as passive by-standers to the doings of the bureaucracy. The ILP had been born of an advanced left wing movement. The Labour Party was born of bureaucratic manoeuvres at the TUC, of a step backward in the class struggle.

Employers broke unions one by one, starting with 70,000 Scottish miners who were battered into submission in 1894. For most workers such defeats do not encourage the revolutionary idea that class action can succeed where sectional action fails. More common is the reformist conclusion which Hardie (a former miners’ union official himself) was quick to draw – that electoral politics are the answer:

The Scotch coal strike, which to all appearances has ended in the utter rout of the men, has nevertheless been a great victory. For whom? ... For the Labour movement ... The result of the bitter experiences of the last 18 weeks has been the decision of many miners to abandon [conventional] party politics, and to throw in their lot with the ILP. [7]

Next year saw the defeat of the Boot and Shoe Operatives. Again Hardie chimed in with these comforting words: ‘The men have been defeated. That is the long and the short of it ... However the lesson of the dispute will not be lost, and the municipal election the other day in Leicester shows that the men have learnt their lesson well.’ [8] The railwaymen proposed Labour representation to the TUC after their ‘All Grades Movement’ was broken. Next it was the turn of the proudest of the old unions, the Amalgamated Society of Engineers, to be locked out.

Within six months the employers had reasserted the right to be ‘masters in their own shops.’ Labour Leader’s comment? ‘Failure. And yet in the end it may turn out that the lesson was worth the cost ... it would be more in accordance with the traditional principles of English politics and common sense if the battle was transferred from the poverty stricken homes of the workers to the floor of the House of Commons.’ [9]

Emboldened by successes, employers used the courts ever more frequently. This culminated in the Taff Vale decision, which not only outlawed picketing but compiled unions to refund to their employers every penny lost during a strike. These defeats shook the trade union bureaucracy profoundly. In 1902 one leader declared that: ‘Menaced on every hand in workshop, court of law, and press. Trade Unionism has no refuge except the ballot box and Labour Representation.’ [10]

However the scale of the employers’ offensive must be kept in perspective. In 1898, following the engineers’ defeat, the TUC president had warned that:

For the first time in the history of our movement we had to face a mammoth combination of military-led capital, whose object, as openly stated by its leader, was to cripple, if not crush the forces of trade unionism ... [11]

That phrase ‘cripple, if not crush’ was all-important. The fights at the end of the century had been bitter, but their effect was to demoralise, to weaken workers’ confidence in their own industrial strength, not to sting them into activity on their own account. Within the Unions themselves, the influence of the bureaucracy vis à vis the rank and file was immeasurably strengthened. Their numbers were growing rapidly in spite of the attacks. In 1850 there had been no full-time officials; but in 1892 there were 600. Yet that year alone the number of engineering officials increased fourfold, while the Carpenters’ officials grew tenfold. By 1920 there were between three and four thousand full-time officials. [12]

One result of the employers’ counter-attack was the partial incorporation of the bureaucracy into working closely with employers through conciliation schemes. The most important was the Brooklands Agreement covering textiles. Such arrangements reduced the number of strikes significantly until a rank and file revolt overturned them after 1910.

Another effect was to jolt the bureaucracy into realising they could neither protect the membership nor defend the union coffers (which were perhaps closer to their hearts). Against their will they were forced to turn from purely economic action towards politics. But they did so in their own interests. The TUC, which in 1895 had totally rejected the idea of a Labour Party, now welcomed it. [The ILP’s attitude to building a Labour Party also changed during the 1890s. Trades unions and trades councils had been invited to the 1893 Bradford Conference of the ILP, and, with two votes against, the conference had opted for a federal structure into which such groups could be absorbed. As Cо1е put it: The ILP at Bradford was still dreaming of becoming the Labour Party. [13] After the ILP’s rebuttal at the 1895 TUC, Hardie suggested ‘that the ILP may open the door for these excluded bodies and such others as cared to join, and so bring about a Socialist Trades Union Congress’. He ventured to predict that such a congress may, before the end of the century, become a focus for working class opinion of all shades.’ [14]

In the conditions of the late 1890s this idea was a non-barter. An alliance now had to be on the trade unions terms and anything which stood in the way had to be avoided. In 1899 a ballot forced upon the ILP’s National Administrative Council Showed 2,397 votes in favour of federation with the SDF and 1,695 for direct fusion. So strong was the feeling in favour of ‘socialist unity’ that no vote against was taken. Nevertheless the council managed to avoid acting upon the ballot result as it ‘would speedily make shipwreck of the ILP’ in its delicate negotiations with the union bureaucracy.’ [15]

The Foundation Conference creates a ‘Labour Alliance’

The resolution that led to the Labour Representation Committee (LRC) was moved by rail union delegates at the 1899 TUC and passed by 546,000 to 434,000. It called for ‘a special congress of representatives ... to devise ways and means for securing the return of an increased number of labour members to the next parliament.’ [16] The Labour Representation Committee was duly founded on 27 February 1900 in London. There were 129 delegates; sixty-five represented 568,000 trade unionists, while the socialist society delegates spoke for 13,000 members of the ILP, 9,000 from the SDF and 861 Fabians. A Labour Representation Committee was elected with seven trade unionists and five socialist society members (two from the ILP, two from the SDF and one Fabian).

Three alternatives were presented to the delegates. The SDF suggested: ‘a party organisation separate from the capitalist parties based upon a recognition of the class war ... having for its ultimate object the socialisation of the means of production, distribution and exchange.’ [17] The right wanted LRC members of parliament to adopt a policy consisting of just ‘four or five planks ... the said representatives to be left entirely free on all purely political questions.’ [18] This meant a continuation of Lib-Labism. Immediate problems such as Taff Vale would have been taken up, but once resolved, the LRC MPs would have sunk back into the Liberal fold.

Keir Hardie defeated both positions. He steered a precise middle course proposing no more and no less than: ‘a distinct Labour Group in Parliament, who shall have their own Whips.’ So there was to be an organisational break with the old parties, but there was to be no marked political differentiation. The only policy suggested was ‘a readiness to co-operate with any party which for the time being may be engaged in promoting legislation in the direct interest of labour.’ [19] Though called the LRC until 1906, the Labour Party was launched.

It was built from the top downwards. Class struggle played no role at all:

From 1899 to 1907 was a period of industrial peace unparalleled between 1891 when statistics started, and 1933, when a comparable period began ... The annual average of working days lost through disputes was less than 3 million and in no years was the total as large as 5 million. By contrast ... from 1908 to 1932 ... the annual average (excluding 1926) was 14 million. [20]

The 1899 TUC which made the fateful decision did not even stir the ILP. Labour Leader’s article on the Congress was entitled Not worth the Candle: ‘It was generally admitted that the congress this year has been exceptionally dull.’ [21] The formation of the LRC itself only merited one quarter of a column in The Times. [22]

Ordinary workers greeted the LRC with apathy. The engineers and boot and shoe operatives had suffered serious blows and their officials therefore looked eagerly to parliament. But ballots on affiliation produced the following results: out of the 32,000 boot and shoe operatives only 6 ½ per cent bothered to vote, 1,500 for affiliation and 675 against. The ASE result was worse. Out of 85,000, only 4 per cent voted, 2897 for and 702 against. Participation was so appalling that even though the engineers vote was positive, the union leadership felt unable to affiliate. [23]

The 1900 general election tells the same tale. The LRC had not yet proved itself to union officials and with just £33 to spend on the entire campaign it was only able to promote three candidates of its own, of whom Keir Hardie and Richard Bell of the rail union were successful. [24] The ILP ran ten candidates without victory. The joint total of some 66,000 votes proved the majority of workers had still to be won to a reformist position. [25]

The establishment of the LRC was bureaucratic in another sense. It involved merely a change of label, but no change of politics. For example Clarke’s study of Lancashire tells how ‘the Ince Liberal Registration Society (Registration Agent, Wm Shaw) ceased to exist and there subsequently appeared the Ince Division Labour Registration Association (Registration Agent Wm Shaw).’ [26] As late as May 1914 the Labour candidate for North East Derbyshire told voters that ‘there is no more ardent Liberal in the country than I have been, and there is no more ardent Liberal now.’ [27]

Such situations could lead to embarrassment. Until he became LRC MP for Barnard Castle in 1903, Arthur Henderson had for seven years been a Liberal election agent. During his campaign his opponents had the discourtesy to publish his earlier denunciations of the ILP’s socialism. [28] Richard Bell had so little adapted his position that he campaigned publicly for the election of a Liberal in Norwich against the LRC candidate, and had to be disciplined! [29]

The political expression of the trade union bureaucracy

The major gain made by the formation of the LRC was organisationally to detach the trade unions leaders from the Liberal Party. They now owed political allegiance to their own creation.

Most union officials who affiliated their organisations did so because they wanted to get to parliament. The first affiliations included just three unions which could be said to be socialist through their new unionist background – two dockers’ organisations and the Gas Workers. These amounted to only one fifth of the total. [30]

Opposition to the LRC came from coal and cotton, which mustered 351,140 of the 434,000 votes cast against the resolution. Miners’ officials, in particular, could expect to become Lib-Lab MPs without outside help because of the membership’s geographical concentration. This was therefore the last major union to see the utility of the Labour Party, only affiliating in 1909.

The second wave of affiliation was induced by Taff Vale. Labour Leader claimed that from the point of view of the nascent Labour Party ‘nothing could have been more fortunate for Trade Unionism than the Taff Vale decision. It has awakened men to a sense of danger.’ [31]

From the very outset the trade unions had the preponderant weight in their ‘Labour Alliance’ with the Socialist societies (ILP and Fabians). The interlocking of union officials and the Labour Party showed itself in a number of ways. Before the First World War union sponsored MPs formed 95 per cent of the Parliamentary Labour Party, and of the thirteen members of the TUC’s leading committee, nine were Labour MPs. [32]

In one sense this was the direct entry of trade unions into political affairs. However it also represented a retreat from trade unionism – from the belief that collective organisation could defend itself. Seen from this angle the LRC was precisely that substitute for trade unionism that Mann had found so absurd. O’Grady told the 1898 TUC that: ‘their efforts, in his opinion, should be directed towards removing the fight from the industrial to the political field.’ [33] There were good reasons for this attitude. Faced with the threat arising from the Taff Vale decision, the union officials had a frightening prospect looming up before them. They might have to fight. Clynes, a prominent union leader, recalled:

I believe that had there not been a Labour Party in 1901, to which angry workmen could flock, the Taff Vale blow at the justice they claimed might have caused them to strike a counter-blow by proclaiming a state of open revolution throughout the big industrial centres of England. [34]

The creation of the LRC provided a bureaucratic political alternative to industrial activity, a means of separating politics and economics. However, as with all else to do with Labour, there was a contradiction. It was the link which exists in the real world between economics and politics, between the state and the bosses, that brought the LRC into existence. Furthermore the party transposed much of the outlook of the trade union bureaucracy. Thus the LRC’s first address to the affiliated members described it as ‘Trade Unionism and the Principles of Trade Unionism, applied to national affairs.’ [35]

Applying this dictum produced curious results. Just as trade unions recruit people regardless of their politics on the basis of their position in industry, so the Labour Party sought to gather workers’ votes regardless of their politics. According to Keir Hardie, Labour must be ‘Conservative enough to preserve everything that is good. Liberal enough to reform what is capable of being reformed; and Radical enough to uproot and destroy whatever is altogether wrong.’ [36] Elsewhere, Snowden portrayed Labour as ‘a neutral meeting ground where Liberal and Tory might meet together.’ [37]

The problem of false consciousness

There is no such thing as neutral ground in class society. Take the decision not to include class war in the party programme. This implied a definite political attitude, as one supporter realised in 1921:

Once you admit ‘the class war’ you are at once more or less committed to political and industrial tactics of ‘war to the knife’. So long as the working class is regarded as an oppressed class yearning for freedom, standing together homogeneously face to face with its oppressors ... so long are you committed to a policy of revolution rather than evolution ... Deny ‘the class war’, and [there] will logically follow politics of ‘arrangements’ of ‘reform’ of ‘understandings’ and ‘alliances’. [38]

This is correct, but the fact remained that those who supported the Labour Party believed it could be politically neutral. We are confronted here with a recurring problem – the difference between Labour’s understanding of itself and its actual position, between myth and reality. To comprehend this we must briefly discuss the concept ‘false consciousness’.

Marx stated the dichotomy between human understanding of the world and social reality in his Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy:

a distinction should always be made between the material transformation of the material conditions of prediction ... and the legal, political, religious, aesthetic or philosophical – in short ideological – forms in which men become conscious of [social] conflict and fight it out.

We can see how this works in the context of Labour. Supporters accepted that Labour rejected class war and believed they could take a neutral, common-sense attitude to politics. They were convinced of the separateness of politics and economics, the existence of a community interest shared by all classes, and the impartiality of the state and the law. But while reformist ideas are sincerely held they are wrong. Historical experience has shown that politics and economics are intimately connected, that the state is a weapon of class rule and so on.

Although there is a gap between reality and reformist ideology, the two are connected dialectically. If class struggle had led automatically to direct political conclusions we would have seen the irresistible rise of a mass revolutionary, organisation in Britain. This has patently not been the case. If on the other hand there had been no link between the outside world and reformist consciousness then the Labour Party would not have come into existence.

So the reformist view of the world is false consciousness, but it has an indirect yet genuine link with the outside world, is influenced by the outside world and in turn influences it.

A technical division of labour

The union bureaucrat is at one remove from the class struggle, stepping between workers and employers when they conflict with each other to negotiate settlements. The Labour Party is twice removed. From birth it claimed to embody the ‘principle of trade unionism applied to national affairs’, but the two were qualitatively different. The trade union bureaucracy is weak on political ideas since its main job is to mediate on wages and conditions. Further, the bureaucracy is divided on sectional grounds – between different industries, crafts and so on, and is subject to collective pressure from the rank and file in workplaces.

However parliamentary work requires a different bureaucracy. They must seek support from workers not as a collective group but as atomised citizens in the polling booths. They must be professional politicians with the appropriate skills and broad electoral attraction. The MPs and full-time Labour intellectuals do this job. [The division of labour between union officials and reformist politicians was becoming visible within the ILP even before the formation of the labour Party. In 1898 Tom Mann, dissatisfied with the predominantly political preoccupations of the ILP, resigned. That same year Pete Сurrаn, an organiser of the gas workers, was also forced to choose between his political and Industrial roles, quitting the ILP council. As Pelling tells ‘The old direct link with New Unionism was severed: the party was now being run, under Hardie’s direction, by a new type of Council member – the full-time journalist politician, such as Ramsay McDonald, Snowden or Glasier, who had no trade-union ties and was free to devote all or most of his time if necessary to the activities of the party.’ [39]]

It was only as a party standing above trade unionism that Labour could successfully appeal to an electorate, the majority of whom were not unionised. This was brought home by the notable failure of many trade union candidates to attract the votes even of their own members. The connection between union support and voting in elections is an interesting one, but notoriously difficult to track down, since the bourgeois democratic system deliberately obliterates the idea of class, reducing everyone to the meaningless level of citizen. Only the miners with their large numbers and geographical concentration can be identified with any certainty in the returns. But even here, in the traditionally compact and unionised communities the link between union membership and voting behaviour was weak. As the historian of mining politics records:

Generally speaking, if a Liberal candidate was also in the field it was rare for the Labour man, even if he himself was a miner or miners’ official, to poll as much as half of the mining vote in the constituency. [40]

Thus in 1910 Herbert Smith, president of the Yorkshire Miners’ Association, attracted just 2,000 votes in a constituency that included 5,000 miners. He actually came bottom, the Liberal receiving 8,000 votes and the Tory 3,400! [41] Because the link between official union recommendations and the vote is so tenuous Labour could claim that as an electoral party it must make a much wider appeal to succeed.

However, trade union officials could retort with equal justice that without the trade unions, the Labour Party would not exist. It was in this sense that Bevin said that the Labour Party was ‘born out of the bowels of the TUC.’

Denying class in a class society

In structure as well as politics the party therefore consists of the uneasy combination of direct class organisation through the unions and nationally orientated politics. It voices working class aspirations but only to the extent that they can be fitted into the workings of the national state. Snowden put it like this:

The Labour Party is not seeking any class triumph. Its object is not to make the manual labour class dominant ... It is quite true that the Labour and Socialist Party makes its appeal to the wage-earning classes. It does that because there are the people who need to be aroused to a fuller sense of civic duty ... as they are the vast majority of the electorate they must exercise the political influence. [42]

The balance between the two factors is expressed in the split between Labour’s left and right – each side articulating one aspect of a common reformist whole. Thus Will Thorne’s 1906 election manifesto said a vote for him meant ‘encouragement to all who suffer under the heel of Capitalism; a blow struck for the workers in that war between Capitalism and Labour which must be waged relentlessly until the emancipation of the workers is achieved by the abolition of the Capitalist system.’ [43] At the other end of the spectrum was the Belfast candidate, William Walker whose manifesto displayed prominently the following words: I am, as I have always been, a supporter of the Legislative Union of Great Britain and Ireland, and will do all in my power to maintain unimpaired the supremacy of the Imperial Parliament.’ [44]

The LRC, it appeared, had no separate political programme. But this was an illusion. It was all very well to create an independent organisational platform; what speeches were to be made from it? Nine times out of ten the early Labour Party plumped for the Liberal policy. It showed few signs of political self-reliance. In May 1900 an LRC sub-committee suggested:

that organisations affiliated to us should run their candidates to begin with in such a way as to make it possible for either the local Liberal or Conservative Association to leave an open field for Labour candidates.

We think it would be advisable to write to the Liberal and Conservative Whips stating that ... we have no hostility to other politics parties, and that ... we shall be glad of their cooperation in getting these candidates through. [45]

This proposal jeopardised even the minimal independence enshrined in the decision to create a ‘distinct Labour group’. In the event the LRC was evenly split on this motion, but the chairman’s casting vote led to its defeat.

Labour’s organisation was strengthened in 1903 when unions decided to levy their members at a rate of one penny per person, and a ‘Party Pledge’ was passed to bind MPs to majority decisions of the parliamentary group. But organisational advance was continually undermined by political dependence on the Liberals.

Without a mass reformism outside to buoy it up, the bureaucratically formed Labour Party led a precarious existence. Its efforts to progress hung between fighting the Liberals to win their voters and fawning upon them for fear of losing ‘moderate’ support.

Hardie wrote begging letters to Liberal dignitaries, pleading with them to lead Labour (and lend it their electoral influence!) To John Morley whom he had so recently denounced in the strongest terms, he wrote: ‘What is wanted ... is a man with the brain to dare, the hand to do, and the heart to inspire. Will you be that man?’ [46] His 1903 missive to Lloyd George was still more pathetic: ‘Here is a leadership sufficient to gratify the loftiest aspirations and it is within your reach; it is yours for the taking.’ [47]

[Labour’s craven attitude towards Lloyd George as a possible leader had a remarkable sequel. In 1916 Lloyd George ‘jocularly remarked’ to Ramsay MacDonald, ‘that he might have to put him in prison [for his pacifist views] ... Discussing Mr Lloyd George’s future, Mr MacDonald said that he quite realised the possibility of his coming the leader of the Labour Party’. [48] In the Political Diaries of C.P. Scott, it is recorded that in December 1917 Sidney Webb agreed with MacDonald that Lloyd George might one day be a suitable leader for the Labour Party. [49] And as late as June 1926 the idea of Lloyd George’s joining the Labour Party was canvassed. This time, however, it was MacDonald who put a stop to the idea, declaring that ‘the Labour Party was much too sedate and practical’ for Lloyd George. He advised him to join the Communists instead. [50]]

Keir Hardie’s appeals fell on stony ground. However he and MacDonald solved Labour’s electoral problem in a brilliantly dishonest way. All the while proclaiming the LRC’s independence, MacDonald secretly arranged with Herbert Gladstone, the national Liberal election agent, that LRC candidates would have a free run in certain constituencies if they left the Liberals an open field elsewhere. The pact remained concealed for fifty years. Had it been known, Labour’s only claim to distinction would have been blown sky high. Its value was demonstrated in the 1906 general election when 19 out of the 27 successful Labour candidates were returned for seats ceded under the arrangement. [51] But secret as it was, the pact left a dangerous legacy of dependence on the Liberal Party for electoral gains.


Keir Hardie claimed the formation of the LRC was a major breakthrough when he addressed the 1903 Labour Conference, but his words raised an important doubt: ‘They all, Liberal, Tory and Socialist alike rejoiced at the magnificent conference got together in that hall. What was the principle which enabled them all to come together – Independence.’ [52] But if Liberals, Tories and Socialists all agreed, what exactly were they independent of?

Historians sympathetic to the Labour Party give more sober assessments but still assert that the Labour Alliance ‘made possible a political, social and economic achievement far beyond ... hopes or expectations’, or that it was ‘the best tool possible under the circumstances.’ [53] There are grains of truth in these arguments. The LRC and later the Labour Party were an advance on Lib-Labism.

To rally workers to vote against the established and openly capitalist parties, in favour of one claiming to represent working class interests, was a forward move in the conditions of 1900, because it advanced the creation of a mass reformist party if only in an organisational sense. Furthermore, the context of politics was transformed. The debate between reform and revolution could now be in practice. Also the trade union leaders now looked to their resources and organisation instead of tailing the openly capitalist parties.

But there was a major debit on the balance sheet. Electoral progress was being sought without a corresponding politic advance at the base. This could only be achieved by sacrifice socialist ideals of the left-wing. The SDF were not prepared the price and left the LRC in August 1901. Alas, they had no intention of creating a fighting alternative to Labour’s politics and returned to the sectarian wilderness from whence they came.

The effect on the ILP was equally serious. These socialists became hostages of the union bureaucracy. An ‘Alliance’ in one partner controls between 94 and 99 per cent of the votes was hardly even-handed, but the ILP was bound hand and foot to it.

At least the ILP had tempered its scramble to win parliamentary seats with socialist propaganda. The LRC appealed openly and covertly to the Liberals to help it into parliament. As the Clarion wrote in 1902:

the great work of the official section of the ILP at the present seems not so much to push Socialism as to try to intrigue some half a dozen persons into Parliament. There is probably not more than one place in Britain (if there is one) where we can get a Socialist into Parliament without some arrangement with Liberalism, and for such an arrangement Liberalism will demand a terribly heavy price – more than we can possibly afford. [54]

The precarious influence of the ILP was demonstrated by the meteoric rise of David Shackleton, the textile union leader. His United Textile Factory Workers’ Association had sponsored a Tory-Labour candidate as recently as 1899. Shackleton himself was no socialist, but a Liberal who had been offered the union’s support in an LRC candidacy. He had been Liberal ward secretary in Accrington and was ‘a very mild spoken gentleman with ideas very little in advance of the average Liberal.’ [55] When a by-election occurred in Clitheroe in 1902 the ILP hungered after the nomination, but stepped aside for Shackleton, who so little offended the main political parties that he was returned unopposed.

Shackleton then came within a hair’s breadth of leading the Labour Party when it first became a serious force in 1906. Both he and Keir Hardie stood for chairman of the Parliamentary Labour group. Hardie was ‘by every qualification of service and experience ... the outstanding candidate for Chairman. He was the senior MP, he was the revered leader of the ILP, and he had done more than any other individual to bring the Labour Party into existence.’ [56] A show of hands among the MPs produced a tie. A secret ballot was no different. The deadlock was only broken when a third vote gave Hardie a majority of one. Shackleton returned to his true political home when he took an administrative job in the Liberal government.

The fact that the Labour Party had been created from above meant that the process of political clarification, which depended not only on a separate organisation but open criticism of Liberals and Tories alike, was actually held back. The compromises of the founding conference therefore could not generate a serious mass critique of capitalism, even on a reformist basis.

For all its shortcomings, the ILP represented some of the most advanced workers in Britain at that time. The hope for socialism depends largely on the ability of the vanguard of the class to lead the mass of workers forward (if not immediately to revolution, at least into fighting for reforms). The Labour Party did not provide leadership in that sense. Indeed, it reversed the equation.

The advanced workers were subordinated to the more backward, not only because of the tendency of the union officials to go at the pace of the slowest workers, but because the ILP was compromised for electoral gain even more extensively than before.

The birth of Labour, like every other aspect of reformism, was a mixed blessing. For the mass of workers, the existence of an organisation linked to the trade unions and different, if only in the vaguest manner, from the openly bourgeois parties, was an improvement. For the minority of advanced workers, who unfortunately accepted the electoralist strategy of Labour, the new organisation was a millstone around their necks. What was gained in breadth was lost in political depth.

The impact of parliament

In 1906 what Herbert Morrison was to call ‘the miracle of politics’ [57] – the climb of Labour towards government office – began in earnest. The general election sent 29 Labour MPs to parliament with 346,000 votes behind them. [Significantly, the vast majority of successful candidates – 24 in all – had got through because they had not had to run against Liberals. The precise voting figure were: the LRC received 331,280 votes; the Scottish Worker Representation Committee, soon to merge itself into the national Labour Party, polled 14,878; the SDF and Socialist independents collected 24,473 and the ‘Lib-Labs’, mainly miners, accounted for another 100,000 or so out of a vote of just under 6 million. [58]]

The capitalist parties felt their long parliamentary monopoly threatened. The Tory leader, Balfour, denounced this ‘echo of the same movement which had produced riots at St. Petersburg, riots in London, and Socialist processions in Berlin.’ [59] An Anti-Socialist Union was hastily launched to save civilisation and the Daily Express carried such horrifying stories as: Driven mad by Socialism – suicide of a lad of sixteen and Socialism in the Kitchen Spreading Discontent among Servants. In a desperate attempt to halt the contagion and prevent a socialist meeting in their town, Cambridge students kidnapped Keir Hardie, or so they thought. But they had only seized a cunningly disguised look-alike. [60]

Red scares are too constant a feature of Labour’s history to be dismissed as complete lunacy or propaganda. As Trotsky says, for some members of the ruling class the fear is ‘that behind the mock-heroic threats of the Labour Party there lies the real danger from the deeply stirring proletarian masses.’ [61] The bosses’ press was right to fear the working class but it was stupid to believe that Labour represented that revolutionary potential. As the president of the 1902 Labour Conference had already affirmed: ‘Our policy is to take away the food of sedition.’ [62]

Indeed the success of 1906 was to take the logic of reformism an important step forwards. Every advance made the political compromise with capitalism less theoretical and more real. Nowhere was this better illustrated than in parliament.

First we expected ‘the best platform in Europe’ as is the British House of Commons, to be used in season and out of season. Instead, we found a disinclination to use it and instead an inclination ‘to get the tone of the House.’ We expected, naively enough, that our MPs would regard themselves not only as leaders and inspirers, but as the interpreters of the movement behind them and the mouthpieces of the dumb masses ... Instead we found ... the spectacle of forceful speakers ... reduced to babbling impotency in their endeavours to ape the statesman. [63]

Snowden, dubbed ‘Yorkshire’s Robespierre’ wrote:

I remember so well ... the early days of this new Parliament ... Old members smiled at the impatience of the new members. They reminded us of the time when they first came to parliament full of an earnest enthusiasm to achieve some good purpose; but despair had entered into their hearts, and before the advent of the Labour men, they had resigned all hope of ever being able to move that cumbersome machine at any reasonable rate along the path of reform. [64]

This feeling of impotence was perhaps the most insidious of the Commons’ influences.

A second powerful corrupting element was the enticing atmosphere of this ‘most exclusive club in Europe’. J.H. Thomas, the railway union leader quickly fell victim: ‘Very early in my experience as an MP I came to appreciate the greatness of the admittedly great, the broadmindedness of the House of Commons as a whole.’ [65] In a party which renounced class consciousness, such a ‘broadminded’ approach favourably compared with workers who, alas, imagined they had some grievance against exploiters. In the Commons:

There was no snobbery, no side. A man was and is welcomed there for his character and brains and not for the amount of his income.

I remember wishing that grades could be as easily overlooked in the trade union movement as they were in the House of Commons.’ [66]

Perhaps quoting an arch-right-winger like Thomas is unfair. What about the ferocious Davie Kirkwood, munitions shop steward, leader of the Clyde Workers’ Committee, deported from Glasgow for denouncing wartime industrial slavery, and from 1922 one of the dreaded ‘Clyde-brigade’ which descended like a Jacobite horde on the peaceful environs of Westminster?

It was a strange House. To me it was full of wonder. I had to shake myself occasionally as I found myself moving about and talking with men whose names were household words. More strange was it to find them all so simple and unaffected and friendly. In the House of Commons there is no snobbery.

After Kirkwood launched a violent attack on the unemployment policy of Bonar Law, the latter bearded him in the corridor to say: ‘You Clyde boys were pretty hard on me today. But it’s fine to hear your Glasgow accent. It’s like a sniff of the air of Scotland in the musty atmosphere of this place.’ ... ‘What could a man do in the face of such a greeting?’ said Kirkwood.’ [67] What indeed!

The party was disarmed. Snowden remembered that:

It was rather amusing to see the Labour members, whose advent to Parliament was expected to outrage all the conventionalities, performing [parliamentary] custom[s] with more correctness than the Tory members. [68]

There was even a apocryphal story about a Liberal member who attended the Commons in a soft hat instead of a topper, because he did not want to be mistaken for a Labour MP. [69]

The degenerative effect of parliament had nothing to do with the nostrum that ‘all power corrupts’. On the contrary, it was the very lack of power in the place for which they had sold so much to reach, that caused such degradation.

Taming conference

The first art of the MPs was to create the Parliamentary Labour Party. The significance of this must be understood. McKenzie explains: ‘The term “The Labour Party” is properly applied only to the mass organization of the party outside Parliament; it supports in Parliament a distinct and separate organization, “The Parliamentary Labour Party”.’ [70]

Much of the history of Labour revolves around the struggle for dominance between the party leadership centred in the PLP and its supporters outside. The two poles of class aspiration and the politics of the nation exist side by side in reformism. Nevertheless, from the moment of its birth the PLP asserted its right to ignore the membership.

The reformist loves to deride Marxism as dogmatic. But the logic of reformism is a hard master, and it now dictated that the activists, once they had lifted MPs into the Commons, must become passive spectators of the mighty. Labour Conference, almost the only arena where the MPs’ activities might be questioned, was the first victim of electoral triumph.

The LRC changed its name to the Labour Party 1906. Its executive decided to present the 1907 Conference with a motion stating that resolutions could do no more than ‘register the opinions of the conference without prejudice to any future course of action that may be considered advisable by the Party in Parliament.’ [71] But this was too blatant. As someone told Eduard Bernstein, father of German Revisionism: ‘My dear Ede, one does not say these things, one simply does them.’ [72] In the end the motion was never debated. Pete Curran, an ILP trade unionist, insisted that the executive amend its own resolution.

The final wording deleted the offending phrase, replacing it with this: ‘the time and method of giving effect to [conference decisions] are left to the Party in the House in conjunction with the National Executive.’ [73] This gave the PLP all it wanted.

The conference debate was remarkable given the short time the Labour Party had had to sell out. The Engine Men’s delegate ‘said that they found members going to the House of Commons not only disregarding the instructions given them but absolutely voting against the registered wish of conference. He thought they had a right to be suspicious of actions like those.’ A Workers’ Union representative concurred: ‘The Conference and not the Parliamentary Party should decide the Parliamentary business.’ [74] But true to form, the union bureaucracy backed their political brothers and the motion passed by 642,000 to 252,000.

The 1907 debates forced the PLP to clarify relations with the extra-parliamentary bodies. Snowden’s conclusions were direct:

My experience of Conferences has taught me to attach very little importance to their resolutions. Of the hundreds of resolutions I have seen passed by Labour conferences outlining a drastic programme of reform, I can hardly call to mind one which has had any practical result. Conferences will talk; let them talk. Governments, including Labour Governments, dispose of Conference resolutions ... The rank and file of the Labour Party ought to have learnt the lesson by now. They have had enough experience of the futility of conference resolutions. [75]

Sixty years later the experience of the Labour governments under Harold Wilson and James Callaghan decisively confirmed Snowden’s words.

The subordinate position of conference followed remorselessly once the idea was accepted firstly that parliament is genuinely representative of the masses and secondly that it is the only acceptable arena for carrying through change. MacDonald put it succinctly when he said the important thing is ‘not what a Socialist meeting declares itself anxious to do, but what the community [the electorate] is prepared to do.’ [76]

Straight after the 1907 Conference Henderson explained that MPs were not responsible to Conference: ‘I have the strongest wish to respect the findings of the conference. I must however have some regard to those I directly represent in Parliament. This is an aspect of our position not sufficiently kept in mind ...’ [77] The idea of a ‘constituency interest’ is just as spurious as that of the ‘national interest’. Since workers can only make serious progress at the expense of the capitalists, and conversely, capitalists live only by the daily sweat and toil of those they exploit, both cannot be represented at the same time. If an MP truly wishes to act in the interest of his working class constituents, he can do no more than tell them that parliament is a sham and that real power in society lies with capital and the unelected monopolists of physical violence – the police, army and prisons.

A week after these words from Henderson, Hardie emphasised another point: ‘rigidly laying down the lines which the Party must follow ... is the road to ruin. If the party in the House of Commons is to succeed it must be free to select its own course ... only those on the spot, whose finger is on the pulse of Parliament can decide ... No conference meeting at Hull or Belfast or Derby or Newcastle can undertake this task ...’ [78] Again the logic of reformism dictates; everything bows before the Palace of Westminster. [Trade unionists had by this time become accustomed to the rule of bureaucracy, but its rise in the ILP, as a result of the pressure of parliamentarism, was new and striking. Writing in 1908 Russell Smart and Alfred Salter accused the inner ring of NAC of oligarchy: ‘To all intents these few men are the party. Conference to them is merely an interlude in which a number of delegates meet together to enjoy an annual holiday, to discuss a vast number of unimportant matters, and go through the unnecessary formality of re-electing them to office year after year ... The evil has been accentuated since the general election. Questions of national policy fall more and more into the hands of the Parliamentary members of the council; the divisional members can exercise as little control over the inner ring as the ‘inferior’ members of a Government exercise control over the cabinet Ministers ...’ [79]

The PLP was now firmly embedded in the parliamentary game, but what benefits did all that sacrifice of principle bring? The only notable Labour gain in its first quarter of a century was the reversal of Taff Vale by the 1906 Trades Disputes Act. Labour first thought of amending the law [80] but an outraged TUC excluded people like Webb who proposed this, and insisted that outright abolition was needed. In the end it was the support of the Liberal prime minister that got the measure through.

Poodles of Liberalism

Apart from the Trades Disputes Act, Labour’s parliamentary record remained dismal. Between 1907 and 1914, the party appeared to all and sundry as the pathetic tail pretending to wag the Liberal dog. In the years 1906 and 1908 Labour MPs backed the government in 86 per cent of all divisions. [81]

After 1910 the trickle of opportunism became a flood. That year Labour, boosted by the affiliation of the miners, rose to 42 MPs. But the Liberals lost their commanding majority and only remained in office with Labour support. This should have given the party the whip hand. Hardie saw Labour copying the Irish MPs and forming ‘a separate voting bloc prepared to sell its votes to the highest bidder’. [82] But he forgot that the Irish had been a powerful independent pressure group because they wanted Home Rule. The Labour MPs on the other hand wanted to rule from Westminster and so were wedded to parliament and its procedures. So far from the Labour group pressuring the Liberal government, they were consistently blackmailed to back it up.

The second factor was the Osborne Judgement, a legal ruling which prevented unions from paying Labour’s political levy, leaving the party short of funds with which to fight any future contests. This was a compelling reason for Labour to vote with the Liberals at any price. The Liberal chief whip reported in 1910: ‘Throughout this period I was always able to count on the support of the Labour Party.’ [83]

MacDonald drew the political conclusions. If change was gradual and depended on votes, then the fact that the majority voted Liberal surely meant that the best place to be was the Liberal Party itself. By 1910 MacDonald was publicly questioning whether the Labour Party might not do better as a ginger group of the Liberals? He wrote: ‘it is impossible to maintain a pure and simple Socialist Party ... the Labour Party ... will probably fulfil itself by being the creative centre of a much more powerful political movement.’ [84] In the same vein he claimed that ‘under British conditions, a Socialist Party is the last, not the first form of the Socialist movement in politics.’ [85]

The problems were illustrated daily in the Commons. Whether it was the House of Lords blocking Liberal social reforms, unemployment, or the Insurance Act, Labour took a position barely distinguishable from and sometimes to the right of many Liberal MPs. Supporters asked in dismay: ‘How can the man in the street, whom we are continually importuning to forsake his old political associations, ever be led to believe that the Labour Party is in any way different to the Liberal Party, when this sort of thing is recurring.’ [86]

This behaviour was tragic, but for the bourgeois press it had its comic side:

The Labour members ... talk valiantly on platforms about their independence ... But in the House itself they are as obedient as trained poodles ... they line into the right lobby with a subservience which is entertaining.

Parliamentarians recall one famous day when the Labour Party led by Mr Ramsay MacDonald proposed what practically amounted to a vote of censure on the Government for not paying fair wages in Government works. But they gasped for breath when ... Mr Ramsay MacDonald scuttled. [Fearing a Liberal defeat] he would not support his own motion ... It is conduct like this which has caused the working man holding forward political opinions to suspect that the Labour gentlemen at Westminster are bamboozling them. [87]

The farcical state into which Labour had fallen was shown when Labour MPs officially decided they should not vote according to the merits of an issue, but only to keep the Liberals in office!

This was hardly a golden age.

The degradation did not stop there. Labour came within a hair’s breadth of entering a coalition with the Liberals. This was raised in 1910 but judged premature. In 1911 MacDonald was in serious discussions with leading Liberals over the possibility. [88] In 1914 Fenner Brockway made these machinations public at the ILP Conference. [89] In fact a coalition including Liberals, Labour and the Tories was just around the comer, but the excuse for this was rather more convincing than the previous ones – the World War.

Left alternatives

Labour’s abject position sent a wave of anger across the left. There have always been two very different reactions against the degeneration caused by electoralism. One was a turn towards mass militancy, which involved a practical rejection of parliamentary methods. The other can be called the eternal Labour left. It is eternal because reformist politics always involves compromising with capitalism. Ralph Miliband describes the aims of Labour’s left thus:

to push their leaders into accepting more radical policies and programmes, and to press upon them more militant attitudes in response to challenges from labour’s opponents. The Labour Left’s own acceptance of the categories of the parliamentary system has been distinguished from that of the leadership by a continuous search for means of escape from its inhibitions and constrictions. What the Labour leaders have accepted eagerly the Labour Left has accepted with a certain degree of unease and at times with acute misgivings. [90]

Acute misgivings maybe, but it has always accepted. It shakes its chains but remains a willing prisoner of the machine.

The organised left presence in the Labour Party dates from the election in 1907 of Victor Grayson who shot like a comet across the horizon of Labour politics and then fizzled out. His eventual disappearance remains an unexplained mystery. [91] Grayson stood as ‘Labour and Socialist’ in the Colne Valley by-election. To the Labour leadership this was a crime. Socialism was acceptable in private but should not obtrude into electoral business.

Grayson was not a revolutionary, but he was militantly reformist. While others saw in parliament the broadmindedness of the ‘admittedly great’, he saw only an ‘ancient Chamber ... swaddled in the mediaeval vestments of pompous and now meaningless procedure ... The legislative machine is exquisitely devised to prevent, or at least render difficult, any change in stereotyped institutions.’ [92] Parliament could only be used as a propaganda platform from which to arouse those outside. In 1908, he was expelled from the Commons for accusing MPs of conniving at murder by allowing poverty to continue.

Grayson lost his seat in 1910 and broke away to form the British Socialist Party (which, though dominated by the former SDF, incorporated dissident ILP branches and Blatchford’s Clarion movement). But criticisms of Labour continued from within. Tillett wrote a pamphlet whose title, Is the Parliamentary Labour Party a Failure? is self-explanatory. A group of ILP members issued the so-called ‘Green Manifesto’ Let Us Reform the Labour Party. Its tone was urgent. The Labour Party was facing ‘a crisis touching its very vitals’. This had been brought about by ‘the Lazarus-like attitude of many of the members, and the suicidal “Revisionist” policy accepted by all of the members of the Parliamentary Labour Group.’ This had ‘reduced the whole Movement to acute anaemia or rabid melancholy.’ [93] Many senior Labour MPs, including Hardie and Snowden, openly ridiculed the policy prevailing under the MacDonald leadership. Snowden declared:

Unless the Labour Party has a distinct point of view...unless it can show that it is anxious to go farther than, or in a different way to, the Liberals, there is no reason for its existence as a separate party. It would be difficult for the observer to find from the attitude of the PLP wherein its position on questions of taxation differs from that of the Liberal Party. [94]

In the end, however, the campaign by Grayson and those that followed him had minimal impact. It had been fatally flawed from the start, and this was revealed as early as 1909. At that year’s ILP Conference the mettle of the left was tested. MacDonald set the stage by suggesting parliamentary procedures were more important than the plight of the unemployed:

The existence of democratic government is just as essential to the building up of the Socialist State as is the solution of the problem of unemployment ... The Party which proposes to strike at the heart of democratic government in order to make a show of earnestness about unemployment will not only not be tolerated by the country, but does not deserve to be. [95]

Hardie nailed his colours to the mast when he leapt up to announce that MacDonald was ‘the biggest intellectual asset which the Socialist movement has.’

When a vote went against the leadership and in favour of Grayson the ILP ‘Big Four’ – Hardie, Macdonald, Snowden and Bruce Glasier dropped a bombshell – they resigned. The response was immediate. Cross describes how one delegate ‘moved a resolution so obsequious that even now it takes one’s breath away.’ [96] Only ten delegates voted against this tearful plea for the leaders to stay on. But the Big Four let their decision stand. They doubted the continuing need for an ILP. Glasier felt: ‘We must only save the Party if it is worth saving,’ and of this he was not certain.’ [97]

The ILP had outlived its usefulness. Its enthusiasm had helped create the PLP, but now this body wanted passive obedience, not an organisation telling it how to behave. Russell Smart, an astute left-winger, realised this:

Is it our part in the fight merely to provide the funds, get recruits, and follow our leaders? ... For the last few years the Junta pursued a policy which had steadily and stealthily deprived the branches of their autonomy and increased the power of the centre ... we are merely the ladder by which clever, and at a later date self-seeking politicians may climb into office. [98]

There was a fundamental difficulty facing the Labour left. In accepting parliamentary change they had ultimately to bow down before the parliamentarians. Lenin regarded ‘direct struggle of the masses ... as the highest form of the movement, and parliamentary activity ... as the lowest form.’ [99] Now this is either true or it is not. If it is true, then the workers’ needs, their self-confidence and their capacity to fight, come first, and parliamentary manoeuvres are secondary. If, on the other hand, Macdonald was right, then parliamentary influence outweighs everything. Macdonald put these alternatives in his replies to Grayson:

We ask you to find money for the establishment and maintenance of a serious and intelligent and determined body of men who use the House of Commons in order that they may work through it, not merely demonstrate through it ... [100]

The outside left

Labour’s final emergence from the cocoon of Liberalism owed nothing to its own efforts, or even those of the left. It arose from the second, and far more serious alternative to Labourism, the ‘Labour Unrest’ of 1910–1914. The new unionism of 1889 created a forward movement which, though deflated into reformist channels, gave the impetus for a real break with Lib-Labism. Since then, no mass ideological advance had been made, which partly explained the permanent tendency of the Labour Party to collapse into the arms of the Liberals.

The class struggles that began in 1910 and continued until 1921 provided the springboard for the next major development in labour politics. We move from an alliance of the reformist ILP minnow with the trade union whale of basically Liberal persuasion, to a mass reformist party. Once more the Labour leaders are found tailing the class (where not actually obstructing it) and again the translation of struggle into electoral politics is both indirect and assisted by the weak position of the revolutionary, left.

In the ‘Labour Unrest’ of 1910 to 1914 the working class returned to the stage of history with a ferocity which terrified the Labour Party as much as the ruling class. These years saw the first national strikes of miners, dockers and railwaymen. Within four years trade union membership doubled, and strike days quadrupled. Merseyside’s Bloody Sunday, 13 August 1911 captured the spirit of the time. A mass demonstration of 80,000 striking transport workers was attacked by police and military. Driven into the city:

the residents in many instances took sides with the rioters against the police, throwing bottles, bricks, slates and stones from the houses and from the roofs. The whole area was for a time in a state of siege. [101]

Two days later a couple of strikers were shot dead. The same happened at Llanelli where two more were killed.

These events were precipitated by a continuing decline in British capitalism’s competitive position, rising prices and a drop in unemployment. Once again the role of revolutionaries was central. They were inspired by the theory of syndicalism. As one delegate told the 1912 Trades Union Congress: ‘Let us be quite clear as to what Syndicalism really is ... a protest against the inaction of the Labour Party.’ [102]

This was borne out by syndicalist writings. Tom Mann’s Industrial Syndicalist, The Miners’ Next Step and other works carried the same rejection of ‘politics’, understood as Labour’s reformism. Leaflets such as this were typical: ‘Leaders only want your votes; they will sell you. They lie, Parliament lies and will not help you, but is trying to sell you. Don’t touch a tool till you get your minimum. Win, win, win!’ [103] And win they did in a number of mighty disputes.

The Weekly Despatch explained what had occurred:

The fact is that the Labour representatives, from their own point of view, become demoralised when they enter Parliament ... Their friends in the constituencies who expect so many things from the Labour Party are disappointed. The consequence is that the men outside, the real leaders of labour agitation, are going instead without paying the slightest attention to their parliamentary representatives. They realise, though, rather late, the Labour Party is but an appendage of the Liberal Party.

The truth was that the parliamentary game of the party was irrelevant to the daily needs of the class:

It has no effect on the matters most important to Labour; wages did not rise, the price of necessities of life increased ... It is enough to state that [the Labour Party] has no influence on those vital issues. [104]

A brake on the movement

The reaction of the Labour Party to the unrest was highly informative. First, as has been noted, it did absolutely nothing to develop the mass militancy. Although a great number of Labour Party supporters must have been caught up in strike action, on no occasion were they acting as Labour Party members, but rather in spite of that fact.

As a force for taking the Labour Unrest forward, or shaping it in a positive direction, the Labour Party was totally and utterly irrelevant. The President of the Board of Trade, the government’s chief conciliation service, told the cabinet of:

the almost complete collapse of the Labour Party in the House as an effective influence in labour disputes. They were not consulted with regard to and had no share in the Seamen’s or Transport Workers’ movement last summer. During the railway strike, they attempted to act as a go-between for the men and the Government. But they had very little influence over the actions of the men, or on the result ... the Labour Party exercised no influence at all.

And he added a significant rider: ‘Their elimination is a distinct loss to industrial peace.’ [105]

In the early stages even the union bureaucracy were extremely anxious to exclude the Labour leaders from any involvement. MacDonald complained about the Miners’ executive: ‘Not only did it hold itself aloof from the Labour Party in parliament, but it sought virtually to interdict the Labour members from expressing on public platforms any views concerning the situation or the government negotiations ... This surely was Syndicalism in excelsis! [106]

It is easy to see why Labour should not have been consulted, for if they had been, this was the advice MacDonald proffered:

If we had been consulted first of all we should have advised the men to begin with Parliamentary action, both on the floor of the House of Commons, and in Ministers’ private rooms ... whilst the heroics outside are being indulged in, Parliamentary action of a general character is being paralysed and prejudiced. [107]

The party was not ignored because it had nothing to say. It commented in speeches, newspapers and books – with a barrage of abuse beside Which Thatcherite attacks on the right to Strike begin to pale. The May 1912 issue of the ILP’s Socialist Review described strikes as ‘an apocalypse overspreading the social firmament.’ [108] Supporters of direct action formed ‘a percentage of the population [Which] is mentally defective. [They are] not a subject of discussion but of pathological treatment.’ Glasier’s pamphlet. Socialism and Strikes began by saying that ‘among the many curious and, at first sight inexplicable customs of civilisation, that of industrial strikes seems one of the most extraordinary.’ To stop work ‘is culpable, comprehensible fatuity.’ [109]

However this attitude was not out-and-out reactionary. Labour’s leaders did not explicitly side with the bosses. They wished to be neutral and for the state to rise above class warfare. To the belligerents they said ‘a plague on both your houses’. Thus during the bitter struggle in 1913 of Jim Larkin and the Dublin workers against a ruthless anti-union boss, Glasier condemned the two sides for showing ‘the same wilful anarchistic temperament’ They were ‘the upper ... and lower jaw of the same clinch.’ [110] It might have looked like that from the offices of the ILP; on the ground the impression was startlingly different. Larkin replied that these political leaders had ‘sold the cause of Labour, besmirched the flag, dragged it down in the dirt.’ [111]

Tillett ridiculed the idea that the capitalist state was neutral. He described the events of 1912 as follows:

... strikes ... police intimidation, coercion, brutality, riot, imprisonment; Home Secretary intervenes with armed forces, attempts at suppression, Cossack methods of the Home Office forces. Parliament dumb and acquiescent, Labour Party impotent where not indifferent ... Parliament is a farce and a sham, the rich man’s Duma, the employer’s Tammany, the Thieves’ Kitchen and the working man’s despot ... In the 1912 strikes we had to fight Parliament, the forces of the Crown, the judges of the law ... [112]

The Labour Unrest showed that in major class struggles Labour sides with the state and stands for the preservation of capitalist society. Thus in 1912 the ILP’s Socialist Review wrote: ‘Society is exposed to well nigh mortal injury ... the well-being of the whole nation is at the mercy of the workmen ...’ Whatever the provocation, such strikes could never be excused: ‘How then is the nation to deal with a menace of such almost incredible coercion – a coercion which is altogether apart ... from the question of the justifiability of the claims of the workers.’ [113] Macdonald, famed as the ‘man who could conceal an ounce of meaning in a ton of verbiage’ [114] suddenly managed to speak with crystal clarity. ‘Syndicalism is largely a revolt against Socialism [by which he meant the Labour Party]. Socialism must be Parliamentary or it is nothing.’ The choice was indeed class or nation: ‘There is, therefore, a real unity called a nation, which endows the individual with traditions, with habits, with a system of social conduct. The Syndicalist ... lays it down that this national inheritance is unreal, is nothing – can build up no policy upon it.’ [115]

However the reaction was not uniform. Some ILP leaders professed sympathy for strikes, only the more effectively to restrain them. Witness the byzantine sophistry of Keir Hardie at this time: parliamentary action ‘is revolutionary, whereas direct action is but palliative ... A general strike against Liberalism and Toryism is the need of the hour. The industrial strike, even when successful settles nothing ... The political strike [by which Hardie meant voting Labour] is the only form of strike which is all gain and no loss. [116] The ability of reformists to talk left, when the moment requires, should never be underestimated. In 1912, ignoring the ILP’s entire history, Hardie declared:

The ILP ... is not a reform organisation; it is revolutionary in the fullest sense of the word. The ILP does not exist to patch up the present order of society so that it may be made a little more tolerable; it exists to overthrow the present order ... Comrades of the working class, we do not want Parliament to give us reforms. We are not asking Parliament to do things for us. We are going to Parliament ourselves to master Parliament. [117]

An interesting pattern was developing. The left wing at the 1900 founding conference – the ILP, was now to the right. Most ILP leaders, professionally linked with the concept of ‘nation’ and distanced from collective pressure outside parliament, were now far more conservative than their counterparts in the union bureaucracy.

By 1910 there was a group of professional reformists – the PLP, who had a material interest in resisting strikes. History does not stand still. In the 1890s reformist politicians were in advance of the class. From 1910 this was no longer true. The ‘Labour Unrest’ showed them not only far behind the working class, but a conscious hindrance to its advance.

Something else should be noted. Although union leaders ultimately blocked action they had to be far more sensitive to direct class pressure from the workplaces. Both left and right-wing officials needed left rhetoric to keep any control and realised that close association with the discredited, passive Labour Party would damage them in the eyes of a rank and file already prepared to act unofficially.

Thus the NUR’s Railway Review, the paper of the right-wing Jimmy Thomas, denounced a particularly obnoxious Labour attack entitled Stop the Strike which described stoppages as ‘essentially an abortion’:

How simple the whole matter is ... What a magnanimous disregard for the social relations in which this takes place and is conditioned! With a single generalisation the capitalist mode of production is waved out of existence ... Landlord, capitalist and wage-labourer have disappeared.’ [118]

At this point the interests of the labour bureaucracy – the MPs and the trade union officials – diverged, a fact highlighted by one of the most astounding Bills ever proposed by Labour MPs. It was put forward by a prestigious team including the previous and Current party chairmen – Arthur Henderson and George Barnes as well as Will Crooks [Crooks was elected in by-election in 1903 and was therefore one of the most senior Labour MPs] and Enoch Edwards. These men, who all had trade union connections, proposed to make it illegal to strike without first going to a Board of Conciliation. Thirty days notice had to be given for any ‘intended change affecting conditions of employment with respect to wages or hours.’ Any worker who struck in defiance of the law would be fined ‘not less than £2 nor more than £10 for every day or part of a day that such employee is on strike.’ With average weekly earnings just over £1 the real cost of the fines may be appreciated. The most draconian part of the Bill concerned working class solidarity: ‘Any person who incites, encourages or aids in any manner ... any employee to go or continue on strike contrary to the provisions of this Act shall be guilty of an offence and liable to a fine of not less than £10 and not more than £200.’ [119] An unopposed vote of censure was passed by the TUC on this proposal in 1911, and it had to be dropped.

The events of 1912 reunited the union leaders and PLP once more. The first national miners’ strike plus an increasingly articulate syndicalist challenge, led both to discover their community of interest in resisting the workers. Robert Smillie, the veteran ILP member and miners’ leader, realised that: ‘During our strike ... we got to the verge of the horror of revolution.’ [120] The shift in emphasis can be seen by comparing Labour Conferences in January 1912 and January 1913: At the first, before the miners’ stoppage, conference unanimously approved resolutions congratulating striking unions on their success. But the next year it had become one long diatribe against syndicalism. The Triple Alliance of coal, rail and transport unions was another example of the change. It began as a response to pressure for class unity in action, but Smillie later wanted to use it differently: ‘If the three bodies which have now joined hands use their votes wisely at election times they themselves could add 120 Members to those in the House of Commons. That is the place where the future battle is to fought.’ [121]

The trade union bureaucracy now recognised, as Lloyd George had done, that Labour politics could act as ‘the best policemen for the Syndicalist’. [122] Indeed the party played an exceptionally important part in controlling the movement, a part belied by its apparent irrelevance. It provided the weaponry and the justification for the bureaucrats’ holding operation.

Syndicalism had no answer to the generalised political arguments of Labour, because it rejected ‘politics’ in principle. Its only policy was a spontaneous general strike. Theoretical weakness did not seem to matter when wages were the issue; but as soon as it was a question of going beyond economic action the syndicalists found themselves unarmed, with Labour occupying the high ground of general ideas. The syndicalists made the fatal mistake of writing off the politics of reformism.

For the Labour Party was never simply a reactionary party like the Tories and Liberals. It held out the promise that workers might advance by other means than self-activity. It defended law and order, but bemoaned the ‘excesses’ of the police and military. The party may not have been effective in attacking capital, but it proved valuable in defending it.

In comparison with working-class direct action, Labour’s efforts at the polls seemed laughable. Between 1910 and 1914 it lost four seats and came bottom of the poll in the other twelve by-elections. Nevertheless the wider class struggle was shifting many workers to the left, and despite the loss of seats a creeping increase in Labour’s vote passively recorded this phenomenon.

However the mass basis for reformism was still restricted. Evidence for this came with the passing of the 1913 Trade Union Act. This amending of the Osborne Judgement required unions to take ballots to ascertain whether to pay the political levy. The levy received just 60 per cent of the small numbers of votes cast.[There are precious few measures of the real significance of union affiliation to the Labour Party. During the late 1980s Labour did well in Margaret Thatcher’s imposed ballots on the political levy, but we have only one other measure of active union commitment, from 1927. That year the Tories stopped automatic deduction of the levy from dues and individuals had to ‘opt in’. Though this cost only a few pence a year Labour’s trade union membership dropped by 40 per cent overnight.]

By 1914 the proportion of trade unionists affiliated to Labour was lower than it had been in 1903. [123]

Even for the most ardent of reformists Labour’s first fourteen years must have been a grave disappointment. The working class had rediscovered a type of do-it-yourself reformism – and had achieved in weeks changes such as the miners’ statutory minimum wage, which years of lobbying at Westminster had failed to secure. The Labour Party’s own efforts, by contrast, were dismal.


1. H. Pelling, The Origins of the Labour Party (London 1965), p. 229.

2. 1895 TUC Congress Report, p. 28.

3. Pelling, p. 171.

4. TUC 1889, p. 57, and TUC 1890, p. 53.

5. TUC 1893, p. 46.

6. TUC 1895, p. 34.

7. Labour Leader, 27 October 1894.

8. Labour Leader, 24 April 1895.

9. Labour Leader, 5 February and 14 May 1898.

10. Labour Party Conference Report 1902, p. 12.

11. J. O’Grady, in TUC 1898, p. 32.

12. S. and B. Webb, A History Of Trade Unionism (London 1920), pp. 577–8, and Clegg and others, p. 478.

13. Cole, Working Class Politics, p. 141 (emphasis added).

14. ILP Conference 1896, p. 5.

15. Keir Hardie in Labour Leader, 25 April 1899.

16. TUC 1899, p. 65.

17. Labour Party Conference Report 1900, p. 11.

18. Labour Party Conference Report 1900, p. 12.

19. Labour Party Conference Report 1900, p. 12.

20. Clegg and others, p. 326

21. Labour Leader, 16 September 1899.

22. The Times, 1 March 1900, quoted in Pelling, p. 208.

23. Bealey and Pelling, pp. 37–8, and Brand, p. 13.

24. Bealey, p. 43.

25. See Cole, Working Class Politics, p. 164.

26. P. Clarke, Lancashire and the New Liberalism (Cambridge 1971), p. 321.

27. Quoted in M. Petter, The Progressive Alliance, in History, Vol. 5, No. 192, February 1973, pp. 55–6.

28. Bealey, p. 163.

29. Howell, p. 80.

30. Clegg and others, p. 375.

31. Labour Leader, 23 November 1901.

32. The figures given refer to the respective high prints of the January 1910 general election and the 1906 parliament. Full details are W.D. Muller, ‘The Kept Men’? (Hassocks 1977), p. 4.

33. TUC 1899, pp. 32 and 66.

34. J.R. Clynes, Memoirs (London 1937), p. 94.

35. Infancy of Labour Party, documents at the British Library of Political and Economic Science.

36. The Miner, July 1887.

37. Howell, p. 218.

38. Desmond, p. 137.

39. Pelling, Origins, p. 176.

40. R. Gregory, The Miner, and British Politics 1906–1914 (Oxford 1968), p. 189.

41. Gregory, pp. 114 and 139.

42. P. Snowden, The Game of Party Politics (London 1914), p. 11.

43. Radices, Thorne, p. 58.

44. Infancy of Labour Party, documents.

45. Quoted in Bealey, p. 40

46. Quoted in I. McLean, Keir Hardie (London 1975), p. 88

47. Labour Leader, 7 March 1903.

48. Lord Beaverbrook, Politicians and the War (London 1960), p. 514.

49. T. Wilson (ed.), The Political Diaries of C.P. Scott 1911–1928 (London 1970), p. 320 (entry for 16–19 December 1917).

50. Daily Herald, 4 June 1926.

51. Bealey, pp. 298–9.

52. Labour Party Conference Report 1903, p. 108.

53. Williams, Fifty Years March (London no date), p. 24, and Brand, p. 12.

54. Quoted in P. Poirier, The Advent of the Labour Party (London 1958), p. 145.

55. A contemporary opinion quoted in R. Moore, The Emergence of the Labour Party (Sevenoaks 1978), p. 90.

56. Cross, p. 75.

57. Labour Party Conference Report 1929, p. 150.

58. Cole, Working Class Politics, p. 184.

59. Thompson, The Enthusiasts, p. 145.

60. Quotations and story from J. MacMillan, The Way We Were (London 1978), pp. 122–4.

61. Trotsky, Writings on Britain, Vol. 2, p. 15.

62. Labour Party Conference Report 1902, p. 65.

63. Desmond, p. 86.

64. Snowden, Autobiography, Vol. 1, p. 127.

65. J.H. Thomas, My Story (London 1937), p. 28.

66. Quoted in G. Blaxland, J.H. Thomas: A Life for Unity (London 1984), p. 60.

67. D. Kirkwood, My Life of Revolt (London 1935), pp. 201–2.

68. Snowden, Autobiography, p. 133.

69. Thompson, Enthusiasts, p. 150.

70. R.T. McKenzie, British Political Parties (London 1963), p. 12.

71. Labour Party Conference Report 1907, p. 15.

72. Quoted in J.P. Nettl, Rosa Luxemburg (Cambridge 1969), p. 101.

73. Nettl, p. 49.

74. Nettl, p. 49.

75. Snowden, Autobiography, Vol. 1, pp. 87–8.

76. Barker (editor), The Political Writings of Ramsay MacDonald (London 1972), p. 225.

77. Labour Leader, 8 February 1907.

78. Labour Leader, 15 February 1907.

79. Labour Leader, 22 May 1908.

80. See draft bill in Infancy of Labour Party, documents.

81. S. Beer, Modern British Politics (London 1965), p. 125.

82. Bealey, p. 190.

83. Quoted in Gregory, p. 41.

84. Quoted in Barker, pp. 161–2.

85. MacDonald, The Socialist Movement, p. 235.

86. L. Hall, J.M. McLachlan, С.T. Douthwaite and J.H. Belcher, Let Us Reform the Labour Party (Manchester no date), p. 10.

87. Weekly Despatch, 10 March 1912.

88. D. Marquand, Ramsay MacDonald (London 1977), pp. 126 and 142.

89. ILP Conference 1914, p. 85.

90. R. Miliband, Parliamentary Socialism (London 1972), p. 14.

91. For details see D. Clark, Labour’s Lost Leader: Victor Grayson (London 1985), and R. Groves, The Strange Case of Victor Grayson (London 1975).

92. V. Grayson, The Appeal for Socialism (no date or place), p. 10.

93. Hall and others, p. 1.

94. Quoted in Hall and others, p. 5.

95. ILP conference 1909, p. 47.

96. Cross, p. 157.

97. P. Thompson, p. 156.

98. Labour Leader, 23 April 1909.

99. Lenin, Collected Works (Moscow), Vol. 16, p. 32.

100. Quoted in B. Tillett, Is the Parliamentary Labour Party a failure? (London, no date), p. 7.

101. Local press, quoted in B. Holton, British Syndicalism 1900–1914 (London 1976), p. 100.

102. TUC 1912, p. 274.

103. Quoted in Holton, pp. 116–117.

104. Weekly Despatch, 10 March 1912.

105. Sidney Buxton, quoted in J.H. Winter, Socialism and the Challenge of War (London 1974), p. 25.

106. Socialist Review, May 1912, p. 163.

107. Labour Leader, 27 July 1912.

108. Socialist Review, May 1912, p. 164.

109. J.B. Glasier, Socialism and Strikes (reprinted London 1920), pp. 7 and 12.

110. Socialist Review, January 1914, p. 4.

111. Manchester Guardian, 26 January 1914.

112. A. Bullock, The Life and Times Of Ernest Bevin, Vol. 1 (London 1960), p. 34.

113. Socialist Review, March 1912, pp. 97–103.

114. G. McAllister, James Maxton, Portrait of a Rebel (London 1935), p. 163.

115. J.R. MacDonald, Syndicalism (London 1913), pp. 6 and 55.

116. Socialist Review, Vol. 9, pp. 215–6.

117. Labour Leader, 31 May 1912.

118. Railway Review, 13 October 1911.

119. The Times, 9 September 1911.

120. TUC 1912, p. 277.

121. Labour Leader, 9 July 1914.

122. Quoted in Holton, p. 37.

123. For details see K.D. Brown (ed.), The First Labour Party (Kent 1985), pp. 4 and 182, and R.I. McKibbin, James Ramsay MacDonald and the Problem of the Independence of the Labour Party, in Journal of Modern History, Vol. 42 (1970), p. 221.

Last updated on 7 January 2017