Labour Party Then and Now

Subject: Founders on current Labour Party

Message: What do you think the founders of the Labour Party would think of the Labour Party as it looks now?

A good question indeed and one that demands quite a bit of qualification

and iteirpretation. Let us begin by qualifying who the founders of the

Labour Party were.

In 1893 in Bradford, Yorkshire, several socialist groupings including Fabians,

trade unionists and the Social Democratic Federation gathered and initiated

the Independent Labour Party (ILP) at the Bradford Labour Institute on Jan 14-

16, 1893. There, 130 delegates voted Keir Hardie as first Chairman and the aim

of the ILP was written as to, ‘secure the collective and communal ownership of

the means of production’. This ILP grouping would be an integral part of labour

representation and provided a focal point for a socialist tinted form of

orientation for workers political representation.

However, historians generally agree that the Labour Party, per se, came into

being at the Congregational Memorial Hall on Farringdon Street in London on

February 26/27, 1900. At his meeting 129 delegates representing socialists and

trade unionists voted in favour of a proposal to establish ‘a distinct labour

group in Parliament….promoting legislation in the direct interests of labour’.

The proposer was Hardie again. The leader remained the same but the goal had

in seven short years apparently moved away from a socialist stance to a more

mundane and pragmatic approach to workers’ representation. This dichotomy

is important because it highlights two crucial aspects in answering the

question: homogenous concepts of political parties are grossly insufficient to

explain their comings and goings and labour representation always contained a

broad cross-section of followers, from people who simply wished to gain a

better deal for the working man to radical Marxist socialists. Examples are rife

of this contradiction. The Labour Representation Committee (the small select

body representing Labour after the 1900 Party declaration) leader Ramsay

McDonald was making secret electoral pacts with the Liberals prior to 1906,

while others within the labour representation grouping, such as H. N.

Brailsford, John A. Hobson and Fred Wise, developed an alternative

governmental programme to the Labour Party in 1928 with the policy,

‘Socialism in Our Time’. It was a socialist and radical plan based on

nationalisation and the living wage, however, the ILP would remain the junior

brother to the Labour Party throughout its existence and more a reservoir for

discontented socialists than a serious challenger for control. The ILP was

affiliated to the Labour Party from 1906-1932 and eventually its three

remaining MP’s were assimilated into the Labour Party by 1947.

Today’s Labour party is by coincidence, still led by a Keir, this time a Sir Keir

Starner, a 58 year old knight of the realm and lawyer who has is constituency in

London’s comfortable Holborn and St Pancras. Though Labour Party peers are

not unusual in the modern era, the three men often considered to be the

founders of labour representation were Keir Hardie, Ramsay McDonald and

Arthur Henderson, all had mothers who were domestic servants and fathers

who were, a carpenter, a farm labourer and a textile worker, respectively.

In the 2019 General Election Labour won a mere 202 seats, their lowest figure

since 1935. At the By-election in Hartlepool in May this year, a Labour red seat

since 1974, the Tories won and the result brought out many critics to voice

their concerns. Some Labour members complained at the candidate selection

process, which brought forward just one male candidate (a doctor) and others

inside the party complained of ‘not knowing what Starner stood for’.

Politicians are still elected on the ‘first past the post electoral system’ but the

issues that dominate electors’ minds and the people who claim to represent

‘labour’ have changed dramatically.Naturally, much has changed in society

between 1893 and 2021 on every level. Society has evolved and developed to

such an extent that comparison is difficult to make. In 1893 ordinary working

people did not have telephones, washing machines, cars and a vacation abroad

once or twice a year. Many did not have a flushing toilet and segregation based

on class and wealth was accepted and dominant in town districts, at the

theatre and even in the type of services provided by the health care sector.

Many of these class distinctions have been eroded and despite remnants of

poor housing and inequality, the class system as a historical concept has been

eroded and disregarded to the political periphery. Historian Ross McKibbin

famously addressing this non-revolutionary erosion in his description of

‘associational cultures’ in the late 1990’s, which simply put explained British

workers characteristics.

When the Independent Labour party was formed in 1893, its founders had become

disillusioned with the ‘progressive’ Liberal Party and on the whole they were

practical men looking for a better deal for the working man. Ben Tillett, speaking

against the motion to give the new party the name “Socialist Labour,” gave the

opinion of the majority when he asserted that the ILP should seek the support not

of the revolutionary groups already in existence, but of “the solid, progressive,

matter-of-fact fighting trade unions of England.” Of the 101 delegates who voted,

91 agreed with him on the value. These pragmatists would have found the present

day Labour Party incomprehensible for several reasons. First, because society has

altered so much. Today’s Labour Party members contains many more women MP’s

and people from all walks of life, from doctors to employers. Second, the primary

political issues of the day have altered radically. No longer are issues of social

welfare and health the apex concern of workers and instead Brexit and an IT world

of ever expanding consumerism has replaced them. Finally, the Labour Party then

and now, has always been haunted by its vague and somewhat shadowy

relationship with socialism, a political theory that remains, then and now, on the

fringe of political popularity.

If we accept that Hardie, McDonald and Henderson were the founding fathers of

labour representation (as more radical socialists may not) we can assume they

would have found the present day Labour Party difficult to comprehend, partly

because time and history has made their initial goals obsolete and partly because

the workers that they wished to represent have undergone a form of twenty first

century embourgeoisement, a social and political change that has left the present

Labour Party stumbling around in the dark.

As Stephen Castle wrote in the New York Times back in 2016, the Labour Party

is ‘more than at any time since the height of the Thatcher era in the 1980s,

…..divided, demoralized and searching for an identity’. This identity crisis has

resulted in an appeal to the British public with an array of policies that all too often

are bereft of socialist principles.

Peter John Fyles

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