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
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