Monday, October 09, 2006

That Was The Century That Was...

A “Parliamentary Labour Party Centenary Conference” is to be held at the London South Bank University on 24 and 25 November; organised by the Society for the Study of Labour History. I have booked in. For one thing; it is being held just round the corner from a flat I occupied for almost 18 years when I was a Labour M.P.

There are, however, more than nostalgic reasons for my attending. Keynote speeches will be made by writers whose works litter my bookshelves - Kenneth O Morgan, Robert Taylor, Patricia Hollis, David Howell and Bernard Crick. Whilst more than a dozen other worthies will be participating as panel members and in the chairing of sessions.

Discussing, studying, teaching and participating in Labour Movement Politics came to dominate my life - starting out in a halting way 50 years ago, so what can now be more appealing than this double half-century bash ?

The Conference has a neat title as it concentrates upon the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP). It needs to do this as it was actually 106 years since the Labour Party set forth at a conference at the Memorial Hall, Farringdon Street, London on 27 and 28 February, 1900. Although it initially called itself the Labour Representation Committee (LRC).

Today’s label for all of Labour’s bits (and here I ignore the unofficial and ideologically suspect term “New Labour”) was only adopted following a significant electoral breakthrough at the General Election held between 12 January and 7 February, 1906. The LRC had endorsed 51 candidates for the contest. No less than 29 of these were elected .

When the successful candidates met in Committee Room 13 of the Commons on 12 February, they adopted the more meaningful title of the “Parliamentary Labour Party”. The Annual Conference of the LRC was held again at Farringdon Street from 15 to 17 February and it then rechristened itself the “Labour Party”.

(Here is more nostalgia : Farringdon Street was a regular route for me when I used a taxi to get from the Commons to St. Pancras.)

I will end this section with a political puzzle. Where was the 1907 Annual Conference of the Labour Party held ? For it was the first Conference not to have been set in motion as if it were to be a LRC Conference. The answer will surprise many. Perhaps the Society for the Study of Labour History could have a Conference there next year. If so, they can put my name down now for a place. It was once a second home for me.

More Monuments - 1900 and 1893

A 1900 General Election had been held only 7 months after the birth of the LRC. But only 2 out of its 14 candidates were successful. One of these was Richard Bell of the Amalgamated Railway Servants, who was the initial Treasurer of the LRC. He was elected for Derby in a two-seater Constituency. The Liberals and the LRC ran one candidate each, against two Conservatives. The ploy worked as the Tories lost out completely. The 1901 LRC Report records that the Liberals had “co-operated” at the Derby election.

I had the pleasure of attending the centenary event commemorating this break-through, held at the Derby County Football Ground in 2000. We did not, however, fill the stadium. But we did fill a large reception room.

The other successful LRC endorsed candidate was none other than Keir Hardie. He stood in two seats, being unsuccessful at Preston and triumphant at Merthyr. Again these were two-seaters. At Merthyr, the LRC Report states that the local “Trade Council loyally helped”. There is no reference here to any help from the Liberals. It should also be noted that all LRC endorsed candidates were described as “Labour Candidates” even in the LRC’s 1901 Report.

Hardie had already served a term in the Commons between 1892 to 1895. He was initially elected as one of three candidates who are called “Independent Labour”. The term “independent” was used to illustrate that they had nothing to do with the two main political parties - the Liberals and the Conservatives. Hardie, in particular, was keen to show that he differed from others from labouring backgrounds who were willing to operate as Liberal Candidates and became known as Lib-Labs.

In 1893, Hardie helped found the “Independent Labour Party” (ILP) at a Conference in Bradford. The word “independent” being used in the same fashion as above.

I was a member of the ILP’s successor organisation, Independent Labour Publications, before entering parliament. I have now joined a supporters group entitled “Friends of the ILP”.

It was therefore inevitable that (along with Margaret Beckett) I should invite people along to the ILP’s centenary event in the Commons on 14 January, 1993 and be one of the speakers - exactly 100 years after their inaugural Bradford Conference. The crammed reception being hosted by the ILP, the New Statesman and Tribune.

At the Derby centenary in 2000, I also spoke alongside Margaret Beckett and her fellow Derby M.P., Bob Laxton. Amongst other speakers was Dai Havard, the current M.P. for Merthyr Tydfil (Keir Hardie’s old patch) who at the time was the Prospective Labour Candidate.

My question for this section is, can the Labour Movement ever fulfil its potential if it discards the monuments I am dealing with?

Progressives or Labourites?

What’s in a name ? Sometimes quite a lot.

When the franchise was extended in the 19th Century, it began to spread to important elements of the male working class. Women did not even gain a restricted franchise until 1918.

With the 1867 Reform Act, roughly a third of men of voting age were entitled to the franchise. In 1872 voting for the first time became secret and workers were free from intimidation by bosses and landowners. With the 1884 Reform Act, some 60% qualified to vote. The male workers’ vote was up for grabs.

The Tories went for one-nation Conservatism under Disraeli. So David Cameron’s current tactic isn’t all that new.

The Liberals in areas dominated by working class voters, tended to move to progressive politics to attract support. (Another modern trend in certain areas). This was a form of non-socialist leftist politics. When the Liberals were really up against things they were even willing to run candidates from the developing labour movement. These came to be known as the Lib-Labs. Two of these were elected in 1874, with the number rising to 24 in 1906.

The Miners Federation of Great Britain (but with regional variations) was attracted to this. For whilst they had a strong chance to deliver votes in constituencies dominated by Coal Mining, they had problems about meeting election expenses and parliamentarians’ salaries - as M.P.s were not paid until 1911. So deals could be done with the “progressive” elements of the Liberal Party. The Miner’s Federation, therefore, had its feet under the table before the LRC was established. In 1900 only their Lancashire and Cheshire area participated in the LRC’s inaugural conference.

Yet the Miner’s came to be of great significance in the Labour Party from 1909. For there was a counter trend amongst Miners presented by the position of Keir Hardie whose early activity was in the Ayrshire Miners Union . His position helped to attract numbers of like-minded Miners into he ILP ( and hence via that route into the LRC, as the ILP was an affiliate). They all looked for a separate and distinctive party of Labour.

Labour’s political success in 1906 plus surrounding industrial and economic pressures, helped bring the Miner’s Federation into a prominent position in the Labour Party. Under a ballot decision of 1909, its MP’s changed their labels (if not always their politics) from Lib-Lab to Labour. The ranks of the PLP swelled from what was by then some 30 to about 42.

At a 1909 Mid-Derbyshire by-election, a Miners’ Federation candidate was the first of many to be elected to parliament in the Labour interest, with Keir Hardie out canvassing. Two General Elections then took place in 1910. Although Labour only ran 78 and 56 candidates respectively (with 40 then 42 successes), the Miner’s now formed a sizeable block. Added to this, in the inter-war years prominent Labour figures such as Ramsay MacDonald and Arthur Henderson had periods representing areas dominated by Coal Mining.

Amongst the Constituencies MacDonald represented was the old Seaham seat, where I grew up. Whilst amongst Arthur Henderson 5 different seats was the old Clay Cross Constituency. Clay Cross was itself part of the seat I represented in Parliament. So really everything that appears above is, after all, one big exercise in nostalgia.

But I will end with one final question. It is the easiest yet. Lib-Labs saw themselves as progressives (as distinct from socialists or labourites). Which leading politician today is given to employing the term “progressive” to describe his politics? And how far is what he says Lib-Labism in a post-modern dress? Whilst in a world of sweeping technological change it is good to know what is new and what changes are on the horizon, it is also good to know what can stay with us.

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