Wednesday, January 27, 2016
Labour : Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow
"Labour Leader" 13 July 1895.
Gilbert and Sullivan's "Iolanthe" was first performed at the Savoy Theatre on 25 November 1882. One of their songs includes the words - "...every boy and every gal that's born alive, is either a little Liberal or else a little Conservat-ive!"
This sentiment reflects the state of parliamentary politics in that era. The results in the two preceding General Elections were - 1874 : Conservatives 350, Liberals 242 (Prime Minister - Disraeli) - 1880 Liberals 352, Conservatives 237 (Prime Minister - Gladstone). The only MPs from outside these camps were those elected as Home Rule candidates from Ireland, 60 of them in 1874 and 63 in 1880. For Ireland was not to gain its full independence from the United Kingdom until 1921.
Given the dominance of Con-Lib politics, the feasible avenues which those with socialist and labouring interests should then pursue was very unclear. Here were some of the alternatives they employed.
1. The avenue with the earliest element of success was via labour movement activists working with and through the Liberal Party. The above 1874 figures for Liberal MPs include Thomas Burt and Alexander MacDonald, both of whom had trade union and mining backgrounds. In 1880, they were joined in the Commons by the Secretary of the TUC’s Parliamentary Committee, Henry Broadhurst. These were known as Lib-Labs.
In constituencies where working class men formed a good percentage of the electorate, the Liberal Party were at times willing to run such candidates. For the workers could deliver votes. The extension of the franchise in 1884 to wider groups of working class men who lived in rural areas (including many more miners) added to this trend. As did a fairer system of constituency structures in 1885. So by we reach 1906, 24 MPs were elected as Lib-Labs. But when the Miners' Federation finally voted to affiliate to the Labour Party, 14 of the Lib-Lab MPs from their Union followed this line and moved over into the Parliamentary Labour Party in 1909. Lib-Labism then went further into decline as the Labour Party grew.
2. In 1881 Hyndman founded the Democratic Federation, which became the Social Democratic Federation (SDF) in 1884 which then had an explicitly socialist platform. Hyndman having written a work called "England for All" which was based on Marx's "Das Capital". The SDF had a chequered history. It joined with TUC, the Independent Labour Party and the Fabian Society in 1900 in the formation of the Labour Party: which from 1900 to 1906 was known as the Labour Representation Committee (LRC). But it then left LRC quickly and did not even appear at the LRC Conference by 1902.
In parliamentary elections between 1885 and 1918, it ran 46 parliamentary candidates. The only two of its candidates who ever came near to being elected were those it ran in 1900. The General Election fell in the short spell when the SDF was affiliated to the LRC - so these were also really LRC candidates. One was Will Thorne who stood in West Ham South with a vote of 44.7%. The other was George Lansbury with 36.7% at Bow and Bromley. These were hopeful performances as the LRC only took its first two seats at that election. Yet the SDF then left the LRC in August 1901 and thus any real hope of electoral success.
Although it had a chequered history, many who continued on the SDF route ended up in the Communist Party of Great Britain when it was founded in 1920.
3. The Fabian Society was founded in 1884, with Sidney Webb and Bernard Shaw coming to exercise a considerable influence over its approach. At a time when labour interests were making only a marginal parliamentary impact, they adopted a policy of seeking to permeate their views via any avenue they judged to have political influence or power. This meant socialising (in deep political debate) with prominent Liberals and even Conservatives. And working from 1888 via the Progressive majority on London County Council. They were also, however, keen to influence fellow socialists and would readily meet with labour movement activists such as Keir Hardie. They also became part of the LRC from the time of its formation. As Labour progressed, Sidney Webb became more deeply involved with the Labour Party. In 1918 he shaped Labour's former Clause 4, which committed it to the "common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange". He also had a major impact in drawing up Labour's 1918 election manifesto and in propounding his socialist views on the "inevitability of gradualism".
4. William Morris had been a member of the SDF, but soon in late1884 he broke away from them to set up the "Socialist League" which advocated revolutionary international socialism and had an anarchist tendency. He decided the Fabian Society had too many middle class values for him to move to them. The Socialist League only lasted until 1889.
5. The Independent Labour Party (ILP) was founded in Bradford in 1893. Keir Hardie was a major driving force behind its formation. He was one of three "Independent Labour" MPs who had been elected to parliament in 1892. The idea in using the term "Independent" was to show that the ILP rejected the tactic of Lib-Labism and were entirely separate and opposed to the Liberal Party and its approach. The word "Labour" was used to indicate the class it was part of and whom it was making its appeal to. Although it saw itself as a socialist party, it did not wish to use that term in its title in case it frightened off working class support. For it might get confused in workers' minds with bodies such as the SDF. Then the ILP's socialist approach was not Marxist, but had more in common with the radical wing of the non-conformist tradition. It has often been said that British Socialism had more to do with Methodism than Marxism. It fought for matters such as work for the unemployed, the eight hour day, healthy homes, fair rents and democratic government.
The ILP's parliamentary start was not promising. None of its candidates were successful in 1895, not even Keir Hardie.
6. But then the ILP worked through the Parliamentary Committee of the TUC to help set up what later became the Labour Party. In 1900 delegates from the ILP, the Fabian Society, the SDF and (dominantly) a large number of Trade Unions met to establish the Labour Representation Committee (LRC), which became known as the Labour Party from after the 1906 General Election.
In the 1900 election itself the LRC took two parliamentary seats. Keir Hardie winning at Merthyr and Richard Bell at Derby. Although he was the initial Treasurer of the LRC, Bell later developed strong Liberal links. But the sign that the Labour project was firmly on the road came in 1906, when Labour took 29 seats and elected Keir Hardie as the first leader of its Parliamentary Party.
Current Labour Party members who look back on the five options above are likely to identify themselves with the formation of the Labour Party itself and perhaps with the early role of the ILP. Some may see themselves as also being in the Fabian tradition. But if we could somehow transport ourselves back to those times, the choices in front of us would then have been rather confusing. For we would by no means have been certain as to which approach would be the most successful.
In time, the above Gilbert and Sullivan song would merely be a matter of history. For in 1951 with a turnout of 82.5%, no less than 96.8 % of the electorate voted either Labour or Conservative. Labour winning marginally more votes, but the Conservatives taking more seats. It then seemed that "every boy and every gal that's born alive, is either a little Labourite or else a little Conservat-ive!"
But what of today? At the last General Election some seven million people were missing from the electoral registers and that figure is likely to get much worse under the new arrangements for individual electoral registration. Then we only had a turnout of 66.1% in 2015. Within a climate of widespread non-registration and much non-voting, the Conservatives and Labour only managed 67.3% of the vote between them. With non-registration and non-voting, voting for the two "main" parties has now become a minority sport.
So what should a democratic socialist do today? Here are some options.
a. Plod on in the Labour Party. But if so how? At one end of the spectrum there is now Momentum and at the other end there is Progress. If neither attract us, then do we need to bang their heads together ? Or should we work for some sort of synthesis which takes the best from the two extremes, whilst ditching the worst? Then, perhaps working through groups such as the Fabians and the today's ILP (Independent Labour Publications) can help us maintain our sanity.
b. There is also the Co-operative Party - whether we also hold a Labour Party Membership card or not. That may depend on the depth of our co-operative views.
c. Or should we look for other avenues ? What of the Greens, Ken Loache's "Left Unity", the Socialist Party as the successors to Militant, the Socialist Workers Party, Respect, the SNP if we live in Scotland and so on and on ?
d. Then there is the alternative (or the addition) of participating in forms of pressure group politics. There is the Trade Union Movement, 38 Degrees, We Own It and over a 100 others listed on this link. We are all likely to have some connections with some of these and with local alternatives. But should we now opt for this avenue as our main approach and get out of Party politics?
e. And what about international links ? Should they not be a key part of our agenda ? The European Union has the the Party of European Socialists with 33 full members in 27 of its 28 nations, plus Norway. Yet as the world becomes more interconnected and conflict driven, we often seem to fall back into our own shells.
Democratic socialists in Britain seem to me to be in the type of dilemma which they faced in the late 19th Century. What is the best path forward ? But whilst we can survey the past and work for the future, we can't be sure which avenue (or any) will deliver.
At the moment I am for sticking with the Labour Party and working for a possible synthesis between its extremes as a means of tacking and manoeuvring in a democratic socialist direction, whilst encouraging avenues for pressure group politics and international agendas. But if I look as if I have got it wrong, please let me know the best alternatives.