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.   


Unknown said...

New Labour and the neoliberal horror story with its trickle-down economics (con trick) is dead and hopefully there is no going back. So the delusional Blairites and Labour grandees like Kinnock, Mandelson, et al should shut up and go to sleep in the Westminster museum they now call home.

Question is, can a broad church Labour Party with so many rebellious and malcontent MP,s, many desperate to join the Westminster gravy train and follow in the wake of Tony Blair, Jack Straw, Gordon Brown (now with US investment bank Pimcoa and no doubt inculcating his famous socialist /Labour values to the super-rich) Alistair Darling (employed by finance crooks Morgan Stanley) and uncle Tom Cobley and all -----------Survive? Or is it about to implode and go the way of all flesh.

Because if the Labour Party cannot or will not change direction or even admit that it got many things wrong, that light touch regulation was a disaster and that along with the Tories it has rewarded the super-rich, hedge fund traders and corporate crooks at the expense of our public services, the welfare state and our most poor and vulnerable citizens, --------------- then does it matter whether it fragments or not?

I know what I think!

Harry Barnes said...

If Labour fragments, then is there a likely fragment for democratic socialists to link with? Are there alternative avenues for activists anywhere else in my above list from (b) to (e) ?

Momentum in Sheffield have set up an organisational meeting and state "Please note that this meeting is for Labour Party members, affiliates,and supporters and those who agree with Labour values and don't support rival parties that stand against Labour." Apart from the problem of sorting out what Labour's values are, would you recommend that these categories of people should seek to get involved ?" Are there better options?

As you "know what you think", just let us have your advice.

Unknown said...

Well Harry it really doesn’t matter what I think.

Watching Labour’s rebellious MP,s and grandees brief against and undermine Jeremy Corbyn, the membership choice, day in day out is as unedifying as it is, distasteful, disrespectful and undemocratic. An exercise in disunity which is bound to play poorly with the public, voting numbers and the concept of a Labour Party broad church And from the perspective of many party members and most social democrats and socialist, it will end badly.

The likely outcome being a coup d'état by the Blairite group of MP,s supported by those whose primary focus is themselves and their careers. But if that happens, Westminster Labour will have achieved a pyrrhic-victory and the further fragmentation of the Labour Party.

But as I said, Harry, watching this saga play out is a bit like watching a storm cloud on the North Yorkshire moors, hoping it will pass without getting a soaking but being powerless to do anything about it.

And if Labour cannot or won’t change direction, then from my perspective (I’m not a tribal person) it will be good riddance to bad rubbish, accept that the Tory rubbish will have free reign until the economy goes bottom up and/or an anti-austerity coalition can replace Labour’s neoliberal rump.

Harry Barnes said...

It matters what everyone thinks, especially people with strong political feelings such as yourself. You have expressed highly critical views of what you see as strong elements in the Parliamentary Labour Party who are careerists and firmly in the the Blairite tradition. You feel that these are finally destroying the Labour Party as any feasible avenue for any form of democratic socialism.

So where does that lead us ? Do we work to smash their influence within the Labour Party? If so, what avenues should we try ?

Or is that just a waste of time and effort? So should we look elsewhere? The only recent alternative you seem to have favoured is the SNP. Is this still the case ? Would you like to see an English supporters group backing them ? And should we have an English eqivalent of the SNP - such as a left-wing English National Party ? Could it be for democratic socialists?

I know that we can't just dream things up, but in what directions should we look ?

Another option, of course, is to say that the position is beyond redemption. So what about support for alternative worthwhile social groups ? This could be a fruitful add on to warning us about the failings of the parliamentary option.

Your approach could be the correct one. Why not try to get the scales to fall from the eyes of people like myself.

Unknown said...


I have been on the wrong side of history all of my political life although I do admire and respect the politics of the ILP and many other decent and honourable people I have met in the Labour Party and trade unions.

It’s just that I have become ultra-cynical and upset that we seem to live in a plutocracy where Westminster politicians (of all persuasions) seem to go native and end up in the pockets of corporate Britain and big money. And let face it without structural change, an end to FPTP and the Westminster gravy train, with more devolution and electronic voting, nothing much is going to change anytime soon no matter who leads the Labour Party.

If you ask me what we can do? - well not much – save support Jeremy Corbyn (when he’s not in stupid mode like sailing trident nuclear subs around the world without war heads) and treating all in Labour's broad church members with respect even when we disagree, providing policy is decided not by machine politics or second guessing focus groups but by a proper one-member-one vote voting system. I personally would opt of a PR electoral system and voting by e-mail both during elections and within party politics. In a conservative culture that is no panacea but anything that shifts power away from party machines, corporate lobby groups and the corrosive effect of big money would be an improvement on the status quo.

That is a very personal perspective and I suspect few in the ILP would support me. But at the end of the day my loyalty is to policy not to some tribe called the Labour Party.

Had I lived in Scotland during the referendum campaign I would have voted SNP with my son and daughter-in-law who in their mid 30’s voted for the very first time ever and not Labour. And they did so not because the SNP is a nationalist party, but because, with all its faults, it is anti-austerity and against Trident and nuclear weapons and because Labour in its Fife heartlands (Gordon Brown’s Kirkcaldy) was a complete waste of space. Harry go and visit Kirkcaldy sometime, it’s a shit hole where there has been no investment or community regeneration in decades and where unemployment and poverty is palpable. So while Brown & Darling would talk laud (at election time) about their socialist roots and Labour values, the people they were supposed to represent got shafted and the spivs and crooks in the city whose greed caused the financial crash, were lauded, given gongs and oceans of printed money via Quantitative Easing. that is not fair, it is naked cowardice and stupidy

So from here in North Yorkshire, for what it’s worth, my policy via social media and via my involvement with the York Peoples Assembly and friends and neighbours is to support Jeremy Corbyn, promote ILP policy and values as best I can and hope against hope that Momentum and Corbyn’s Westminster supporters can turn the tide and make Labour a pro austerity, anti-trident, membership party that resonates with the people and can defeat the Tories at the next election. An Impossible Dream, me thinks.

Harry Barnes said...

Ernie (This response is in two or more parts for technical reasons): What we do is, of course, influenced by our immediate environment. The fact that I live less then half a mile from the Dronfield Contact Club and have attended Labour Movement activities there for almost half a century and still have friends who attend from the early days, deeply shapes my Labour Movement activities. We even had a local ILP branch operating at the Club once (it also operated in Chesterfield).You addressed us once, although we had alternating ILP and Fabian meetings at the time.But it was the same people attending.

The positive avenues you stress which appeal to me are efforts to democratise both the Labour Party and electoral politics generally. You strees specific avenues such as Momentum, the York People's Assembly and (in general terms) Jeremy Corbyn's lead. I am on Sheffield Momentum's email list and have attended one of their open meetings. I will now also look at the work of the Sheffield People's Assembly with a view to getting one of their speakers to address a discussion meeting. Unfortunately, I sometimes miss out on Sheffield developments. For although it is only a mile to my north, we are in different Labour Party Regions and County/Town structures.

There are other matters you stress which I have both sympathies with and possible reservations about over details. Especially around the problem of democracy.

As my above blog item indicates, we now have an electoral system that is not fit for purpose. It worked reasonably in the period of two party politics. This was even helpful to us at one time. When Tory v Labour dominated it showed something of a (sometimes weak) class division - most people were stuck within the two camps in the 1951 election, which I covered in my above item. But now we have moved into an entirely different ball game. If we take into account disillusioned non-voters and those who have not even registered to vote (which will get worse under individual registration), then a figure as low as only 36% may have voted for the two "major" parties at the last General Election. Less than around a sixth of the possible voters bothering to opt for Labour. And some of those who voted for us did so out of habit, rather than conviction.

We should not, however, chuck the baby out with the bathwater in correcting the situation. In a limited number of cases, a good relationship exists between MPs and their constituents. This seems to operate in Jeremy Cortyn's case - although it is helped by the fact that his seat is in London. Then (unless things have changed) the Irish and the Germans have interesting electoral systems which are worth examining. The Irish have a single-transferable vote in multi-member constituencies. Although this produces large constituencies it also produces a much more proportionate result. Thus elected MPs in a multi-member seat are in competition to serve their constituents. And constituents can turn to the one they prefer. In Germany there is a two ballot system. With one vote they elect constituency MPs for half of the seats. The other vote is used for top-up arrangements which operate in such a way that it finally produces a proportionate overall result. This works within federal units, so that even the top-up candidates are not likely to be too far away from their voters. We could also insist that candidates only qualify who have lived in the relevant electoral area for a given period.

Harry Barnes said...

(Part 2) I am all for democracy within the Labour Party also. But I am not for the main emphasis being placed on a form of press button democracy. That places power in the hands of those who decide what questions are being asked and what are given as the options. It is a bit like "Strictly Come Dancing" with none of us having decided who the dancers will be. We need certain decisions to be made via avenues of partipatory democracy in which Party members are encouraged to attend meetings to shape the options - via genuine debate and discussion. Mandated conference delegates can then vote on the options if the system is not fiddled by the high and mighty. The problem at the moment is that few Labour Party members attend meetings and the bulk of meetings which are held are not user friendly. So that needs working upon also. Of course, areas of push button democracy could still be used. But it should supplement participatory democracy and not manipulate it.

But I don't think that there are any easy avenues for advancing overall electoral or internal Labour Party democracy. Only eternal vigilence. At the moment this still seems to me to be worth the effort of pushing.

I doubt whether I will get to Kirkcaldy, but I am used to something of what you describe in the former mainly mining Constituency at Easington in the North East - where I originate from. Yet it has a good solid Labour MP who matches the best of any Labour MPs on local commitments.

From my point of view the SNP's problems is that it wishes to end the Union. What of pressing for a federated structure, with the Labour Party committed to an overall anti-austerity and an anti-Trident stances? For myself I am not, however, sure that Trident should be the current stricking point. At the moment its retention is part of Labour's agreed policy, although our adoption of that line was made without a full and fearless discussion amongst the membership. What if a Nye Bevan style approach could use Trident's removal as part of a bargain to obtain wider nuclear de-esculation? I offer the thought even though I am a former Aldermaston marcher. Things are not as clearcut today as they were then.


Unknown said...


Cannot disagree with the broad thrust of your perspective on Labour’s problems since the general election defeat, change of leadership and the resultant civil war.

But of course we do have differences insofar as while I agree that policy making should ideally be done collectively and via discussion meetings I think that, by and large, those days have long gone and that (even in a conservative culture, with a hostile press and big money lobbying) the way forward is via easy electronic voting and more use of social media.

In this regard, I have a Facebook account (a bit problematic insofar as this US Company is a serial tax avoider) and with just 59 friends (many of whom are family and ILP colleagues, I cannot say that my influence is that great. But what I am sure is that it is infinitely greater than it would be attending Labour Party branch meetings. People I have never heard of and across the country will often like and comment on my posts (no matter how crude and infantile) and in a way that is inconceivable via traditional means. Of course many will be like-minded people and others will disagree fundamentally with my lefty posts and comments but while newspapers are in steep decline and traditional journalism no longer has the monopoly it once had, social media does give a voice to the plebs. So despite lots of questionable content, this to my mind is no bad thing and is progress.

Your emphasis on the union is not something that gives me sleepless nights insofar as I believe that the end of the union would be no great loss if the Scottish people were able to break from the yoke of Westminster, turn their backs on austerity, ditch Trident and nuclear weapons and govern more fairly without their political representatives being corrupted and in the pocket of big money and multi-national corporations. Not that the SNP is pure white in this regard but it is anti-austerity and much more social democratic than Labour, despite the pull of nationalism. That is why Labour got dumped in the general election in its Scottish heartlands.

But the point you make about Easington and so many more mining and former industrial areas – even when – represented by good and genuine MP’s, is a real indictment of a Labour Party in government nationally and locally allowing the victims of industrial reorganisation and technological change and their communities to rot and become drug and crime infested hell holes. And that to my mind, along with growing inequality and a casino economy and obscene celebrity culture where the rich get super-rich and the poor get shafted, is the true legacy the Blair and Brown Labour governments.

So a new, more efficient, modern and fairer voting system together with a realignment of the progressive left and an end to two party (Bugins –turn) and plutocratic government would be no bad thing. In the meantime I would prefer to see Corbyn and Momentum move away from blind party tribalism and work with other party’s on progressive policies and to oppose the Tory government root and branch. Getting rid of Trident and nuclear weapons and using the money more productively and fairly is, to my mind, more important than keeping Hilary Benn sweet. In any event the way the Parliamentary party is behaving, a spilt seems inevitable.

Plenty to disagree about there but surely we can agree that the status-quo is not only corrupt, it is busted and that some in the Parliamentary Labour Party are delusional and just don’t get it.

Harry Barnes said...

Ernie : We certainly need to find ways to make use of modern technology in politics. The information and misinformation which can be accessed at the click of a button is massive. But we also need to participate in genuine discussions also. Participation is educative and should be a key part of the democratic process. There is a danger if we don't search out each others ideas and arguments in genuine debate that we will just latch onto the ideas that comfort us. We need to be into participatory forms of education for life. Much can be found out via the internet, but ideas can only fully be developed in genuine face to face discourse. Of course, meetings can be used for other purposes. But it is up to us all to encourage genuine debate and democratic decision making - even when Hilary Benn is sitting around the table with us.

There is news that an extra 800,000 people are missing from electoral registers due to the new individual registration system. We are slipping back to the days before the Suffragettes and the Chartists. Yet many groups work to obtain fuller registration, including the Labour Party. So we need to do whatever we can on such matters - even blogging.

One certainly could not live on Labour Party Branch meetings alone - unless we change them massively, as some of us keep trying to do. In January I also managed a Sheffield Momentum meeting, a Dronfield Discussion meeting, a lively Constituency meeting, a 10am to 4pm event on Labour Past and Present by the Independent Working Class Education Network (which led to me cobbling together the above blog item on this thread) and a meeting of the North Notts and North Derbyshire Derbyshire Labour History Society.

When it comes to the Union, I feel that we need bigger Unions not smaller ones. For the power of capital which we need to tackle operates at its most powerful on a multilateral basis. We are probably on a loser, but if we don't mobilise as best we can with others then things are bound to get even worse. If the Westminster bubble is in the way, then we need to seek to burst it. We can reorganise Westminster, get rid of the Lords and other old fashioned activities - and even construct a fresh building away from London.