In February 1900, 129 delegates met in a hall in Farringdon Street, London.
They represented 65 trade unions, and three socialist organizations – the
Independent Labour Party, the Social Democratic Federation and the Fabian
Society. As they made their way through the crowded streets they were not
noticed by City workers, but they had come to found the Labour Party.
Fifty years on the Labour Party published a golden jubilee pamphlet entitled
"Marching on". It reaffirmed the principles upon which the movement
had been founded. It read:
"We reaffirm our belief that the earth’s resources should be employed in
the service of the community and that this can be assured only if it is the
community which commands their employment. Only in this way can we avert the
pitiless paradox of unused resources and unsatisfied needs; of unemployed
millions living in need of the very things they themselves could produce; the
unemployed coalminer in need of coal; the unemployed weaver in need of clothes;
the hungry farmworker, the ill-shod shoemaker, the homeless builder. Where human
needs exist and where the resources of labour, raw materials and equipment
required to satisfy those needs also exist, we believe that no intermediate
interest, whether it be commercial profit or bureaucratic power, should stand
between the two."
The "New Labour" leadership want to rewrite the history of the
Labour Party because it is in conflict with the Blair project. Blair wants to
change the Labour Party into a radical liberal party like the American
Democratic Party. He regards the separation of Labour from the Liberal Party at
the beginning of the century as a mistake.
However the history of the Party clearly illustrates that Labour was set up
as the party of the working class in this country, with the trades union
movement as a bedrock. From the adoption of Clause 4, in 1918 the Party had a
socialist constitution which reflected the aspirations of the membership of the
Party. It was its class roots and socialist vision which motivated the
commitment of thousands of working people to build the Party, into what became
the major vehicle for change in Britain in the twentieth century. Within twenty
years of its foundation Labour had become the main opposition party, replacing
the Liberals, and four years later had formed a minority government. The 1945
Labour Government led the reconstruction of Britain after the Second World War,
with a programme of selective nationalisation and the establishment of the
The Labour Representation Committee, which was to become the Labour Party was
set up by the Trades Union Congress in 1900, as a means of securing trades union
representation in Parliament. This was after two decades of class struggle in
which trades unions had successfully organised unskilled workers, changing the
face of the TUC from a body which represented respectable skilled working men
defending their relatively privileged status in the economy to an organisation
which was coming into conflict with the capitalist class.
Trades unions which had operated like friendly societies were being
outnumbered by those which organised strikes and picket lines. At the same time
there had been a reawakening of socialist ideas, which had laid dormant in
Europe since the 1840s. Political parties such as the Social Democratic
Federation attracted thousands of members. Demonstrations and mass meetings not
seen since the days of the Chartists took place in the 1880s. In this situation
the TUC general council was coming under pressure to break their alliance with
the Liberal Party. The franchise was gradually being extended to working class
people, so that the two main capitalist parties – the Liberals and Tories – had
to appeal to working class voters for the first time. This had led to
concessions such as legislation upholding the right to picket peacefully in
By the end of the nineteenth century the economic conditions for an
independent labour party had ripened in Britain. The economy was increasingly
controlled by monopolies. This meant the beginning of a massive concentration of
wealth in the hands of a few and increasing division and conflict between
capitalists and workers. It was revealed that only two-fifths of the national
cake was consumed by wage earners. A quarter of the population lived in poverty.
At the same time the heyday of British capitalism was drawing to an end. British
industry now competed with Germany, France and America for markets and raw
materials and investment abroad. Victorian expansion and unbridled prosperity
for industry was over – the economy was faced with one crisis after another.
From 1889-1913 real wages declined by 10%. This was the economic background to
the political upheavals.
The ruling class had grown used to the craft unions of the mid nineteenth
century economic boom. These unions of skilled respectable men had few quarrels
with the bosses. They sought to better themselves by using their skills to
restrict entry to the union, in order to maintain wages and in setting up
Friendly Societies. These men, like Broadhurst who was secretary of the TUC,
supported the Liberal Party.
The political climate was changed in 1886, when John Burns and Henry Hyndman,
two leaders of the recently formed Marxist Social Democratic Federation, began
organising the unemployed. They led demonstrations of 75,000 people through the
West End of London. to oppose factory closures. Attacks by police with batons on
demonstrators brought about rioting, in which several people were killed. The
ruling class horrified by broken windows in London’s West End, believed that a
war had broken out between the haves and have-nots. The poor were now regarded
as a menace and a threat, no longer "the deserving poor" of Victorian
England. The class struggle had begun in earnest.
John Burns, together with socialist trades unionist Tom Mann, organised the
Eight Hour League with the aim of reducing unemployment. This campaign rapidly
gained support amongst the unskilled workers and was adopted by the London
Trades Council as a means of reducing unemployment and giving the worker more
time for his family.
Sections of workers, like the Ayrshire miners who had been committed to
supporting the Liberal Party and had the tactic of restricting the output of
coal in times of recession, now took up the campaign for the 8 hour day.
Increasingly employers were using the unemployed to break strikes and enforce
wage cuts. The unskilled workers were particularly vulnerable as "they
could be replaced by a hungry fellow from anywhere". Scottish miners were
threatened that union members would be replaced by the Glasgow unemployed. One
miner who was recruited to socialism was called Keir Hardie.
From the "Eight Hour League", Mann and Burns went on to organise
the unskilled workers, such as the dockers and the gasmen, the ones whom craft
unions had left out in the cold. Deskilling was also to take place in industries
such as engineering and shipbuilding and skilled workers had the task of
organising the unskilled and semiskilled in their industry.
There was a basis now for industrial or even general unions, rather than
unions based on skills and crafts. Methods of organisation had to be different.
Membership was liable to fluctuation. During the 1890s for instance, only 3% of
dockers were unionised. Membership was difficult to sustain through slumps. The
use of unemployed workers to break strikes inevitably brought the trade unions
into conflict with picketing and property laws.
During the 1880s the main unions of unskilled workers were formed. The
gasworkers led by Will Thorne won the 8 hour day. Some women workers were
organised – the matchgirls of Bryant and May whose atrocious working conditions
became famous world wide. Women in the East End were consistently being
disfigured by the use of phosphorous in the match industry. As far as the ruling
class were concerned these people were an "underclass" – at the
fringes of humanity. But the early socialists took up their cause and attempted
to organise them into the trades union movement.
Inroads were made into the organisation of agricultural workers,
"railway servants", as they were then called, and textile workers. All
this was overshadowed by the dock strike of 1889. The dockers, one of the most
exploited sections of the working class, went on strike for six pence an hour –
the "dockers’ tanner" [old English slang for the sixpenny piece] as it
Oppressed for years by a system of casual labour, by which the employers
hired and fired at will, the dockers came out and demonstrated through the
streets of London for their rights. They carried red flags, and stinking fish
heads to show what they had to live on. Their victory was gained from the
support they received from the labour movement in this country and
internationally. It is in struggles like these that the Labour Party had its
roots. There was nothing "respectable" or Blairite about it at all.
The rise of the unskilled unions raised the need for a party of labour. Their
tactics were completely different to the old craft unions. They could not
restrict entry to the trade, but they relied up on strikes and picketing. The
use of scabs was backed up with police and sometimes army protection. This
caused widespread violence in industrial disputes, arrests and jail sentences
for trades unionists. That is how the battles of the new unions became
There were conflicts with the law and the state. Not since the days of the
Chartists in the early part of the nineteenth century had the issue of political
power been so sharply posed, or had society been so polarised along class lines.
Increasingly socialists linked the trades union struggles with their political
goals of changing society. The call for an independent party of labour was
campaigned for within the trades union movement. Engels wrote the following to
the Labour Standard in 1881:
"…the time is rapidly approaching when the working class of this
country will claim… its full share of representation in Parliament… the
working class will have understood that the struggle for high wages, and short
hours, and the whole action of the trades unions as carried on now, is not an
end in itself but a means towards the end, the abolition of the wages system
The setting up of an independent Party of labour was opposed by the old guard
of the TUC, those who like Broadhurst represented the craft workers, the labour
aristocracy and who wanted to maintain links with the Liberals. They declared
that the time was not ripe!
But the campaign was maintained. Some socialists from groups like the Social
Democratic Federation were also reluctant to support a party of labour on the
grounds that it would be limited to labour representation in Parliament and
would not be socialist! Others, like Engels believed that a party based on the
labour movement would inevitably move towards the adoption of socialist policies
as the parties of capitalism, and what they stood for, became discredited.
Finally in 1899 the Trades Union Congress voted to set up an independent
Labour Representation Committee. After a decade of attacks upon the trades union
movement and little support from the Liberal Party it was time to act
independently. At the beginning this Labour Representation Committee did not
gain the affiliation of the whole trades union movement. But that was set to
change at a later stage.
Also middle class reformers in the main did not give their wholehearted
support to the Labour Representation Committee at this stage. They still had
hopes that the Liberal Party would carry out social reforms, modernising British
society and overcoming the growing gulf between labour and capital, whilst
leaving capitalism intact.
It was only later that they jumped on the bandwagon, when the Labour Party
was clearly posed to replace the Liberals as the opposition to the Tories in
Britain., and the labour movement looked like a better bet for carrying out
social reforms. The same can be said of the "socialist think-tank" –
the Fabian Society – whose "socialism from the top downwards approach"
had also led them to consider the possibility of influencing the Liberal Party
before the founding conference of the Labour Representation Committee.
Without the trades union affiliation therefore, the Labour Party would not
So what of the socialist groups which had existed before the Labour Party?
The aforementioned Social Democratic Federation had been in existence for over
fifteen years. It is important to note that the term Social Democrat meant
Marxist in those days. The model Social Democratic party was the German Social
Democratic Party, which was based on Marxism. It, however, was soon to abandon
its commitment to Marxism. As a result socialists then tended to abandon the
term "social-democrat", in favour of "socialist" or
"Marxist". (The term Social Democrat was later to be used by a group
of Labour MPs who left the Labour Party, attempting to split it in the 1980s,
and who did not have the courage to openly call themselves Liberals or
However the Marxism of the Social Democratic Federation was like that of the
German Social Democratic Party. They believed that socialism was inevitable. The
movement would continue to grow and the majority of the population would see the
light. Hyndman, a conservative who had converted to Marxism, did not see the
connection between militant trades unionism and socialism, on one occasion
condemning strikes as a waste of time because they left the capitalist system
The activities of party members however drew them into practical politics –
some into trades unionism, others into the municipal socialism of school boards
and health boards. But they did not see this activity as raising workers’
Tom Mann and William Morris eventually left the SDF because of its political
sectarianism. William Morris went on to set up another organisation called the
Socialist League. Nevertheless the SDF gained a sizeable following with 43
branches in London alone. It popularised the spread of socialist ideas through
propaganda and won recruits to Marxism who were later to play a role in the
foundation of the Labour Party, but it failed to make the breakthrough of
becoming a mass party and forming an alternative to the Liberals and Tories. A
party was needed which had links with the trades unions and which would
challenge the Liberals and Tories in the parliamentary arena. By the 1890s the
SDF was declining in favour of the Independent Labour Party.
The Independent Labour Party had more success in the North of England. It was
founded in Bradford in 1892. It had the backing of Bradford Trades Council and
was formed in the wake of the defeat of a strike at the Manningham mills which
had involved 5,000 people against the local mill owners.
The trades union movement had suffered declining membership and attacks
during the 1890s. Unemployment in shipbuilding rose to 20% and in Hull in 1891
1,000 scabs recruited by the employers broke a shipping strike under the
protection of police, troops and gunboats. Of the towns magistrates, four were
shipowners, and nineteen others had shares in major shipping companies.
This was how blatantly the forces of the state were arranged against labour.
Many of these employers were Liberals as well as Conservatives showing that the
trades union movement could have little confidence in the representatives of
these capitalist parties.
Scab organisations like the National Association of Free Labour were set up
to recruit strikebreakers on a national scale. The trades unions were becoming
more in need of political representation, which strengthened the case of those
who argued for the Trades Union Congress to launch a party of labour.
As well as the ILP, the Scottish Labour Party added its voice to this
campaign. This party had the backing of the Scottish miners recruited after a
long strike in Ayrshire in 1886-87. The first independent Labour MPs, like Keir
Hardie were elected to Parliament. Advice given to the first ILP MPs was as
follows: "A working man in Parliament should go to the House of Commons
in his workday clothes… he should address the speaker on labour questions, and
give his utterance to the same sentiments, in the same language and in the same
manner that he is accustomed to utter his sentiments, and address the president
of the local radical club. Above all he should remember that ALL THE
CONSERVATIVE AND LIBERALS ARE JOINED TOGETHER IN THE INTEREST OF CAPITAL AGAINST
The first leaflet published by the Labour Representation Committee was
written by Ramsay Macdonald who was later, as prime minister to betray the
labour movement. However, in an article entitled "Why trade unionists
should support the Labour Representation Committee", he said "Trade
unions are being constantly threatened by attempts made in Courts of Law to
undermine their legal basis, and at any moment the existence of organised labour
may be put in jeopardy by the decision of a Bench of Judges".
Trusts were combining against the interests of labour and war would ensue. In
Parliament politicians of both parties (Tories and Liberals) were active on the
Employers’ Parliamentary Council. Labour had to combine politically to fight
The use of the law against the Society of Railway Servants in the Taff Vale
Judgement vindicated these founders of the movement and brought more
affiliations of trades unionists to the LRC, or the Labour Party as it became
known in 1906.
Electoral gains were made for Labour in the 1906 election. However in spite
of the class aims of the Labour Party deals were done between Labour MPs and the
Liberal Government. Labour was to replace the Liberal Party decisively as the
main opposition only after 1918.
During these early years the British ruling class did everything in its power
to destroy two minority Labour governments in 1924 and 1931. However the tide of
history could not be held back for ever and Labour finally achieved a landslide
victory in 1945.
After nearly a century the Labour Party is still in existence. It has
remained throughout that time a classic "united front" of socialists,
social-democrats and trades unionists. It has helped to perpetutate the reality
of class politics by maintaining, for most of this time, electoral opposition to
the party of British capitalism – the Conservatives. It has been capable of
winning elections without alliances, and has achieved much in the way of
carrying out reforms which have benefitted working class people. The 1945 Labour
Government was instrumental in implementing the welfare state.
For all these reasons it would be wrong for the links between the trades
union movement and the Labour Party to be broken and it would equally be wrong
for socialists now to leave the Labour Party. As many times in the past, the
left wing of the party will be revived and strengthened as workers draw lessons
from their own experiences and turn to the Labour Party.
Of course the Labour Party has not carried out the socialist transformation
of society. Its leadership has always tried to work within the confines of
capitalism. But socialists should soberly reflect on the fact that no other
"party" in this country has done so either and that attempts to build
socialist "sects" on the fringes of the movement outside of the party
have failed again and again, whereas socialists within the Party have been
successful on more than one occasion in changing party policy and gaining
support. That is the lesson of the past 100 years.