The Emergence of the Labour Party

by Dr Henry Pelling. St John’s College, Cambridge

new perspective. Volume 1. Number 2. December 1995

Summary: The growth of the Labour party was not the predictable consequence of either the extension of the franchise or the co-operation of diverse socialist groups and the 1906 pact with the Liberals but the unforeseen consequence of the Taff Vale case and the divisions within the Liberal party during the First World War.

THE TRADITIONAL VIEW of the emergence of the Labour party, and its successful challenge to the supremacy of the existing two-party system of Liberals and Conservatives, is that it was the result of the gradual extension of the suffrage by the three successive Reform Acts of 1832, 1867 and 1884. It was Sidney Webb who, as Chairman of the party, referred in 1923 to the ‘inevitable gradualness’ of Labour’s advance; and so it seemed. The party, founded in 1900, had succeeded in electing 29 MPs to the House of Commons in 1906, 42 in 1910, 57 in 1918, 142 in 1922 and 191 in 1923 when, for the first time, it succeeded in forming a minority government. The Liberal party was squeezed and reduced to minority status, so much so that at its nadir in 1951 it had only six MPs. On the other hand, Labour was able to form two minority Governments between the wars under Ramsay MacDonald, and then in 1945 to secure a substantial majority over all other parties under Clement Attlee. Labour again formed governments in 1964, 1966, 1974 (twice) under Harold Wilson and finally (after Wilson’s retirement) under James Callahan. Although the Liberals have secured representation in double figures, the electoral system of ‘first past the post’ now operates against them in the country’s uniform single-member constituencies.

A Third Party, for Working Men, was Unlikely

Anyone looking at the process of political change from outside the country, however, would have doubts about its inevitability. Already by 1884-6 the Liberal party had become the party of the great bulk of the working class - Gladstone’s 'masses' as against 'the classes and the adherents of class'. There seemed to be no reason why its members of the Commons could not succumb to the new electorate, just as, for example, the Democratic party in the United States had come to represent one immigrant group after another. Indeed, there were signs of this process beginning in Britain when, in 1885, after the Third Reform Act, 11 working men were elected as members of the Liberal party. They were known as 'Lib-Labs', and one of them even became a member of Gladstone’s government in 1886 (Henry Broadhurst). But the fact that most of them were miners provides a clue as to why other potentially able working-class candidates found it difficult to secure adoption. The Liberal organisations in miners’ constituencies could be swamped by the miners’ unions; elsewhere, although there were many seats of predominantly working-class character, the same concerted effort could not be made. Although a Corrupt Practices Act had been passed in 1882, candidates were still expected not only to pay the returning officer’s expenses, but also to signal their ‘generosity’ to the electors in one way or another. They also had to provide for their own upkeep in Parliament, as there was no payment of members.

Late Nineteenth-century Socialist Organisations

In the last two decades of the nineteenth century a Socialist movement appeared in Britain, inspired by the teaching of Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, who both thought that, as Britain was the cradle of the industrial revolution, so it would be the first country to see a government dominated by the working-class. They did not necessarily envisage a violent revolution to this end, although a few of their adherents did. The Socialist bodies of importance in the 1890s were the Fabian Society, a small body of intellectuals including such as Sidney and Beatrice Webb and Bernard Shaw, based in London and numbering only a few hundreds at the most; the Social-Democratic Federation, also largely limited to London but more inclined to hope for a violent revolution, although its leader was, of all things, a stockbroker, H.M. Hyndman; and, more widely dispersed over the whole country and more sympathetic to trade unionism, the Independent Labour Party, whose leader was a Scottish miner called Keir Hardie. Although the ILP did not have the word ‘socialist’ in its title, it had a Socialist constitution, and was committed to working in parliamentary elections separately from both the Liberals and Conservatives.

The Labour Representation Committee

By 1899 there was a sufficiency of trade union officials impatient to secure parliamentary representation for themselves. They passed a resolution at the 1899 Trades Union Congress authorising the summoning of a special conference early in 1900 to establish a ‘Labour Representation Committee’. The Socialist societies were also to be allowed to send representatives to the conference, and they all did so, although the Social-Democratic Federation seceded from the body that was established almost at once because it was not Socialist enough for them. On the other hand, an able member of the Independent Labour party, Ramsay MacDonald, was elected secretary of the new body.

Taff Vale Gives a Kick Start to the LRC

The success of the Labour Representation Committee remained in doubt, for its membership among the unions was at first very limited. But a legal decision of the House of Lords in the Taff Vale case made many unions more willing to go into politics, because the case not only made picketing an offence but declared that union funds could be mulcted for damages. In the aftermath of the case LRC membership shot up, and its income now indicated that it could sponsor a number of parliamentary candidates. At this point, the Liberal Chief Whip, Herbert Gladstone, the son of the ‘Grand Old Man’, negotiated a secret agreement with Ramsay MacDonald for the mutual withdrawal of one out of two candidates in two-member seats, of which there were still quite a large number, particularly in Lancashire. The secret agreement, which only came to light in the 1950s, when Herbert Gladstone’s papers became available for research at the British Library, operated most effectively in the 1906 election, which the Liberals won with a decisive majority, but which also brought 29 of the LRC’s candidates to the Commons. It has been suggested that it was the ‘New Liberalism’ of the Liberal party - that is to say, their interest in social reform - which dictated the degree of rapport between Liberals and Labour candidates. But the issue of the election was really Free Trade, which was threatened by the proposal for Tariff Reform being put forward by Joseph Chamberlain. As Nonconformists, the Labour candidates also sympathised with the Liberals on the education question, taking a critical view of Balfour’s Education Act of 1902. As the Labour men also wanted the status quo ante Taff Vale, it can be seen that the apparent victory for ‘progressive’ politics in 1906 was really a victory for ‘conservatism’ with a small ‘c’. But at this point the Labour Representation Committee went out of existence, as its members meeting at Westminster decided to call themselves the ‘Labour party’ and elected a Chairman (Keir Hardie) and Whip. The 1906 Parliament promptly undertook a Trades Disputes Act, to restore trade union rights to the position as they were understood before Taff Vale; and Asquith as Chancellor introduced non-contributory old age pensions, which the Labour party approved. But the programme of social reform upon which Lloyd George and Winston Churchill embarked in 1908 - particularly national insurance and unemployment insurance - in their original form did not commend itself to the Labour party or even to the Socialists, who had their own proposals to deal with these questions.

The First World War

Although the Labour party had been making substantial gains at the municipal level, and the trade unions had been increasing their strength by leaps and bounds, it can be argued - and has been argued - that the pre-war party would have been absorbed by the Liberals if it had not been for the events of the First World War. The war had been preceded by a period in which the Labour party had failed to make a distinct impression on politics, which were dominated by the Liberals’ great issues, Irish Home Rule and the reform of the House of Lords. Labour had not done well in by-elections in the years just before war broke out. Moreover, the first impact of the war in 1914 was to divide the Labour party leadership. Ramsay MacDonald, who was a Socialist, took the line that he could not support the war effort, because the Socialist International believed in an international general strike to prevent war breaking out. This had never in fact been fully accepted at the meetings of the Socialist International, because the Germans could see that, since there was at that time no Socialist movement to speak of in Russia, they would be at a serious disadvantage in the event of a war with Russia. But the British Independent Labour party and its members of Parliament followed MacDonald’s lead, and when he resigned the chairmanship of the party which he had held for three years, he was succeeded by Arthur Henderson, a prominent trade unionist.

Liberal Divisions

But the Liberal party under Asquith, the Prime Minister, soon ran into difficulties in its conduct of the war. First of all, in May 1915, Asquith was forced to make a coalition with the Conservatives; and he allotted posts to Labour MPs as well, including Henderson. When his continued conduct of the war more or less on peacetime principles and without conscription caused further discontent, he was forced to give way to the more dynamic Lloyd George in December 1916. This time Labour was allotted a seat in the small War Cabinet, which was given to Arthur Henderson. Asquith bitterly resented his exclusion from the government, and at a suitable moment in 1918 challenged Lloyd George in the Commons. The challenge, which Lloyd George defeated with Conservative support, divided the Liberal party into two almost equal halves. Meanwhile, Henderson had been forced out of the Cabinet owing to his advocacy of a British Labour delegation to the International Socialist Conference at Stockholm, where the Germans would have been represented. He urged this course in order to keep Russia in the war on the Allied side. But when he was relieved of office he did not go into Opposition, but allowed his place to be taken by another member of the Labour party, who also supported the continuation of the war, George Barnes. Henderson devoted his time to preparing the Labour party for the first post-war general election, in which he expected the party to improve its position substantially.

The reason for Henderson’s optimism was the enactment of a Fourth Reform Bill in 1918, which extended the franchise still further and transferred the payment of constituency returning officers’ expenses to the State. This permitted a substantial increase in the number of candidates that the party could afford to promote. A careful study by Dr Tanner has suggested that the franchise extension made little difference to the Labour party; although some women got the vote, they were householders and thus not very likely to include large numbers of Labour supporters. But the increase in the number of candidates, and the divisions of the Liberals, were decisive. It is true that the 1918 election following the armistice so abruptly was bound to be largely a plebiscite in favour of Lloyd George and his supporters - indeed he gave them his ‘coupon’ or token of approval. Consequently, although the Labour party put up 388 candidates as against 56 in December 1910, it won only 57 seats. Henderson had also persuaded the Labour party to introduce individual membership instead of, or rather as well as, membership through affiliated socialist societies and trade unions; and he gave the party a constitution that committed it to socialism. But as the socialist intellectual R.H. Tawney said, that was rather like the work of a famous Chinese Christian general, who lined up his soldiers and baptised them into Christianity with a hose!

Words and concepts to note

socialism: in essence, the public ownership of the means of production and distribution (the opposite to privatisation) but socialist groups differed widely on how this was to be achieved: some focused on parliamentary action while others favoured direct action or revolution.

Questions to consider

w How far can it be argued that the single most important event in labour politics, 1894-1924, was the Lib-Lab pact of 1903?

w Did ‘New Liberalism’ strengthen or weaken the Labour party?

w Why did the Labour party not win more seats in 1918?

w Without the Asquith-Lloyd George split could the growth of the Labour party be expected?

Further Reading:

H. Pelling, The Origins of the Labour Party, 2nd ed., Oxford, 1965; F.W. Bealey and H. Pelling, Labour and Politics, 1900-1906, 1958; R. McKibbin, Evolution of the Labour Party, 1910-1924, Oxford, 1974; D. Tanner, Political Change and the Labour Party, 1900-1918, Cambridge, 1990; M. Dawson, ‘Money and the Real Impact of the Fourth Reform Act’, Historical Journal, 35, 1992.

The Emergence of the Labour Party by Dr Henry Pelling.

new perspective 1995

Dr Henry Pelling, Fellow of St John’s College, Cambridge, is the author of The Origins of the Labour Party, Oxford, 1965, and A History of British Trade Unionism, Macmillan, 1963.

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