by Peter Goddard and Atul Hatwal
Education. Education. Education. You don’t have to be Blairite to believe in it. Here at Uncut we support the old dictum “those who don’t know history are destined to repeat it.” A solid understanding of the our past is important to understand where the party is today and what we need to do tomorrow.
But it occurred to us, aside from comparatively recent events, we didn’t actually know that much about Labour history. To summarise: there was a splendid fellow called Keir Hardie, a bad’un called Ramsay Macdonald, the glorious founding of the NHS, something about the pound in your pocket and then we’re all singing “things can only get better.”
Tragically we cannot look to the education system to fix our ignorance. The national curriculum devotes little time to the history of the party. Nor does it contain much in the way of jokes. And there are exams.
Labour Uncut would like to remedy these manifold problems so we are pleased to present an uncut history of the Labour party. This will be an ongoing series of articles taking us from the birth of the party and the circumstances behind it, right up to the present day. Prepare to be educated.
The Labour website declares that the Labour party was created in 1900. And who are we to disagree?
This milestone in political history was not some random event. It came about because the demographics, political climate and industrial landscape of Britain were being transformed.
First, the working classes were just beginning to realise there was more to life than forelock-tugging and starvation. Conveniently, increasing numbers of them were also being given the vote, although not the female ones, obviously, for fear that their feeble thinking should lead to a kitten being elected prime minister.
Second, there was increased interest in socialism in Britain. A number of left wing groups were springing up with various aims ranging from having a bit of a think about social progress to storming barricades and kicking off the revolution.
And finally, there was a rise in union activity as the new mass of urban workers began to flex their industrial muscle.
Unions had enjoyed increasing membership and legitimacy over the previous 50 years, but they were well aware that their position was far from secure.
A successful dock strike led by Ben Tillett had made the Conservatives nervous. As a result, they had been busy doing what Conservative governments like doing best; using the full force of the law to mount an offensive against unions.
Faced with this threat, the unions decided that creating their own representation in Parliament would be a potent defence. Certainly it would prove more effective than their previous efforts, which consisted of asking the prime minister to leave them alone, adding, “Oh go on, please, I’ll be your best friend”.
All these factors combined to make a Labour party seem like a good idea.
So on 27 February 1900, trades union leaders gathered, along with a selection of the leading leftist groups, at the memorial hall on Farringdon Street.
With a plan to create a single body to represent everyone; it would have been enormously helpful had all the groups shared a common point of view and a single, shared vision for the future.
When the unions looked around the room at their partners-to-be, this is what they saw.
The Independent Labour Party (ILP)
Despite the name they weren’t the Labour party. They were the independent Labour party. Led by Keir Hardie. Totally and completely different from the Labour party which, just as soon as they invented it, would also be first run by, er, Keir Hardie. Got it? Good.
Hardie was the big name in Labour politics. He had been an MP and was renowned as the unbending conscience of socialism. He was also the guy who managed to lose 25% of his constituency vote in his one term in parliament. Hardie’s career proved there’s no “I” in “team” but there is in “I just lost the election”.
The Social Democratic Federation (SDF)
Despite sounding like the great grandfather of SDP, the SDF weren’t really very social or democratic or even a federation. Neither were they on the right of the party. They were actually Marxists chomping at the bit for a full-on socialist revolution. But there was one similarity. In their leader, Henry M Hyndman, they had a man with vision, intellect and a spectacular talent for alienating everyone he worked with. A true role model for David Owen.
The Fabians were a genteel debating club who believed in measured, gradual progress powered by the fairy dust of ideas. Even in 1900 they had the unofficial motto, “If it needs saying, put it in a pamphlet”. They enjoyed nothing better than an evening seminar followed by a jolly good chat over tea. Their idea of a revolution was switching from bourbons to custard creams.
The Fabians also brought the star power to proceedings, inviting celebrity playwright George Bernard Shaw along to the meeting. Shaw was the Dan Brown of his day, except a keen socialist and actually good at writing.
Throughout the day at the memorial hall, this ragtag assortment of dreamers, policy wonks, pragmatists and contrarians talked, debated and argued. Finally, against all the odds, they agreed. They voted to create the Labour representative committee (LRC) which was later to be renamed the Labour party, establishing:
“A distinct Labour group in Parliament, who shall have their own whips and agree upon their policy which must embrace a readiness to co-operate with any party which for the time being maybe engaged in promoting legislation in the direct interest of Labour.”
It was scandalous. Not only were these diverse socialists going to work together, they were going to co-operate with other parties. These people did not understand politics. At all.
But with these words of pragmatism, compromise and an optimistic lack of tribalism, the Labour party was born.
Over the coming weeks and months we are going to take a moderniser’s tour through an uncut history of Labour, charting a rocky journey of progress, betrayal and defeat with which we are all familiar; stopping from time to time to enjoy the occasional, epochal, history-changing victory that makes it all worthwhile.
But before we get going with the story of the party, we need to understand where the party came from. So first up a closer look at the runners and riders who formed the LRC, starting in the next post with the independent Labour party.