Labour history uncut: in the beginning

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.

Gas workers’ union meetings traditionally finished with a rousing rendition of “I’m a little teapot”

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.

Despite a late cancellation at the Rochdale working men’s club, the LRC chose the memorial hall for their first meeting

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”.

Keir Hardie, first leader of the Labour Party and second rate Sherlock Holmes impersonator

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

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.

Pete Goddard and Atul Hatwal are not historians

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5 Responses to “Labour history uncut: in the beginning”

  1. Robert says:

    Not a bad article on the founding of the Labour. Quite funny in parts, although a bit unfair on Keir Hardie. I think that he got elected in 1892 because the Liberals did not oppose him and lost in 1895 because the Liberals put up a candidate. His view of a labour party was basically what became the Labour Party.

    As it happens, I have just finished “A History of the Labour Party” by Andrew Thorpe. Most of his judgements on the Labour Party and its various factions are fair and sensible. However, he finished writing it in 2007 and he did not see the recession coming!

  2. uglyfatbloke says:

    Possibly the best article I have ever read on this site….excellent.

  3. whichfinder says:

    “Possibly the best article I have ever read on this site….excellent.”

    If that’s the best article you’ve ever read on this site I dread to think what the worst one must have been like.

    The cursory paragaraph on the Social Democratic Federation is but one confirmation that the writers, as stated at the foot of the article, are not historians.

    The SDF spent much of its time campaigning for reforms that were supposed to improve working class conditions. H. M. Hyndman, who played the major role in setting up the party, seemed to regard it as his personal possession and reacted to any criticism in a haughty and autocratic manner. The party journal Justice was owned by a private group over which the members had no control.

    The opportunism and arrogance of Hyndman had already led to a break-away in 1884 when a number of members, including William Morris and Eleanor Marx, set up the Socialist League which however soon unfortunately ceased to be of use when it was dominated by the anarchists.

    A second revolt led to the formation in 1903 of the Socialist Labour Party, copying the American organisation of that name. At first, along with a programme of ‘immediate demands’, the SLP declared its object to be the conquest of political power but soon, under the influance of its American parent it subordinated political to industrial action.

    Another revolt against the Hyndman group’s dominance of the SDF was organised by men and women who had a much firmer grasp of Marxist political and economic theory. For their opposition to opportunism they were contemptuously called ‘impossibilists’. At first they tried to use the machinery of the SDF to get the party to reform itself, but they came up against the Hyndman clique who were ready to resort to all kinds of undemocratic practices to maintain their control of the party. Conferences were packed, branches dissolved and members expelled.

    Matters came to a head at the 1904 Conference held in Burnley at the beginning of April. At the Conference more expulsions took place. When the delegates of some of the London branches returned they held a special meeting to discuss the situation and approved a statement which, among other things, urged the following:

    ‘The adoption of an uncompromising attitude which admits of no arrangements with any section of the capitalist party; nor permits any compromise with any individual or party not recognising the class war as a basic principle, and not prepared to work for the overthrow of the present, capitalist system. Opposition to all who are not openly and avowedly working for the realisation of Social Democracy. A remodelled organisation, wherein the Executive shall be mainly an administrative body, the policy and tactics to be determined and controlled by the entire organisation. The Party Organ to be owned, controlled and run by the Party. The individual member to have the right to claim protection at the whole organisation against tyrannical decisions.’

    On 12 June most of those who signed this leaflet together with a few others founded the Socialist Party of Great Britain.

    The constitution of the Socialist Party was formed in such a manner that what had happened in the SDF would be impossible. The Executive Committee, elected by the whole of the membership, was to run the day-to-day affairs of the party in accordance with the policy laid down at Conferences and was required to report to the membership twice a year. All its meetings were to be open not only to members but also to non-members. The party journal the Socialist Standard, which first appeared in September 1904 and monthly ever since, is under party control through the Executive Committee. An elaborate appeals procedure – first to the Conference or Delegate Meeting and then to a poll of all the members – was written into the rule-book to protect any member charged with activities warranting expulsion.

    The rule-book of the Socialist Party lays down a thoroughly democratic procedure for the conduct of party affairs. Control of policy is in the hands of the members; there are no leaders and never have been. Democratic procedure has been maintained throughout the party’s existence and is a practical refutation of those who argue that all organisations must degenerate into bureaucratic rule. In fact a democratic structure without leaders is the necessary form of any socialist party.

    At its formation the members of the Socialist Party of Great Britain adopted an Object and Declaration of Principles which, without the need for any change, has remained the basis of membership of the party. Within that framework the party has worked consistently to make socialist principles known and to expose the many erroneous and dangerous theories that have attracted support among the worker

  4. uglyfatbloke says:

    The other indications that the writers are not historians include the facts that they are not painfully pompous and that they have accorded ‘I’m a Little Teapot Short and Stout’ the historiological significance that it so richly deserves. Ans as you point out, they do say that they are not historians…are you a historian?
    Incidentally, Hyndman was not the only figure to have thought that a party should be the tool of their own career promotion… Wilson, Callaghan, Thatcher, Blair, Brown come to mind as wicked selfish people who wanted the rest of us to just do as we ‘re damned well told.
    Also…a democratic structure may well be necessary for a socialist party, but Labour has always seen a democratic electoral system as being unnecessary. That may change inn the future of course. If – and it is perfectly possible – the next GE sees the gnats derive the benefits of FPTP on the same scale as Labour has over the past 40 years what’s the odds that the Labour party in Scotland will suddenly convert to supporting democratic reform?

  5. Peter Goddard says:

    Hi whichfinder,

    A fine contribution. Hopefully you noticed that we were not writing a novel and this intro only takes us to the formation of lrc. The SDF does get more coverage later, although I suspect you will be/have been disappointed by that also.

    Uglyfatbloke. Thank you, I am pleased to mee a fellow ‘teapot’ fan.

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