Labour history uncut: the Hardie boys

Continuing our series on the history of the Labour party, Pete Goddard and Atul Hatwal look at the runners and riders who founded the Labour representation committee (LRC) in 1900. First up, the Independent Labour party.

Before the Labour party there was the Independent Labour party.

In January 1893, 120 delegates met in Laycocks temperance hotel, Bradford (now new Guiseppe’s restaurant “Nice home made food in a relaxed atmosphere”, TripAdvisor) to found the Independent Labour party.

The socialist intent of this group was evident from the start. It’s aim was to “to secure the collective ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange”. The Bradford Observer recorded that “The number of socialists among them was apparent from the large proportion of wideawakes (stand up collars).”

A fact which raises the intriguing notion that Saturday mornings on ITV in the 1980s were part of a cunning socialist indoctrination programme for children. Sadly, records do not show if there was a Comrade Mallett at this first meeting of the Wide Awake Club.

A Bradford mural celebrating the ILP depicting their twin passions of workers solidarity and plate-spinning

The inaugural meeting was lit up by the left’s glitterati such as James Keir Hardie, Tom Mann and George Bernard Shaw.

ILP Founder Tom Mann could impale two capitalists at once on his deadly moustache

Hardie had been elected MP for West Ham South a year earlier thanks to combining a broad message that appealed to radicals, trades unions and the local Irish community alike, effective organisation and, perhaps most significantly, his Liberal opponent conveniently dying just before the election.

Rather than turning up to Parliament, as all new MPs have through the ages, with shiny shoes and slicked-down hair, Hardie did things differently. He rocked up riding a wagonette, accompanied by a trumpeter playing La Marseillaise, rather alarming the older generation of Tories who assumed that Napoleon was on the march again.

Sergeant Hardie’s Lonely Lefty Club Band was just the start. He refused to conform to the unofficial MP uniform of black frock coat and top hat, favouring instead what is likely to have been a tweed suit, but was featured in various conflicting reports as a workman’s peaked cap, a deerstalker, a blue scotch cap, a tee shirt saying “I’m with stupid” and a Hitler uniform.

His experience as an MP made Hardie quite the celebrity at that first Bradford meeting. But there was another big name in socialism there too: George Bernard Shaw. Shaw’s presence was controversial.

In an encouraging display of the type of tribalism that makes politics such a healthy place today, several ILP members objected to the playwright’s presence. His sin was to already be a member of another club: the Fabians.

But after some debate, Shaw was allowed to stay, on the grounds that a celebrity presence guaranteed coverage in Victorian Heat Magazine. The meeting continued and the ILP was created.

There were precursors to the ILP, which was born out of a selection of other organisations, including the Bradford Labour union, the Independent Labour party in Manchester, the Scottish Labour party in Glasgow and a host of other organisations whose names you could probably guess choosing any Northern town and randomly adding the words socialist, union and party.

Though at this point in Labour history, there is no mention of Islington.

As a proper MP and a leading voice in the organisation, Hardie set the political tone for the ILP. Unfortunately, more often than not, he was tone deaf.

In parliament, Hardie’s inability to work with others and enthusiasm for shock tactics alienated him from potential allies.

For example, his principled and uncompromising approach alienated many of the working classes when he objected to Parliament’s congratulating the Duke of York on his marriage instead of discussing a mining disaster in South Wales.

His statement demanding “What particular blessing the royal family has conferred on the nation that we should be asked to spend a whole day on the issue” was reported with outrage in the press and went down as well with the people then as “I really don’t see why we can’t all enjoy a good look at Kate’s knockers?” might today.

Then there was the Keir Hardie approach to fundraising. Using a template periodically re-adopted by the Labour party ever since, his no-questions-asked attitude generated a press furore when it emerged some of his backers included members of the Tory party.

With a parliamentary record typified by these sorts of incidents, the 1895 general election was all the ILP could have expected it to be: a total disaster.

Out of 28 ILP candidates standing for office in 1895, a grand total of zero were victorious. Keir Hardie lost his seat, having applied his prodigious talent for making friends and influencing people in his local constituency by backtracking on Home Rule and thereby upsetting his many Irish voters, insulting the Liberals, many of whom had voted for him the last time around and proposing to shut down the liquor trade to drive the drinking vote away from the ballot box and into the pub.

Short of going house-to-house telling his constituents they were plebs, Hardie did everything in his power to lose votes. He succeeded handsomely. He lost 25% of his vote to crash out of office. Packing up his pile of stolen House of Commons Post-It ® notes and a big bag of hate mail, Keir Hardie left Parliament. For now.

Looking back at this time, through the rose-tinted history specs that are issued free with all Labour party membership cards, Hardie and the ILP are commonly regarded as the honourable, unbending conscience of pure socialism.

This may well be true. But that is exactly why they found themselves out of office and roundly rejected by working class voters in 1895, who were perhaps looking for something more practical. But while Keir Hardie might have been more Galloway than Gandhi, the ILP did nevertheless make an invaluable contribution to the future Labour party.

Despite the dismal performance in the 1895 general election, the ILP developed into an effective local campaigning organisation.

They contested annual municipal elections to considerably greater success than the less frequent national contests, most notably building up their representation on West Yorkshire council to 29 councillors by 1900.

More than the public posturing of Keir Hardie, this was potentially their greatest legacy to Labour: a fully functioning party machine, complete with activists, party structures and local, regional and national leadership.

Though well organised, marketing was never a strength of the ILP

It might not have generated lots of newspaper copy but, as all new parties have found since, headlines and press coverage counts for nothing without effective organisation to get their voters out of the house and up to the polling booth on election day.

Just ask the SDP. Oh no, you can’t, they don’t exist anymore.

Coming soon: the Social Democratic Federation – making the ILP look like Tories

Pete Goddard and Atul Hatwal are not historians


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One Response to “Labour history uncut: the Hardie boys”

  1. For a less tongue-in-cheek account of the ILP and also what we’re saying today go to http://www.independentlabour.org.uk.

    Next year will be celebrating our 120th anniversary.

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