Labour history uncut: Labour fights its first election

by Pete Goddard and Atul Hatwal

The 129 delegates’ votes were counted at the Memorial Hall in Farringdon. Keir Hardie’s motion had been carried and a new movement was born.

The squabbling assortment of socialists and union representatives that had trooped into the hall that fateful morning on the 27th February 1900, had decided to come together to form “a distinct Labour group in parliament”.

There was little time to waste. The working class was in need and now they had a new, thrusting champion, ready to tackle the iniquities of the late Victorian world. It was time for action.

So they formed a committee.

The Labour representation committee (LRC) to be precise, comprising 2 members of the Independent Labour Party, 2 members of the Social Democratic Federation and 7 union members.

Well, you can’t just rush into things can you? A political meeting without a committee – that’s just anarchy.

In the beginning, membership was relatively limited and funds even more so.  Quite how tight the finances were is indicated by the party’s choice of Ramsay MacDonald for their first secretary.

Why did they choose MacDonald? His vision? His passion? His integrity?

No. It was his wealthy wife.

Thanks to the income of Margaret MacDonald, Ramsay was able to work for nothing more than a subsidised sandwich at lunchtime and a stack of Labour representation committee business cards.

Ramsay MacDonald was, in fact, the Labour party’s very first intern.

Fortunately, MacDonald was also a sharp operator and an effective secretary, even if he did have to keep asking his wife for pocket money.

The many faces of Ramsay Macdonald

As the nearest the LRC had to a leader (the big guns like Keir Hardie remained as leaders of their own groups, for the moment), Macdonald immediately faced the problem familiar to all who have tried to lead the movement: how to cobble together a set of policies without immediately sparking civil war.

Typically, it was easier to say what the party was not.

Number one on the list was to reject the Social Democratic Federation (SDF) contingent’s suggestion to base the party “on a recognition of class war.” This helped demonstrate to the public at large that this new movement wasn’t going to go bonkers at the first sniff of power and start building guillotines on the Strand.

It also really, really annoyed the more left-wing elements of the party.

So yes, practically the first political act of the new Labour leadership was to pick a fight with the left and triangulate. Start as you mean to go on eh?

As useful as it was to be clear what the party didn’t stand for, it was no help filling the sheet of paper that was sitting on the table headed “Policies – all ideas welcome.”

This might not have been a problem normally but then Lord Salisbury’s Conservative government called an election to be held between 26 September and 24 October. Suddenly the lack of policies became a pressing issue.

The 1900 election became known as the first “khaki” election because it was held in the midst of the Boer war. Specifically, it was the bit where Britain seemed to be doing well and everyone was cheering and waving flags, which tended to favour the government of the day.

The bit where we were ground down by years of guerrilla war, resorted to scorched earth policies and concentration camps and had very little to feel pleased with ourselves about, came later.

Off-duty soldiers during the Boer war relax by re-enacting the hit movie “Coneheads”

Under the cosh, with an election looming, Ramsay MacDonald supervised the rapid development of Labour’s first manifesto.

Though perhaps “supervised” overstates it.  As does “manifesto.”

At 150 words, the LRC’s inaugural policy platform document could reasonably be described as “a bit light.” On the other hand, it did have the novel feature of doubling as an emergency fag-paper.

It comprised 13 pledges including action on financial support for the old and children, building more homes and helping the unemployed. So far so socialist.

More novel was the policy chosen as pledge number five: opposing compulsory vaccination. As an early exercise in voter micro-targeting, it positioned Labour ideally to mop up the oft overlooked, pro-smallpox vote.

The LRC whirred into electoral action, mobilising its nascent ground organisation and contesting 15 seats.  It won in just 2 of them, but that was 2 more than the left had achieved five years earlier.

Richard Bell was elected to represent Derby while Merthyr Tydfill returned to parliament the big dog of Labour politics, James Keir Hardie.

It was a decent if not spectacular result. It’s worth noting, though, that Keir Hardie had the odds tilted somewhat in his favour. As well as standing for Merthyr, he was also on the ballot for Preston.

He had, in fact, had spent most of his time campaigning in Preston. And in Preston, the old Keir Hardie campaign magic was back.

As principled as ever, he devoted a fair amount of his platform to the issue of temperance. This included his opposition to the granting of dancing licences to drinking houses because, if both drinking and dancing were indulged in at the same time, in his words, “Immorality is apt to be great.”

“You’re right,” replied the people of Preston, “It IS great” and abandoned him in droves.

Although defeated in Preston, Hardie still had a shot in Merthyr. Because he’d spent most of his time up north, the voters of Merthyr had not really had a chance to get to know the real Keir Hardie. Victory was his.

Thus the LRC established a bridgehead in parliament. They were hardly about to challenge the government of the day, but they were undeniably making progress.

Which is more than could be said for the Liberals. Their  divisions over the war had led to a crushing defeat at the hands of the Conservatives. They hadn’t won an election since 1892 and Churchill (then a Conservative member of parliament, but just a mere four years away from switching codes to the Liberals before falling out with his new chums  and switching back to the Tories a few years later) described the Liberal party at this time as “a squabbling, disorganized rabble.”

As the new kid on the parliamentary block, Labour took a look at the nation’s second biggest party and thought “Hmm, we could do that…”

Pete and Atul are not historians

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5 Responses to “Labour history uncut: Labour fights its first election”

  1. Allan D says:

    Churchill was a Conservative MP (elected for Oldham) in 1900 (although he didn’t take his seat until February 1901 taking time off to visit the USA). He crossed the floor in 1904.

  2. Editor says:

    Fair point, amended – they did say they weren’t historians!

  3. pete goddard says:

    Thanks Allan D, we do try to keep it accurate, so your fact-checking is appreciated.

  4. Richard says:

    Loving your homage to 1066 And All That.

    So, how much truth is there in Hardie’s Preston/Merthyr better-the-devil-you-don’t-know schtick? Was he really absent from Merthyr? And if so, was he perhaps focusing on Preston because he rightly thought Merthyr was in the bag? Is it true that his Preston campaign was counterproductive?

  5. Pete Goddard says:

    Hi Richard,

    I wouldn’t like to declare the ‘truth’ of the hardie analysis as there’s always room for disagreement, but for what it’s worth, it is the view taken by Martin Pugh, who IS a historian.

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