by Pete Goddard and Atul Hatwal
After the 1900 election, the Labour representation committee had managed to get two MPs into parliament: James Keir Hardie and Richard Bell. Not a huge number, but at least they could hold party meetings on the omnibus to work.
Whipping was a much simpler affair too. No need to issue papers every week, Richard Bell just had to make sure that, when they went through the lobby, he was holding Keir Hardie’s hand.
For his part, Hardie was returning to parliament for the first time in five years. The time away had not dented the sense of proportion and willingness to compromise that had served him so well the first time round.
Early in 1901, he put down a motion calling for legislation, “inaugurating a Socialist Commonwealth founded upon the common ownership of land and capital, production for use and not for profit and equality of opportunity for every citizen.” It would have included a free puppy for everyone too, but there wasn’t enough room on the order paper.
Hardie laid out his proposal to the commons.
‘”Who’s with me?” he asked.
“I am,” cried Dickie Bell.
The parliamentary equivalent of taking a shot on goal from kick-off had failed. Shocker. Clearly it was time for the LRC to get over the excitement of being in parliament, and face some difficult facts.
First, the LRC needed to dial back the enthusiasm and try for more realistic initial gains. Better treatment for workers maybe, rather than immediate nationwide revolution.
Second, to win even these victories, the LRC was going to need more MPs on side – approximately 334 to pass a bill in the Commons. As it stood, they weren’t even the biggest working class group in parliament. That honour went to the 8 Lib Lab MPs on the Liberal benches.
Third the LRC was going to need more members and more money if it was going to get more MPs. The LRC’s main backing was the union movement, but over half the TUC were not affiliated to the LRC and big unions like the Miners Federation of Great Britain were actively opposed. Worse, union support for the LRC was actually falling.
Unions representing a membership of 340,000 workers were present at the first annual conference of the LRC in February 1901, down from over 500,000 at the founding meeting a year earlier.
It was just a coincidence that this conference was declared to be a literally sober affair, in line with Keir Hardie’s temperance beliefs, and that unions representing 160,000 union members suddenly remembered they were washing their hair that day.
For Hyndman of the Socialist Democratic Federation (SDF), this was all too much. Winning only 2 seats and the defeat of the LRC’s parliamentary plan for socialism before teatime proved two of his core beliefs. Firstly that the LRC was simply not left wing enough to inspire a revolution-ready nation. Secondly that no organisation could possibly be successful without Henry H Hyndman at the helm.
In 1901 he packed up his LRC commemorative mug, his battered copy of Das Capital and the notes for his autobiography (“Always Right All The Time – the Henry Hyndman Story”) and stormed out, taking the SDF with him.
Just one year after its formation, the Labour Representation Committee had experienced its first split.
However, just as the party looked like it might be struggling, the LRC’s luck started to turn. And not only by getting shot of Hyndman.
Help came from a most unexpected quarter – the House of Lords.
The ermined elderly didn’t actually intend to help out Labour. Nevertheless, in one of those rich ironies that history sometimes delivers, that’s just what they managed when they pronounced the Taff Vale judgement.
After an acrimonious strike in December 1901, the House of Lords upheld a ruling that the Amalgamated Society Railway Servants had to pay damages to the Taff Vale railway company for their losses during the action.
This was a huge development. The unions hated the decision because it had the effect of making strike action all but impossible. The railway owners loved it, for much the same reason.
While the owners twiddled their moustaches and rushed out celebrate by tying a kidnapped virgin to their railway tracks, the unions realised they had to act to protect themselves.
The idea of a political party to stand up for the workers seemed like an incredibly good idea again, even if you could only get diet Pepsi at the bar. Unions flocked to the LRC.
At the 1902 LRC conference the affiliated trade union membership had risen by more than 115,000 to 455,000. It was a lifeline for the fledgling party.
Sure, you could still fit the whole of the parliamentary Labour party in the service lift at Westminster (coincidentally, exactly what the Tories in parliament would like to have seen), but as it happened, that was about to change too.
Coming next: By-elections beckon and the fixers get fixing.
Pete and Atul are not historians