by Pete Goddard and Atul Hatwal
Following the 1906 election, a new dawn seemed to have broken. 29 Labour MPs had been swept into parliament, a huge step forward.
Even the monarchy noticed the Labour influx. “I see,” wrote the prince of Wales to Edward VII, “that a great number of Labour members have been returned which is a rather dangerous sign, but I hope not all are socialists.”
Which just goes to show why princes of Wales shouldn’t be allowed writing desks
Nonetheless, the prince did have a small point.
It was true, there were a number of actual socialists in the Labour party. These were generally idealists, who had entered the movement via the independent Labour party (ILP) or social democratic federation (SDF). They had spent years discussing big ideas like smashing capitalism and now in parliament, were eager to get cracking on the new workers’ utopia that was just around the corner.
On the other side were pragmatic union folk. They had spent a similar number of years getting up in the morning to go to work, so hadn’t had much time to think about economic systems, although they did know you couldn’t feed the wife and kids on big ideas.
These strands had lived uneasily together in the previous years but the divisions became overt in the party’s first leadership election, with candidates standing for both points of view.
Representing the socialists was Keir Hardie. He was Labour’s most famous face and an experienced parliamentarian, which was helpful.
He was also an upstanding man of strict principles and immovable convictions, which was not.
For the pragmatists – David Shackleton. A former general secretary of the factory textile workers association, Shackleton was another man of principle , although in his case the principle was that the party was basically an accessory to the union movement. Like a nice belt.
On 12th February 1906, the new parliamentary party voted.
In the first round, the vote was tied at 13 votes each. Both the candidates abstained, as did Ramsay Macdonald (now an MP) due to his role as secretary of the party.
The vote was taken again, this time with all members voting.
Unsurprisingly, the candidates voted for themselves, failing to break the deadlock. Then Ramsay Macdonald cast the decider, voting for Keir Hardie, who nicked it 15 to 14.
As if this narrow victory wasn’t enough to undermine Hardie’s mandate, Macdonald also confessed that he had made his choice with “great reluctance”.
With friends like that, eh?
To make things even more difficult for the divided party, although it was perceived as having done well in 1906, it was still a tiny minority in the house.
Regardless of how successful Labour felt they had been, the Liberal party dwarfed them. With almost 400 seats and majority of 143 the Liberals were the parliamentary elephant who was not only in the room, but was taking up the entire sofa, had put “Now That’s What I Call Music Hall” on the gramophone and was eating all the Twiglets.
The problem was typified in Labour’s dependence on Liberal largesse to deliver the party’s number one priority – the repeal of Taff Vale.
Henry Campbell-Bannerman’s Liberals brought forward a bill, but it didn’t fully remove unions’ liability for damages from strike action.
Labour were outraged but they had no leverage. It was only through harnessing the support for full repeal within the Liberal party itself that Labour was able to see the judgement reversed and union rights fully restored.
Although the repeal of Taff Vale was undoubtedly a genuine victory for Labour, the unavoidable truth was that it could not have been achieved without Labour MPs putting on their winning smiles and doffing their caps in the direction of their Liberal friends.
The workmens’ compensation act was a similar story. The act extended workers’ rights to compensation for injury and diseases caused at work. Though supported by Labour, the legislation was led and passed by the Liberal government, who were blissfully unaware that they had taken the first step in unleashing continuous “where there’s blame, there’s a claim” adverts on an unsuspecting nation.
As a result of this appearance of simply following the Liberals, the pressure on the parliamentary Labour party to prove their distinctiveness increased. Members wanted Labour to show that they were something more than just Liberals in dirty overalls.
Unfortunately, though, they couldn’t agree on what this distinctive contribution should be.
Another divisive split could have been on the cards, but as luck would have it, Keir Hardie found, for the time being at least, a way to unite the parliamentary party.
What brought the PLP together was “everyone agreeing that Keir Hardie was completely wrong.”
Coming next: Keir Hardie, women’s suffrage and a very unhappy PLP
Pete and Atul are not historians