by Pete Goddard and Atul Hatwal
“Is the parliamentary Labour party a failure?”
This was the upbeat title of a 1908 pamphlet from Ben Tillett. Presumably feeling he’d run out of capitalists to agitate against, he had turned his talents to stirring things up in his own party.
As well as being possibly the first #QTWTAIN in Labour’s political history, it was a cunning title on Tillett’s part. He had only to change the date on the front and he could re-publish it and still find an audience every year from then until, approximately, today.
Tillett’s central moan was that Labour was not doing enough to combat unemployment on account of the fact that its leaders were just re-purposed Liberals.
This was an outrageous accusation. Just because the majority of Labour’s MPs were either former Liberals or ex-union officials with strong Lib Lab sympathies, and just because Arthur Henderson, the new leader of the Labour party was a former Liberal agent and just because the party had actually agreed not to contest elections where a Liberal was standing and… ok, he had a point.
There was quite a lot of common ground with the Liberals, but Labour inaction on unemployment was not policy – the truth was that party just didn’t have the votes in parliament to enforce its will.
They had tried. Labour had introduced the “right to work” bill in 1907 establishing every man’s right to employment. If work was not available the bill proposed that it was the responsibility of society to maintain the unemployed.
To do this, the government should increase spending in economic downturns in order to offset unemployment. And not just in Olympic years either.
This proto-Keynesian bill was Labour’s first really big piece of proposed legislation.
Unfortunately, without the support of friendly Liberals, the relatively tiny parliamentary Labour party was on its own. As a result, the bill was the legislative equivalent of the England midfield – it didn’t pass and got nowhere fast.
But this logic wasn’t of major interest to the idealistic left. Fuelled by righteous anger and flushed by the success of Victor Grayson’s 1907 run as an independent socialist in the Colne Valley by-election, they wanted to fight.
And fight they did. The social democratic federation (SDF) decided to put a candidate up in the Newcastle by-election in September 1908.
This was a seat where the Liberals were meant to have a clear run at the Tories. Unimpressed by the Labour pact, several ILP branches rallied to the cause and campaigned vigorously regardless.
They intended to make an impact, and they managed it. The socialist candidate split the left-wing vote, allowing the Tories to claim an unlikely triumph. Oops.
For Labour’s leaders this was more than just a bit embarrassing. It showed they were unable to control their own party, and resulted in the Liberals threatening to run candidates in all Labour seats.
At a stroke this could have destroyed the parliamentary Labour party.
Macdonald worked his whiskery charms and managed to mollify his Liberal partners with a bunch of petrol station flowers and a promise that he was “really fighting to make of go of this if you’ll just give the relationship another chance.”
But the leftist barbs at the leadership just kept coming. Keir Hardie chipped in at the end of 1908, calling Henderson’s time at the helm “timid” and “disastrous.”
So, by the standards of some of his successors in the ex-leaders’ club, quite supportive.
In fact, Arthur Henderson was increasingly becoming a lightning conductor for left discontent. He was seen as an establishment stooge thanks to his lacklustre oratory, his Liberal past and his “genial bank manager “ look.
The mood of the left was worsened in 1909 when the Miners federation finally decided to affiliate, bringing 13 of their Lib Lab MPs, who had formerly taken the Liberal whip, into the parliamentary Labour party.
This further tipped the balance towards Labour with a Liberal flavour, and away from the socialists.
But even if the whole party had wanted a shift to more distinctive ground, events were going to make this impossible.
Thanks to Lloyd George’s radical budget, national politics quickly polarised. His proposals to raise taxes to fund expanded welfare such as unemployment and sickness benefit dominated the political debate.
As a result, a party was either for the budget or against it. Labour might have wanted the budget to go further, but anything more nuanced than a simple “for” or “against” was simply drowned out by the noise from the main event.
The Tories knew where they stood. They saw no reason why their hard-inherited wealth should pay for the fecklessness of people too idle to be born into the right family.
Unsurprisingly, this was not Labour’s view. But this being a debate that only offered two options, they once again ended up standing foursquare with the Liberals.
The situation was exacerbated in late 1909 when the Tories used their majority in the Lords to vote the budget down – the first time this had been done for two centuries. It triggered a constitutional crisis and another megaphone issue where Labour struggled to position itself as anything but Liberal cheerleaders, even though nobody wanted to see Ramsay Macdonald in a ra ra skirt.
Worse still, the party suffered an organisational setback in December 1909. This was the result of the Osborne Judgement, a ruling which was terrible news for Labour and not just because the words “Osborne ,” “judgement” and “terrible” go so well together in a sentence.
In this, W V Osborne, secretary of the Walthamstow branch of the amalgamated society of railway servants (ASRS) objected to the fact that his union’s subscriptions were used to fund the Labour party whether he liked it or not.
The House of Lords agreed, fond as they were of legislation that made life difficult for the unions. They passed a ruling which prohibited trade unions to collect a levy for political purposes. Instantly it slashed party Labour’s primary source of cash.
It was about now the party understood the difficulties of representing the poor – elections and politicking have to be funded, and the poor just don’t pay as well as landowners and capitalists.
It was a double blow. The constitutional crisis caused by the lords’ opposition to the budget meant an election was imminent, while the Osborne judgement robbed Labour of the resources to fight a truly independent campaign.
As a result, in January 1910 when the country went to the polls, Labour had little choice but to renew their pact, retaining the role of Pike to the Liberals’ Captain Mainwaring.
Having been in a position a few months earlier where the party considered contesting 110 seats, Labour ultimately only fielded candidates for 78 – barely an increase on 1906.
The manifesto for that election majored on the peers versus the people. Something everyone could agree on for a change, yes, but still lacking a distinctly “Labour” theme.
The result wasn’t great. Going into the election, the Labour party had technically had 45 MPs (29 elected in 1906 plus 3 by election wins and the 13 Lib Labs joining with the miners’ affiliation).
After the election, the party had 40 MPs, the majority of whom were pragmatic, Liberal leaning, union men.
On paper the party increased its MPs from 1906, but in reality had gone backwards. Hardly a surprising result from an election where they had been peripheral to the main debate, with the left in tumult and the future political position of the party looking far from secure.
A few weeks after the election, Arthur Henderson resigned as leader of the Labour party.
Which was understandable.
Pete and Atul are not historians