by Pete Goddard and Atul Hatwal
September 1917 was a new beginning for the Labour party. A month earlier, Arthur Henderson had experienced an unceremonious ejection from the wartime cabinet.
Free from having to toe the government line and support the latest innovations in war strategy aka new and efficient ways to squander human life (the battle of Passchendale was days away), Henderson was able to devote his time to the Labour party.
It provided an opportunity to bridge the gulf at the heart of the party which had pitted Arthur Henderson, master of the party machine and supporter of the war, against Ramsay Macdonald’s anti-war alliance of radicals and socialists.
Henderson was determined to make changes. In September 1917, he set up two sub-committees of the NEC. One was tasked with developing Labour’s alternative approach to ending the war and the other was established to reorganise the Labour party so that it was fit to fight the next election.
Yes, even in 1917 the modernisers were at work, creating the new Labour. Or Old New Labour. Or New Old Labour. Or something.
Both sub-committees included seats for the perennial favourites including Arthur Henderson, Ramsay Macdonald and the Fabians’ Beatrice and Sidney Webb. So basically it was just the same people, but every now and then they’d change the sign on the door.
In the war committee, they concentrated on plans to establish a common front with Europe’s various socialist parties on ending the war, much along the lines that Macdonald had been advocating. It was principled, consensual and fun for all the socialist family. It was also thoroughly irrelevant.
Passchendale was a disaster. The Bolsheviks seized power in Russia. Russia entered talks to withdraw from the war. Through all this, Europe’s socialists corresponded, met and issued communiqués. And the people running Europe’s nations, busy waging relentless war, ignored every single one of them.
The socialists might have had the moral high ground, but with no artillery to put on it, it didn’t prove very useful.
In contrast, the work of the other sub-committee had far-reaching consequences. Its remit was framed by a detailed memorandum Henderson had presented to the NEC.
This called for a massive expansion of party membership, a new constituency structure, strengthening, developing local parties and the adoption of a common programme at elections. In other words, Labour was to stop being a loose federation of different bickering organisations and start being a single, unified, national political party made of different bickering factions instead.
The sub-committee’s reforming work was given added urgency by a major impending social reform: the extension of the franchise.
Previously, eligibility to vote had been based on residence. However, the fact that millions of men were ineligible under these rules because they had been abroad for the last few years dodging bullets for Britain, seemed a tad unfair.
Likewise for women. Across the nation, women’s supposed frailty and incompetence had been handily overlooked as chronic manpower shortages led to women working in previously male-only worlds such as factories, farms and stand-up comedy.
Having filled these roles perfectly well during the war, afterwards it was difficult to suggest women were incapable of putting a cross in a box without fainting.
Thus there was legislation in train that would extend the right to vote to men and a large number of women. The bill would be passed in February 1918, tripling the size of the electorate from 7.7 million in 1912 to 21.4 million by the end of 1918.
This was the environment in which the first and most powerful incarnation of Org Sub found itself. They focused their energies on a document to transform the party – a new constitution.
The constitution would establish Labour as a national organisation, proposing a local party in every parliamentary constituency. This meant allowing individual members to join the Labour party directly, rather than solely via an affiliate organisation such as a trades council or the Independent Labour Party.
But this plan to move from being a federation to a national body would not come cheap. To bring in the cash, it would be necessary to ask the members with the deepest pockets – the unions – to increase their affiliation fees substantially.
Generally speaking, when asking people for money, they tend to ask what’s in it for them, unless you’re outside a railway station shaking a bucket, dressed as a cow.
Being all out of cow costumes, it was up to the sub-committee to make the unions an offer they couldn’t refuse.
But there was a problem. Whatever was offered to the unions, the ILP were going to be cross. They had already lost one aspect of their role in the move to a central party structure where individuals could by-pass the ILP and join the Labour party directly.
If the unions took even more power in the Labour party as well, the new constitution would prove a really raw deal for the ILP.
And an upset ILP would be a problem for the shiny new re-organised Labour party. After all, they were the beating heart of party organisation. The ILP generally supplied the bulk of the activists: door knockers, leaflet distributors, organisers and other dangerously real people national parties frequently find troublesome but cannot do without.
The ILP had to be given something.
To lock the unions into the party, the new draft constitution changed the structure of the governing National Executive Committee. This would increase in size from 16 to 21 members, consisting of 11 trade unionists (increased after further union pressure to 13), five nominees of local Labour parties, four women, yes women, and the treasurer.
The new constitution essentially ceded organisational control of the party to the unions. But no one left the jamboree empty-handed and the ILP were the proud recipients of the constitutional Blankety Blank cheque book and pen: clause four.
“To secure for the workers by hand or by brain the full fruits of their industry and the most equitable distribution thereof that may be possible upon the basis of the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange, and the best obtainable system of popular administration and control of each industry or service.”
This clause provided a fig leaf of principle which enabled ILPers a sense of continued representation in the new Labour machine. Although it was purely paper-based socialism, failing as it did to commit the Labour party to any specific policy, it just about served its purpose. The ILP remained part of the party,
At the annual conference of February 1918, the new constitution was adopted.
It was a milestone in the development of the party. The left won some notable words in the new constitution, but their organisation, the ILP, had been marginalised. The idea of Labour championing full blooded socialism was now more distant than ever. It was, in the most modern sense of the term, a true clause four moment for Labour.
Pete and Atul are not historians