|You are in:||Home> Timeline> 1880-1914> 1880-1914 Narratives>|
The Labour Party
Under the leadership of James Keir Hardie, the ILP advocated the unification in one organisation of the industrial and political wings of the labour movement. This relatively limited objective was hard to achieve given the trade union leaderships' attachment to liberalism and could only be accomplished by an appeal to pragmatism rather than idealism. However, in 1899 the TUC was eventually won round to this position. At the 1899 Congress, this resolution was moved by J.H. Holmes, a delegate of the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants:
"That this Congress, having regard to its decisions in former years, and with a view to securing a better representation of the interests of Labour in the House of Commons, hereby instructs the Parliamentary Committee to invite the co-operation of all Co-operative, socialistic, trade unions, and other working class organisations to jointly co-operate on lines mutually agreed upon, in convening a special congress of representatives from such of the above-named organisations as may be willing to take part to devise ways and means for securing the return of an increased number of labour members to the next parliament"
The resolution was supported by the Dockers, General Labourers, Railway Servants and Shop Assistants, and opposed by the Miners' Federation and the Cotton Spinners on the ground that it was of an impracticable character. After a debate which lasted most of the afternoon the resolution was put and carried by 546,000 votes to 434,000.
The TUC supported the special conference of socialists, co-operators and trade unionists held on 17 February 1900, at the Memorial Hall, Farringdon Street, London at which the Labour Represenation Committee (LRC) was established. The LRC was composed of seven trade union representatives, two from the ILP, two from the SDF and one Fabian and elected James Ramsay MacDonald as its secretary. Its purpose was simply 'to establish a distinct labour group in parliament who shall have their own whips and agree upon their own policy'. Affiliated organisations would finance their own candidates but would receive LRC backing. The LRC (known from 1906 as the Labour Party) did not, as yet, represent a distinct socialist current - it was not even a party in the accepted sense of the term, rather a federal organisation - a broad church. Individual unions were slow to affiliate until the Taff Vale decision of 1901 (see below) finally convinced them that it was futile to rely on the existing political parties. Only the Miners' Federation remained outside the labour coalition. (It eventually affiliated in 1909). Keir Hardie of the ILP characterised the 'philosophy' of the new organisation not as socialism but as 'labourism'.
Labourism thus became the successor to nineteenth century lib-labism but it did not supersede it entirely, as the new lib-lab pact of 1903 was to show. This was a secret electoral agreement between Ramsay MacDonald of the LRC and Herbert Gladstone of the Liberal Party whereby the Liberals agreed to stand down in over 30 constituencies in return for labour support for other Liberal candidates elsewhere and a promise of support for a future Liberal government. Such cautious tactics may seem surprising in view of the ILP's fervent belief in political independence and the fact that three independent labour M.P.'s had been returned without Liberal support in the General Election of 1892 (Keir Hardie for West Ham; Joseph Havelock Wilson, the seamen's leader, for Middlesborough; and John Burns for Battersea). However, a series of election defeats for Labour thereafter, notably in the 1895 General Election and 1901 (by-election), followed - convinced some that three cornered fights were the essence of the problem.
The euphoria of the electoral success in the 1906 election in which 29 labour candidates were returned, had the effect of confirming the MacDonald strategy. The landslide Liberal victory ushered in a period of long awaited social reform. This served to justify the uncritical support of Labour for the Liberal legislative programme, blinding it to the significance of the remarkable victory of the Independent Labour candidate, Victor Grayson, in a three cornered by-election without official labour support in Colne Valley in 1907.
Although in the two General Elections of 1910 there was an increase in the number of Labour M.P.'s (40 in January, 42 in December), this was largely due to the transfer of miners' votes rather than a significant electoral upsurge. Again, most of these seats were won as a result of an accommodation with the Liberals.
Professor Mary Davis, Centre for Trade Union Studies, London Metropolitan University.
© London Metropolitan University | Terms & Conditions