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100 years since a key meeting

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Issue 1685

100 years since a key meeting

27 February 1900 The Times London edition

Trade Unionists and Socialists Meet
Labour Party founded

By Hassan Mahamdallie

ON 27 February 1900, in a church hall in Farringdon Street, London, delegates gathered to found what was to become the Labour Party. The meeting of the Labour Representation Committee attracted very little press attention. There were 139 delegates and nine spectators in the public gallery as the conference kicked off.

Yet it was to prove to be a major political turning point. The Labour Party came out of an intense debate on the left of the working class movement. Most people agreed that workers needed political representation in parliament. The debate centred around what kind of party it would be, what role it would play, and what kind of politics it should have. Those on the far left of the movement said that socialist MPs could use parliament as a platform to expose capitalism and encourage the masses towards revolutionary change.

Others believed that you could “reform” capitalism by electing “labour” MPs. Although the outcome was not inevitable, the “reformists” won the argument. The foundation of the Labour Party in 1900 was a positive step forward. It was a political break with the openly capitalist Liberal Party. During the 1830s and 1840s the British working class had looked to the Chartists. The Chartists were the first mass working class movement in history. Their tactics included mass strikes, revolt and insurrection. But the Chartists were defeated in 1848.

There was no fundamental challenge for another 40 years as industrial expansion made Britain into the “workshop of the world”. The leaders of skilled workers’ trade unions came to rely on class collaboration through the Liberal Party. The Liberal Party under its leader Gladstone cultivated a “Radical” wing, which pulled on board “respectable” representatives such as right wing trade union leaders.

This became increasingly important as sections of the (male) working class won the vote. A few individuals were allowed to stand as “Lib-Lab” candidates in elections in return for delivering workers’ votes to the Liberal Party.

KEIR HARDIE, the Scottish miner who was to found the Labour Party, started out as a Liberal. His first election leaflet read, “A vote for Hardie is a vote for Gladstone.” But the Liberals were a party of the ruling class. It became clear to many workers that they got very little in return for their support. Hardie despised Lib-Lab MPs as “dumb dogs who do not bark”. People began to discuss the crying need for an independent working class organisation.

During the 1880s a whole number of socialist organisations sprang up as economic depression and unemployment reawakened the working class for the first time since Chartism. The activists in the socialist organisations went “on the stump” across Britain, selling socialist newspapers, holding open air meetings in industrial centres and building a network of supporters. The class struggle erupted in the late 1880s with mass strikes by new layers of unskilled workers.

The “New Unionism” inspired by the match girls’ and dockers’ strikes of 1888-9 marked the re-emergence of a combative working class which looked towards socialism. But New Unionism was pushed back by a bosses’ counter-offensive. Between 1890 and 1892 membership of the new unions fell from 320,000 to 130,000. This setback saw many socialists left simply defending their trade unions, or dropping out of activity altogether.

Many workers, isolated and battered, began to be drawn to the idea of piecemeal change through parliament. This backdrop of retreat from mass action was crucial to the form that the future Labour Party would take. The ideas pushed by the Fabians were very influential. The Fabian Society was founded in 1884, with the aim of “permeating” existing institutions such as school boards and local government.

It was anti-Marxist and very much tied to the Liberals. It did not agree with the setting up of a Labour Party to begin with. However, its moderate ideas fitted those who argued for such a party. In 1893 the Independent Labour Party (ILP)-one of the groups that was later to help found the Labour Party-held its first conference in Bradford. The workers in Bradford had just suffered a huge setback with the defeat of the bitter Manningham mill strike.

The ILP conference brought together all on the left. The majority wanted to concentrate on getting candidates elected to parliament. They looked to follow in the footsteps of Keir Hardie. WHEN HARDIE first entered parliament in 1893 he created a scandal when he insisted on wearing working clothes and a cloth cap instead of the regulation frock coat and top hat. After the ILP was set up Hardie tirelessly toured the country arguing that the big trade unions should back Labourism. However, the union leadership was still inclined to side with the Liberals. Less than half the unions affiliated to the Trade Union Congress were represented at the 1900 conference of the Labour Representation Committee.

What converted the rest was a move by the ruling class to increasingly use the law to restrict the activity of the trade unions. The watershed was the 1901 Taff Vale court judgement which effectively outlawed picketing and made unions liable for any money lost by the employers during strikes. The 1900 LRC conference rejected an attempt to bind it to socialism and a “recognition of the class war”. Instead it backed Hardie’s deliberately loose formulation of “a distinct labour group in parliament”. Despite this, the early history of the Labour Representation Committee acted like a “pressure group” of the Liberal Party. It did not have a socialist constitution until 1918.

The formation of the Labour Party had taken place against a background of industrial peace. But when class struggle again erupted in the “Great Unrest” from 1910-14, the limitations of the party were exposed. From being a step forward, it became a brake on the working class movement. Hundred of thousands of workers were involved in bitter industrial battles in the run up to the First World War. Yet new Labour leader Ramsay MacDonald, although careful not to be seen to side with the employers, denounced “direct action” and insisted that the struggle “must be parliamentary or nothing”. Sections of the ruling class, although they hated the idea of a Labour Party, began to look to leaders like MacDonald to argue against strikes and channel militancy into a parliamentary backwater.

During this period many workers looked at the Labour “project” with hostility, especially as most Labour MPs adapted themselves to the inertia of parliamentary life rather than the other way around. Keir Hardie voiced his disappointment in the party he had created: “The party has practically dropped out of public notice. The tendency evidently is to work with the government and if this policy be persisted in we shall lose our identity and be wiped out with the Liberals, and we shall richly deserve our fate.”

THE 1890s were a time rather like the 1980s in Britain. They were a period of defeat and demoralisation when backing a parliamentary party seemed the only hope of winning change. But once the struggle revived at a high level the search for something better began again in earnest. The idea of confining yourself to a parliamentary party with timid demands no longer seemed so attractive. By 1915, as the Labour-type parties backed their own ruling classes in the First World War, Hardie wrote, “Labour parties and Socialist parties at home and abroad have proved broken reeds.”

A snap election in December 1923 saw the Labour Party take office for nine months with the help of the Liberal Party before collapsing. It was not until 1929 that Labour became the biggest party in parliament. That government ended in 1931 when Ramsay MacDonald split the party and went into coalition with the Tories and Liberals. One hundred years ago no one knew for sure what Labour in government would be like. Today we are only too aware of the betrayals that characterise this New Labour government.

Although the majority of workers still look to Labour, many are looking around for a socialist alternative. That is why the debate between reform and revolution that marked the foundation of the Labour Party is beginning to emerge once again.

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