Labour's foundation years

Following on from our first introductory article on the founding years of the British Labour Party, Barbara Humphries continues her series of articles that look at the issues and characters involved in the British Labour Party’s history and development. This was originally published in November 1996 in the British Socialist Appeal.

The Labour Party’s history clearly illustrates that it was set up as the party of the working class in this country, with the trade union movement as its bedrock. From the adoption of Clause 4, in 1918, the Party had a socialist constitution which reflected the aspirations of the membership of the Party. It was its class roots and socialist vision which motivated the commitment of thousands of working people to build the party, into what became the major vehicle for change in Britain in the 20th century.

Within twenty years of its foundation Labour had become the main opposition party, replacing the Liberals, and four years later had formed a minority government. The 1945 Labour Government led the reconstruction of Britain after the Second World War, with a programme of selective nationalisation and the establishment of the welfare state.

The Labour Representation Committee, which was to become the Labour Party was set up by the Trades Union Congress in 1900, as a means of securing trade union representation in Parliament. This was after two decades of class struggle in which trade unions had successfully organised unskilled workers, changing the face of the TUC from a body which represented respectable skilled working men defending their relatively privileged status in the economy to an organisation which was coming into conflict with the capitalist class. Trade unions which had operated like friendly societies were being outnumbered by those which organised strikes and picket lines. At the same time there had been a reawakening of socialist ideas, which had laid dormant since the 1840s. Political parties such as the Social Democratic Federation attracted thousands of members. Demonstrations and mass meetings not seen since the days of the Chartists took place in the 1880s. In this situation the TUC general council was coming under pressure to break from their alliance with the Liberal Party. The franchise was gradually being extended to working class people. So that the two main capitalist parties -the Liberals and Tories had to appeal to working class voters for the first time. This had led to concessions such as legislation upholding the right to picket peacefully in industrial disputes.

By the end of the 19th century the economic conditions for an independent labour party had ripened in Britain. The economy was increasingly controlled by monopolies. This meant the beginning of a massive concentration of wealth in the hands of a few and increasing division and conflict between capitalists and workers. It was revealed that only two-fifths of the national cake was consumed by wage earners. A quarter of the population lived in poverty. At the same time the heyday of British capitalism was drawing to an end. British industry now competed with Germany, France and American for markets and raw materials and investment abroad. Victorian expansion and unbridled prosperity for industry was over - the economy was faced with one crisis after another. From 1889-1913 real wages declined by 10%. This was the economic background to the political upheavals.

The ruling class had grown used to the craft unions of the mid 19th century economic boom. These unions of skilled men had few quarrels with the bosses. They sought to better themselves by using their skills to restrict entry to the union, in order to maintain wages and in setting up Friendly Societies. These men like Broadhurst who was secretary of the TUC supported the Liberal Party.

The political climate was changed in 1886, when John Burns and Henry Hyndman, two leaders of the recently formed Marxist Social Democratic Federation, began organising the unemployed. They led demonstrations of 75,000 people through the West End of London to oppose factory closures. Attacks by police with batons on demonstrators brought about rioting, in which several people were killed. The ruling class, horrified by broken windows in London’s West End, believed that a war had broken out between the haves and have-nots. The poor were now regarded as a menace and a threat, no longer ‘the deserving poor’ of Victorian England. The class struggle had begun in earnest.

John Burns, together with socialist trade unionist Tom Mann organised the Eight Hour League with the aim of reducing unemployment. This campaign rapidly gained support amongst the unskilled workers and was adopted by the London Trades Council, as a means of reducing unemployment and giving the workers more time for his family. Sections of workers like the Ayrshire miners who had been committed to supporting the Liberal Party and had the tactic of restricting the output of coal in times of recession, now took up the campaign for the 8 hour day. Increasingly employers were using the unemployed to break strikes and enforce wage cuts. The unskilled workers were particularly vulnerable as ‘they could be replaced by a hungry fellow from anywhere’. Scottish miners were threatened that union members would be replaced by the Glasgow unemployed. One miner who was recruited to socialism was Keir Hardie.

From the ‘Eight Hour League’, Mann and Burns went on to organise the unskilled workers, such as the dockers and the gasmen, the ones whom craft unions had left out in the cold. Deskilling was also to take place in industries such as engineering and shipbuilding and skilled workers had the task of organising the unskilled and semiskilled in their industry. There was a basis now for industrial or even general unions, rather than unions based on skills and crafts. Methods of organisation had to be different. Membership was liable to fluctuation. During the 1890s for instance, only 3% of dockers were unionised. Membership was difficult to sustain through slumps. The use of unemployed workers to break strikes inevitably brought the trade unions into conflict with picketing and property laws.


During the 1880s the main unions of unskilled worker were formed. The gasworkers led by Will Thorne won the 8 hour day. Some women workers - the matchgirls of Bryant and May - were organised, their atrocious working conditions became famous world wide. Women in the East End were consistently being disfigured by the use of phosphorous in the match industry. As far as the ruling class were concerned these people were an ‘underclass’ -on the fringes of humanity But the early socialists took up their cause and attempted to organise them into the trade union movement. Inroads were made into the organisation of agricultural workers, ‘railway servants’ as they were then called and textile workers. All this was overshadowed by the dock strike of 1889. The dockers, one of the most exploited sections of the working class went on strike for six pence an hour - the dockers’ tanner as it became known. Oppressed for years by the system of casual labour, by which the employers hired and fired at will, the dockers came out and demonstrated through the streets of London for their rights. They carried red flags, and stinking fish heads to show what they had to live on. Their victory was gained from the support they received from the labour movement in this country and internationally.

It is in struggles like these that the Labour Party had its roots. There was nothing respectable or ‘Blairite’ about it at all. The rise of the unskilled unions raised the need for a party of labour. Their tactics were completely different to the old craft unions. They could not restrict entry to the trade, they relied upon strikes and picketing. The use of scabs was backed up with police and sometimes army protection. This caused widespread violence in industrial disputes, arrests and jail sentences for trades unionists. That is how the battles of the new unions became political. There were conflicts with the law and the state. Not since the days of the Chartists in the early part of the 19th century had the issue of political power been so sharply posed, or had society been so polarised along class lines. Increasingly socialists linked the trade union struggles with their political goals of changing society. The call for an independent party of labour was campaigned for within the trade union movement. Engels wrote as follows to the Labour Standard in 1881: "the time is rapidly approaching when the working class of this country will claim… its full share of representation in Parliament... the working class will have understood that the struggle for high wages, and short hours, and the whole action of the trades unions as carried on now, is not an end in itself but a means towards the end, the abolition of the wages system altogether."

The setting up of an independent party of labour was opposed by the old guard of the TUC, those who like Broadhurst represented the craft workers, the labour aristocracy and who wanted to maintain links with the Liberals. They declared that the time was not ripe! But the campaign was maintained. Some socialists from groups like the Social Democratic Federation were also reluctant to support a party of labour on the grounds that it would be limited to labour representation in Parliament and would not be socialist! Others, like Engels believed that a party based on the labour movement would inevitably move towards the adoption of socialist policies as the parties of capitalism and what they stood for, became discredited. Finally in 1899 the Trades Union Congress voted to set up an independent Labour Representation Committee. After a decade of attacks upon the trades union movement and little support from the Liberal Party it was time to act independently. At the beginning this Labour Representation Committee did not gain the affiliation of the whole trades union movement. But that was set to change at a later stage. Also middle class reformers in the main did not give their wholehearted support to the Labour Representation Committee at this stage.


They still had hopes that the Liberal Party would carry out social reforms, modernising British society and overcoming the growing gulf between labour and capital, whilst leaving capitalism intact. It was only later that they jumped on the bandwagon, when the Labour Party was clearly poised to replace the Liberals as the opposition to the Tories in Britain, and the labour movement looked like a better bet for carrying out social reforms. The same can be said of the ‘socialist think-tank’ - the Fabian Society, whose ‘socialism from the top downwards approach’ had also led them to consider the possibility of influencing the Liberal Party before the founding conference of the Labour Representation Committee. Without the trade union affiliation therefore, the Labour Party would not have existed.

So what of the socialist groups which had existed before the Labour Party? The aforementioned Social Democratic Federation had been in existence for over fifteen years. It is important to note that the term Social Democrat meant Marxist in those days. The model Social Democratic party was the German Social Democratic, which was soon to abandon its commitment to Marxism. Then socialists tended to abandon the term ‘social-democrat’, in favour of ‘socialist’ or ‘Marxist’. The term was later to be used by a group of Labour MPs who left the Labour Party, attempting to split it in the 1980s and formed the SDP.

However the Marxism of the Social Democratic Federation was like that of the German Social Democratic Party. They believed that socialism was inevitable. The movement would continue to grow and the majority of the population would see the light. Hyndman, a conservative who had converted to Marxism did not see the connection between militant trade unionism and socialism, on one occasion condemning strikes as a waste of time because they left the capitalist system intact. The activities of party members however drew them into practical politics - some into trade unionism, others into the municipal socialism of school boards and health boards. But they did not see this activity as raising workers’ consciousness. Tom Mann and William Morris eventually left the SDF because of its political sectarianism. William Morris went on to set up another organisation called the Socialist League. Nevertheless the SDF gained a sizeable following with 43 branches in London alone. It popularised the spread of socialist ideas through propaganda and won recruits to Marxism who were later to play a role in the foundation of the Labour Party, but it failed to make the breakthrough of becoming a mass party and forming an alternative to the Liberals and Tories. A party was needed which had links with the trade unions and which would challenge the Liberals and Tories in the parliamentary arena. By the 1890s the SDF was declining in favour of the Independent Labour Party.

The Independent Labour Party had more success in the North of England. It was founded in Bradford in 1892 It had the backing of Bradford Trades Council and was formed in the wake of the defeat of a strike at the Manningham mills which had involved 5,000 workers against the local mill owners. The trade union movement had suffered declining membership and attacks during the 1890s. Unemployment in shipbuilding rose to 20% and in Hull in 1891, one thousand scabs recruited by the employers broke a shipping strike under the protection of police, troops and gunboats. Of the towns magistrates, four were shipowners, and nineteen others had shares in major shipping companies.


This was how blatantly the forces of the state were arranged against labour. Many of these employers were Liberals as well as Conservatives, showing that the trade union movement could have little confidence in the representatives of these capitalist parties. Scab organisations like the National Association of Free Labour were set up to recruit strikebreakers on a national scale. The trade unions were becoming more in need of political representation, which strengthened the case of those who argued for the Trades Union Congress to launch a party of labour. As well as the ILP, th e Scottish Labour Party added its voice to this campaign. This party had the backing of the Scottish miners recruited after a long strike in Ayrshire in 1886-87. The first independent Labour MPS like Keir Hardie were elected to Parliament. Advice given to the first ILP MPs was as follows : "A working man in Parliament should go to the House of Commons in his workday clothes..he should address the speaker on labour questions, and give his utterance to the same sentiments, in the same language and in the same manner that he is accustomed to utter his sentiments, and address the president of the local radical club. Above all he should remember that all the Conservatives and Liberals joined together in the interests of capital against Labour."

Keir Hardie was famous for arriving in his working clothes to Parliament, accompanied by a brass band from his constituency. In 1901 he submitted the following resolution:

‘That considering the increasing burden of which the private ownership of land and capital is imposing upon the industrious and useful classes of the community, the poverty and destitution and general moral and physical deterioration resulting from a competitive system of wealth production which aims primarily at profit-making, the alarming growth of trusts and syndicates, able by reason of their great wealth to influence governments and plunge peaceful nations into war to serve their own interests, this House is of the opinion that such a state of matters is a menace to the well-being of the Realm and calls for legislation designed to remedy the same by inaugurating a Socialist Commonwealth founded upon the common ownership of land and capital, production for use and not for profit, and equality of opportunity for every citizen.’

But a growing number of Labour MPs were not as determined as Keir Hardie and the other founders of the labour movement. Many deserted their roots and succumbed to the pressures of the state as represented in Parliament. The 1890s had not been a good decade for the labour movement. The slump had seen setbacks and this was reflected in the founding conference of the Labour Party, which had the affiliation of less than half of the trade union movement and did not adopt a formal commitment to socialism. However the breakthrough had been made. This was to change in the first decades of the twentieth century.

From the outset there were two pressures upon the Labour Party, from the trade union working class base of the Party and from the ruling class itself by means of attempting to integrate the Party into the arena of capitalist state. This was done by alliances with other parties, such as the Liberals, and elevating Labour MPS and trade union barons into the circles of the bourgeoisie. But in a situation when the British working class could no longer be seen to benefit from Britain being the workshop of the world this became more difficult, but all the more essential for the ruling class. As the first industrial nation Britain had the strongest working class and strongest trades union movement at the beginning of the century. It was because of this that the party of the working class was based on the trades union movement.


This was not the case on the continent of Europe, where the Socialist parties in France and the German Social Democratic Party were stronger than the trade union movement at the time. The construction of the labour movement in Australia and New Zealand, and now in the USA, is on the Anglo-Saxon model however.

After nearly a century the Labour Party is still in existence. It has remained throughout that time a classic ‘united front’ of socialists, social-democrats and trade unionists. It has helped to perpetuate the reality of class politics by maintaining, for most of this time, electoral opposition to the party of British capitalism - the Conservatives. It has been capable of winning elections without alliances, and has achieved much in the way of carrying out reforms which have benefitted working class people. The 1945 Labour Government was instrumental in implementing the welfare state.

It is important for socialists in the Labour Party and the unions to fight for the genuine history and traditions of the British labour movement, and in so doing ensure the next Labour government acts in the interests of the working class.