The end of Lib-Labism

In this article in our series on the history of the British Labour party, Barbara Humphries looks at the early years of Labour in parliament and how the development of the class struggle forced the leaders of the party to make the final break with Liberalism. (Originally published in Socialist Appeal, issue 48, February 1997).

Before the setting up of the Labour Representation Committee in 1900, the TUC had traditionally supported the Liberal Party, as the Party most likely to grant concessions to the unions. The Liberal Party itself had undergone changes at the end of the 19th century.

Traditionally it had been the party of free trade, representing the industrial entrepreneur, opposed to the landed gentry and city bankers, represented by the Tory Party. The Tory Party had supported protectionism in the 19th century. However the Liberal Government of the 1890s, led by Lord Roseberry had set itself a social programme. This was due to the growth of the trade union movement in the 1880s and also the extension of the suffrage to a section of the working class in 1886. The British ruling class was in two minds over its policy of laissez-faire and repression as a response to the challenge of labour. The most farsighted abandoned laissez-faire in favour of intervention-social reforms, some government regulation of industry and the containment of the trade union movement through the integration of its leadership into the echelons of the state.


It was acknowledged that society existed and could be changed through social engineering. It was considered necessary for the first time for the government to collect statistics on the conditions that people were living in and the Department of Labour was set up in 1893. These policies were not only due to the challenge of the labour movement but also the power of Britain’s industrial competitors, especially Germany. Bismarck had a social programme which, many believed would ensure a healthier, and hence more productive and better educated workforce. The establishment of the social sciences as an academic discipline was institutionalised by the Webbs and the Fabians who originally planned to pursue their polices through the Liberal Party but later saw the Labour Party as a more effective body for changing society. Their form of socialism would be achieved, not by the class struggle but by the actions of the most enlightened section of society. However much of the impetus for this came from the class struggle and the acknowledgement that something had to be done about the working class. Not just strikes, but crime, violence and drunkenness were problems which could be done away with if workers had secure employment and decent housing, and their children were educated. This was a radical departure for the British ruling class who had been wedded to Victorian values and were never fully converted to corporatism and the welfare state. They have reverted frequently to attempts to ‘smash the trade union movement’ as in the 1920s and later in the 1980s. Even the concept of society has been challenged by prominent Tory politicians, such as Thatcher, as a basis for scrapping the welfare state. The Labour Representation Committee had been set up with the aim of getting working class representatives into Parliament. It had been fought for by trade unionists, like Tom Mann and Keir Hardie who had come to see that neither the Liberals, nor the Tories could represent the interest of the working class. Indeed the use of violence against strikers and the use of the courts against trade unions had brought home to the politically active section of the working class the message that it was necessary to have a political party of Labour as well as trade unions. This was very well expressed in the Clarion newspaper, the paper of the Independent Labour Party. It said to its readers-“Do you send employers as delegates to your Trade Union Congress? You would laugh at the suggestion. You know that the employer could not attend to your interests in the trade union, which is formed as a defence against him. Do you think that the employer is likely to be more useful, or more disinterested in Parliament or the County Council than in the trade union? Whether he be in Parliament or in his own office, he is an employer and puts his own interests first, and the interest of Labour behind. Yet these men, whom as trade unionists you distrust you actually send as politicians to make laws for you. A Labour Party is a kind of political trade union and to defend trade unionism is to defend labour representation.”


However many of the leaders of the LRC saw it as a pressure group tied to the coat-tails of the Liberal Party for the first years of its existence. The Liberal Government of 1906 had Labour support-in fact some MPs were still known as Lib-Labs. But far from being dependent upon the Liberal Party it was becoming the case that Labour was giving the Liberals a new lease of life. By 1910 the Liberals were losing out to Labour candidates. The Liberal Party was keen to embrace Labour politicians - not only to stave off defeat for their party, but also to do the important job for the British capitalist class as a whole of integrating Labour leaders into the establishment and thus diverting the growing labour movement from socialist aims.

Some trade union leaders such as Snowden and Macdonald had been Liberals from the outset and forming a coalition with the Liberals was not a big deal for them. Ramsay Macdonald had been a Liberal who had joined the Independent Labour Party in 1895. Unlike trade union militants like Keir Hardie and Tom Mann who had broken with Liberalism in those years, Macdonald still believed that there was no difference between Liberalism and Socialism and he looked forward to seeing ‘a united democratic party, appealing to people on behalf of a single comprehensive belief in social reconstruction.’ He denied the existence of a class struggle and claimed that for him socialism was a moral question, that it was based on ‘community consciousness’ (where have you heard that one before?) and would be carried out by the ‘will of democratic states.’ Socialism he believed would be the inevitable result of progress, as humanity became more enlightened. Parliament would be used as the arena for this gradual transition, and no struggle could be carried on beyond the confines of the parliamentary system.

Believing that socialism was a moral question, which could be carried out in the face of vigorous opposition and resistance from much of the ruling class, and denying that there was anything other than a unity of interest between capital and labour, Macdonald was easily absorbed into the Houses of Parliament and into tacit coalitions with the Liberals. He achieved statesman like qualities in the eyes of the ruling class, which impressed upon them that Labour was fit for government. The LRC had adopted a policy of opposition to deals with other parties in 1903. It was also policy that all Labour candidates had to be members of an organisation affiliated to the LRC (this was before individual membership of the Labour Party).

Nevertheless a secret deal was done with the Liberal Chief whip before the election of 1906 whereby Liberals would not stand candidates against LRC members who supported the ‘general objectives’ of the Liberal Party. In return for this the LRC would support Liberal candidates (against the Tories).

In the election of 1906, out of 29 Labour MPs elected, only five had been opposed by the Liberals. In 1910 there were two general elections. In January the Labour Party fought 81 seats, in December this was down to 57. This was partly due to finance but mainly due to fears of encroaching upon the Liberal vote and damaging the coalition.

This policy obviously had a disastrous effect upon the Labour Party. It meant fewer Labour MPs. It meant that moderate MPs tended to be elected rather than socialists. It led to the situation where the Labour Party supported a Liberal candidate against a locally sponsored independent Labour candidate, Victor Grayson, a left-wing socialist, who stood for Colne Valley in 1907. Grayson stood expressly to oppose the Lib-Lab pact and won.

For similar reasons an independent an independent labour candidate for Dundee did not have the backing of the Labour Party in 1908. But the worse effect of the election truce was that it tied the Parliamentary Labour Party to the Liberal Party politically. At a time when the Labour Party was growing in strength, having gained the affiliation of all the major trade unions, when the membership of the trade unions doubled, when the militancy of workers against declining real wages and the threat of unemployment was growing rapidly, none of this was reflected in the Parliamentary Labour Party, where MPs were openly working with the Liberals.


The Liberals saw the Labour Party as a threat to their Party and their class. This was particularly true of the most radical and astute of the Liberals such as Lloyd George who became president of the Board of Trade in the 1906 Liberal Government. He warned his party that the success of the Labour Party would be ensured by the failure of the Liberals to do anything about the social conditions of the people. The Liberals put forward a social programme to steal Labour’s thunder. This included the introduction of old age pensions. To appease the trade unions they introduced the Trades Disputes Act which freed the trade unions from being sued for financial losses during strikes. In order to entice more Labour MPs into Parliament they introduced payment of MPs for the first time of £400 per annum.

But even if Labour MPs felt that the Liberals’ social programme justified a surrender of independence, the labour movement as a whole was not satisfied. The National Insurance Act involved no redistribution of wealth – ‘the poor paid for the poor.’ Many, especially women, were excluded from receiving pensions. The Eight Hours Act for the coal mines was mutilated by the mine owners. Labour introduced a ‘Work or full pay bill’ which was thrown in the Commons, without Liberal support. But as the Liberal government tinkered with the system, falling living standards and rising unemployment persisted, problems of the capitalist system which the Liberals had no intention of doing anything about.

The result was reflected in the ranks of the labour movement. Between 1907-1912 the number of strike days per year in Britain rose from 1,878,6799 to 38,142,101. All the main sections of the working class were affected. Strikes were often started unofficially and then received official support. Within the Labour Party the Independent Labour Party, still a separate body began to campaign to campaign against the Lib-Lab pact, saying that the Liberals were demanding a price which Labour could no longer afford. Some of the Executive Committee published a pamphlet entitled ‘Let us reform the Labour Party.’ There were two alternatives facing the movement they said – revolution or revisionism – the movement desires the one, the leadership desires the other.

The mood of industrial militancy which swept Britain before 1914 was cut across by the outbreak of World War One. Tragically the Socialist International perished as one socialist party after another, beginning with the influential German Social Democratic Party, voted to support their own governments in a policy which was to lead to the futile slaughter of millions in the interests of markets and profits.

However the war dealt a blow to laissez-faire capitalism on the home front and strengthened the hands of politicians such as Lloyd George, who became prime minister. Government regulation of industry increased with the government controlling 90% of imports, railways, shipping and the munitions industry. To secure the support of Labour, trade union officials were co-opted into government departments, such as the Board of Trade.


Hard-line employers who would not make compromises to end disputes were ‘deprived of their right to manage.’ The Labour Party joined a war-time coalition government. This is not to say that the government was prepared to sit on the fence and behave in a neutral fashion between employers and workers. They showed their hand by sending troops to Glasgow in 1919 to crush the strike and uprising in favour of the 40 hour week.

However, the consequences of this outright class collaboration of the majority of labour leaders led to the establishment of a shop stewards movement, which gained support, notably in the munitions industry on Clydeside. The Clyde shop stewards opposed ‘dilution’ – the bringing into industry of women workers at lower rates.

The labour movement emerged stronger after the war, due not only to events in Britain but in Russia and Central Europe where revolution was toppling one pre-war regime after another. A conference in Leeds called for the setting up of soviets. In 1918 the Labour Party adopted Clause 4, Part 4, which committed it to socialism.

The ruling class in Britain attempted to offset the threat of revolution, setting up in 1917 Whitley Councils, in 1918 the Arbitration Department, and other such institutions for the taming of the trade union movement. After 1918 Britain had a higher proportion of workers covered by national agreements than in any other country in Europe. The working class has benefited from these agreements, but it should be recognised that they were won from a ruling class which was frightened and exhausted by war and which felt threatened by revolution. Many employers were dragged kicking and screaming into these agreements by a government which was more farsighted than them. The backlash began when employers themselves found it necessary to set up their organisations such as the Federation of British Industries, to assert the rights of employers against the ‘corporatism’ of the war time government.

Government strategy strengthened the hand of reformism in the British labour movement. Attempts by the Liberals to preserve themselves had failed and after the war Labour had become the second largest party. By 1922 the Liberals had lost 10% of their vote to Labour, and were down to less than 100 seats. The Liberal Party was divided in the issues of free trade and protection. The Lib-Lab pact had failed for the Liberals; it had served only to hold the labour movement back for a period of time. But it had served to warn the labour movement that it was necessary to have some control over MPs.


At the 1907 Labour Party conference it had been decided that conference had the right to give binding instructions to their MPs. However conference decisions were often open to interpretation. The Labour Party was then embarked on the experience of losing its elected representatives, who once elected to Parliament did what they like and succumbed to the pressures of the establishment. The campaign for the right of recall of MPs and accountability was present at the beginning of the movement. This was to become sharper as inevitably over the next decade, Labour was to be called upon to govern.