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History Of The Labour Party

In many ways the Labour Party has historically been based on an outlook which sees life as building to a great goal. And a party which naturally thought in terms of triumphant endings would also naturally think in terms of clear beginnings. While the more clearly pragmatic Conservative Party has no creation myth, the Labour party, fittingly, has tried to present its beginnings in very specific terms. In the 1870s miners' unions began meeting at an annual congress. The Lanarkshire miners were organised by Alexander Macdonald, who even with the demands of a mining job still managed to gain a degree at Glasgow University. He, along with secretary of the Northumberland miners John Burt, entered Parliament in 1874. Up until 1920 Alexander Macdonald was named by Labour Party historians as "Britain's first Labour member" (see The Book Of The Labour Party, ed H. Tracey Vol 32 P16). The problem for later historians was the willingness of Macdonald and Burt to enter into alliances with the Liberals to support their position.

With Macdonald and Burt no longer fulfilling the creation myth criteria, historians looked around for a different story. And for a while they tended to settle on a miner's union representative and journalist named Keir Hardie who entered Parliament in 1892. From 1920 Hardie was the man increasingly picked out by historians as the "founder" of the Labour Party (see Keir Hardie by Caroline Benn). This was probably because Hardie was not a political animal at all, and refused to enter into the alliances his colleagues felt necessary. He stood alone as a party of one. If you can call one man the Labour Party, then Keir Hardie may have been its beginning. Hardie was also a good candidate for founder status because of his puritanical religious views, rooted in the temperance movement. This meant he preached his political message with a religious fervour, which suited Labour's crusading conception of itself. But the fact remained that Hardie was only one man, and because of his lack of compromise could never really be a party leader. Because of the obvious drawbacks of looking at Keir Hardie as the Labour Party's founder, another story had to come along. By 1935 Ernest Bevin was saying at the Trade's Union Congress that "it was not Keir Hardie who formed this party. It grew out of the bowels of the Trade Union Congress". This view seems to hold true for The Centenary History of the Labour Party published in 2000. In the introduction to this book, Michael Foot was calling the Conference of the Labour Representation Committee at the Memorial Hall, Farringdon Street in February 1900 as the moment when Labour was established. Later in this same book we ironically learn that the Memorial Hall meeting probably didn't seem to be a defining moment to those who were actually there. Robert Taylor makes it clear that many senior trade union representatives at this time were suspicious of supporting a parliamentary Labour Party. Only sixty two trade unions were represented at the Memorial Hall meeting, which was well under half of the total number which could have attended. The conference did pass a resolution stating that it was in favour of establishing an independent Labour Party in Parliament, but many trade unionists at the time would have shrugged their shoulders and thought "so what".

So if the meeting at Faringdon was not the moment, some historians made a final effort with the 1906 election which returned 29 Labour Representation Commitee MPs. This is often described as a defining moment for Labour. But even after this apparent breakthrough, the Labour Party still struggled to maintain distinctive independence from the Liberals. All Labour MPs were only elected because of local Liberal associations deciding not to put a candidate up against the Labour candidate and thereby splitting the non-Conservative vote. Labour, for all intents and purposes was still a wing of the Liberal Party.


If there was one thing that really transformed Labour into a major political force, it was not a Scottish miner's union representative, or a meeting in London, or the election of 1906. It was actually World War One that made the Labour Party. The First World War was a time when industrial production was vital to the war effort against Germany, and trade union leaders were brought into government decision making in a way that had never happened before. War time also had its "pulling together" ethic where social differences were of reduced importance. After 1916 the coalition government of Lloyd George took control of key parts of the economy. In this way people became used to large scale government control of industry. It is not surprising that following the war, society was much more inclined to accept Labour's outlook. February 1918 was to see the formulation of Labour's famous Clause IV, the commitment to common ownership of the means of production. Then in the general election of 1923, the first after the war, Labour won an unprecedented 191 seats. This allowed the formation of the first minority Labour government, led by James Ramsay Macdonald, and kept in power for ten turbulent months through an alliance with the Liberals. This government in many ways had been created less by the onward march of socialist values, and more by the experience of war. Macdonald's government could be looked upon as a desire to hold on to the certainties of war time, when people knew who they were fighting and what they were fighting for. Peace, by contrast, is complicated and can seem rather aimless. Perhaps it is no surprise then that Labour's first experience of government was strangely disconcerting for many Labour crusaders. Rather than an heroic progress on to the promised land, the work of government actually seemed to go on much as it did before under other parties. As Keith Robbins writes: "A Labour prime minister seemed to be like any other prime minister. It was also beginning to look as though a Labour government was like any other government." (The Prime Ministers Vol2 P279). Even at this early stage there was a basic conflict between the idealists of Labour who wanted to finally achieve a socialist utopia, and the pragmatism of Labour's leaders who did not seem to be planning for such a goal. Macdonald returned as prime minister in 1929, and was pragmatic enough to survive the fall of his Labour administration, and continue to serve as prime minister in a coalition"National Government" dominated by the Conservatives. The general election of 1931 was a disaster for Labour with only 52 MPs returned. But Macdonald continued as a lonely coalition prime minister, hated by Labour who saw him as a traitor, and distrusted by his new Conservative colleagues.


Cabinet War Rooms, Whitehall

Following the disaster of 1931, Labour's small group of fifty or so MPs were led by veteran left winger George Lansbury. For a while it looked as though Labour would fall under the influence of the newly formed Socialist League, which advocated direct attacks on the capitalist system. But a number of senior union leaders, Ernest Bevin of the Transport Workers Union for example, were unsympathetic to the Socialist League. This helped moderate figures in the parliamentary Labour Party - Arthur Greenwood and Clement Attlee - to win authority. Attlee took over as leader in 1935, his party doing a little better at the 1935 election with 154 MPs returned. Nevertheless Conservative prime minister Stanley Baldwin had a huge majority, and it was difficult to see how Labour would manage to find a way back to power. But then history repreated itself when another war came along to transform Labour's fortunes. In May 1940 Conservative prime minister Neville Chamberlain resigned and Winston Churchill took over as the head of a coalition government. Even though this war time government was dominated by Conservatives, a number of ministerial posts were given to Labour MPs. Beyond the experience and prestige which government positions gave Labour MPs, the Second World War, just like the First World War, made a virtue of equality. The "everyone pulling together" spirit was strong. People got used to a high level of government planning and control, in the conduct of industry and the allocation of resources. Rationing of food and clothing became an accepted part of everyday life. People who would have been seen as entrepreneurs in different circumstances were now seen as "spivs". Just as Labour did well after the First World War, they did well after the Second. Even though Winston Churchill was a national hero who had led Britain through the war, the 1945 general election at the war's end saw a landslide victory for Attlee's Labour Party. This victory led on to a government which was in many ways Labour's finest hour. Many famous innovations date to Attlee's term, including National Insurance and the National Health Service. But this moment of success was brief. Within a few years the puritanical values of war time were starting to wear thin. The values of Chancellor Stafford Cripps, a famously puritanical figure who got up at 4am, had a cold bath and put in three hours of work before breakfast, were passing away. Cripps believed in the "fair shares" of rationing, but fewer and fewer people were willing to queue up for their ration. By the autumn of 1947 the Conservatives were ahead in the polls, and even though Labour won the 1950 election they did so with a reduced majority. Then the Korean War, and the huge budget it required, split the cabinet, contributing to the Attlee government's final decline and defeat in 1951. Assessments of Attlee's government are varied. Some writers have judged policies not to have been socialist enough - Jim Fyrth, John Saville, for example. Others thought the administration was too socialist - Corelli Barnett for example. And a third group thought they got it just right - writers such as Kenneth Morgan, Henry Pelling, Alec Caincross and Peter Hennessy. In the overall scheme of things such judgments might seem rather misplaced. The Labour Party following both First and Second World Wars expressed a certain sort of society and its values. Attlee himself saw this. In 1936, with tensions building in Europe, Attlee wrote in a private paper on defence policy: "Once war has broken out there is a military necessity for the closest regimentation of the whole nation... It affords the oppotunity for a fundamental change of the economic system." (Quoted in Clem Attlee by Francis Beckett P133). In many ways Attlee's government was as it was, an the expression of a society which had got used to wartime organisation.



Millbank Tower from the London Eye. In 1995 Labour built on its modern image by taking space at the bottom of Millbank as a campaign headquarters.

Without a war, however, Labour struggled. Outwardly Labour after 1950 still had its vision of a future socialist utopia, enshrined in Clause IV shown on party membership cards. This was a future in which everyone owned the means of production for everyone's equal benefit. But the men who actually served as Labour leaders and prime ministers in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s were pragmatists. Hugh Gaitskill tried to jettison the Clause IV utopia in 1959 - 60, but resistance from the party meant he was unable to do so. Harold Wilson (prime minister 1964 - 70, and 1974 - 76) and James Callaghan (prime minister 1976 - 79) did not challenge Clause IV, but neither were they the sort to take it upon themselves to lead their people to the socialist promised land. Instead they did their best to deal with things as they came up. Many of their more earnest followers were very angry about this. Gregory Elliot, for example, described Wilson's government record as follows: "... jettisoning economic expansion, scapegoating its own supporters, sponsoring a foreign policy of an unrelieved reactionary tenor, reneging upon virtually every commitment, Labour spurned friends and emboldened enemies." (Gregory Elliot Labourism and the English Genius P80)

As for Callaghan he ended up at war with his own traditional supporters in the trade unions. The unions went through a demented period in late 1979 when a series of strikes brought Britain to a virtual standstill in pursuit of massive pay claims. This Winter of Discontent brought the Labour government down, and put Margaret Thatcher in power. Still Labour would not give up on its dream. Electing Michael Foot as its leader the party became more extreme. A group of former Labour cabinet ministers, Roy Jenkins, David Owen, Shirley Williams, and Bill Rogers broke away to form the Social Democratic Party, which split the Labour vote. This all led to a disastrous defeat at the 1982 general election. Neil Kinnock then took over and he started the slow change of Labour away from a party with a vision, towards a party which had a more sensible, if, in the view of some of its supporters, less inspiring way of approaching things. This meant throwing out many treasured principles. In 1985 a television producer named Peter Mandelson was appointed to improve Labour's image. His ominously named Shadow Communication Agency played a key role in presentation and policy decisions based on public opinion research. Labour commitment to repeal Conservative industrial relations legislation did not play well with focus groups. Michael Meacher initially blocked Kinnock's desire to leave Conservative labour laws in place should Labour ever win power. As a result Meacher was dropped from the shadow cabinet in October 1989 and replaced by a young MP named Tony Blair. Blair then worked with the unions, persuading them to commit to a policy of retaining most Conservative legislation. Then the great Labour principle of opposition to nuclear weapons crumbled in the face of public opinion research. In May 1979, Kinnock, once a fervent opponent of British nuclear weapons, said that he would resign if Labour continued in its policy of nuclear disarmament. He won the argument and the policy was changed. Frustratingly all of this still did not quite do the job, and there was another defeat at the 1992 election.



Methodist Central Hall, Westminster, where Clause IV was adopted and revoked.

So finally we come to Clause IV, the central tenet of faith for the Labour Party. And it was about faith not practicalities. No Labour government had come close to achieving the type of society described by Clause IV. The closest Britain came to it was during World War Two, under a Conservative Prime Minister! Kinnock's successor, John Smith who took over after 1992's election defeat, did not move as quickly as some of his colleagues would have liked. But following Smith's sudden death in May 1994, the new leader Tony Blair decided Clause IV had to go. The moment finally came on 29th April 1995 at Methodist Central Hall, Westminster, the same place where Clause IV had been adopted in February 1918. Finally it seemed that Labour was no longer a crusading party. Unfortunately Tony Blair as an individual was actually something of a crusader, which is perhaps why this rather privileged young man joined Labour in the first place. Although he acted firmly to move Labour away from its traditional causes, he showed his own crusading tendencies in his foreign policy. Blair's crusade against Yugoslav president Milosavic in 1999 was a disaster. As Anthony Seldon - biographer of Blair and Major - points out, the Balkan crisis was extremely complicated, a situation where it was difficult to tell the good guys from the bad guys. Douglas Hurd, foreign secretary to Blair's predecessor John Major, had talked despairingly of only being able to create a "level killing field" in the Balkans (Major, A Political Life by Anthony Seldon P373). Blair it seems had a simpler crusading outlook on the whole sorry mess: "... in a moment of hubris, he compared himself to Gladstone, the high moralist of late Victorian politics, about whom he knew little" (Blair by Anthony Seldon P401). Kosovo was a trial run for the invasion of Iraq in 2003, which was another attempt to find a clear enemy to engage with, in a situation that did not allow for such clarity. Following terrorist attacks on the Twin Towers in New York during September 2001, feverish attempts were made to find an identifiable enemy and act firmly against them. This led to claims that Iraq was involved in terrorist attacks, and was developing "weapons of mass destruction". Intelligence was misread, and allegations were made by the BBC that there was wilful distortion to make the case for war more compelling. Blair and U.S. president George W. Bush ignored all these doubts because they wanted a clear enemy to fight. So Iraq came to personify the enemy and was invaded at huge financial and human cost.


Labour has always been built on the certainties of war time, the moral certainties of fighting a good fight against a bad enemy, and of everyone pulling together in the cause of final victory. I would suggest, given the timing of peaks in Labour's popularity, that the party was created more powerfully by the values of war time than the values of socialism. Sometimes of course these wartime values are useful and much can be achieved. But most of the time, thankfully, life is not like that. In peacetime life goes on in a way that many crusaders might find aimless and uninspiring. But peace has its own challenges, and in the end these are not met by a party that wants to fight the good fight. This perhaps explains the puzzle that Tony Blair himself posed in the Foreword of the Centenary History of the Labour Party in 2000, when he said: "any honest assessment of Labour's first 100 years also contains a puzzle. Why has a popular progressive party, formed out of communities up and down the country, in a country where reform is so necessary, spent the majority of the last century out of power?" (Foreword to The Labour Party, A Centenary History Ed Brivati and Heffernan). The answer is that while people enjoy, and perhaps need, the direction and purpose of a cause, and while politicians are sometimes crusaders, life does not naturally follow the course of a crusade.