Issue 227 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published February 1999 Copyright Socialist Review

Red letter days

London, 27 February 1900

Anyone who has been around the London left for any length of time will be familiar with smallish meetings, usually in the Conway Hall, which set up some committee or other to fight or defend something or other, which to everyone's fury is then completely ignored by the capitalist press.

The meeting in the Memorial Hall, Farringdon Street, on 27 February 1900 was, to all appearances, another of these. There were only 120 people there, all of them saying they were 'delegates'. The mood was not exuberant. The arguments were long, dull and apparently of little significance outside the hall. No one in the press or in the organised labour movement seemed to show the slightest interest.

Yet the meeting of what called itself the Labour Representation Committee, the forerunner of the Labour Party, was historic. Its aim, which it achieved, was for the first time to break the umbilical cord which bound the leaders of organised labour to the Liberal Party; and to form a new political party to represent the interests of the working masses in parliament.

Three distinct groups were represented at the Memorial Hall. By far the largest was the trade union leaders. At almost every annual conference since the Trades Union Congress first met in 1867, a prominent subject for debate had been the need for wider parliamentary representation for labour.

The 29 Labour Representation Committee MPs who set up the Labour Party in 1906

In the general election of 1874, two working men, Thomas Burt and Alexander Macdonald, both miners, had been elected. They were joined by Henry Broadhurst in 1880 and, briefly, by a handful of other workers, mostly miners, in the 1885 general election after the extension of the franchise.

Throughout all this time, the TUC's political strategy was to act as a pressure group on the Liberal Party. The TUC's influential parliamentary committee, dominated for years by Henry Broadhurst, never even questioned its allegiance to the Liberal Party under its revered leader, the 'phrasemaker', William Gladstone. The Labour Representation League, which was formed soon after the TUC came into being, was a talking shop in which the union leaders bowed and scraped to their Liberal heroes. One result was that socialist ideas were not just ignored but positively opposed. Even parliamentary measures to improve workers' conditions were frowned on by these union leaders who accepted Liberal arguments about the beautiful symmetry of the free market and the dangers of interfering in it.

These arguments began to wilt in the 1880s. The severe depression which started in 1879, and which was heralded by Engels as the beginning of the end for British monopolistic domination of world markets, led to widespread closures and bankruptcies and a steep decline in the already marginal influence of the unions. In the late 1880s the great victories of the match girls, the gas workers and the London dockers further threatened the old Liberal union leaders with a 'new unionism' extending far beyond the fixed boundaries of the labour aristocracy.

These old leaders hurriedly set up the Labour Electoral Association, whose second annual meeting marvelled at the relative representative interests of different groups in society. Landlords and landowners had 209 MPs, armed service officers 128, lawyers 136, manufacturing bosses and commercial services 136, railway bosses 62, bankers 33, brewers 24--and labour (even at its widest definition) just nine. Some 650,000 miners had five MPs--a few hundred coalowners had 20. Yet even when confronted by these figures, the Labour Electoral Association leaders continued to stick with the Liberals and to denounce the growing demands for independent Labour representation.

Through the 1890s, in a series of debates at the TUC and elsewhere, the argument slipped away from the old leaders. Gladstone died, and the new Liberal leaders grew even more indifferent to the demands of labour.

Broadhurst and Co often won the votes at Congress, but lost the argument. In 1899 Congress instructed its leaders to take part in a conference to sponsor independent Labour MPs. Hence the meeting at the Memorial Hall.

Two much smaller groups attended the conference, both of them socialist. The first was the Independent Labour Party (ILP), whose leader Keir Hardie had clashed repeatedly with Broadhurst. The second was the Social Democratic Federation (SDF), a small organisation led by the former stockbroker HM Hyndman.

Some of the leaders of the great strikes of the 1880s, notably Will Thorne of the transport workers and Ben Tillett, the dockers' union leader, were in the hall, but such men were much influenced by syndicalist anti-parliamentary arguments and played little part in the proceedings.

When the SDF moved that the new Labour Party should be openly socialist 'based upon the recognition of the class war' their motion was overwhelmingly rejected. But the old Liberal union leaders did not get everything their own way. Keir Hardie moved and carried a motion committing the conference to a 'distinct Labour Group in Parliament', with its own whips and its own policy.

The resolution was full of holes, which were relentlessly exploited by the growing Labour Group in the Commons. But for all the weaknesses and hesitancy of the LRC, the decisive break with the old bourgeois parties had been made, and would continue for 100 years until now, when Tony Blair is trying to get in bed with the Liberals once again.
Paul Foot

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