Issue 237 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published January 2000 Copyright © Socialist Review

The Labour Party

Dreams and disillusion

The Labour Party was formed 100 years ago. Lindsey German talked to Caroline Benn, author of a biography of Keir Hardie, about the hopes of socialists at the time and what has changed
Caroline Benn

Why did the Labour Party develop in the way that it did? Why was it formed in a different way from the parties of continental Europe?
The Labour Party--starting as the Labour Representation Committee--was all-inclusive and much broader. At its formation it was made up of the SDF (the Marxist party), the Fabians, the Independent Labour Party and the trade unions. This was quite different from the continent where there tended to be separate parties for groups like trade unionists and Marxists. It was a pity that the SDF pulled out of the early Labour Representation Committee because it never fared very well afterwards and broke into various sects. But even though the leaders of the Marxists and Labour Party sparred, activists who worked on the ground never let arguments at the top stop them working together when it came to campaigning on issues like unemployment or freedom of assembly.

The Labour Party was pretty successful in keeping on board a host of working class traditions--for example, all the radical churches. This was important because so many ordinary people saw what was wrong with society through their church commitment. There was also the Labour Church, a non-denominational political group that used churches for political debates about the exploitation of the poor. Continental parties rarely drew in religious activists to their politics, which were almost always secular. Then there were the Fabians who were occasionally very radical. Their essays of 1889, for example, had great influence in persuading middle class people to back a new political movement, especially in municipal government. But the bulk of the Labour Party when it began depended on the trade unions--with the Independent Labour Party as the conscience. The ILP was a party of activists who were spread right round the country (unlike Marxists, who tended to congregate in London). They were not particularly ideologically well defined, but they were enthusiastic and hard working.

When the ILP was formed Engels was quite keen on it and Aveling and other Marxists supported it.
Engels said at once that this was the party Marx had talked about forming. It wasn't the SDF, for Marx and Engels disliked the SDF leader, Henry Hyndman. He was an Oxbridge Tory and a barrister who never believed in trade unionism. By contrast, Engels approved of Keir Hardie at first. Unfortunately, later Hardie's war with the Liberals put Engels off--because Hardie pursued it so vigorously that he was not above making alliances with Tories to defeat Liberals.

On the other hand, all these early groupings behind the new Labour Party were anti-capitalist--or eventually became so. No matter which group they were in and no matter whether they believed in the class war or not, an issue which was the great defining commitment in the politics of the left and which everyone argued about endlessly. Many of the same splits we have today in the Labour Party we had then, but one thing is different. Today, nobody at the official top of the Labour Party can find any fault with capitalism at all. They naively support the whole capitalist operation, without even an ounce of criticism, which could well be their downfall in the end.

It is interesting that the argument Hardie had was about cooperation with the Liberals at the end of the last century and now we're coming back to the same thing under New Labour.
Hardie's argument was that you had to win people away from commitment to Liberalism because, despite its support of trade unions, it was entirely committed to capitalism. He said it could not do what it claimed: represent both the industrialists/bosses and the trade unions/workers. Such contradictions existed between these two groups that a choice had to be made. It was time to choose to put the claims of working people first. Today New Labour is a party that also claims it can represent the poor and the unions as well as the rich industrialists and the captains of global corporations. That contradiction is still there. Only today many of the workers are no longer the unskilled working class--they often call themselves middle class. But many work in conditions that workers met in the past: one-day contracts (like the dockers had for so long) or lives in vast call centres, which resemble the huge assembly lines of earlier in the century or the large office floors in the 1930s. These groups are stirring themselves today in the same way they did then. We can count on this.

Why do you think it was that although Hardie was quite hostile to the Liberals, in fact the way the Labour Party did come about was more influenced by those politics than by ILP politics?
Revolution in Russia First, because many trade unionists were not socialists but still Labour Party members, and secondly, for all the years that the Labour Party was building up its base in the House of Commons, it never had a majority. It depended on the Liberals to pass legislation that helped it. The Liberal governments of 1906 and 1910 were more willing to pass laws that helped trade unions (like reversing the worst of the Taff Vale judgement) than they were to bring in legislation that socialists wanted, like extensions of public ownership and public works to end unemployment, though their welfare laws were the earliest beginnings of the welfare state. Lastly there was the fact that before there was a Labour Party, people on the 'left' were usually Liberals anyway--on its radical wing. Hardie and Ramsay MacDonald both were. Hardie realised in the 1890s that Liberals were never going to support what was needed to give the working class justice, and MacDonald realised that the Liberal hierarchy was never going to choose him as a candidate and was always going to choose a rich London barrister instead. So at a particular by-election when the Liberal Party did choose a barrister, having previously promised it would choose a trade unionist from the working class, MacDonald resigned and went to Hardie and in effect said, 'I really never approved much of your ILP but now I want to join'. The ILP gained a very accomplished member in MacDonald; he was a fluent speaker and a clever negotiator. The House of Commons listened to him, but Hardie they never really liked. He refused to conform to its stilted traditions--of speech, dress and political ritual. It was only outside parliament that Hardie had a following.

Stop war!--vote Labour

Hardie and MacDonald fell out often during the early years of the Labour Party but they were drawn close together at the start of the First World War because they both opposed it--a hard thing to do because the war was so popular when it started. It is now much easier to oppose war. People have no idea what conscientious objectors had to give up--including their liberty, for all were imprisoned at once. It was very tough on their families who were hounded in society. The war was a great shock to Hardie for he naively believed that the working class could be got together to go on strike and stop the war, and during the years preceding 1914 he was detached from the reality of nationalism that was building up among the working class. People were socialists because they wanted to get better wages, not because they opposed war, and when it came they were easy prey for government propaganda. Non-socialist Labour Party members like most trade unionists supported the war wholeheartedly and were drawn in to the centre of government, as were many in the Labour Party itself. The Suffragettes also collapsed as soon as the war started, apart from Sylvia Pankhurst and a few feminists and conscientious objectors, mostly members of religious groups.

Why was Hardie disillusioned when he died?
Labour clears the way He was disillusioned with the Labour Party because after 1906 when Labour emerged from the election with 30 MPs and was suddenly a feature of the political scene (and all the anti-socialist propaganda began which has not ceased to this day), so very little was actually accomplished. It was Lloyd George and his budget that were making the running, not socialism. MacDonald had campaigned in 1906 with no party policy, merely on the grounds that he was a friend of the labour movement. But Hardie had had a long list of things he wanted government to do--such as start farm colonies to end unemployment, build houses for workers, nationalise many services, build libraries, start creches for working women and put in train a whole raft of environmental measures. None of these happened, and then when the First World War came and so many in the party supported the war, he was even more disillusioned. But he fought on against the war and for working class justice to the last few days of his life, which came in the middle of the war.

Would you argue that Labour was pushed to the left around the Russian Revolution of 1917?
Keir Hardie addresses a crowd in Trafalgar Square The Russian Revolution brought joy to many in the ILP and generally caused all sections of the left to think about advances within their own countries. There was this wonderful convention of the whole of the left in Leeds in 1917, the largest gathering of trade unionists, socialists (both Marxist and social democrats) and social activists ever--to plan the future. It was a very positive event (and terrified the ruling class in the UK) but the momentum of cooperation that had produced it was never continued. There were no plans made to meet again and each group simply went back to its own drawing board.

They fell out over whether there should be a revolution or a reform in each country, but in the country with the first revolution after Russia, it ended in disaster. That was Germany, with the death of Rosa Luxemburg and the split between socialists. This split went on to divide socialists internationally, which was a great tragedy. But the argument continued about revolution or reform. Today the equivalent argument is about whether you can achieve meaningful change through parliaments. At the end of the 19th century and the start of the 20th century people were campaigning for a Labour Party as a socialist party and were making great headway because all the groups involved were concentrating on education, agitating and organising--going out to people, holding meetings, writing pamphlets and publishing papers, and discussing endlessly what policies to put forward. But after the Labour Party was formed, very gradually, instead of going out into the world at large, its supporters concentrated more and more on what 'their' MPs were doing in parliament. As the 20th century has gone on parliament has dominated, not the work in society at large. Nowadays there is almost no education going on at all in this sense, and no agitation, and the organising is all electoralism. Other organisations take up the causes--in the way the churches led the Cancel the Debt movement. The Labour Party of old would have been leading that but not the Labour Party of today. It is an electoral machine, very efficient and successful, but increasingly people are not voting because they find other organisations to work through and they are doubting whether the vote has much power any more--not just in the UK but throughout Europe and the US.

People expected that in the 20th century they would win the vote and that would change things--they would win parliamentary representation and that would be enough. How has that changed?
There has been a huge change from the start of the 20th century when everyone did believe the spread of the vote would really change society. It wasn't just Suffragettes who argued this, so did the entire Labour Party. Universal suffrage would mean people could vote in the changes that improved their conditions and everything would be transformed. To a certain extent governments deferred to universal suffrage (and the power of organised labour) during the century and welfare reforms and advances in living standards have transformed millions of lives in many countries. But now these advances are being rolled back and poverty is growing very quickly--and the majority of countries in the world have not really taken part in the improvements in any case.

What was the attitude of Hardie and the ILP socialists to class?
Hardie had great trouble because he refused to support the class war. He said, my war is on a system, not a class. So people said, you may be against class war but you fight such a war better than anyone else does. Behind the argument was the prejudice against war in Hardie's mind. The ILP and many others believed in the vote and the representation of the working class in parliament and that this was going to substitute for the Commune and the barricades and the French Revolution's sad end in violence. They believed you would have to win the argument for revolution first and when you did, you would not need force. It has taken a whole century to find out this is not necessarily the case.

What do you think will happen to socialist ideas in the next century if people have given up on the vote?
Socialist ideas will remain, I am sure of that. But I'm not sure about how the political movement will continue--except that it has to be international or it will be nothing at all. Possibly, though, Seattle gives us a clue: more direct action to influence those centres of power that do control lives and economies and societies worldwide. And not just politically either. For example, I think there will be a revolt against the use of the English language for everything internationally because it is so identified with capitalism and because it helps to kill other cultures and languages. I am sure there will be conflict over resources, like water and the earth itself, as developers continue to pollute and misuse in the name of profit, and countries express their disagreements overresources that are dwindling.

Is it going back to the end of the 19th century in terms of the concerns which people have and how badly capitalism behaves?
Certainly most of the issues then are still issues today. But today all the major political parties in the US and Europe and many other countries (with voting systems) support the capitalist system, not only in itself but as the means for solving problems (often the very problems that it causes). Official political parties are not into any fundamental challenge. They seemed like they might be earlier in the 20th century. Social democratic parties in Europe after the First World War talked the language of great change and socialism, and millions believed the unfettered capitalism had to be taken in hand. Some were not very robust in their attack, but change was on the agenda, change that redistributed the wealth and power of the world more equitably. That aspiration has not gone away, even if the political parties everywhere have dropped it as a serious objective. But how this aspiration will work out in the future isn't yet clear politically.

I always remember that quotation from William Morris, which was used in his book about the Peasants' Revolt, The Dream of John Ball. Perhaps they contain a clue: 'While I pondered on all these things, and how men fight and lose the battle, and the thing that they fought for comes about in spite of their defeat, and when it comes turns out not to be what they meant and so other men have to fight for what they meant under another name.'
Caroline Benn's biography of Keir Hardie is published by Richard Cohen Books £15.99

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