The Establishment of the Labour Party

Account For The Establishment Of The Labour Party By 1906
The foundation of the Labour Representation Committee, which became the Labour Party, in 1900 was one of the most important events in the evolution of twentieth century British politics. The new party was destined to rise with incredible speed, being capable of forming a minority government within just 25 years. It changed enormously the structure of British political life, displacing one of the two historic main parties and becoming the new representative of the working class and the left in Parliament. The two fundamental questions we must face when looking at the development of the Labour Party by 1906 are firstly why did the working classes and their organisations feel the need to establish a separate political party instead of operating within the existing political framework, and secondly why this took place at the turn of the century, years after large sections of the working class had been given the vote.

At first it seems strange that a separate working class political party did not develop before 1900. The process of industrialisation had been continuing for decades - it was certainly well underway by the 1820’s. This had included the growth of factory based production on a very large scale, changing the relationship between worker and employer. The large concentrations of working class people in the factories and new cities created meant ideas and movements could spread quickly and the labouring classes could feel a collective identity because of the harsh conditions so many faced together, and indeed many trade associations and unions started to grow up as the century progressed. This trend would lead to the development of the Labour Party, but why was it not possible half a century earlier? One problem working against the formation of a united working class was their diversity - in location and tasks, as well as an initial lack of funds.

The number of working men entitled to vote after the Reform Acts of 1867 and 1884 can be exaggerated - indeed even after the 1884 Reform Act working men were still barely a majority of those entitled to vote. This was more pronounced because of hidden restrictions on working class voters, such as the difficult registration procedure that needed a large dedicated party machine to organise its voters, something only the Liberals and Conservatives had at that time, working far more with the middle class. Despite this, wage earners were in sizeable concentrations in some areas - yet there were very few working class men in Parliament, and none before the 1870’s. This was largely due to finance : MPs were not paid until 1911 and so a candidate had to have a career to support himself or receive the support of a Union, meaning simply that few working class men could afford to be an MP. They also needed financial backing to fight the election campaign. Therefore, the working class could not be a serious electoral force until they had organisation, and this was to come in the form of the Trade Unions.

However, an indication of the weakness of the organised labour movement is the fact that even by 1888, only 1 in 10 adult males in manual work were in a union. It is true that they had influence outside their membership and the largest unions were capable of financing and supporting an MP in their areas, yet they remained through the nineteenth century largely uninterested in politics, especially on a national level, preferring to get involved in local issues affecting their members. Socialists tried to form national organisation, notably the Social Democratic Federation, but received very little support : any meaningful national body had to come from the unions. They did attempt this on a couple of occasions - the 1869 Labour Representation League and the 1886 Labour Electoral Association - but neither was widely supported. One reason for this was that some unions so dominated an area they elected their own MP (such as the miners). However, the main reason behind the failure of the unions to form a united electoral body was their political dependence on the Liberal Party. A small group of MPs were elected known as the Lib-Labs - only 8 by the end of the 1880s. They were Labour men elected under the Liberal banner, and formed a group which supported the Liberal party except on issues relating to their union or class. This shows the belief many had at the time that the interests of the working class could be accommodated in the existing political structure.

However, by the 1880s it was clear the links between the unions and the Liberals were becoming eroded. The first reason for this was the reluctance of the Liberal party to select working class men as candidates for election. This was not national policy of the Liberals, but rather because of the local Liberal associations. These, usually controlled by local business and professional men or nonconformist ministers, were very reluctant to select a working manas candidate, not least as they would have to finance his campaign and support him in office, but largely because his election would mean their sectional interests would not be represented. The unwillingness of Liberal associations to choose working men as candidates drove many in frustration to seek an independent Labour party as the only means of election. Another reason why the Labour movement became increasingly distant from the Liberals was the rigid nature of their policy - Liberals were dominated by Gladstone, who was generally preoccupied with his "mission" to "pacify Ireland" and would not take up issues which radical working men demanded, such as payment of MPs, and believed in avoiding social legislation if possible.

A final reason why the relationship between the unions and the Liberal Party failed was the changing nature of the union movement. The unions had begun as mainly representing the "aristocracy of skilled workmen", skilled working men such as the engineers, in demand and commanding good wages, with the time and resources to build up their own organisations, and these had built up the relationship with the Liberals. However, by the late nineteenth century "new unionism" was emerging; large unions of unskilled workers, using strikes to get their demands. These new unions would not get the representation they required from the Liberal party, and would prove to be a major factor in the split between the Liberals and organised labour.

In the 1890’s there was a serious attempt at a working class political party with the formation of the Independent Labour Party (I.L.P.) This was formed by socialists, with the idea of a "Labour Alliance" - working class people, including non-socialists and the trade unions, joining together to fight for working class interests. This was never very sucessful, with only 10,000 members at its peak, but like other socialists groups at this time, such as the Fabians and the Social Democratic Federation (SDF) its appeal was at at least a respectable level : the I.L.P. managed an avarage of 1,500 votes in the 28 seats they fought. Also in the 1890s, a famous socialist tract called Merrie England, by Robert Blanchford, sold about 1 million copies. Therefore, though socialism was not greatly popular, it had started to become influencial in some unions and had a degree of sympathy in the country, and was a force pushing hard for independent working class representation.

However, the real power that had to come over to the idea of a widely supported labour party was of course the trade unions, who were still divided amongst themselves on representation - many still favoured staying with the Liberals. However, during the 1890s a feeling in the union movement began that would be very important in the establishment of the L.R.C. - that their legal rights were threatened and that they would not receive the protection they needed from the Liberals. Through the 1890s there were series of lawsuits that seemed to undermine their position, and by the turn of the century their legal standing, especially their right to picket, was in doubt. They saw themselves as being under assault by increasingly organised and committed employers and felt the need for representation of their interests in Parliament to combat this. Employers had themselves become worried by the expansion of unionism in the 1880s and had reacted against it. The 1893 foundation of the National Free Labour Association, which supplied workers (or "Blacklegs") to break strikes was such a direct attack on the unions power, and although it was not very successful it stiffened the resolve of the workers. More significant was the growth of employers federations, such as the Federation of Engineering employers - in 1897-98 this conducted the first successful national lock out against the Amalgamated Society of Engineers. However, perhaps most worrying development for the unions in the 1890s was the formation of the Employers’ Parliamentary Council, its specific aim to promote the interests of the employers in Parliament, meaning the unions were under the threat that they would be left behind, without effective representation. Therefore the unions by the end of the 1890’s found themselves with the prospect of facing employers who were organised, willing to fight the unions and with their hands on the levers of government.

By the end of the nineteenth century pressure had been growing for some time in favour of an independent Labour party, due to perceived threats from the employers, dissatisfaction with the Liberals and a general need for working class directed legislation, and in 1899 the TUC decided to set up a body for the specific promotion of labour in Parliament. Part of the reason that the trade unions decided that they needed this as because of a surge in membership during the 1890s. The organised Union movement had about 750,000 members in 1888 - by the turn of the century this was about 2 million. Much of this growth was achieved in the more independently minded "new" unions, and the union movement was now far more able to achieve political power. In the 1890s the number of trade unionists and working men in local government positions was also growing. Yet through all this increasing working class interest and involvement in politics, the number of Lib-Labs had remained the same, at only a handful.

It was becoming clear that not only was the Liberal Party unwilling to accept more working class candidates, but many in the working class movement were unwilling to accept working with the Liberals. The Socialists, a small group but vital for the energy of the movement, were increasingly hostile to the Liberals (shown by their attempt at independence in the I.L.P.) and were already fighting Lib-Labs in some seats, something which could only lead to the failure of both. Perhaps the final blow to hopes of continued co-operation with the Liberals for many in the trade union movement was the 1895 election, when the Liberals were heavily defeated and did not seem likely to return to power for a long time, meaning the union movement had little to lose in seeking independent representation - the Liberals did not seem capable of representing anyone’s interests for the time being. Therefore, in 1899 the TUC voted to set up the Labour Representation Committee, which came into existence in February 1900.

This was not however the end of the story of the foundation of the Labour Party. The resolution had received less than unanimous support from the TUC - the motion was carried by 546,000 votes for to 434,000 against, the main supporters being the new unskilled unions, with some well-established unions still favoured working with the Liberals. Some, such as the miners and textile workers, voted against the motion as they disliked the Socialists so much, and those who supported it were often unsure whether the new experiment might work. This lack of enthusiasm shaped its first few weeks, with few unions affiliating. After three months it only had 187,000 affiliated members. Its first election, fought still in its first year, seemed to continue the dismal start, with 15 candidates fielded and only 2 successful, one of whom ran under Liberal colours, and the L.R.C. were still outnumbered by the Lib-Labs. However, this start was better than it sounds. They managed an average vote of 4,000 in the constituencies they fought. The election had been hard for them - it came only weeks after the formation of the party and the Boar War distracted attention away from domestic and labour issues in the campaign. The party remained a potential force, but it needed members and finance before it could become a serious force.

It was then that a major event in the history of organised labour happened which would give the L.R.C. the boost it needed. This came in the form of what seemed at the time a major blow to the union movement : the Taff Vale case. This had originated in 1900 when a railway company brought action for damages against the Railway Servants union, for picketing the Cardiff stations. The company won the action, and the union was ordered to pay £23,000 in damages, a judgement confirmed in 1902 by the House of Lords. This outraged unionists as it put in doubt the legality of the strike. This had a profound effect on the unions attitude towards politics. They felt the decision was political, as it was confirmed by the House of Lords, and they realised that to combat this kind of assault they needed the representation that the L.R.C. was promising. From the start of 1901 to the end of 1902 L.R.C. membership increased from 350,000 to 861,000, the vast majority from the industrial trade unions. The finances of the party were reformed, giving them the means to finance and support their own MPs, and they underlined their independence from the other parties with new guidelines for their MPs.

During the time before their second election in 1906 they tightened the constitution, hugely expanded the membership and even won some by-elections. The party was still small with narrow support compared to its well-established rivals, the Liberals and the Conservatives, but they had many talented members, ever growing finances and organisation, and a fresh, determined outlook which their opponents, especially the Liberals, did not. Their potential was even recognised by the Liberals, who in 1903 made a secret deal with them to fight the Conservatives by not standing candidates against each other. Their rising popularity was shown in the 1906 election, with 29 seats won, admittedly partly due to the deal with the Liberals and the massive swing against the Conservatives, but their great proportional increase in seats was a sign of things to come. The unions had bee slow to come behind the idea of an independent Labour party, but once they supported the movement and it got the means to fight the established parties on their own terms, its rise as the party of the left in British politics had begun.


Henry Pelling, A Short History of the Labour Party, Macmillan, 1985

Malcolm Pearce and Geoffrey Stewart, British Political History 1867-1990 - Democracy and Decline, Routledge, 1995

Gordon Phillips, The Rise of the Labour Party 1893-1931, Routledge, 1992

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