British Labour Party Is Formed Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Formation of the British Labour Party gave voice to Great Britain’s growing industrial working class; the new party ultimately replaced the Liberal Party as one of the country’s two major political parties.

Summary of Event

Although the British Labour Party did not formally exist under that name until after the general election of January, 1906, the party actually become a reality at a London conference in February, 1900, that established the Labour Representation Committee (LRC). The creation of a political organization based upon the working class was the result of a number of intertwined and complex historical developments. The most obvious of these are the political reforms of 1867 and 1884, which gave the vote to male blue-collar workers and increased the electoral power of the working class. Labour Party (Great Britain);formation of MacDonald, Ramsay [kw]British Labour Party Is Formed (Feb. 27, 1900) [kw]Labour Party Is Formed, British (Feb. 27, 1900) [kw]Party Is Formed, British Labour (Feb. 27, 1900) [kw]Formed, British Labour Party Is (Feb. 27, 1900) Labour Party (Great Britain);formation of MacDonald, Ramsay [g]Great Britain;Feb. 27, 1900: British Labour Party Is Formed[6480] [c]Government and politics;Feb. 27, 1900: British Labour Party Is Formed[6480] [c]Social issues and reform;Feb. 27, 1900: British Labour Party Is Formed[6480] [c]Organizations and institutions;Feb. 27, 1900: British Labour Party Is Formed[6480] Hardie, Keir Henderson, Arthur Lansbury, George

These development alone fail to explain why a working-class political party arose in Great Britain and not in the United States or Germany, both of which also granted the vote to male workers. Excluding the brief significance of the Socialist Party during the early twentieth century, the United States never developed an independent working-class political party, but an explicitly socialist party did have representation in Germany by the 1870’s. One must look at the specific historical developments in Great Britain that led to a party that was separate from both mainstream multiclass parties and the Marxist-defined groups predominant on the European continent.

Among the factors that contributed to the birth of Britain’s Labour Party was the nearly homogeneous nature of the British working class at the end of the nineteenth century. There was a genuine material basis for class solidarity among laborers as the living standards of unskilled workers rose closer to those of skilled workers, who perceived an erosion in their own social position. The divide-and-conquer approach to governance that was successful in some countries had less chance in Britain. Instead, unskilled workers—preoccupied with achieving some minimum living standards—were able to make common cause with many alienated skilled workers. Furthermore, the decreasing importance of religious and regional differences in Britain made social class a more ready touchstone of identity than in an ethnically and regionally divided nation such as the United States.

None of these considerations assured the formation of a new political party: There remained the possibility of absorption of working-class aspirations by one of the established political parties. The natural candidate for such a development was the Liberal Party, Liberal Party (Great Britain);and Labour Party[Labour Party] which claimed to share many of the same concerns as those voiced by Labour. The late nineteenth century had seen an alliance between union leaders, working-class voters, and the Liberal Party. However, when faced with ever-increasing demands for a greater role within the party, the Liberal associations proved too intractable to accommodate themselves to the rising labor movement. Thus, in sharp contrast to American urban political machines, which were effective in containing labor discontent, working-class political aspirations in Britain would tend toward the establishment of a new party.

A number of labor leaders initially split from the Liberal Party when they were refused nomination as candidates for Parliament. In 1892, the Scottish miner Keir Hardie Hardie, Keir was elected to Parliament as an independent labour representative shortly after the Liberal Party denied him its nomination. The following year brought the formation of the Independent Labour Party Independent Labour Party (Great Britain) (ILP), whose express goal was to send to Parliament working-class men who were independent of both the Liberal and Conservative Parties.

This new socialist organization drew support heavily from unions representing unskilled workers, who feared that without parliamentary support they would witness the destruction of their limited gains during the next recession. Although the party was blessed with a number of important leaders who would later make their mark on British politics, including Ramsay MacDonald and George Lansbury Lansbury, George , the ILP—even taken together with other left-wing groups—was far too weak to mount a threat to the two established political parties.

It proved essential that a more broad-based labor organization, such as the Trades Union Congress Trades Union Congress (TUC), join the campaign for a new political party. Although this development had seemed unlikely only a few decades earlier, by February of 1900, the Trades Union Congress voted to become the vehicle that would ultimately form the Labour Party. The relatively rapid conversion of the trade unions to the cause of independent political action was prompted by a series of employer assaults on trade union rights.

Worried about foreign competition, employers had established their own national federations, which conducted lockouts against unionized workers and vigorously opposed union demands. Seventy thousand Scottish miners were defeated in an industrial struggle in 1894, followed by the defeat of the Boot and Shoe Operatives in 1895. Even one of the oldest established trade unions, the Amalgamated Society of Engineers, saw itself defeated by a lockout in 1897-1898.

These industrial assaults on the working class were combined with consistent erosion of the trade unions’ legal rights. By the late 1890’s, the right to picket—essential if unions were to win strikes—was being threatened in the judicial system. In this context, the Trades Union Congress Trades Union Congress held in autumn of 1899 considered a resolution from an ILP member from the Amalgamated Society of Railroad Servants to call a special meeting of trade unions, cooperatives, and socialist organizations to design a plan to elect workers to Parliament. After an intense debate that saw leaders of the new unskilled workers pitted against the miners, whose concentration in certain electoral districts forced the Liberal Party Liberal Party (Great Britain);and Labour Party[Labour Party] to accept their candidates, the motion carried by a vote of 546,000 to 434,000.

The Labour Representation Committee was duly established at a meeting in London on February 27, 1900. Present were 129 delegates, of whom 65 represented unions with 568,000 members—the remainder representing the various socialist societies with fewer than 25,000 members combined. A twelve-member committee was elected with seven trade unionists and five socialists. Although it was in the minority, the ILP was able to elect Ramsay MacDonald secretary of the LRC. During the organization’s first year, the trade unions that joined were primarily made up of unskilled workers, although unions representing railroad, boot and shoe, and printing workers joined as well.

A general election took place only six months later, and the results were hardly encouraging. With neither time nor money in great supply, only two of the LRC-endorsed candidates were able to secure victory. There was also tension between the socialists, such as the ILP, and traditional Liberal Party supporters, such as Arthur Henderson Henderson, Arthur . Such problems might have meant the end of the organization had it not been for a further assault on trade union rights that produced a new wave of affiliations. In July of 1901, the House of Lords rendered its famous Taff Vale judgment, which not only reaffirmed limitation on picketing but also proclaimed that unions had to pay for all the costs caused by strike action. Although the legal implications were complicated, trade union leaders soon concluded that they had been forced into an extremely difficult position.

As Labour leaders increasingly questioned the willingness of the existing parties to pass legislation that would reverse Taff Vale, they moved in support of the LRC with the hope of electing their own members to the House of Commons. Unwilling to place their faith in either of the two existing parties, unions began to affiliate with the LRC. Thus, the pre-Taff Vale membership of the LRC, which stood at 376,000, jumped to 469,000 in 1902 and 861,000 by 1903.

Significance

By the time of the 1906 general election, the Labour Representation Committee was able to run a skillful campaign with fifty serious candidates, resulting in the election of twenty-nine candidates to the House of Commons. When the 1906 Parliament convened, the LRC took the name Labour Party. In 1924, the party won the general elections, and Ramsay MacDonald became the first Labour prime minister. Four other Labour Party leaders served as prime minister during the twentieth century, and during the early twenty-first century, Tony Blair became the first Labour Party leader to hold the office for more than seven consecutive years.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cliff, Tony, and Donny Gluckstein. The Labour Party: A Marxist History. London: Bookmarks, 1988. Written from a radical left viewpoint, this work provides a thought-provoking, if controversial, treatment of the Labour Party from its beginning.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Coates, David. The Labour Party and the Struggle for Socialism. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1975. Although focused on the question of Labour’s ability to advance the cause of socialism, this study also addresses broader questions about the party’s history.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Davies, Andrew. To Build a New Jerusalem: The British Labour Party from Keir Hardie to Tony Blair. London: Abacus, 1996. General history of the Labour Party, from its origins to the eve of Tony Blair’s rise to prime minister.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hobsbawm, Eric. “Workers of the World.” In The Age of Empire, 1875-1914. New York: Pantheon Books, 1987. Written by a renowned labor historian, this chapter allows readers to situate the birth of the Labour Party within the context of global labor developments.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Jeffreys, Kevin, ed. Leading Labour: From Keir Hardie to Tony Blair. London: I. B. Tauris, 1999. Very readable and useful study of all of the major Labour Party leaders during the first century of its existence. Includes a sympathetic account of Keir Hardie’s role in establishing the Independent Labour Party.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Morgan, Kenneth O. Keir Hardie: Radical and Socialist London: Phoenix Giant, 1997. Biography of the first Labour candidate elected to Parliament that is both readable and reliable. Based on primary and secondary sources.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Pelling, Henry. Origins of the Labour Party. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1965. Fine study that examines the many and varied currents that were to come together with the establishment of the Labour Party in 1900.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. A Short History of the Labour Party. London: Macmillan, 1972. Although somewhat dated and dry in parts, this work remains the best general introduction to the subject.

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