Establishment of the British Labour Party Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The formation of the Labour Party, with its trade unionist and socialist principles, created a voice for the lower classes in a leading industrial and capitalist society.

Summary of Event

The lower classes of any society rarely, if ever, have the opportunity for direct access to the primary decision-making bodies, let alone the chance to obtain control of the reins of government in a collective manner. The creation of the British Labour Party in 1906 was one of the first significant steps toward direct, purposeful links to working-class objectives for political action and leadership in any industrial country to that time. That this event occurred in Great Britain, the country of origin of both capitalism and modern industrialism, makes it all the more significant. Labour Party (Great Britain);founding Political parties;Labour Party (Great Britain) [kw]Establishment of the British Labour Party (Feb. 12, 1906) [kw]British Labour Party, Establishment of the (Feb. 12, 1906) [kw]Labour Party, Establishment of the British (Feb. 12, 1906) [kw]Party, Establishment of the British Labour (Feb. 12, 1906) Labour Party (Great Britain);founding Political parties;Labour Party (Great Britain) [g]England;Feb. 12, 1906: Establishment of the British Labour Party[01600] [c]Business and labor;Feb. 12, 1906: Establishment of the British Labour Party[01600] [c]Government and politics;Feb. 12, 1906: Establishment of the British Labour Party[01600] Hardie, Keir MacDonald, Ramsay Burns, John Tillett, Ben Hyndman, Henry Mayers

The Labour Party evolved out of a series of attempts by workers, socialists, and trade unionists to play a direct role in the British parliamentary system. Great Britain;electoral system reforms Class privilege was at the heart of the British political tradition. Attempts to change the electoral system dated to the Reform Act of 1832. Efforts such as Chartism during the 1830’s and 1840’s failed to gain the vote for workers or to make Parliament more accessible to persons of the lower classes. Although the Reform Acts of 1867 and 1884 extended the ballot to males, first in the industrial and then in the agricultural sector, a supporting role was still the only means by which the newly enfranchised, but still largely powerless, workers could attempt to affect political outcomes. By the end of the nineteenth century, such a strong informal coalition had been formed between labor groups and the Liberal Party Liberal Party (Great Britain) that candidates with dual support were referred to as Lib-Labs.

The rapid industrialization of Great Britain had created serious problems that society either ignored or only slowly addressed. Various groups claimed to possess the needed solutions and used these plans as a means of attracting followers. Trade unionists and socialists were two of the more significant camps out of which a variety of organizations emanated in the nineteenth century. The Labour Party would finally emerge from the efforts of these groups. At times these bodies worked independently, and at other times they formed coalitions. All played varying roles in heightening awareness of particular issues and attempting to draw members into supporting class-based political stances and organizations. Principal among these were the Trades Union Congress Trades Union Congress (Great Britain) (TUC), the Social Democratic Federation Social Democratic Federation (Great Britain) (SDF), the Fabian Socialists, Fabian Socialists (Great Britain) and the Independent Labour Party Independent Labour Party (Great Britain) (ILP).

One of the primary groups from which the Labour Party emerged was the TUC, formed in 1868 partially as an outgrowth of the extension of the vote to male workers the previous year. The TUC was particularly concerned with working conditions and workers’ compensation for work-related illness, disability, and unemployment. As a federation of unions, the TUC concentrated on union issues more than on political candidates. Some of its members were politically active, however. Keir Hardie, one of the first trade unionist representatives elected to Parliament, was a leader within the TUC. Hardie, with roots in Scottish trade unions and socialist ideology, would more than any other individual influence the progression of events that led to the formation of the Labour Party.

The ability of the lower classes to address grievances and to seek gains was limited and worsening. A number of conflicts had widened the gulf between labor and management. These confrontations heightened trade unionist and socialist leaders’ awareness of their lack of political power. One major success by labor, the London Dock Strike of 1889, heightened expectations of what might be achieved. Broad-based support, widespread publicity, and effective leadership from such figures as John Burns and Ben Tillett demonstrated what was possible. Both Burns and Tillett emerged as leaders in the TUC as a consequence.

The drive toward political independence began a few years later, with the creation of the Independent Labour Party (ILP) in January, 1893. Spearheaded by Hardie, representatives of the SDF, Fabians, various trade unions, and other organizations convened to establish a mechanism for more direct support of candidates who would be independent of other parties and directly committed to trade unionism and socialism. This new organization—yet another coalition—was a major step toward the eventual creation of the Labour Party.

Keir Hardie.

(Library of Congress)

The formation of the new group, while intensifying collective efforts and heightening public awareness of a common agenda, was on a relatively small scale and without major public fanfare. The group lacked a cause that would ignite the public’s imagination and create sufficient support for the autonomous political faction. That event occurred in 1900, when railroad workers struck the Taff Vale Railway Company. Labor strikes;Taff Vale Railway Company Taff Vale decision The company sued and won damages for lost revenue. The court decision, which was upheld by the House of Lords in 1901, represented a fundamental threat to workers’ ability to act collectively in labor-management disputes. The drive to reverse this decision was the essential galvanizing force that forged the coalition of various labor and socialist elements that previously had worked in splintered fashion on separate trade-specific or ideologically divergent programs.

Coalition building was difficult, given the idiosyncrasies of some of the leaders of the various organizations. Debate over the best strategy and the question of whether to include socialists in the aims of labor had long kept the major players in the trade unionist and socialist camps from coalescing for action. The socialists were split among various groups, with the likes of the SDF, led by Henry Mayers Hyndman, on the more radical end of the spectrum contrasted with the middle-class-supported Fabian Socialists. The Fabians, with Beatrice and Sidney Webb and George Bernard Shaw among their leaders, called for gradual, evolutionary political introduction of socialist policies and programs.

A more direct step, with concrete measures for supporting independent candidates, had been taken on February 27, 1900, when Hardie organized the creation of the Labour Representation Committee Labour Representation Committee (LRC), supported by the TUC, the ILP, Fabians, and the SDF (the SDF would drop out shortly thereafter). Many historians view the establishment of the LRC as the pivotal step in the creation of the Labour Party. The events of 1906 were but a culmination of the decisions to act made in 1900. The LRC went beyond the efforts of any of the separate organizations that established it and extended previous efforts at political action. The sole purpose of the LRC was to achieve political victories in parliamentary elections for candidates tied to labor.

The composition of this new body guaranteed that both trade unionism and socialist principles would be fused in the solutions offered to the nation by candidates identified with the LRC. Trade unions were initially slow to respond to the new organization, which initially provided endorsements and encouragement only to those candidates directly identified as labor candidates. However, the uproar that arose over the Taff Vale case contributed to a rapid increase in the LRC’s popularity, and membership in the organization reached 847,000 by 1903. Ramsay MacDonald, who later would become Great Britain’s first Labour prime minister, served as the first secretary of this new political coalition. In 1903, the LRC established a political fund. In a firm stand for independence, it demanded that LRC candidates not be affiliated with other political parties.

The final step toward political autonomy came with the election of January, 1906. In the midst of an overwhelming victory by the Liberals, twenty-nine out of fifty candidates sponsored by the LRC were elected to Parliament. Of these, only three were opposed by Liberals. A sufficient number of Labour candidates were elected to form a new parliamentary Labour Party caucus. On February 12, the newly elected representatives met and selected officers, including Keir Hardie as the first chair. Three days later, the slate and the decision to name the organization the Labour Party were carried by the conference of the LRC. This name change was the end of one era and the beginning of a new phase of a Labour opposition party, voicing lower-class, trade unionist, and socialist aspirations in Parliament. The Labour Party would gain control of the government several times during the twentieth century.

Significance

The decision to form the LRC in 1900, the election victory in January, 1906, and the final, formal establishment of what is now known as the Labour Party demonstrated the growing social divisions in British society and the commitment of an increasing segment of the electorate from the lower and middle classes to support an agenda tied to implementing some of the demands of Labour’s constituency. The electoral successes in 1906 are significant as demonstration that social and labor issues could not be ignored easily. Legislation was passed during the next few years that rectified some of labor’s pressing concerns and began to implement what would later be called the British welfare state.

Efforts at political activism that dated from the 1830’s were finally realized. One significant difference from the Chartist agenda was the inclusion of socialist representatives and principles in the Labour Party. The supporters of candidates identified with Labour rose from more than 300,000 in 1906 to 500,000 in 1910 and 4.5 million in 1922. Labour achieved control of Parliament for the first time in 1924, with Ramsay MacDonald as prime minister. The Labour Party became a major force in British politics after World War II and continued to hold significant power until the 1970’s. Then, after eighteen years of Tory government, Labour regained power with a landslide victory in 1997 under the leadership of Tony Blair. Labour won three successive elections under Blair, although in the third-term elections of 2005, Labour support declined to a slim majority compared with its more robust domination of parliamentary seats in the previous two election cycles.

Among the immediate consequences of the establishment of the Labour Party was the reversal of the implications of the Taff Vale case by passage of the Trade Disputes Act of 1906. Unions gained some rights, although the challenges, both legislative and otherwise, to actions taken during collective bargaining were not fully removed. The coalition backing Labour began to broaden significantly when the miners voted in 1908 to affiliate with the Labour Party.

The Workmen’s Compensation Act of 1906 nearly doubled the number of those covered, from seven to thirteen million, by expanding the list of diseases included under the legislation. In 1908, Parliament established an eight-hour workday for miners and provided for state-supported pensions for some workers. Female workers benefited in 1909 from the establishment of a minimum wage for certain sweatshop-type employment.

In addition to pension and workers’ compensation provisions, some elements of a broadening state responsibility for society, but especially the lower classes, began to be enacted. These measures demonstrated socialist concerns that extended beyond union or work activities. Primary among these early acts were those that required medical inspection of schoolchildren (1907) and enabled, although did not mandate, school food programs. The Housing and Town Planning Act of 1909 targeted urban slums. These legislative actions, although important, still required the support of the Liberal Party, which was in control of the government. Labour’s electoral achievements of 1906 spurred others to be more attentive to a large segment of society that had gone too long without a platform in the national government. Other pieces of the Labour demands would begin to emerge in subsequent years. The successes of 1906 were encouraging to Labour’s supporters; however, these gains did not resolve the ideological and class conflict inherent in a modern industrial society. Labour Party (Great Britain);founding Political parties;Labour Party (Great Britain)

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cole, G. D. H., and Raymond Postgate. The British People, 1746-1946. New York: Barnes & Noble, 1961. A pioneering classic in working-class history. Provides extensive information on social, labor, and political history from 1746 to 1946.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hinton, James. Labour and Socialism. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1983. Examines the relationship between trade unionism and the range of working-class interests and distinguishes the nature of London politics and unionism from that in other regions. Covers the period from 1867 to 1974 in a tone critical of failures of Labour.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Howell, David. British Workers and the Independent Labour Party: 1888-1906. Manchester, England: Manchester University Press, 1983. One of the most comprehensive studies available on one of the key forerunners of the Labour Party. Analysis of the significance of the ILP forms the concluding chapters of this major work.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">McBriar, A. M. Fabian Socialism and English Politics, 1884-1918. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1962. Extensive study of the Fabian Socialists, with concluding chapters on Fabian influence on the origins of the Labour Party. Presents a reasonably complete picture of the issues and forces from which Labour emerged.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">McKibbin, Ross. The Evolution of the Labour Party, 1910-1924. 1974. Reprint. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1984. Examines early successes of the party in the context of local and parliamentary politics and traces the rise of Labour along with the decline of the Liberals. Claims that socialism was not vital to Labour’s popularity.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Martin, Ross. TUC: The Growth of a Pressure Group, 1868-1976. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1980. A broad overview of the Trades Union Congress, which was one of the key players in setting the agenda that Labour adopted.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Pelling, Henry. The Origins of the Labour Party, 1880-1900. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1965. The classic study on the topic. Focuses primarily on the Independent Labour Party, establishing a general evolution of Labour rather than raising critical questions or providing class analysis.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Pugh, Martin. The Making of Modern British Politics, 1867-1945. 3d ed. Oxford, England: Blackwell, 2002. Sophisticated account of British political history from the 1860’s to the outbreak of World War II. Includes discussion of the evolution of the Labour Party in the late twentieth century.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Reid, Alastair J., and Henry Pelling. A Short History of the Labour Party. 12th ed. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005. Covers the period from 1906 forward. Includes an annotated bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Reid, Fred. Keir Hardie. London: Croom Helm, 1978. A brief analysis of the first labor and socialist representative elected to Parliament. Raises critical questions as to Hardie’s real attitude toward the working class.

Shaw Articulates His Philosophy in Man and Superman

Students Challenge Corporal Punishment in British Schools

Great Britain Establishes Unemployment Benefits

British Workers Launch General Strike

Great Britain Lowers the Voting Age for Women

Categories: History Content