The Labour Party: 100 years of infamy

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On 27 February 1900, 129 delegates met in London to found the Labour Representation Committee, an organisation that six years later renamed itself the Labour Party. Come 27 February 2000 there will doubtless be many a toast to the memory of Keir Hardie and 100 years' struggle for social justice. Yet for real revolutionaries and communists, the establishment of the Labour Party was a profound setback for the British working class and the oppressed of the British Empire. It consolidated the political domination of the mass of the working class by a tiny privileged upper layer whose chief political characteristics were those of reaction and support for imperialism, racism and sexism. Since then the Labour Party has been a millstone round the neck of the British working class, preventing it from achieving anything of any consequence. From the day of its inception, argues Robert Clough, the challenge for socialists has been to build a movement that could break Labour's stifling grip on British working class organisation and politics and give a lead to the mass of the working class.

Many on the left will say that Labour in 2000 is a very different creature from Labour in 1900, that Blair's New Labour project is a decisive break with the party that was once a home for Keir Hardie and Nye Bevan. But they have created a myth. Labour in 1900 was no more radical or socialist that it is today. Blair's Labour Party is in substance no different from the one founded on an alliance of imperialist socialists with middle class leaders and reactionary trade union leaders 100 years ago. Unquestioning defence of British imperialism; contempt for the rights of the oppressed; abhorrence for the poor, these were the hallmarks of Labour in 1900 as much as they are today. Yet the left has spun illusions in the Labour Party for as long as it has existed. Fearing the mass of the real working class, those whom are excluded from the official labour and trade union movement, they have pretended that the election of a Labour government would make a difference. They said this in 1983, in 1987, in 1992, again in 1997. They have fooled only themselves. Blair's government is what Blair promised it would be – imperialist, racist, pro-big business and deeply oppressive. The continuity with its early years is a fact, as we shall see.

The British working class from 1848 to 1900

The foundation of the Labour Party followed a period when British imperialism's position as the dominant world power was facing a sustained challenge from younger imperialist nations – Germany, France and the US. Following the defeat of Chartism as a radical working class movement in 1848, British capitalism had expanded rapidly with the markets of the world under its domination. In the period to 1885, wages rose and conditions improved for the working class, but particularly for the skilled craftsmen who more and more turned away from Chartism to build up their craft trade unions and Co-operative societies. This stratum, some 10 to 15 per cent of the working class, earned a weekly wage approximately double that of unskilled workers. As this aristocracy of labour acquired a new bourgeois respectability, so the ruling class was able to grant a series of political favours such as the extension of male suffrage in the Reform Acts of 1867 and 1884. In return, the labour aristocracy demonstrated its complete servility through its solid support for the party of the manufacturers and industrialists, the Liberals. As Engels commented in 1874:

'Wherever the workers lately took part in general politics in particular organisations they did so almost exclusively as the extreme left wing of the "great Liberal Party"...In order to get into Parliament the "Labour leaders" had recourse, in the first place, to the votes and money of the bourgeoisie and only in the second place to the votes of the workers themselves. But by doing so they ceased to be workers' candidates and turned themselves into bourgeois candidates.'

Although by the middle of the 1880s, Britain's monopoly industrial position had disappeared forever, it still possessed a vast Empire, to which it made major additions in the 1880s and 1890s. The plunder from this Empire was to act as a cushion protecting British capitalism from the full impact of the new competition and allowed the ruling class by and large to maintain the conditions of the labour aristocracy up to the last decade of the century. In 1900, skilled workers could on average expect 40 shillings (s) per week, but poverty and destitution remained the norm for masses of unskilled and semi-skilled workers. In 1911, for instance, when 30s per week was the minimum to sustain an adequate family existence, 5 million out of 8 million male manual workers earned less than this; average earnings for this 5 million workers was 22s. The benefits of Empire were very definitely confined to an upper layer of the working class.

Trade unionism and political life also remained the almost exclusive preserve of this layer. In 1892, out of 14,000,000 people employed in industry and trade, only 1.5 million belonged to a trade union, and less than a million belonged to TUC-affiliates. With the partial exception of the miners, these were still the old craft unions. As a proportion of the workforce, trade union membership changed little until around 1910-11; only in 1906 did it exceed 2 million. In the meantime half of all working class men – some 6 million – and of course the entire female population were excluded from voting.

However the pressure on British industry from overseas continued to grow throughout the 1890s, forcing a series of confrontations with the skilled trade unions, in which the unions suffered significant defeats: the Amalgamated Society of Engineers in 1897, and the South Wales miners the following year. It became apparent to the trade union leadership that its unconditional alliance with the party of the industrialist wing of the ruling class was no longer sufficient to guarantee their interests. The 1899 TUC therefore voted to convene a conference to set up the Labour Representation Committee to seek separate representation in parliament and thereby put its relations with the Liberal Party on a new footing. Whatever doubts some trade union leaders had about the new organisation were dispelled with the 1901 Taff Vale judgement which threatened the right to strike and with it the cosy position of the labour aristocracy.

Radical Liberals, middle class socialists and the labour aristocracy: these were the forces that came together in 1900 to create an organisation that would defend their privileged positions . Many argue that the influence of the Independent Labour Party (ILP), established in 1893 after the defeat two years earlier of Bradford textile workers, gave the LRC a socialist character. This is not true. The overwhelming majority of the ILP's membership was drawn either from the skilled working class or the lower professional middle class. Its leadership, its political ideas and its organisers were dominated by a group of middle class radicals who moved effortlessly between the Fabian Society, the ILP, the TUC and the Liberal Party. Moreover these radicals had linkswith a variety of wealthy donors such as Cadbury whose financial donations were crucial to the survival of the ILP at the turn of the century. The ILP was bought from the outset.

The working class as a mass played no role in the formation of the LRC. The 1890s as a whole had been a period of intense reaction. This was in marked contrast to the events of 1889, when revolutionary socialists (amongst them Eleanor Marx, daughter of Karl) forged an alliance with unskilled workers to create new unions which were non-exclusive and which could embrace the mass of the working class. Such a development represented a serious challenge to the narrow interests of the labour aristocracy, which moved quickly to crush it. Within two years, the labour aristocracy had regained its ascendancy, and the unskilled unions had been reduced to a shadow of their former selves. The revolutionaries had been isolated, leaving the middle class radicals free to construct the alliance that became the Labour Party. Only the Social Democratic Federation presented any sort of obstacle, but its sectarianism enabled its swift exclusion from the Labour Representation Committee.

To the First Imperialist War

The early years of the Labour Party were therefore no different from any other period in its history, marked as they were by its anxiety to please its imperialist masters and to ensure that the poor and oppressed were kept firmly in their place. It never campaigned to extend the vote to women, let alone to the disenfranchised poor. Although it was organisationally independent of the Liberal Party, politically it was not. Hence in 1903 the Labour leader Ramsay MacDonald and the Liberals concluded a secret pact to avoid contests between the two in a certain number of constituencies so that Labour could increase its parliamentary representation. The quid pro quo was that Labour MPs were tied to supporting the Liberals, many times its most reactionary wing. Hence when the Liberal government introduced the first elements of state welfare with the National Insurance Act in 1911, the influential Fabian leader Beatrice Webb attacked 'the unconditionality of all payments under the insurance scheme' because 'the state gets nothing for its money in the way of conduct'. Her conclusion was that the Act would 'even encourage malingerers' and that 'this gigantic transfer of property from the haves to the have-nots to be spent by them as they think in times of sickness or unemployment' should have been made conditional on 'the obligation to good conduct.' In a sentiment to be echoed by members of a Labour government some 90 years later, she decided that the Act was 'wholly bad, and I cannot see how malingering can be staved off...What the government shirk is the extension of treatment and disciplinary supervision.'

During the Great Unrest of 1911 to 1913, when unskilled workers started to return to the trade unions and engaged in a massive wave of strike activity, Labour leaders were quick to offer their condemnation. Four Labour MPs (including Arthur Henderson, architect of the modern Labour Party) put forward a parliamentary Bill which proposed making strikes illegal unless thirty days' notice had been given, and that those who struck illegally or incited others to strike illegally would be subjected to very heavy fines. As JR Clynes, both a Labour and trade union leader, told the 1914 Labour Conference 'too frequent strikes caused a sense of disgust, of being a nuisance to the community'.

Imperialist war and the crusade against communism

Labour was racist and imperialist to the core from the beginning. Sidney Webb, 'intellectual' inspiration for Labour, observing the extent of destitution in London, asked 'what is the use of an Empire if it does not breed and maintain in the truest and fullest sense of the word an Imperial race?' Echoing her husband's sentiment, Beatrice complained 'what can we hope from these myriads of deficient minds and deformed bodies that swarm our great cities – what can we hope but brutality, meanness and crime.'

Labour's defence of Empire in the meantime was never in question. In 1913, it had helped isolate the strike of Dublin workers and ensure their defeat. The outbreak of the first imperialist war in 1914 cast it in the role of recruiting sergeant for the slaughter in the trenches. Labour MPs were to participate in the condemnation of the 1916 Easter Uprising in Dublin, their leader Arthur Henderson leading a round of applause in the House of Commons when the execution of James Connolly was announced. Prior to the war, Ramsay MacDonald had committed Labour to support for a so-called 'socialist colonial' policy during a debate on the subject at a 1907 international conference of socialists in Stuttgart. In December 1917 a Labour Memorandum on War Aims explained 'it is impracticable [in Africa] to leave the various peoples concerned to settle their own destinies', describing them as 'non-adult races'. Later, in a January 1918 reply to Bolshevik peace proposals, Labour was to argue that 'nobody contends that the black races can govern themselves. They can only make it known that the particular government under which they have been living is bad in some or all respects, and indicate the specific evils from which they desire liberation.' In practice, Labour was never to champion the cause of colonial freedom; its over- riding concern was to preserve the integrity of the British Empire.

When Labour, prior to the 1997 General Election, decided to drop Clause 4, calling for the nationalisation of the means of production, from its constitution, the left was appalled. This, it claimed, was the emblem of its socialist principles; abandon this and the party would undermine any real hope for a socialist future. Yet Clause 4 and the rest of its 1918 constitution never had anything to do with socialism. Its purpose was to transform the Labour Party from a loose federation of affiliated bodies into a centralised and nationally cohesive organisation that would be an effective vehicle for fighting Bolshevism and the threat it posed to the British Empire. The Labour Party was a crucial political weapon for British imperialism in its drive to isolate the Russian revolution. Creating a centralised organisation was the first step to organising the forces of the labour aristocracy against any internal challenge from the mass of the working class. Next was the transformation of the Socialist International into a weapon of British foreign policy. The Labour Party had been an almost irrelevant member of the pre-war Second International of socialist parties. That now changed; the Labour Party took control of the movement, moved its headquarters to London to keep it under firm control, and used it as a platform to attack the Russian revolution and defend the post-war imperialist order that emerged from the 1919 Versailles Treaty. The Labour and Socialist International was never allowed to discuss colonial policy, particularly British imperialism's. Labour itself, when it formed governments in 1924 and 1929-31, pursued a brutal colonial policy, authorising the use of the RAF against Kurdish villages in 1924 and then suppressing the massive Indian uprising of 1928-1931.

During the first imperialist war, the great revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg condemned international social democracy as a 'stinking corpse' for its support for the mass slaughter. She was right. But even before 1914 the Labour Party did not play a progressive role – that was never its intent. Its formation depended on the defeat and isolation of socialists and the political exclusion of the mass of the working class in favour of a privileged upper layer and its middle class allies. With the triumph of the revolution in Russia and the threat that its promise of colonial liberation presented to the British Empire, Labour became the principle organiser of reaction within the international working class movement. Labour in 2000, Labour in 1900: they are both the same.

FRFI 153 Feb / March 2000