Throughout Europe the period from the 1880s onwards saw considerable labour unrest – some of it violent - in the relatively advanced industrial regions. Much of this discontent arose out of the changes in industrial society: the growth of communications, transport, urbanization and the dissemination of news; newspapers were cheaper, the provincial and national press was growing, and deference was weakening; old craft unions now co-existed with newer unions of the unskilled.
To many workers and intellectuals Socialism – the organization of society on a more collectivist, humanitarian and egalitarian basis - seemed to provide a coherent and relevant alternative economic system. In the 1880s separate working class parties, largely Marxist in ideology, were formed. The German Social Democratic Party, the largest and most effective of the European Socialist parties, was founded in 1875, outlawed in 1878, and began to attract large numbers of votes in the 1880s. By 1890 it attracted nearly 1.5 million votes and elected 35 representatives to the Reichstag. In the elections of 1912 it became the largest single party in the Reichstag.
In 1889 French socialists issued invitations for two congresses in Paris (one for the Marxists the second for the others!), out of which came the Second International. Resolutions were passed in favour of the eight-hour day and the extension of the suffrage, condemning standing armies and advocating the celebration of 1 May by labour demonstrations. By the 1890s it was clear that the Second International was going to be firmly Marxist. From 1889 to 1914 socialist parties grew in strength in every country.
Socialism in Britain
Socialist ideas met with more resistance in Britain. Most British Socialists were not working class and were frequently hostile to the unions. Henry Hyndman, the Old Etonian who, along with Eleanor Marx (daughter of Karl), founded the Marxist Social Democratic Federation (SDF) in 1883, openly despised what he saw as their narrowly reformist agenda. Other middle-class socialists were William Morris, leader of the Socialist League and the anarchist Edward Carpenter. The Fabians, founded in 1884, were middle class intellectuals (George Bernard Shaw, Sidney Webb, Hubert Bland) with little contact with trade unionism.
On the other hand, the Liberal party apparently had much to offer the skilled artisan, nonconformist in politics and proud of his independence. The two first working-class MPs had been elected in 1874 as Liberals. Thomas Burt still revered Gladstone and believed that ‘labour’s’ most realistic chance of success was to function as a group within the wider Liberal Movement. After the 1885 general election there were 11 ‘Lib-Lab’ MPs. This being the case, one of the great questions of the period is why the Liberal party was unable to position itself as the party of ‘labour’.
1. Part of the answer lies in the failure of the Liberals to find seats for working men. The Corrupt Practices Act of 1883 had made elections cheaper but they were still very expensive. The middle classes were moving away from Liberalism and this made party organizations in the constituencies financially weak, if not moribund. Constituency parties were often dominated by minorities and wealthy candidates of good standing were preferred to working-class candidates without resources.
The Liberal party at the centre was acutely aware of the problem. Gladstone donated money for this purpose and proclaimed the urgency of increased labour representation at the Newcastle Conference of 1891. But in spite of all the efforts little was achieved. It was of critical importance in the establishment of the Independent Labour Party that in the late 1880s and early 1890s, men like Keir Hardie, Ramsay MacDonald (1866-1937), and Arthur Henderson (1863-1935) experienced rebuffs at the hands of local Liberal associations, and decided that their future lay elsewhere.
2. The Liberal party was equally slow and indecisive in adapting to the demands of labour measures. The demand for an eight hour day aroused an acute dilemma. Most Liberal employers opposed the demand and many Liberal parliamentarians had ideological scruples about state-imposed limitation of hours. By the time the National Liberal Federation met at Newcastle, the question had not been resolved. The ‘Newcastle Programme’ adopted at that conference put the emphasis on ‘old’ Liberalism: veto on the sale of intoxicating liquors, land reforms, public control of denominational schools, the extension of employers’ liability.
The ‘New Unionism’
Up to the late 1880s trade unions were almost entirely confined to the skilled craft workers. But between 1888 and 1891 a number of strikes demonstrated the future trend of labour politics.
In 1888 the Bryant and May match girls' strike aroused much public sympathy and involved figures of the Left like Annie Besant, now a Fabian Socialist.
In the summer of 1889 the gas workers and the London dockers (10,000 men) struck. The five-week London dock strike, conducted with great flair by John Burns (1858-1943), Tom Mann (1856-1941) and Ben Tillett (1860-1943), caught the public imagination. The dockers demanded four hours continuous work at a time and a minimum rate of 6d an hour (‘the dockers’ tanner). Organizations such as the Salvation Army ran soup kitchens for the strikers. Trade unions in Australia sent over £24,000. The dock strike ended in what Beatrice Webb called a ‘brilliant victory’, partly negotiated by Cardinal Manning. After it the dockers formed a new General Labourers’ Union, electing Tillett as General Secretary.
These events were manifestations of what the Webbs called the ‘New Unionism’ in which unskilled workers became prominent in the union movement. ‘The whole movement was a reflection of the growth of employment in large impersonal units, where there was a tendency for skill differentials to become obscured.’ The dock industry was particularly affected by the contrast between the relatively skilled and regularly employed stevedores and lightermen and large numbers of unskilled casual workers. In the coal areas there was a marked differentiation between those areas producing mainly for the home market and those producing for export, where sliding wage-scales were often in operation. In 1889 the regional mining unions came together in the Miners’ Federation of Great Britain. The development of unionism was also much affected by the attitude of employers, the degree to which they were prepared to grant recognition to unions and the extent to which they themselves were organized.
At first the numerical increase in trade union membership was dramatic. At the TUC in 1889 nearly 885,000 members had been represented; in 1890 nearly 1½ million, and though it dropped back in the face of aggressive actions by employers, it then steadily recovered.
A new generation of working-class activists, many of them socialist, challenged the old TUC establishment, represented in Henry Broadhurst, a man totally identified with the Liberals. He resigned his position as secretary of the TUC’s Parliamentary Committee in 1890.
The new activism was represented politically by one of Broadhurst’s critics, the former miner, James Keir Hardie (1856 - 1915), the illegitimate son of a servant from Lanarkshire. In 1886 he was appointed secretary for the Scottish Miners’ Federation. In 1888 he stood as the ‘Labour and Home Rule’ candidate for the mining constituency of mid-Lanark, and finished bottom of the poll; the Liberal won, but with a good deal of working-class support going to the Tories.
Following mid-Lanark, Hardie declared:
‘If the Liberal Party desired to prevent a split, let it adopt the programme of the Labour Party.’He put forward this view at successive meetings of the TUC, and made the eight-hour day the centre-piece of an independent Labour programme. This created ideological problems for the Liberals and for those in the Labour movement who found it difficult to accept a statutory limitation of hours for adult male workers. The idea of an independent Labour programme and representation found support in many parts of the country, particularly in the north of England.
1892 was a general election year. Hardie decisively abandoned the Liberal party and stood as independent candidate for the constituency of West Ham. His appeal to the voters was deliberately broad. Little was said about socialism (which would have alienated the Irish Catholic vote), but a great deal about unemployment (a newly coined word). The strength of support was such that the official Liberal candidate, a Liberal, withdrew immediately before polling day. Hardie thus had a straight fight with a Unionist and won 57% of the vote. (The election was financed in part by a donation from Andrew Carnegie.) His entry into the Commons caused a sensation because he wore a deerstalker (not, as is often wrongly reported, a worker’s cap), which was to become his trademark in public life.
His most striking contribution to parliament was his speech made on the occasion of the birth of the future duke of Windsor in the summer of 1894. It drew emotional force from the fact that the Salisbury government had refused a request from Hardie to propose a motion of condolence for the relatives of 250 miners who had been killed in a colliery explosion a few days earlier. Hardie wrote an angry newspaper article and on 28 June outraged parliament by what he later called his ‘Royal Baby Speech’. Even the Liberal radicals were unable to support him openly, though in private they agreed with him.
The Independent Labour Party
In January 1893, following the bitter Manningham Mill strike in Bradford, 120 delegates from various local socialist societies, mostly with working-class memberships, came together in Bradford to form the Independent Labour Party (ILP). Though the word ‘socialism’ was not in the programme (and it was unanimously voted not to call the new party the Socialist Labour Party), the party committed itself ‘to secure the collective ownership of the means of production, distribution, and exchange’. This was a much more socialist programme than the one put before the West Ham electors. But like the Fabians, the ILP were gradualists, seeking to win power through the ballot box. Their ‘ethical socialism’ was very different from the revolutionary Marxism of Hyndman, Eleanor Marx or William Morris. Significantly, the ILP included many husband and wife partnerships: the Pankhursts, the MacDonalds, the Snowdons, and was committed to women’s suffrage. Its leaders, Keir Hardie and Tom Mann, realized that to capture power at local and national level they would have to link up with the wider trade union movement.
In 1895 the ILP had 35,000 members. However in the 1895 general election it put up 28 candidates, but won only 44, 325 votes. All its candidates finished bottom of the poll, including Hardie. Greatly humbled, ILP strategists determined that future success depended on drawing more substantial support from the trade unions. As a result it began to be successful in local elections and in 1898 it joined with the Social Democratic Federation to make West Ham the first local authority to have a Labour majority. At local level, the ILP was doing a good job in pressing for the reform of public services, but parliamentary success was still elusive.
The Labour Representation Committee
In the final years of the 19th century the ILP faced a stark choice. Either it could combine with the SDF or it could back-pedal on its socialism by linking with the trade union movement. Circumstances favoured the latter option. Many trade unionists were worried about the long-term prospects of the movement in the wake of more aggressive attitudes on the part of employers, who were increasingly resorting to lock-outs. Some unions, notably the miners, already had their sponsored Lib-Lab MPs, but others needed little persuading to vote for the resolution at the TUC Congress of 1899 that ‘a better representation of the interests of Labour in the House of Commons’ was desirable. The resolution went on to call for a special congress of unions and socialist societies to secure that objective. Significantly the resolution came from the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants, which was still struggling for recognition and was aware that many directors of railway companies sat in Parliament.
The congress convened on 27 February 1900 at the Farringdon Street Memorial Hall, and established the Labour Representation Committee (LRC). The key resolution stated that ‘a distinct Labour Group’ should be established in Parliament, ‘who should have their own Whips and agree upon their policy’. There was no mention of socialism, and no ‘Marxist’ slogans about nationalization of the means of production, distribution and exchange. The LRC was thus an uneasy compromise between trade unions, who were mostly suspicious of socialism, and the three socialist societies, the ILP, the SDF and the Fabians. But the unions were bound to win arguments and votes: there were about 1.2 million trade unionists affiliated to the TUC (25% of adult male manual labourers), while the socialist societies had tiny memberships.
The newspapers were taken up with the Boer War and gave little attention to the congress. Most of the miners and cotton operatives boycotted it, and most regarded the new body as ephemeral. ‘That it turned out differently was mainly due to the work of Ramsay MacDonald, who became the first secretary to the Committee, and to the Taff Vale decision .
The Taff Vale Judgement
In July 1901 the House of Lords handed down their decision in the Taff Vale case. A South Wales railway had successfully sued the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants through its officials for damages sustained through picketing in the course of a strike in August 1900. The decision was reversed by the Court of Appeal, but reinstated by the Law Lords. When the damages were finally settled in January 1903 they amounted to £23,000. This reinforced working-class opinion that the law was something imposed from above.
The case gave the LRC a boost. Ramsay MacDonald told the unions, pointing that their very existence was at stake and that this made a Labour party in Parliament ‘an absolute necessity’. By early 1903 the number of affiliated unions had risen to 127, with a membership of 850,000. A parliamentary fund was set up based on a penny levy per affiliated member.
There were still many tensions. The SDF withdrew from the LRC over Labour’s refusal to accept the doctrine of the class war. The ILP remained within the LRC but continued to argue for full-blooded socialism, while MacDonald wanted to maintain contacts with the Liberals.
This seemed a realistic strategy as the Liberals were beginning to stand aside in elections for Labour candidates. Already in August 1902 a Labour MP was returned unopposed for Clitheroe. In March 1903 Will Crooks, sponsored by the Woolwich Trades Council, captured the Conservative seat of Woolwich. Two months later the President of the Ironfounders’ Union, Arthur Henderson, who was to be the leader of the Labour Party from 1914-22, was returned for Barnard Castle.
In the spring of 1903 negotiations began between MacDonald and Herbert Gladstone, the Liberal Chief Whip. In the summer they reached an informal (and secret) understanding that each party would use its influence to prevent the running of ‘wrecking’ candidates’ whose intervention would risk handing seats over to the Unionists. It was provisionally agreed that in 23 seats Labour should be given a free run. Was the pact a grave mistake for the Liberals, allowing Labour a toehold inside Parliament in the next general election?
Click here for James Connell's socialist anthem, The Red Flag.