If only a group of left-wingers could get control of the Labour Party we would be able to restore it to its socialist traditions and the working classes would vote for it en-masse. There cannot be many left-leaning current or ex-Labour members who have not harboured that thought. Indeed, for those who joined the party between 2016 and 2019 it is almost an article of faith that the party was hijacked by a bunch of right-wingers who have dragged it away from its roots. That being the case, we really should ask the question: how did they manage to wrest control so easily from a membership that was, at the time, almost entirely on the other wing of the party?
The answer to what happened lies deep in the origins of the Labour Party and the circumstances of its emergence from a small group of trade unionists to the UK’s biggest political party.
It is impossible to disentangle the emergence of the Labour Party from the growth of the trade union movement. It was essentially the trade unions’ desire to turn their economic power into political power that gave the impetus for the formation of the Labour Party. But, as always, when we talk of trade unions in this respect we should beware of the temptation to regard trade unions as a homogeneous mass. Then (the end of the nineteenth century), as now, there were a variety of opinions represented in the trade unions and, whilst there were certainly socialists involved in the unions, the leaders, on the whole, were more moderate in their demands. It was these men, and in the latter part of the nineteenth century it was almost exclusively men who led the union movement, who came together to form a political party that would give voice to their demands within parliament.
Most history books will tell you that the British Labour Party was formed in 1900 as the Labour Representation Committee (LRC), but its origins precede its founding by at least twenty or thirty years. Until the turn of the century trade unions had been reasonably content to work alongside the Liberal Party, which, until 1914, was the second biggest party in the UK, who were broadly sympathetic to the aims of the union officials. Though it might also be noted that the Liberals at the time were a party that included landowners and manufacturers, some of whom eyed the nascent socialist movement with deep suspicion.
At the same time across Europe a wave of revolutionary socialist parties had sprung up from around 1848 onwards, many of them, such as Germany’s SPD, avowedly Marxist in their aims. In Britain, the cradle of capitalism, Marxism never had the same hold and it was utopian socialism that was more popular with British intellectuals, particularly that espoused by Robert Owen and exemplified by his New Lanark model village. Whilst continental socialists debated the virtues of reform versus revolution the British socialist movement was almost entirely fixated on parliament. In an extraordinarily British conceit, early British socialists really believed that Britain would have a peaceful transition to a better society because that was the way the British did things. This is just an early example of the British exceptionalism that has been part of the British socialist movement pretty much from its foundation.
In the 1880s the trade unions were led by moderate men who were not particularly enthused by socialism. The Democratic Foundation, the forerunner of the Labour Party, included ex-Tories, Liberals and other social reformers. Whilst the presence of H M Hyndman is often seen as evidence of its Marxist leanings, the fact is Hyndman had previously attempted to get elected as a Conservative. Were it not for his alliance with Karl Marx, from whom he sought advice, he would make the perfect recruit for today’s Labour Party.
What made the Democratic Foundation of interest to socialists was that, unlike the Liberal Party, they had a genuine interest in the working class. Despite this, the first three working men elected to parliament all did so as members of the Liberal Party.
The Democratic Foundation was, in fact, a tiny sect, but by the time it had transformed into the Social Democratic Foundation (SDF), it boasted 10,000 members throughout the UK. Whilst it was influenced by Marxism, it was not avowedly Marxist.
By the time the Labour Party emerged, it was as an amalgam of trade unions, liberals and socialists. It is not clear that even at its outset the Labour Party had anything but a passing interest in socialism and virtually no interest in Marxism at all. The lack of an interest in Marxism may, to modern eyes, seem unremarkable. But by the end of the 19th century Marxism was the dominant intellectual position of those calling themselves socialists. The Labour Party which emerged in 1900 was strictly a reformist party and, whilst it paid lip service to socialism, was never committed to a transformation of society and its demands were simply that the voice of the working man (sic.) should be represented in parliament.
What is remarkable is that, from its beginnings, Labour had so little ambition compared to other parties around Europe. All it wanted was political power, which it saw as winning seats in parliament. Despite this timidity the Labour Party rapidly supplanted the Liberal Party as the second party in the UK. Admittedly some of this was a consequence of the Liberals getting themselves in a twist over World War One, but it is not as if Labour took a particularly principled position either, playing the jingoistic card with relish and establishing a pro-war, pro-imperialist stance that exists through to this day.
At the same time, mainly as a consequence of its union connections, Labour became a party which was seen for most of the twentieth century as a party of the working class and, by extension, of socialism. As Tony Benn has noted, Labour was never a Marxist party, despite containing Marxists, but what he never acknowledged was that it was never a socialist party despite having socialists within it. When we talk of returning Labour to its roots this is well worth remembering.
Labour’s roots are certainly in the trade union movement, and only by extension to this, in the working classes. The unions were already, by 1900, dominated by a layer of bureaucrats who saw, at least, part of their role as containing any revolutionary leanings in their members. It should also be noted that, bar a few notable exceptions, very few actual workers made it to the hallowed halls of the Palace of Westminster following the likes of ex-miner Keir Hardie.
Labour’s roots in the working class were electoral and strategic. Labour never sincerely believed in the self-emancipation of the working class, but only in alleviating the worst of their conditions. They may have been for the working class but they were only tangentially of the working class. Their roots are very much in the trade union bureaucracy and in parliamentary reformism. This is not to say that it did not attract socialists, though in the early part of the 20th century genuine radical socialists were likely to join one of the many socialist sects that existed or, particularly after 1917, the Communist Party.
Despite this (or perhaps because of it) we should not underestimate the success of the Labour Party. In 1900 it never existed, by 1923 it was the governing party. But being the governing party has always been a mixed blessing. The problem is that in order to get elected it means showing that you are a responsible party of government. Responsibility inevitably means abandoning your left wing and appealing to what is, in effect, a mythical centre. As Ralph Miliband notes, it was the General Election in 1922 that saw Labour outperform the Liberals for the first time. Their manifesto made it clear that they were against class war, arguing rather for ‘common sense’. Of more significance perhaps is Miliband’s observation that the new intake of Labour MPs “included a sizeable number who were neither trade unionists nor of the working classes and who lent Labour a new kind of respectability”.
Responsibility and a kind of efficient managerialism are not something that Starmer has introduced to the Labour Party; they were there from the start. A big test for Labour came in 1926 when workers throughout the UK downed tools and joined the TUC’s call for a General Strike. Ramsey MacDonald, then Labour leader, saw his role not to bring down the state but to find an accommodation with the employers which would end the strike. In the event, the leaders of both the TUC and the Labour Party allowed the strike to end in a devastating defeat. In truth both were happy with an outcome which saw industrial strife weakened as a result. For Labour a victory for a grassroots movement led in the main by members of the Communist Party was unthinkable.
Time and time again the Labour Party, when faced with a choice between even mild social democracy and support for capital, chose capital. The exception according to popular myth was 1945. Simon Hannah suggests this popular myth should be approached with caution:
“It would be wrong to portray Atlee’s government as simply a victory over the capitalists. The economic and social changes were not Labour’s alone; they enjoyed broad support across the establishment.”
Simon Hannah, A Party With Socialists In It, p.79
As Hannah points out, the Welfare State implemented in 1945 was designed by a Liberal, the education reforms by a Conservative, the nationalisation programme was introduced during the war as a national emergency and even the NHS was an accommodation with the private practices of the medical profession. This is not to say that these measures were not important, or worth defending, but they were nothing to do with the socialism many people ascribe to them and everything to do with the compromise politics which were by this point ingrained within the DNA of the party. In 1945 it would have been irresponsible not to implement the proposals which the Labour Party, to a large degree, simply inherited.
Myth-making plays an important role in politics. The point about myths is that they very often appear to be common sense. So, the myth that Labour was once a socialist party betrayed by its right wing has not only persisted on the left of the party but has been amplified at every possibility. Political myths are, by their nature, exaggerated claims of some reality and are created as much to sustain their followers as anything else.
For an idealistic young person determined to challenge an unjust world and looking to the Labour Party to do so, the myth that it was once a socialist party with its roots deep inside a radical working class movement is appealing precisely because it gives the endless round of meetings and internal elections purpose. We are, so the myth goes, working this hard getting nowhere because we are on a mission to reclaim the party.
The success of Corbyn made the myth seem like a reality. It was possible, so it seemed, to win the party for socialism. But, but, but. There is always a but. The problem was at the moment of the left’s greatest triumph, unbeknown to the thousands of new members, the party was doing what it had done since its earliest days. That is working to ensure nothing even close to socialism would take hold and that the establishment would have nothing to fear. Labour’s right were, unlike the left, embedded in its heart and it did not take them long to ensure that Labour would return to its roots. Socialism was never on the agenda. Better to let the worst government in living memory win whilst the party establishment restored the party to its position as establishment second eleven in waiting. The evidence is there in the Forde Report, Labour Files and the disgusting treatment of a former leader.
So, to the question ‘Whatever happened to the Labour Party?’ the only viable answer is: nothing. It is still the same pro-establishment, anti-socialist party it has always been. The change is in the Parliamentary Labour Party. Where once Labour MPs were full time union officials with an intrinsic link to the working class they represented, later intakes have been drawn from a professional, university educated cadre of career politicians who talk about the working class in purely rhetorical terms whilst acting solely in the interests of the growing middle class from whence they are drawn.
Socialist of many years. Former Labour member. Currently presenter of The Socialist Hour.