Labour Party (Britain)

views updated May 18 2018

Labour Party (Britain)


The Labour Party currently led by Tony Blair (b. 1953) has formed the governments of Britain since 1997 through its successes at three consecutive general elections in 1997, 2001, and 2005. It is now a party committed to the New Labour ideas of its leader, who maintains a third-way approach that accepts that both the state and public enterprise should jointly contribute to Britains economic recovery. Peter Mandelson and Roger Liddle in their book The Blair Revolution (1996) state that New Labour believes that it is possible to combine a free-market economy with social justice: liberty of the individual with wider opportunities for all; One Nation security with efficiency and competitiveness (p. 1).

As part of this strategy Blair forced the party to drop its traditional Clause 4 when he became leader in 1994, replacing it with an amorphous alternative and thus abandoning a commitment to public ownership, playing down the importance of traditional trade-union and working-class demands, and opening up the possibility of the party capturing more white-collar and middle-class support, the middle ground in British politics. He was able to do so largely because of the way in which both Neil Kinnock (b. 1942), leader between 1983 and 1992, and John Smith, leader from 1992 to 1994, had transformed the party after Labours disastrous general election of 1983. Gerald Kaufmann, a Labour MP, had described Labours manifesto of 1983 as the longest suicide note in history, tied as it was to nationalization in the hands of an increasingly left-wing party that was becoming unpopular in the country and that was ultimately out of power from 1979 until 1997.

In the early 1980s the Labour Party was organized into local constituency Labour parties, which were usually dominated by the bloc-vote influence of the trade unions and often could be operated by a small minority of activist members. The trade unions and left-wing activists usually dominated the local parties, and therefore their representatives often held sway in the annual national conference of the party, which often elected a predominantly left-wing National Executive Committee. Fearful that a small extreme minority could easily dominate the party, Kinnock pressed for a number of reforms, including instigating four policy reviews between 1988 and 1991, one of which, Meet the Challenge and Make the Change (1989), challenged Labours shibboleth of nationalization. His policy reviews also ended Labours commitment to full employment and universal provision within Britains welfare state. Kinnock set up committees to be responsible for Labours manifesto commitments and policies, the centralizing authority around the Labour leader. Trade union power at the annual party conference was also reduced to 40 percent of the vote, considerably less than the 1987 bloc vote, and the rest of the vote was based upon an individual ballot of rank-and-file members. The method of electing the party leader was changed, and by the late 1980s the voting in leadership and deputy-leadership elections was established on the basis of One Member One Vote (OMOV). Effectively, then, Kinnock centralized power around the Labour Party leader, neutralized left-wing policies, and reduced the power of the trade unions within their local constituencies and at party conference. It was out of these changes that Blair was able to press forward with his more moderate to right-wing agenda of New Labour.

The present Labour Party is thus a far cry from the organization formed as the Labour Representation Committee in 1900, which became the Labour Party in 1906. This had been an alliance of trade unions and socialist groups committed to operating as an independent working-class organization within a parliamentary system. Led at various times by James Keir Hardie (18561915), Ramsay MacDonald (18661937), and Arthur Henderson (18631935), it had emerged quickly, was drawn into the wartime coalition of World War I (then referred to as the Great War,) and was able to form its first, albeit minority, Labour government in 1924. By that time the party had become officially socialist as a result of accepting Clause 4 (clause 3d) in its 1918 constitution, which committed it to the public ownership of the means of production. MacDonalds first government was short-lived, but its essential moderation helped to allay the fears of newspapers that announced the first Labour governments formation in January 1924 with the headlines Lenin dead, MacDonald in power. This government was defeated in the 1924 general election, which was dominated by the Zinoviev, or Red Letter, scare, in which what was almost certainly a forged letter was published as evidence that the Soviet Union wished to use the Labour Party to extend the influence of communism in Britain.

MacDonald formed another, minority, Labour government in 1929, but it too was defeated after a brief existence as a result of the mounting economic crisis of 1931, when the Labour cabinet was divided on cutting unemployment benefits by 10 percent. The government resigned but MacDonald continued as prime minister of a national government, and Labour was decimated, cut down from 289 to 52 seats, in the general election of October 1931.

Labour remained in the political wilderness until May 1940, when Clement Attlee (18831967), elected leader in 1935, became a member of Winston Churchills wartime cabinet. Out of office, the party rethought its policies, and partly because of this, and partly because of the leftward shift during World War II, it won the general election of July 1945 with 393 seats and a thumping majority of 146 seats in the House of Commons. As a result, Attlee led his first administration from 1945 to 1950, and narrowly won a second term from 1950 to 1951. These two Attlee governments were immensely talented, with members such as Ernest Bevin (18811951), a foreign secretary who pushed for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in 1949, and Aneurin (Nye) Bevan (18971960), who inspired the introduction of the National Health Service in 1948.

Nevertheless, in the early 1950s the Labour government was divided, and it collapsed after Bevan left in 1951 over his opposition to the threatened prescription charges on medicines. The Labour Party was defeated at the 1951 general election and remained out of office for thirteen years, during which it was divided between its left-wing public-ownership groups and its right wing, led by Labour Leader Hugh Gaitskell, who wanted to drop public ownership from his policies. Gaitskell died in 1963, but Labour returned to power under the then moderate, but once left-wing, Harold Wilson (19161995) in 1964, and won again in the 1966 general election. However, the Wilson administrations faced serious economic problems, had to devalue the pound, and fell out with the trade unions over how to deal with strikes. Defeated in the 1970 general election, the party brokered a deal with the trade unions in the early 1970s that saw it win two general elections in 1974. Nevertheless, the Wilson and James Callaghan governments of 1976 to 1979 were unable to introduce policies of redistributing income in return for the small wage increases that trade unions were going to accept under the so-called social contract, and as a result the Labour Party lost the generalelection of 1979 following the strike-prone winter of discontent.

The Labour Party came under the influence of left-wing trade unionists in the early 1980s when led by Michael Foot (b. 1913). However, the disastrous general election of 1983 augured the change of leadership and a move to the right that occurred under Neil Kinnock, John Smith (19381994), and Tony Blair. It is now epitomized by the New Labour party of Tony Blair.

SEE ALSO Multiparty Systems


Laybourn, Keith. 1988. The Rise of the Labour Party, 18901979. London: Edward Arnold.

Laybourn, Keith. 2000. A Century of Labour. London: Sutton.

Mandelson, Peter, and Roger Liddle. 1996. The Blair Revolution: Can New Labour Deliver? London: Faber and Faber. McKibbin, Ross. 1974. The Evolution of the Labour Party. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Morgan, Kenneth O. 1987. Labour People: Leaders and Lieutenants. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Keith Laybourn

Labour Party

views updated Jun 27 2018


party growth

The Labour Party came into existence on 27 February 1900 as the Labour Representation Committee (LRC), an alliance of trade unions and socialist organizations—the Social Democratic Federation (SDF), the Independent Labour Party (ILP), and the Fabian Society. It resolved to work as an independent group in Parliament, distinct from the Liberals. Its growth was spectacular and within twenty-four years it had formed its first government, although it was a minority one, and had replaced the Liberal Party as the progressive party of British politics.


The Labour Party had emerged from the political and economic conditions of the 1880s and 1890s, which had seen the emergence of socialist groups and most obviously the ILP, which had been formed as a national organization in Bradford in January 1893. Although organizations such as the SDF and the Socialist League had worked with trade unions in the early years of their existence, it was the ILP, perhaps more than other socialist organizations, that favored and developed the trade union alliance. The ILP was dominated by leaders who had been, or were, active trade unionists. James Keir Hardie (1856–1915) had been a miner and Tom Mann (1856–1941), an early member, was a skilled engineer who focused his efforts on organizing general trade unionism among the unskilled and semi-skilled workers.

Hardie, who became member of Parliament (MP) for West Ham South in 1892, was a keen advocate of the "Labour Alliance" between trade unionist and socialists. Once he and twenty-seven other ILP candidates were defeated in their parliamentary candidatures during the general election of 1895 he resolved to create that alliance just as much as he rejected the idea of socialist unity with the SDF. As a result of his pressure, and that of socialist trade unionists, the Trades Union Congress, the representative body of British trade unionism, discussed the resolution to hold a joint conference at its TUC meeting at Doncaster in 1899. The motion was passed, the meeting was held in London on 27 February 1900, and an executive of twelve trade unionists and six socialists was formed, although it was soon amended to seven and five, respectively. It was the trade unions that dominated this organization and it became a party demanding purely political independence for the working classes. It did not attach itself to the idea of a class war nor, indeed, to socialism until 1918.

At first the LRC was a small and relatively limited organization, with forty-one trade unions affiliated to it and 353,700 members led by James Ramsay MacDonald (1866–1937), a young socialist from Scotland, who became its secretary. Indeed, during its early years it was effectively run from MacDonald's flat at 3 Lincoln's Inn Fields, London. Immediately faced with a general election, it stood fifteen candidates who gained just short of sixty-three thousand votes and secured the return of Hardie, for Merthyr Tydfil, and Richard Bell, of the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants, for Derby. This was rather disappointing reward for its efforts, but the fortunes of the LRC soon changed when, in September 1900, the High Court ruled that the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants (ASRS) was liable to pay the company costs of its dispute with the Taff Vale Railway Company in South Wales. Although this decision was turned over on appeal it was, in July 1901, upheld again by the House of Lords. This cost the ASRS £23,000 in January 1903. This action, and other industrial disputes, encouraged trade unions to affiliate to the LRC, since it was clear that they needed political power to overthrow the economic judgment. By February 1902 it had 455,000 members, and its membership increased quickly thereafter. Also at this time, MacDonald organized a number of secret meetings with the Liberals and concluded the secret Lib-Lab (Gladstone-MacDonald) pact in 1903, whereby the Liberals and LRC agreed to allow the other a free run against the Conservatives in about thirty seats each. Soon afterward, Will Crook and Arthur Henderson (1863–1935) both won parliamentary by-elections. The LRC was growing fast.

The LRC's big breakthrough, however, occurred in the January and February 1906 general election, when twenty-nine LRC candidates, soon to be increased to thirty, won their parliamentary contests. Of these, twenty-three were trade unionists and eighteen described themselves as active socialists. Shortly afterward the LRC changed its name to the Labour Party.

Although it associated with the new Liberal government, the Labour Party initiated a number of its own campaigns, the most obvious being the "Right to Work" campaign of 1907 and 1908. Yet that campaign and others failed, and frustrations at the perceived failings of the Parliamentary Labour Party (its MPs in Parliament) developed, even though the liability of trade unions to pay the employer's costs in strikes, the Taff Vale Judgement, was removed in 1906. Indeed, the Labour Party's slow development led Ben Tillett (1860–1943) in 1908 to produce his critical pamphlet Is the Parliamentary Labour Party a Failure?

party growth

Despite this frustration, the trade union movement began to join the Labour Party in ever greater numbers. The half a million members of the Miners' Federation of Great Britain affiliated on 1 January 1909. Yet many trade unionists whose union joined the Labour Party were Liberals and Tories and objected to the trade unions paying a political levy to the Labour Party. The railwayman W. V. Osborne made such an objection in 1909 and the House of Lords concurred that the enforced payment of a political levy was illegal. This seriously damaged the Labour Party finances. Shortly afterward Labour was faced with contesting two general elections in 1910, as a result of the Chancellor of the Exchequer David Lloyd George's attempt to get his Liberal budget measures forced through the House of Lords. Labour returned a mere forty MPs in the January general election and forty-two MPs in 1910, which, given its progress among the unions, represented something of a failure.

Nevertheless, Labour Party fortunes began to improve. MacDonald gave up his role as secretary, to Arthur Henderson (1863–1935), and assumed the responsibility of chairman of the Parliamentary Labour Party bringing to that position his charisma, oratorical powers, and, above all, immense organizational skills. Under his leadership regional Labour Party organizations were set up, and two national agents were appointed. In addition, legislation in 1911 gave MPs an income of £400 a year, thus reducing the burden on Labour Party finances, and the Trade Union Act of 1913 confirmed that trade unions could not automatically pay funds into the Labour Party coffers but did allow trade unions to do so subject to the approval of a ballot from which individuals could "contract out" if they so wished. The Labour Party also prospered with the growth of trade unionism after 1910, and its affiliated trade union membership rose from about 1.2 million in 1910 to 1.86 million in 1912, before falling to about 1.5 million in 1914, as a result of the "contracting out" clause. In other words, by 1914 its affiliated membership amounted to just under 60 percent of the 2.7 million members affiliated to the Trades Union Congress, and about 40 percent of the trade unionists in the country.

In the years immediately before World War I (1914–1918) the Labour Party was being challenged on all sides in its claim to be the party of the working classes. The Liberals hoped to revive their claims to that title as the Liberal governments pressed forward with social reforms, including old-age pensions and national insurance to deal with unemployment and ill-health. Indeed, some historians, such as P. F. Clarke, have maintained that the Liberal Party was successful in attracting the working classes to their cause. However, other historians have maintained that the Labour Party was progressing and that from about 1909 onward was winning municipal and local election results more readily than its parliamentary successes would suggest, largely because more working-class voters had a municipal or local vote than held the parliamentary franchise.

On the eve of World War I the Labour Party was also faced by challenges from within the labor movements. Marxist groups came together to form the British Socialist Party in 1911–1912, guild socialism emerged, and industrial syndicalist groups emerged under the leadership of Tom Mann and played a part in the strikes and industrial unrest of prewar years. However, none of them seriously challenged the authority of the Labour Party to act as the legitimate representative of the British working classes. In the final analysis the Labour Party was clearly the representative body of working-class opinion in Britain and even the efforts of the Liberal Party to reexert its influence were faltering on the eve of the Great War.

See alsoGreat Britain; Socialism; Working Class.


Clarke, P. F. Lancashire and the New Liberalism. Cambridge, U.K., 1971.

Laybourn, Keith. The Rise of the Labour Party, 1890–1979. London, 1988.

——. A Century of Labour: A History of the Labour Party, 1900–2000. Stroud, U.K., 2000.

McKibbin, Ross. The Evolution of the Labour Party, 1910–1924. Oxford, U.K., 1974.

Morgan, Kenneth O. Labour People: Leaders and Lieutenants, Hardie to Kinnock. London, 1987.

Thorpe, Andrew. A History of the British Labour Party. 2nd ed. Basingstoke, U.K., 2001.

Keith Laybourn

Labour Party

views updated May 21 2018

Labour Party. Labour has been the principal progressive alternative to the Conservative Party since the 1920s, forming governments in 1924, 1929–31, 1945–51, 1964–70, 1974–9, and from 1997. The Labour Representation Committee was established in 1900 by a conference of trade unionists and socialists orchestrated by Keir Hardie. Although it won only two seats in the 1900 ‘khaki’ election, the secret electoral pact with the Liberal Party negotiated by Ramsay MacDonald in 1903 helped the rechristened Labour Party enjoy a tally of 30 MPs after the 1906 election.

The First World War (despite the divisions it caused) proved to be Labour's turning-point. Arthur Henderson (parliamentary chairman after MacDonald's resignation on the outbreak of war) entered the cabinet on the formation of the wartime coalition in 1915 and from August 1917 worked with Sidney Webb in devising a new constitution. In 1918 Labour became formally committed to the socialist objective of ‘public ownership of the means of production’ (clause 4); although this served to underline Labour's independence from the Liberals, it strengthened the trade union domination of the party's organization.

Under conditions of manhood suffrage, the 1918 ‘Coupon’ election awarded Labour 63 seats for 2.4 million votes. In 1922 Labour gained 4.2 million votes and 142 seats to become the official opposition. Following the inconclusive 1923 election, Labour briefly formed the government with 191 MPs between January and October 1924, which demonstrated Labour's competence. However the second MacDonald government exposed the financial orthodoxy of ministers in the face of mounting unemployment and the financial crisis of 1931. The resignation of the Labour cabinet in August and the subsequent formation of the National (coalition) Government by MacDonald (with the support of only a handful of Labour figures such as Snowden and Thomas) caused lasting bitterness within the Labour Party. After the disastrous 1931 election (which reduced Labour from 288 to 52 seats) and the disaffiliation of the ILP the following year, Labour began a gradual recovery and won 154 seats in 1935 on 38 per cent of the vote. The unassuming Clement Attlee was elected leader before this election. The participation of Labour in Churchill's coalition government from May 1940 rebuilt its image with voters and Bevin, Morrison, and Cripps played highly visible and constructive roles on the ‘home front’, while Attlee's administrative talents found expression as deputy prime minister. The year 1945 heralded an unexpected landslide victory for Labour, which won 393 seats with 48 per cent of the vote. This strong administration, with Bevin at the Foreign Office, Dalton and then Cripps as chancellor, and ‘Nye’ Bevan at Health, was Labour's ‘finest hour’. Despite economic headaches, notably the 1949 devaluation of sterling, by 1950 the ‘Attlee consensus’ of a mixed economy with a welfare state was firmly established.

Despite achieving its highest ever poll (fractionally under 14 million votes) in 1951, Labour began thirteen years of opposition. The period witnessed faction fighting between left-wing ‘Bevanites’ and right-wing followers of Hugh Gaitskell, elected leader in 1955. In response to three successive (and widening) election defeats, Gaitskell unsuccessfully attempted to persuade the conference to abandon ‘clause 4’ in 1959. The following year, Labour's anti-war tradition resurfaced in conference support for unilateral nuclear disarmament (reversed in 1961).

However, a tottering economy together with Harold Wilson's invigorating leadership allowed Labour to squeeze back into office in October 1964 by a four-seat majority. An easy victory in the 1966 ‘follow-up’ election gave Labour a majority of 97. Despite positive achievements in the field of education and liberalizing social legislation in particular, Wilson's government struggled to cope with the legacy of Britain's relative economic decline and was humbled by the 1967 devaluation of sterling and consequent policy U-turns. Relations with the wider Labour movement deteriorated as a result of Barbara Castle's bold attempt at industrial relations reform, ‘In Place of Strife’.

In opposition again after 1970, Labour divided over Britain's entry into the EEC and the left's call for more extensive public ownership. Wilson's two further narrow election victories in 1974 obscured a weakening of Labour's appeal since the 1960s. Left-wing alienation from the government's (under Callaghan from 1976) deflationary response to mounting unemployment and inflation came to a head after Labour began a further lengthy spell in opposition after 1979.

In 1980 and 1981 Tony Benn's supporters won constitutional changes which precipitated the defection of right-wingers to form the Social Democratic Party. Subsequently, Michael Foot led Labour to heavy defeat in the 1983 election. Under Neil Kinnock (1983–92) and John Smith (1992–4) a slow revival of Labour's fortunes occurred as the party shifted back towards the ‘centre’ and purged itself of militant infiltration. Tony Blair's ‘New Labour’ strategy from 1994 accelerated this trend, and, with John Major's Conservative government in disarray, secured a massive win at the 1997 general election. A second triumph at the general election of 2001, when the Conservatives were unable to make any inroads on the huge Labour majority, and a third victory in 2005, though with a reduced majority, had Labour enthusiasts declaring that, at last, their party had become ‘the natural party of government’.

Stuart Carter


Hinton, J. , Labour and Socialism (1983);
Morgan, K. O. , Labour People: Leaders and Lieutenants (1987);
Pelling, H. , Short History of the Labour Party (10th edn. 1993).

Labour Party

views updated Jun 11 2018

Labour Party Social democratic political party, traditionally closely linked with the trade-union movement. There are Labour Parties in many countries, including Australia, Britain, Canada, Israel, and New Zealand. The first British socialist parties, founded in the 1880s, united in the Independent Labour Party (ILP) in 1893, whose president was Keir Hardie, the first socialist member of Parliament. The ILP created the Labour Representation Committee in 1900, which was renamed the Labour Party in 1906. In 1922, Labour became the second-largest party in Parliament. It formed a brief minority government in 1924 under Ramsay MacDonald and again in 1929–31, but following a coalition with the Liberals in 1931, the party split and was defeated at the polls. Labour joined the wartime coalition of World War II and its leader, Clement Attlee, was deputy prime minister from 1942. After a landslide Labour victory in 1945, the Attlee government introduced a series of social reforms. Labour won the general election of 1964 under Harold Wilson and continued in power until 1970. From 1974 to 1979, it was in power, mostly as a minority administration. Following Wilson's resignation, James Callaghan became prime minister. During the 1980s, led by Michael Foot and Neil Kinnock (1983–92), Labour remained in opposition. After the death of John Smith in 1994, Tony Blair stepped up the party's process of ‘modernization’ under the slogan ‘new Labour’. In 1997, after 18 years in opposition, Labour regained power.

Labour Party

views updated Jun 11 2018

La·bour Par·ty • n. a major left-of-center British party that arose from the trade union movement at the end of the 19th century.

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