History of British Socialism. Max Beer 1920

Labour in Politics

First Published: History of British Socialism, Vol. II, Chapter 19, pp. 377-384, 1920, G.Bell & Sons;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.


The economic action of Labour is the soil of revolutionary ideas; it touches the elemental divergences of the classes in modern society; it is apt to pit power against power; it vibrates with the very life and its struggles for advance and renovation, and runs full tilt against traditional forms of thought and speech. In leaving its heated atmosphere for Parliamentary action, we soon find ourselves again connected with the chain of continuity and in the midst of peaceable discussions, in familiar terms, concerning improvement of conditions, removal of grievances, and introduction of reform measures. The contrast is striking. And we shall realise it presently.

The reform measures of the Liberals (1906-1913), as expressed in the Trade Disputes Act, 1906, Workmen’s Compensation Act, 1907, Old-Age Pension Act, 19438, Miners’ Eight Hours Act, 1908, Trade Boards Act, 1909, National Insurance Act, 1911, Coal Mines Act, 1912, Parliament Act, 1912, and Trade Union Act, 1913; naturally weakened the independence of the Parliamentary Labour Party and exposed it to the criticism of the syndicalists and revolutionary socialists. The Party, composed of Labour-Liberals, social reformers, democrats, and socialists, could not help abandoning its opposition to a Liberal Government which year after year put some reform measure on the Statute Book. Although the various Acts mentioned above were sharply assailed by the revolutionary elements of the socialist Labour movement, many trade union leaders regarded them as beneficial to the working class and would have disapproved of any serious opposition on the part of the Labour representatives in Parliament. And it can hardly be doubted that the reforms enacted in the years from 1907 to 1913 resulted in an improvement of the condition of Labour. There are some statistical data on this point which may be quoted. Sir Hugh Bell, in a speech addressed to the shareholders of Bell Brothers (Limited), on April 9, 1914, gave the following illustrations:-

“ Going back twenty years to 1893, the Cleveland miners earned 25s. 3d. per week and lost 101/2 per cent. of their time. Ten years later the figures stood, earnings 30s. 1d., time lost 131/2 per cent. In 1913, earnings 34s. 9d., time lost 161/4 per cent.

“With regard to the tons per man, the question is complicated by various circumstances. In the first place, the stone being more distant from the face and poorer in quality, and consequently requiring cleaning, involves the employment of a larger number of off-hand men in proportion to the actual number of miners. On the other hand, very considerable improvements in mining implements have taken place within the twenty years. Bearing these facts in mind the following table is very significant and worthy of consideration:-

 Tons Worked per actual miners employed.A fall of Per cent.Tons worked per man of total number employedA fall of Per cent

“You will note that wages have gone up from 25s. 3d. in 1893 to 34s. 9d. in 1913, or say upwards of 35 per cent., while the time lost has increased more than 50 per cent – viz., from 101/2 per cent. to 161/4 per cent .... In 1899 we were at the beginning of that process of social reform (as it is called) which has made such remarkable progress in the fifteen years which have elapsed. From that year legislation for the advantage, not of the community generally, but of individuals in your employment, began to take great proportions. As instances of what I mean I may mention the Workmen’s Compensation Ad and the Insurance Act. In 1899 we paid £1,229 in compensation, and there were no other items to compare with the other five items I am going to mention. In 1913 we paid for workmen’s compensation £7,566, and the figure still grows. In respect of workmen’s insurance, comparatively a recent piece of legislation, the full extent of which we are only beginning to feel, we paid £3,836. In the way of mining Acts, the Eight Hours Act was passed in 1908, very much against the better judgment of the miners and mine-owners in the counties of Northumberland and Durham, and in spite of their strong representations to the contrary. It cost us last year £7,949. The Rescue and Aid Act cost us £319. The Coal Mines Act of 1911 cost us £7,583, the Minimum Wage Act £3,130. These figures total £30,383. Add to this £30,383 the increase in local rates amounting to £10,680 and you get upwards of £41,000 added to the cost of production. The figures are even more striking if I reduce them to the ton of pig iron. In 1899 the total of these amounts represented 6d. per ton on our make of pig iron and in 1913 2s. 5d. per ton, a most serious change in the position of matters."[1]

These and similar improvements which have resulted from the long series of Labour and Factory legislation enabled the working classes to build up formidable organisations, to form industrial alliances, and to conceive far-reaching plans for the future. Their whole standard of life, material, moral, and intellectual, has risen. Index numbers of the rise of the cost of living do but touch one side of human life, and not even the most important one, since they are not directly concerned with the movement of moral values.

The charge levelled, in 1908-1913, against the Labour Party of having had a political entente with the Liberals was not baseless. Of the thirty-nine members then composing the Parliamentary Labour, the majority had been elected with the assistance of Liberal votes. The weaning of Labour from Liberalism was a long and painful process.

The weakest point of Labour is their journalism. From October, 1912, the Labour Party had an organ of its own, the Daily Citizen, published in Manchester and London, and edited by Frank Minot. It was mainly a trade union political paper, skilfully defending the interests of the workpeople in their disputes with the employers. In politics it stood for democracy, in industrial matters for social reform, but it was not well supported by the labouring masses. It finally stopped publication at the beginning of June, 1915. It left no gap, for it had no distinctive feature of its own.

During the last war, Parliamentary Labour assisted in putting on the Statute Book some of those hardy annuals or long-standing resolutions of the Trade Union Congresses and Labour Party Conferences, notably concerning the creation of a Ministry of Labour, agricultural minimum wages, and democratisation of the suffrage. The Ministry of Labour (December, 1916) is destined to form, earlier or later, the statistical and research centre for all questions touching socialisation; the importance of this office depends on the capacity and views of its holder. The agricultural minimum wages (July, 1917) have already raised the standard of life of a class of workers who, left to themselves, could do very little to improve their condition and status. The Representation of the People Act (February, 1918) has all but completed the democratic revolution, initiated in 1688, demonstrated for at Peterloo, 1819, and fervently striven for by the Chartists. The century between Peterloo and the last suffrage Act tells an impressive tale of the rise of Labour. The same remark applies to the attitude of the ruling classes towards Labour during the Napoleonic Wars and the last war. A century ago the working classes, treated as helots, were forbidden to volunteer; in the years 1915-1918 the representatives of Labour were Cabinet Ministers, members of Government, official envoys, and controllers of the nation’s food. At the formation of the Coalition Government (May, 1915), Arthur Henderson, the leader of the Labour Party in the House of Commons, was appointed President of the Board of Education (William Brace (miners) Under-Secretary at the Home Office and G.H. Roberts (compositors) Junior Lord of the Treasury In December, 1916, at the reorganisation of the Government, with Lloyd George as Prime Minister, Arthur Henderson entered the War Cabinet, John Hodge (steel smelters) became the first Minister of Labour. In the summer, 1917, Henderson was sent to Russia as special envoy, carrying with him the contingent appointment as British ambassador, but having found in Petrograd his Damascus, resigned office, which was then taken by George N. Barnes (engineers). Finally, in July, 1918, J.R. Clynes (gas workers) was appointed Food Controller. This triumphant political march of Labour has been mainly the effect of the industrial development of the nineteenth century. How prophetic were the words of that Conservative writer who, in 1826, declared: “The age which now discloses itself to the view promises to be the age of industry .... and the age of the people."[2] It rendered all those democratic achievements possible, aye, necessary.


In all questions of foreign relations and war and peace, the organised working class has followed the tradition of Mid-Victorian Radicalism, striving for peace, international good-will, disarmament and arbitration, denouncing armaments and war-diplomacy, and demonstrating in favour of oppressed nationalities. Jean Jaurès used to speak with pride of the action of British working class leaders in fraternising, during the Faslioda crisis (1898), with the French trade unionists .[3] In 1903 the Labour Party joined the International Socialist Bureau. A few years later, when the relations between the German and British Governments, entered a critical stage, British working class delegations visited Germany and, German delegations attended British Trades Union and Labour Party Congresses, The Parliamentary Labour Party watched with growing apprehension the fatal development of the tension between the two nations. On the XII. Annual Conference of the Labour Party, held in the last week of January, 1912, at Birmingham, the subjoined resolution was carried.

“That this Conference, believing the anti-German policy pursued in the name of the British Government by Sir Edward Grey to be a cause of increasing armaments, international ill-will, and the betrayal of oppressed nationalities, protests in the strongest terms against it. The Conference is of opinion that this diplomacy has led the present Government to risk a war with Germany in the interest of French financiers over Morocco, to condone the Italian outrage in Tripoli, the Russian theft in Mongolia, and in joining hands with Russia in making an assault on the independence of Persia."[4]

These were the views which animated the Party up to the first week of August, 1914. Ramsay MacDonald, the chairman of the Parliamentary Party, replying to Sir Edward Grey’s memorable statements of August 3, 1914, on the general European situation, strongly urged that everything should be done to preserve British neutrality. On August 7 the Executive Committee of the Labour Party issued the following letter to its constituent bodies: –

“We beg to inform you that a special meeting of the National Executive of the Labour Party was held on August 5 and 6, to consider the European crisis, when it was decided to forward to each of the affiliated organisations the following resolutions:-

“That the conflict between the nations of Europe in which this country is involved is owing to Foreign Ministers pursuing diplomatic policies for the purpose of maintaining a balance of power; that our national policy of understanding with France and Russia only was bound to increase the power of Russia, both in Europe and Asia, and to endanger good relations, with Germany. Further, that Sir Edward Grey, as proved by the facts which he gave to the House of Commons, committed, without the knowledge of our people, the honour of the country to support France in the event of any war in which she was seriously involved, and gave definite assurances of support, before the House of Commons had any chance of considering the matter.

“That the Labour movement reiterates the fact that it has opposed the policy which has produced the war, and that its duty is now to secure peace at the earliest possible moment on such conditions as will provide the best opportunities for the re-establishment of amicable feelings between the workers of Europe.

“That without in any way receding from the position that the Labour movement has taken in opposition to our engaging in a European war, the Executive of the Party advises that . .... all Labour and socialist organisations should concentrate their energies meantime upon the task of carrying the resolutions .... detailing measures to be taken to mitigate the destitution which will inevitably overtake our working people while the state of war lasts.”

On August 7 the Party decided to make no pronouncement on the vote of credit, whereupon Ramsay MacDonald resigned the chairmanship, and Arthur Henderson took his place. It may be said that from that day onwards the Party rallied to the support of the cause of the Allies with practical unanimity, the few dissentients making hardly any impression on the political life of Labour. On August 24, 1914, an industrial truce was declared by a resolution passed in a meeting of representatives of the trades unions and the Labour. Party, which recommended “that an immediate effort be made to terminate all existing trade disputes, and whenever new points of difficulty arise during the war period a serious attempt should be made by all concerned to reach an amicable settlement before resorting to a strike or lock-out.” The truce was fairly kept till 1917, when both an extensive strike and peace movement made themselves noticeable in the ranks of Labour.

The year 1917, like 1817, was full of ferment. It was a critical period in the history of British Labour. It witnessed the transformation of the Labour Party into a socialist and international movement. The widespread unofficial strikes, the Leeds conference to form a workers’ and soldiers’ council, the Labour Party Conference on the question of going to the socialist and Labour peace conference at Stockholm, the resignation of Arthur Henderson, the appointment of a Labour Party sub-committee to prepare a scheme of reorganisation on socialist lines, and finally, the drafting of a memorandum on war aims, cannot but be regarded as unmistakable symptoms of the profound change of thought and temper of the organised masses. Even Intellectuals, who were habitually keeping aloof from Labour and socialist organisations, took refuge, under their wings. A year of conversions, of release of innumerable revolutionary forces! Labour and socialism of Western Europe lifted their hands and hearts, chilled by the horrors of war, and warmed them at the fires kindled by the Russian revolution. But, while Russia has supplied the heat, British socialism has supplied, and will be increasingly supplying, the light to the international socialist movement. The memorandum on the war aims, drafted by British brains, was submitted to the Inter-Allied Socialist Conference, held in February, 1918, in London, and made the basis of peace of international Labour.[5] There is no doubt that at the future international socialist gatherings, British socialists will lead. Men like Robert Smillie, Sidney Webb, and G.D.H. Cole possess moral and intellectual energy enough to make the International, what it has never been before, the light of all oppressed.


1.Times, June 23, 1914.

2. Cf. supra, vol. I., p.283.

3. For similar remarks compare Renaudel’s speech in London, June, 1918, reproduced in Report of the 18th Annual Conference of the Labour Party, London, 1918, p.55.

4. Report of the XIIth Annual Conference of the Labour Party, London, 1912, p.98.

5. The text of the Memorandum is reproduced in Labour Year Book, London, 1919, pp. 29-39. It provided “for (i) the universal abandonment of discriminatory fiscal barriers to international trade; (ii) the administration of Colonial possessions exclusively in the interest of the local inhabitants, and on the basis of equality of opportunity for traders of all nations; (iii) concerted international control of the exportable surplus of materials and foodstuffs; (iv) deliberate Government action in each country for the prevention of unemployment.” (S. and B. Webb, History of Trade Unionism, London, 1920, page 696.)