Keir Hardie (1894)

The Independent Labour Party

Source: The New Party, described by some of its members, ed. Andrew Reid, London 1894, pp. 375-385
Note: The ‘New Party’ was proposed as a way of uniting the left by a number of Liberals, Radicals, and Christian Socialists headed by Grant Allen. Keir Hardie's response in this essay implied that the ‘New Party’ already existed, and was the Independent Labour Party.
Transcribed: by Graham Seaman for MIA, January 2021

“New occasions teach new duties,
Time makes ancient good uncouth.”

What was good fifty years ago is to-day the stumbling-block in the cause of progress. For Liberalism remains what it was, whilst the issues have changed. There is no need now to fight the battle of the franchise. Our fathers did that, and to-day only the details remain to be adjusted. Religious liberty is not in question, and Lord Rosebery’s idea of religious equality is an equal division of the State loaves and fishes among the different claimants. The Radical merchant and manufacturer, who belonged to the common people, and who, despite his success, still carried with him his hatred of and contempt for the aristocracy of blood, which he imbibed with his mother’s milk, has been succeeded by his son who has been to Oxford or Cambridge, where he has mixed with the aristocrat of blood, and where his long purse enabled him to swell it with the bluest blooded of his set. And whilst he has been shedding his anti-aristocratic opinions, his “hands” in mill and factory have been awakening to the fact that the Radical employer is the scourge they feel. However much he may be taught to hate the landlord as the cause of the injustice he feels, the artisan isn’t brought into daily and hourly contact with him as he is with his employer, or the employer’s representative. And thus the breach is widening. For a time the Lancashire factory hand and miner voted largely Tory as a dumb protest against the growing oppression of his Radical employer. Now he finds himself as a Tory mostly in the same camp with his employer at election times, and he is casting about in his mind for an explanation. If he votes Liberal, it is for an employer; if he votes Tory, it is for an employer. And so, the fulness of time having come, the idea of a New Party which will not be an employers’ party, has taken hold, and has been baptized as the Independent Labour Party.

The usual outcry has been raised among the “Scribes and Pharisees—hypocrites,” Why can’t the working-man be content to remain in the ranks of the Liberal party? He is implored and beseeched by the first officers of State, from the Prime Minister downwards, not to forsake Liberalism. Nay, a prominent man in the councils of Liberalism — the Right Honourable James Bryce — publicly advised the working-men if they were determined to leave the Liberal party to join the Tories in preference to the I.L.P., as the workman affectionately dubs his New Party. Were the Liberal party fit even for the work which it professes to have in hand, all this lugubrious appeal would be unnecessary. So long as Liberalism was able to meet and overcome the Tory opposition to political reform, so long had it a strong hold on the leading men in the ranks of Labour. Many of these still, for various reasons, give a more or less qualified adhesion to Liberalism, but these are not the men whom the Prime Minister addresses his appeals to. They are admittedly a waning influence. They are living on the traditions of past glories. The British workman admires pluck and spirit, and, whilst not agreeing it may be with everything said or done, would yet be difficult to wean from his allegiance to a fighting organisation. When, however, he sees Liberalism impotent in the House of Commons, and framing its measures not to meet the opinions of advanced men, but to suit the fears of the Tories, allowing the Lords to flout them with impunity, and quailing under the lash of the great liquor interest, he turns from it in derision as he would from a coward in the P.R.

The business of the New Party is to do battle with Toryism. Before it can get to close quarters with the forces of reaction it must first clear from the path the impediment behind which Toryism shelters itself. The chief impediment is the Liberal Party. I take Toryism to represent existing monopolies, privileges, and abuses. These are chiefly social and economic. Life has become arid and barren. The instincts after better things are ruthlessly killed out by the overmastering demands of supplying mere physical requirements. Poetry and music are no longer part of the life of the people. The curse of gold is on the land and casts its baneful shadow over the race from the cradle to the grave. Our children grow up in great cities divorced from the great forces of Mother Nature. Everything around them is artificial and mostly unnatural. Our strong men pass their manhood under a veritable reign of terror, lest the opportunity to work for a living be suddenly denied them. Our aged have their declining years embittered by a system of relief which is designed to degrade and abase the recipients. The wives and mothers of the nation in whose hands are our future destinies, are either at work trying to eke out the husband’s earnings, or slaving at home and trying to perform impossibilities till temper and spirit both give way, and children are allowed to grow up anyhow. The tramp, tramp of the strong man out of work never ceases, and strange thoughts are beginning to find lodgment in the brains of these men, who find themselves left to starve because that pays the employer. Sir Isaac Holden, M.P., stated in the House of Commons during the Budget debate this year (1894) that, aided by machinery, forty men were now doing the work which 3000 were formerly required for. He boasted of this achievement. The next sentence declared that Parliament could not do anything for the unemployed. Sir Isaac Holden is a Liberal.

In the midst of all this growing misery and discontent, the Liberal and Tory parties go on their way prating for and against Registration reform, Disestablishment, and the like. If the Tories, as the representatives of property, do nothing, no one has any reason to complain. But the Liberals! Don’t they represent the people? And they profess to feel surprised that the workers should dare form a party of their own. The wonder is that they haven’t done so long ago.

The objects of the Independent Labour Party are clearly defined. It sets out from the assumption that the Fatherhood of God and the Brotherhood of man are realities, and that our whole social and industrial system to-day is subversive of these relationships. People who find themselves possessed of money thereby acquire a direct interest in the oppression of the poor. The strong man is taught to use his strength for his own personal gain, irrespective of how it affects his fellows. Books have been written in praise of those who have “risen from the ranks,” as the phrase goes, to positions of proud eminence in the commercial or industrial world. Long ago, John Ruskin pointed out, as Herbert Spencer has done since, that Co-operation, and not Competition, is the Law of Life. In every relationship to-day Competition rules. The workman competes with his mates for the vacant job, and can only succeed in keeping it by continuing his competition with his work-fellows. The merchant, on the mart and in the Exchange, is deemed “successful” who outstrips his fellows in the competitive race for “markets.” The nations of the earth compete with each other for the possession of territory. “Bear ye one another’s burdens,” says Christ. “Get on,” says the modern economist — by fair means, if possible, but — get on! Nor is the reason for all this far to seek. So long as human nature remains what it is, the sight of means to do ill deeds will make ill deeds to be done, and the possession of power will lead to its abuse, when apparent self-interest demands.

So long as land and industrial capital are the possession of the few, we may pass such ameliorative Acts as a “wise legislative assembly” may be coerced into accepting, but we shall not eradicate the root cause of the evil.

To give the working-class the full fruit of its labour! Such, in a single sentence, is the object of the I.L.P.

But how are we to realise the ideal? The man of the world advises caution and policy. If we attempt too much, we will in the end get nothing. Better accept half a loaf than go without bread. These and many other ancient maxims are preached unceasingly to the men of the New Party. Trust Liberalism, says the Liberal; trust Toryism, says the Tory. Hitherto the I.L.P. has turned a deaf ear to all such pleadings, and has preferred to “Trust in God and do the right.” If the Liberal Party were the rank and file, or even some of the members of the party in Parliament, the advice to trust that party would be all right. But these are not the party. These are the crutches on which the real party lean for support. The policy of the party is not shaped to suit the wants of the rank and file, but to catch their votes. It is the interests of the landlords and the capitalists who are in the party which decide its policy. So long as the workers can be kept divided over Disestablishment and the like, the landlord and the capitalist are safe in the enjoyment of their ill-gotten gains. It is political reforms which the Liberals make a feint of introducing and the Tories of opposing. What really concerns the moving spirits on both sides is the protection of their rent and interest. The programmes, and the opposition thereto, are mere blinds to keep the worker from laying a sacrilegious hand on these arks of the god Mammon. It is because the I.L.P. declines to be led off on this false issue that it is hated and feared. Vote for us and our programme, say the Liberals, or you will have the Tories and no Reform. By way of reply the I.L.P. points to America, where all the reforms proposed are already accomplished facts, and where the lot of labour is if anything more hapless than at home. Whether Tory or Liberal be in power matters absolutely nothing to the man whom starvation drives to suicide, or the veteran of industry sighing his life out in the workhouse. The calling of the prostitute goes on merrily despite changes of Government, and

“On every wind of heaven
A wasted life goes by,”

whether Lord Rosebery or the Marquis of Salisbury squats in Downing Street.

I would not have it supposed that the I.L.P. is opposed to political reforms. To enfranchise every adult, to abolish the last vestige of hereditary despotism, to make the bounds of freedom wide as the limits of Government, and to place true merit and moral worth in power, are all dear to the heart of the I.L.P. But humanity has the first claim, and the first demand of a human being is for bread. “Man shall not live by bread alone.” We know and feel the truth of the saying more fully than most persons. But, bread first. Make such provision as will give food to the hungry, and clothing to the naked, without demoralising them, and then go on to higher things. But this must be the foundation on which the higher life is built.

To force this fact on the attention of the public, and compel its recognition, is the first work of the New Party.

What, however, is likely to be the outcome of such a policy? Very likely this. That the young men who dream dreams in the Liberal party will take up the new demand, and the old men who see revolution lurk therein, and the hard unsympathetic doctrinaire individualists who see destruction in the proposal, and the rich men with sense enough to see that this is the beginning of the end of their robbery of labour, will go over in a body to the Tories. For a time Toryism will be triumphant; but only for a time. From the ruins of Liberalism will rise the New Party with a nation behind it, and the final battle of the workers for their own emancipation will be entered upon. It is not my province to forecast the future, but it does not require the gift of a seer to tell that those will be troublous times. Liberalism has gone on shedding section after section of those whose interests were being endangered by the policy which in self-defence it has been from time to time compelled to adopt. The last great final change will come when the I.L.P. brings Liberalism face to face with Socialism as the only alternative to extinction.

The New Party seems to me the only hope left to the workers. Unless they can by political organisation obtain control of the land and instruments of production, the outlook for them is gloomy indeed. With the progress of industry and the development of mechanical invention manual labour becomes a declining factor in production. Goods can now be turned out more rapidly than they can be consumed. The result must be a permanent and ever-growing body of men and women, for whom no place can be found in the ranks of the army of industry. These will compete with each other for the work to be had, until outside every workshop the same fierce struggle will go on that was at one time, and still is though in lessened degree, such a common sight at the London dock gates. Competition outside means lowering wages within. I have not yet seen any one either controvert this way of putting the case, nor offer any solution which did not spell Socialism,

The Church looks on, as is her wont, in complacent helplessness. Her ministers will justify from Scripture any set of circumstances which may arise. Slavery, the liquor traffic, and kindred evils, have all been defended by the Church, until public opinion had been ripened by outside agitators to the point at which it was impossible for the abuse longer to continue. Then the Church has stepped in and claimed the reform as one more proof of the beneficent influence of Christianity. If it was so, it was so despite of churches. What has been still is. The Church as such lags wofully behind the times. It is no defence of their inaction to say that ministers, having to attend to the spiritual requirements of all sections of the community, should not take sides in disputed questions arising between different classes. This is a comfortable doctrine of the devil. Ministers are not there to minister to any section of the community, but to teach the truth; and whether Socialism be true or not, the present system, with all its horrors, must be a lie. That ought to be sufficient for every clergyman as it is for some. If Socialism be not the truth, then it is for those “ministers of Christ who do His will” to search the Scriptures diligently till they have found the truth, and having found it to proclaim it faithfully and fearlessly.

This is what the I.L.P. is doing. Under all the rough-and-tumble side of the movement there is a deep religious substratum. More inspiration for the work has been drawn from the teachings of Jesus than from any other source. Many of the best and most self-sacrificing workers in the movement are men who know their New Testament almost by heart, and who have been driven out from the churches by the travesty and burlesque of the Gospel which there passes for the truth. The common people heard Jesus gladly, and to-day the common people rise responsive to His sayings. It will be for the I.L.P. to reduce these sayings to practice, and thus improve on anything the world has yet witnessed.

J. Keir Hardie.