ISJ 2 Index | Main Newspaper Index

Encyclopedia of Trotskyism | Marxists’ Internet Archive

International Socialism, Summer 2000


Mark O’Brien

Socialists and the origins of Labour


From International Socialism 2:87, Summer 2000.
Copyright © International Socialism.
Copied with thanks from the International Socialism Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Before the May 1997 election Tony Blair expressed his regret at the historic split between Labour and the Liberal Party. It was a view he was to state many times as part of his relentless attack on the Labour left. Blair was announcing once again his commitment to the ‘project’ of dragging Labour Party policy towards increasingly anti working class politics on every issue as well as demonstrating the growing gulf between ‘new’ and ‘old’ labour. This tension has developed over the period that New Labour has been in power, and saw its clearest recent manifestation in the ‘strike’ of Labour activists over the Dobson campaign for London mayor. The particular event that Blair was referring to was the formation of the Labour Representation Committee (LRC) in February 1900. In fact this historical moment was of primarily organisational importance. The tiny handful of representatives from the then Independent Labour Party in parliament had decided to operate as a distinct group in the Commons with their own whip and caucus and not merely as an adjunct to the Liberal Party as Lib-Lab MPs. It was a significant development. For the first time the trade unions would have their own political party set up to push ‘class legislation’ on their behalf. It was also an important first step within the British working class towards an understanding of the need to break with the established bourgeois parties. As Engels put it:

The first great step in a country which enters the movement for the first time is to constitute the workers as an independent Labour party, no matter in what way, so long as it is a distinct Labour Party ... The masses need both time and opportunity to develop, and this opportunity they will obtain only on having a movement of their own – no matter in what form as long as it is their own movement – in which they will be driven forward by their own mistakes and acquire wisdom by their failures. [1]

However, in an ideological sense there had been no fundamental break. The representatives of the LRC remained supporters of Liberal policy in broad terms. Indeed from the forming of the LRC right up until the end of the First World War Labour in parliament operated timidly under the shadow of the establishment parties. Certainly the Labour Party was not socialist – even in its rhetoric in this period. It was to take the end of the war and the wave of working class revulsion at the sacrifices that had been made in that imperialist carnage, as well as the radicalising example of the Russian Revolution, to change matters. Only in 1919 did the Labour Party adopt the distinctive ideology of socialism – and then only in the most moderate and avowedly reformist sense.

The peculiarly conservative origins and early development of labour representation pose more questions than answers at first glance. They stand in stark contrast, for example, to the socialist parties of the Second International, which developed in various countries in Europe from the 1890s onwards. Most of these parties espoused a distinctively Marxist rhetoric and adopted sharply left positions on social and political issues. The greatest of these by far was the German SPD. These parties were not revolutionary. Despite calls for general strikes to oppose the oncoming war, each and every one of these parties fell behind their own ruling classes after episodes of internal crisis and political collapse. But in Britain there was no fundamental crisis at all. There was no question that the Labour Party representatives in parliament would not support the war or that they would not remain loyal to the king.

The fact of the thoroughly ‘liberal’ and ‘dependent’ development of Labour politics in Britain crucially raises the question of whether it was inevitable. The standard establishment reply would be that the behaviour and policy of the early Labour Party was appropriate to British conditions and to the temperament of the British working class. In this account the moderate outlook of workers in Britain made it impossible for socialists to make any major headway amongst workers or to exert any important influence on their thinking. This article will put forward a different explanation. We will argue that socialists in Britain were presented with some serious possibilities for achieving influence and growth, albeit in the absence of major industrial struggle and within the limitations of the electoral platform. The reasons for their failure to successfully exploit these opportunities are both illuminating for socialists operating today and a warning as to the consequences of repeating their mistakes. First, however, we must understand the reasons for the rise of labour parliamentary representation.

The development of labour representation

As early as the 1840s there were MPs who were friendly towards the working class. The names that stand out from that era are those such as John Fielden, Thomas Attwood and the Chartist leader Feargus O’Connor. These figures and others were associated with the turbulent working class movement as it developed in its different phases and culminated in Chartism. They spoke up for reform and presented the numerous petitions to parliament that characterised the time. In this era, however, the attitude and stance of the employers was one of more or less consistent opposition. The militant and revolutionary outbursts by workers from the late 1830s through to the late 1840s had made the capitalists of the day fearful of the threat which they saw growing under their feet in the factories and mills. They turned their faces hard against any proposals for pro working class reform.

By the 1860s a very different situation prevailed in Britain. Industrial capitalism was becoming far more embedded as a system. Capitalists were much more confident about the society they were creating for themselves. The horrible prospect of revolution in 1848 had passed by and produced no more than a large demonstration in Britain. Victorian capitalism was prepared to re-negotiate the relations between the classes in terms of politics on the condition that the fundamental fact of economic exploitation remain untouched. None of this meant that the realities of class disappeared or that an era of ideal conciliation developed straightforwardly. Agitation was still required to achieve the granting of the vote to a very small section of the skilled working class in the first Reform Act of 1867. Riots had occurred in London in the run up to the passing of the act, and the employers had taken note of the affiliation of British trade unions to the International. In fact there was ferocious repression of the trade union movement in Britain in the wake of the Paris Commune of 1871. This was the background to the entrance of the first MPs into parliament who had been sponsored directly by trade unions. In 1874 two miners’ officials, Thomas Burt and Alexander MacDonald, became the first Lib-Lab MPs. [2]

The growing preparedness of the ruling class of the latter decades of the 19th century in Britain to make concessions to the labour movement on the question of representation was influenced by changes within the working class movement itself. The many and varied unions which had flourished within even a single trade within a particular industry were now beginning to coalesce into larger and wealthier organisations. A salaried and permanent bureaucracy was developing on the basis of a growing trade union membership. The ideology of the individuals who made up this bureaucracy was imbued with the spirit of conciliation and compromise with the employers. They craved respectability and a means by which to negotiate on moderate terms with their political masters. This is what the House of Commons meant to them. It is telling that the leading body of the Trades Union Congress was called the Parliamentary Committee. The more enlightened members of the British establishment could see that these men were no incendiaries.

This process continued throughout the 1880s and the two chief elements in the process – the extension of the franchise and the growth of the machinery of conciliation – reinforced one another. In 1884 the second Reform Act further extended the vote for workers. At the same time the number of disputes settled through collective bargaining increased year on year. By 1893 the establishment of the Brooklands Agreement which introduced arbitration into the cotton industry had become a model for other parts of industry. A new consensus was emerging on the part of the employers that the working class organised along conservative lines could form the basis of an acceptable compromise. This found its political articulation in the attitude of the Liberal Party who were prepared to stand aside for Labour and trade union candidates in certain areas. By 1900 there were 11 such Lib-Lab MPs.

This highly conservative development in both the trade union bureaucracy and the social and political outlook of the labour representatives in parliament was only one part of the process. The same period saw the emergence of new ideas and new attitudes within the working class movement. The struggles of the 1870s against employers’ attacks on trade union organisation had produced a new generation of working class activists who were increasingly interested in socialist ideas. Many of these new young socialists were discovering for the first time the writings of the previous generation of socialists who had formed the local and national leadership of the Chartism of the 1850s. In 1881 Henry Mayers Hyndman established the Democratic Federation, which became the Social Democratic Federation three years later. This small but important body adopted Marxism as its ideology and was to attract some of the most significant socialists of the time – William Morris, Eleanor Marx and her husband Edward Aveling, Ben Tillet, John Burns, Tom Mann, Will Thorne and others. Before entering the Federation, Morris and the Avelings had launched the short lived Socialist League. This renewed socialist activity reflected a growing confidence on the part of workers. Another highly significant development came in 1889 when Keir Hardie launched the Independent Labour Party (ILP).

The eddies of socialist thinking that were developing within the working class movement by the late 1880s and the organisations which were growing with them were soon to be tested by the actions of workers themselves. In June 1888 young women workers at the Bryant and May match factory in east London began a militant strike wave which was to electrify the working class movement and shake the confidence of the employers. The match girls were followed by dockers, gas workers, Jewish tailors and others who destroyed for good the complacent notion that unskilled workers in insecure employment could not be organised or form their own organisations. Most of all the actions of these workers were a spectacular vindication of Marx’s insistence on the self liberating potential of the working class. These workers had not needed the officials of the old unions in order to organise. They had acted under their own leadership, and their energy and dynamism had put the official trade union movement to shame. This brief explanation of the Bryant and May strike makes the point:

At the time of the strike a ... girl was asked why it had taken place. ‘Well it just went like tinder,’ she said. ‘One girl began, and the rest said “yes”, so out we all went’. [3]

The important aspect for our theme is that socialists were prominent in this movement. Whether it was Annie Besant in the match girls’ strike, Ben Tillet with the dockers or Will Thorne of the gas workers, socialists were looked to for leadership.

The employers were soon to begin their counter-offensive to the wave of working class organisation and radicalism which the East End actions had created around the country. In 1891 workers at the Manningham Mills in Yorkshire were defeated after an exhausting six month strike. In 1893 a sustained lockout by the coal owners broke the back of the Miners’ Federation of Great Britain. Nonetheless the impact of the New Unionism of only a few years earlier was ongoing and had created a heightened class consciousness in the industrial regions. After significant defeats the earlier fighting spirit of workers on the industrial front was ebbing fast. However, the politicisation which had occurred meant that workers were drawing very sharp conclusions about the realities of class society whilst still lacking the confidence to escalate their action in response to the employers’ offensive. This contradiction between the rise of political class consciousness and the descent of industrial militancy was resolved in a shift of workers’ consciousness towards the strategy of labour representation. The immediate beneficiary of this new development was Keir Hardie’s ILP. Hardie had won his West Ham seat in 1892. Two more ILP representatives were to enter parliament before the century’s end. By 1893 the ILP could launch itself as a national organisation.

These developments introduced a new contradiction into working class politics at the end of the 19th century, which began to be played out at the TUC conferences of the 1890s. On the one hand the old unions with their Lib-Lab representatives in Parliament acted as a conservative block on the development of a more socialist consciousness throughout the movement. On the other hand the ILP had been catapulted to prominence by the energy and support of the New Unions. This breakthrough had also provided the Marxists of the SDF with a way onto the conference floor. A socialist challenge to the Liberal hegemony of the trade unions had been brought into the heart of the working class movement.

At the TUC conference of 1900 socialist resolutions calling for a legal eight hour day were met with hostile opposition from officials. Some officials argued that the government should not be asked to interfere in arrangements between employers and workers. Others suggested that it was patronising to doubt the self reliance of unions in determining their own working conditions. The real issue, however, was that such a policy would have put strain on the relationship between the unions and their political masters in government. At successive TUC conferences the socialists put forward resolutions which were blocked and opposed with contemptuous speeches by officials. By the time of the 1895 conference the rules of conference attendance had been changed to block the trades councils from sending delegates. Since this is where the SDF had won most of its support the effect was to prevent socialists being sent to the conferences at all. They had been outmanoeuvred and the prospect of building a widespread socialist influence in the British working class appeared to be finished.

The employers’ offensive, however, continued to grow. The pressures of competition on British manufacturing had intensified with the rise of the new industrial giants of Germany and the US. In the decades from 1870 to the beginning of the First World War Britain’s share of world trade had fallen from 30 percent to just 15 percent. [4] Whatever the platitudes of the Liberals in government about being friends of the worker, the reality was that the Liberal factory owners were taking a harsh and newly aggressive stance against the trade unions. The old understandings about skill, demarcation and working practice no longer applied. This was as much a threat to the old, long established trade unions as it was to the newer unions born of struggle. With the confidence of the early years of the 1890s gone, the movement was on the retreat. Strike figures in these years show a consistent fall – a trend that continued into the early years of the 20th century. Collective bargaining on the employers’ terms was becoming the norm. The increasingly entrenched TUC bureaucrats, anxious about the response of rank and file workers to these attacks, turned once more to the strategy of parliamentary representation. They finally resolved at the conference of 1900 to establish the Labour Representation Committee (LRC). There was no impulse from below here. This was a fundamentally bureaucratic response to a sustained employers’ offensive. There was certainly no enthusiasm from ordinary workers, most of who continued to vote for Liberal candidates since the LRC did not distinguish itself politically. The rate of affiliation by trade union branches was also poor. One short year later, however, a fundamental threat to the very basis of trade unionism in Britain was to cast the project of achieving labour representation and the LRC itself in a very different light.

In 1901 the rail workers’ strike at Taff Vale was defeated. In itself this was not a remarkable event in the difficult years around the turn of the century. What made Taff Vale profoundly important, however, was the court ruling which ordered the union to pay full reparations to the employer for losses during the strike. This struck at the very basis of trade unionism in Britain. Even the most right wing grandees of the TUC could see that if the Taff Vale ruling remained unchallenged the viability of trade unionism itself would be thrown into question. Working class outrage at the decision now forced the officials of the movement, anxious to avoid a wave of protest and strikes which they might not be able to control, to hold up the prospect of overturning the ruling through representation in parliament. By 1902 the LRC was scoring its first by-election successes. Over the next three years trade union affiliation to the LRC leapt. All the grievances of the previous decade were now being channelled towards the holy grail of parliamentary representation for the trade unions. By 1905 the LRC was re-formed as the Labour Party. The culmination of this phase of the origins of the Labour Party came in 1906 with the general election of that year. The Liberals swept to power with an enormous majority in the Commons. But much more significantly the cause of labour representation finally made its breakthrough. There were now 29 Labour MPs in the house, 14 of whom were in the ILP. The dominant form of British working class politics, as it was to develop over the next century, had established its first beach-head in the arena of the bourgeois political system. It had done so as a non-socialist and conservative political presence. Its role then, and subsequently, was to act as a lightning conductor channelling working class radicalism safely to earth.

The possibilities of socialist growth

The two decades spanning the decline of New Unionism and the dramatic upturn of militancy before the First World War were marked by a low level of industrial struggle. However, although there is a relationship between the level of strike action and the degree of political consciousness on the part of workers it is not one of simple cause and effect. The politicisation generated by the struggles of the late 1880s and early 1890s carried on well into the later 1890s. The explosive strikes from 1910 onwards were also preceded by an increasingly political class consciousness on the part of workers which was born of a growing resentment at the employers’ attacks on particular groups of workers and trade union rights. In fact these years were rich with political opportunity for socialists and throughout the period workers demonstrated a receptiveness to socialist arguments when they were put well and in an effective arena.

One important indicator of the depth of this influence can be seen on the three great May Day rallies between 1890 and 1892. [5] Under the impact of the New Unionism and organised by a combination of trade unionists and socialists these rallies attracted crowds of between 200,000 and 300,000 in London and tens of thousands in other industrial parts of Britain. A number of organisations came together to organise these events after the Marxist Congress of 1889 in Paris called for them. In 1890 three main bodies were involved. The socialists of the Central Committee for the Eight Hours Legal Working Day Demonstration which included Eleanor Marx, the Bloomsbury Socialist Society and the Labour Electoral Association. The London Trades Council was crucial in ensuring a mass turnout. The SDF also played an important part on the day. It is clear that by the early 1890s socialists were in close engagement with the working class in Britain.

The rallies of 1890 were events which genuinely drew on the strength of the whole on the British working class. The bulk of those attending had been drawn from the old and hitherto more conservative trade unions. Women speakers too were highly prominent. In London speakers such as Emma Patterson from the Women’s Protective and Provident League and Miss Robertson from the Women’s Trade Union League evinced the growing importance of women activists in the movement. Frederick Engels, who was present on one of the platforms (though he did not speak that day), had been full of anticipation before the event:

This is our first great victory in London and proves that here, too, we have the masses behind us. From the Social Democratic Federation, which has two platforms of its own, four strong branches will march with us and are represented on our committee. That goes for many of the skilled trades – the outdated leaders will go with the Shipton Trades Council, and the masses with us. The whole East End is with us. The masses here are not yet socialist, but on the way towards it, and are already so far that they will not have any but socialist leaders ... [6]

Engels’ hopes were not disappointed. He could hardly contain his excitement when writing to Marx’s daughter Laura after the event:

I can assure you I looked a couple of inches taller when I got down from that old lumbering wagon that served as a platform – after having heard again, for the first time since 40 years, the unmistakable voice of the English proletariat. [7]

These May Day rallies were the high points of political inspiration for socialists in the early 1890s. However, it is not the case that this inspiration simply evaporated. These May Day events had been sufficiently large to have an effect way beyond the numbers who had participated in the events themselves. The preparations for the rallies, the activities around the local trades councils, the making of banners, the discussions at trade union meetings and the sense of excitement following the events which was conveyed back to fellow workers all over the country left their mark. What did recede was the combativity of workers under the impact of a ferocious and sustained employers’ offensive. But it was also precisely this onslaught which was to fuel a simmering working class resentment, and ensure a ready audience to anybody who spoke the language of class and could relate this to a vision of socialism.

The Taff Vale ruling of 1901 in fact came as the culmination of a series of legal judgements which sharply favoured the employers and undermined the legal basis of trade unionism. In 1899 the principle of picketing had been attacked by the court of appeal in the Lyons v Wilkins case. Trade unions could now be sued on grounds of conspiracy. These rulings often came as the result of heavy lobbying by newly formed and militant employers’ bodies. In 1893 the strikebreaking Free Labour Association was formed. In the same year the home secretary, Asquith, had ordered the shooting down of miners in the Featherstone strike. In 1896 the Engineering Employers’ Association set up the Employers’ Federation, with the purpose of breaking shopfloor organisation. Lockouts became the order of the day. However, the industrial antagonisms created by the combativity of the employers were leading many thousands of workers to the conclusion that the law was against them, that the Liberals in government were their enemy and that the socialists were their friends. Eleanor Marx expressed this well when she wrote to Karl Kautsky during the engineering lockout of 1897:

It is doing more for socialism here than 20 years of our ‘propaganda’. Of course some of the out and out SDF people pooh-pooh it all as ‘mere’ trade unionism. If they could see a little further than their own noses they would know better ... It is a grand struggle. The men are simply admirable, though the suffering is very great. How some of the families live is a mystery. If only we could spread our socialist nets properly we should get a splendid haul – but I fear our fishes slip away. [8]

And later she wrote in a similar vein to her friend Natalie Liebknecht:

… and unhappily the SDF are pretty stupid in this matter, and fail to grasp the real importance of this movement. Unless much help is forthcoming ... we are hopelessly beaten ... Meantime the socialist feeling is rapidly growing, and though we are so abominably slow, we are sure, and once we do move, we move with a will ... [9]

Poverty and unemployment provided important themes of agitation for the socialists. There were numerous campaigns for the acceptance of union rates for employed workers and agitation for more generous poor relief. When Keir Hardie rose to make his maiden speech in parliament in 1892 it was precisely this issue of social distress to which he addressed himself. At the same moment the unemployed who were demonstrating at the Embankment were being baton charged by police. Issues to do with Liberal foreign policy also aroused working class opposition. Socialists who condemned British repression in India and the occupation of Egypt won wholehearted support. In the 1892 election one Labour candidate, Arch, won 4,911 votes and a majority of 1,089 in North West Norfolk on the basis of a campaign which appealed for home rule for the Irish. [10] Just as important was the campaign for the vote for women which assumed a greater and greater importance from 1903 onwards.

One issue over which the socialists really had to battle and over which they were for a time on the defensive was that of the Boer War in South Africa. The ILP’s opposition to the war meant that its affiliation fees dropped from £450 in 1897 to £300 in 1900. [11] But as the war dragged on and as British forces, harried by the guerrilla forces under Christian De Wet, suffered defeats, the socialists benefited from the stand they had taken and support returned once more. The rise in support for the ILP in the years following the war can be seen in its sales of the Labour Leader which it had taken over in 1903 and which doubled its circulation over the next three years. By 1905 the ILP had 292 branches around the country – the following year this number had increased to 426. [12] Even over issues that were not initially favourable to socialists an audience could be won and built on.

However, despite the wide range of political issues over which the socialists could agitate and propagandise, the fact remained that the level of industrial struggle was very low throughout the years on either side of the new century:

The lowest level was reached in 1904, and although an upward tendency is later noticeable, it is very slight. In a country of such colossal capitalist development, with 14 million people employed in trade and industry, there were no more than 355 strikes and lockouts in a whole year ... indeed ... the whole period under consideration does not involve more than some two or three hundred thousand out of a total number of 14,000,000 workers! [13]

In the absence of widespread militancy by which we could assess the readiness of workers to follow a socialist leadership we must content ourselves with electoral performance as our next best guide. It is certainly the case that the appearance of ‘independent’ labour politics and figures who espoused a strongly pro working class policy were met with an enthusiastic reception by workers. In the general election of 1892 the ILP won seats for the first time in the face of opposition from the Liberals. When Keir Hardie won the seat at South West Ham, the Liberal candidate having withdrawn in despair, the response was ecstatic:

When Mr Hardie’s victory was announced the enthusiasm was overwhelming. The crowd broke through the cordon of police and rushed up the town hall steps waving hats, handkerchiefs and umbrellas. Torches were blazing and bands playing. [14]

It was not that Hardie campaigned on the basis of high socialist principle. In the 1895 election, for example, his policy was that he would fight for gunboat building contracts in local shipyards – he lost to the Conservatives on that occasion. However, workers saw in Hardie a man of their own class and their enthusiasm reflected an expectation of much greater significance than the fortunes of the local area. The election results that year showed that ILP candidates were commanding the support of 14.5 percent of the electorate in the industrial areas. [15] Hardie’s personal popularity was enhanced even more when he appeared in parliament wearing a rough tweed suit, a cap and a muffler. In the general election of 1895 the 28 ILP candidates won 44,321 household votes and even Hyndman, the somewhat eccentric founder of the SDF [16], polled 2,498 votes in Burnley, although other SDF candidates did not do well on that occasion. [17]

In by-elections throughout the 1890s ILP candidates were consistently achieving votes that numbered in the thousands. In 1894 Frank Smith polled 1,249 in Sheffield, and Joseph Burgess 4,402. In East Bristol an independent socialist with ILP and SDF backing won 3,558 votes. Keir Hardie, having lost his West Ham seat, fought the East Bradford seat in 1896 and polled 1,518. In North Aberdeen Tom Mann got 2,479 votes. In 1897 Pete Curran of the ILP won 3,290 votes. In the general election of 1900 the average ILP candidate got 3,700 votes. In municipal elections for local government boards Independent Labour candidates were achieving a significant share of the vote. In 1897 ILP candidates were polling an average of 38 percent of the votes cast, and were also winning seats on school boards. [18] For years in which working class combativity and general confidence were at a historic low, in which the working class vote was still restricted to the head of the household and, therefore, to older working class voters, and in which working class loyalties to the Liberal Party, though eroded, were still an important factor, these were good results.

Whereas the ILP support shown in the elections of the 1890s was an echo of the explosion of New Unionism, by the early years of the century a new militancy was stirring. Unemployment riots were a prelude to the next phase of dramatic working class action which erupted in 1910. The mood which preceded this was again expressed predominantly in electoral terms. The best example of this is the election of Victor Grayson to the Colne Valley seat in 1907. In this Yorkshire constituency the socialists were strong. When the 25 year old Grayson was put forward neither the Labour Party, which had been founded from the LRC in 1905, nor his own party, the ILP, would give him official endorsement. He was seen as a firebrand and too far to the left to be the respectable parliamentary figure they wanted. They were right and his supporters in Colne Valley agreed with that assessment. Indeed that was the very reason they insisted on their right to put Grayson forward as an independent. Grayson’s election address made his stance abundantly clear:

I am appealing to you as one of your own class. I want emancipation from the wage slavery of capitalism. I do not believe that we are divinely destined to be drudges. Through the centuries we have been the serfs of an arrogant aristocracy. We have toiled in the factories and workshops to grind profits with which to glut the greedy maw of the capitalist class. Their children have been fed upon the fat of the land. Our children have been neglected and handicapped in the struggle for existence. We have served the classes and we have remained a mob. The time for our emancipation has come.

We must break the rule of the rich and take our destinies into our own hands. Let charity begin with our children. Workers, who respect their wives, who love their children, and who long for a fuller life for all: a vote for the landowner or the capitalist is treachery to your class. To give your child a better chance than you have had, think carefully ere you make your cross.

The other classes have had their day. It is our turn now. [19]

Having won the seat, Grayson did not disappoint his working class electors. He had no time for the courtesies of the parliamentary process when issues of working class grievance were concerned. In 1908 distress due to unemployment was at a high level. There were riots in Scotland, and in Glasgow and Manchester the council chambers were stormed. The unemployed rallied at Trafalgar Square and fought with police outside the House of Commons. At Trafalgar Square they were told by Will Thorne that there was no point going to parliament for there was no bread there but to go, rather, straight to the bakers’ shops where there was plenty. Thorne was jailed for his speech. This was the mood of which Grayson was a part. Grayson brought the spirit of the street onto the floor of the House. Refusing to sit down when the Speaker rose he tore into the Liberals – the ‘well fed men’, as he called them. The House was in uproar as Grayson lambasted the sitting MPs for refusing to discuss the unemployment question. As he was escorted from the House by the sergeant-at-arms he appealed to the Labour MPs to join him. To his disbelief they sat dumbly in their seats and refused to move. ‘You are traitors,’ he shouted, ‘traitors to your class!’ Grayson was interviewed by the press after leaving the House:

Such a protest as I made I felt to be needed at the present moment and I am ashamed – yes, literally ashamed – that the Labour members were so backboneless as to sit silently while I was expelled for doing what they should be conscientiously obliged to do ... This will not be the end of it ... whether I am suspended from the House or not, I intend to organise an agitation of the unemployed throughout the kingdom. [20]

And this is exactly what he did. Grayson addressed literally hundreds of meetings and rallies of the unemployed over the next few months. He was a passionate speaker and was able to capture and express the anger of his working class supporters with brilliant and humorous rhetoric:

No one could draw the crowds like Grayson. Wherever he spoke they came in crowds to hear him, and having heard him they came again and again, and never quite forgot the things he said, the way he spoke, or the things inside themselves that responded. So that 30 or more years later, two world wars and torrents of speech making had not wiped away that memory, and a railwayman, or a weaver, or a fitter, or a taxicab driver would still remember him of all the speakers they’ve heard before or since. [21]

On a personal level Grayson came to a bad end. [22] However, in his years of vigour he provided a model of the socialist at the hustings and in the elected chamber. He never forgot that what mattered was not his personal career, or his ‘performance’ within the political arena, but rather the workers who had carried him there as their tribune.

Could the socialists have built a mass working class influence?

The question of the significance of an election result and the success of a particular poll is a matter of political orientation. If the only criteria are obtaining parliamentary seats and achieving office at some level then the results for the Independent Labour candidates and the socialists were not inspiring. The road towards labour representation in the House of Commons was a long one, and even the breakthrough of 1906 could only be seen as a modest, though significant, step on the way towards a strong labour presence in British establishment politics. However, to socialists bent upon building a mass socialist influence within the heartlands of the industrial working class in Britain these results were promising. But it was not the Marxists of the SDF who were to benefit from this potential. Rather the party of the left which attracted supporters during this period was the ILP with its vague ideological outlook which lent itself to opportunistic collaboration with forces to its right:

The socialism of the ILP was ideal for achieving this end; lacking as it did any real theoretical basis it could accommodate practically anything a trade unionist was likely to demand. Fervent and emotional, the socialism of the ILP could accommodate, with only a little strain, temperance reform, Scottish nationalism, Methodism, Marxism, Fabian gradualism and even a variety of Burkeian conservatism. [23]

ILP members, though often impressive as individuals and as principled figures with strong working class origins, did not represent a break with parliamentarianism. Their logic was fundamentally electoral and the notion of the building of a revolutionary working class organisation which was centrally orientated on industrial struggle was simply not a part of their thinking. Indeed at the founding conference of the LRC in 1900 the leadership of the ILP had specifically opposed a motion from James Macdonald of the SDF that the LRC be an organisation of ‘class war’.

The potential from which the ILP grew was also there for the Marxists of the SDF. For example, in 1901, when Harry Quelch, editor of Justice, stood in the ILP stronghold of Dewsbury in defiance of the ILP national leadership, who successfully appealed to the LRC that they should have priority in the constituency, the expectation amongst many of the labour leaders was that the SDF would be humiliated. In fact Quelch won 1,597 votes out of a total of less than 12,000. [24] Not a bad result at all for an independent candidate. The SDF was always a small organisation of no more than perhaps 10,000 at its strongest. And yet its turnover was vast, attracting and losing recruits by the tens of thousands. The SDF was a recognised and respected organisation in working class districts. Its leading figures such as Hyndman and Morris could draw working class audiences of tens of thousands. Its influence in the new unions of the 1890s was strong. Will Thorne was after all the undisputed leader of the gas workers’ union, and Eleanor Marx sat on its national committee and was known simply as ‘our mother’ within the union. Five delegates from the SDF attended the founding conference of the ILP itself. Thorne was also elected chairman of the Parliamentary Committee of the TUC in 1896, and was a vital link between the socialists and the trade unions. Indeed it was Thorne who really began the tradition of fighting for municipal socialism. He had won a council seat for West Ham as a socialist candidate in 1891 and over the rest of the decade built up a formidable base of support for socialist politics. His election platform included promises of public baths, municipalisation of the tram service and an eight hour day for council employees. In 1894 an attempt by councillors to impose wages below union rates was frustrated by Thorne:

… he had no intention of being defeated on a basic trade union principle. With great speed he organised the SDF, the ILP, the trades council and all local branches of trade unions in the area, to march on the council at its next sitting, and occupy the public gallery. He himself remained in the council chamber, and it was Pete Curran, one of the organisers of the gas workers and later MP for Jarrow, who led the delegation. Curran, carrying the red flag of the Federation on high, demanded, on behalf of the unemployed, that trade union rates and conditions should be applied to all relief work in the borough. It was a moment of high drama, as the crowds surged, the public galleries heaved with excitement, and, for the first time in British history, the red flag of socialism was waved triumphantly in such an ‘austere and dignified place’ as a council chamber. The West Ham councillors bowed to public pressure. [25]

It was through such actions that Thorne built his base in West Ham and by 1898, partly as a result of the mood that had been generated by the engineers’ lockout of the previous year, the first Labour controlled council came into being. Thorne was able to successfully link the socialist vision with concrete agitation on a local level. He also understood the importance of building united fronts on the basis of an agreed programme of aims. The ‘Labour’ council was really a coalition of socialists, Progressives, Radicals, Irish Nationalists and trade unionists. Their achievements were significant: the partial taking over of the North Metropolitan Tramways Company; land purchase for house building; a new fever hospital; a new ‘lunatic’ asylum; a new council works department, the eight hour day or the 48 hour week for council employees; a minimum wage of 30 shillings a week; a new paid holiday of ‘Labour Day’ on 1 May; a tree planting programme to provide work for the unemployed; free concerts and open libraries. What gave the council the confidence to keep pushing for radical reform was regular working class mobilisation and open socialist argument. Thorne himself addressed dozens of open air meetings and rallies where he insisted over and over again that trade unionism alone would not solve the problems of working class life, and that only by challenging the capitalist system itself could real freedom be obtained.

There were other SDF figures who were of similar stature to Thorne. Ben Tillet and John Burns [26] in the earlier years, and Tom Mann well into the 20th century were giants in the working class movement. There was the example of the continental socialist parties which inspired socialists and their supporters in Britain. Most inspiring of all was the German experience, where the votes had risen from 100,000 in 1871 to 3,000,000 by 1898 with the return of 50 socialist deputies to the Reichstag. [27] The general influence of the socialists was reflected also in the way in which the LRC was set up. The first executive of the LRC comprised 12 members of which two, Harry Quelch and James Macdonald, were from the SDF. The other committee members were drawn from the Vellum Binders, the Lancashire miners, the Amalgamated Railway Servants, the Shipwrights, the Gasworkers, the Steel Smelters, the General Union of Weavers and Textile Workers, the Fabians, and the ILP. [28] The SDF carried considerable weight in the working class movement of the 1890s and early 1900s.

The SDF as a whole, however, was possessed of the spirit of the sect. Its ‘Marxism’ was of the purist variety which would permit no ‘dilution’ by working with others. On the run up to the May Day rally of 1890 the SDF had initially opposed participation in the event. Hyndman described the rally as the ‘May Day folly’ and it was only as those members and leaders more in touch with the mood of working class enthusiasm in the days leading up to the event involved themselves that the organisation officially gave its support. This sort of vacillation over engagement in the real working class movement was symptomatic of a mechanical and one-sided understanding of Marxism. SDF members, with some very important exceptions, saw themselves only as standard bearers of the working class movement, preaching Marxist doctrine, and calling on workers to rally round the red flag. It was a policy which was not based on a real relationship with actual workers. Such a relationship can only be effective through a sensitivity to the contradictions in workers’ minds, and a willingness to work with those prepared to fight though not yet on the terms of revolutionary politics. This understanding was not at the heart of the SDF’s politics, much to the despair of some of its most talented figures. As we have seen, Eleanor Marx was frequently exasperated with what she called the ‘out and out SDF people’. The SDF was dismissive of the trade unions and especially of the officials of the old unions. For Tom Mann the final straw, and the issue which led to his resignation from the SDF, came when the Federation refused to support the campaign for the eight hour day – one of the most important working class campaigns of the 1890s. This meant that the SDF did not engage in a sustained or consistent battle of ideas with the existing Liberal union leaders despite the very apparent support they received from a significant minority of the movement. They looked instead to the unorganised and unskilled working class from whom they expected elemental and spontaneous revolt. Many of the younger members of the SDF – the generation who had joined after having been inspired by New Unionism – were influenced by the American Marxist Daniel De Leon who had developed his own particular political philosophy based upon an admixture of Marxism and syndicalism. Influenced by the dynamism and dramatic actions of the Industrial Workers of the World, De Leon had become the leading propagandist of the American Socialist Labor Party. His notion of party organisation was an ultra-centralised one in which revolutionaries acted alone as the only true emissaries of Marxism. It was a deeply sectarian model and one which had a direct bearing on the thinking and orientation of the SDF in the LRC.

In 1901, less than a year after the inception of the LRC and just as the cause of labour representation was on the rise, the SDF delegates at their August conference voted to resign from the committee. The SDF delegates had already clashed with the majority of the LRC delegates at the February conference over an SDF motion which committed candidates to a policy of ‘class war’. Also addressing the matter of a political fund for trade union affiliation, the motion held that the candidate would be ‘pledged to the above principles and to the recognition of the class war as the basis of working class action’. [29] In the context of the rising significance of labour representation to the most advanced workers of the early 1900s this was ultra-left. The ILP delegates with whom the SDF should have been making common cause against the more conservative of the trade union official delegates were more accepting of the phrase ‘class struggle’, which they saw as a de facto reality under capitalism. In the term ‘class war’ they recognised the much more revolutionary intention to challenge the power and very existence of capital itself. The ILP was not revolutionary, and in insisting on this wording as a matter of principle within an electoral alliance the young ‘impossibilists’ of the SDF, to the despair of their leadership, including Hyndman, were preparing their exit from an important political platform. It was not wrong of the SDF delegates to have put up such a motion. It was important that they fought for the most socialist position achievable with the committee. But to leave when the motion was defeated was to make it a condition of participation which guaranteed their isolation from potential allies. It was pure ‘ultimatism’.

It is important to point out that although the SDF was in a minority on the matter of the banner under which the LRC was to operate there was still fluidity in the situation. The SDF had already succeeded in reducing the number of seats of the right wing Fabian group inside the committee. There was also some sympathy with the adoption of the title ‘socialist’ which went beyond the SDF’s own ranks. When the matter was raised again at the LRC’s Newcastle conference of 1903 the votes were 86 against and 35 for. [30] In 1905 a motion from the right attempted to exclude all socialists from the committee. This motion was defeated and a counter-motion was carried which admitted all socialist societies. There was room here which the SDF could have exploited.

The decision of the SDF to leave the LRC caused a crisis in the organisation. An attempt to reverse the decision at the SDF’s 1902 conference was defeated. Hyndman had resigned from active politics over the issue and similarly, George Lansbury, the most effective of the SDF’s London propagandists, also left the Federation. Having walked away from LRC the SDF now went into decline. Trade union affiliations to the LRC leapt after 1903 as the ‘Labour Alliance’ around the LRC grew and the SDF members, painfully aware of their isolated position, fell into disarray. By 1903 the Scottish De Leonists had broken away to form the Socialist Labour Party. Two years later, led by the east London branches, the London members broke away to form the Socialist Party of Great Britain. Despite picking up some new membership in Yorkshire, the general trajectory of the SDF was downwards. But even after the departure of some of the most extreme elements in the SDF the fundamentally sectarian outlook of the organisation remained. At the 1905 conference, as the electoral Labour Alliance was clearly moving from strength to strength, a motion from East Liverpool branch to reaffiliate was again defeated by 55 votes to 29. [31] Sectarianism had left the development of the organised political expression of the working class to the right wing within the movement.

The political consequences of this were to last well into the early 1920s. The predominant outlook of workers during the strike waves of the Great Unrest period before the First World War, for example, was distinctly anti-political and syndicalist. For workers, by this time, in the absence of any alternative having been built to the left on anything approaching an adequate scale, ‘politics’ had come to mean only the parliamentary system and the pathetically timid Labour representatives in the House of Commons. This political vacuum also meant that the working class movement was extremely vulnerable to ideological influences to the right. Specifically it meant that the militancy of the 1910–1914 period gave way all too easily to nationalism and war fever. By the end of the war the various socialist groups – the Socialist Labour Party, the British Socialist Party, the South Wales Socialist Society, the Workers’ Socialist Federation and others – remained small. This in turn meant that the political base for the formation of the Communist Party was tiny compared to that in countries with similar levels of industrial development such as France and Germany. After the early 1920s we must stop criticising the SDF since their mistakes become less and less relevant as other, more contemporary factors come into play. Nonetheless an important opportunity for Marxists to build a large-scale base and widespread influence in Britain in this period was lost.


The question of how and when revolutionary socialists should stand in elections is tactical. Often when workers are on the offensive the issue of elections to bourgeois institutions is secondary as all attention is focused on the industrial struggle. But at times when the level of industrial struggle remains low and the political mood of the working class is moving to the left, socialists can make good use of the electoral platform to extend their propaganda and to bridge the gap between the most confident workers and those who are slower to move. The period from the end of the New Unionism in 1892 to the beginning of the Great Unrest in 1910 was like this.

On what we can broadly call the ‘left’ there were two attitudes towards elections we can characterise. The ILP were ‘sincere’ electoralists in that they genuinely sought office in parliament. Once in the House they very much played the parliamentary game. Friendly relations with the Liberals were a concern to the ILP more often than the desire to establish a distinctly pro working class policy. Even Keir Hardie, cloth cap and all, publicly condemned Grayson in 1908 when he broke through the pomposity of parliamentary protocol to demand discussion of the plight of the unemployed. The ILP really began the tradition of political ‘opportunism’ in the British Labour movement. The other attitude was, of course, the sectarianism of the SDF. The SDF did stand candidates in elections in the 1890s, but always with the most abstract rhetoric. They were uninterested in putting forward reforms in any sense. Their candidates usually did poorly at the polls, which in turn fuelled their members’ belief that workers in Britain were in some sense ‘unready’ for the socialist message. The best opportunity for socialists to exploit the electoral platform came with the formation of the LRC. A good showing for socialist candidates either as a part of the LRC or even in alliance with its best elements could have amplified socialist opinion and taken working class politics in Britain to a new level. By 1910 socialists could have achieved a crucial influence in the working class movement and begun to influence events. A break to the left at this point might have been substantial and meaningful. But by walking away in 1901 and then floundering in confusion as the mass movement swept past them, the SDF guaranteed its isolation and eventual fragmentation.

As ever we must remind ourselves of the luxury of hindsight. The SDF was operating before the advent of the Third International and before the tactical formulations of the early European Communist parties in relation to predominantly reformist consciousness. However, it is the case that a missing tactic could have been applied to great effect. Will Thorne had shown how in his West Ham campaigns in the 1890s, as had Eleanor Marx and Edward Aveling in the organisation of the great May Day rallies of the early 1890s. The ability to work with others to the right – though still within the working class and progressive movement – was an essential requisite which the SDF did not have. The tactical flexibility to carry out intervention in elections in a way which combined socialist rhetoric with concrete demands that pushed beyond the limitations of the system was missing from the SDF’s political outlook, as was the building of tactical alliances designed to last for a definite period. The last word goes to Lenin, that most ‘unparliamentary’ figure of the 20th century:

In Great Britain the Communists should constantly, unremittingly and unswervingly utilise parliamentary elections and all the vicissitudes of the Irish, colonial and world imperialist policy of the British government, and all other fields, spheres and aspects of public life, and work in them in a new way, in a communist way, in the spirit of the Third, not the Second International ... The Communists must learn to create a new, uncustomary, non-opportunist, and non-careerist parliamentarianism; the Communist parties must issue their slogans; true proletarians, with the help of the unorganised and downtrodden poor, should distribute leaflets, canvass workers’ houses and cottages of the rural proletarians and peasants in the remote villages ... they should go into the public houses; penetrate into the unions, societies and chance gatherings of the common people, and speak to the people, not in learned (or very parliamentary) language; they should not at all try to ‘get seats’ in parliament, but should everywhere try to get people to think, and draw the masses into struggle, to take the bourgeoisie at its word, to utilise the machinery it has set up, the elections it has appointed, and the appeals it has made to the people; they should try to explain to the people what Bolshevism is ... We must work to accomplish practical tasks, ever more varied and ever more closely connected with all branches of social life, winning branch after branch, and sphere after sphere from the bourgeoisie. [32]


Thanks are due to Duncan Hallas for early advice about the rise of Labour Representation.

1. Quoted in T. Rothstein, From Chartism to Labourism (Martin Lawrence Ltd 1929), p. 281.

2. The first figure to enter parliament as a self avowed representative of Labour was Jacob Holyoake, leader of the Social Reformers and one time associate of the Fraternal Democrats. He became a representative for Tower Hamlets in 1857. In 1868 the workers of Sheffield had put up a Mr Mundella, a major Nottingham manufacturer and Liberal.

3. Quoted in J. Charlton, It Just Went Like Tinder (Redwords 1999), p. 131.

4. T. Cliff and D. Gluckstein, The Labour Party, A Marxist History (Bookmarks 1988), p. 7.

5. For a summary of the impact and character of these assemblies see A. Charlesworth et al., An Atlas of Industrial Protest in Britain 1750–1990 (Macmillan 1996), pp. 112–115.

6. Quoted in Y. Kapp, Eleanor Marx, Volume II: The Crowded Years 1884–1898 (Lawrence & Wishart 1976), p. 378.

7. Ibid., pp. 378–380.

8. Ibid., p. 675.

9. Ibid., p. 675.

10. A.W. Humphrey, A History of Labour Representation (Garland 1984), p. 127.

11. R.E. Dowse, Left in the Centre: The ILP 1893–1940 (Longmans 1966), p. 8.

12. Ibid., p. 12.

13. T. Rothstein, op. cit., pp. 204–205.

14. A.W. Humphrey, op. cit., p. 126.

15. Ibid., p. 135.

16. Some idea of the impression that Hyndman made on his audience is given by this one time member of the Socialist League remembering his own early enthusiasm for socialism: ‘I often wonder if Hyndman realised the shock and disillusionment, the chill sinking of hearts, which his top hat, frock coat, and general air of respectability brought to many a young enthusiast in those days! We admired his ability, we respected his pioneer work, we felt that the Marxian theories were great, although we did not presume to understand them. But the awful thought was there: “Could a man be really saved who came to speak to us dressed like a stockbroker?”’ Quoted in A.W. Humphrey, op. cit., p. 108.

17. Ibid., pp. 135–136.

18. Ibid., p. 138.

19. R. Groves, The Strange Case of Victor Grayson (Pluto, 1975), p. 31.

20. Ibid., p. 67.

21. Ibid., p. 90.

22. Grayson was to develop an unfortunate drink habit. After he married an aspiring actress called Ruth Norreys, the two of them began mixing in dilettantish circles. Disillusioned with Labour in parliament and yet seeing no way forward beyond the small group politics of the socialists, Grayson became a tired and brooding figure. He was later to disappear, possibly to America fleeing debts, or perhaps dying at his own hand.

23. R.E. Dowse, op. cit., p. 6.

24. F. Bealey and H. Pelling, Labour and Politics 1900–1906: A History of the Labour Representation Committee (Macmillan 1958), p. 166.

25. G. and L. Radice, Will Thorne, Constructive Militant (Allen & Unwin 1974), pp. 51–52.

26. The later careers of these two men are less inspiring for socialists. Tillet was soon to become a TUC official of the worst stripe. It was Tillet who blocked the sending of material aid to the workers of the Dublin lockout in 1913. Burns, however, stands out as an especially odious figure who was to cross over into the camp of the Liberal Party and was to develop a fine tongue for anti working class and anti-socialist bile. His story is told in John Burns: The Rise and Fall of a Right Honorable (The Reformers Bookstall Ltd 1911).

27. A.W. Humphreys, op. cit., p. 140.

28. Ibid., p. 147.

29. Ibid., p. 152.

30. A.W. Humphreys, op. cit., p. 157.

31. F. Bealey and H. Pelling, op. cit., p. 167.

32. V.I. Lenin, “Left Wing” Communism – an Infantile Disorder, Lenin Selected Works (Progress 1977), pp. 572–573.

Top of page

ISJ 2 Index | Main Newspaper Index

Encyclopedia of Trotskyism | Marxists’ Internet Archive

Last updated on 24.5.2012