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International Socialism, Autumn 2000


Dave Renton

Class consciousness and the origins of Labour


From International Socialism 2:88, Autumn 2000.
Copyright © International Socialism.
Copied with thanks from the International Socialism Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Mark O’Brien’s piece on Socialists and the origins of Labour (International Socialism 87) criticised the Social Democratic Federation quite rightly for failing to rise to the challenges of the 1890s and 1900s. But Mark understates the greatest mistake of all, namely the SDF’s inability to respond creatively to the challenge of the Labour Party. The problem stems from parts of Mark’s account which suggest that the formation of Labour was controlled from above. In his words, ‘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 Labour Representation Committee [LRC] did not distinguish itself politically.’ [1] This reply will argue that the LRC was formed (at least in part) because workers developed a class hostility to Liberalism. The logic of this argument is important today. In the 1880s the Liberal Party was a bourgeois party with a labour wing. Unions funded the Liberal Party and individual trade unionists were rewarded with Liberal seats in parliament. But the dominant politics of Liberalism offered little to workers. The challenge of socialists and others pushed the Liberal Party from this position of leadership over the movement. Indeed, the Liberal Party contributed to its own defeat – because it was indifferent to workers, so they became hostile to Liberalism. In the different political circumstances of this new century a similar challenge is possible today.

It is important to remember the extent of the hegemony which Liberal politics established over the organised working class prior to 1900. As well as the trade unions, the most important institutions of the left, the Working Men’s Clubs, the Radical Clubs, the Irish National Leagues, were all pledged to Liberalism. The few well known Radicals in British politics, including such men as the atheist Charles Bradlaugh, were all members of the Liberal Party. James Macdonald, the future secretary of the London Trades Council, was eventually won to socialism by reading Engels, but on his arrival in London in 1881 this conversion was a long way off:

I was a Radical then, that is in so far as I took any interest in politics at all. I was a very great admirer of Mr Gladstone and I remember walking around Westminster and thinking what a shame it was to house that grand old man in a dingy building in Downing Street while the queen had Buckingham Palace at her disposal.

Such admiration of Gladstone was common in the 1880s, among both bosses and workers. When a statue was unveiled to Gladstone on Bow Road in August 1882, the local paper reported that ‘the whole of the East End had turned out to witness the ceremony’. Yet six years later, as John Charlton has shown, the same workers whose wages had paid for the statue were now in open protest against their Liberal boss, Theodore Bryant. The striking match girls now talked of this statue as if it had been paid for in their blood. [2]

In Mark’s account the Liberal ascendancy was broken in the years of working class upturn, lasting from around 1880 to 1892. The huge marches for the unemployed, for free speech, and the May Day rallies for the eight hour day gave testimony to the new mood within the movement, which culminated in the great struggles of 1889. But it was in the years of working class defeat, from 1892 to 1906, that the Independent Labour Party was formed, as well as the Labour Representation Committee. Indeed it was only in 1906 that the Labour MPs became a significant contingent in the Commons. So any account of the rise of Labour has to give special attention to the years 1892 to 1910, when the modern Labour Party was born. The argument here is that workers were increasingly alienated from Liberal politics both in the years of struggle and in the downturn which followed.

One book from this period is Life in a Railway Factory, Alfred Williams’s 1915 account of life as a factory worker in Swindon. Williams was a skilled metal worker and voted Tory, but his account is honest to the lived experience of the people around him. It is a key source for socialist historians. So why did Williams’s contemporaries turn to the Labour Party? He describes the 1900s as a time of growing class consciousness: ‘the perfectly natural outcome of modern conditions of labour’. Williams perceived the employers’ offensive in terms of mechanisation, speed-up, decreased piece rates and increased managerial supervision. ‘A decade and a half ago, one could come to the shed fearlessly ... the worker was not watched and timed at every little operation.’ According to Alfred Williams, workers grew in confidence after 1900 – and initially in response to political events. Ironically Williams described Joe Chamberlain’s attempts to build a working class social imperialist coalition as an important solvent of Liberalism. Chamberlain promised to guarantee conditions and reduce the working week. His class promises contrasted favourably with the milk-and-water radicalism of the Liberals. By 1910 Williams perceived a flood of socialism engulfing his friends and workmates. This socialism rejected both Liberals and Tories.

The skilled engineers of Swindon were not at the forefront of the campaign for Labour representation. In the industrial cities of the north a similar process was taking place at about the same time, or even slightly earlier. Across Britain disparate processes were creating a working class which shared common experiences in work and outside. These processes included deskilling at work, which was manifested in speed-up, declining apprenticeships and mechanisation, processes observed by such varied witnesses as Beveridge, R.H. Tawney and Lady Bell. They also included the creation of working class leisure pursuits: the pub, the chapel, music hall and football. In the 1890s these institutions remained closed to the employers – unlike today. The difference between Swindon and such cities as Manchester, Sheffield and Bradford was that in the north there was no need for Chamberlain to show the way. The class hostility of Liberal employers was more than enough to convince ordinary workers that a political alternative was required.

What then was ‘Labour’s Turning Point’? [3] One candidate for this moment would be the Manningham Mill strike, which took place in Bradford in 1890–1891. In December 1890 Samuel Lister cut wages at his plant by 30 percent. Workers struck for five months in response. Lister boasted that his plant was a model factory, ideal for sober, Methodist workers. The strike was a protest against the Lab-Liberalism of a very paternalist employer, and the anger continued even after the workers’ defeat. In 1891 Ben Tillett argued that workers could simply sweep the bosses aside. The idea of standing in parliament seemed ‘absurd’ to him. However, the defeat of the silk weavers convinced Tillett of the need for Labour representation. Tillett stood for election in Bradford in 1892 and the ILP was formed in the city one year later. Fred Jowett described the lesson of the movement: ‘The people of Bradford saw plainly, as they had never seen before, that whether their rulers are Liberals or Tory they are capitalists first and politicians afterwards.’

To look for one turning point would perhaps be misleading. In every town and city there were a dozen turning points, when Liberal-voting workers came into conflict with Liberal-identified bosses. This was true in Merthyr, where Keir Hardie was elected against the opposition of the Miners’ Federation in 1900. Hardie’s two Liberal opponents were an anti-war radical and a jingo gold prospector. Whatever the recommendation of the unions, Merthyr’s workers could see that Hardie reflected their interests more consistently than his opponents. The Liberals dominated in the churches and the reading room, in local government and on the boards which inspected the lives of the unemployed. By contrast the Labour Party was based on the trade unions. It was here that the ILP and SDF joined forces, winning the crucial vote at the 1899 TUC which led to the formation of the Labour Representation Committee. Mark is right to emphasise Taff Vale in 1901 as the moment when the trade unions came on side, but the demand for a Labour Party preceded the support of the major unions.

Between 1892 and 1910 a mood grew up of working class hostility to Liberalism. Though often vague and inarticulate, the desire was there and influenced people. Even the Fabian Society was compelled to sing to the new tune. One 1893 article, ‘To Your Tents O Israel’, attempted to outbid the ILP to the left, promising pensions and a differential income tax, and portraying Fabianism as the alternative home for trade unionists disaffected with the slow progress of Liberalism. Here is the advice of Robert Blatchford’s Clarion, addressed to the LRC in March 1900: ‘It is to be hoped that they will steer clear of entanglements with the official Liberal Party, who are nothing but Tories in disguise and the unavowed but none the less vigorous enemies of all legislation which makes for Collectivism.’ While the trade union leaders may have seen the foundation of the LRC as a manoeuvre to extract concessions from the Liberal Party, their members saw the formation of an independent political voice for Labour as a huge step forward. Indeed it was the pressure from working class people for a departure from Liberalism which explains why this break took place.

So far I have argued that the origins of the Labour Party can be partly explained in terms of the desire to see an independent working class politics. But it is important to stress that the actual behaviour of Labour did not satisfy its early champions. Concerned to represent the working class but not lead it, the Labour politicians promoted class peace, arbitration and conciliation. At first limited to the notion of class independence, the mood deepened for something more radical. By 1910 to 1914 the same workers who had called for a Labour Party were now to the left of Labour. The working class upsurge of these years expressed itself in a revolutionary desire for change. There were 80 million strike days taken in these five years. Writing in 1913 G.D.H. Cole claimed that ‘the Labour Party has ceased to excite enthusiasm’. In the desire for revolution ‘thousands found ... a sanction for the direction in which their thoughts had been independently moving’. Encouraged by this new mood of radicalism previously moderate voices turned left. Ben Tillett’s pamphlet asked, Is the Parliamentary Labour Party a Failure? He called parliament a farce, a sham, a thieves’ kitchen, a rich man’s duma. The ILP produced a new green manifesto, critical of the Labour Representation Committee. Victor Grayson was elected on a revolutionary platform.

The problem with the Great Unrest was that its politics were syndicalist. According to its supporters, change would come about through economic struggle, irrespective of what occurred in the political sphere. Any absence of struggle could be explained simply in terms of bad leadership. Ignoring both parliamentary and extra-parliamentary politics, the syndicalists failed to undermine the Labour leaders and were unable to prevent the wave of jingoism which brought an end to the movement in 1914. So the antidote to Labourism is neither to be found in the sectarianism of the SDF, nor in the syndicalism of 1910 to 1914. It is to be found instead in a class movement away from the existing leaders of the movement, similar to that of 1892 to 1910, but this time channelled in a clear, revolutionary direction.

The implications of this argument for socialists today could not be more important. Prior to their victory in 1906 the Liberals were the dominant party which was seen to represent the working class movement – but they were swept away. Workers saw through one generation of bourgeois politicians and demanded representation of their own. Of course, the task of deserting a bourgeois party with a Labour wing is not the same as breaking from a long established Labour Party. Before we even start thinking of an end to the Labour Party, there must first be a significant challenge to Labourism. But the memory exists of a moment which undermined the dominant politics of the 1900s. It has been done before, therefore it can be done again.


Thanks to Adrian Gibbons for suggestions.

1. M. O’Brien, Socialists and the Origins of Labour, International Socialism 87, Summer 2000, p. 25.

2. J. Charlton, It Just Went Like Tinder (London 1999), pp. 19–21.

3. This is the title of an excellent short guide to the formation of the Labour Party: E. Hobsbawm, Labour’s Turning Point (London 1948). Several of the quotations here are taken from that book.

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