In 1884, following the Third Reform Act, a movement started in earnest in Great Britain, seeking direct representation of working class interests in Parliament. The movement was naturally revolutionary, but not violent. Britons are neither Russian or French.
The Labour Party actually started in Scotland, a part of the United Kingdom to be found north of Yorkshire and Lancashire, known for its clans, kilts and haggis. Scotland and her sister Wales have always figured in British history because the English were forced to build a line of castles in early medieval times on the borders, which were troublesome. They had to invent a title for the fighting landowners who occupied in these defensive (and frequently aggressive) castles built to contain the Scots and Welsh. These were the ‘Marcher Lords’ q.v.’.
In 1889 the Scottish Labour Party was formed, winning three seats in Parliament in 1892. One of these was occupied by Keir Hardy, one of the founding fathers of modern socialism, a true Scot, and tremendous debater. In the following year he set himself up in London and formed the Independent Labour Party, which taught and spread pacifism and, more importantly, Socialism. Britain would never be the same, which many believe to be a Good Thing.
In 1900, a representative committee was set up which achieved twenty-nine seats. For the sake of ease, and not to complicate matters more than they were already complicated, the party was re-named The Labour Party. It was still a loose federation of trade unions and essentially socialist societies, such as the Fabians (qv) whose leaders were Sidney and Beatrice Webb, who drew up the Constitution.
The Labour Party made clear its aims: (a) a national minimal wage (b) democratic control of industry (c) a revolution in the way national finance was handled (d) surplus wealth for the common good. These words in italics sum up what has gone wrong with many if not all Socialist parties ever since – socialist leaders have the incorrigible tendency to help themselves from the ‘surplus wealth’ for their own good.
In 1920 the party had over four million affiliated members, and it became a major force in British municipal politics. Labourite joined forces with the Liberals in national elections in 1923 and 29. Pacifist views cast momentarily aside, the Party supported, indeed encouraged, war in 1939. Senior members like Clement Attlee, Aneurin Bevin and Herbet Morrison worked with Churchill in the War Cabinet. Attlee was Deputy Prime Minister, and would go on to defeat Churchill in the 1945 election.
Attlee was awarded an overall majority by the grateful British people, and plunged his country instantly into a programme of austerity and welfare state legislation. He was a severe socialist who spoke like the King and had been educated at Winchester. By now all hope of real power among the workers had vanished, as intellectuals and rich people from the upper-middle-classes queued up to join the Labour Party. It had become ‘the fashionable thing’.
While Britain suffered near starvation, rationing of food and petrol, unheated homes, tiny allowances for spending on visits abroad (£5 for each traveller), other countries like France, under the German boot for six years, enjoyed a blossoming of peace, ample food and drink and full employment. Attlee kept the British face firmly on the grindstone, and introduced SuperTax for soaking the rich, if there were any left living in Britain. Old Churchill won again for the Conservatives in 1951, and the socialists had to wait for 1964 – 70 to re-start their reforms. Then the nuisance Tories won again and stayed for four years, until the Labour Party could get down to the job again in 1974 – 1979, when Britain and Europe were in a parlous financial state and inflation was rife.
Socialist parties are famous for internal bickering, and the British Labour Party is no exception. From the more right-wing segment, a group of senior socialists broke away in the mid-1980s to form The Social Democratic Party.
When the Tories defeated the Party again in 1987, new boss Neil Kinnock (leader 1983 – 92) embarked on a major policy review which encouraged more democratic processes, and a less purely ideological approach to foreign policy. It was no good, because the Party only won 34% of the vote in the general election of 1992. But then Mr. Anthony Blair (Fettes, the Scottish Eton) calling himself ‘Tony’ became the leader in 1994, supporting private enterprise and eagerly promoting reform within the Party. It was in 1994 that Blair managed an important manoeuvre – the excising from the Labour Party’s Constitution of the contentious Clause IV, which had committed the Party to the socialist principle of collective ownership of industries. Thus, in May 1997, the Labour Party won a terrific victory over the Conservatives and everyone else, securing a 179-seat majority in the House of Commons.
Blair was finally succeeded by a Scot called Gordon Brown, who had been quite an effective Chancellor of the Exchequer, but wanted to oust Blair. When he did, it was only to supervise a series of disasters which did the Labour Party no good, and resulted in the eventual election of the Conservatives again, under the leadership of David Cameron (Eton).
The socialists have since suffered leadership contests, never to the good of the Party, while Cameron rules in coalition with the Liberals, contemptuous of whatever nonentity is Leader of the Labour Party.