An Introduction to the ILP’s history

The ILP (Independent Labour Party / Independent Labour Publications) has a long and chequered history, one which is not easy to summarise accurately and adequately.

Here, we offer the briefest of introductions to our history and provide a short reading list.

The ILP was founded in 1893 on the initiative of local socialists, mainly from Scotland and the North of England and encouraged by such national figures as Keir Hardie (editor of the Labour Leader) and Robert Blatchford.Hardie cartoon

In 1900 the ILP played a key role in the founding of the Labour Representation Committee, which became the Labour Party in 1906. Initially the membership of the Labour Party came through either the trade unions or the affiliated socialist societies – primarily the ILP. To begin with the ILP provided Labour’s grass roots activists and a significant number of its parliamentarians. However in 1918 this was changed. Thereafter, the Labour Party introduced its own individual membership, though the ILP retained the right to hold its own conferences and determine its own policies, even when they ran counter to those of the Labour Party’s. Indeed, the ILP strongly opposed Britain’s entry into the First World War, whereas Labour supported the war effort.

Increasingly there were disagreements between the Labour Party, particularly its Parliamentary leadership, and the ILP rank and file. In the 1920’s, the divergence of views was exemplified by the ILP members support for guild socialism and the virtual licence given to G D H Cole to promote these radical ideas via the ILP.

In 1922 a number of Scottish radicals, including Jimmy Maxton and John Wheatley, became ILP MPs. This heightened the tensions within the Labour Party, and the more so as its leaders became increasingly absorbed into the parliamentary political system. Following the debacle of the first Labour Government, ILP candidates in the 1931

General Election refused to accept the Labour Party’s standing orders. And in 1932 the ILP disaffiliated from the Labour Party.

Thereafter ILP membership fluctuated and, in time, started to decline, yet the ILP continued to be active in domestic politics and numerous support groups linked to freedom fighter in Africa and elsewhere. It organised a socialist contingent to fight with the republicans in the Spanish Civil War (catalogued in Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell who served with the ILP). And just as it had, in its earlier days, opposed colonialism, imperialism, Stalinism and rampant capitalism, and campaigned at home for a Living Wage; for numerous radical welfare reforms; for workers’ rights and for women’s suffrage, so in the 1950s its members also became active in the peace movement, in the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, the Committee of 100 headed by Bertrand Russell, a one-time member of the ILP.

In the 1960s the ILP campaigned against racism, South African apartheid and the Vietnam War. Its members were active in the trade union movement, community groups and tenants’ associations and helped organise the opposition to the Poll Tax, and they organised support for the families of the mineworkers during the protracted miners’ strike in 1984-5.

In 1975 the ILP ceased to be the Independent Labour Party (ILP) and reconstituted itself as Independent Labour Publications (ILP) a political pressure group, combining a parliamentary and extra- parliamentary perspectives for democratic social change. Thereafter, ILP members were free to join the Cooperative Party, and were positively encouraged to join the Labour Party and become involved in all aspects of its work, though membership or support for other political parties or groups was not acceptable.

Some time later `Friends of the ILP’ was established to make links with people who, though they might be inclined to agree with a part or even the whole of the ILPs perspective, cold not ,for one reason or another, join the organisation.

Today, the ILP seeks to encourage a democratic and radical political culture and movement that faces up to the challenges of our times. We may not always agree with what they said and did, but we remain linked to our forerunners not only by the continuity of the ILP organisation, but by or commitment to work for a more humane, equitable, democratic, progressive and tolerant world.

For a fuller introduction to the ILP’s history, you cannot do better than read Barry Winter’s The ILP: Past & Present which is available from our publications section.

Or you can read the pamphlet online by following the links here:

The Early Years
- Great Expectations
- Beginnings in Bradford

Ethical Socialism
- Independent Women
- Living for that Better Day

Labour’s Rise and Disaffiliation
– Strongholds of the ILP

War and After
- Internationalism

Labour in the 70s
- Issues of the Day

Thatcher and Beyond

There are many other publications on aspects of ILP history and famous ILPers. Here are a few we recommend:

  • Caroline Benn, Keir Hardie
  • Fenner Brockway, Inside the Left
  • Fenner Brockway, Socialism over sixty years – the life of Fred Jowett of Bradford (1864-1944)
  • Gordon Brown, Maxton
  • David Clark, Colne Valley – radicalism to socialism
  • R E Dowse, Left in the centre
  • June Hannam, Isobella Ford
  • James Hinton, Protest and visions: peace politics in 20th century Britain
  • David Howell, British workers and the ILP 1888-1906
  • David James, Tony Jowett & Keith Laybourn (eds.), The centennial history fo the Independent Labour Party
  • Keith Laybourn and Jack Reynolds, Liberalism and the rise of Labour
  • Jill Liddington, The life and times of a respectable rebel: Selina Cooper, 1964-1946
  • Jill Liddington and Jill Norris, One hand tied behind us
  • Alan Mackinlay and R J Morris (eds.), The ILP on Clydeside: from foundation to disintegration
  • David Marquand, Ramsay MacDonald
  • Keith Middlemass, The Clydesiders
  • Kenneth O Morgan, Keir Hardie, Radical and Ssocialist
  • George Orwell, Homage to Catalonia
  • Henry Pelling, The origins of the Labour party
  • Henry Pelling, A short history of the Labour party
  • Ben Pimlott, Labour and the left in the 1930s
  • Gred Reid, Keir Hardie: the making of a socialist
  • Jon Schneer, George Lansbury
  • Sarah Stanley Holton, Feminism and democracy
  • Carolyn Steedman, Childhood, culture and class in Britain: Margaret McMillan 1860-1931
  • E P Thompson, Homage to Tom Maguire, in Briggs and Saville (eds.), Essays in Labour history vol. 1
  • Chusichi Tsuzuki, Tom Mann: the challenge of Labour
  • Joseph White, Tom Mann
  • Ian Wood, John Wheatley
  • Some of the ILP’s archives are held at the London School of Economics where they can be viewed by arrangement. You can see the archive section of the LSE website here.

    Some ILP material is also held at the Working Class Movement Library in Salford, see www.wcml.org.uk