The Failure of a Dream

A recent book provides a “just about” convincing argument that the ILP’s decline in the 1930s was not an inevitable consequence of disaffiliation. CHRISTOPHER HALL reviews Gidon Cohen’s welcome attempt to fill a gap in ILP history

The history of the Independent Labour Party from its foundation until it was disaffiliated from the Labour Party has been well documented. Yet, coverage of the ILP in the 1930s after disaffiliation is sketchy, at best.

The Centennial History of the ILP, edited by James, Jowitt and Laybourn, is a fascinating volume but it barely covers the ILP in the ’30s, while Left in the Centre: ILP 1893-1940, by Robert E Dowse, has only a short chapter on this period. James Jupp looks at the ’30s in more detail in his British Radical Left 1931-1941 but only covers the ILP as one of various left wing parties around at the time. We get glimpses of the 1930s ILP in biographies and autobiographies of major ILP figures, such as James Maxton, Fenner Brockway, John McGovern and Jenny Lee, but until now there has been no attempt to look at the role of the disaffiliated ILP in detail.

The ILP disaffiliated from the Labour Party in 1932. It had decided earlier that year that its MPs should refuse to vote with Labour in parliament if this went against ILP conference decisions. The Labour Party made its displeasure clear and the ILP decided to leave. As a result it became a separate political party, and remained so until 1975.

From this point on the ILP went into rapid decline, losing any remaining national significance after the late 1940s. Keith Middlemass, in The Clydesiders, called it “suicide during a fit of insanity”. I believe this view has coloured previous accounts, and meant this fascinating period in the ILP’s history has largely been ignored, until now.

Gidon Cohen rightly points out that the majority of ILP members wanted to remain in the Labour Party, but not if it meant ILP MPs had to vote against ILP conference decisions. They reluctantly accepted the decision not to contest disaffiliation from the Labour Party but they were confident the party would grow and even challenge Labour as the major party of the left.

There were several reasons to support such optimism: the ILP still had a small parliamentary presence; it had councillors in towns and cities across the UK; and several members were high up in the hierarchies of the trade union movement. Membership stood at over 16,500 and, in James Maxton, they had the most charismatic leader of any party. On the far left the Communist Party was tiny, with only a few thousand members.

Yet by 1939, Cohen tells us, ILP membership had collapsed to less than 2,500. So what went wrong?

The main problem was that different groups in the ILP had different views about the sort of party it should be and what policies it should pursue. The ILP had always been a broad church and allowed members with divergent views. However, this openness was the seed of its own demise as certain groups attempted to dominate and force through their own policies.

First, there were a number of ILP branches that refused to accept disaffiliation and wanted to remain in the Labour Party. By 1935, Cohen says, a quarter of branches had gone, including some major ones such as Manchester Central. Most of the ILP’s elected local councillors left, in many cases despite their local branch being in favour of disaffiliation. In Nelson, Lancashire, for example, all the Labour Party councillors were ILP members, but none of them left Labour. In Glasgow, 40 of the 44 Labour councillors were ILP members, but only six stayed loyal to the ILP. The ILP compounded this problem when it instructed its members to refuse to pay the trade union political levy, meaning it lost all influence in the unions.

Cohen makes a good job of guiding us through the labyrinth of internal ILP politics. Free to follow its own socialist policies, the ILP was soon riven by warring factions who either got their policies accepted, or left the party when they failed to do so.

One of the most powerful factions in the early years after disaffiliation was the Revolutionary Policy Committee (RPC) which reached its zenith at the 1933 conference when its motion in favour of a revolutionary policy was successful. In 1935, however, its influence waned and around 60 RPC supporters left to join the Communist Party. Later, after the RPC was disbanded, some former members, who had stayed in the ILP, formed the Marxist Group which in turn was joined by several Trotskyites. They then left the ILP after failing to win support at national level (although they did have some influence at local level.)

Throughout the 1930s the ILP looked to work with other left wing parties while keeping its own policies. During this time the Labour Party refused to join any campaign organised by the ILP, although individual party members and branches often worked together, and at local level electoral pacts were sometimes agreed.

The Labour Party’s intransigence meant the ILP was drawn into working with the only other left wing party available – the Communist Party. Cohen describes their often acrimonious working relationship and describes several instances when the CP aimed to infiltrate the ILP and convert its members. He shows how the ILP’s youth organisation, the Guild of Youth, was taken over by Communists before the ILP totally re-organised it, expelling several branches and members.

Later, the ILP took part in joint ventures with the Socialist League, an organisation within the Labour Party known to include many ex-ILPers. This partnership was short-lived as the Labour Party threatened to expel Socialist League members if they continued to share platforms with the CP or the ILP.

Many ILP members were alienated by its revolutionary policies and the party’s relationship to the Communists. This was most striking in Lancashire, where, as Cohen states, around half the branches left to form a separate political party known as the Independent Socialist Party. At a national level, ILP MP Richard Wallhead also left. Many influential middle class supporters deserted too, and falling membership left the party’s finances in a parlous state.

In the 1935 general election the ILP put up 17 candidates and four were elected, all of them in Glasgow. In parliament the ILP MPs became a small vocal group who strongly supported the hunger marchers and condemned the rise of fascism.

For me, this is the most interesting part of Cohen’s book. John McGovern and Bob Edwards, leading members of the ILP, took part in the hunger marches and each led a contingent. ILP branches provided the hunger marchers with accommodation and food, and many ILP members were involved in anti-fascist demonstrations, in particular, the ‘Battle of Cable Street’ in east London in 1936.

Internationally, the ILP joined a ‘new international’, called the London Bureau, a group of mainly small, left wing parties. They denounced the Moscow show trials of old Bolsheviks; supported their sister party, the POUM, during the Spanish Civil War; and refused to take sides in the Abyssinian crisis of 1935-36.

Cohen shows that although total ILP membership declined, new members did join, some branches grew, and new branches were formed. New councillors and MPs were elected but once an ILP councillor had been defeated the seat was lost forever. The small vocal group of MPs, and the energy of its members, meant the ILP often had a national presence that was far greater than its actual membership warranted.

Unlike other commentators, Cohen’s view is that the decline of the ILP was not an inevitable consequence of disaffiliation from Labour, but, rather, resulted from the rise of factionalism within the party. I think he just about wins this argument.

I would have preferred more statistical data, although that’s a personal preference and many readers might disagree. The absence of any photographs was a little disappointing too, and at £35 the book is not cheap.

But overall I found this a fascinating and informative account of a much-neglected period of ILP history.

The Failure of a Dream: The Independent Labour Party from Disaffiliation to World War II by Gidon Cohen, is published by I.B. Tauris, 2007. 262pp.

Christopher Hall’s Not just Orwell’: The Independent Labour Party Volunteers and the Spanish Civil War is published by Warren and Pell.

Read another review of this book here.

Read more about ILP history.

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