The ILP: Past & Present (1993)

Great Expectations

Before the (1914-18) War, the ILP … had previously preached a socialism parliamentary in character but revolutionary in intention and radical in practice.”

Gwyn Williams, When Was Wales

As the world’s first industrialised society, Britain, in the nineteenth century went through massive social, economic and political changes. With the new capitalism, came booms and slumps, a new breed of industrialists, factories and machinery, came the growing towns and cities – and most significant of all – the working classes.

Men, women and children worked long hours in the ‘dark satanic mills’ and in the mines. They operated and service the new machinery in unhealthy and unsafe conditions. And they were often housed in crowded communities, in badly built homes.

Some achieved a reasonable life style. Far more lived in poverty and close to, or with, starvations. Many knew that the dreaded workhouse awaited them when they were too ill or were unable to find work.

But they did not all take these circumstances lying down. Many formed trade unions. Many campaigned for a shorter working day and proper rest breaks and for a shorter working week. Many demanded the right to work. Many fought for the vote. In fact, these decades saw a wide variety of struggles.

However, the modern labour movement only took shape during the closing years of the last century, with the recession and mechanisation, and when Britain’s former industrial dominance was challenged by global competition.

Existing trade unions, representing regularly employed, skilled workers, were coming under increasing attacks from employers and the courts. Other workers were engaged in uphill struggles to create the ‘new unions’ that arose in the 1880s and 1890s.

Out of these sometimes exciting and sometimes bitter experiences, often ending in defeat, grew the idea that trade union activity was not sufficient to serve working people’s interest. In addition, independent political action was necessary.

This presented problems. Until then, politics at a national and local level and been the preserve of the rich and privileged. But, now most working class men had at last won the vote – the hard question was what to do with it.



This is an extract from the original centenary edition of The ILP: Past & Present, published in 1993. The print version is now sold out.

The latest revised and updated version, published in 2023 to mark our 130th anniversary, is available to buy in two parts from our publications section.