ILP@120: Reflections on the ILP’s History

BARRY WINTER celebrates the ILP’s 120th anniversary with a brief survey of its history and consideration of the lessons it can pass on to a left struggling to make headway in our highly disconnected and politically disenchanted society.

Let’s start this review of our history with some of its people. Over 12 decades since its formation in Bradford – then a leading northern, industrial city – the ILP has attracted a wide variety of people.

They came from the working and middle classes and, occasionally, even from the upper class. Some were rich, like the ILP’s first treasurer, John Lister from Halifax; some were quite comfortably off; and many more lived in poor and sometimes precarious circumstances, like Tom Maguire of Leeds, who died young.

A few, like Ramsay MacDonald, started life in poverty and graduated to an impressive abode in the leafy lanes of Hampstead.Coming of Age certif

The party also attracted people from very different generations, with varying cultural and educational backgrounds: from manual workers in the textile industry; to teachers, such as Emrys Thomas, who for many years patiently chaired NAC meetings; to writers, such as George Orwell/Eric Blair.

It included the middle class Quaker, Isabella Ford, who relentlessly worked her whole life for progressive causes, from supporting the Leeds tailoresses’ union, to votes for women, to opposing war.

Some, such as Keir Hardie, were practising Christians and tea-totallers; others, such as Robert Blatchford, were of a much more hedonistic temperament, and liked a drink or three.

Then there were many working class women, like Hannah Mitchell. She had longed to have an education but only had two weeks’ schooling. For her there was always work to do and a family to feed and raise. It was a struggle, but she still managed to be active both in the ILP and the suffrage movement. Eventually, she became an ILP councillor in Manchester, and later she wrote her autobiography, although sadly she did not live to see it published.

There was Jennie Lee, one of the ILP’s great orators. Born into an ILP family in a Scottish mining community, she was politically active from a very early age.

It began with the Socialist Sunday School. Later she succeeded in getting to university and then as an ILPer she became the youngest Member of Parliament. Decades later, during Harold Wilson’s premiership, she was the arts minister. Thanks to her steely tenacity, the Open University was formed in spite of fierce opposition from many who loathed the very idea.

In contrast, Walter and Annie Mallorie, of whom I have fond memories, lived all their lives in a rented back-to-back house in Armley in Leeds. Their short honeymoon in Scarborough in 1926 was spent selling replica miners’ lamps to support the strike. Walter had served in the First World War and, in recoiling from its horrors, became both a socialist and a pacifist.

Jennie Lee spent a night with Walter and Annie while on a speaking tour. She borrowed money from them to get home but sadly neglected to pay it back.

There were others who humbly gave a lifetime’s service to the ILP, like Bert Lea from Walthamstow. When he was a boy, Keir Hardie gave him a penny to sell the Labour Leader. Bert continued to do a regular ILP paper round for the rest of his long life – so Hardie certainly got his money’s worth!

And May Allinson who, as child was so inspired by Hardie’s last speech in 1915, that she remained politically committed for the rst of her life, living in a tiny back-to-back house in the hills outside Bradford. She was still attending the Socialist Sunday School in her late 80s.

Others were just passing through, some travelling leftwards, others losing heart. There were those who joined the ILP in an attempt to absorb it into the Communist Party, and there was also a group of Trotskyists, including the writer, CLR James, from Trinidad.

There was also Oswald Mosley, ever impatient for change. After one of his political reincarnations he re-encountered the ILP in very different circumstances, for ILPers played a leading role in halting his fascist march through London’s East End, where a sizeable Jewish community lived, including my mum.

One of those leading the resistance to Mosley’s Blackshirts was the journalist, Fenner Brockway. He’d been jailed several times during the First World War for his anti-war activities and for his refusal to enlist.

After the Second World War, he returned to the Labour Party becoming an MP – and even acquiring a peerage – but he continued to spend his life fighting for just causes, opposing racism and supporting colonial independence movements.

Nor should we forget the ILP contingent who fought in the Spanish Civil War (and its support team in Barcelona, led by John McNair). For me, the person who most stands out is Staff Cottman.

I had the privilege of hearing Staff speak at an ILP conference where he enthralled the audience. He went to Spain in his teens, and when he eventually returned to Bristol, the local Communists picketed his home, claiming he had been in receipt of ‘Franco’s gold’.

So what can be learned from all these experiences? What ideas can we draw from these diverse personal histories, which together combine to make ‘the ILP’s history’?

There were many achievements, and there were undoubtedly plenty of frustrations and failures, which can often teach us more. We might also consider the unintended consequences of past actions. In politics, as in our personal lives, it is wise to be careful what you wish for.


When it comes to what might be learned from the ILP’s past, the questions are where to start and what to cover, and, indeed, what to leave out?

You will be relieved to know that I have chosen to be highly selective. To help, I have divided the talk into four parts.

First, I want to consider the ILP’s foundation and its development up to the First World War, looking at what was it trying to do and what obstacles it faced.

Secondly, I will look at the ILP’s brief journey from 1918 to the outbreak of the Second World War, to see what the ILP tried to achieve and what it sought to overcome.

Thirdly, I will touch lightly on some aspects of our politics since we returned to the Labour Party.

Finally, and all-too-briefly, I want to consider what might be gleaned from the ILP’s history about the relationship of parties to left groups and movements seeking radical social change today in our highly disconnected and politically disenchanted society.

When looking at any political organisation there are two elements to consider. First, there’s its internal life, and, secondly, there’s the external environment. There’s also the relationship between these two factors.

The first is something over which it has some control – the culture and organisation, the membership and their activities and, of course, its policies and practices.

But there are also a range of external factors which impact on what the party was trying to achieve. In the ILP’s case, these include its relationships with other political organisations, campaigns and movements, not only the Labour Party but Communists and others.

Other external factors include the wider political culture, the wider social structure, the people the ILP was trying to reach, plus the wars and post-wars, the economic upturns and downturns, and so on.ILP galleon pic

To help us navigate all this, I’d like to suggest a nautical metaphor.

One of my favourite ILP banners pictures the party as a plump little galleon boldly ploughing through the waves. Its large mainsail carries the party’s initials.

To study this plucky little craft, you need to know about life on board, about the captains and crews, the boat’s seaworthiness, and the nautical skills and commitment of those at the helm, and of the seafarers themselves and, not least, the relations between them, and the direction of travel.

Externally, you might need to consider the calms and the storms, the dangerous rocks to be negotiated, and the risks of being blown off course, or even of sinking.

Of course, the two aspects interact and that’s what makes politics so interesting and, at times, so perplexing.

The Early Years

Put simply, the early ILP with its strong ethical concerns wanted to ‘make socialists’. It was about creating an alternative political culture as the foundation for building a new, socially-just society. To do so it had to begin by opening up some political space in which it could operate.

British politics had been dominated for over a century by a two-party system, by the Conservatives and the Liberals. The second half of the 19th century had seen a hesitant and uneven extension of the franchise to men, and more latterly to better-paid, male industrial workers. Alongside this was an almighty struggle about votes for women, in which the ILP certainly played its part.

While in Lancashire there were a substantial number of workers who supported the Tories, elsewhere it was the Liberal Party and Liberalism which dominated the politics of the organised working classes. To shift those traditional loyalties was no pushover.

Because we are used to seeing the Labour Party as closely linked with trade unions, the tendency is often to downplay how this relationship came about. It is often seen as almost something which naturally evolved, part of what was once confidently described as the ‘forward march of labour’.

Far from it, for the early ILP faced an arduous, uphill struggle, both locally and nationally. It was a hard-won endeavour and many on the left were queasy about the project, to put it mildly, preferring instead to unite the different lefts into one socialist party.

Perhaps the difficulties confronting the ILP can best be demonstrated by the Barnsley by-election held four years after the ILP was established in 1893. The story goes that when the ILP candidate, Pete Curran, went to speak in one mining village, the miners greeted him with a hail of stones. Whatever the truth of this tale, the ILP was heavily defeated. Closely tied to the Liberal Party, the miners wanted no truck with those ILP ‘splitters’. Many other industrial workers felt the same.

As a dejected Keir Hardie recorded, “Barnsley, altogether, is the worst thing we have yet done.”

That said, it was an industrial dispute at Manningham Mills in Bradford, when wages were cut by one-third, which gave birth to the ILP locally. The experience led some of those involved to turn against the Tories and Liberals because both parties fiercely opposed the strikers. Out of that defeat was born a slogan, something like: ‘We have a party that can’t and a party that won’t, so it’s time for a party that will.’

But this was not the pattern everywhere, certainly not in the short term.

So, how was the ILP to build a socialist society if the majority of workers, particularly skilled workers, strongly backed the Liberals and saw it as a threat to that relationship? It was a major challenge.

Many of its members had earlier given valiant support to the struggles of the more radically-led, new unions – from the gas workers in Leeds to the dockers in London – but, sadly, these gains quickly proved to be short-lived.

One aspect of the ILP’s early development was the value placed on developing an ethical political culture. The members created an environment in which a new form of politics could flourish. As well as taking to the streets, they established premises where all sorts of people could meet, debate, hear leading speakers, learn and – no less importantly – have some fun. Fellowship was the foundation of this politics.

Their aim was to prefigure the society they wished to build. Of course, like all human organisations they sometimes fell short of their ideals, but that does not devalue their endeavours.

Many local ILP branches set up their own venues and developed vibrant inner lives. This was certainly what took place in Bradford and in other West Yorkshire towns. It was true also across the Pennines in Nelson, and further south in Norwich and Leicester.

South Wales came shortly afterwards following the ILP’s support for the miners’ struggles there. And by the end of the First World War the ILP’s support for rent strikes firmly established the party in Clydeside.

However, valuable as all this ethical socialism certainly was, it was never going to be enough to change the world. The early ILPers had to find ways to connect with the wider, culturally diverse society.

Following their experiences in places like Barnsley, the idea grew that the road to the new society must be built on a political alliance with the trade unions – that is, by establishing a party of labour.

It was hoped that such an alliance would provide the means to connect with wider layers of the working classes. Then, the next stage would be to transform Labour into a party for socialism and win working people to the cause.

As we now know, the ILP helped achieve the former; the latter ambition has proved to be just a little more elusive.

Through its campaigns at local and national levels, not least at the Trades Union Congress (where, if I remember correctly, the block vote was originally introduced to marginalise the ILP’s political influence), Hardie and the ILP played the key strategic role in founding the Labour Party in 1900.

The party’s original title, the Labour Representation Committee, revealed its very limited horizons. There was not a hint of any kind of radical politics in its aims. That said, over 100 trade unions attended the conference (excluding the miners who took another decade before affiliating).

Of course, external developments had encouraged trade unions to loosen and eventually break their links with the Liberals. As the economic crisis deepened, with employers cutting wages, and as laws against the unions tightened, the Liberal Party proved to be a highly unreliable ally.

To establish a party tied to the unions involved a major compromise for the ILP but, arguably, this was the best that could be done in the circumstances. The Labour Party certainly proved to be a significant organisational break with the Liberal Party, although, as ILPers were to learn, it was much less of an ideological break with liberalism.

The early years of the fledgling Labour Party proved to be a great disappointment to many. Not only was it was politically very cautious but its leaders did electoral deals with the Liberals. This upset those who wanted to see Labour take a more robust political stand, although the arrangement did deliver a batch of parliamentary seats.

Hardie himself began to question what he’d achieved, declaring, “I grow weary of apologising for the state of things for which I am not responsible and with which I have scant sympathy.”

The Great War itself showed serious divisions between the Labour Party and the ILP. Labour backed the war effort and was represented in the wartime coalition; the ILP opposed the war and many of its young men were jailed for refusing to serve in the armed forces.

These political differences were a sign of things to come.

Between the Wars

This brings us to the second part of the story: the ILP’s politics during the interwar period, which led to its disaffiliation from the Labour Party at a special conference in 1932.

In 1918 individual membership was introduced to the Labour Party’s constitution, posing a new challenge for the ILP. This undermined the ILP’s role as, in effect, the grassroots of the Party. Until then, membership of the Labour Party had been via either the trade unions or the socialist societies, of which the ILP was the largest.

Now the Labour Party could set up its own local structures, which worried the trade union leaders who feared losing political control. As compensation, the unions voting strength on Labour’s national executive was enlarged while the ILP lost its automatic place on the executive.

Thus the party which had done so much to establish the Labour Party, and had for years been its active grassroots base, now had to construct a new role for itself. How was the ILP, with its own MPs, relate to the re-formed Labour Party?

Part of its answer was to act as Labour’s radical social conscience. This was not easy in a movement which prized notions of solidarity and loyalty above all else.

Although the ILP undertook some interesting and, I’d argue, constructive policy initiatives in this period, particularly the around the call for the Living Wage, these became secondary to continuing attacks on the Labour leadership. Matters came to a head with disappointment at the two minority Labour governments of 1924 and 1929, particularly the latter, which also produced a crisis for the Labour Party when its leaders joined the national government.

The two minority Labour governments clearly faced harsh, political constraints, but the question was how best to tackle them. The ILP argued that Labour should take a radical stand and, if the Liberals rejected the measures, then take the issue back to the electorate. The right countered that Labour must prove its worthiness and reliability in office.

Hence, during the economic crisis of 1929-31, the left called for bold socialist measures, while the right argued for economic orthodoxy.Maxton bust

Under the leadership of the Clydeside MP, Jimmy Maxton, the ILP was set on a collision course with Labour and relations became increasingly confrontational. Instead of MacDonald and Snowden fleeing into a Tory-led coalition, allowing reconciliation between the ILP and the wider party, the reverse happened.

As the trade union boss, Ernest Bevin, declared dismissively, the ILP always “let their bleedin’ ’earts rule their bleedin’ ’eads”. It was, for him and others, high time to settle the score with this troublesome “party within a party”. ‘Toe the line or go’ was the unvarnished message, even though it was largely played out in a discussion about parliamentary standing orders.

While many in the ILP were reluctant to leave, others – like the much-loved Maxton – believed disaffiliation provided a great opportunity. Freed from its ties with a compromised and demoralised Labour Party, the ILP would quickly win mass support by making a direct socialist appeal to the people. This was a tragic mistake taken in what were difficult and turbulent times.

Was it avoidable? Could the ILP have steered a smarter course and prevented matters coming to such a head? It’s hard to say.

That said, it is interesting to note that future Labour lefts, from the Bevanites to the Bennites, faced similar challenges. How far do you take your opposition, how do you respond to disappointments with Labour governments? Did these later Labour lefts handle these matters any better than the ILP? I think not, and perhaps our awareness of such difficulties influenced our own perspectives when we returned to the Labour Party in the 1970s.

To sum up rather crudely, if the early ILP initially overestimated the potential for change within and through the Labour Party, the inter-war ILP overestimated the possibility of radical appeals without the Labour Party. I think that’s what is called a paradox.

Return to Labour

When the ILP returned to the Labour Party as Independent Labour Publications in 1975, we found an increasingly divided party, with a Labour government struggling to deal with difficult economic circumstances.

We also found ourselves at odds with the trade unions over the social contract. Instead of advocating ‘free collective bargaining’, which many saw as intrinsically radical, we called for a radical social contract in distinction to what was on the table.ILP logo circle

Similarly, having supported the left’s initial calls for party democracy, we found ourselves at odds with them when they rejected the idea of one-member-one-vote. Increasingly, we had differences with the Bennite left over its confrontational political tactics and strategy. Many of the Labour left seemed to believe that they could wrest control of the Labour Party from the right, turn it leftwards, and the people would follow.

Our message was that we lived in a conservative (with a small ‘c’) culture and that it would not be so easily overcome. Not that the left should capitulate to those circumstances, as an excuse to avoid social change, but that the political culture required more measured challenges.

The internal conflicts within the party contributed to its electoral defeat in 1983 and to the decline of the Labour left. It also led to the birth of the SDP and, later, to the emergence of New Labour.

In a sense, during this period, the ILP became increasingly heretical. We questioned old orthodoxies and have continued to do so, not for sectarian reasons but because we believe that politics and society is changing, and that simply holding onto old verities, while comforting, is not always wise.

When the Tories returned to office in 1979, we warned that it was different from previous Tory governments. Many argued that it would not last and failed to take the threat posed by what became known as Thatcherism sufficiently seriously.

We were among the first to campaign against the poll tax but disagreed with the slogan advanced by some on the left of ‘Can’t Pay, Won’t Pay’, arguing that it narrowed rather than broadened the opposition.

While there is much more to be said about this period, I think it’s time to offer some concluding thoughts.

Movements and Parties

Later this weekend we will be looking at how Labour is seeking to overcome the legacy of New Labour and reconstruct the party. What is interesting is how some in the party are actually revaluing the ethical socialist tradition and the role of the ILP. Some in Labour recognise that traditional social democracy is in crisis; that the left has to find ways to re-engage with people in pro-active ways.

Labour has its work cut out. Never before have people been quite so disillusioned with politics at a time when only politics can resolve the serious economic problems faced by much of the western world.

We still need social democratic parties to connect with the wider society. But they face considerable restraints – politically, economically and culturally – perhaps more now than for decades.

To progress, Labour needs a far more pro-active relationship with the wider society than it has in the past, when its traditional message was ‘Vote for us and we will deliver this for you’. This perpetuated political ignorance, apathy and passivity.

But that is not going to be enough. We also need a radical presence within the party, pushing it towards more progressive goals while aware that it cannot stand too far away from its supporters.

The left should not simply be bounded by the party but needs to relate to wider progressive social and political movements which ebb and flow. While parties are in politics for the long term, movements are more volatile. But they can widen the space for radical politics. They can go where social democratic parties fear to tread, laying the ground where they can follow.

More recent movements – such as feminism and gay rights, environmentalism, Occupy, UK Uncut, and 38 Degrees – have generated creative spaces for new politics to emerge. We need to build bridges between movements and progressive parties. Neither parties nor movements are sufficient by themselves.

I want to conclude with a word from Dom from Occupy, one of the speakers at a Leeds Taking Soundings meeting some months ago. I can’t remember exactly what I said about Labour in the discussion we had, but he replied with gentle humour: “Barry, when you talk about the Labour Party my eyes glaze over.”

My response to him takes us back to my opening remarks. I said that when I talk about the Labour Party, I’m talking about the people within it. I’m talking about building links between those inside and outside the party in order to make the world a better place.

He was not convinced, perhaps too confident that Occupy had found a winning political formula. I hope he can be persuaded eventually, because his vision, energy and commitment is exactly what’s needed. For what we share is a desire to build a better social order drawing on an ethically-based critique of unbridled capitalism and our need to devise strategies to constrain and, if possible, overcome it.

Considering the ravages capitalism is continuing to wreak, today’s challenge is as big as anything the ILP has faced in its history. The question is whether the left, of which we are a tiny fragment, can make itself fit for purpose.

Can we find a language that connects with a very disconnected and politically alienated society? Can we find a politics that brings out the best in people? Can we construct dialogues to overcome difference or, at least, to allow us to learn from each other? Can we work with others to establish something of the fellowship that’s essential to sustain us in that journey? There are lots of questions.

The ILP’s history does not offer us the answers but I think it can afford us some helpful insights about the direction of travel. And perhaps that’s all we could ever expect.


This is an edited version of a talk given to the ILP’s Weekend School in Scarborough on 6 May 2013. Read more about the weekend school here.

Click here to read more on the ILP’s history.

Click here to read our series of ILP anniversary profiles.

Buy ILP 120th anniversary calendars here.