The ILP celebrates its 125th anniversary this week. BARRY WINTER marks the organisation’s brithday with a brief survey of its history and consideration of the lessons it can pass on to today’s left.
The ILP was formed in Bradford 125 years ago, in what was then a leading northern industrial city. Over the years, it has attracted a wide variety of people. Some, such as Keir Hardie, were practising Christians and tea-totallers; others, such as Robert Blatchford, were much more hedonistic and liked a drink or three.
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; others were quite comfortably off; but many more lived in poor and sometimes precarious circumstances, like Tom Maguire of Leeds, who died young.
Meantime, Ramsay MacDonald, Labour’s first prime minister, began life in poverty and graduated to an impressive abode in the leafy lanes of Hampstead.
The ILP 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.
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 in the ILP, the Labour Church and the suffrage movement. Eventually, she became an ILP councillor in Manchester, and later she wrote her autobiography (The Hard Way Up), which sadly was not published in her lifetime.
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 later years the party continued to attract people from very different generations, with varying cultural and educational backgrounds: from manual workers in the textile industry; to teachers, such as the ILP’s Emrys Thomas, who for many years patiently chaired NAC meetings and organised ILP summer schools; to writers, such as George Orwell.
From Leeds, came Walter and Annie Mallorie, of whom I have fond memories. They lived their married life 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 miners’ strike. Walter had served in the First World War and, in recoiling from its horrors, became both a socialist and a pacifist. They ran the local ILP meeting hall in Armley and to encourage attendance, Walt would ring a hand bell at the end of the streets announcing the meeting and the speakers.
When I joined Labour in Armley in the 1970s, I recall an old party member who told me of one local ILP enthusiast who changed the name of his house to ‘ILPer’.
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 rest 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.
For a brief period, Oswald Mosley, upper-class, ambitious and always impatient for change, joined. Later he re-encountered the ILP in very different circumstances: when ILPers played a leading role in halting his fascist march through London’s East End, with its a sizeable Jewish community.
One of those leading the resistance to Mosley’s Blackshirts was the ILPer and 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 biographies, 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.
One thing that often distresses me is the simplistic way in which some rewrite history, particularly when it comes to the founding of the Labour Party, originally called the Labour Representation Committee. In a recent Fabian Society booklet, Yvette Cooper MP declares that the party was formed by the trade unions and the Fabian Society; thus erasing the significant role played by ILPers in persuading the unions. In a recent edition of Red Pepper, an active member of a trade union declared that the party was founded by the trade unions.
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?
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 and there is the relationship between them.
The first is something over which its members have some control – their culture and organisation, their activities and, of course, their 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 included its relationships with other political organisations, campaigns and movements, not only the Labour Party but later 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.
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 other ships, 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 challenging.
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.
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. In Nelson, for example, the ILP offices regularly held dances.
Add to this the Clarion cycling clubs and campaigning caravans, and the Cinderella Clubs which took children from the slums into the countryside
Their aims were 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 also 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
The ILP’s politics during the interwar period 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, to 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 around the call for the Living Wage under the leadership of Clifford Allen, 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.
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 Ramsay MacDonald and Phillip 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”. For him and others, it was 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 for socialism. Freed from its ties with a compromised and demoralised Labour Party, the ILP would quickly win mass support by making a direct 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? Probably 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.
Similarly, having supported the left’s initial calls for party democracy, the ILP found ourselves at odds with it when we advocated one-member-one-vote, an idea it rejected. 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 speedily wrest control of the Labour Party from the right, turn the party 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.
In a sense, during this period, the ILP was increasingly seen as 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.
Movements and Parties
There have been some new and welcome developments in the Labour Party over the last few years, not least the influx of younger members – many of them members of Momentum, inspired by Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. This has happened at a time when many people are completely disillusioned with politics, a state for which New Labour bears some of the responsibility.
However, Labour needs to avoid the earlier, damaging internal conflicts that took place between the left and the right in the ’70s and ’80s. My own view is that instead of putting its focus on securing places on the party’s national executive, Momentum would be better served encouraging a major campaign to support the National Health Service. Just imagine what thousands of party members putting their efforts into such an initiative might achieve.
Considering the ravages capitalism is continuing to wreak, the challenge the left faces today is as big as anything the ILP faced in its history. The question is whether the left 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 all the answers but I think it offers some helpful insights about the direction of travel. Perhaps that’s all we can expect while we can draw inspiration from many of those earlier generations of socialists who devoted much of their lives to building a better society.
This is an edited and revised version of a talk given to the ILP’s Weekend School in Scarborough on 6 May 2013, in celebration of the ILP’s 120th anniversary.