The period between the two world wars was one of the most turbulent in political and socialist history. The events of that time had a profound impact on the ILP and the development of British left-wing politics, as Ian Bullock describes in his important new book, Under Siege, reviewed here by HARRY BARNES.
After setting the scene in a brief and useful introduction, Ian Bullock takes us straight into his topic – the role and activities of the ILP between the end of the First World War in 1918 and the start of the Second World War in 1939. He covers an action-packed and complex period falling between these massive military conflicts, which profoundly affected the party political scene and had a major impact on the activities of the ILP.
The ILP had been founded in 1893 and was a major influence on the birth of the Labour Party which first emerged as the Labour Representation Committee in 1900. Initially, the ILP was an important voice in the development of the Labour Party at both local and parliamentary levels. Keir Hardie became the first Chair of Labour’s Parliamentary Committee for a two-year period from 1906, a post often described today as ‘the first leader of the Labour Party’.
Labour was initially made up of affiliated organisations (mainly trade unions) and had no national scheme for individual members. Socialists and other individuals (including careerists) who wanted to help shape its development, were often attracted to the ILP as the party’s major rank and file socialist society. Although ILP membership was much smaller than that of Labour’s affiliated unions, it provided many of the party’s activists.
At the start of the period covered by Bullock, however, the Labour Party began to change, introducing its own individual membership scheme, which meant activists could directly join their local Constituency Labour Parties and side-step the ILP. It also introduced Clause 4 of the party constitution which called for “the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange”, giving Labour a theoretical socialist commitment which, for some, meant the ILP seemed less necessary.
The 21-year period covered by Bullock is the same length of time as that between the election of Tony Blair as leader of the Labour Party in 1994 and the defeat of the Gordon Brown government. Yet it was a much more complex period than the New Labour years, one fashioned, not just by the end of one world war and the dramatic moves towards another, but by a number of other major developments.
(1) The rise of the Communist Party of Great Britain
Founded in 1920 on the heels of the Russian Revolution in 1917, the Communist Party provided an organisational and ideological challenge to the socialist stance of the ILP and led to a number of ILP policy somersaults. Some ILPers were attracted to working with the Communists, while others were repelled by the idea. By 1932, however, (just before it disaffiliated from the Labour Party) the ILP still had five times as many members as the Communist Party.
(2) The 1924 and 1929-31 minority governments of Ramsay MacDonald
MacDonald had once been closely involved with the ILP, but his governments were generally seen as failures by ILP members, with the exception of John Wheatley’s 1924 legislation to allow council house building. In between, there was the 1926 general strike, a cause the ILP supported but felt was not pursued with sufficient determination by the labour movement. Miners’ leader AJ Cook (like Wheatley, a member of the ILP) is quoted as saying: “We shall never forget the generosity of the ILP.”
(3) What Bullock calls “a brief period of Trotskyism in the ILP”
Occurring between 1934 and 1936, this left in its wake “a residue of activity influenced by [Trotskyist] doctrines”. Indeed, both Stalinism and Trotskyism led to various comings and goings, and infiltrations, in the ILP while on the international stage, it wavered between the reformist Second International, the revolutionary Third and, later, the Trotskyist Fourth. In the immediate post-World War One period, the ILP became involved in the Vienna Union of 1921, seen as a half-way house (or synthesis) of these alternatives, which became known as the “Two-and-a-Half International”. Later, the Fourth International attracted a number of ILPers.
(4) The ILP’s anti-war image
Forged during the First World War, which most ILPers opposed as pacifists or because they regarded it as an imperial conflict, this image in fact concealed a more complex reality. Some ILPers, such as Clement Attlee, signed up and fought against Germany. Attlee himself was twice seriously wounded in the middle east, although many other ILPers were imprisoned as conscientious objectors. Bullock provides valuable coverage of this tense period (as he does in this article on the ILP website).
The ILP’s anti-war stance attracted many into its ranks and the image survived even after an ILP contingent of volunteers went to fight Franco in the Spanish Civil War. When the Second World War arrived, the ILP had been disaffiliated from the Labour Party for seven years. The leading ILP figure at the time was James Maxton who saw the Second World War as a conflict between imperial powers and took a strong anti-war line. George Orwell, who had joined the ILP after fighting alongside ILPers in Spain, resigned over the ILP’s opposition to fighting Germany.
These four themes above touch on only some of the complex situations experienced by the ILP during the inter-war period. Bullock covers these by drawing extensively on ILP archives at the London School of Economics, the People’s History Museum and the Working Class Movement Library in Salford, plus the ILP papers, Labour Leader and New Leader, and its internal document, Between Ourselves. Personally I was fascinated to find Bullock referring to works by Robert Dowse and Bob Benewick who were politics tutors of mine some 45 years ago. References also crop up to the writings of Pat Seyd, whom I recently invited to address my local Labour Party discussion meeting.
However, the most dramatic and pivotal event in the ILP’s inter-war history was its disaffiliation from the Labour Party in 1932, a crunch development to which Bullock devotes two chapters.
Labour won only 52 seats in the 1931 election and MacDonald deserted Labour to stay on as prime minister at the head of a national government. At first the ILP saw this as a chance to re-establish something of its past influence in Labour’s ranks, while working to establish wider support outside the party.
In the background to the ILP’s decision to leave was the ‘Cook-Maxton Manifesto’ of 1928, which called for an “unceasing war against poverty and working class servitude”, in sharp contrast to MacDonald and his associates. This ideological tension was exacerbated when the Parliamentary Labour Party decided ILP-sponsored MPs should be subject to its own parliamentary whips, thus over-riding decisions made by the ILP’s more left-wing group of MPs.
Within four months of disaffiliation, the ILP had lost a third of its branches and its membership had fallen dramatically from 16,773 early in 1932 to 2,441 later that year. Fenner Brockway (pictured above) was one of the ILP’s leading activists at the time. He pushed for disaffiliation, yet later in life (after returning to the Labour Party with a sound anti-colonial record) admitted it was one of the two major political mistakes of his life. The other was to accept a peerage in the mid-1960s.
Although the ILP shrank rapidly, it did not disappear completely and played an important role in supporting POUM (an anti-stalinist Marxist workers’ party) in the fight against Spanish fascism. It also retained four Glasgow-based seats in parliament during the Second World War. Indeed, it was only after the death of Maxton in 1946 that its remaining three MPs re-joined the PLP.
In a chapter entitled ‘Calls for Unity as War Approaches’, Bullock describes various discussions between the ILP and the Labour Party in 1939, which could have led on to the ILP’s re-affiliation were it not for the outbreak of the Second World War on 3rd September that year and the ILP’s anti-war stance.
All these key developments and issues are carefully examined by Bullock, but I have two main reservations about his work.
First, for me the book sticks rather too closely to its brief. There are only limited references to the two world wars, for instance, although these had a seismic impact on shaping the ILP’s stances, both after 1918 and in the run-up to 1939.
Bullock also misses out the partial enfranchisement of women, which came soon after the First World War and was an issue for which Keir Hardie and various other ILPers had struggled for some time. What’s more, full female enfranchisement was achieved in 1928, a year before Labour won more seats than any other party for the first time in the 1929 general election.
Secondly, while the writer’s rather heavy reliance on contemporary ILP sources is fruitful in some areas – such as highlighting the important role played by Fred Jowett from Bradford, for example – it does leave a rather ‘bits and pieces’ impression. I felt the reader would have benefited from an overall analytic framework to help grasp the work’s general pattern. There is a concluding chapter, entitled ‘The Legacy of the ILP’s Inter-War Years’, which draws many of the book’s threads together, but it would have been helpful if this analysis could have been highlighted earlier in the narrative.
Those criticisms need to be balanced, however, by the fact that this is a serious contribution to our history and understanding of the ILP, although it does raise questions that remain unanswered. It would have been helpful, for example, to have been told when leading ILP figures such as MacDonald, Attlee, Philip Snowden, Manny Shinwell and GDH Cole finally withdrew from ILP activity? And why?
Clifford Allen, another central ILP figure attracted by its anti-war tendency, became treasurer and chair between 1922 and 1926, but was opposed to disaffiliation. According to Bullock he wrote of “the end of the ILP” and claimed it was the wrong time to leave as the old Labour brigade were “nearing the end of their journey” and new opportunities were opening up.
Unfortunately, it would take more than 40 years before the ILP finally moved back into Labour’s ranks as a publications organisation. That decision to ‘re-join’ in 1975 started out with a telling article in Labour Leader entitled ‘A Contract For Change’ which argued that Harold Wilson’s Social Contract could be effective in improving society if it was altered and developed. It was the type of dialectical analysis that appealed to my own socialist approach, and helped persuade me to join. It is a pity that such reasoning had not been at the forefront of the ILP’s thinking in 1932.
Harry Barnes is the former Labour MP for North East Derbyshire. He blogs at ‘Three Score Years and Ten’.
Readers in the UK can purchase the book for £34 through Combined Academic Publishers or other online vendors.