An Introduction to the ILP’s history
The ILP (Independent Labour Party / Independent Labour Publications) has a long and chequered history, one which is not easy to summarise accurately and adequately.
Here, we offer the briefest of introductions to our history and provide a short reading list.
The ILP was founded in 1893 on the initiative of local socialists, mainly from Scotland and the north of England and encouraged by such national figures as Keir Hardie (editor of the Labour Leader) and Robert Blatchford.
In 1900 the ILP played a key role in the founding of the Labour Representation Committee, which became the Labour Party in 1906. Initially the membership of the Labour Party came through either the trade unions or the affiliated socialist societies – primarily the ILP.
To begin with the ILP provided Labour’s grassroots activists and a significant number of its parliamentarians. However, in 1918 this changed. Thereafter, the Labour Party introduced its own individual membership, although the ILP retained the right to hold its own conferences and determine its own policies, even when they ran counter to those of the Labour Party’s. Indeed, the ILP strongly opposed Britain’s entry into the First World War, whereas Labour supported the war effort.
Increasingly there were disagreements between the Labour Party, particularly its parliamentary leadership, and the ILP rank and file. In the 1920s, the divergence of views was exemplified by the ILP members’ support for guild socialism and the virtual licence given to GDH Cole to promote these radical ideas via the ILP.
In 1922 a number of Scottish radicals, including Jimmy Maxton and John Wheatley, became ILP MPs. This heightened tensions within the Labour Party as its leaders became increasingly absorbed in the parliamentary political system. Following the debacle of the first Labour government, ILP candidates in the 1931 general election refused to accept the Labour Party’s standing orders, and in 1932 the ILP disaffiliated from Labour.
Thereafter, ILP membership fluctuated and, in time, started to decline, yet the ILP continued to be active in domestic politics and numerous support groups linked to freedom fights in Africa and elsewhere. It organised a socialist contingent to fight with the republicans in the Spanish Civil War (catalogued in Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell who served with the ILP). And just as it had, in its earlier days, opposed colonialism, imperialism, Stalinism and rampant capitalism, and campaigned at home for a living wage, for numerous radical welfare reforms, for workers’ rights and for women’s suffrage, so in the 1950s its members became active in the peace movement, in the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, in the Committee of 100 headed by Bertrand Russell, who was at one time a member of the ILP himself.
In the 1960s the ILP campaigned against racism, South African apartheid and the Vietnam War. Its members were active in the trade union movement, community groups and tenants’ associations and in the 1980s helped organise opposition to the Poll Tax and support for miners’s families during the protracted miners’ strike of 1984/5.
In 1975 the ILP ceased to be the Independent Labour Party and reconstituted itself as Independent Labour Publications, a political pressure group combining a parliamentary and extra- parliamentary perspectives for democratic social change. Thereafter, ILP members were free to join the Co-operative Party, and were positively encouraged to join the Labour Party and become involved in all aspects of its work, although membership or support for other political parties or groups was not acceptable.
Some time later ‘Friends of the ILP’ was established to make links with people who, though they might be inclined to agree with part or even all of the ILP’s perspective, could not, for one reason or another, join us as members.
Today the ILP seeks to encourage a democratic and radical political culture and movement that faces up to the challenges of our times. We may not always agree with what they said and did, but we remain linked to our forerunners, not only by the continuity of the ILP organisation, but by or commitment to work for a more humane, equitable, democratic, progressive and tolerant world.
The ILP: Past & Present
For a fuller introduction to the ILP’s history, you cannot do better than read Barry Winter’s The ILP: Past & Present which is available from our publications section.
Or you can read the pamphlet online by following the links here:
In 2013 the ILP celebrated its 120th anniversary by publishing a series of profiles of past ILPers – some famous names from Labour history, such as Keir Hardie and James Maxton; some less well known figures, local activists and people whose role in the Labour movement has largely been forgotten, such as Ada Salter in south east London and Hannah Mitchell in the north west.
Links to those profiles can be found here.
Or you can search for ‘ILP@120’ or ‘ILP Profiles’ on the home page. You can also find many of them by selecting ‘History’ from the drop-down menu under ‘Select Categories’ in the right-hand column, or in the ‘History’ section under ‘Articles’ on the main menu.
There are many other publications on aspects of ILP history and famous ILPers. Here are a few we recommend:
- Logie Barrow and Ian Bullock, Democratic Ideas and the British Labour Movement, 1880-1914
- Caroline Benn, Keir Hardie
- Fenner Brockway, Inside the Left
- Fenner Brockway, Socialism over sixty years – the life of Fred Jowett of Bradford (1864-1944)
- Gordon Brown, Maxton
- Ian Bullock, Romancing the Revolution, The Myth of Soviet Democracy and the British Left
- Ian Bullock, Under Siege: The Independent Labour Party in Interwar Britain
- David Clark, Colne Valley – radicalism to socialism
- Gidon Cohen, The Failure of a Dream: The Independent Labour Party from Disaffiliation to World War II
- R E Dowse, Left in the Centre
- June Hannam, Isobella Ford
- James Hinton, Protest and Visions: peace politics in 20th century Britain
- David Howell, British Workers and the ILP 1888-1906
- David James, Tony Jowett & Keith Laybourn (eds.), The Centennial History of the Independent Labour Party
- Keith Laybourn and Jack Reynolds, Liberalism and the Rise of Labour
- Jill Liddington, The Life and Times of a Respectable Rebel: Selina Cooper, 1964-1946
- Jill Liddington and Jill Norris, One Hand Tied Behind Us
- Alan Mackinlay and R J Morris (eds.), The ILP on Clydeside: from foundation to disintegration
- David Marquand, Ramsay MacDonald
- Keith Middlemass, The Clydesiders
- Kenneth O Morgan, Keir Hardie, Radical and Ssocialist
- George Orwell, Homage to Catalonia
- Henry Pelling, The Origins of the Labour Party
- Henry Pelling, A Short History of the Labour Party
- Ben Pimlott, Labour and the Left in the 1930s
- Gred Reid, Keir Hardie: the making of a socialist
- Jon Schneer, George Lansbury
- Sarah Stanley Holton, Feminism and Democracy
- Carolyn Steedman, Childhood, Culture and Class in Britain: Margaret McMillan 1860-1931
- E P Thompson, ‘Homage to Tom Maguire’, in Briggs and Saville (eds.), Essays in Labour History vol. 1
- Chusichi Tsuzuki, Tom Mann: The Challenge of Labour
- Joseph White, Tom Mann
- Ian Wood, John Wheatley
Some of the ILP’s archives are held at the London School of Economics where they can be viewed by arrangement. You can see the archive section of the LSE website here.
Here, the politics curator of the LSE Library talks about the importance of the ILP archives and explains how to access them.
Some ILP material is also held at the Working Class Movement Library in Salford, see www.wcml.org.uk.