Socialists, Labour & the Cautionary Tale of the ILP Split


“Every time the Labour left has suffered a significant setback in the last 35 years there have been resignations & calls to form a new left party. Attempts like Arthur Scargill’s Socialist Labour Party rapidly collapsed into irrelevance.”

Richard Price.

Richard Price, Leyton and Wanstead CLP, traces the fate of Labour’s largest left-wing split

Every time the Labour left has suffered a significant setback in the last 35 years there have been resignations and calls to form a new left party. Attempts like Arthur Scargill’s Socialist Labour Party rapidly collapsed into irrelevance, but if there was a left split in the party’s history that on the face of things had some prospects it was the disaffiliation of the Independent Labour Party in 1932.

As one historian of the ILP notes, at that time “its membership was over five times as great as the membership of the Communist Party of Great Britain. In the 1931 elections the Party had returned more candidates than the Labour Party in Scotland. It had an extensive organisation at both national and local level, a well-regarded national journal supplemented by many more local publications.”

More than that, without the ILP, the Labour Party would never had existed. Its first chair was Keir Hardie, it had played a key role in Labour becoming a mass party, and it was widely regarded as the keeper of Labour’s socialist conscience. If the SDF was an odd alliance of sturdy proletarians and the privately educated, the ILP was the party of clerks, teachers, radical non-conformists, pacifists and skilled workers. It provided most of the early leaders and thinkers of the Labour Party, and strongly supported women’s suffrage.

In August 1914, while the vast majority of Labour and trade union leaders rallied to the flag, the National Council of the ILP came out against the war. ILP members played a key role in forming the No Conscription Fellowship, and were the most important anti-war force in Britain. It greeted the Russian Revolution enthusiastically, but declined to affiliate to the Comintern.

Before the reorganisation of the Labour Party in 1918 which for the first time allowed individual membership, the ILP had been a key component of a federal party. Now it found itself a socialist island within a big sea of less engaged “Labourist” members. It gained prestige from the election of the Red Clydesiders, and membership rose to perhaps 50,000 in the early 1920s. At the 1923 general election, 45 ILPers were elected out of a total of 191 Labour MPs.

As the prospect of power approached, ILP founding fathers like Ramsay MacDonald and Philip Snowden moved rightwards. The 1924 minority Labour government’s sole significant achievement was ILP member John Wheatley’s Housing Act, which expanded affordable working class municipal housing.

Through its own publications and summer schools, and in collaboration with the Labour College movement and the Plebs League, the ILP became a ginger group within the wider labour movement, stressing the need for political education, planning and radical reforms.

The defeat of the 1926 General Strike seriously weakened the trade unions, and their leaders, with the notable exception of A.J. Cook, beat a hasty retreat. For the Labour leaders it was a salutary warning of the dangers of extra-parliamentary action. Fenner Brockway and Jimmy Maxton, who became ILP chair in 1926, took the opposite view, earnestly drafting and promoting socialist policies and championing anti-imperialism.

Elected to Labour’s NEC in 1927, Ellen Wilkinson served on the programme committee and the Living Wage Enquiry. It was, she wrote, “curiously difficult to produce a programme for a party which hasn’t a philosophy”.

In June 1928, Cook and Maxton issued a manifesto “to the workers of Britain”, accusing the MacDonald leadership of making “peace with capitalism and compromises with the philosophy of our capitalist opponents”. From July to September a series of mass meetings were held up and down the country, but the campaign fizzled out when the Communist Party (which had a hand in drafting the manifesto) withdrew support and embarked on five years of ultra-leftism.

With ILP policy proposals such as Socialism in Our Time and The Living Wage rejected by Labour, frustrations and tensions multiplied. Within weeks of Labour forming its second minority government in 1929, Maxton was asking “Has any human being benefitted by the fact that there has been a Labour government in office?” 140 of Labour’s 287 MPs were nominally ILP members, but when push came to shove only 18 of them accepted new standing orders which obliged them to obey the decisions of the ILP conference rather than the Labour whip.

Above all, it was the government’s failure to deal with rapidly rising unemployment – up from 1m when it took office to 2.5m by December 1930 – and its introduction of the hated “not genuinely seeking work” clause that angered the ILP MPs. But Maxton’s attempt to move a motion censuring MacDonald at the 1930 Labour Conference was defeated by 1.8m to 330,000.

The bulk of the PLP continued to follow MacDonald up to the point when he jumped ship to form a National Government with Tories and Liberals in August 1931. In the first week of October, Labour’s Conference voted by 2.1m to 193,000 to oblige all Labour candidates to agree to accept PLP standing orders. 19 ILP candidates refused to accept the decision, and were not endorsed by Labour nationally. Only three were elected on 27th October and, joined by two others, formed a separate parliamentary group.

Although disaffiliation sentiment ran strong in ILP heartlands in Scotland and Bradford, it was opposed by a sizable minority, with regional conferences heavily split. Maxton wavered for several months. But the tide was unstoppable, and on 30th July 1932 in Bradford the ILP voted to disaffiliate by 241 votes to 142.

These were inauspicious times to split: Labour’s catastrophic defeat in 1931; trade union membership down to 4.4m; unemployment up to 3.5m. Of 28,000 members pre-split, only 16,700 followed it out of the Labour Party. Labour members generally accepted that a minimum of parliamentary discipline was necessary if the party was to recover. The ILP’s Glasgow base imploded. Fenner Brockway, defeated in Leyton East in 1931, could not persuade his local ILP divisional party to follow him.

Post-disaffiliation, the ILP entered an almost perpetual state of crisis. It failed to attract much of the Labour left. In the same month as disaffiliation, 3,000 ex-ILP members launched the Socialist League and veteran left-winger George Lansbury became Labour leader. The ILP’s new-found independence was immediately riven by factional struggle between the Maxton-Brockway leadership, the pro-Stalinist Revolutionary Policy Committee, the left reformist Unity Group, and the Marxist Group, which included C.L.R. James.

The ILP did play a creditable role in the Lancashire Cotton Strike of 1932, the 1934 Hunger March and the mobilisation for Cable Street in 1936. Its councillors held the balance of power on Glasgow Council for much of the 30s. It abandoned rigid pacifism and sent a small contingent to fight with the POUM militia in Spain in 1937. But a disproportionate amount of energy was consumed by debating its relationship to the Communist Party – a process only terminated by the Stalinist repression of the POUM.

Membership continued to fall, down to 4,392 in 1935 and 2,441 in 1939. Branch numbers fell from 450 in 1932 to 284 in 1935. Just three of 19 candidates in the 1935 General Election were elected. An Indian summer during the Second World War saw the ILP poll an average of 24% in the 12 by-elections it stood in. But most of the remaining membership collapsed into the Labour Party shortly after the 1945 landslide. Disaffiliation, according to one historian, was “suicide during a fit of insanity”. For Fenner Brockway it was “the worst mistake in my life.”

Banner: Working Class Movement Library, Salford.
Image, Creative Commons: BY-NC-SA,Working Class Movement Library and Marshall Mateer

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