“The ILP was deeply embedded in the labour movement and working class communities. They established community centres and organised socialist Sunday schools for children. The culture they built contributed to Labour’s electoral breakthrough in later years.”
By Jon Trickett MP
The Independent Labour Party (ILP) came into being on the 14th January 1893 in Bradford, Yorkshire.
A conference had been called by socialist workers to discuss the creation of a political party that would represent their class. Over 3 days 130 delegates sketched out a vision for the organisation that would shape the development of the UK Left and the future of our country.
The ILP was born of the working class radicalism in the late 19th century. Trade union membership grew unprecedentedly as the ‘new unionism’ engulfed the shipyards, factories and mines.
The Reform Acts of 1867 and 1884 had given male householders the right to vote. This left 40% of men and all women ineligible, but the working class now made up the majority of the electorate.
The Liberal Party responded by establishing links with workers’ organisations. They elected two trade unionists at the 1874 general election who became the first ‘Lib-Labs’.
But the progress was slow. The Scottish socialist miners’ leader, Keir Hardie, stood unsuccessfully as an Independent in the Mid-Lanarkshire by-election in 1888 after failing to gain Liberal Party support. This persuaded Hardie to form the short lived Scottish Labour Party.
Industrial militancy radicalised the working class as the Liberals repeatedly sided with bosses over workers.
In Bradford where the delegates met there had been a major strike at Manningham Mills silk factory in 1890. The strike convinced local trade unionists to create their own party, the Bradford Labour Union. This was replicated in other towns and cities in the North.
In 1892 Hardie was invited by workers’ in East London to stand for the seat of West Ham South. The Liberals decided not to field a candidate and Hardie was elected as an Independent becoming the first non-Liberal trade union MP.
The Bradford conference in 1893 included representatives of trade union, socialist and local organisations who supported the creation of an independent party rooted in the labour movement.
There was disagreement over the name of the new party. ‘The Socialist Labour Party’ was rejected on the grounds that large numbers of workers did not yet recognise themselves as socialists. Delegates decided on the name ‘Independent Labour Party’.
Hardie and his allies aimed to avoid isolating the ILP from the trade unions by resisting the adoption of narrow ideological parameters for the party. Other groups like the Social Democratic Federation believed that support for candidates should be limited to those who shared more explicit socialist commitments.
The conference reached a compromise by adopting as the party’s objective ‘to secure the collective ownership of all the means of production, distribution, and exchange.’
In Hardie’s speech to the conference he described the ILP as ‘the expression of a great principle, the determination of the workers to be the arbiters of their own destiny.’ He was elected ILP Chair and the trade union leader, Tom Mann, became General Secretary.
However, in the 1895 general election all 28 ILP candidates were unsuccessful. This convinced the ILP of the need to establish closer cooperation with the trade union movement.
The ILP played a central role in establishing the Labour Representation Committee (LRC) with the Trade Union Congress in 1900. At the 1906 general election the LRC made its electoral breakthrough winning 29 seats. The group adopted the name ‘The Labour Party’ and elected Hardie as their leader.
The ILP affiliated to the Labour Party and continued to grow in number and influence. Its members provided a large proportion of Labour’s early activist base. A raft of future Labour statesmen came through the ranks of the ILP, including Ramsay MacDonald and Clement Attlee.
The politics of the ILP were difficult to define and changed over time. It was socialist from the outset but a ‘big tent’ party with different ideological stripes. The ILP owed a debt of influence to Marxism but its outlook was also defined by ethical socialism informed by Christianity firmly based on working class interests.
The inequality and competition of capitalism was seen as immoral. The cooperation and fellowship of socialism was seen as spiritually fulfilling. ILP meetings have been described as ‘socialist evangelism’.
The ILP was deeply embedded in the labour movement and working class communities. They established community centres and organised socialist Sunday schools for children. The culture they built contributed to Labour’s electoral breakthrough in later years.
Over time the ILP became the predominant organisation on the Labour left, until its disaffiliation in 1932.
The story of the ILP after the formation of the Labour Party is worthy of an article itself. But here I want to focus on the lessons we can learn from its formative years.
The ILP established the principle of independent working class representation and played a central role in encouraging the trade union movement to create its own political organisation.
These pioneers took great risks establishing the Labour Party, but it paid off. Within three decades Labour replaced the Liberals as the main opposition to the Tories. Trade unions still hold significant power in parliament through Labour.
In government Labour introduced social reforms that were previously off the table with the Tories and Liberals, most notably the NHS.
There are some who believe the split between the labour movement and liberalism was a historic mistake.
Tony Blair once wanted to remodel Labour on the US Democrats before settling for the ‘New Labour’ rebrand. In the last twelve months he’s been encouraging Labour to forge a new movement with the Lib Dems.
And only a few days ago a Labour adviser was quoted in the press talking about the possibility of ‘a new organisation with a new membership’.
We turn our backs on the idea of independent working class representation at our peril. Socialists must not abandon Labour to revisionists who want to turn back the clock to a time when trade unions relied on the good will of upper class Liberals in parliament. Instead we should reassert the principles established by the ILP in 1893.