The Labour Party was founded by socialists, but it was not a socialist party they founded. From its conception, Labour was a broad church designed to represent the entire labour movement: it was a party born of contradictions. Drawing upon extracts from Simon Hannah’s new book A Party with Socialists in It: A History of the Labour Left, we chart the key moments in the history of the Labour Left, from the party’s inception to the premiership of Jeremy Corbyn.
Keir Hardie and the birth of the Labour Party:
In 1893, former miner Keir Hardie was elected as an independent MP for West Ham South. He was the first explicitly working-class candidate and elected on a platform of supporting the workers’ movement. Following his election the Independent Labour Party was established and within a few years, the ILP had gained several thousand members. Key women’s rights activists and Irish freedom campaigners joined, including James Connolly and Emmeline and Richard Pankhurst. The formation of the party was a significant step forward for the class consciousness of workers, enabling them to represent themselves independently of a wing of the capitalist class.
Labour and the New Social Order:
1918 saw the publication of Labour and the New Social Order, the Party’s first programme. The document outlined Labour’s principle that the party would play no role in reconstituting or defending capitalism, it was committed to the redistribution of power from the bosses to the working classes and stated that profit would be turned over to the public good as capitalism was gradually eradicated by Labour.
Although it transpired that the document was largely to appease the radical sections of the ILP and would serve as a concession to the left just as they were being ousted from any position of strength in the party, Labour and the New Social Order set the tone for what the Labour left would continue to fight for.
1926 General Strike and the rise of Nye Bevan:
1926 was the year of the general strike and across the country industry fell quiet in defence of Britain’s miners. Many Labour MPs were frightened by the transformative nature of the struggle, believing that it disrupted their carefully cultivated gradualist parliamentary strategy. In Wales, a young miner known as the ‘King of Tredegar’ was put in charge of organising the local Council of Action. He was Aneurin Bevan, raised on radical ideas and literature by his working class parents, the hard work of the mining community and the suffering it wrought on the people had left an indelible mark on him, and he was inspired by his father to want to change things for the better. In 1928, Bevan was elected as the Labour Party candidate for Ebbw Vale and would go on to become one of the chief spokesmen for the Labour Party’s left-wing and the engineer behind the NHS.
On 5th October 1936 – two hundred unemployed men and their local MP, Ellen Wilkinson, left Jarrow to walk to London. They carried a petition, signed by nearly 12,000 Jarrow citizens, which they hoped to present to Parliament. In 1936, Jarrow was one of the most disadvantaged and depressed towns in England: out of a population of 35,000, 6,000 were on the dole and 23,000 were on relief. Wilkinson deemed the attitude of the Conservative dominated government to the plight of the North East ‘simply damnable’ and she was determined to force London to take notice. Jarrow was not the biggest demonstration in British labour history but it has turned out to be one of the most iconic, becoming part of Labour Party and Trade Union mythology and Jarrow and Ellen Wilkinson became by-words for resistance against heartless and unjust governments.
Labour’s 1945 election victory exceeded anyone’s expectations and buoyed by a feeling of hopefulness (much to the concern of Attlee and the king), Labour’s new cohort of hopeful MPs sang ‘The Red Flag’ in celebration outside Parliament.
The election manifesto of 1945 had clearly stated that Labour’s ‘ultimate purpose at home is the establishment of the Socialist Commonwealth of Great Britain – free, democratic, efficient, progressive, public- spirited, its material resources organised in the service of the British people’. Although the Atlee government’s ‘socialist commonwealth’ still looked a lot like state nationalisation under a Labour government with progressive taxation on the rich – by all means a social democratic programme, not an outright socialist government – the creation of the NHS, public housing initiatives, significant improvements to public service wages and pensions and meaningful extension of worker’s rights were defining moments for Left Labour.
‘The collective principle asserts that… no society can legitimately call itself civilised if a sick person is denied medical aid because of lack of means.’
— Aneurin Bevan, In Place of Fear (1952)
In Place of Fear, published in 1952 was ‘the most widely read book of the time. It describes a country divided between property and poverty, with democracy as a mediating arena of struggle; in Britain’s case this meant Parliament. If ‘democratic parliaments under private property, under capitalism, are the professional public mourners for private economic crimes’, the key was to turn Parliament into a bastion for working-class resistance: ‘the function of parliamentary democracy, under universal franchise, historically considered, is to expose wealth-privilege to the attack of the people. The Bevanite movement threatened the established hierarchy in a number of ways, he basked in the glory of the NHS and his principled resignation over cuts, many saw him as a staunch class fighter and his principles set the tone for the ambitions of Momentum and Corbyn’s teams today.
Frustrated with the failure of the second Wilson and Callaghan governments, a new Labour left emerged around two distinct ideas, new left economic ideas around industrial democracy and greater internal democracy in the Labour Party. Tony Benn became synonymous with these struggles, and organisations like the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy fought successful campaigns to change the party constitution in favour of rank and file members. Bennism as a movement became infamous in the media and the political establishment, seen as a radical, transformative challenge to the status quo.
One organisation that hoped to provide that strategy was gathering force: Militant, a Trotskyist grouping within the Labour Party, who were wedded to the strategy of working in and through the Labour Party to achieve socialism. Militant’s leadership recruited a number of serious and dedicated activists to the organisation. The All Britain Anti-Poll Tax Federation was lead by Tommy Sheridan, Militant member, which lead to his expulsion from the Labour party.
Following a huge protest in London where the police lost control, the Poll Tax was shelved. Those on the Left of the party had contributed to a huge victory against one of the most reactionary pieces of legislation dreamt up in the modern age, and the protest movement they helped organise did more to stop Thatcher’s policies than all Kinnock’s weak arguments in Parliament. Her flagship policy crushed and with little internal support left, Thatcher tearfully tendered her resignation to the Queen.
Black Sections campaign
Black voters had overwhelmingly voted Labour, loyal to the party that had stood for the working classes, facilitated the post-war Windrush generation’s emigration to Britain and whose MPs had participating in anti-colonial and anti-racist campaigning. In spite of this, Black people remained underrepresented within the Party.
In the early 1980s, Diane Abbott, Sharon Atkin and Bernie Grant organised black caucuses and deepen Labour’s presence in Black and Minority Ethnic communities. At the time, there were no black MPs, few black councillors and no black members on Labour’s ruling National Executive. In the face of police violence, stop and search, and systematic discrimination in schools and the workplaces, the organisers decided that Labour should no longer be allowed to rely on black votes without also dealing with black concerns.
There was success in the 1987 election with the election of Bernie Grant, Paul Boateng, Keith Vaz and Diane Abbott, the first black woman MP, after a hard-fought campaign in Hackney North.
Labour Representation Committee:
The Labour left was faced with the enormous challenge of carving out a space in the rightward moving New Labour project. In 2004, along with CLP activists, a number of unions both inside and outside Labour (RMT, FBU, CWU and BFAWU) set up the Labour Representation Committee, chaired by John McDonnell, to push for left policies. As Owen Jones described it in 2011: ‘Like LRC 1.0, it has the same underlying argument: working-class people currently lack effective political representation, and something should be done about it.’ The LRC was an explicitly socialist organisation in the belly of the New Labour machine.
Iraq War Protests:
The scale of the opposition to the Iraq War in 2003, was phenomenal, producing a social movement unrivalled in modern British history.
Corbyn, McDonnell and the others on the left opposed the war on principle. They rejected the arguments around the WMDs and argued for Iraq’s national sovereignty in the face of unwarranted international aggression. Robin Cook resigned from the Cabinet in protest, followed by Clare Short. In all, 121 Labour MPs voted against the war in February, rising to 139 in March, in one of the largest backbench rebellions in parliamentary history. Alan Simpson MP, from the Socialist Campaign Group, launched Labour Against the War with the backing of Benn and Corbyn, which provided a much-needed profile for the beleaguered left in the party.
Very few of the protestors joined Labour – why would you join the war party? – but it established a relationship of trust and camaraderie between many thousands of people alienated from mainstream politics alongside left Labour activists.
The leadership victory of Jeremy Corbyn:
No one predicted Corbyn’s leadership victory in 2015, least of all the left themselves. For many young people Corbynism was a cry of rage against the bleak future offered to them by the neoliberal economic order. For others Corbyn represented a reflex desire for a return to an older form of Labourism, of social democracy against social liberalism. The movement behind Corbyn represented a decisive rejection of 40 years of neoliberalism and six years of austerity, the continued decline of communities, the lack of decent jobs, low wages, sky-high rents and unaffordable homes, racism, imperialism and the corruption of the political class exposed by a series of parliamentary expenses scandals.
When people outside of Labour saw a chance to crack apart the neoliberal pro-austerity consensus, they joined with Labour members and the unions to use the right’s democratic reforms against them.
Corbyn was their revenge.
For the Many Not the Few: A Labour Manifesto
When For the Many Not the Few was officially launched in 2017, it was a fully costed, tax-and-spend manifesto depicting a return to a mixed economy and a more equitable form of capitalism.
The manifesto also contained enough popular issues that mobilised real energy: a living wage, nationalisation of the railways, free university education, progressive taxation, opposition to austerity, 100,000 council homes to be built, and the promise of government intervention in the economy via a National Infrastructure Bank. It chimed with people exhausted by a socioeconomic order based on debt, insecurity, cuts and the absence of a public service ethos.
The election results of June 2017 defied expectations. Labour gained 30 seats while the Tories lost their majority. The result cemented Corbyn’s position as Labour leader while throwing the Conservatives into chaos. The old struggle to transform the Labour Party – to transform the world – has started a new chapter.
The greatest challenge to the left still lies ahead – will it transform society or be seduced and integrated back into the status quo? Blair was right about one thing: the class compromise on which Labour was founded in 1900 is increasingly unsustainable; that is why political polarisation is happening inside Labour, in the wider society and across the world. What is clear is that for the first time in a generation, there is an alternative.
A Party with Socialists in It: A History of the Labour Left is available from Pluto Press.