Development of the Labour Party

Were the trade unions a help or a hindrance to the formation, policy and development of the Labour Party to 1939?

April 2016, Rebecca Jones

 

The Labour Party and trade union relationship began and developed at the turn of the nineteenth century.  For this essay, the concept of a trade union is to be understood in its widest sense, as the Trade Union Congress (TUC). TUC is a federation of trade unions, which was founded in 1868, to represent the interests of those involved in the labour movement. The origins of the Labour Party can be traced back to 1900, when it was first founded as the Independent Labour Party (ILP) in 1893, then developed to the Labour Representation Committee (LRC), in 1900. Finally, in 1906 the LRC was furthermore to be known as the Labour Party. The Labour Party was formed to offer political representation to the labour movement, taking the role and responsibilities of the trade union on and into parliament. This essay will unpack the relationship between the TUC and Labour Party, to analyse if the TUC helped or hindered Labour formation, policy and development. Ultimately, it can be argued that the trade unions were a help to the Labour Party, due to the fact the trade unions supported and financed the party, encouraged its growth after employing it as a tool after the Taff Vale decision, and allowed the Labour Party to connect with a new market of recently franchised voters post-1918.

When looking at the formation of the Labour Party, it is necessary to look back at the progression from LRC to Labour Party. As previously mentioned, the LRC was formed in 1900 to represent the interests of the labour movement and working class. As summarised by Crompton, a ‘resolution [was passed] at the 1899 Trades Union Congress (TUC) to set up the Labour Representation Committee (LRC)’[1].  Further to this, the TUC resolution specifically was to establish ‘a distinct Labour group in parliament’[2]. The TUC required political representation in parliament, and so a party was created to fill this need. When considering this, it can be argued, that the trade unions were of help to the formation of the Labour Party, as they were central, they demanded, its very conception. Moving on from immediate formation, the trade unions were also of help to the Labour Party in terms of financial aid. Minkin describes the relationship as almost quid pro quo, with the unions offering ‘financial, electoral and organisational support in exchange for political protection.’[3] Without funding, the Labour Party would not have had the capabilities to campaign and ultimately publicise themselves to the electorate. This concept is summarised by Pelling, who identifies that Keir Hardie had his greatest achievement as the leader of the ILP, who captured ‘trade union support as early as 1900 [with the] ultimate object of tapping trade union funds for the attainment of Parliamentary power.’[4] Ultimately, the trade unions were seeking parliamentary representation, while the Labour Party was seeking financial aid and support to further their parliamentary desires for power.

When following this argument, two critical questions arise, would the party have developed through its different stages without trade union support and funding? Would the Labour Party ever have come to exist as a political party rather than a pressure group? To answer this, it is necessary to consider the political climate at the time. Previously, the Liberal Party had represented the working class in parliament. However, the Liberals were beginning to falter. The Party was alienating the labouring class by refusing to allow working-class candidates to stand in elections. Further to this, the Liberal Party were failing to protect the trade unions from ‘waves of political and judicial attacks on their liberties.’[5] Seemingly, ‘what the national Liberal Party, and its local organisations had failed to appreciate was the seething discontent which had erupted among trade unionists from the mid-1880s onwards’[6] and thus did not take action to correct this. This is where the Labour Party began to break through, as an alternative, a party by the working class, for the working class. Ultimately, ‘the nature of the British political alignment, the fact of Labour’s success and the Liberal party’s failure, seemed to confirm Labour as the working-class party’.[7] Kirk furthers this, by offering that ‘the Labour Party [by 1920] had replaced the Liberals as the main alternative to the Conservatives’ specifically in regard to gaining the working class vote.[8]

Secondly, what must be addressed is the question, would the Labour Party have developed without trade union funding. Although there were calls for working class representation, as mentioned previously, without funding, Labour progression would have been stunted, and ultimately have remained a pressure group until funding was either gathered over many years, or until interest was lost in the Party and the Liberals regained the interest of the working classes.  Therefore, when considering if the trade unions were a help or hindrance to Labour formation, it is indisputable that the trade unions were of help.  Without the support the trade unions were offering, it is highly likely the Labour Party would not have developed beyond the ILP, and would have been limited to a pressure group, rather than the established political party it grew to become after 1900 and the committing of trade union support. Taylor, who argues that ‘without the initiative and sustained financial and political support derived from the trade unions there would have been no Labour Party at all’[9], supports this notion.

When considering the policy of the Labour Party, it becomes clearer to see a distinction between the trade unions being a help or hindrance.  As previously mentioned, the trade unions were unequivocally integral to the formation of the Labour Party, as they pushed for its very conception and funded its growth. However, with such a suggestive control over the party, it is difficult not to conclude that the trade unions then must have ultimate control over the policy of the party, to further its interests in parliament. This is a conundrum Wertheimer summarised in the infamous Wertheimer’s Puzzle. Wertheimer identified the ‘complete dependence of the Labour Party on the trade unions’[10], but a complete discrepancy in policy between the two bodies.  Although the Labour Party depended upon the trade unions for support and were integral to its growth, the trade unions rarely exercised power over the political party. Minkin elaborates this, by explaining;

Trade unionism had another cause for concern about the adoption of political goals and the pursuit of political activity. Industrial unity was often fragile in the face of multiple pressures, some of them brutal. Political involvement widened the potential scope of internal conflict and therefore threatened the basic industrial unity. As a result there has always been a strain in trade unionism, which resisted politics simply as a means of self-protection.[11]

In effect, the trade unions perhaps kept their affairs separate from the explicit political realm due to fear of destruction.  In their lifetime, the trade unions had experienced significant repression. Hamish outlines that ‘30 pieces of legislation between 1305 and 1977 [were passed], twenty of them between 1720 and 1799, banning combinations among specific groups of workers’[12]. It was not until Combination Act of 1825 unions were no longer considered illegal, and were only granted full legal status after the Trade Union Act of 1871.  An organisation designed to represent the working class, to which for many years had struggled against the law, was too fragile to then come full circle, as such, and integrate itself into parliament. This was for the job of the Labour Party, which formed out of the LRC, which was designed by the trade unions, to represent the labour class in parliament. To mix and intertwine the two organisations, the purpose of both would become lost and confused, and thus ultimately become redundant.

However, it is not accurate to say the two organisations live a life of blissful co-existence. The trade unions held the power of a block vote, with the ability to overrule potential Labour policy. With the value of the block vote and the fact the unions alone comprised the largest element of the Labour Party, there is potential in the concept that the trade unions were a hindrance to Labour policy. Further to this, the fact that numerous MPs were sponsored by the trade unions specifically, adds more to the suggestion that the trade unions could use their influence to control events where they deemed fit. Taylor considers that ‘the block votes of trade union members overwhelmingly dominated [the Labour Party annual] policy making conference.’[13] Thorpe furthers this argument, by explaining ‘the union block vote at the Labour conference was often seen by party activists as inhibiting or even preventing debate’[14]. Taking the concept that debate often develops into action and thus policy, the union block vote can be seen as a hindrance to the enforcement of Labour policy, should Labour policy deviate from the wishes of the trade union. Further to this, trade union issues dominated Labour policy, especially in its early years.  One major event was the Taff Vale judgement in 1901. This ruled that unions could be held accountable for any damages occurred by taking strike action. This hindered Labour policy, as Pelling describes ‘the Labour Party… was in large measure a weapon of the trade-union leaders devised for the reversal of the Taff Vale decision.’[15] This can be seen to perhaps be a hindrance to Labour policy, as rather than concentrating on the values of socialism, which the party upheld, and representing the working and labour class implicitly, the party were pushed to represent the trade unions, which did not exclusively represent the working class. Meaning, the party was forced to make policy in aid of reversing the decision to gain trade union support, which it so desperately needed. Without supporting the reversal of the decision, which came in 1906, it is likely the Labour Party would never have gained the support of the trade unions in the way it did, and thus, as mentioned before, fail to develop beyond the status of a pressure group due to a lack of support and financial aid. After Taff Vale, Labour membership jumped, from around 350,000 to 860,000 as the trade union leaders began value the significance of having consolidated representation in parliament. Without the concentration upon trade union interest in terms of policy, it can be argued the Labour Party would not have gained the support of the trade unions, and thus remained a pressure group rather than a political group. Thus, tailoring policy to the trade unions, at least in formative years, was of significant help to the Labour Party.

The final topic of discussion involved in this essay is whether the trade unions were a help or hindrance to the development of the Labour Party. It can be argued that the biggest development for the Labour Party prior to 1939 was the period shortly after the First World War. 1918 heralded mass changes to the franchise, with all males aged twenty-one and over gaining the vote, and women over thirty years old receiving the vote if ‘they, or their husband, meet a property qualification’.[16]  The electorate expanded to twenty-one million people, and for the first time, included the working class, rather than just those met property qualifications. Also, the experience of a mass war instilled a desire for a political voice for many, which recently had been granted. The horrors of war could not be repeated, and the Labour Party, standing for representation of the working class and known to hold an anti-war stance, now seemed a viable choice. This is where the trade unions can be seen to be a help to Labour development, as more people joined the already large trade unions during the war, in particular women involved in the war effort. The connection between the trade unions and the Labour Party can be seen to have created a flow of ideas, in the sense of; join the trade union, recognise the Labour Party supported and was supported by the trade unions and thus perhaps held similar interests, become interested in the Labour Party, potential voters grow. It cannot be said that those who joined, and were already members of, the trade union, then immediately voted for the Labour Party, but a flow of thought can be seen to develop. In this sense, the relationship between the trade union and Labour Party can be seen to help Labour Party development, as it opened up a connection, which otherwise the Labour Party may never have been able to make alone, directly to the working and labouring class.

On the other hand, it must be considered how the relationship in this scenario can be considered a hindrance. It can be seen to be a hindrance with the notion that the relationship between Labour and the trade unions could limit the voting market Labour would appeal to. By aligning with the trade unions, any non-member could become alienated, by the overarching grip of the trade unions. The result of this would be the Labour Party failing to represent the working class past the clutch of the trade unions. However, to counter this argument, it must be pointed out that no political party can escape the issue of consistent minorities, especially one which is newly formed. In the system of democracy we follow, complete representation is impossible. Thus, the trade unions were of help rather than hindrance to the development of the Labour Party, as without the relationship and support, the Party would not have become a Party, let alone connect with such a large scale of the working class.

To conclude, this essay has discussed the topic of the relationship between the trade unions and the Labour Party, in terms of it being a help or hindrance in relation to formation, policy and development. In each case, the trade unions were of instrumental value. In terms of formation, without the trade union support, it is highly likely the Labour Party would not have developed beyond the ILP, or beyond a simplistic pressure group. For policy, when looking at the relationship at face value, it would appear that the trade unions would wield significant influence over the policy of the parliamentary party, however this was not the case. Rather, each organisation kept affairs to oneself, with a few exceptions.  If anything, trade unions were a help to Labour policy, specifically in the formative years, in regard to the Taff Vale decision, which ultimately encouraged the Labour Party into growth. Finally, the trade unions were integral to the development of the Labour Party, in matters more than financial as discussed in formation. Specifically after the increase in electorate, the trade union relationship opened up opportunity for a new wealth of voters to participate, be represented and understand their position in parliament.  Without the help of the trade unions, the Labour Party would exist, as we know it today. Without the financial support and connections the trade unions offered, the Labour Party would never have moved past a basic pressure group. Thus meaning, the trade unions were of unparalleled help to the Labour Party.

 

Bibliography

Primary Sources

Wertheimer, Egon, Portrait of the Labour Party (London, 1929).

Secondary Sources

Crompton, Gerald, ‘Lines of Division: Railway Unions and Labour, 1900 – 39’ in: M. Worley (Ed) The Foundations of the British Labour Party (Surrey, 2009) 37 – 56.

Hamish, Fraser, History of British Trade Unionism 1700 – 1988 (New York, 1999).

Kirk, Neville, Change, Continutity and Class Labour in British Society, 1850 – 1920 (Manchester, 1998).

Laybourn, Keith, ‘The Rise of Labour and the Decline of Liberalism’ History 80 (1995), 207 – 226.

Minkin, Lewis, The Contentious Alliance (Oxford, 1991).

Parliament, ‘Women and the Vote’. <http://www.parliament.uk/about/living-heritage/transformingsociety/electionsvoting/womenvote/keydates/> N.D.

Party, Labour, Labour Party Foundation Conference and Annual Reports (London, 1967 reprinted edition).

Pelling, Henry, A History of British Trade Unionism (Basingstoke, 1976).

Pelling, Henry, The Origins of the Labour Party 1880 – 1900 (Oxford, 1965).

Quinn, Thomas, ‘Block Voting in the Labour Party A Political Exchange Model’ Party Politics, 8, (2002), 202 – 226.

Tanner, Duncan, Political Change and the Labour Party 1900 – 1918’ (Cambridge, 1990).

Taylor, Robert, ‘Out of the Bowels of the Movement: The Trade Unions and the Origins of the Labour Party 1900-18’ in: B. Brivati and R. Heffernan (eds) The Labour Party A Centenary History (Wiltshire, 2000) 8 – 49.

Thorpe, Andrew, ‘The Labour Party and the Trade Unions’. <http://www.historyandpolicy.org/trade-union-forum/meeting/the-labour-party-and-the-trade-unions> March 2012.

 


[1] Gerald Crompton, ‘Lines of Division: Railway Unions and Labour, 1900 – 39’ in: M. Worley (Ed) The Foundations of the British Labour Party (Surrey, 2009) 37 – 56 p.37.

[2] Labour Party, Labour Party Foundation Conference and Annual Reports (London, 1967 reprinted edition) p.1.

[3] Lewis Minkin, The Contentious Alliance (Oxford, 1991) p.4.

[4] Henry Pelling, The Origins of the Labour Party 1880 – 1900 (Oxford, 1965) pp. 219 – 220.

[5] Thomas Quinn, ‘Block Voting in the Labour Party A Political Exchange Model’ Party Politics, 8, (2002), 202 – 226, p.212.

[6] Keith Laybourn, ‘The Rise of Labour and the Decline of Liberalism’ History 80 (1995), 207 – 226 p.223.

[7] Duncan Tanner, Political Change and the Labour Party 1900 – 1918’ (Cambridge, 1990) p.1.

[8] Neville Kirk, Change, Continutity and Class Labour in British Society, 1850 – 1920 (Manchester, 1998) p.149.

[9] Robert Taylor, ‘Out of the Bowels of the Movement: The Trade Unions and the Origins of the Labour Party 1900-18’ in: B. Brivati and R. Heffernan (eds) The Labour Party A Centenary History (Wiltshire, 2000) 8 – 49. p.8.

[10] Egon Wertheimer, Portrait of the Labour Party (London, 1929) p.8.

[11] Minkin, Alliance p.8.

[12] Fraser Hamish, History of British Trade Unionism 1700 – 1988 (New York, 1999) p.8.

[13] Taylor, ‘Bowels of the Movement’ p.8.

[14] Andrew, Thorpe, ‘The Labour Party and the Trade Unions’. <http://www.historyandpolicy.org/trade-union-forum/meeting/the-labour-party-and-the-trade-unions> March 2012. Accessed 11th November 2015.

[15] Henry Pelling, A History of British Trade Unionism (Basingstoke, 1976) p.126.

[16] Parliament, ‘Women and the Vote’. <http://www.parliament.uk/about/living-heritage/transformingsociety/electionsvoting/womenvote/keydates/> N.D. Accessed 12th November 2015.