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The Rise Of The Labour Party Had

More To Do With Class Consciousness Than Socialism Discuss Essay, Research Paper

The Rise of the Labour Party had more to do with class consciousness than socialism. Discuss.

The British Labour party is essentially a twentieth century phenomenon, which came in this century to essentially take the place of the Liberals as the main opposition to the traditionally strong forces of conservatism. The question which is to be addressed then is how and why this change came about, and whether this was mainly to do with the increasing popularity of socialism as a political creed or whether it was based on much wider social and class issues. Certainly many working class people were becoming disturbed at the striking contrast between the poverty of the poor and the comfortable existence enjoyed by the upper and middle classes. However what remains to be addressed is whether most of these people saw the solutions to these problems in socialist terms or simply regarded them as issues which should be addressed, regardless or not of any socialist objective.

It is an oversimplication to talk about the rise of the Labour Party as if it were a single homogenous body. In fact it was an amalgamation of three different socialist groups the Social Democratic Federation, the Fabians and the Independent Labour Party with some trade unions. Although these groups were all described as Socialist, their aims and methods were not always the same. This distinction is crucial in understanding the importance of socialism in the rise of the Labour Party. The Social Democratic Federation was a short lived organisation vehemently socialist party who preached using violent revolution to overthrow the capitalist system. It never enjoyed popular support but attracted publicity through its protest marches and demonstrations, the most famous being the one held in Trafalgar Square in 1887 which came to be known as Bloody Sunday because of the violence which ensued. It had little importance in the actual rise of the Labour movement, because though preaching rigid socialism did not appeal to those it actually intended to represent. The Fabian Society was also strongly socialist, though not violent, and it too made little impression on the working classes. It consisted of a group of middle-class intellectuals which included Sydney and Beatrice Webb and George Bernard Shaw. Their benevolence was evident and much of their work was admired in upper and middle class circles, but they too failed to identify with the working class who after all were the ones they intended to help. It clear then that the earliest socialist groups had very little to do with the gradual rise of the Labour Party.

It was to be the formation of the Independent Labour Party in 1893 which was perhaps the most important initial element. It was not ideologically rigid, and some of its leaders, notably Keir Hardie, deliberately embraced the strategy of a labour alliance. This stressed the importance of socialists joining trade unionists to form a distinct working class party which, though not committed to socialist objectives, would be independent of the Liberal and Conservative parties. This would clearly seem to demonstrate that there was definite feeling that it was not merely socialism that was important in the growth of a Labour movement but the development of a party who represented the working class. The ILP was not highly successful in itself only ever attracting a small membership and no real electoral success in the elections of 1895, but its greatest importance was perhaps in spreading socialist ideas and acquiring a good deal of support within the union hierarchy.

It was indeed class consciousness and a need for independent representation of the working classes and not socialism which led to the formation of the first large body to demand representation of the working classes in Parliament. In 1899 the Trades Union Congress made the decision to set up another body for the purpose of promoting the representation of labour. Though there was socialist influence in the TUC, it was far from enough to control it and clearly the Unions had their own reasons for wishing to increase their parliamentary presence. The leading trade unions had been extensive and wealthy enough for many years to attempt to enter Parliament. However they were in many ways distanced from the workers they were meant to represent, and had been for many years more than happy to rely upon an agreement with the Liberal party rather than go to extra effort of attempting to field their own political candidates. Clearly however feelings had changed.

In part the decision to form an independent political body had had a great deal to do with the rapid growth of the Unions. In 1888 there were + of a million workers in the union movement, but by 1900 there were over 2 million members. With this massive growth of membership more unions had the resources to engage in political activity and more union officials began to take an interest in political careers. The Unions wanted parliament to pass protective industrial legislation, and laws to protect themselves and it soon had become clear to them that the best way to achieve this was to elect working class people to parliament. There was no definite socialist agenda, just a desire to represent themselves. It was clear from the experience of Ramsay MacDonald who was rejected outright when he applied to become a liberal candidate, despite his qualifications for the position that the Liberal party would not support the working class candidates which the unions wished to put forward. A second factor more minor factor was also that the trade unions could no longer work through the Liberal party without dividing their own forces. Such continued collaboration would inevitably offend the socialists who though were still a minor force in the movement were developing increasing influence.

If it can be seen then that the first successful attempt to represent workers was a result of class consciousness then the consequent strengthening of the movement can also be seen to be independent of any tangible socialist influence. Even though success was slow at first, winning only 2 seats when they fielded 15 candidates in the elections of 1900, but it was greater success than had ever been seen before. The rapid growth of the LRC after 1900 was mainly due to the general disgust and fear of the working classes and unions at the Taff Vale Judgement, confirmed by the House of Lords in 1902. Again this was not necessarily a socialist issue, but one of Labour. Membership increased from 350,000 at the beginning of 1901 to 861,000 by the end of 1902. This large influx consisted entirely of Trade Unionists. The introduction of an increased levy on its members which produced extra funds with which it could support its own candidates gave the LRC a firm financial base. With the help of a deal done with the Liberals in 1906, who agreed to withdraw their candidates in a number of seats, the LRC won 29 seats a greater representation of the working classes than had ever been seen in British politics.

The LRC formed a strong voice for the working classes, but one which though naturally socialist in nature did not have any committed socialist agenda, its sole purpose was to represent the interests of labour. The priorities of the party lay instead in other areas such as the restoration of the legal protection which the Taff Vale judgement had demolished, the improvement of working conditions where these could be affected by government action, and the engineering of a labour market in which wage earners would be less insecure and enjoy greater bargaining power. It must therefore be seen that at least in the early part of the rise of the Labour Party class consciousness was more important than socialism. Socialism was an important factor, the ILP gave the LRC two of its most prominent members, Keir Hardie and Ramsay MacDonald, but it remained much more an ideological undercurrent than a real reason for the representation of labour in parliament. This is again seen in the controversy which arose soon after 1906 on the commitment of the party to socialism, and its attitude to the Liberal Government. Some broke away from the party to join the Social Democratic Federation desiring to form a British Socialist Party, but this rapidly shrank away, again demonstrating the limited appeal at that time for socialist doctrines.

It was only after World War I that the Labour Party formally adopted socialist doctrines. It was a good time for the party to develop. The Representation Act of 1918 increased the franchise directly finally letting all men over 21 vote as well as women over 30. A considerable majority of these new voters were from the working class, and thus increased the Labour vote. The Liberals were also in disarray, due to a significant split between Lloyd George and Asquith. This gave the Labour Party an perfect opportunity to attempt to become the principle opposition party. A new constitution and policy programme called Labour and the New Social Order was drawn up and even though these were far from perfect they gave the party a more comprehensive image as a national party. It also marked the formal acceptance by the Labour Party of a socialist ideology which promised nationalisation in many areas. However there were many problems, many people were still sceptical of socialism and the exact details of how socialist policies could be applied in a market economy were glossed over. The Labour Party did form two minority governments before the Second World War in 1924 winning 151 seats and in1929 winning 288 seats, but in both cases their hands were tied to carry out anything radical or groundbreaking by the lack of a real majority. The Labour Party did make considerable progress in the inter war years, developing respect and influence and socialism as an ideology did become more popular, but it was really the ever decreasing influence of the Liberals which left the door open for increased support. The real widespread acceptance of the ideals of socialism was only to come after the second world war in 1945 when Labour formed their first majority government, though they were rejected by the electorate only five years later.

It seems clear then that the rise of the Labour Party did have a great deal more to do with representation of the working classes as a class than idealistic socialism. The first tangible progress in the rise of the party was implemented by a Trade Union movement whose main parliamentary ambition was labour reform, and though many of the LRC s members were socialists it was not a purely socialist movement. Factors such as the increasing number of disputes with employers, the clear divide between their living standards and those of the upper and middle classes all made the working classes more conscious that they needed proper representation. Socialist ideas were important. They had an influence on significant numbers of people and the trade union movement and were certainly a part of the rise of the Labour party but they were less significant as the Labour Party never until after the First World War possessed a proper socialist agenda, and even then they could do little to act on it. It was only after the Second World War that they were truly able to convince people to vote for socialism, it was never really a definite factor in their rise to power. The Labour Party became popular because they defined themselves as the party of Labour and therefore of the working class, though they may have developed a socialist ideology it was never the primary cause, class consciousness was much more important.