Account For The Rise Of The Labour

Party 1900 – 31 Essay, Research Paper

The setting up of the Labour Representation Committee in 1900 caused no great stir at the time, and there were few who regarded it as more than another pressure group aiming to strengthen the labour cause. However, by 1931 the Labour Party had been in office on two occasions and had overtaken the Liberals as the second party in Britain. How did this situation arise? What factors, social, economic, and political played a part? What contribution did individuals make? What effect did circumstances such as the First World War and the decline of the Liberal party have on Labour’s dramatic rise? And how did the party’s own legislative record contribute to its increased popularity? In this essay I have paid particular attention to a factor inextricably linked to Labour’s rise, the fortunes of Britain’s ’second-party’ in 1900 – the Liberal Party. The interaction of these two parties over the first 30 years of the century go most of the way to explaining why in 1924 and 1929 Labour was able to win general elections. ` ` `Certainly, during the decade before the First World War there seemed no inevitability about Labour’s rise, at least to contemporaries. The basic fact about British politics then was the domination of the great Liberal Party. This meant, therefore, that far from expanding as an independent after 1900 there was a distinct possibility that the Labour Party would be absorbed by the Liberals, as the Liberal Unionists had been by the Conservatives after 1895, or become a small and dwindling left-wing group like the I.L.P. in the 1930s. In the event, partly due to MacDonald’s much-maligned leadership, this did not happen and Labour independence was maintained. But the ideal of Labour independence implied expansion based on capturing a larger section of the working-class vote: and this could only be done at the expense of liberalism. Hence the relationship between the Liberal and Labour parties during the pre-war period is one of the crucial problems in the history of the rise of the Labour Party. Can we already before 1914 discern the beginnings of future Liberal decline and Labour expansion? ` `A number of historians believe that they can. Indeed, the theme of pre-war Liberal decay has until very recently become something of an established orthodoxy, mainly due perhaps to the impressionistic brilliance of George Dangerfield’s “The Strange Death of Liberal England.” Dangerfield’s thesis has been given a partial and more scholarly justification by the writings of recent historians like Henry Pelling and Paul Thompson, in his study of London politics between 1885 and 1914 has pointed to the financial and organisational weaknesses of the Liberal Party up to 1906; its failures in local elections; its continuing links with middle-class nonconformist ambitions; and its general inability to adapt itself to working-class needs and aspirations. Hence the Conservative domination of London in the later nineteenth century. Even the Liberal victory of 1906 was, he argues, not a genuine revival, but the result of a number of special, though ephemeral, advantages gained by the Liberals as a result of the unpopularity of Conservative policies. ‘The recovery of the nineteen-hundreds’, he writes, ‘gave a deceptive illusion of strength, for it was not based on the solution of the Liberal Party’s real problems. It still lacked a firm working-class basis, a secure financial backing and a coherent political standpoint’. This view has been reinforced by the attitude of Bealey and Pelling towards the election of 1906, which they see not as a profound demand for a ‘new’ liberalism of social reform and increased state activity, but of a hankering after the old – elected school boards and free trade – a viewpoint which fits in well with Pelling’s own scepticism about the reality of working-class demands for state-sponsored social reforms during this period. `The corollary of pre-war Liberal weakness is, potentially at least, Labour strength; and Pelling and others, while not denying the evident weaknesses of the Labour Party during these years, have stressed ‘the strength of the roots put down before 1914′. Pelling, for example, has emphasised repeatedly the enormous importance of increasing trade union affiliations for future Labour development, and especially the accession of the Miners’ Federation of Great Britain in 1909, which at one stroke increased party membership in the House of Commons by fifteen, and held out the alluring prospect of all the miners’ pocket boroughs being swept into the Labour net, as indeed they were after 1918. Moreover, he stresses the importance of those more general social and economic factors – growing difficulties in basic unity on the one hand but deeper class divisions on the other – which were bound eventually to play into the hands of the Labour Party. Dr Gregory has illustrated in detail the importance of these factors for the prospects of the party in the coalfields between 1906 and 1914. By the eve of the First World War, as he points out, the Liberal alliance was already beginning to crumble, and the M.F.G.B. was proposing to sponsor twenty-one Labour candidates against the Liberals at the next election. Indeed, one recent estimate suggests that the Labour Party would then have put up between 150 and 170 candidates, compared with seventy-eight, the highest number previously. In one way or another, therefore, the conditions were being prepared for Labour’s great leap forward in the post-war world. The Liberal Party was doomed. `It has been argued by historians such as Professor Trevor Wilson and P.F. Clarke that in the early twentieth century there was a genuine Liberal revival, linked with opposition to the Boer War and Conservative reaction, and based on the ethic of ‘Progressivism’: social reform and anti-Imperialism, fostered by national party organisation. ‘The Liberal revival’ writes Dr Clarke ‘gave evidence of its scale in 1906 and its durability in 1910′; and there was no reason to believe that it would not continue among the working class. The Labour Party can best be seen, therefore, as a part, but only a part, of the Edwardian Progressive Movement. Conceived as an” independent”> political party, it was narrow, weak, uninspired, and irrelevant, for the Liberals could have retained power in 1910 with Irish votes alone. Labour electoral history during these years gives much substance to these views. In twenty of the twenty-four seats where Labour opposed Liberal candidates in January 1910, Labour finished bottom of the `poll; Labour was bottom of the poll again in all the fourteen by-elections they fought between December 1910 and July 1914, though Henry Pelling has argued that nevertheless in terms of votes Labour was still doing better than this indicates. `In principle, there is no necessary incompatibility between the views of the two groups of historians, since they differ not so much over the facts but over the time scale into which those facts should be fitted. Looked at from the point of view of pre-1914, Professor Wilson and Dr Clarke are right to stress the weaknesses of the Labour position; on the other hand, Henry Pelling’s insistence on the importance of those fundamental social and economic factors which in the long run were likely to benefit the Labour Party, seems equally valid. In particular his emphasis on the key importance of growing trade union links with Labour seems persistently underrated by ‘pro-Liberal’ historians, though it is important to remember of course that a trade unionist did not necessarily vote Labour merely because his union had affiliated to the Labour Party. The problem is that it is difficult to isolate the effects of such long-term factors from the more immediate and obvious impact of political events; and at the heart of this controversy is a political event of major importance: the Liberal split during the First World War. The consequences of this split in helping the Labour Party to dislodge the Liberal Party (as revealed in the electoral statistics 1918-24) are so profound as to render otiose squabbles over the pre-war positions of the two parties. `Nevertheless, even the immediate post-war period of Liberal ‘downfall’ no longer seems quite as inevitable as once it did. After 1918 the Labour Party at last (as Maurice Cowling argues) ‘broke through the dams which the Liberal Party had built’ and entered, with evident satisfaction, the world of ‘high politics’. He also reminds us, however, in his analysis of the politics of these years, how fluid the political situation then was; with a three-party system operating within an electorate which had swelled enormously since 1914, and many of whose members had had no experience of voting before. The Liberal decline was therefore, he suggests, ‘a more contingent matter than the statistics suggest and was not contained in the pre-war situation’. The 1923 election figures show that at the time the two parties enjoyed roughly equal support but any advantages that the Liberals had were thrown away, principally by the disastrous mistakes of the party leaders in their dealings with the Labour Party and the first Labour Government. The result was seen at the general election of 1924 when the number of Liberals in the House dropped from 159 to 42. `After 1924 the Labour Party had once and for all displaced the Liberal Party as the second party in the state, and therefore became the only possible alternative to the Conservatives. This was still in the 1930s despite the failures of the second Labour Government and the crisis of 1931. The 1935 general election, by eliminating the Liberals almost completely as an effective force in British politics, at last brought to an end the peculiar love-hate relationship between the two radical parties that had listed since 1900 and marked the return once again to two-party politics. `Bibliography ` `<:s><:#284,9360>Taylor English History 1914-45 `<:#284,9360>Cole & Postgate The Common People `<:#284,9360>Pearce Britain: Domestic Politics `<:#284,9360>Adelman The Rise of the Labour Party `<:#284,9360>Adelman The Decline of the Liberal Party `<:#284,9360>Hopkins A Social History of the English Working Classes



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