What factors led to labour emerging so quickly to be a major player so quickly in British politics
Although the second and third reform acts(1867 and 1885) gave more working class men the vote, up until 1900 there had only ever been three independent working class men had ever been voted in as Mps. The vast majority of working class mps had been ‘lib-labs’, working class men working under the umbrella of the liberal party. However socialist ideas were spread throughout the country and the idea of an independent working class party had been floating about for some time.
In 1893 the ILP or Independent Labour Party was set up, however it failed to make any significant contribution to British politics and remained another small-scale socialist party until 1890, when trade unions and the ILP joined forces to become a major power in British politics. Following the 1st world war labour came to power. What factors led to labour emerging so quickly to be a major player so quickly in British politics? After the passing of the second reform act (1867) trade unions began to forge a close alliance with the liberal party.
This is reflected in the liberals supporting labour candidates in areas were the majority of the franchise were working class. In the 1885 election, 12 lib-labs mps were elected. Unions had traditionally supported the liberals, together they had much success. The lib-labs proved a significant obstacle in the way of forming an independent labour party as they split the working class vote. Although the reform acts gave many more working class men the vote, many still couldn’t vote, and no women could not vote either. The vast majority of constituencies up until 1910 were not working class.
Many working class men did not know how to use their vote, should they go for the safety of the liberals and conservative’s, the two well established parties in the U. K.? The working class was not one mass that all voted the same way, they were individuals that need to be won over, this required time and resources both of which labour were in short supply. Working men didn’t have time to read Karl Marx if they could read and hence it was very difficult to reach the masses, as newspapers were the main form of mass communication and labour didn’t have any real resources.
To win over this working class, finances would be required, simply to pay mps living costs and move them about on campaigns. Mps were not paid until 1911 so a working class man would have no means of income while in parliament. There was also an attitude that if one was poor it was there own fault! And that working class plebs didn’t deserve the vote as they wouldn’t know how to use it or would vote in a horrific government. There was also this fear of an extreme left wing revolution, as many supporters of a working class party were also Marxists for example the Socialist Democratic Foundation(SDF).
However it was mostly among the upper classes that such Marxist parties had their strongest grip, and they never really became a mass movement but rather paved the way in the upper classes for a mass movement and loosened hostile attitudes towards the working class. Besides most peoples grievances were not politically motivated but were more about working and living standards. The Independent Labour Party was set up in 1893; some members were socialist, however the parties objectives were not revolutionary. There is an ongoing debate about whether Keir Hardy can be described as a socialist.
Unlike other organisations geared to help the working class in the U. K. the ILP was set up from below. It was a grass roots organisation with its president not a middle class public school boy, as with Henry Hyndman or William Morris but self-educated former miner. However the ILP didn’t make any real impact on national politics for some time as they still lacked the resources to become a major parliamentary force. The main problem in the labour party was lack of finance. They had the ideology, appeal, individual leadership etc they just lack resources to reach the people they wanted to represent.
This was how it remained from there formation, up until 1900. In 1900, within the now immensely powerful unions there was a growing awareness that the liberals and the conservatives would not always represent the needs of the working class. The lib-lab Mps rising slowly, but unions felt that the working class men were not being given the support in parliament they needed. The only way for the unions to be assured that what they want to happen will happen is to have their own party in power. However the old TUC wanted to stay away from ideas of socialism.
However many people in the ILP were making progress within the TUC, for example Tom Mann leading member in the ILP, stood as secretary in the TUC. Although he lost he gain 1/3 of the vote, this is reflective of the ILP’s popularity In the TUC. This is because, as Keir Hardy had found when he entered into parliament the liberals and conservatives were not genuinely concerned with working class issues, but were using it as a means to win elections. All of this during the series of setbacks for trade unions during the 1890s, for example the defeat of the ASE by the federation of engineering employers over a lockout in 1897-8.
Furthermore conservatives encouraged legal challenges against unions and played up the idea of militant socialists. The two major political parties began to be split and distracted by the Ireland issue of home rule. Keir Hardy, the champion of the ILP was going through the biggest series of set backs in a long time. He continued to work for the ILP. In 1900 these two struggling forces, both wanting the same thing, would start to have closer relations. Following a series of crushing legal defeats for unions support for closer relations with the ILP were ripe.
So in February 1900 the LRC or labour representation committee was set up. This was a conference between the political parties wanting to support the working class and the TUC. The conference was a raging success and pulled much support for the ILP. However the LCR was open to any political alliances, including liberals. The LRC was not a raging success but when the Taff vale judgement went against unions in the House of Lords unions became more willing to take political action. This was because picketing became an offence and unions could now be held to account for damages to a company during strikes!
Labour won the backing of the LCR and hence the TUC due to outstanding performances from individuals such as Keir Hardy. Labour, going into the new centaury had all the resources required to become a major political party. However their emergence was far from inevitable, though at first glance it would seem so. The Alliance of the unions, the key factor to labours success was on a knife-edge. Lib-labs could have stolen the day and individuals with the labour party and the TUC had the foresight to see it could be done, though nothing of the sort had happened before. Labour was ready to take on the Big boys.