Socialists and the early Labour Party

by Edd Mustill

From its earliest days, the Labour Party has had something of a complex relationship with the wider labour and socialist movement. The questions of socialists’ relationship with the Labour Party, and the Labour Party’s relationship with socialism, have been asked and re-asked over the last century.

As a party, Labour is quite peculiar. Across Europe in the 19th century, Social Democratic parties were founded which, at least on paper, accepted the Marxist idea that there were different classes in society with divergent interests, and that the job of the Social Democratic movement was to help the working class capture political and economic power.

In Britain, a Social Democratic Federation (SDF) was formed in the 1880s, but it never developed into a big political party. It was instead forced to compete with two organisations, neither of which believed in either the necessity or desirability of a struggle between classes. First came the Independent Labour Party (ILP). Led by Keir Hardie, the ILP was socialist in a vague way. Its platform was one of common ownership and radical reform, but its main short-term goal was to break working class people and trade unions from their electoral allegiance to the Liberal Party. To this end, the ILP helped set up the Labour Representation Committee (LRC) in 1900, which became the Labour Party six years later.

The Labour Party tended to be altogether frosty towards any mention of socialism at all. The pews of the broad church were crowded with Liberal trade union leaders, newly converted to Labourism by virtue of their members’ decisions. This was the alliance the ILP had chosen to construct, in the hope of electoral success. And it paid off. By 1910 there was a sizeable Labour group in Parliament which included MPs who were members of the SDF or ILP, and Liberal trade unionists.

However, it was impossible at this time to be a member of the Labour Party itself. Activists could only get involved through an affiliated organisation. In many places, trades councils functioned as the local organisation of the Labour Party, and socialists could get involved only through being delegated from their organisation or trade union. Many therefore had to look elsewhere to focus their political activity outside of elections. The socialist groups conducted open air meetings in every major town on weekends. They also held meetings at factory gates during shift changes. It was this activity that drummed up electoral support for the local Labour candidate, whether they were radical or moderate.

As well as electioneering for Labour, the socialists developed a whole ecology of cultural and social organisations. Local groups held dances, ran cafes and halls, and established choirs. The movement around the country’s most popular socialist paper, the Clarion, contributed hugely to this. Clarion Cycling Clubs toured the country disseminating socialist literature far from the big cities. Clarion Ramblers played a big role in the struggles to win the right to roam on private land. In the summer, Clarion Vans toured towns putting on entertainment as well as political lectures, and selling books and pamphlets. This sort of activity was described in Robert Tressell’s novel The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, in which sceptical Tory and Liberal workers encounter socialist ideas for the first time, with mixed results.

The early socialist movement even established Socialist Sunday Schools as an alternative to religious education for children. The Socialist Ten Commandments proclaimed “Honour good people, be courteous and respect all, bow down to none” and “Observe and think in order to discover the truth. Do not believe what is contrary to reason and never deceive yourself or others.”

So, by the time the Labour Party as we know it was formed in 1900, there was already a vibrant socialist movement which provided many of the activists who worked on the ground for Labour candidates, alongside trade unionists. An article of faith of this movement was that the march towards socialism would be steady and linear, as more of the working class came to vote in their own interests. In a way, this is understandable. The franchise was expanding to include more and more working class men. Labour did better at each election. In 1914, however, the First World War broke out, and labour and socialist organisations all over Europe were dismayed and disoriented. In Britain, the Labour Party supported the war effort. The ILP opposed the war and many of its members were jailed as conscientious objectors, or for sedition. Members of the BSP (successor to the SDF) had to struggle for two years against their own pro-war leadership. It was suddenly a bad time to be a socialist.

While the movement ultimately survived the war, many of its associated organisations did not, or at least never regained their previous popularity. This leaves us with the question: Is it possible, or even desirable, to attempt to build a modern version of this ecology of socialist organisations? And what might it look like?

There are those who argue, in the midst of the party’s current transformation that Labour should not, could not, become a “social movement.”  They have a point. The party was formed as a Parliamentary fraction and has been dominated by its Parliamentary wing ever since. In any case, we don’t become a social movement just by proclaiming ourselves to be one. But this loses sight of how those first Labour MPs were elected in the pioneering days. Socialist ideas did not drop fully formed from the sky into the heads of the industrial working class, and nor did allegiance to the Labour Party. It took decades of work from working class and middle class activists to convince large numbers of people to break from Liberalism and Toryism.  A social and cultural movement, separate from but complementing the party’s electoral machinery, buoyed its chances of winning any contest. Our forebears came to socialism through song and dance as well as studying theoretical texts; they came to socialism through trespasses, rambles, cycles and picket line discussions as well as the #labourdoorstep.

Taking up the spirit of the pioneering socialists requires a marriage of methodical and DIY approaches. On the one hand, comrades who want to set up film nights, reading groups and socials should simply get together and get on with it. Try something, see if it works, and, if it doesn’t, try something else. But we also need a more systematic approach to teaching and learning the basics of socialism. We need to develop and share resources that can help us get to grips with history and theory. We need regular discussion about how exactly our radical policies can be developed and implemented. We need relearn from each other the important skills of public speaking and persuasion in the face of incredulity or hostility.

Through this approach we can build a political culture which is focused and educational but remains open and welcoming. After all, the first task of socialists is to make more socialists. We should avoid falling into cliques based on shared experiences and in-jokes, forgetting to include so-and-so because they never come to the pub after the meeting, or assuming everyone in the meeting agrees on X issue simply because we haven’t talked about it.

Much of the “party versus movement” discussion is ultimately talking about two projects. The short term project is the return of a Labour government; the long term project is the construction of a socialist society. Neither should lose sight of – or be counterposed to – the other. The work of “making socialists” will make future Labour governments both more possible and more radical.

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