Forest of Dean & Wye Valley

The ILP: preparing for an anniversary

In A.Graham on June 29, 2012 at 12:19 pm

In January 1893, the Independent Labour Party (the ILP) was formed at a conference held in Bradford. It chose its name deliberately, to distinguish itself from those who’d sought political representation through an alliance with the Liberals. Such MPs were commonly known as “Lib Lab”.

Thus the ILP proclaimed itself as the party of Independent Labour. Its first MP was Keir Hardie, who had won a seat in the Commons in 1892. and he became the ILP’s first president.

The ILP still exists today – though now as “Independent Labour Publications”. It no longer sees itself as an electoral body, but it continues to campaign for the principled Socialist beliefs shared by its members through the Labour Party (which it helped to found in 1900). And it’s preparing to celebrate its 120th anniversary at the beginning of next year.

PHASES:

In many ways, the ILP is a very different organisation from that of 1893. Then it sought working class representation through a political party that would fight for the interests of labour. In 1900, together with other Socialist bodies and the trade unions, it helped to found the Labour Representation Committee, that went on to become the Labour Party.

During those early years it was effectively the organisational backbone of the Labour movement. Members flocked to join. It fought for trade union rights, and backed the campaign for votes for women. It embraced the Clarion movement – and when the First World War enveloped Europe and beyond in carnage it took an anti-war stand.

In many ways these were the years of growth, and of optimism that the ideals of Socialism would triumph. To quote the words of Edward Thompson, “The ILP grew from the bottom up: its birthplaces were those shadowy parts known as the provinces…. When the two-party political system began to crack, a third party with a distinctly socialist character emerged…. amongst the mills, brickyards and gasworks of the West Riding.”

DISAFFILIATION:

But by the beginning of the 1930s, much had changed. The Labour government elected in 1929 collapsed, and the Prime Minister, Ramsay MacDonald, had joined the Tories and Liberals to form a “National” government.

The Labour Party went in to opposition – but faced with the divisions caused by MacDonald’s defection, it insisted that all its MPs (including those elected under the ILP banner) should be subject to the Labour whip. The ILP resisted – and finally under the leadership of Jimmy Maxton, it took the decision to disaffiliate from the Labour Party and go its own way.

The ILP’s Parliamentary representation shrank significantly. Many of its MPs were defeated in the ensuing election as the Labour Party put up candidates against them. Others decided to stay with the Labour Party anyway. But though in retrospect these were years of declining influence for the ILP, its principles remained and it continued to campaign vigorously for its Socialist ideals.

It joined the campaign against Mosley’s Blackshirts, and its members were active in the “Battle of Cable Street” in East London. Members of the ILP fought for the Republican cause in the Spanish Civil War, joining the POUM militia. And it supported the hunger marches in the bleak depression years of the 1930s.

Two attempts were made to re-affiliate to the Labour Party – in 1938 and again in 1946. These came to nought, and as the ILP lost its representation in Parliament, it also seemed to lose its relevance. But old comrades soldiered on, keeping the ILP flag flying – though often it seemed as though it was at half mast. A trickle of new members joined, and the organisation trundled on.

THE FINAL CHAPTER??

Until, in 1975, the decision was taken to “re-brand” and re-position the ILP. It changed its constitution to become Independent Labour Publications (thus keeping its initials ILP). A few months later, the Labour Party agreed that those in the ILP could once again join. And thus ended a rift that had lasted over 40 years. Today, the ILP is a much smaller body than it once was, but it still maintains the same principles and ideals on which it was founded.

ALISTAIR GRAHAM

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