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CLARION REVIEW: KEIR HARDIE – Labour’s first leader

In A.Graham, Reviews on September 22, 2017 at 1:32 pm

“What would Keir Hardie say?” Edited by Pauline Bryan   and published by Luath Press Ltd, Edinburgh. ISBN 978-1-910745-15-1

Clarion Review by Alistair Graham


KeirHardieKeir Hardie can justifiably be seen as Labour’s first leader. He was one of those who helped to found the Independent Labour Party (ILP), in I893 – called “Independent” to distinguish itself from those who’d been elected to Parliament as “Lib-Lab” members – in other words who relied on Liberal support for their seats.

Hardie, who grew up in the Scots town of Cumnock, went on to be the first truly Labour MP in the Commons. He opposed the looming clouds of conflict in the years leading up to 1914 and spoke eloquently from anti-war platforms. But worn out with his efforts he died prematurely in 1915.

This book is a collection from contributors assessing Hardie’s record and his relevance to the politics of today – though as there’s been a over a century of change since his day I found it difficult in places to trace the connections. But there are, of course, common themes that run through the decades.

One of the contributors to the book is Jeremy Corbyn, today’s leader of the Labour Party. Others include fellow political activists and academics.


Corbyn sees Hardie’s work as a “legacy for the Peace movement”, and introduces his contribution with an account of the mass peace march in London, in February 2003 in which well over a million took part., to voice opposition to the invasion of Iraq. “It was the biggest ever demonstration in British history.” He goes on to look at the carnage of the First World War, and how it is remembered in his own constituency of Islington.

Another contributor is Melissa Benn – writing in the footsetps of her mother, Caroline Benn who produced a definitive “warts and all” biography of Hardie back in 1997. Melissa makes the point that Hardie had no love for Parliament. (And it’s worth adding, Parliament had no love for him). He saw his role more as an agitator. “Agitation was at the heart of three of the most significant movements of his lifetime – the representation of labour, the struggle for women’s suffrage and pacifism”.

Barry Winter, who has had a long connection with the ILP, remembers two old party members (no longer with us) who had memories of Hardie when he was alive. Bert Lea remembered Keir Hardie asking him to sell copies of the ILP paper, the Labour Leader, which he continued to do for the rest of his long life. And in Bradford. May Allinson was one of the children who performed for Hardie at an ILP concert in 1914. She gave a lifetime commitment to both the ILP and the Socialist Sunday School.

Barry’s contribution is in the main a historical account of the foundation of the ILP (at a special conference in Bradford) through the early years of its growth. Hardie saw the need to forge an alliance with the trade union movement which was then finding its feet. In 1899, the TUC voted to form “a Labour Representation Committee” (though not all unions backed it). Then, in 1906 this Committee transformed itself into the Labour Party, though it made slow progress in its early years.


A contribution by Richard Leonard describes Hardie as a “visionary” dedicated to the creation of a Socialist society.” He sees Hardie as a man guided by moral principles rather than by philosophical theorising.” He believed that the truths about Socialism were self-evident, rooted in ethical values and moral courage.

“Yet Hardie clearly understood the class-based nature of capitalist society and the need to appeal to workers as a class. He saw the value of the work of Marx and Engels, but he did not believe in following it rigidly. And Richard Leonard quotes from Hardie’s from Serfdom to Socialism “The economic object of Socialism is therefore to make land and industrial capital common property, and to cease to produce for the profit of the landlord and the capitalist and to begin to produce for the use of the community.”

Many I would hope, would see this as a good summary of their own beliefs when it comes to the transformation of society under Socialism.


During his Parliamentary career, Hardie represented two constituencies – first was West Ham, and then came Merthyr Tydfil. The account of his “Welsh Odyssey” is written by Owen Smith (MP for the neighbouring constituency of Pontypridd).

Smith starts his contribution with reminiscences of growing up amidst the slag heaps of South Wales, with his grandfather telling him of Keir Hardie campaigning from slag heaps when he gained the seat of Merthyr Boroughs in 1900. He “gave a hundred or more such ‘Cinder Hall’ sermons” before his election.

Hardie had lost his seat in West Ham five years earlier, which gave him some time to visit South Wales, and to build up a following for the ILP as well as for himself as a potential candidate. “This period cemented Hardie’s reputation as a standard bearer for the working class,” writes Owen Smith.

Despite Merthyr’s radical traditions, stretching back to the days of the Chartists, Hardie had his opponents. There was a strong Liberal tradition in the area, but there was also a strong conservative element amongst chapel goers. But Hardie was able to capitalise on the anti-war -feelings, stirred up by the Boer war, as well as his support for the miners in the struggle. He won, and was to represent Merthyr until his early death in 1915.


Owen Smith then turns to the relevance of Hardie’s work to today. “How can a Queen’s Speech in 2015 call up the spectre of Taff Vale with its promise to curb the right to strike and break the democratic power of the trade unions?” He asks. “Perhaps Hardie would have been surprised that we still have so far to travel, and that such hard won progress can be halted with such ease.”

In such a rich collection of fact and comment in this book it’s only really possible to skim the surface in a review such as this. But I will finish with one more contribution – on Hardie’s roots in Cumnock, in Scotland.


Kier Hardie was an internationalist, but according to Cathie Jamieson, the Scots community of Cumnock in Ayrshire was always his home. It was where his family was raised, and where he always returned. And even today the town still remembers him in so many different ways

He and his wife Lillie arrived in Cumnock in 1979. He was then involved with the miners’ union in Lanarkshire.

It was in Cumnock that Hardie developed the political ideas that would shape the rest of his life. “The struggle of the miners he represented was fundamental to his work and his emerging political beliefs,” writes Kathie Jamieson. It was here that he realised that the Liberals would not deliver the kind of changes that the working class needed. He was soon backing a resolution put forward by the Ayrshire miners that “the time has come for the formation of a Labour Party in the House of Commons…”

Later he was to declare: “I am a Socialist, and until industry is organised on a co-operative basis, wherein men shall work, not to make profit, but to produce the necessaries of life for the community, the evils complained of will never be eradicated.”


There have, of course, been quite a few books written and published on the life and times of Kier Hardie. That’s only natural. But this volume is different. It sees his life from so many different angles, and though it contains numerous viewpoints, all are sympathetic to a man who, more than most, helped to create a movement that over the decades has helped to shape our society – and hopefully will continue to do so in years to come. If, of course, we remember the ideals that Hardie worked so hard for.

And it’s a compendium to be read from cover to cover – or just dipped into over a period of time.



In A.Graham on July 4, 2017 at 12:22 pm

a fire bombed pub in the city centre

by Alistair Graham

I paid a number of visits to Belfast during the 1980s into the 1990s. Despite “the Troubles” (as they were known), it was a vibrant city and I felt few qualms in walking the streets of this fractured community. After all, I had the anonymity of a stranger looking in, and thus was hardly a target for any warring faction.


Probably the most fruitful visit was in April 1991, when I joined a “fact finding” group from the ILP to meet and interview groups and political parties from across the spectrum – sometimes singly and other times in groups.

We met representatives from the SDLP,  the Ulster Unionists, Democratic  Unionists, the Workers Party and Alliance..  We also met a number of campaigning groups – like the Peace  Women,  Families Against Terror and Intimidation – and Gusty Spence, former leader  of the UVF.


At that time, of course, Martin McGuinness was still leader of the provisional IRA, before his conversion ushered in a new era of “power sharing” in Northern Ireland which officially brought “the troubles” to an end. In the spring of 1991 “the Provos” had established a bloody record of violence and destruction – including a half-hearted pogrom against members of the Workers Party (which had evolved from the former “official” Republican movement).  Several of those whom I’d come to count as friends were victims of armed attacks (though fortunately none were successful).

We also met Maurice Healey, from Newry (on the border) who had been taken by the Provisional IRA, tortured, subjected to a kangaroo court and ordered out of Northern Ireland with the warning that he would be executed if he ever returned.

He was charged with being an informant. But he had defied the order by returning to Belfast to make his case public.


It became clear at least to me that despite the complexity of the conflict created by the warring factions there was a growing peace movement which was capable of contributing to any peace settlement. Politically there was the Alliance Party, the SDLP and in its own way the Workers Party. Elsewhere there were the Peace Women – and the remarkable case of Gusty Spence, a former leader of the UVF (Ulster Volunteer Force), who’d turned his back on violence to involve himself in community politics in the Shankhill Road area of Belfast.

Few of us at the time would have believed that, after the Good Friday Agreement, it would be Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionist Party under Ian Paisley who would emerge as leaders of the new order. “Power sharing” became the new mantra. Paisley, who had campaigned under the slogan, “No Surrender!” became Northern Ireland’s First Minister with    Martin McGuinness ensconced as his deputy.

It seemed as if the world had turned upside down. “Power” had somehow evolved to the two extremes of Irish politics, and in so doing had marginalised those forces in between that had worked so hard to create the conditions for peace during “the troubles”. It’s a funny old world.

With the death of Martin McGuinness, the status quo of power sharing hangs in the balance. What happens next in Northern Ireland I wouldn’t like to guess. But then I wouldn’t have foreseen events back in 1991 either. Now of course the UK General Election has thrown it all into limbo.

THE MINERS’ STRIKE: thirty years on

In A.Graham on March 31, 2014 at 12:29 pm

The Miners’ Strike dragged on from March 1984 until March 1985.

Alistair Graham looks back.

During the bloody, dogged years of the miners’ strike I was living “up north”. At the time I was assistant secretary of the Halifax District Trades Council, and was closely involved in giving what support we could to the miners’ struggle.

During the bloody, dogged years of the miners’ strike, I was living “up north”. At the time I was assistant secretary of the Halifax Trades Council. And was closely involved in giving what support we could to the miners’ struggle.

We had “adopted” two local pits, Emley Moor, near Huddersfield, and Park Mill collieries. We collected food and money for those on strike and their families and did what we could to publicise the miners’ cause.

Others, too, were involved. Indeed, a network of support groups had sprung up to back the miners and provide what help we could. And through my membership of the ILP I also found myself involved in support for two pits in South Yorkshire, Hatfield and Armthorpe.


There’s no doubt in my mind that the strike was provoked, and that the Thatcher Government was well prepared. It came to a head when Ian McGregor (head of the NCB) abruptly announced the closure of two pits (Polmaise in Scotland and Cortonwood in Yorkshire). McGregor then told the National Union of Miners that he was planning further closures, with the loss of at least 21,000 jobs.

The strike was on, and by the end of March, it was solid throughout Yorkshire, Scotland, the North East, South Wales and Kent. Only in Nottinghamshire and Leicestershire did the bulk of miners choose to remain at work.

The Government, though, had planned ahead and was ready for the conflict. Stockpiles of coal had been built up. Haulage firms with “scab” crews were hired to transport the coal – and the police were brought in to face the picket lines at the pits.


The use of the police, however, went much further than merely keeping order at the picket line. They were deployed to blockade motorways, instigated “stop and search” tactics – far from the picket lines and away from TV cameras and news photographers. Indeed, an investigation in the Guardian (March 1985) concluded that “there has been a widespread abuse of the criminal law in relation to arrests, road blocks and bail. In general the law appears to have been used as a means of social control rather than for its intended purpose.”

You can say that again. Effectively the police had been politicised to serve a government whose leader described the miners as “the enemy within”. The violations of the law included imposing bail conditions that amounted to house arrest or exile for many miners.

And sometimes the police went further – such as the invasion of the pit village of Armthorpe in South Yorkshire in the summer of 1984, when they charged through the community in riot gear, smashing up the place. The incident was later re-created in the film “Billy Elliot”.

And, at Orgreave coking depot, near Sheffield, police on horseback wielding truncheons indiscriminately caused havoc as they mounted a charge through picket lines. And Arthur Scargill was arrested.

The Miners’ union funds were also under attack as they were sequestered by the law courts. But still the strike dragged on. But it was beginning to take its toll. By December, many miners, particularly those with wives and children found themselves facing a bleak Christmas. In many cases, debts were mounting and there seemed no end in sight.

It wasn’t surprising that the solid support for the strike amongst the miners began to haemorrhage. As March approached it was becoming obvious that the strike could no longer be sustained.

On March 5th 1985 the striking miners returned to work. Along with others from our Trades Council and other support groups from Huddersfield and the Colne Valley, I joined the procession as miners and their families marched back to Park Mill colliery. There was no brass band to lead us, but the banner was there at the head of the column.

Not long after that, Park Mill pit was closed. And over the next few years, the lights at the pitheads in coalfields all over the country went out.

Thatcher had won. But the human scars remained – and in many old mining communities they remain to this day.

A different view on World War I

In O. Adams on January 13, 2014 at 1:55 pm

by Owen Adams (un-edited edition)

ONE late night at the Angel pub in Coleford, I found myself chatting with a soldier based at Beachley about the war in Afghanistan. He agreed that there was no good reason for the British army to be there, but as to the idea of bringing the troops home, he said “if we give up now, the deaths of all those killed in action in Helmand, including my mates, will be in vain”. In other words, to retreat would be to dishonour the fallen, despite the lack of justification for the war in the first place.

The same kind of rationale seems to be the main theme every remembrance day. If you’re not wearing a red poppy, or arguing against wearing a poppy because it’s glorifying war, it’s considered a betrayal to the memory of the dead and injured. Many poppy-pushers don’t want to hear about the futility of war, or that arms traders use remembrance day functions as networking events… or that remembering the fallen isn’t enough, we need to strive for an end to all war.

A year before the centenary of the outbreak of “the war to end all wars” (which rather paved the way for more wars), the government has announced a £50 million fund to pay for commemorations. Every school will receive funding to visit French and Belgian battlefields. The PM said: “Let’s get out there and make this centenary a truly national moment in every community in our land… to ensure the sacrifice and service of 100 years ago is still remembered”. Communities secretary Eric Pickles added: “Remembering the huge losses of people and sacrifices made across the Commonwealth during the First World War is something that will unite the whole country next year… We have a duty to educate future generations about the First World War to ensure that the role our armed forces played, and continue to play, in defending our liberties we take for granted today are remembered.”

Never mind that even the best historians are unable to explain precisely why or how all the major world powers of 1914 mutually massacred more than 15 million of their young, that people’s liberties weren’t on the agenda (rather they were slaves ordered to murder), we are now obliged to remember the sacrifices people made for “their country”, in the stage-managed propaganda of the military-industrial complex.

The sacrifices people were forced to make – under pain of court-martial, imprisonment or firing squad, or at best accusations of cowardice – were in the name of capitalism and empire. Is it coincidence that war was declared at a time of immense social upheaval across Europe, when trade unions, labour movements, calls for universal suffrage and socialist causes were beginning to make headway and threatening to topple the establishment and capitalist fat cats? While we remember the war, will we also remember the widespread industrial unrest (including two police strikes), mutinies, peace truces, the Easter Rising of 1916 in Ireland and the Russian Revolution of 1917, as well as the German Revolution of 1918, the anti-war sentiment of the shipyard workers of Red Clydeside and many socialists in Britain and elsewhere, plus the devastating 1918-19 influenza outbreak which killed far more people, already exhausted by years of unnecessary brutality?

Will we remember one of the enduring slogans of the war: “A worker at both ends of a bayonet”? Perhaps not even Labour Party historians would want to see the First World War as intrinsically a war to stem the tide of international socialism and a burgeoning working-class uprising – Robert Tressell’s The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists was published just a few months before war was declared?

Just two days before war was declared, Keir Hardie and Arthur Henderson signed a manifesto at an anti-war rally at Trafalgar Square which stated: “Workers stand together for peace! Combine and conquer the militarist enemy and the self-seeking Imperialists today, once and for all… Down with class rule. Down with the rule of brute force. Down with the War. Up with the peaceful rule of the people.” Within several weeks, the British Socialist Party, the Labour Party and TUC swung firmly behind the war, leaving only the national council of the Independent Labour Party unstinting in its anti-war stance.

Bristol Radical History Group, which includes input from Forest of Dean historians such as Ian Wright, are researching and appealing for hidden and buried war-time history to be unearthed and collated as a counter to the government’s propaganda machine about 1914-18.

Among the revelations they are working on is that the so-called Christmas Day truce of 1914 involved hundreds of thousands of soldiers, in some places lasted for months rather than a day or two, and was repeated several times; that Churchill and other leaders hatched a plan to engage British and other troops – 500,000 of them – in nipping the Bolshevik revolution in the bud, but had underestimated the lack of enthusiasm for such a campaign; that soviets were declared not only in Russia, but even a soviet formed in Southampton; and that there was a roaring trade in VD  gononoccal pus, rubbed on the groin, as a way of getting out of the trenches, as well as soldiers shooting themselves in the foot.

The Gloucestershire poet FW Harvey, who lived in Yorkley from 1921 until his death in 1957, is remembered almost entirely as a “war poet”, mainly thanks to his poem Ducks, penned while a prisoner of war, but scarcely known for the peace meetings he organised at Devil’s Chapel after the Great War. While we have no proof either way, Harvey enthusiasts will typically dismiss any suggestion that he deliberately went over the top to hand himself over to the Germans in 1916 to escape the trenches for a prison, as so many others did. The stigma remains, promoted by warmongers, that someone trying to save their own life or sanity by leaving the battlefield is a coward.

The narrative Cameron and co will no doubt want us all to follow is that everyone in Britain was eager to play their part before and into the war, and it was only after soldiers experienced the horror of the trenches that they were moved to pen poignant poetry. The story is well known that those who didn’t volunteer before conscription was introduced in 1916 had white feathers thrust on them by “patriotic” women and elders.

However, research under way by Ian Wright suggests that in the Forest of Dean, at least, only a small number of miners were willing to leave the pits for the trenches. This was despite a recruiting office being set up directly outside the entrance of Norchard pit, near Lydney. But in January 1915, figures show only 600 out of 7,000 miners (out of a total Dean population of 15,000) had signed up to fight the Huns. Only about a quarter of the 800-strong Forest battalion of the Gloucesters regiment were recruited from the Dean – while the officers came from ruling-class families and mine owners. The battalion last 292 men, 38 from the Forest. And there was also opposition to conscription, as more than 200 Forest miners were to be dragged into the war by order of HM Government after 1916.

“In the summer of 1916 at the annual miners’ demonstration at Speech House the National President of the Miners Federation urged the miners across the country to stand together against their natural enemy, the coal owners,” writes Ian. “He emphasised the need for union solidarity with other industries, in particular the dockers and railway workers. These views were very popular and had the support of the Forest miners, where union membership was nearly 100 per cent.

“At a meeting in Drybrook in August 1917 syndicalist miners from south Wales met with the Forest men. They decided to oppose any further scheme and declared in favour of negotiation for an immediate and honourable peace with Germany.”

The IWW (Industrial Workers of the World) syndicalist slogan “an injury to one is an injury to all” seemed to apply at Norchard Colliery, where 6,000 Forest miners threatened an all-out strike in 1918 calling for the reinstatement of one sacked worker.

In Russia, the Tolstoyan Valentin Bulgakov’s first reaction to the outbreak of war was an appeal to “wake up, all people are brothers!… The common enemy of us all, no matter what nationality to which we belong – is the beast within us.” He was soon arrested. AE Ashworth’s The Sociology of Trench Warfare 1914-18 remains one of the best alternative narratives which reveals the humanitarian lengths ordinary soldiers in both trenches went to while their bosses, the generals and other commanders, weren’t looking. One British soldier remembered: “Hatred of the enemy, so strenuously fostered in training days, largely faded away in the line. We somehow realised that individually they were very like ourselves, just as fed-up and anxious to be done with it all.”

Ken Weller’s Don’t Be A Soldier! also offers valuable insights which depart from the establishment version of jingoism and sacrificial lambs. The title is taken from a leaflet produced by the North London Herald League in 1914, which stated: “A good solider is a blind, heartless machine. At the word of command he will put a bullet in the brain of the bravest and noblest man who has ever lived. He respects neither the grey hair of age nor the weakness of childhood. He is unmoved by prayers, by tears, or by argument. He is indifferent to human thought or feelings. Don’t be a soldier – be a man!”

Finally, the official account always tells us that the war ended with the armistice of November 11, 1918; the reality was demob didn’t get underway until the Peace Treaty of Versailles was signed in June 1919, and only after numerous mutinies, mass walkouts, an influenza epidemic and civil unrest in towns such as Luton, where rioting returning servicemen faced with unemployment smashed up the town hall and a grand banquet organised for the mayor. “For a while the power of the armed forces had slipped out of the control of the ruling classes,” Dave Lamb notes in his extensive study of mutinies from 1919-20, of which there were many – some leading to the setting up of soviets or workers’ councils.

We all know what happened after Versailles. The toxic brew of nationalism and fascism fermented across Europe over the next two decades, tolerated – and supported – by the British Establishment right up until 1939. Industrialists, capitalists, church and other forces of ruling-class authority were bolstered and workers repressed by fascism – only when their empire, land, resources and private interests were specifically threatened did the allies swing into action and push the cannon fodder into service again. Just like any war waged in the name of “our country”, past, present and future, it was good for business, good for averting crises in capitalism and continuing the great lie.

Find out more about Bristol Radical History Group’s alternative WW1 history project here:

FOCUS:The Unions and Labour: all part of the same movement?

In A.Graham on September 6, 2013 at 12:23 pm

by Alistair Graham

The links between the Labour Party and the trade union movement go back a long way – 113 years in fact. Indeed, it could be claimed that without the muscle of the trade unions, the Labour Party as we know it would not exist.

The Socialist movement – a key component of the Labour Party in its early years – began to organise in the latter part of the 19th Century. An early example was Hyndman’s SDF, followed in 1893 by the formation of the Independent Labour Party (ILP). Although it did manage to elect a few members to Parliament (including Keir Hardie), it became clear that without trade union backing it could make little impact.

But the trade union movement itself was divided. Politically, many unions and their members still backed a “Lib Lab” alliance, giving support to those Liberal candidates who in turn would promise to promote the interests of labour in Parliament.


The catalyst that changed the situation dramatically was the “Taff Vale Judgement”. Railwaymen working on the Taff Vale Railway in South Wales had come out on strike. Whilst they were members of the railwaymen’s union, the strike had failed to receive the backing of the union itself. In modern parlance, it was an “unofficial” stoppage. The company responded by taking the strikers to court, and the men were ordered back to work. But the law also decided to fine the union a fairly hefty amount for allowing the strike to take place in the first place!

This legal precedent set the alarm bells ringing. It could cripple the ability of unions and their members to take any industrial action. Many unions decided that they needed a party that would represent their interests in Parliament – and with the backing of Socialist bodies such as the ILP and the Fabian Society , they helped to form the “Labour Representation Committee” at a specially convened conference in 1900. This went on to become the Labour Party in 1906.


Of course, like in any family, the relationship between the affiliated trade unions and the Labour leadership hasn’t always been smooth. Between 1945 and 1951, the ties were close – perhaps too close – with trade union leaders becoming almost part of government (albeit in a consultative capacity). In the 1950s and early 1960s, Labour’s leadership seemed to be happy to accommodate such blatantly undemocratic practices as the union “block vote” at conferences. This was a time when many of the larger unions were under the control of such right-wing leaders as Arthur Deakin. But it became a different story when many key unions elected left-wingers to leadership positions. This was the era of Frank Cousins (who later became a minister in Wilson’s government), followed by Jack Jones and Hugh Scanlon. Now the unions were condemned for exercising “too much power”. 


But it wasn’t until the election of Blair’s “New Labour” government that relations really began to go down hill. By this time the unions had been gravely weakened by the impact of Thatcherism and the implementation of vicious anti-union laws. The trade unions were on the defensive. But if they expected Blair and his coterie to offer any succour they were mistaken. The Labour leadership at the time saw the unions as fulfilling one purpose only – providing cash for the Party coffers.

And of course it wasn’t only the unions who were to be shouldered aside. The membership, too, found that its rights to participate were being curtailed. Labour’s annual conference ceased to be a forum for discussing and deciding party policy and became more of a US-style convention  – a showcase to allow the leadership to publicise its achievements. It became little more than  a public relations exercise.

Which brings us to the constituency of Falkirk, where Labour is in the process of choosing a new candidate for what should be safe seat. Suddenly we’re embroiled in a controversy (stirred up by the Tories and the media) over whether the union “Unite” used dodgy practices to impose its own preferred candidate.

It’s difficult for an outsider to glean the truth, as most of the facts have been transmitted by a media, which has hardly been impartial. Len McClusky, Unite’s general secretary, has called for an independent inquiry into the affair. Meanwhile, there have been calls (some from the Blairite wing of the Party) for Labour to cut loose from the trade unions altogether.

A different view was expressed by the Independent’s correspondent, Owen Jones. He declared passionately that

the Labour Party is in great danger. An unholy alliance of politically ambitious uber-Blairite Shadow Cabinet members. Tory politicians and outriders and a large swathe of the press are conspiring to sever Labour’s trade union link.” (8 July)

The following day, Ed Miliband gave his response – one in which he outlined a new relationship with trade unions and their members.

“In the 21st Century,” he wrote, “individual trade unionists should be given the chance to make a personal, active choice to become affiliated members of the Party. I want a mass membership party, not of 200,000 but of many more.”


However one interprets these comments, they can only be seen as another move towards breaking the formal links between Labour and the trade unions – the severance of the ties between what was once seen as two wings of a great movement.


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.


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.”


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.


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.