Book Review from the July 1998 issue of the Socialist Standard
What’s Left? Labour Britain and the Socialist Tradition. By David Powell. Peter Owen. £22.50.
Socialists should know their history of the Labour Party, if only to be able to refute the claim that it was ever a socialist party and to demonstrate its failure to gradually transform capitalism into something better.
Powell’s book can serve as well as any as a source of the basic facts, especially as it is largely descriptive and devoid of any ideological perspective beyond "they’ve always been divided and that’s a bad thing" and perhaps a hint that the answer to the question "what’s left (of the original Labour Party)?" is "not a lot".
Towards the end of the last century many trade unionists felt that the trade union movement, or "Labour", should have its own party in parliament separate from both the Tories and the Liberals which represented different sections of the ruling class. Despite the election of Keir Hardie as an independent Labour MP in the 1892 election and the formation the following year of the Independent Labour Party (ILP), they didn’t make must headway (Hardie lost his seat at the 1895 election) until the House of Lords handed down their judgement in the Taff Vale case that a union could be sued for damages for loss of trade caused by a strike of its members.
This threat to their funds goaded the largely still Liberal leaders of the TUC to move and in February 1900 a conference of trade unions and various political groups (the ILP, the Fabians and Hyndman’s Social Democratic Federation) voted to set up a Labour Representation Committee. The founding resolution, which had no socialist content whatsoever, read:
"That this Conference is in favour of establishing a distinct Labour Group in Parliament who shall have their own Whips and agree upon their policy, which must embrace a readiness to co-operate with any party which, for the time being, may be engaged in promoting legislation in the direct interest of labour, and be equally ready to associate themselves with any party in opposing measures which have the opposite tendency".
The name Labour Party did not come into use until after the 1906 election when 29 MPs were elected (nearly all of them as a result of a secret, but obvious, deal with the Liberals). It was not until after the First World Slaughter, with the adoption in 1919 of a new constitution including the famous Clause IV, that individuals could join the Labour Party. Even then, Labour still didn’t officially talk about "socialism" but only about "the new social order". This, in fact, was state capitalism rather than socialism, but was seen only as a very long-term goal which the leadership never took seriously then or since.
In so far as Labour did have a theory it was taken from the Fabians, an elitist group of intellectuals (including George Bernard Shaw, H. G. Wells and Beatrice and Sidney Webb), who preached the "inevitability of gradualness": the goal of state capitalism was to be reached by a series of reform measures adopted by successive Labour governments. The first two Labour governments, both minority ones under Ramsay MacDonald, merely showed the capitalist class that Labour was "fit to govern" capitalism on their behalf. The second ended in complete disaster in 1931 when, faced with the slump, MacDonald, his Chancellor Snowden and some others in effect went over to the Tories.
Powell records the various attempts by those who took the state capitalist goal seriously to get Labour to be more than a party out to try to govern private capitalism a little less harshly than the Tories or the Liberals: from the ILP under Maxton in the 1920s (which disaffiliated from Labour in 1932), the Socialist League under Sir Stafford Cripps (later known as Sir Stifford Crapps for his role of Iron Chancellor imposing austerity on the workers in the post-war Attlee government) in the 1930s, the Bevanites in the 1950s and the Bennites in the 1970s and early 80s. They never got very far and only succeeded in ruining Labour’s electoral chances since most people wanted a humanised private capitalism rather than state capitalism.
The lesson the Labour left failed to learn was that you cannot have socialism without a majority who want and understand it. In a situation where most people still want capitalism—a situation which unfortunately has prevailed throughout the Labour Party’s existence, and still does—then what Socialists must do is not to try to get into government on a programme of reforms, but to campaign for socialism, to "make Socialists" as William Morris put it and what we’ve been trying to do since 1904 (yes, the working class could have made a different choice in the 1900s).
We might not be much nearer our goal of socialism than then, but the Labour Party has now abandoned its goal of those days of legislation favourable to trade unions and workers generally and has become Tweedledee to the Tories’ Tweedledum—which is what the Liberal Party was in 1900. They are not even an independent trade union pressure group in Parliament, but an openly pro-capitalist party.
Incidentally, we get a couple of mentions as, along with the British Socialist Party and the Socialist Labour Party (De Leon’s not Scargill’s) , one of "the warring fragments of Hyndman’s SDF" that opposed the First World War (true) and of "the congeries of Marxist factions" that were "in bullish mood following the events of October 1917" (not true).