History of the British Labour Party
This is about the history of the British Labour Party. For information about the wider history of British socialism see
History of socialism in Great Britain. For more detailed information about the present Labour government see Current Labour government (UK).
The Labour Party grew out of the
trade unionmovement and socialistpolitical parties of the 19th century,
Labour surpassed the Liberal Party as the main opposition to the Conservatives in the early 1920s. It has had several spells in government, first as minority governments under
Ramsay MacDonaldin 1924 and 1929-31, then as a junior partner in the wartime coalition from 1940-1945, and then as a majority government, under Clement Attleein 1945-51 and under Harold Wilsonin 1964-70. Labour was in government again in 1974-79, under Wilson and then James Callaghan, though with a precarious and declining majority.
The current national Labour government won a landslide 179 seat majority in the 1997 general election under the leadership of
Tony Blair, its first general election victory since October 1974 and the first general election since 1970 in which it had exceeded 40% of the popular vote. The party's large majority in the House of Commons was slightly reduced to 167 in the 2001 general election and more substantially reduced to 66 in 2005.
Founding of the party
The Labour Party's origins lie in the late 19th century numeric increase of the urban proletariat and the extension of the franchise to
working-classmales, when it became apparent that there was a need for a political party to represent the interests and needs of those groups. [See, for instance, the 1899 Lyons vs. Wilkinsjudgement, which limited certain types of picketing] Some members of the trade union movement became interested in moving into the political field, and after the extensions of the franchise in 1867 and 1885, the Liberal Party endorsed some trade-union sponsored candidates. In addition, several small socialist groups had formed around this time with the intention of linking the movement to political policies. Among these were the Independent Labour Party, the intellectual and largely middle-class Fabian Society, the Social Democratic Federationand the Scottish Labour Party.
In the 1895 General Election the Independent Labour Party put up 28 candidates but won only 44,325 votes.
Keir Hardie, the leader of the party believed that to obtain success in parliamentary elections, it would be necessary to join with other left-wing groups.
Labour Representation Committee
In 1899 a
Doncastermember of the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants, Thomas R. Steels, proposed in his union branch that the Trade Union Congresscall a special conference to bring together all the left-wing organisations and form them into a single body which would sponsor Parliamentary candidates. The motion was passed at all stages by the TUC, and this special conference was held at the Memorial Hall, Farringdon Street, Londonon February 26-27, 1900. The meeting was attended by a broad spectrum of working-class and left-wing organisations; trade unions representing about one third of the membership of the TUC delegates. [ [http://www.socialisthistorysociety.co.uk/MORTIMER.HTM Mortimer, Jim, ‘The formation of the labour party - Lessons for today’ 2000] Jim Mortimer was a General Secretary of the Labour Party in the 1980s]
After a debate the 129 delegates passed Hardie's motion to establish "a distinct Labour group in Parliament, who shall have their own whips, and agree upon their policy, which must embrace a readiness to cooperate with any party which for the time being may be engaged in promoting legislation in the direct interests of labour." This created an association called the Labour Representation Committee (LRC), meant to coordinate attempts to support MPs, MPs sponsored by trade unions and representing the working-class population. It had no single leader. In the absence of one, the Independent Labour Party nominee
Ramsay MacDonaldwas elected as Secretary. He had the difficult task of keeping the various strands of opinions in the LRC united. The October 1900 "Khaki election" came too soon for the new party to effectively campaign. Only 15 candidatures were sponsored, but two were successful: Keir Hardiein Merthyr Tydfil and Richard Bell in Derby.
Support for the LRC was boosted by the 1901
Taff Vale Case, a dispute between strikers and a railway company that ended with the union ordered to pay £23,000 damages for a strike. The judgement effectively made strikes illegal since employers could recoup the cost of lost business from the unions. The apparent acquiescence of the Conservative government of Arthur Balfourto industrial and business interests (traditionally the allies of the Liberal Party in opposition to the Conservative's landed interests) intensified support for the LRC against a government that appeared to have little concern for the industrial proletariat and its problems. The LRC won two by-elections in 1902–1903.
In the 1906 election, the LRC won 29 seats — helped by the secret 1903 pact between
Ramsay Macdonaldand Liberal Chief Whip Herbert Gladstone, which aimed at avoiding Labour/Liberal contests in the interest of removing the Conservatives from office.
In their first meeting after the election, the group's Members of Parliament decided adopt the name "The Labour Party" (
February 15, 1906). Keir Hardie, who had taken a leading role in getting the party established, was elected as Chairman of the Parliamentary Labour Party (in effect, the Leader), although only by one vote over David Shackletonafter several ballots. In the party's early years, the Independent Labour Party(ILP) provided much of its activist base as the party did not have an individual membership until 1918 and operated as a conglomerate of affiliated bodies until that date. The Fabian Societyprovided much of the intellectual stimulus for the party. One of the first acts of the new Liberal government was to reverse the Taff Vale judgement.
World War I and the lead up to the first Labour government (1914-1923)
During the First World War the Labour Party split between supporters and opponents of the conflict and opposition within the party to the war grew as time went on.
Ramsay MacDonald, a notable anti-war campaigner, resigned as leader of the Parliamentary Labour Party and Arthur Hendersonbecame the main figure of authority within the Party and was soon accepted into H. H. Asquith's War Cabinet.
Despite mainstream Labour Party's support for the Coalition, the
Independent Labour Partywas instrumental in opposing mobilisation through organisations such as the Non-Conscription Fellowshipand a Labour Party affiliate, the British Socialist Partyorganised a number of unofficial strikes. Arthur Hendersonresigned from the Cabinet in 1917 amidst calls for Party unity, being replaced by George Barnes. The growth in Labour's local activist base and organisation was reflected in the elections following the War, with the co-operativemovement now providing its own resources to the Co-operative Partyafter the armistice. The Co-operative Party later reached an electoral agreement with the Labour Party.
The Liberal Party splitting between supporters of leader David Lloyd George and former leader
H. H. Asquithallowed the Labour Party to co-opt some of the Liberals' support, and by the 1922 general election Labour had supplanted the Liberal Party as the second party in the United Kingdom and as the official opposition to the Conservatives. After the election, the now rehabilitated Ramsay MacDonald was voted the first official leader of the Labour Party.
Labour's electoral base resided in the industrial areas of
Northern England, the Midlands, central Scotlandand Wales. In these areas Labour Clubs were founded to provide recreation for working men, with many of these clubs becoming affiliated to The Working Men's Club and Institute Union. Because of the concentrated geographical nature of Labour's support, industrial downturns tended to hit Labour voters directly. Anecdotal evidence suggests that party membership was often working-class but also included many middle-class radicals, former liberals and socialists. Accordingly, the more middle-class branches in London and the South of England tended to be more left-wing and radical than those in the primary industrial areas.
First Labour governments under Ramsay MacDonald
The first Labour government (1924)
The 1923 general election was fought on the Conservatives'
protectionistproposals; although they got the most votes and remained the largest party, they lost their majority in parliament, requiring a government supporting free tradeto be formed. So with the acquiescence of Asquith's Liberals, Ramsay MacDonaldbecame Prime Minister in January 1924 and formed the first ever Labour government, despite Labour only having 191 MPs (less than a third of the House of Commons).
Because the government had to rely on the support of the Liberals, it was unable to get any socialist legislation passed by the House of Commons. The only significant measure was the
Wheatley Housing Actwhich began a building programme of 500,000 homes for rent to working-class families.
The government collapsed after only nine months when the Liberals voted for a Select Committee inquiry into the Campbell Case, a vote which MacDonald had declared to be a vote of confidence. The ensuing general election saw the publication, four days before polling day, of the notorious
Zinoviev letter, which implicated Labour in a plot for a Communist revolution in Britain, and the Conservatives were returned to power, although Labour increased its vote from 30.7% of the popular vote to a third of the popular vote - most of the Conservative gains were at the expense of the Liberals. The Zinoviev letter is now generally believed to have been a forgery [http://news.independent.co.uk/uk/politics/article1819658.ece Independent.co.uk] .
The General Strike (1926)
The new Conservative government led by
Stanley Baldwinfaced a number of labour problems most notably the General Strike of 1926. Ramsay MacDonald continued with his policy of opposing strike action, including the General Strike, arguing that the best way to achieve social reforms was through the ballot box, although Labour claimed that the BBC was biased in its reporting against the party over the issue. [ [http://century.guardian.co.uk/1920-1929/Story/0,,126664,00.html General strike: House of commons] , The Guardian, reproduction of 6 May 1926 article] [ [http://www.bbc.co.uk/heritage/in_depth/pressure/strike.shtml The General Strike 1926] BBC] [ [http://library-2.lse.ac.uk/archives/handlists/MacDonaldNodin/MacDonaldNodin.html Archive Biography of Ramsay MacDonald] , British Library of Political and Economic Science]
econd Labour government (1929-1931)
The election of May 1929 left the Labour Party for the first time as the largest grouping in the House of Commons with 287 seats, and 37.1% of the popular vote (actually slightly less than the Conservatives). However, MacDonald was still reliant on Liberal support to form a minority government. MacDonald's government included the first ever woman cabinet minister
Margaret Bondfieldwho was appointed Minister of Labour.
MacDonald's second government was in a stronger parliamentary position than his first, and in 1930 he was able to pass a revised Old Age Pensions Act, a more generous Unemployment Insurance Act, and an act to improve wages and conditions in the coal industry (i.e. the issues behind the General Strike).
Great Depression and the split under MacDonald
Wall Street Crash of 1929and eventual Great Depression occurred soon after the government came to power, and the crisis hit Britain hard. By the end of 1930 the unemployment rate had doubled to over two and a half million Davies, A.J. (1996) "To Build A New Jerusalem: The British Labour Party from Keir Hardie to Tony Blair", Abacus, ISBN 0349 108099] .
The Labour government struggled to cope with the crisis and found itself attempting to reconcile two contradictory aims; achieving a balanced budget in order to maintain the pound on the
Gold Standard, whilst also trying to maintain assistance to the poor and unemployed. All of this whilst tax revenues were falling. The Chancellor of the Exchequer, Philip Snowdenrefused to permit deficit spending.
One junior minister,
Oswald Mosley, put forward a memorandum in January 1930, calling for the public control of imports and banking as well as an increase in pensions to boost spending power. When this was repeatedly turned down, Mosley resigned from the government in February 1931 and went on to form the New Party, and later the British Union of Fascistsafter he converted to Fascism.
By 1931 the situation had deteriorated further. Under pressure from its Liberal allies as well as the Conservative opposition who feared that the budget was unbalanced, the Labour government appointed a committee headed by Sir George May to review the state of public finances. The
May Reportof July 1931 urged public-sector wage cuts and large cuts in public spending (notably in payments to the unemployed) in order to avoid a budget deficit.
This proposal proved deeply unpopular within the Labour Party grass roots and the
trade unions, which along with several government ministers, refused to support any such measures. Several senior ministers such as Arthur Hendersonand J. R. Clynesthreatened to resign rather than agree to the cuts. MacDonald, and Philip Snowden however, insisted that the Report's recommendations must be adopted to avoid incurring a budget deficit.
The dispute over spending and wage cuts split the Labour government; as it turned out, fatally. The cabinet repeatedly failed to agree to make cuts to spending or introduce tariffs. The resulting political deadlock caused investors to take fright, and a flight of capital and gold further de-stabilised the economy. In response, MacDonald, on the urging of King George V, agreed to form a National Government, with the Conservatives and the Liberals.
August 241931 MacDonald submitted the resignation of his ministers and led a small number of his senior colleagues, most notably Snowden and Dominions Secretary J. H. Thomas, in forming the National Government with the other parties. MacDonald and his supporters were then expelled from the Labour Party and formed the National Labour Party. The remaining Labour Party, now led by Arthur Henderson, and a few Liberals went into opposition.
Soon after this, a
General Electionwas called. The 1931 election resulted in a landslide victory for the National Government, and was a disaster for the Labour Party which won only 52 seats, 225 fewer than in 1929.
MacDonald continued as Prime Minister of the Conservative dominated National Government until 1935. MacDonald's actions in ditching the Labour government to form a coalition with the Conservatives, led to him being denounced by the Labour Party as a "traitor" and a "rat" for what they saw as his betrayal [ [http://www.labourhistory.org.uk/?p=16 labourhistory.org] ]
Opposition during the time of the National Government
Arthur Henderson, who had been elected in 1931 as Labour leader to succeed MacDonald, lost his seat in the 1931 General Election. The only former Labour cabinet member who survived the landslide was the pacifist George Lansbury, who accordingly became party leader.
The party experienced a further split in 1932 when the
Independent Labour Party, which for some years had been increasingly at odds with the Labour leadership, opted to disaffiliate from the Labour Party. The ILP embarked on a long drawn out decline. The role of the ILP within the Labour Party was taken up for a time by the Socialist League led by Stafford Cripps, until it was wound up in 1937.
The Labour Party moved to the left during the early 1930s. The party's programme "For Socialism and Peace" adopted in 1934, committed the party to
nationalisationof land, banking, coal, iron and steel, transport, power and water supply, as well as the setting up of a National Investment Board to plan industrial development.
Public disagreements between Lansbury and many Labour Party members over foreign policy, notably in relation to Lansbury's opposition to applying sanctions against
Italyfor its aggression against Abyssinia, caused Lansbury to resign during the 1935 Labour Party Conference. He was succeeded by his deputy Clement Attlee, who achieved a revival in Labour's fortunes in the 1935 General Election, winning a similar number of votes to those attained in 1929 and actually, at 38% of the popular vote, the highest percentage that Labour had ever achieved, securing 154 seats. Attlee was initially regarded as a caretaker leader, however he turned out to be the longest serving party leader to date, and one of its most successful.
With the rising threat from
Nazi Germanyin the 1930s, the Labour Party gradually abandoned its earlier pacifist stance, and came out in favour of rearmament. This shift largely came about due to the efforts of Ernest Bevinand Hugh Daltonwho by 1937 also persuaded the party to oppose Neville Chamberlain's policy of appeasement. Labour achieved a number of by-election upsets in the later part of the 1930s despite the world depression having come to an end and unemployment falling.
Neville Chamberlainresigned as Prime Minister after the defeat in Norway in spring 1940, incoming Prime Minister Winston Churchilldecided that it was important to bring the other main parties into the government and have a Wartime Coalition similar to that in the First World War. Clement Attlee became Lord Privy Sealand a member of the War cabinet, and was effectively (and eventually formally) Deputy Prime Ministerfor the remainder of the duration of the War in Europe.
A number of other senior Labour figure took up senior positions: the trade union leader
Ernest Bevinas Minister of Labour directed Britain's wartime economy and allocation of manpower; the veteran Labour statesman Herbert Morrisonbecame Home Secretary; Hugh Daltonwas Minister of Economic Warfareand later President of the Board of Trade; and A. V. Alexander resumed the role of First Lord of the Admiraltyhe had held in the previous Labour government. The party generally performed well in government, and its experience there may have been partly responsible for its post-war success.
Post-War victory under Attlee
With the end of the war in Europe in May 1945, Labour resolved not to repeat the Liberals' error of 1918, and withdrew from the government to contest the 1945 general election (July 5) in opposition to Churchill's Conservatives. Surprising many observers, Labour won a landslide victory, winning just under 50% of the vote with a majority of 145 seats.
Although the exact reasons for the victory are still debated. During the war, public opinion surveys showed public opinion moving to the left and in favour of radical social reform. There was little public appetite for a return to the poverty and mass unemployment of the interwar years which had become associated with the Conservatives.Clement Attlee's government proved to be one of the most radical British governments of the 20th century. It presided over a policy of selective
nationalisationof major industries and utilities, including the Bank of England, coal mining, the steel industry, electricity, gas, telephones, and inland transport (including the railways, road haulage and canals). It developed the "cradle to grave" welfare stateconceived by the Liberal economist William Beveridge. To this day, the party still considers the creation in 1948 of Britain's publicly funded National Health Serviceunder health minister Aneurin Bevanits proudest achievement.
Attlee's government also began the process of dismantling the
British Empirewhen it granted independence to Indiain 1947. This was followed by Burma ( Myanmar) and Ceylon ( Sri Lanka) the following year.
With the onset of the
Cold War, at a secret meeting in January 1947, Attlee, and six cabinet ministers including foreign minister Ernest Bevin, secretly decided to proceed with the development of Britain's nuclear deterrent, in opposition to the pacifist and anti-nuclear stances of a large element inside the Labour Party.
Labour won the 1950 general election but with a much reduced majority of five seats. Soon after the 1950 election, things started to go badly wrong for the Labour government. Defence became one of the divisive issues for Labour itself, especially defence spending (which reached 14% of GDP in 1951 during the
Korean War[Clark, Sir George, "Illustrated History Of Great Britain", (1987) Octopus Books] ). These costs put enormous strain on public finances, forcing savings to be found elsewhere. The Chancellor of the Exchequer, Hugh Gaitskellintroduced prescription chargesfor NHS prescriptions, causing Bevan, along with Harold Wilson( President of the Board of Trade) to resign over the dilution of the principle of free treatment.
Soon after this, another election was called. Labour narrowly lost the October 1951 election to the Conservatives, despite their receiving a larger share of the popular vote and, in fact, their highest vote ever numerically.
Most of the changes introduced by the 1945-51 Labour government however were accepted by the Conservatives and became part of the "
post war consensus", which lasted until the 1970s.
The "Thirteen Wasted Years"
Following the defeat in 1951, the party became split over the future direction of socialism. The "Gaitskellite" right of the party led by
Hugh Gaitskelland associated with thinkers such as Anthony Croslandwanted the party to adopt a moderate social democratic position. Whereas the "Bevanite" left, led by Aneurin Bevanwanted the party to adopt a more radical socialist position. This split, and the fact that the 1950s saw economic recovery and general public contentment with the Conservative governments of the time, helped keep the party out of power for thirteen years After being defeated at the 1955 general election, Attlee resigned as leader and was replaced by Gaitskell. The trade union block vote, which generally voted with the leadership, ensured that the bevanites were eventually defeated.
The three key divisive issues that were to split the Labour party in successive decades emerged first during this period;
nuclear disarmament, the famous Clause IVof the party's constitution, which called for the ultimate nationalisation of all means of production in the British economy, and Britain's entry into the European Economic Community(EEC). Tensions between the two opposing sides were exacerbated after Attlee resigned as leader in 1955 and Gaitskell defeated Bevan in the leadership election that followed. The party was briefly revived and unified during the Suez Crisisof 1956. The Conservative party was badly damaged by the incident while Labour was rejuvenated by its opposition to the policy of prime minister Anthony Eden. But Eden was replaced by Harold Macmillan, while the economy continued to improve.
In the 1959 election the Conservatives fought under the slogan "Life is better with the Conservatives, don't let Labour ruin it" and the result saw the government majority increase. Following the election bitter internecine disputes resumed. Gaitskell blamed the Left for the defeat and attempted unsuccessfully to amend Clause IV. At a hostile party conference in 1960 he failed to prevent a vote adopting unilateral nuclear disarmament as a party policy, declaring in response that he would "fight, fight and fight again to save the party I love". The decision was reversed the following year, but it remained a divisive issue, and many in the left continued to call for a change of leadership.
When the Conservative government attempted to take Britain into the EEC in 1962, Gaitskell alienated some of his supporters by his opposition to British membership. In a speech to the party conference in October 1962 Gaitskell claimed that EEC membership would mean "the end of Britain as an independent European state. I make no apology for repeating it. It means the end of a thousand years of history".
Gaitskell died suddenly in January 1963 from a rare disease. His death made way for
Harold Wilsonto lead the party. The term "thirteen wasted years" was coined by Wilson as a slogan for the 1964 general election, in reference to what he claimed were thirteen wasted years of Conservative government.
The Wilson Years
A downturn in the economy, along with a series of scandals in the early 1960s (the most notorious being the
Profumo affair), engulfed the Conservative government by 1963. The Labour party returned to government with a wafer-thin 4 seat majority under Wilson in the 1964 election, and increased their majority to 96 in 1966 election remaining in power until the 1970 election which, contrary to expectations during the campaign, they lost.
The 1960s Labour government had a different emphasis from its 1940s predecessor.
Harold Wilsonput faith in economic planningas a way to solve Britain's economic problems. Wilson famously referred to the "white heat of technology", referring to the modernisation of British industry. This was to be achieved through the swift adoption of new technology, aided by government-funded infrastructure improvements and the creation of large high-tech public sector corporations guided by a Ministry of Technology. Economic planning through the new Department of Economic Affairs was to improve the trade balance, whilst Labour carefully targeted taxation aimed at "luxury" goods and services.
In practice however, Labour had difficulty managing the economy under the "Keynesian consensus" and the international markets instinctively mistrusted the party. Events derailed much of the initial optimism. Upon coming to power, the government was informed that the
trade deficitwas far worse than expected. This soon led to a currency crisis; despite enormous efforts to shore up the value of sterling, in November 1967 the government was forced into devaluationof the pound from $2.80 to $2.40, which damaged the government's credibility.
For much of the remaining Parliament the government followed stricter controls in public spending and the necessary austerity measures caused consternation amongst the Party membership and the trade unions, unions which by this time were gaining ever greater political power.
In the event, the devaluation, and austerity measures succesfully restored the balance of payments into a surplus by 1969. However, they unexpectedly turned into a small deficit again in 1970. The bad figures were announced just before polling in the 1970 general election, and are often cited as one of the reasons for Labour's defeat. As a gesture towards Labour's left wing supporters. Wilson's government renationalised the steel industry in 1967 (which had been denationalised by the Conservatives in the 1950s) creating
ocial and educational reforms
The 1960s Labour government is probably most remembered for the liberal social reforms introduced or supported by
Home Secretary Roy Jenkins. Notable amongst these was the legalisation of male homosexualityand abortion, reform of divorcelaws, the abolition of theatre censorshipand capital punishment(except for a small number of offences - notably high treason) and various legislation addressing race relationsand racial discrimination.
In Wilson's defence, his supporters also emphasise the easing of
means testingfor non-contributory welfare benefits, the linking of pensions to earnings, and the provision of industrial-injury benefits.
Wilson's government made significant reforms to education, most notably the expansion of
comprehensive educationand the creation of the Open University.
In Place of Strife
Wilson's government in 1969 proposed a series of reforms to the legal basis for
industrial relations(labour law) in the UK, which were outlined in a White Paperentitled " In Place of Strife", which proposed to give trade unions statutory rights, but also to limit their power. The White Paper was championed by Wilson and Barbara Castle. The proposals however faced stiff opposition from the Trades Union Congress, and some key cabinet ministers such as James Callaghan.
The opponents won the day and the proposals were shelved. This episode proved politically damaging for Wilson, whose approval ratings fell to 26%; the lowest for any Prime Minister since polling began.
In hindsight, many have argued that the failiure of the unions to adopt the proposals of "In Place of Strife", led to the far more drastic curbs on trade union power under
Margaret Thatcherin the 1980s.
In the 1970 general election,
Edward Heath's Conservatives narrowly defeated Harold Wilson's government reflecting some disillusionment amongst many who had voted Labour in 1966. The Conservatives quickly ran into difficulties, alienating Ulster Unionists and many Unionists in their own party after signing the Sunningdale Agreementin Ulster. Heath's government also faced the 1973 miners strikewhich forced the government to adopt a " Three-Day Week". The 1970s proved to be a very difficult time for the Heath, Wilson and Callaghan administrations. Faced with a mishandled oil crisis, a consequent world-wide economic downturn, and a badly suffering British economy.
The 1970s saw tensions re-emerge between Labour's left and right wings, which eventually caused a catastrophic split in the party in the 1980s and the formation of the Social Democratic Party. Following the perceived disappointments of the 1960s Labour government and the failiures of the 'revisionist' right. The left of the party under
Tony Bennand Michael Footbecame increasingly influential during the early 1970s [ [http://books.google.com/books?id=tnvHk8g1crUC&pg=PA91&lpg=PA91&dq=%22labour's+programme+1973%22&source=web&ots=-2D0gtR3B1&sig=cZYysngSHKbDPMtZaIDI427QUR0 Remaking the Labour Party: From Gaitskell to Blair By Tudor Jones] ]
The left drew up a radical programme; "Labour's Programme 1973", which pledged to bring about a "fundamental and irreversible shift in the balance of power and wealth in favour of working people and their families". This programme referred to a "far reaching
Social Contractbetween workers and the Government" and called for a major extension of public ownership and state planning. The programme was accepted by that year's party conference. Wilson publicly accepted many of the policies of the Programme with some reservations, but the condition of the economy allowed little room for manoeuvre. In practice many of the proposals of the programme were heavily watered down when Labour returned to government.
Return to power in 1974
Labour returned to power again under Wilson a few weeks after the February 1974 general election, forming a minority government with Ulster Unionist support. The Conservatives were unable to form a government as they had fewer seats, even though they had received more votes. It was the first General Election since 1924 in which both main parties received less than 40% of the popular vote, and was the first of six successive General Elections in which Labour failed to reach 40% of the popular vote. In a bid for Labour to gain a majority, a second election was soon called for October 1974 in which Labour, still with Harold Wilson as leader, scraped a majority of three, gaining just 18 seats and taking their total to 319.
Britain had entered the EEC in 1973 while
Edward Heathwas Prime Minister. Although Harold Wilson and the Labour party had opposed this, in government Wilson switched to backing membership, but was defeated in a special one day Labour conference on the issue [cite web|url=http://news.bbc.co.uk/onthisday/hi/dates/stories/april/26/newsid_2503000/2503155.stm|title=26 April 1975: Labour votes to leave the EEC |accessdate=2007-06-25] leading to a national referendum on which the yes and no campaigns were both cross-party - the referendum voted in 1975 to continue Britain's membership by two thirds to one third. This issue later caused catastrophic splits in the Labour Party in the 1980s, leading to the formation of the SDP.
In the initial legislation during the Heath Government, the Bill affirming Britain's entry was only passed because of a rebellion of 72 Labour MPs led by
Roy Jenkinsand including future leader John Smith, who voted against the Labour whip and along with Liberal MPs more than countered the effects of Conservative rebels who had voted against the Conservative Whip. [cite web
title = Brief Chronology, June 1970 to March 1974
work = CABINET PAPERS: Complete classes from the CAB & PREM series in the Public Record Office
publisher = Adam Matthew Publications Ltd
url = http://www.ampltd.co.uk/digital_guides/cabinet_papers_series_3_part_7/Brief-Chronology-1970-to-1974.aspx
format = HTML
accessdate = 2008-01-31]
Wilson steps down
In April 1976 Wilson surprisingly stood down as Labour Party leader and Prime Minister claiming a long-standing desire to retire on his sixtieth birthday. There was immense suspicion of his reason for his resignation but it is now known that he was in the early stages of Alzheimer's. He feared following his mother's path who had been a towering, impressive personality but who did not accept her failing abilities and carried on for too long spoiling her reputation. He was replaced by
James Callaghanwho immediately removed a number of left-wingers (such as Barbara Castle) from the cabinet.
In the same year as Callaghan became leader, the party in
Scotlandsuffered the breakaway of two MPs into the Scottish Labour Party (SLP). Whilst ultimately the SLP proved no real threat to the Labour Party's strong Scottish electoral base it did show that the issue of Scottish devolutionwas becoming increasingly contentious, especially after the discovery of North Sea Oil.
Economic and political troubles
The 1970s Labour government faced enormous economic problems and a precarious political situation. Faced with a global recession and spiralling
inflation. Many of Britain's traditional manufacturing industries were collapsing in the face of foreign competition. Unemployment, and industrial unrest were rising.
In the autumn of 1976 the Labour Government under Chancellor
Denis Healeywas forced to ask the International Monetary Fund(IMF) for a loan to ease the economy through its financial troubles. The conditions attached to the loan included harsh austeritymeasures such as sharp cuts in public spending, which were highly unpopular with party supporters. This forced the government to abandon much of the radical program which it had adopted in the early 1970s, much to the anger of left wingers such as Tony Benn. It later turned out however that the loan had not been necessary. The error had been caused by incorrect financial estimates by the Treasury which overestimated public borrowing requirements Thorpe, Andrew. (2001) "A History Of The British Labour Party", Palgrave, ISBN 0-333-92908-x] . The government only drew on half of the loan and was able to pay it back in full by 1979.
The 1970s Labour government adopted an interventionist approach to the economy, setting up the
National Enterprise Boardto channel public investment into industry, and giving state support to ailing industries. Several large nationalisations were carried out during this era: The struggling motor manufacturer British Leylandwas partly nationalised in 1975. In 1977 British Aerospaceas well as what remained of the shipbuilding industry were nationalised, as well as the British National Oil Corporation. The Government succeeded in replacing the "Family Allowance" with the more generous child benefit, and introduced redundancy pay.
The Wilson and Callaghan governments were hampered by their lack of a workable majority in the commons. At the October 1974 election, Labour won a majority of only three seats. Several by-election losses meant that by 1977, Callaghan was heading a minority government, and was forced to do deals with other parties to survive. An arrangement was negotiated in 1977 with the Liberals known as the
Lib-Lab pact, but this ended after one year. After this, deals were made with the Scottish National Partyand the Welsh nationalist Plaid Cymru, which prolonged the life of the government slightly longer.
The nationalist parties demanded
devolutionto their respective countries in return for their support for the government. When referendums for Scottish and Welsh devolution were held in March 1979, the Welsh referendum was rejected outright, and the Scottish referendum had a narrow majority in favour but did not reach the threshold of 40% support, invalidating the result. This lead to the SNP withdrawing support for the government, which finally brought it down.
The "Winter of Discontent" and defeat by Margaret Thatcher
1973 oil crisishad caused a legacy of high inflationin the British economy which peaked at 26.9% in 1975. The Wilson and Callaghan governments attempted to combat this by entering into a social contractwith the trade unions, which introduced wage restraintand limited pay rises to limits set by the government. This policy was initially fairly successful at controlling inflation, which had been reduced to 7.4% by 1978.
Callaghan had been widely expected to call a general election in the autumn of 1978, when most opinion polls showed Labour to have a narrow lead. However instead, he decided to extend the wage restraint policy for another year in the hope that the economy would be in a better shape in time for a 1979 election. This proved to be a big mistake. The extension of wage restraint was unpopular with the trade unions, and the government's attempt to impose a "5% limit" on pay rises caused resentment amongst workers and trade unions, with whom relations broke down.
During the winter of 1978-79 there were widespread strikes in favour of higher pay rises which caused significant disruption to everyday life. The strikes affected lorry drivers, railway workers, car workers and local government and hospital workers. These came to be dubbed as the "
Winter of Discontent".
The perceived relaxed attitude of Callaghan to the crisis reflected badly upon public opinion of the government's ability to run the country. After the withdrawal of SNP support for the government, the Conservatives put down a
vote of no confidence, which was held and passed by one vote on 28 March 1979, forcing a general election.
In the 1979 general election, Labour suffered electoral defeat to the Conservatives led by
Margaret Thatcher. The numbers voting Labour hardly changed between February 1974 and 1979, but in 1979 the Conservative Party achieved big increases in support in the Midlands and South of England, mainly from the ailing Liberals, and benefited from a surge in turnout.
The actions of the trade unions during the Winter of Discontent were used by Margaret Thatcher's government to justify anti-trade union legislation during the 1980s.
Michael Foot era
The aftermath of the 1979 election defeat saw a period of bitter internal rivalry in the Labour Party which had become increasingly divided between the ever more dominant left wingers under
Michael Footand Tony Benn(whose supporters dominated the party organisation at the grassroots level), and the right under Denis Healey. It was widely considered that Healey would win the 1980 leadership election, but he was narrowly defeated by Foot.
The Thatcher government was determined not to be deflected from its agenda as the Heath government had been. A
deflationarybudget in 1980 led to substantial cuts in welfare spending and an initial short-term sharp rise in unemployment. The Conservatives reduced or eliminated state assistance for struggling private industries, leading to large redundancies in many regions of the country, notably in Labour's heartlands. However, Conservative legislation extending the right for residents to buy council houses from the state proved very attractive to many Labour voters. (Labour had previously suggested this idea in their 1970 election manifesto, but had never acted on it.)
The election of
Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament(CND) veteran Michael Foot to the leadership disturbed many Atlanticists in the Party. Other changes increased their concern; the constituencies were given the ability to easily deselect sitting MPs, and a new voting system in leadership elections was introduced that gave party activists and affiliated trade unions a vote in different parts of an electoral college.
The party's move to the left in the early 80s led to the decision by a number of centrist party members led by the Gang of Four of former cabinet ministers (
Shirley Williams, William Rodgers, Roy Jenkins, and David Owen. ) to issue the " Limehouse Declaration" on January 26, 1981, and to form the breakaway Social Democratic Party. The departure of even more members from the centre and right further swung the party to the left, but not quite enough to allow Tony Benn to be elected as Deputy Leader when he challenged for the job at the September 1981 party conference.
Under Foot's leadership, the party's agenda became increasingly dominated by the politics of the
hard left. Accordingly, the party went into the 1983 general election with the most left wing manifesto that Labour ever stood upon. The manifesto contained pledges for abolition of the House of Lords, unilateral nuclear disarmament, withdrawal from the European Community, withdrawal from NATOand a radical and extensive extension of state control over the economy.
This alienated many of the party's more right-wing supporters. The Bennites were in the ascendency and there was very little that the right could do to resist or water down the manifesto, many also hoped that a landslide defeat would discredit Michael Foot and the hard left of the party moving Labour away from explicit Socialism and towards weaker social-democracy. Labour MP and former minister
Gerald Kaufmanfamously described the 1983 election manifesto as "the longest suicide note in history". Michael Foot has countered, with typical wit, that it is telling about Gerald Kaufman that it is likely that his one oft quoted remark will be all that he is remembered for.
Much of the press attacked both the Labour party's manifesto and its style of campaigning, which tended to rely upon public meetings and canvassing rather than media. By contrast, the Conservatives ran a professional campaign which played on the voters' fears of a repeat of the Winter of Discontent. To add to this, the Thatcher government's popularity rose sharply on a wave of patriotic feeling following victory in the
Falklands War, allowing it to recover from it initial unpopularity over unemployment and economic difficulty.
At the 1983 election, Labour suffered a landslide defeat, winning only 27.6% of the vote, their lowest share since 1918. Labour won only half a million votes more than the
SDP-Liberal Alliancewhich had attracted the votes of many moderate Labour supporters.
Michael Foot immediately resigned and was replaced by
Neil Kinnock, initially considered a firebrand left-winger, he proved to be more pragmatic than Foot and progressively moved the party towards the centre; banning left-wing groups such as the Militant tendencyand reversing party policy on EEC membership and withdrawal from NATO, bringing in Peter Mandelsonas Director of Communications to modernise the party's image, and embarking on a policy review which reported back in 1985.
At the 1987 general election, the party was again defeated in a landslide, but had at least re-established itself as the clear challengers to the Conservatives and gained 20 seats reducing the Conservative majority to 102 from 143 in 1983, despite a sharp rise in turnout. Challenged for the leadership by
Tony Bennin 1988, Neil Kinnock easily retained the leadership claiming a mandate for his reforms of the party. Re-organisation resulted in the dissolution of the Labour Party Young Socialists, which was thought to be harbouring entryistMilitant groups. It also resulted in a more centralised communication structure, enabling a greater degree of flexibility for the leadership to determine policy, react to events, and direct resources.
During this time the Labour Party emphasised the abandonment of its links to high taxation and old-style nationalisation, which aimed to show that the party was moving away from the left of the political spectrum and towards the centre. It also became actively pro-European, supporting further moves to
John Major and a fourth successive defeat
Margaret Thatcher who had led the Conservative Party to three successive victories resigned as Conservative leader in November 1990 following a leadership challenge from Conservative MP and former cabinet minister
Michael Heseltine, eventually leaving Labour facing a new Conservative Prime Minister in John Major.
By the time of the 1992 general election campaign, the party had reformed to such an extent that it was perceived as a credible government-in-waiting. Most opinion polls showed the party to have a slight lead over the Conservatives, although rarely sufficient for a majority. However, the party ended up 8% behind the Conservatives in the popular vote in one of the biggest surprises in British electoral history. Although Labour's support was comparable to the February and October 1974 and May 1979 General Elections, the overall turnout was much larger.
In the party's post mortem on why it had lost, it was considered that the "Shadow Budget" announced by John Smith had opened the way for Conservatives to attack the party for wanting to raise taxesFact|date=June 2007. In addition, a triumphalist party rally held in Sheffield eight days before the election, was generally considered to have backfired. The party had also suffered from a powerfully co-ordinated campaign from the right-wing press, particularly
Rupert Murdoch's "The Sun". Kinnock resigned after the defeat, blaming the Conservative-supporting newspapers for Labour's failure and John Smith, despite his involvement with the Shadow Budget, was elected to succeed him.
Smith's leadership once again saw the re-emergence of tension between those on the party's left and those identified as "modernisers", both of whom advocated radical revisions of the party's stance albeit in different ways. At the 1993 conference, Smith successfully changed the party rules and lessened the influence of the trade unions on the selection of candidates to stand for Parliament by introducing a
one member, one votesystem called OMOV — but only barely, after a barnstorming speech by John Prescottwhich required Smith to compromise on other individual negotiations.
However, they benefitted from an increasingly unpopular and divided Conservative government which ran into trouble, when on '
Black Wednesday' it was forced to leave the European Exchange Rate Mechanism. After this, Labour moved ahead in the opinion polls as the Conservatives became increasingly unpopular.
John Smith died suddenly in May 1994 from a heart attack, prompting a leadership election for his successor, likely to be the next Prime Minister. With 57% of the vote,
Tony Blairwon a resounding victory in a three-way contest with John Prescott and Margaret Beckett. Prescott became deputy leader, coming second in the poll whose results were announced on 21 July 1994.
"New Labour" is an alternative branding for the Labour Party dating from a conference slogan first used by the Labour Party in 1994 which was later seen in a draft
manifestopublished by the party in 1996, called " New Labour, New Life For Britain" and presented by Labour as being the brand of the new reformed party that had in 1995 altered Clause IVand reduced the Trade Union vote in the electoral college used to elect the leader and deputy leader to have equal weighting with individual other parts of the electoral college. Peter Mandelsonwas a senior figure in this process, and exercised a great deal of authority in the party following the death of John Smith and the subsequent election of Tony Blairas party leader.
The name is primarily used by the party itself in its literature but is also sometimes used by political commentators and the wider media; it was also the basis of a Conservative Party poster campaign of 1997, headlined "New Labour, New Danger". The rise of the name coincided with a rightwards shift of the British political spectrum; for Labour, this was a continuation of the trend that had begun under the leadership of
Neil Kinnock. "Old Labour" is sometimes used by commentators to describe the older, more left-wing members of the party, or those with strong Trade Union connections. Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, Peter Mandelson, Anthony Giddensand Alastair Campbellare most commonly cited as the creators and architects of "New Labour". They were among the most prominent advocates of the shift in European social democracyduring the 1990s, known as the "Third Way". Although this policy was advantageous to the Labour Party in the eyes of the British electorate, it alienated many grass roots members by distancing itself from the ideals of socialism in favour of free market policy decisions.
The "modernisation" of Labour party policy and the unpopularity of
John Major's Conservative government, along with a well co-ordinated use of PR, greatly increased Labour's appeal to " middle England". The party was concerned not to put off potential voters who had previously supported the Conservatives, and pledged to keep to the spending plans of the previous government, and not to increase the basic rate of income tax. The party won the 1997 election with a landslide majority of 179. Following a second and third election victory in the 2001 election and the 2005 election, the name has diminished in significance. "New Labour" as a name has no official status but remains in common use to distinguish modernisers from those holding to more traditional positions who normally are referred to as "Old Labour".
Many of the traditional grassroots working-class members of the Labour Party who have become upset and disillusioned with "New" Labour, have left the Party and gone on to join political parties such as the
Socialist Party (England and Wales), the Socialist Labour Party and even the Communist Party of Great BritainFact|date=March 2008 - all parties claiming to never neglect the "ordinary British people". David Osler, the journalist and author of "Labour Party plc" seems to hint in his book that Labour's supposed steady shift from Socialism and its neglect of support for the working-class people of Britain began to show during the Party's years under Harold Wilson. In the book, Osler claims that the Party is now only a socialist party and indeed a "Labour" party in name only and is a full-capitalist embracing Party which differs little from the Tory Party.
With the unpopularity of John Major's government. Labour party won the 1997 election with a landslide majority of 179.
Among the early acts of Tony Blair's government were the establishment of the
National minimum wage. And devolution of power to Scotland, Walesand Northern Irelandand re-created a city wide government body for London; the Greater London Authority.
Labour went on to win the 2001 election with a similar majority to 1997. tony Blair controversially allied himself with President
George W Bushin supporting the Iraq War, which lost his government much support. At the 2005 election, Labour was returned to power with a much reduced majority.
In 2007 Tony Blair stood down as prime minister and was replaced by
History of socialism in Great Britain
History of the Conservative Party
*Davies, A.J. (1996) To Build A New Jerusalem: The British Labour Party from Keir Hardie to Tony Blair, Abacus, ISBN 0349 108099
*Thorpe, Andrew. (2001) A History Of The British Labour Party, Palgrave, ISBN 0-333-92908-x
* [http://www.labourhistory.org.uk/ labourhistory.org.uk]
* [http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/Plabour.htm History of the Labour Party from spartacus schoolnet]
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