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What Impact did the First World War have on the UK Labour Party?

Once it had been officially declared, the majority of the Labour Party voted to support the war. This caused divisions within the Party. Ramsay MacDonald resigned as Chairman of the PLP. He helped found the Union of Democratic Control.

However Labour maintained its underlying unity and unlike the Liberals, these divisions did not cause a split in the Party. The War Emergency Workers National Committee also helped to keep the leaders of the Labour Movement together.

Labour MPs served in both Asquith’s and Lloyd George’s Coalition Governments, increasing the Party’s status.

By 1918 Labour had a new constitution and was in a position to break with the Coalition and contest more seats than ever before at the General Election. Within six years Britain had its first Labour Government.

Arthur Henderson had called a conference to form a peace committee. However, war was declared on the 4 August 1914. The following day the Labour Party voted to support the war effort.

So instead of a peace committee, the Labour representatives who attended the conference on the 5 August formed the War Emergency Workers National Committee (WEWNC).

The WEWNC was a broad coalition of labour organisations with representatives from the Labour Party and across the wider Labour and Socialist Movement.

Henderson was its first Chairman and its members included Sidney Webb, Ben Tillet, Ramsay MacDonald and Susan Lawrence.

Its purpose was to protect the interests of the working classes during the war. The committee campaigned on issues such as wages, rent controls, widow’s pensions and food prices.

In 1916 it supported the ‘Conscription of Riches’ campaign, emphasising the need for ‘fair play’ between the classes and arguing for the war to be paid for out of taxation on capital.

The majority in the Labour Party voted to support the war. The trade unions were largely pro-war, as were the rank and file. However many within the ILP opposed the war. Some objected on pacifist principles, others because they saw Britain’s foreign policy as the war’s real cause.

However these divisions did not cause a fundamental split in the Labour Party. One reason for this was the Party’s common aim to protect the interests of the working classes.

The WEWNC helped to keep the leading figures of the Labour Movement together despite their own, often opposing views of the war. The ILP played an active role in the work of the WEWNC.

The WEWNC ensured that social, welfare and labour issues were given local and national attention. The association of the Labour Movement with the achievements of the WEWNC demonstrated the relevance and potential benefits of a ‘Labour Party’.

MacDonald resigned as Chairman of the Parliamentary Labour Party after they voted to support the Liberal Government’s request for £100,000,000 of war credits.

He opposed Britain’s entry into the war, believing that the Government had used the invasion of Belgium as an ‘excuse’, to justify the decision to the British public. The real cause of the war was Britain’s foreign policy, of trying to maintain a balance of power through alliances and secret treaties.

Ramsay MacDonald felt that British foreign policy needed to change if future wars were to be prevented. He and a few like-minded individuals felt it necessary to form a new pressure group, the Union of Democratic Control, to voice these concerns.

The UDC held its inaugural meeting on the 17 November 1914. Although seen as part of the anti-war movement the UDC did not campaign against the war. They were more concerned with ensuring a lasting peace once the war was won.

As they stated in their manifesto The Morrow of the War it was ‘imperative that the war, once begun, should be prosecuted to a victory for our country’ and ‘it is equally imperative, while we carry on the war, to prepare for peace’.

What did the UDC campaign for?

The UDC wanted greater parliamentary control over foreign policy. Instead of maintaining a balance of power, the UDC argued for the creation of an international organisation to settle disputes. It also called for a program of disarmament and the nationalisation of the arms industries.

The subsequent peace settlement was not to humiliate the defeated side. Neither should there be transfers of territory or a redrawing of borders without the consent of the population.

The UDC opposed conscription and strongly criticised the terms of the Treaty of Versailles.

Most of the UDC’s support came from Labour members (mainly from the ILP) and the left wing of the Liberal Party. Some of these Liberals, including E D Morel, Charles Trevelyan and Arthur Ponsonby, later joined the Labour Party.

In the autumn of 1917 many of the UDC’s ideas were incorporated into the Party’s official foreign policy when it set out its Memorandum on War Aims. UDC thinking would influence much of Labour’s international policy during the 1920’s.

Labour MPs served in both Asquith’s and Lloyd George’s Coalition Governments. This increased the status and credibility of the Labour Party. It also gave the Labour leaders valuable experience of working in government.

In May 1915 Arthur Henderson became the first Labour Cabinet Minister when he joined Herbert Asquith’s Coalition. He was appointed President of the Board of Education, although his actual role was to serve as a link to the trade unions and advise on labour issues.

Two other Labour MPs, George Roberts and William Brace were made junior ministers. Henderson went on to serve as Paymaster General in Asquith’s Government, before joining Lloyd George’s War Cabinet.

Labour and Arthur Henderson in particular, remained loyal to Asquith until his resignation on the 5 December 1916.

Most of the Liberal Party refused to join Lloyd George’s Coalition, which was dominated by the Tories.

Lloyd George was planning more state involvement in industry and the creation of new ministries for Labour and Pensions. He also promised not to bring in industrial conscription. Realising it was in Labour’s best interest to remain in government the Party voted to join the Coalition. The decision was endorsed by a large majority at the 1917 Labour Party Conference.

Arthur Henderson was appointed to the inner War Cabinet. John Hodge was made Minister for Labour. George Barnes was appointed Minister for Pensions. A few other Labour MPs received junior government posts.

In June 1917 Henderson was sent by Lloyd George to meet with the Provisional Government in Russia, which had come to power following the overthrow of the Tsar. Henderson realised that Russia was in no state to continue in the war and saw the threat posed by the Bolsheviks.

He urged the Labour Party to send representatives to the International Socialist Conference in Stockholm. This meeting of European socialists was being held to try and bring about a negotiated peace with Germany.

This did not fit in with Lloyd George’s policy of a ‘fight to the finish’. He accused Henderson of having caught ‘the revolutionary malaria’.

In the ‘doormat incident’ of the 1 August, Henderson was kept waiting for an hour outside the Cabinet room while his conduct in promoting the conference was discussed.

Henderson’s position became untenable after a special Labour Party Conference voted in favour of attending. Henderson resigned from the Cabinet on the 11 August.

Following his resignation from the War Cabinet, Henderson re-directed his efforts into reorganising and restructuring the Party. With help from Sidney Webb, by 1918 Labour had a new constitution. This included the famous Clause IV.

The rise in trade union and socialist society membership had swelled Labour’s ranks and benefitted the Party financially. Joining the wartime Coalitions had demonstrated the Party’s ability to work in government. More importantly, despite divisions over the war, there had been no fundamental split in the Party.

On the 14 November 1918 Labour voted to leave the Coalition. The Party contested 361 seats, more than ever before, at the ‘Coupon Election’ in December. Anti-war candidates fared badly. Labour still made gains on its position in 1914 and returned 57 MPs, more than Asquith’s Liberals.