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Why was The UK Labour Party Formed?

The 1880’s saw an upsurge in socialism, with both the Fabian Society and Social Democratic Federation being founded in 1884. In the same year the Reform Act extended the franchise to more working class men.

In 1893 Keir Hardie helped found the Independent Labour Party.

Hardie believed the working classes needed parliamentary representation, independent of the existing political parties.

The trade unions had been content to put up their own candidates within the Liberal Party. Increasing hostility towards the unions saw them more open to the idea of an alliance with the socialists.

The TUC voted to hold a special conference which in February 1900 established the Labour Representation Committee. After the 1906 General Election the LRC was formally renamed the Labour Party.

The House of Commons included a small number of MPs who represented the interests of the working classes and the trade unions. These were working men, mostly from coal mining districts. They took the Liberal whip and were known as Lib-Labs.

In 1892 James Keir Hardie was elected MP for West Ham South, the first independent Labour MP. Hardie believed that the labour movement needed its own independent political party.

Hardie was not the only one calling for a move away from the Liberals and the establishment of an independent party for labour.

This was also promoted by Joseph Burgess editor of the Workmen’s Times.

Several independent labour organisations had already been established. These included the Scottish Labour Party, which Hardie had helped found in 1888, the Bradford Labour Union and the Colne Valley Labour Union, both founded in 1891.

At the TUC meeting in Glasgow in September 1892 it was decided to call a conference with a view to creating a nationwide independent party for labour.

In January 1893 the ILP was founded at the Bradford Labour Institute. Over 120 delegates attended the conference. Participants included representatives from a number of socialist and labour groups, such as Keir Hardie, Robert Blatchford, Ben Tillet and the Fabian George Bernard Shaw.

They voted against calling the organisation ‘The Socialist Labour Party’ to attract as broad a membership as possible.

Despite voting not to have ‘socialist’ in its title, a large majority did vote that the main objective of the party was ‘to secure the collective and communal ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange’.

ILP policies largely fell within existing Radical demands and included a number of social reforms such as welfare provisions, an eight hour day and an end to child labour. They also argued for adult suffrage and the abolition of indirect taxation.

The ILP had deliberately kept away from the ‘class war’ socialism of the SDF. Instead it promoted its moderation in the hope of attracting as much working class support as possible. It also hoped to entice the trade unionists away from the Liberal Party.

At the 1895 General Election, none of the twenty eight ILP candidates were elected, including Hardie who lost his seat at West Ham. Most workers were not socialists.

Following their electoral failure Keir Hardie and the ILP increasingly looked to an alliance with the trade unions.

They continued to argue for independent working class representation in Parliament but knew this would only be achieved with the backing and resources of the unions.

The TUC saw no need for an independent labour party.

Formed in 1868, three years later it set up a Parliamentary Committee to act as a pressure group.

The Reform Acts of 1867 and 1884 had extended the franchise to working class men.

Unions, particularly in the coal mining districts, sponsored their own Lib-Lab MPs to represent their interests in the House of Commons.

The unions also made a number of legal gains during the 1870s. William Gladstone’s Liberal Government passed the Trade Union Act in 1871 which protected union funds. Further Acts were passed by the Conservatives in 1875 and 1876, securing their legal status.

This stance began to change during the 1890’s.

At the end of the 1880’s there was a rapid rise in trade union membership. This rise was partly due to the New Unionism, which saw the formation of new unions aimed at unskilled and semi-skilled workers.

Many of the union leaders belonged to socialist organisations. They aimed to attract mass support to improve the working conditions for all workers.

These new unions tended to be more militant than the older, New Model Unions of skilled workers.

Successful strikes were held at the Bryant and May factory in 1888 and by the London Dockers in 1889.

This rise in trade unionism was seen as a threat by the employers and they took steps to try and curtail the power of the unions.

This included forming employer associations such as the Engineering Employers’ Federation, to resist union demands. In 1897 the EEF coordinated a nationwide lock out by its members against the Amalgamated Society of Engineers.

In 1898 the Employer’s Parliamentary Council was established. They aimed to work against the influence of the Parliamentary Committee of the TUC, by establishing their own parliamentary pressure group.

During the 1890’s trade union rights came under threat in the law courts. A number of actions were brought against the unions. In 1896 the Court’s ruling in the case of Lyons v Wilkins effectively made peaceful picketing illegal.

By the end of the 1890’s the legal status of the trade unions was being undermined. Local Liberal Associations was also increasingly unwilling to take on working men as candidates.

Some in the TUC now recognised the necessity of independent parliamentary representation to defend their interests.

To this end, in September 1899 the TUC voted in favour of holding a conference with the cooperative and socialist organisations. The vote was won by a narrow margin.

The coal and textile unions were largely against the idea. It was the support of the New Unions which helped to win the vote.

The outcome of this conference, held in February 1900, was the formation of the Labour Representation Committee. After twenty nine LRC candidates won seats at the 1906 General Election, the LRC was formally renamed the Labour Party.