A brief history of the Labour Party

From party resignations over Brexit to the enduring row over anti-Semitism, Britain’s Labour Party has scarcely been out of the headlines in recent months. But how much do you know about the history of the party? When was it first established, who was the first Labour prime minister, and what exactly was the ‘third way’?

Ramsay MacDonald, the first British Labour prime minister, pictured after the general election of 1931. His decision to lead a coalition government (a national government supported mainly by Conservatives and Liberals) was considered a betrayal by many in the Labour party. (Photo by London Express/Getty Images)

Here, historian Dr Jeremy Nuttall explores the history of the Labour Party and considers what its future may hold…

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The full significance of the resignations in February 2019 of eight Labour MPs (and three Conservatives) to form the Independent Group has yet to play out. But it already draws dramatic attention to several crucial unresolved dilemmas which have bedevilled the Labour Party throughout its history. One stems from the remarkable diversity of the social and ideological coalition it represents, incorporating working-class trade unionists and middle-class intellectuals; socialists; social democrats and centrists alike. A second is the tension between the party’s appetite for governmental power and its dissatisfied inclination to oppose, protest, and rebel.

A third conflict lies between the practical, loyalist and thus far predominating attraction of keeping that collective institution which is the Labour Party together, and the periodically opposing musing that ‘home’ may lie elsewhere. The formation of the Independent Group, and discussion led by deputy Labour leader Tom Watson of the creation of a distinctively ‘moderate’ parliamentary grouping within the party, are hints that many MPs are increasingly determined to resolve these dilemmas in favour of their centrist-social democratic and governmentally-inclined components. The outstanding question is whether that can only be achieved by the creation of a new party.

The origins of the Labour Party

Labour’s history is a relatively recent one. The Labour Representation Committee was only established in 1900, and, after winning 29 seats in the 1906 general election, became the Labour Party. It was the product of a coming together of socialist groups, like the gradualist Fabian Society with (more potently at this stage) the trade unions, who were increasingly concerned about the protection of their bargaining rights. Initially, Labour was largely a sideshow compared to the mighty Liberal Party (which won a landslide victory in 1906) and chiefly pursued landmark welfare reforms.

A cartoon from 'Punch' magazine (1903) titled 'Fidgety Joe', by Edward Linley Sambourne, depicting two parents representing the Duke of Devonshire and Arthur Balfour (centre), respective leaders of the Liberal Unionist and Conservative parties, trying to control their son, Joseph Chamberlain. In 1903, Joseph Chamberlain began his famous crusade for Imperial Preference – an issue which caused deep divisions in the government and ultimately paved the way for the Liberal Party's return to power in the 1906 general election. (Photo by Ann Ronan Pictures/Print Collector/Getty Images)

But gradually the advantages that Labour had over the Liberals came to hold sway: firstly, its more easily definable social class support base, and its more united weddedness to a governmentally-interventionist social reform agenda (compared to some Liberals’ lingering attachment to Victorian laissez-faire). The centralising impetus of the First World War – requiring large-scale government direction of resources; disrupting free trade and ultimately forcing the introduction of military conscription – further exposed the governing Liberals’ discomfort, as a party of international cooperation and trade, peace and individual freedom from state control. By 1924, Labour, drawing away working-class Liberal support, as well as some of its progressive intelligentsia, secured enough seats to form its first government, albeit a minority and short-lived one.

The first Labour prime minister

Yet, Labour was still a long way from parity with the Conservatives, who were already now displaying, under the skilful leadership of Stanley Baldwin, an ability to adapt their property-owning message to a more democratic epoch, making them a repeatedly more effective 20th-century election-winning machine than their rivals. The still-infant Labour Party was at this stage seeking to prove its claim to be a viable alternative government.

In 1992, Betty Boothroyd was voted in as Speaker of the House of Commons, with cross-party support by 372 votes to 238, asking the House “to elect me for what I am, not for what I was born”. (Photo by Tom Stoddart/Getty Images)

Much credit for achieving this goes to its early leader, Ramsay MacDonald (the first Labour prime minister, in office in 1924 and again in 1929–35), who was determined that the party should have a broad, national appeal – firmly progressive, but also committed to individual freedom, and to the securing of power through the existing democratic, parliamentary methods. This lay in contrast to approaches built around industrial muscle, such as through the so-called Triple Alliance of miners and railway and transport workers in the early 1920s; as well as the turn to intellectual Marxism of figures like Harold Laski and John Strachey, amidst the apparent ‘crisis of capitalism’ during the Depression of the 1930s.

Yet if MacDonald was the party’s first ‘hero’, he also became its first ‘villain’ – binary categorisations of its leaders to which Labour has been at times prone (self-destructively, I would argue). Faced in 1931 with a large budget deficit, the cabinet in Labour’s second minority government split over proposed spending cuts, and MacDonald was persuaded, by King George V and other leading, non-Labour politicians, to stay on as prime minister of a national government. This was the party’s first splintering, though the vast majority of its MPs and all its affiliated trade unions remained. Fundamentally, the focus on MacDonald’s ‘treachery’ – his perceived abandonment of both his party and its socialist principles, under the allure of the British establishment – masked the whole party’s longstanding lack of a sufficiently worked out policy plan.

Illustration by Glen McBeth

Labour’s first majority government

Two notable figures spoke of remedying this issue: new party leader (from 1935) Clement Attlee, and later chancellor of the exchequer Hugh Dalton (in office from July 1945 to November 1947). Both men combined practical economic re-thinking with a focus on building Labour’s governing experience through serving in the wartime coalition. This ensured that by the 1945 general election, Labour now had a more focused programme: a welfare state; selective nationalisation and full employment. This combined with the more collectivist spirit fostered by the ‘People’s War’ against Nazi Germany to give the Labour party a landslide victory, and its first majority government.

Attlee now led the party’s least controversially successful administration, achieving all the above three objectives – most notably the oft-cited ‘jewel’ in Labour’s history: the creation, in 1948, of the National Health Service.

Listening in: a doctor uses a stethoscope to examine a patient in 1948. (Photo by Popperfoto/Getty Images)

Though, even this seemingly golden moment reaffirmed the Labour party’s enduring dilemmas. For one (as would be the case again in 1964–70), governing momentum was relatively short-lived – the party’s very success in implementing so many of its longstanding policies in the early years of the government resulted, paradoxically, in a shortage of ideas as to what to do next, and a consequent loss of reforming drive and direction.

Harold Wilson and the perennial divide

As if to reinforce this lack of governmental longevity, the 1950s saw the resurfacing of that perennial divide between the party’s left and right. The left was inspired by NHS-creator Aneurin Bevan, who wanted socialism, and specifically nationalisation, to run further and faster; while its right was driven by admirers of new party leader Hugh Gaitskell, who was more focused on an egalitarian agenda of expanding welfare and education and was eager (for both electoral and ethical reasons) for the party to pursue a cross-class, rather than sectional appeal. The young Gaitskellite intellectual Tony Crosland’s The Future of Socialism (1956), probably the single most influential book ever written from within the Labour tradition, argued passionately that the party could be resolute in its pursuit of a more just society without degenerating into self-indulgent ideological zealotry. The debate was intensified by the more affluent Britain that was then emerging – the party needed support beyond its shrinking male, unionised working-class base.

Oswald Mosley, leader of the British Union of Fascists

New leader from 1963, Harold Wilson cleverly bridged this divide, creating, through a language of social, economic and technological ‘modernisation’, an appeal both to the socially reforming conscience and the aspirational socially mobile. This incorporated the promotion of comprehensive schools; university expansion; and housebuilding. It also featured, often under the strong encouragement of home secretary Roy Jenkins, the liberalisation of much of the country’s legal framework. Measures included the abolition of capital punishment in 1965; the legalisation of homosexuality in 1967; and two Race Relations Acts, in 1965 and 1968, outlawing discrimination in housing, employment and public places. Then came the National Plan, launched in August 1965 by deputy Labour leader George Brown. This plan, driven forward by a newly created Department of Economic Affairs, aimed to encourage more direct government involvement in planning and modernising the economy, including through applied science and technology. But it foundered on the weakness of the pound, and the determination of the more financially orthodox Treasury to retain control of the levers of economic power.

A Campaign for Homosexual Equality rally held in London’s Trafalgar Square in 1974. The Sexual Offences Act of 1967 helped pave the way for activism such as this in the 1970s, says Florence Sutcliffe-Braithwaite. (Corbis via Getty Images)

Admittedly, economic growth rates were less spectacular than hoped for under the eventually abandoned National Plan. Yet, the above achievements, allied to Harold Wilson’s skill in holding a disparate party (and country) together, have led revisionist historians to conclude his reputation deserves considerable rehabilitation: he led a socially modernising government in challenging times, which I would argue left the country both more equal and more free.

However, Wilson’s unifying dexterity in appealing both to his right and left wings, had postponed as much as resolved Labour’s internal contradictions, and once he finally retired as prime minister in 1976, the party spent much of the next two decades forced to confront them more directly, largely in Opposition. Its left, reinforced by then-powerful trade unions and the charismatic figure of Tony Benn, increasingly asserted its agenda of large-scale public ownership; enhanced worker and trade union control in industrial decision-making; industrial democracy and withdrawal from that ‘capitalist club’, the European Community.

The right’s response, led by the strongly Europhile and seasoned former cabinet minister Roy Jenkins, was to initiate the party’s second major split, by creating a new Social Democratic Party in 1981. Initially 14, and ultimately 28, Labour MPs (and just one Conservative) joined, but the country was not yet ready to abandon class politics, and a majority even on Labour’s right remained – calculating (correctly, as it turned out) that the more likely route back to office lay through fighting for social democracy from within.

A portrait of Sir Robert Peel by by English painter Henry William Pickersgill. (Photo by: Leemage/UIG via Getty Images)

New Labour and the ‘third way’

But the extent of the party’s disconnectedness from a now still more prosperous, educated and socially mobile citizenry meant it took three further election defeats before it finally returned to government – in 1997, with a bigger landslide than even in 1945. ‘New’ Labour’s young, impeccably middle-class, and dynamic prime minister Tony Blair did more than any other leader, before or since, to prove the party could combine an appeal to both the poor and the affluent. In so doing, Blair enabled Labour, for the first time, to govern over a sustained period (13 years), and facilitated a long-term reinvestment in the public services, notably education and health.

British prime minister Tony Blair (right), US Senator George Mitchell (centre) and Irish prime minister Bertie Ahern smiling on 10 April 1998 after signing the Good Friday Agreement – an historic agreement for peace in Northern Ireland. (Photo by Dan Chung/AFP/Getty Images)

There were also significant constitutional reforms, like devolution in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland; and a large reduction in the number of hereditary peers in the House of Lords. Furthermore, because of the party’s use of all-women shortlists, there was a considerable increase in the number of female MPs.

Perhaps the most illuminating word in relation to Blair is ‘balance’. His balanced ‘third way’ gave the party a distinctive reform agenda that attracted ‘core’ and ‘floating’ voters alike. Yet, Blair’s party critics increasingly felt he later lost that sense of ‘balance’, leaning too far towards the favouring of marketization of public services, and to an interventionist and ‘muscular’ foreign policy, most notably in the 2003 Iraq War.

The crews of Israeli armoured vehicles during the waiting period before the beginning of the Six-Day War. (Photo by David Rubinger/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)

Blair’s departure in 2007 was partly forced by a ‘putsch’ of MPs a year earlier who had become increasingly dissatisfied with what they saw as his departure from Labour’s centre-left values. In the years since 2007, the ‘post-Iraq War’ Labour party has been eager to demonstrate, in three ever more insistent stages – from Gordon Brown (the last Labour prime minister, who succeeded Blair in 2007) through Ed Miliband to, from 2015, Jeremy Corbyn – that it is ‘not Blair’. Now, though, disillusioned by cases of anti-Semitism in the party and what they see as Corbyn’s inert leadership; as well as a lack of enthusiasm for Europe; the party’s centre-left tradition is beginning to construct a response.

Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough, supervises the removal of fittings from a room at Kensington Palace, which she had occupied as lady in waiting to Queen Anne of England. The wife of John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough, and a trusted confidante to Queen Anne, she was politically highly influential until her dismissal in 1711. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

In a way, as observers of the new Independent Group tend to note, history points to the ability of Labour to endure without fatal fracture. Yet, there are differences in the present situation. The so-called ‘hard left’ has never before enjoyed such prolonged influence.  Brexit is an issue of such magnitude that it may yet prompt a fuller centrist realignment, and there is greater impetus than in 1981 for defections also to come from the Conservatives (there have been three so far).

As Labour discovered to its benefit a hundred years ago, parties (in that case the Liberals) do not have a divine right to endure. They can only flourish, or indeed survive, when they have something constructively authentic to offer their times, and serve the needs of the people who vote for them.

Dr Jeremy Nuttall is senior lecturer in modern British history at Kingston University London and author of Psychological socialism: the Labour Party and qualities of mind and character, 1931 to the present (Manchester University, 2016). He also co-edited (with Hans Schattle) Making social democrats: citizens, mindsets, realities: essays for David Marquand (Manchester University, 2018).

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Look out for ‘A brief history of the Conservative Party’, coming soon to History Extra.