The Labour Party is a British Social Democratic political party. The party still pays lip service to many typical left-wing values and, along with all the main political parties in the UK, is Pro-choice, pro-gay rights and pro-gun control. Typically the Labour Party is in favour of greater investment in public services via higher taxation relative to its main political rivals.The Labour Party was founded in 1900, and currently forms Her Majesty's Opposition, being the largest party in the UK not currently in government. The leader of the Labour Party was Ed Miliband, who was elected by Labour party members on September 25, 2010, after a crushing defeat four months earlier in the UK's general election. He resigned after being defeated in a landslide in the 2015 United Kingdom general election. The new leader, from September 2015, is Jeremy Corbyn. The Labour Party is an observer member of the Socialist International.
The Labour Party was formed out of an alliance of several prominent left-wing and socialist movements that existed in Britain at the turn of the century. Chief amongst them the were the Trades Union Congress, the Fabian Society, and the Independent Labour Party. The group took the name Labour Representation Committee, later adopting the name Labour Party after achieving seats in the House of Commons at the 1906 election. Much of the intellectual energy came from the Fabians, an informal group of intellectual socialists. Keir Hardie was the first leader of the party.
The rise of Marxist socialism in the late 19th century in the Social Democratic Federation (SDF) (1881-1911) did not create a militantly atheistic and anti-religious force. From its beginnings, circa 1881, the SDF contained Christian socialists, non-Christians, and anti-Christians. These groups generally coexisted in a state of compromise. The membership of the SDF was generally secularist and freethinking but religion was not a central issue. For all parties in the SDF, the central issue was commitment to socialism.
In its early years the Labour Party benefited from an alliance with the other main left-wing party in Britain, the Liberal Party; from a growth in working class consciousness; and from dissatisfaction with both the Liberal and Conservative parties in the wake of what were perceived to be their mistakes in the handling of the First World War. Winning growing numbers of seats at each election, the Labour Party was finally able to form a government in 1924 under the leadership of Ramsay MacDonald. However this was short-lived. The party did not have an outright majority, and in fact only had about one third of the total seats within the House. After just nine months the Party lost an important vote, and the government resigned. Four days before the election the Daily Mail published the "Zinoviev Letter", a forgery that seemed to indicate that the Communist Party of Great Britain was planning subversion or even a violent revolution in cooperation with Labour. The letter was leaked by the Foreign Ministry. The Labour Party was badly defeated in the 1924 general election, even though its vote increased by one million. The Conservative vote was up by two million as the Liberal party was rapidly collapsing. Historians agree the Zinoviev Letter was a forgery but their consensus is that it made little difference in the election. What is more important, after the election Labour leaders used it as an excuse for their failure; it became a roadblock to needed internal reforms in the Labour party.
The Labour Party briefly formed a government again in 1929, but this did not survive the effects of the Great Depression. In a dispute over the best way to handle the economic consequences of the global financial crash, the Party leadership fractured. A new "National Government" drawn from all parties was formed, with Ramsay MacDonald still as Prime Minister. However this was dominated by the other parties, particularly the Conservatives, who went on to dominate the British political scene for the rest of the interwar period.
Victory in 1945
The Second World War saw a major shift in political attitudes within Britain, and led to a landslide victory for Clement Attlee in 1945. The modest, unassuming intellectual Attlee named a cabinet that included all elements of the party. Of 37 ministers, eight were former coal miners, and eleven had been active trade unionists.
This government introduced sweeping reforms of industry and the creation of the welfare state. Attlee's government nationalised major industries, founded the National Health Service, and developed the idea of welfare from cradle to grave paid for out of taxation and available to everyone free of charge. Much of the welfare state is still in force today.
The Labour government was fiercely anti-Communist, but the economy was so weak it had to relinquish a leadership role to the United States. Despite not having much of a personal relationship, Atlee pushed President Harry Truman to take over Britain's historic roles, especially in Greece, and indeed helped push the U.S. into the Cold War against the Soviet Union. Ernest Bevin, the foreign secretary, was instrumental in setting up NATO.
Although it won the first General Election in 1951, Clement Atlee did not believe he had a large enough parliamentary majority to continue his radical reforms so he called a second election. However, he timed it badly, as James Callaghan did in 1979, so his party lost.
The Labour Party spent the next 13 years out of office and achieved little during the governments of Wilson (1964-1970 and 1974-1976) and his successor James Callaghan (1976–79), although Denis Healey, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, started adopting broadly monetary policies from 1976 on.. Their failures set the stage for the renewal of British energy and leadership under Margaret Thatcher, beginning in 1979.
Despite its historic commitment to socialism, the British Labour Party has been flexible and reformist in its doctrine ever since it was founded in 1900. After the crisis of 1931, the party adopted a broadly social democratic program in which socialism was linked with the idea of economic planning and social welfare. The Attlee government of 1945-51 was very moderate in its commitment to socialism. The years of opposition saw violent arguments in the party between left-wing Bevanites and the center-right supporters of Hugh Gaitskell. But the main differences concerned foreign and defense policy. On domestic issues, the party was now broadly revisionist, committed to the mixed economy and social equality.
In the 1950's, General Secretary Morgan Phillips noted that: "Socialism in Britain owed more to Methodism than Marx."
Wilson, on becoming prime minister in 1964, tried to bypass old doctrinal arguments by harnessing nationalized industry to ideas of scientific modernization. But his government was a great failure, not least in its relations with the trade unions, the linchpin of the party since its founding. Wilson represented the older traditions of the Labour Party and never understood the emerging "New Left" with new social roots, new ideas and new styles of political behaviour in the late 1970s. Following the disillusion and demoralization of traditional Labour Party activists with Wilson's government, a more radical and well-educated local Labour leadership appeared at the local level. This bred much disillusionment and launched a new left-wing socialism in the 1970s. The Labour government of 1974-79 added to this division. The left-wing pressure reached its climax in the early 1980s when Thatcher was in power but resulted only in heavy defeats for Labour in 1983 and 1987. The general impression in 1989 is of a loss of political and intellectual confidence, with British socialism trapped between a cherished past and an uncertain future.
The Labour Party has also been a strong proponent of social reform. Under Harold Wilson in the late 60s, abortion and homosexuality were decriminalized, the death penalty abolished and divorce was made easier. Unease from a perceived large number of immigrants from Commonwealth countries also led to four Race Relations Acts, all of which were passed under Labour governments.
The Labour Party always prided itself on strong links with trade unions, but by the late 1960s there was growing industrial unrest. Inflation was becoming a growing problem and unemployment began to rise. Harold Wilson was elected for a third time in February 1974, taking over from Conservative Edward Heath whose government was brought to its knees by oil shortages and a crippling coal miners' strike in 1973. Throughout the late 1970s strikes were commonplace, tight controls on pay rises, known as incomes policy, was struggling to curb inflation which reached a high of 28%. A series of devastating strikes in the winter of 1978/79 which became known as the Winter of Discontent led to the government of James Callaghan being defeated in a vote of no confidence and a general election which was won by the Conservative Party led by Margaret Thatcher.
A swing to the left
Michael Foot became leader of the Labour Party in 1980 and took the party in a far left direction. The 1983 manifesto pledged to reverse all Thatcher's economic reforms; renationalise all privatised businesses, return taxes on the rich to the punitive level of the 1970s (98% in some cases), restore trade union powers, leave the European Economic Community, unilaterally surrender Britain's nuclear weapons and campaign for a united Ireland as a solution to the paramilitarism and terrorism that had beset the province of Northern Ireland throughout the 70s. The manifesto became known as the "longest suicide note in history" and was defeated by Thatcher's Conservatives in a landslide. Pro-EEC Labour Party members who formed their own party, the SDP, nearly polled more votes than the Labour Party. If not for the SDP's poorly thought-out electoral strategy (which gained plenty of votes, but almost no seats in the Commons), Labour could have been reduced to third party status in this election.
Foot was succeeded by Neil Kinnock, who ditched much (but not all) of the far-left baggage from 1983. Under Kinnock, Labour was again defeated in a landslide in 1987 but, crucially, Labour came well ahead of the SDP (in alliance with the Liberal Party which merged to form the Social and Liberal Democrats).
Tony Blair and "New Labour"
The term New Labour didn't come into being until Tony Blair became leader in 1994, but the reform of the Labour Party took place long before then. By 1992, it was clear that Thatcher's reforms had struck a chord with voters and the Labour party were no longer promising to renationalise industries or restore trade union powers. Only the top rate of income tax would be raised from 40 to 50%. Opinion polls during the election campaign predicted a very close result, but the Conservative party won a narrow victory of 23 seats after an unusually high turnout.
John Smith became leader in 1992, but his sudden death in 1994 led to Tony Blair to become leader and the term "New Labour" was born. Blair started by reforming Clause IV. Clause IV dealt with the purpose of the Party and referred direct to its erstwhile desire for public ownership of the means of production; the current version instead calls for 'a community in which power, wealth and opportunity are in the hands of the many, not the few'. The revised version mentions "socialism" as a sop to the old timers:
- The Labour Party is a democratic socialist party. It believes that by the strength of our common endeavour we achieve more than we achieve alone, so as to create for each of us the means to realise our true potential and for all of us a community in which power, wealth and opportunity are in the hands of the many, not the few.’
Blair promised no increases in income tax and pledged to run a stable economy. He scored landslide victories in 1997, and again in 2001.
One of Blair's most controversial decisions was to invade Iraq in 2003 alongside the Americans and other allies. Britain became the second largest contributor of armed forces to George W. Bush's "Coalition of the Willing", and Blair staunchly defended the position, and won supporting votes in parliament. Partly due to the war's unpopularity, and partly to a perception that the Government had raised taxes on business and individuals to unacceptable levels, the Labour party won a much smaller majority in 2005 and has seen key bills defeated by backbench revolts such as the plan to hold terrorist suspects for up to 90 days without charge.
Blair had lost his momentum, so he retired in mid-2007 and was replaced per prior arrangement by his long-time Chancellor, Gordon Brown. The worldwide Recession of 2008, continuing into 2009, hit Britain hard and has yet to bottom out. Labour took much of the blame, and its polling rates dropped to levels not seen since the early 1980s. Labour's popularity continued to decline in 2009, as the party made its worst electoral showing in a hundred years in the EU elections in June 2009. Brown, however, beat back his disunited critics, reorganized his cabinet, and stumbled onward. The Conservatives maintained a large lead for the next general election, which was held in 2010 and resulted in a coalition government formed by the Conservative Party and the Liberal Democrats.
PR and spin
With the formation of New Labour under the leadership of Tony Blair and along with the support of spin doctors such as Peter Mandelson, the modern Labour Party has been accused of being an extremely deceptive PR machine; being highly dishonest in its dealings with the public and media.
A 2010 newspaper report repeated a claim by Jim Fitzpatrick, the MP for Poplar and Canning Town that the Islamic Forum of Europe (IFE) had effectively created a party within the party in east London. The IFE seeks to make Britain and Europe an Islamic state. In covert investigations by the media it was determined that the IFE were expressing opposition to democracy, support for sharia law or mocking black people and organized meetings with extremists, including Taliban allies.
|“||[They are] placing people within the political parties, recruiting members to those political parties, trying to get individuals selected and elected so they can exercise political influence and power, whether it's at local government level or national level.||”|
- Gordon Brown (2007-2010)
- Davies, Andrew. To Build a New Jerusalem: The British Labour Party from Keir Hardie to Tony Blair (1996)
- Favretto, Ilaria."'Wilsonism' Reconsidered: Labour Party Revisionism, 1952-64." Contemporary British History 2000 14(4): 54-80 in EBSCO
- Morgan, Austen. Harold Wilson (1992), 625pp; negative appraisal
- Morgan, Kenneth O. Britain since 1945: The People's Peace (2001)
- Pimlott, Ben. Harold Wilson (1992). Pimlott tries to rehabilitate Wilson’s political reputation, revealing that he was the prisoner rather than the master of various domestic and international dilemmas.
- Swift, John. Labour in Crisis: Clement Attlee and the Labour Party in Opposition, 1931-1940 (2001)
- Worley, Matthew. Labour inside the Gate: A History of the British Labour Party between the Wars (2005),
- Strange Rebels: 1979 and the Birth of the 21st Century, Chapter 5 footnote 12
- Kenneth O. Morgan, Britain since 1945: The People's Peace (2001)
- Islamic radicals 'infiltrate' the Labour Party, TelegraphUK, February 27, 2010