The Labour Party is a British democratic socialist political party. It was founded in 1900, and is currently the party of government in the United Kingdom. On 27 June 2007, Gordon Brown became the leader of the Labour party and Prime Minister of the UK, taking over from Tony Blair, the longest serving Labour Prime Minister.
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 Trade 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.
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.
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.
The Second World War saw a major shift in political attitudes within Britain, and led to a landslide victory for Clement Attlee in 1945. 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 Party has also been a strong proponent of social reform. Under Harold Wilson in the late 60s, abortion and homosexuality were legalised, 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 70s strikes were commonplace, tight controls on pay rises, known as incomes policy, was struggling to curb inflation which reached a high of 27.6%. 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 more leftward direction. The 1983 manifesto pledged to reverse all Thatcher's economic reforms; renationalise all privatised businesses, raise taxes and make them more progressive, restore trade union powers, leave the European Union, abolish 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-European Union Labour Party members who formed their own party, the SDP, nearly polled more votes than the Labour Party.
Foot was succeeded by Neil Kinnock who was still pledging broadly left-wing policies in 1987. This manifesto too was defeated in a landslide.
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'.) Blair also promised no increases in income tax and pledged to run a stable economy. They were elected in a landslide in 1997, and again in 2001.
One of Blair's most controversial decisions was to invade Iraq in 2003. The was the second largest country in the Coalition of the Willing and was largely in charge of the southern province including the city of Basrah. Possibly due to the war's unpopularity, 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.
- Gordon Brown (2007-present)