The Independent Labour Party and the scourge of left wing politics

On this day in 1893 Keir Hardie, the Liberal-Labour MP for West Ham, formed the Independent Labour Party during a conference held in Bradford with other delegates from various labour and socialist organisations. Growing increasingly tired of partnering with the liberals it was his contention that the working classes of Britain would need their own independent political party. This party, socialist in its outlook, was to be rooted in the trade unions, despite being at the time still politically liberal.

Seven years later in 1900 the Labour Representation Committee was formed, which consisted of socialist organisations like the ILP, the Social Democratic Federation (Britain’s first socialist political party), whose aim was to gain independent Labour representation in parliament.

In its early years one didn’t join a body called the Labour Party, it was only possible to join one of its affiliate groups – the ILP being the biggest one. In 1910 42 Labour MPs were elected to the House of Commons, thanks in no small part by Hardie, the Fabian Society and other trade unionists (which given that one year before they could no longer fund political parties owing to the Osborne judgment – passed by the House of Lords – was a major victory; one which was to be short lived however).

As time wet on relations between the ILP and the Parlaimentary Labour Party (PLP) grew rather fractious. The independents, now led by James Maxton, felt they should have a seperate system of discipline than the PLP who did not agree. At this stage, in the 1930s, the ILP started to become very radicalised, heavily influenced in part by Stalinism.

Labour from its outset was a broad church of left wing and working class politics, and so had been used to difference, but with the ILP strategies were very much in conflict. The policy of Clydeside ILP MPs, for example, had been to harass and confront Conservative and Liberals MPs in parliament, especially on the issues of poverty and unemployment. The PLP viewed this as cheapening their standing which led to confrontation, while the ILP accused the PLP of deviating from its socialist principles.

In 1932 the ILP left the Labour Party, along with four of its MPs, evoking a scathing response from Labour leftwinger Aneurin Bevan who described the ILP’s disaffiliation as a decision to remain “pure, but impotent”.

Such, in fact, is the reality for lots of political organisations who supposedly work in the interest of left wing or working class politics – seeing difference and factionalism as a duty rather than a political reality of which to overcome in organised politics.

Take for example Duncan Hallas’ notorious 1985 (published 1987) article, simply called Sectarianism. After disputing the Militant definition of sectarianism (to work towards socialism and the workers’ struggle from outside the Labour Party) and supporting the motion that the Socialist Workers’ Party should support the left inside the Labour Party where need be, he notes that this is by no means the same thing as saying “the SWP ought to dissolve itself into the Labour Party (or to appear to do so whilst secretly maintaining its own organisation)”.

He takes this opinion for three reasons which I shall sum up in brief:

  • The struggle takes place first and foremost in workplaces then unions. Links between unions and the Labour Party ought not to oblige one to join that party, and like Lenin – who advocated joining reactionary unions, and partaking in the bourgeois parliaments – did not argue this should take place from within the Social Democratic Party
  • Withdrawing presence from workplace, even at low times of struggle, is sectarian; Labour Party cannot claim to be so in-keeping with this attitude
  • Revolutionary socialists are better placed outside of the party anyway as they can avoid conflicts over positions, candidate selections etc.

I’m not a revolutionary socialist, so this poses for me no problem. However on a matter of principles, Hallas’ first reason disregards the common knowledge that the world’s problems do not begin and end in a political party – no sane Labour Party member on the left would suggest that advancing socialism can only take place within the party, disregarding the work that takes place in the workplace and by unions. This line seems to produce only a straw man argument, when in fact – and as Bevan was wise enough to take note of – by not working from within the largest socialist party in Britain, the dutybound factionalist only makes his “purity” impotent.

The second reason, more revealing in some ways, can serve as a commentary on the reality of a Labour Party being tilted further and further to the right (or in the case of Ed Miliband, being tilted further and further to total silence). While rejecting Hallas’ straw man argument in his first reason, we can accept that it would counter received wisdom to do anything other than maintain presence of workplace representatives, even if “struggle in the workplaces is at a very low ebb”.

This, for me, still doesn’t explain why a socialist, of whatever variety, is better placed outside, rather than within the Labour Party. Which brings me to Hallas’ last point. First thing to ask is how do the SWP avoid friction over positions? It seems obvious to me that this is a reality of any political organisation, and is no good reason to seperate off from a broad church party.

Clearly the more a broadly socialist body of politics is split, the more staurated it becomes, and the weaker it is placed to join in the struggle of the working class. This is not the opinion of many on the left, for whom splits and splinters are an obligation, stipulated by the word of zealous, power hungry Russian dictators safeguarding their own corners. But at what price?

Small, inadequate left wing parties shout in the wind, by the sidelines, while the Labour Party, currently in oppositon to a government demanding ideological cuts over jobs and growth, struggles to tell its arse from its elbow. Refusal to work in the Labour Party, from the ILP back in the thirties to the Greens and the SWP now, is the scourge of left wing politics.

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