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Independent Labour Politics

Martin Sullivan

THOSE ON the left who support the formation of the Socialist Alliance (SA), with the aim of mounting an electoral challenge to the Labour Party, sometimes like to draw a parallel with the situation at the end of the 19th century, when socialists fought to break the working class from the Liberal Party and win them to independent labour politics.

For example, in the Summer 2000 issue of Socialist Outlook Greg Tucker, a leading left activist in the Rail Maritime and Transport union (RMT), used this argument as a justification for launching the Campaign for an Independent Political Fund within the RMT – the purpose of which, essentially, was to secure the use of the union’s political fund to support far left candidates against those of the Labour Party. Just as socialists in the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants (ASRS) fought successfully during the 1890s to break the link between their union and the Liberals, Tucker wrote, so "the left in the union is confident that change will come to break the RMT from New Labour liberalism".

In the Autumn 2000 issue of the Socialist Workers Party's theoretical journal International Socialism, Dave Renton argued along similar lines: "In the 1880s the Liberal Party was a bourgeois party with a labour wing. Unions funded the Liberal Party and individual trade unionists were rewarded with Liberal seats in parliament. But the dominant politics of Liberalism offered little to workers. The challenge of socialists and others pushed the Liberal Party from this position of leadership over the movement. Indeed, the Liberal Party contributed to its own defeat – because it was so indifferent to workers, so they became hostile to Liberalism. In the different political circumstances of today, a similar challenge [to New Labour] is possible."

More recently, the same basic argument was put forward by Bill Mullins, industrial organiser of the Socialist Party (SP – formerly Militant). During a debate at this year’s Communication Workers Union (CWU) conference over an SP-inspired motion proposing to review the use of the union’s political fund and consider giving support to non-Labour candidates whose policies are in line with those of the CWU, assistant general secretary John Keggie remarked that Keir Hardie would turn in his grave. Mullins responded: "Keir Hardie led the campaign to break from the Liberals at the turn of the century. If he were alive now he would probably be involved in the campaign to break with New Labour" (The Socialist, 9 June 2001).

Certainly there are some lessons to be drawn from the history of the campaign to defeat the Lib-Labs – the trade union leaders who supported, and even stood as candidates for, the Liberal Party – and to win working people to independent class politics. Unfortunately for the likes of comrades Tucker, Renton and Mullins, these lessons in every way tell against the strategy and analysis of the Socialist Alliance.

The ILP and elections: 1893-7
It is instructive to examine the experience of the Independent Labour Party (ILP), which after its foundation in 1893 adopted a similar approach to that of the Socialist Alliance. This involved the ILP standing working class candidates against the main political parties on a programme of basic reformist demands and using this as a vehicle for socialist propaganda and individual recruitment – while at the same time setting itself the rather more ambitious objective of actually getting some candidates elected. In order to provide a historical yardstick against which to measure the current achievements of the SA, it is worth examining how well the ILP did, in terms of winning popular support.

The first candidate the party stood – John Lister in the Halifax by-election of February 1893 – finished third behind the Liberal and Tory candidates, but received 3,028 votes, over a quarter of the poll. In August the following year, the ILP stood Joseph Burgess at a by-election in the two-member constituency of Leicester, where one of the Liberal candidates was the leading Lib-Lab and former secretary of the TUC Parliamentary Committee, Henry Broadhurst. Despite the ILP having no pre-existing branch in Leicester, Burgess polled 4,402 as compared with Broadhurst’s 6,913. Contesting another by-election, at East Bristol in March 1895, the ILP failed by only 185 to get its candidate elected, in a total poll of over 7,000. The party had a further near miss in 1896, when Tom Mann stood in the North Aberdeen by-election and lost by only 430 votes in a straight fight with a Liberal.

The ILP also made some significant advances in local elections. In its heartlands of West Yorkshire, for example, the party had acquired a total of 24 local councillors by 1897, rising to 29 at the end of the century. By that point the ILP nationally had managed to get well over a hundred councillors elected. Indeed, if you include other bodies such as school boards, the party’s elected representatives in local government came to around 250.

In other contests the ILP fared less well. In the 1895 general election, for example, the party put up 25 candidates and none was successful. Even Keir Hardie was defeated (by only 750 votes, it is true) at West Ham South, where he had the double advantage of being the sitting MP (having been elected as an independent labour candidate in 1892) and of being allowed a clear run against the Tory candidate by the local Liberals. The worst results were in Glasgow, where the ILP stood six candidates, the most successful of whom – Scottish miners’ leader Bob Smillie – secured no more than 11% of the vote.

In 1896 Hardie stood in a by-election at Bradford, the town where the ILP’s founding conference had been held, but despite a well-established local party organisation he was easily defeated, obtaining only 17.1% of the vote. ("Even in Bradford", the historian David Howell comments, "the ILP ran third to a Conservative soldier and a Liberal lawyer.") And in 1897 Mann received 15.5% in Halifax, well down on the 1894 result. That same year the party’s electoral fortunes reached their nadir when Pete Curran won only 9% of the vote in the Barnsley contest, the victor being a Liberal coalowner who benefited from the wholehearted backing of the Lib-Lab leadership of the Yorkshire miners’ union.

How should we evaluate the results of the ILP’s interventions in elections during these early years? On the plus side, the party had narrowly failed in two or three instances to get its parliamentary candidate elected, and other ILPers, while being comfortably defeated by the Liberals and/or Tories, had nevertheless polled quite impressively. At the same time, significant gains had been made in local government. On the debit side, not only had some poor results been registered, but the bottom line was that after four years of persistent electoral work the party still hadn’t managed to get a single one of its candidates into parliament.

How did the ILP leadership itself evaluate the party’s electoral interventions? Sometimes, it is true, they responded over-optimistically. Buoyed by favourable by-election results in the run-up to the 1895 general election, Hardie predicted that the ILP would soon be winning 25% of the vote nationally, and the party overreached itself by standing more candidates in the general election than was realistic, given its limited resources and lack of a mass base. If the party had set itself more modest aims, and concentrated its forces, Hardie himself might have got back in at West Ham and the election campaign as a whole would certainly have had a greater political impact. Again, at the 1896 Bradford by-election, Hardie took an exaggerated view of his prospects, confidently predicting that he would receive around 3,750 votes – whereas, in fact, he got less than 2,000.

On the other hand, the ILP was capable of honestly assessing its candidates’ results when these were disappointing. The party’s paper, the Labour Leader, acknowledged that the ILP votes in Glasgow in the 1895 general election (which included Bob Smillie’s 11%) were "disgracefully small". The ILP’s intervention in the 1897 Barnsley contest, where Pete Curran got 9%, was described by Hardie as "altogether ... the worst thing we have done". Between then and the 1900 general election, the ILP contested no more by-elections.

The ILP and the trade unions
It was the Barnsley result in particular which convinced Hardie that independent labour politics could not be successfully pursued by the ILP alone, without the support of the trade unions, and that a "labour alliance" between the socialists and the unions was the only way that Liberal (or, for example in Lancashire, Tory) political hegemony over the working class could be broken.

Readers will no doubt be familiar with the details of this campaign to forge an alliance between socialists and the trade unions. In 1899 the ASRS successfully moved its famous resolution (framed by an ILPer, Thomas Steels of the ASRS Doncaster branch) that the Trades Union Congress should call a special conference of trade unions, co-operative societies and socialist organisations to promote labour representation in parliament. The conference, in February 1900, led to the formation of the Labour Representation Committee (LRC). In the 1906 general election 29 LRC-backed candidates were successful (including both socialists and non-socialist trade unionists), and the LRC was officially renamed the Labour Party.

The relatively rapid success of the ILP’s "labour alliance" strategy is to be explained by the fact that the conditions for breaking the unions from the Liberals were quite favourable. After all, the input of the trade unions into the Liberal Party, and consequently their ability to influence its policies, was very limited. For a trade unionist to get elected as a Lib-Lab, it was necessary to persuade a local Liberal association that they should adopt him as a candidate. But Liberal associations were at best unenthusiastic about adopting working class candidates, and where they were dominated by anti-union employers they were of course openly hostile.

The one major exception to this was the miners, who had the advantage of a geographically concentrated membership that enabled them to exercise local influence over the Liberal Party. Of the Lib-Lab group of MPs in the 1890s (who never numbered more than eleven), around half were miners. The miners’ unions were therefore reluctant to abandon their influence within a party that actually had a chance of forming a government, and to set about building a new one with marginal political influence. Consequently, the miners proved particularly resistant to the appeal of independent labour politics. In the 1897 Barnsley by-election, for example, the Yorkshire miners are reputed to have stoned Keir Hardie (in reality, they probably restricted themselves to throwing clods of earth at him). It wasn’t until 1908, long after other unions had been won to the principle of independent labour politics, that the Miners’ Federation finally agreed to join the Labour Party.

Some comparisons with the present
Let us look at the current state of play in the campaign to build an electoral alternative to the Labour Party, and compare this with the experience of the ILP in its fight to win the working class away from the Liberals.

The two highest votes achieved by the Socialist Alliance in the general election were 7.08% for Dave Nellist in Coventry North East and 6.88% for Neil Thompson in St Helens South. Indeed, these were the only two SA candidates to clear the 5% hurdle and save their deposits. Overall, in the 98 constituencies where it stood, the Alliance received the laughably low average vote of 1.69%. The Scottish Socialist Party (SSP), it is true, did slightly better. But outside of Glasgow, where it has evidently established a base, albeit a narrow one – its vote averaged over 7% there, and it saved its deposit in 9 of the city’s 10 constituencies – the SSP revealed itself to be a negligible electoral force. Of the remaining 62 seats it contested, the "party" lost its deposit in all but one, and its vote across Scotland averaged out at a derisory 3.36%. It goes without saying that not a single SA or SSP candidate came anywhere near getting elected. The contrast between these figures and the results achieved by the early ILP scarcely needs pointing out.

Of course, SA/SSP supporters might argue that by concentrating on parliamentary elections I have ignored successes for independent socialist candidates in local government. A Socialist Alliance general election leaflet, for example, boasted that "there are now councillors in Coventry, Lewisham, Preston and Burnley supporting the Socialist Alliance". But here too a comparison with the early ILP works to the disadvantage the SA/SSP.

Of the numerous candidates that have stood in local elections under the banner of the Socialist Alliance, not one has been elected. Contesting the Greater London Assembly elections in May 2000, for example, the London Socialist Alliance got 2.9% in the constituencies and 1.6% in the top-up section. At the time of the general election, Hackney SA contested three council seats – in a deprived area where the Labour-controlled local authority has responded to a financial crisis by imposing massive cuts – but won only 6% in two of them and 3% in the third. As for the independent socialist councillors in Preston and Burnley, they in fact secured their election standing as Labour candidates and then subsequently broke from their Labour Group.

In England and Wales, only the Socialist Party has registered any kind of success in local elections, managing to get 3 councillors elected in Coventry and another 2 in Lewisham. And while the SSP held four seats on Glasgow City Council back in the 1990s, of these only Tommy Sheridan now remains – although he did, of course, get elected to the Scottish Parliament last year after the SSP received 7% in Glasgow in the top-up section. At present, therefore, the total number of socialists who have succeeded getting elected standing against Labour comes to a grand total of six (or seven, if you count Tommy Sheridan twice).

How have SA and SSP leaders evaluated their results? With considerable less objectivity than the ILP did, is the answer. Typically, even the most modest vote is boosted as a groundbreaking achievement. The London Socialist Alliance’s results in the elections to the Greater London Assembly were hailed by Socialist Worker as "a breakthrough for the left". Similarly, when the Lancashire Socialist Alliance contested the Preston by-election which followed the death of Audrey Wise, obtaining 5.5%, it declared that it had received an "immense" vote. The truly pitiful results for the SA in the general election were proclaimed to be "a great start" in an Alliance press release, while Tommy Sheridan, writing in the July issue of Labour Left Briefing, hailed the SSP’s 3% as "outstanding". When you consider that the ILP is often dismissed as an organisation led by woolly-minded reformists whose ideology derived from nonconformist Christianity rather than scientific socialism, whereas the SA and SSP are dominated by people claiming to be Marxists, this tells you something about the appalling state of what passes for Marxism in Britain today!

Nor has the attempt to split the unions from the Labour Party met with any success. Indeed, for all the far left’s rhetoric about the need for the unions to "break from New Labour", none of the motions put to union conferences this year has actually proposed immediate disaffiliation from the Labour Party (although the RMT did threaten to withdraw support at some point in the future if the Blair government failed to reverse its pro-business policies). UNISON’s conference, for example, voted only for a largely innocuous resolution that merely called for a review of the union’s political funds. The motion at the CWU conference, referred to earlier, didn’t call for a break with Labour, but only raised the possibility of supporting candidates other than those of the Labour Party – and it was defeated by a two to one majority. It is true that the Fire Brigades Union did pass a similar resolution, which instructed its executive to prepare any necessary changes to the union’s rules, but this was carried only narrowly on a card vote, by 27,498 to 23,924, so the prospects for such a rule change gaining the required two-thirds majority next year would appear to be minimal. Yet again, this stands in sharp contrast to the rapid advances made by the ILP after 1897, when the party made its turn towards winning the unions to the idea of building a new political party.

All this demonstrates the foolishness of drawing a parallel between the campaign for independent labour representation a century ago and the sectarian electoral antics of the ultra-left today.

The differences between the Liberal Party at the end of the nineteenth century and the Labour Party at the beginning of the twenty-first are too obvious to require underlining. A dozen Lib-Lab MPs, and a tradition of support for the radical wing of Liberalism among working class activists, did not make the Liberals a workers’ party in any shape or form. What possible comparison can there be to a Labour Party originating in and still largely funded by the trade unions, and with its core support among manual workers? And if the limited influence that the Miners’ Federation was able to exercise over the Liberal Party proved such an obstacle to winning the Federation’s adherence to Labour, is it likely that the trade unions today, holding as they do important positions throughout the structures of the Labour Party at every level, are going to turn instead to backing alternative socialist organisations who have so conclusively revealed their minuscule electoral support? The call for working class voters to support a new party based on "independent labour politics" was a powerful one, raised against the Liberals; against the Labour Party, it makes no sense at all.

That some ideologists of the ultra-left are so ready to draw such an absurd historical parallel, ignoring the self-evident and fundamental differences between the two situations, is the product of a search for spurious justifications for a false political strategy. It shows that the far left not only lacks the ability to analyse the current political situation objectively, it is equally incapable of drawing any serious lessons from history.