The History of England

from Celts through 20th century

The Labour party

Category: Politics

The Labour party was established in 1900 on the initiative of the trade unions and several socialist organizations (the Independent Labour party, the Fabian Society and Social-Democratic Federation). The main aim was to win working class representation in Parliament. This was initially reflected in the name of the party — Labour Representation Committee. In 1906 this Committee officially adopted the title of the Labour party. The Labour party is a classical party of social-democratic reformism. Up to 1918 the party had no clear-cut programme. Though the Labour party proclaims that socialism is its aim, its concept of socialism is anti-Marxist. In all the years of the Labour party’s existence, the conflict between working class politics and the policies of the leadership, reflected in the struggle between right and left in the movement, has always been inherent in the Labour party.

The Labour party has always been an association of different class elements — the working class and groups of the petty bourgeoisie. The working class mass organizations, the trade unions provided the main body of the membership and the finance. The reformist politicians in alliance with the right-wing trade union leaders formed the right-wing leadership.

The party has no long term political programme which would determine the final aims and means to achieve them. Instead the party endorses current political issues containing measures, which the future Labour government intends to implement if the party takes office as a result of a majority in the general elections.

The home policy of the Labour party is based on the principles of reformism. However, the Labour party politicians acknowledge the necessity of carrying out limited socio-economic reforms. In this context they favoured nationalization of the economy (i. e. greater state control of the economy), a state-run health and educational system, some improvements in social security, better housing, etc. In foreign policy the Labour party leadership firmly supports NATO, military, political and economic cooperation with the USA. At the same time the Labour party politicians display flexibility and in their policy statements support peace, detente, arms control, an improvement of relations with the Soviet Union and other socialist states.

The most important development in British politics in recent years has been the growing strength of the militant section of the labour movement reflected in the growing influence of the left wing in the Labour party. Under the pressure of the left-wing positive changes were introduced concerning the election of the leader of the party and the selection of Labour MPs. If in the past the leader of the Labour party was elected by members of the so-called Parliamentary Labour party (that is Labour MPs), now according to the new rules, the leader of the party is elected by a college of electors including representatives of three bodies — the trade unions, local organizations and the Labour Parliamentary party. These rules provided wider opportunities for the rank-and-file members (in the trade unions, local organizations of the party) to have a greater say in the election of the leader and in the nomination of candidates of the Labour party to represent it in Parliament.

The positive changes in the constitution of the party carried out under the pressure of the working class infuriated the right-wing members. In protest some right-wing politicians left the Labour party in 1981 and formed another party known as the Social-Democratic party (SDP). The latter formed an alliance with the Liberal party and the two parties acted together in one bloc in the elections of 1983 and 1987. In 1988 the two parties finally merged together under the name the Social-Liberal Democratic party. The split in the Labour party revealed new important developments in the labour movement.

There are about 7.3 mln members in the Labour party, of which over 600 thousand are individual members and more than six million collective members. The latter as members of trade unions, cooperative organizations and other institutions which are incorporated in the Labour party automatically become its members. Local party organizations which exist in most of the electoral constituencies form the basis of the party. The annual conference which elects the National Executive with 25 members is the highest organ of the party. The Executive is responsible for the everyday affairs of the party outside Parliament. The leader of the party, his deputy, the treasurer, the Chairman of the party and the general secretary are all members of the National Executive. Debates at annual Labour party conferences are mainly based on resolutions or policy statements from the Executive, and resolutions from the local organizations of the party. Resolutions from trade unions are generally few in number.

As has been noted there is a constant struggle between the right and left wings in the party. The general trend is such that the right wing has a majority among the members of the Parliamentary party, whereas the left wing exerts greater influence in the National Executive.

The Labour party is a member of the Socialist International (an international organization which unites socialist and social-democratic parties). The headquarters of this organization is situated in London. The Labour party politicians strive to play a leading role in this world organization. Between the two World Wars the Labour party grew to supplant the Liberals as the major opposition to the Conservatives, they formed minority governments in 1923 — 4 and 1929—31, and came to power under Clement Attlee in the landslide victory of 1945. In the post-war period the Labour party was in office in 1945—51, 1964—70, 1974—9. When in opposition, the party elects by secret ballot the ‘shadow cabinet’ to guide the activity of the Labour faction in the House of Commons. The ‘shadow cabinet’ includes the leading politicians of the Labour party. The Labour party issues its weekly paper Labour News.

As regards some minority parties which are represented in Parliament one should note that the interwar years saw the establishment of the Welsh Nationalist Party (1925), which voices the interests of the Welsh population, and the Scottish Nationalists (1934). After 1945 further minority parties were born, such as the extremely reactionary, anti-immigrant National Front, and the conservationist Ecology Party.

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