Home > General Politics, Labour Party News, Sectariana > The Independent Labour Party and the scourge of left wing politics

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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  1. charliemcmenamin
    January 13, 2011 at 10:49 pm | #1

    The ILP did, in it’s dotage, rejoin Labour in the guise of Independent Labour Publications. But it is a travesty to imply that, inside or outside Labour, it was ever a stalinist organistion. Why do you think Orwell went to Spain with the ILP crew?

    On your wider point: I think you’re wrong in terms of England, but even more wrong in terms of Scotland and Wales, where the nationalist parties – especially Plaid – can creditably claim to be significantly to the left of what remains of Labour.

    • January 14, 2011 at 12:40 am | #2

      I must correct you, I actually said “At this stage, in the 1930s, the ILP started to become very radicalised, heavily influenced in part by Stalinism.” A source for this, despite coming from a lousy Trot sect, comes from a fairly comprehensive history of the ILP by Workers’ Liberty. They say:

      In fact, the ILP split. A large number of ILP people remained members of the Labour Party. They would be the core of a new “left wing” (in fact heavily Stalinist-influenced) Labour Party organisation called the Socialist League, which would be banned by the Labour Party in 1937.

      On the wider point, those nationalist parties have no stomach for the good fight anyway, but irrespective, whether they’re more to the left or not, it’s too much splitting, not enough pairing to oppose a government which their constituencies will still be affected by. So I’ve no sympathy for them.

    • January 14, 2011 at 1:21 am | #3

      I think this idea that the nationalist parties in Scotland and Wales being ‘significantly to the left’ of the Labour Party needs serious examination. In some cases it is true, but overall I think it is a bit of a lazy assumption.

      To start with the obvious – these party’s are united around a single issue; nationalism. Consequently, within Plaid and the SNP there exists a wide variety of political viewpoints, some further to the right than the Conservative Party, some further to the left than the Labour Party. But the reason they can all remain united is the face they place more emphasis upon what unites them (nationalism, independence, etc) than other issues that divide them.

      The reason that the mainstream policy positions of these party’s are described as being to the left of Labour can be attributed to the fact that, generally speaking, the political mainstream in Scotland and Wales tends to be further left than Labour. Scottish and Welsh Labour are also, generally speaking, somewhat more left than the Labour Party is on a UK basis. If these organisations had more independence from the centre of the LP, it is very likely this would come to the fore a lot more. Regardless, within Scotland the SNP are widely derided as the ‘Tartan Tories’ and are seen as being to the right of Labour. To an English observer, the acheivments of an SNP administration may seem very progressive in comparison to what Labour and the Coalition have done at Westminster; to a Scottish voter, they generally don’t!

      • January 14, 2011 at 1:27 am | #4

        The reason that the mainstream policy positions of these party’s are described as being to the left of Labour can be attributed to the fact that, generally speaking, the political mainstream in Scotland and Wales tends to be further left than Labour.

        A fair point – context is all

      • Edward Carlsson Browne
        January 14, 2011 at 9:59 pm | #5

        This is a very important point. Although they’ve split, Llais Gwynedd grew out of Plaid, yet they’re definitely much further to the right – as well as being Gwynedd particularists. Similarly, I defy anybody to tell me that the reason the SNP wins in Banff is that Labour isn’t socialist enough for the area.

  2. Mike
    January 13, 2011 at 11:41 pm | #6

    I know nothing of politics but I did notice several self-proclaimed Socialist parties appearing on the ballot in recent years. (Receiving far too few votes to represent a genuine anti-Tory force.) I suggest that this is because they have given up trying to make their voices heard within New Labour or the current Labour party. (After reading excepts from his autobiography, I was surprised to realise that Blair was/is a Tory. It’s certainly not the Party I voted for in the ’80s. Despite the standard of living consistently declining for manufacturing workers over the past 20 years.)

    I wonder whether Labour MPs genuinely represent the wishes of their constituents, or too much is taken for granted as the only viable anti-Tory force. I suggest that Milliband’s silence is because it’s difficult to distinguish Labour’s policies from those of the Tories. (Eg. internal markets in hospitals & schools.)

    Paulinlancs has written about the struggles to rewrite the procedures to allow policy proposals from the Labour party rank-and-file. This may be a constructive route forward, though extremely difficult. I suggest that the massive disconnect between the party’s leaders (& ministers) and the rank & file is the fundamental weakness.

    (I don’t rate the current Unions either.)

    • January 14, 2011 at 1:21 am | #7

      The disconnect is a massive weakness, and if the party democratised a bit – as per Ed Miliband’s promise – the party will change as it starts to reflect the rank and file, who in turn are better placed to reflect the real concerns of the governed.

  3. January 14, 2011 at 11:04 am | #8

    If the Labour Party abolished the bans and proscriptions and permitted the far left groups to affiliate openly, like the Cooperative Party, your argument would be sound. As long as the bans and proscriptions exist, far left organisations within the Labour Party which attain any degree of success inevitably face the fate of the Militant, i.e. to be purged by central office.

    To insist on staying exclusively within Labour if you aren’t allowed to organise and publish openly for your politics is to commit to the Blairites and similar types, who are backed by the advertising-funded media, always calling the shots in the party. The 1970s – early 1980s broad left depended on the backing of the old CPGB trade union fractions.

    On the ILP history: (a) the ILP were wrong to split voluntarily rather than waiting to be purged for breaking the whip (which they might have avoided in the conditions after 1931).
    (b) The ILP were not initially influenced by Stalinism, but sought to build a new international movement along with the Spanish POUM and others, though after the split the CPGB did run a fairly successful entry operation (the ILP leadership used Trotskyist entrists as a counterweight until the CP-ers walked out, then disposed of the Trotskyists).
    (c) Cripps’ Socialist League was influenced by Stalinism, though a lot less powerfully so than the 1970s broad left. This influence would be a lousy reason for banning it; in fact, it was banned for agreeing to cooperate with the CPGB and thus breaking the bans and proscriptions.
    (Information on the 1930s from Bornstein and Richardson’s Against the Stream, which is a Trotskyist book but a scholarly one.)

  4. CharlieMcMenamin
    January 14, 2011 at 11:13 am | #9

    Carl,
    Can I gently suggest that Worker’s Liberty is not the most trustworthy source on either the ILP or on what might or might not constitute ‘Stalinism’- unless one takes the view that any call for a Popular Front, at any point in history, is an automatic signal of Stalinism.

    The ILP voted decisively not to affiliate to the fledgling Third International, and subsequently was involved in attempts to set up various international co-ordinating bodies of like minded parties which stood independent of both the 2nd and 3rd Internationals.

    On the nationalist party point – I do accept that the political cultures of both Scotland and Wales stand somewhat to the left of England and that this inevitably ‘colours’ the approach of all parties in these countries. I also accept that the SNP and Plaid are coalitions, united primarily around their nationalism (or, in Plaid’s interesting case, their particular red-green ‘internationalist-nationalism’ view of where Wales fits into the world).

    But both are ‘mass’ parties in the contexts of their political culture, just as you seem to imply that you think Labour is in the all-UK culture. Your argument seems to me to be anti-pluralist in the sense it is saying, ” Look, we’re the big party of the left, what on earth are the rest of you doing mucking about outside us?”. I’m not convinced that party affiliation is the most important thing in all contexts anyway – but even if one does accept party affliation as taking primacy over say, involvement in broader campaigns then in Scotland and Wales it simply isn’t true that the Labour Left is the only epicentre of radicalism in parties with significant electoral support.

    • January 14, 2011 at 7:29 pm | #10

      Charlie;

      You can suggest that if you wish, in fact I noted in my last remark that I take the organisation’s opinions with a very liberal pinch of salt (although I didn’t quite use those words); however the information that I quoted is not interpretation of events – on the point about Stalinism it’s a fact that there a remaining contingent of ILP members were faithful to Stalin; see any history on the Socialist League (or look at comments below).

      Mike;

      Firstly thanks for replying.

      I did make mention of the McCarthyite purges in my blog entry, so it should be clear where I stand on this issue. However, if you stand by your first point on the ILP history, it should drive you to distraction that left wing activists are voluntarily separating themselves from the Labour Party – point taken about the bans and proscriptions, but there are no such McCarthyite purges today. Or at least I hope there aren’t when I sit in on the LRC AGM tomorrow.

      Finally Mike, I read with great interest your article on Making and Unmaking Labour last year – it’s an article with much relevance to this debate.

  5. January 14, 2011 at 11:18 pm | #11

    My view is that the Labour party is, in general, still a valid place for leftwing activists to be because it still often offers the best infrastrucure for the support of activism, especially at a local level. That might not always be the case, but it is now (and a bit more so that two years ago).

    However, that doesn’t mean a) that activists in the LP need be soley active in the LP b) that there aren’t other valid organisations to be active in. I don’t think it’s useful to be categorical about what is most suitable organisation to get stuck in with, because no two places are alike. I quite accept that Jim feels his activism in the Greens is useful where he is, but the Greens round my way are a bunch of tossers who wouldn’t recognise socialism if it hit them on the head from a great height. There will be other places where the opposite is true.

    So in general the LP left needs to move on from hectoring people about the need for people to join the LP, and work on ensuring that the LP is a grassroots-friendly place that it’s worth other people joining. There’s of course a grey area between hectoring and advertising.

    Carl is right to make the distinction between PLP and the LP, but the grassroots of the LP, as represented by LRC or any other body, needs to move on from whining about how awful the Labour hierarchy and get on with organising the resources which ar available to it to best subversion and power reversal effect, in a way which shows other leftists outside the LP that we’re serious about taking greater control of policy and process, not least by providing effective support to the anti-cuts movement without trying to take that movement over.

    See my Fifth Tradition blog compilation for further thoughts if you can be bothered. In the end the way forward for the LP is to mix appropriate humility about our collective failure to build the party the last time we had the chance (the 1980s)with a determination to get it right organisationally this time around. Mind you, time is starting to run out this time around too.

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