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Labour Party (UK)

(Redirected from British Labour Party)
"New Labour, New Britain" logo

The Labour Party is a centre-left or social democratic political party in Britain (see British politics), and one of the United Kingdom's three main political parties. Under its leader Tony Blair it won a landslide in the 1997 general election, and formed its first government since 1979. It retained its position in the 2001 general election.



The Labour Party is a membership organization consisting of Constituency Labour Parties, affiliated trade unions. Members who are elected to parliamentary positions take part in the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) and European Parliamentary Labour Party (EPLP). The party's decision-making bodies, on a national level, formally include the National Executive Committee (NEC), Labour Party Conference, and National Policy Forum - although in practice the Parliamentary leadership has the final say. Questions of internal party democracy have frequently provoked disputes in the party.

For many years, Labour had a policy of Irish unity by consent, and did not allow residents of Northern Ireland to apply for membership, instead supporting the nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP). The 2003 Labour Party Conference accepted legal advice that the party could not continue to prohibit residents of the province joining, but the National Executive has decided not to organise or contest elections there.

Early years

The Labour Party was established at a special conference of the Trade Union Congress at the Memorial Hall, Farringdon Street, London on February 27, 1900. Its initial name was the Labour Representation Committee, and it was to have acted as a body co-ordinating attempts to elect to Parliament members who had been sponsored by trade unions as representing the working population.

After winning 29 seats in the 1906 election, increasing their percentage of seats in Parliament to 4.8%, the group's Members of Parliament decided to take the name "The Labour Party" on February 15, 1906. James Keir Hardie, who had taken a leading role in getting the party established, was elected as Chairman of the Parliamentary Labour Party (in effect, the Leader). In the party's early years, the Independent Labour Party (ILP) provided much of its activist base as the party did not have an individual membership until 1918 and operated as a conglomerate of affiliated bodies until that date. The Fabian Society provided much of the intellectual stimulus for the party.

British politics in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century was divided between the perceived 'establishment', represented by the Conservative Party (nicknamed the Tories), and a more radical 'non-conformist' tradition, based around Welsh Methodism. The latter tradition was embodied by the Liberal Party under leaders like William Ewart Gladstone and David Lloyd George. However the Liberal Party split between factions supporting leader David Lloyd George and former leader Herbert Asquith. Its split allowed the radical left of centre vote to be picked up by the Labour Party, which had its own Welsh methodist base and associations with 'non-conformism'. It was this non-conformist appeal, rather than its socialism, that led it to supplant the Liberal Party as the main opposition to the Conservatives at the 1922 general election. Labour formed its first minority government with Liberal support in January 1924, with Ramsay MacDonald as Prime Minister, with the main issue in the election being free trade. The Conservatives returned to power nine months later following a hoax "Red scare" over the Zinoviev Letter.

The split under MacDonald

The election of May 1929 saw Labour returned for the first time as the largest party in the House of Commons, and Ramsay MacDonald formed a second Liberal-backed government, though Labour's lack of a parliamentary majority again prevented it from carrying out its desired legislative programme.

The financial crisis of 1931 caused a disastrous split in the party, with MacDonald and a few senior ministers going into alliance with the Conservatives and Liberals as the "National Government" (August 24, 1931) while most of the party rank-and-file went into opposition under the leadership of first George Lansbury and (from 1935) Clement Attlee. The ILP under James Maxton disaffiliated from the Labour Party in 1932, removing a substantial proportion of the left of the party from membership.

While MacDonald's "National Labour" following dwindled to a small parliamentary appendage to the Conservatives, opposition Labour rapidly regained most of the party's former electoral support, and entered the wartime coalition government of Winston Churchill (May 1940) on terms of near equality with the Conservative majority.

Post-War victory to the 1960s

With the end of the war in Europe in May 1945, Labour resolved not to repeat the Liberals' error of 1918, and withdrew from the government to contest the subsequent general election (July 5) in opposition to Churchill's Conservatives. Surprisingly to many (especially overseas) observers, Labour won a landslide majority, reflecting voters' perception of it as the party to carry through wartime promises of reform. The results were announced on July 26; Labour won 48% of the vote and a landslide Parliamentary majority of 146 seats.

Clement Attlee's government was one of the most radical British governments of the 20th century. It presided over a policy of selective nationalisation (the Bank of England, coal, electricity, gas, the railways and iron & steel). It developed a "cradle to grave" welfare state under health minister Aneurin Bevan. The creation in 1948 of Britain's tax funded National Health Service remains Labour's proudest achievement.

Attlee's government however became split, over, amongst other things, the amount of money Britain was spending on defence (which reached 10% of GDP in 1950 due to the Korean War). Aneurin Bevan eventually quit the government over this issue. The government also faced a fuel crisis and a balance of payments crisis. Labour narrowly lost power to the Conservatives in October 1951, despite winning more votes.

Throughout the 1950s and early 1960s the party became split between moderate modernisers led by Hugh Gaitskell and more traditional socialist elements within the party. This split, and the fact that the public was broadly content with the Conservative governments of the period, kept the party out of power for thirteen years.

However, in the early 1960s, a series of scandals such as the Profumo affair engulfed the Conservative government, which damaged its popularity. The Conservative party was also seen as being out of touch with the changing country and the economy began to turn down. Due largely to this, the Labour party returned to government under Harold Wilson in 1964 and remained in power until 1970.

The 1960s Labour government, although far less radical on economic policy than its 1940s predecessor, introduced some important social reforms, such as the partial legalisation of homosexuality, and also the abolition of the death penalty. Harold Wilson's government was narrowly defeated by Edward Heath's Conservatives in the 1970 general election. The party won power again in February 1974 with a minority and in October 1974 with a small majority, also under Harold Wilson.

The 1970s

The 1970s proved to be a disastrous time to be in government, and faced with a world-wide economic downturn and a badly suffering British economy, the Labour Government would be forced to go to the IMF for a loan to ease them through their financial troubles. However, conditions attached to the loan meant the adoption of a more liberal economic programme by the Labour Government, meaning a move away from the party's traditional policy base.

The 1970s were also dogged by a host of industrial problems, including widespread strikes and trade union militancy. The Labour Party's close ties to the increasingly unpopular trade unions caused the party to gradually lose support throughout the decade.

In 1976, citing his desire to retire on his sixtieth birthday, Wilson stood down as Labour Party leader and Prime Minister, and was replaced by James Callaghan. In the same year as Callaghan became leader, the party in Scotland suffered the breakaway of two MPs into the Scottish Labour Party (SLP). This breakaway was prompted by dissatisfaction with the lack of progress being made by the then Labour government on delivering a devolved Scottish Assembly. Whilst ultimately the SLP proved no real threat to the Labour Party's strong Scottish electoral base it did show that people were beginning to think of breaking with the mainstream UK Labour Party,

Ultimately, the economic problems facing the Labour Government of the 1970s, and the political difficulties of Scottish and Welsh devolution, proved too great for it to surmount despite an arrangement negotiated in 1977 with the Liberals known as the Lib-Lab Pact. In 1979 they faced the disastrous winter of discontent, and in the 1979 general election they suffered electoral defeat to the Tories, led by Margaret Thatcher.

The Thatcher years

The aftermath of the election defeat in 1979 provoked a period of bitter internal rivalry in Labour. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the party became bitterly divided between left wingers under Michael Foot and Tony Benn, who dominated the party organisation at grassroots level, and right wingers under Denis Healey. The election of Foot to the leadership (where he proved an electoral disaster) led in March 1981 to the formation of a breakaway group, the Social Democratic Party, under the Gang of Four: new SDP leader and former Labour deputy leader Roy Jenkins, and former senior ministers David Owen, Shirley Williams and William Rodgers. It formed an alliance with the Liberal Party (UK) under David Steel. The new SDP-Liberal Alliance initially was highly popular, leading Steel at one stage to tell his party, during a conference speech, to "Go back to your constituencies, and prepare for government".

The Labour Party, having lost most of its right-wing to the SDP, lurched to the left. With Michael Foot as leader they went into the 1983 General Election with what many regard as the most left-wing manifesto the Labour party ever conceived. The manifesto contained pledges to unilaterally disarm Britain's nuclear deterant, withdraw from the EC, and pledged a programme of mass nationalisation of industry.

The right-wing press took full advantage of this and wasted no time in attacking the party. Labour's chances of electoral success were further damaged by the fact that the Thatcher government's popularity was on the rise after successfully guiding the country to victory in the Falklands War. This bolstered Thatcher who had been low in the polls due to a severe economic downturn. The 1983 manifesto was arguably the 'nail in the coffin' to Labour's campaign and was famously described by the senior Labour politician Gerald Kaufman as being 'the longest suicide note in history'.

"Labour Rose" logo
"Labour Rose" logo

After suffering a landslide defeat at the 1983 election, the Labour party underwent a fundamental rethink as to its policies. The left wing Michael Foot was replaced by Neil Kinnock, who though initially a firebrand left winger, moved the party to the centre, expelling far left groups such as the Militant Tendency. Despite another General Election defeat in 1987 Kinnock managed to hold onto the party leadership and continued his reform of the party. By 1992, the party had reformed to such an extent that it was perceived as a credible candidate for government. However a disastrous electoral platform and an embarrassingly triumphalist party rally ahead of the election produced a backlash that saw the Conservatives under John Major unexpectedly returned to power. Following the 1992 defeat, Kinnock resigned as leader and was replaced by John Smith, a popular moderate socialist from Scotland, who continued Kinnock's reforms of the party. However in May 1994, he died suddenly from a heart attack.

New Labour

Following John Smith's death in 1994, the leadership of the party was won by Tony Blair. Blair began to reconstruct the party's policies. His first move was to revise Clause IV of the party constitution, which had been adopted in 1918 and committed the party to 'the common ownership of the means of production' (widely interpreted in the past as a policy of nationalisation). A special conference of the party approved the change in March 1995. The key phrase of the new clause IV is:

"The Labour Party is a democratic socialist party. It believes that by the strength of our common endeavour we achieve more than we achieve alone, so as to create for each one of us the means to realise our true potential and for all of us a community in which power, wealth and opportunity are in the hands of the many not the few, where the rights we enjoy reflect the duties we owe, and where we live together, freely, in a spirit of solidarity, tolerance and respect."

Blair characterized his political philosophy as being the Third Way though critics pointed to the lack of any concise statement of its meaning, and the term later fell from use. Labour's economic policy sought to balance the laissez-faire capitalism of the Thatcherite era with measures that would lessen or reverse their negative impact on society. The party itself was rebranded new Labour for the purpose of election campaigning, which critics on the left charged was a separate party.

The "modernisation" of Labour party policy, and the unpopularity of the Conservative government, greatly increased Labour's appeal to "middle England". The party was concerned not to put off potential voters who had previously supported the Conservatives, and pledged to keep to the spending plans of the previous government, and not to increase the basic rate of income tax. Labour won a landslide majority in the May 1997 general election.

One of the first acts of the Labour government was to give the Bank of England operational independence in setting interest rates, a move that had not been foreshadowed in the manifesto or during the election campaign. Labour held to its pledges to keep to the spending plans set by the Conservatives, causing strain with those members of the party who had hoped that the landslide would lead to more radical policies. Left-wing MPs rebelled when the government moved to cut benefits paid to lone parents in December 1997. The government also promoted wider use of Public Private Partnerships and the Private Finance Initiative, which were opposed particularly by trade unions as a form of privatisation.

The party won a further landslide majority (on a very low turnout) in 2001, the first time ever that the Labour Party won two successive full terms of office. The second term saw increases in public spending, especially on the National Health Service, which the government insisted must be linked to the reforms it was proposing. Spending on education was likewise increased, with schools encouraged to adopt "specialisms". The Prime Minister's spokesman Alastair Campbell was much criticised by education professionals and teachers' trade unions when he stated that this policy meant the end of "the bog-standard comprehensive".

Labour's foreign policy kept it close to the United States. Tony Blair managed to persuade Bill Clinton to take a more active role in Bosnia in 1999, and UK forces assisted in the international coalition which attacked the Taliban regime in Afghanistan in 2001. The UK was the only ally of the United States to actually participate in the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

The Labour Party today

There has been a decline in the party's popularity since 2001, although it is frequently still the most popular party. Labour in local government appears to be less popular than Labour in national government, as an extensive opinion poll on the day of the 2004 local elections found. Labour Party membership has fallen to 214,952 (the latest figure available, as at December 31, 2003).

As well as being in government across the whole UK, the Labour Party is in power (jointly with the Liberal Democrats) in the Scottish Parliament. Until May 2003 Labour shared power with the Liberal Democrats in the National Assembly for Wales, and then took power on its own.

The Labour Party is a member of the Socialist International and the Party of European Socialists (the social democrat bloc in the European Parliament).

See also:

Leaders of the Labour Party since 1906

From 1906 until 1922 the leader was formally "Chairman of the Parliamentary Labour Party".

From 1922 until 1970 the leader was formally "Leader of the Labour Party" and "Chairman of the Parliamentary Labour Party". However these two posts were occasionally split, usually when the party was in government or when the leader of the party did not sit in the House of Commons.

(Arthur Henderson lost his seat in the Commons a couple of months after becoming leader. For the remainder of his leadership, the Chairman of the Parliamentary Labour Party was George Lansbury.)

In 1970 the posts of "Leader of the Labour Party" and "Chairman of the Parliamentary Labour Party" were split with the latter having no policy role.

Deputy leaders of the Labour Party since 1922

See also

External links

Last updated: 11-06-2004 20:59:16