The Labour Party is a centre-left or social democratic political party in Great 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 the 1979 general election. It retained its position in the 2001 general election.
The Labour Party is a membership organization consisting of Constituency Labour Parties, affiliated trade unions and socialist societies, including the Co-operative Party, with which it has an electoral agreement. 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 (NPF) - 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.
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 coordinating attempts to elect to Parliament members who had been sponsored by trade unions as representing the working population.
The LRC won 29 seats in the 1906 election, helped by a secret pact between Ramsay Macdonald and Liberal Chief Whip Herbert Gladstone which aimed at avoiding Labour/Liberal contests. In their first meeting after the election, the group's Members of Parliament decided to take the name "The Labour Party" (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), although only by one vote over David Shackleton after several ballots. 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. After the Representation of The People Act, 1884, most adult men had the vote but about 40% were still unenfranchised, mainly among the working class who would be more likely to support parties of the left. The non-conformist tradition was embodied by the Liberal Party under leaders like William Ewart Gladstone and David Lloyd George.
However, during the First World War the Liberal Party split between factions supporting leader David Lloyd George and former leader Herbert Asquith. At the end of the war universal adult male suffrage was enacted, together with votes for women over the age of 30. The Liberal split, accompanied by this fundamental change in the system, allowed the Labour Party to co-opt some of The Liberals support, and by the 1922 general election Labour had supplanted the Liberal Party as the main opposition to the Conservatives. With The Liberals still in turmoil, Labour formed its first minority government with Liberal support in January 1924, with Ramsay MacDonald as Prime Minister; the government collapsed after nine months when the Liberals voted for a Select Committee inquiry which MacDonald had declared an issue of confidence but The Liberal electoral base had vanished. The ensuing general election saw the publication four days before polling day of the Zinoviev Letter implicating Labour in a plot for a Communist revolution, and the Conservatives returned to power. The Zinoviev letter is now generally believed to have been a forgery.
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 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. From the mid 1970s, the party had became bitterly divided between left wingers under Michael Foot and Tony Benn, whose supporters dominated the party organisation at grassroots level, and right wingers under Denis Healey. After the defeat, the left had the upper hand when it asserted that the government had become unpopular because it had alienated its base by compromising, and needed to regain it by moving to a more left-wing policy.
The election of Foot to the leadership and the change to a system of leadership elections in which party activists and affiliated trade unions had a vote led to the decision by the Gang of Four former Labour cabinet ministers on January 26, 1981 to issue the 'Limehouse Declaration', and then to form the Social Democratic Party. The Gang of Four were Roy Jenkins, David Owen, Shirley Williams and William Rodgers. The departure of even more right-wingers further swung the party to the left, but not quite enough to allow Tony Benn to be elected as Deputy Leader when he challenged for the job at the 1981 party conference.
Led by Michael Foot, who was increasingly unpopular with the public, the party went into the 1983 general election with a manifesto dominated by the politics of the party's left-wing. The manifesto contained pledges to unilaterally disarm Britain's nuclear deterrent, withdraw from the European Community (EC), and pledged a programme of mass nationalisation of industry. A symptom of the divisions in the party was that the leading members of the right-wing had not resisted the manifesto, because they hoped that what they saw as an impending inevitable landslide defeat would discredit the policies.
The right-wing press took full advantage of the unpopular manifesto 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 famously described by the senior Labour politician Gerald Kaufman as being 'the longest suicide note in history'.
After suffering a landslide defeat at the 1983 election, Michael Foot immediately resigned. He was replaced by Neil Kinnock, who though initially a firebrand left winger, had generally supported Foot and was seen as a more pragmatic left-winger. Through his leadership Kinnock progressively moved the party to the centre. He vastly intensified moves to expel far left groups such as the Militant Tendency which had infiltrated the party while pursuing their tactic of entrism, and changed party policy to support EC membership. From 1985, Peter Mandelson as Director of Communications modernised the party's image.
At the 1987 general election, the party was again defeated in a landslide, but had established itself as the clear challengers to the Conservatives and had fought an effective campaign. Kinnock easily retained the party leadership when challenged from the left in 1988 and continued his reform of the party. The Labour Party ceased to be unilateralist in early 1989, and embarked on a thorough Policy Review.
By the time of the 1992 general election, the party had reformed to such an extent that it was perceived as a credible candidate for government. Most opinion polls during the campaign showed the party with a slight lead over the Conservatives although rarely with a lead sufficient to give a majority. However, the party ended up 8% behind the Conservatives in the popular vote, a result which was considered one of the biggest surprises in British electoral history. In the party's post mortem on why it had lost, it was considered that the 'Shadow Budget' announced by John Smith had opened the way for Conservatives to attack the party for wanting to raise taxes. In addition Neil Kinnock's seeming triumphalism at a party rally in Sheffield eight days before polling day gave the impression that victory had already been achieved.
Kinnock resigned after the defeat, blaming the overwhelming preponderance of Conservative-supporting newspapers for Labour's failure. John Smith, despite his involvement with the Shadow Budget, was easily elected to succeed him over Bryan Gould who was identified with the soft left. Smith's leadership saw a degree of tension between those who preferred progressive change and others who identified as 'modernisers' and advocated a further wholesale revision of the party's stance. At the 1993 conference, Smith successfully changed the party rules so that trade unions had less say in the selection of candidates to stand for Parliament, but only carried the day after a barnstorming speech by John Prescott and compromising on other matters in individual negotiations. However in May 1994, Smith died suddenly from a heart attack.
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):
- "To secure for all the workers by hand or by brain the full fruits of their industry and the most equitable distribution thereof that may be possible upon the basis of the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange, and the best obtainable system of popular administration and control of each industry of service."
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. One of the most popular policies introduced was Britain's first National Minimum Wage Act. 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 one of the allies of the United States that actually participated in the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
Tony Blair has promised to retire in his third term, should he win one on May 5 2005.
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).
Labour has faced six by-elections since the 2001 election. The party has retained four (sometimes narrowly) but lost in Brent East (2003) and Leicester South (2004) to the Liberal Democrats. Both of these seats had a large proportion of muslim voters who were perceived to have been disenchanted by the government's support for the invasion of Iraq. The European Parliamentary elections of 2004 also saw a poor performance by the party; however, the performance of the main opposition Conservative Party has been lacklustre and has led to a widespread assumption that it is not in a position realistically to challenge for government in the general election expected in May 2005.
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. From 2001 to 2003, Labour formed a coalition with the Liberal Democrats in the National Assembly for Wales, but was able to take power on its own when it gained seats in the 2003 election.
The Labour Party is a member of the Socialist International and the Party of European Socialists (the social democrat bloc in the European Parliament).
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
Last updated: 06-02-2005 14:12:56