Which arguments win? Whose slate gets elected? The rest of the nation was about to celebrate the relief of the siege of Ladysmith, the high moment of imperialism before Lloyd George led the onslaught on the Boer or rather South African war. In the Commons a dull debate was going on about reforming the treatment of farm labourers who today are imported from eastern Europe as agricultural work remains now as ever back-breaking, and unless food prices soar, unremunerative.
They came to the meeting in different blocs. Trade union delegates from the old craft unions, protectionist of entry, no women of course, bowler-hatted aristocrats of labour who had been quite happy working with the Liberal party. But while the franchise had been widened the Commons had few if any workers in it. Landowners and landlords had 209 MPs and 129 MPs were addressed as ‘Honourable and Gallant’ because they were ex-army officers. There were five miner MPs. Hang on. That’s four more than today. Indeed there are in 2011 more army ex-officers in the Commons than there are ex-workers. Leaders of the so-called ‘new unions’ which had organised the great strikes of the late 1880s were present. But like readers of Ralph Miliband avant la lettre they did not believe in a parliamentary road to socialism.
Luckily, a Scot, Keir Hardie, was there. His Independent Labour Party had read such Marx as had been translated into English and were not afraid of the S(ocialist) word. They allowed the hard left to burn itself out as the trade unionists rejected the call that the new party should base itself ‘upon the recognition of the class war’. Instead, Hardie successfully moved the motion calling for a ‘distinct Labour group in parliament’. It would decide its own policy, have its own whips, and elect its own leader.
In contrast to mainland Europe where socialist parties had been founded in the 1870s and 1880s based on the first and second internationals and Marxist ideology, Britain was a Johnny-come-lately to the idea of an organised mass left political party. In Europe, the social democratic parties founded trade unions. Chez nous it was the other way round. And it was called a Labour, not socialist or social democratic, party. Today, Labour is the only left party in the world which allows trade union leadership to exercise influence over the party’s destiny, including the choice of policy and leader. Trade union bosses paid the hire of the Memorial Hall just as they pay today for the Labour party. In Rotherham on 19 March top professors and historians of the Labour party will examine, among other things, the role of the unions in the 1930s, 1950s and 1980s – the three lost decades for Labour after the formation of the first Labour administration in 1924.
111 years on since the unions or worker-intellectuals like Hardie gave birth to the Labour party it is rare indeed that a working man or woman is selected to be an MP. A good Russell Group degree is now the sine-qua-non for advancement in Labour’s ranks. No chance for today’s Keir Hardies. Anyone for all-worker shortlists? Time for another Memorial Hall meeting to discuss the idea?
Progressive centre-ground Labour politics does not come for free.
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