Most delegates came from the working class districts of London: Shepherd’s Bush, Stepney, Walthamstow, Battersea, Canning Town, Peckham, Mile End, Islington, Camden Town and Hammersmith. Labour in the Memorial Hall spoke overwhelmingly with a cockney accent.
The rest came from the industrial heartlands. The Blastfurnacemen were represented by L Fenwick from Middlesbrough; the dock labourers by delegates from Liverpool; from Manchester came the Steel Smelters; from Leicester came the Boot and Shoe Operatives (including Cllr TF Richards); from Leeds came the Clothiers Amalgamated Union delegate; from Birmingham the reps from the Brassworkers. Thanks to the magic of Google, you can actually see modern images of some of the delegates’ homes. The humble home of Paul Vogel, the delegate from the Waiters’ Union is now a luxury Pimlico flat. Many have fallen prey to the Luftwaffe bomber or municipal planner. There are no plaques to commemorate these Labour pioneers.
The unions were dominant in 1900, but the essential difference between then and now is that the founding unions were small craft and trade unions, representing workers in specific trades and industries: bakers, builders, cigar-makers, coal porters, compositors, chain-makers, dock labourers, electricians, fancy leather workers, French polishers, gas workers, house decorators, ironfounders, matchmakers, miners, musicians, bricklayers, plasterers, railwaymen, shipwrights, spinners, stevedores, tailors, typographers, upholsterers, waiters, and weavers. There were no super-unions, no barons, no white-collar workers. Many were the ‘new unions’, like the dockers, formed in the 1880s and 1890s. These were men of the factories, mines, dockyards, engine works, mills and shipyards, who knew hard times, hard work and for whom union membership was a matter of life and death.
They were joined by the socialists: a single rep from the Fabian Society, four from the quasi-marxist Social Democratic Federation (SDF), and seven from the Independent Labour Party (ILP) including Keir Hardie, Philip Snowden, and Ramsay MacDonald. Two delegates came from the Fawcett Association, which I assume was a women’s suffrage organisation. They might have been the only women there, amid a sea of whiskers, pipes and stiff collars.
Who was missing? The cooperative movement was absent in 1900. The chairman of the conference, JT Chandler from Manchester, reported that the Cooperative Union had been invited, but had failed to send any delegates. Had the Co-ops been represented in 1900, and become affiliated alongside the unions, how different the history of the Labour party might have been. The interests of producers might have balanced by the interests of consumers, and big state socialism might have been tempered by local public ownership.
It was the Scottish miner Keir Hardie who moved the resolution which created a ‘distinct Labour Group in parliament’, with its own whips and policy. His speech stated unequivocally the meaning of the resolution – a ‘Labour party’ concerned with ‘the welfare of the workers in a manner free and unhampered by entanglements of other parties.’ He meant, of course, those slippery, sell-out Tories-in-disguise, the Liberals.
Progressive centre-ground Labour politics does not come for free.
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