5.  The Years of the Labour Representation Committee (LRC) 1900-1906

(Derek Gunby’s occasional Labour history series, continued.)

updated: 30 May 2020

Before describing the years of the Labour Representation Committee (LRC) it is necessary to back track and explain the way in which the TUC and its Parliamentary Committee were persuaded to ditch their decades-long love affair with the Liberal party and back the idea of creating a new party of Labour.

How the Trade Union movement formed its relationship with the Liberal Party

The TUC was formed in 1868, the same year that the franchise was doubled from 1 million to 2 million (still leaving another 5 million adult men without the vote).  Most of this increased electorate comprised better-off working class men. Given the new electorate, several Liberal candidates did express sympathy for the Trade Union case.  This led the Trade Union movement, and particularly the TUC, to realise the potential for Parliamentary action in the latter half of the 19thcentury, especially via the Liberal party.

The trade union movement had two concerns.  The first was to improve the legislative framework within which it operated, and the second was to get working men into Parliament.  The law had been used without fail either to ban unions or keep their actions limited, and subject to legal action if they proved too strong.  Trade unions lacked corporate status and thus were without any legal validity and protection, either from fraud or claims for damages.  The main aim of the trade unions and the TUC in the latter half of the 19th century was to rectify these serious restrictions.

The issue of having working men in Parliament was based on the not unreasonable point that the working class were the overwhelming majority in Britain, and if the country liked to call itself a democracy it should see working men (women were not considered at this stage) in large numbers in parliament.  Such MPs, it was believed, would largely support the cause of labour and the trade unions.  Whilst there had been elected MPs who supported the labouring poor and some who supported Chartism, none had been from the working class.  No workingmen were returned to Parliament until 1874.  Part of the problem was that, as an MP, you had to support yourself and they did not have sufficient resources.  This was one factor that drove working class candidates into the arms of the waiting Liberal Party.

William Gladstone took over as leader of the Liberal Party in 1868 and led four administrations until his resignation in 1894.

William Gladstone

He was a reformer with a special concern for oppressed peoples and Irish Home rule.  He proved to be popular with the masses and the main body of the newly enfranchised working class tended to support the Liberal Party throughout the rest of the 19th century.  This factor also helps explain why many trade unionists who had ambitions to stand for Parliament would opt to do so through the Liberal party.  As for the wider electorate of the working class, which expanded through further suffrage reforms in the last part of the 19th century, they also became mainly attracted to the Liberal party and its promises of reforms.  A significant minority, however, voted Tory, largely one supposes, out of deference to those they regarded as “born to rule”.

Factors that turned the TUC away from the Liberal Party

This is a complex story that can be simplified into three main strands. In the first place was the growth of New Unionism, which was dealt with in a previous section.  The new Trade Unions that bloomed towards the end of the 1880s not only brought new blood to the TUC, but also introduced a new militancy and a belief in labour as an independent political force.  The second factor was the revival of socialism and the creation of new organisations that spread ideas for a transformation of society.  These new ideas gradually entered into the bloodstream of trade unionism and began to influence the TUC away from the Liberal party, which was seen as a party formed by and for the capitalist class.  Lastly, the economic downturn that accompanied the latter quarter of the 19th century caused greater unrest and increased strife in factory, port and mine.  Even the stodgy, Liberal-dominated trade unions, such as those of the textile sector, the miners and engineers, could not avoid the impact of this and began to change.  The Engineers moved first, and in a few years were transformed into a more militant, fighting organisation with new leaders like Tom Mann and John Burns.  The campaign for an Eight-Hour Day, spearheaded by the Gasworkers and the Engineers, also began to influence the miners and others of the old school.  The new economic climate also hardened the approach of the employers, who began to create their own associations and campaign for more restrictions on trade unions.

Taken together, these three factors gradually eroded the power of the Caucus that had controlled the central executive of the TUC, the Parliamentary Committee, from its inception in 1869.  Keir Hardie fired the first shots at the TUC Annual Conference in 1887, when he accused the long time Secretary of the Parliamentary Committee and a Liberal MP, Henry Broadhurst, of opposing workers in struggle.  Broadhurst was able to beat off that challenge to his authority, but by 1890 had lost the fight to prevent the TUC supporting the eight-hour day, and so resigned.  The battle was not won, but by the end of that decade the old order had finally given way.

The TUC moves to establish the Labour Representation Committee

The changing mood and political disposition of the TUC is illustrated by the resolutions in favour of widespread nationalisation passed in the 1890s.  In 1898 the President of the TUC suggested that they should adopt plans to create a political organisation for the Trade Union world.  Then at Plymouth in 1899 the TUC passed its famous resolution to give effect to the earlier suggestion of their President.  The resolution, which is worth quoting in full, stated:

“This Congress, having regard to its decisions in former years, and with a view to securing a better representation of the interests of Labour in the House of Commons, hereby instructs the parliamentary Committee to invite the co-operation of all the co-operative, socialistic, trade unions, and other working organisations to jointly co-operate on lines mutually agreed upon, in convening a special congress of representatives from such of the above-mentioned organisations as may be willing to take part, to devise ways and means for securing the return of an increased number of labour members to the next Parliament.”

The motion was moved by James Holmes of the Amalgamated Society of Railways Servants and seconded by James Sexton of the Liverpool Dock Labourer’s Union. They were supported by Margaret Bondfield, leader of the Shop Workers union and one of the few prominent women in the trade union world.  She would later become Britain’s first female cabinet member.  The caucus put up a fierce opposition and on a card vote the resolution was only narrowly won, 546,000 to 434,000.  This historic vote was received with wild cheering with some delegates standing on their chairs.  It was agreed that a ten member committee be established for planning the new venture drawn from the TUC, the SDF, the ILP and the Fabian Society.

The mover and seconder of the successful resolution and key supporter are shown below:

From the left, below: Mover, James Holmes; Seconder, James Sexton; Supporter, Margaret Bondfield

The Inaugural Conference of the Labour Representation Committee (LRC)

The provisional Committee prepared in advance a draft Constitution for a new independent federation of Trade Unions, Trades Councils and Co-operative and Socialist societies, organised apart from the TUC, and invitations were issued to each of these.  Therefore on February 27th and 28th 1900, 129 delegates gathered in the Memorial Hall, Farringdon Street in London.  The event went almost unnoticed amid the jingoistic excitement of the Boer War.


The delegates represented 41 unions with a combined membership of 545,000 members, seven Trades Councils (mainly in the Midlands and the North of England).  The ILP were represented on a membership of 13,000; the Social Democratic Federation on 9,000, and the Fabian Society on 861.  The two largest unions at the conference were the Amalgamated Society of Engineers with 85,000 members and the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants with 54,000 members.  The largest delegation was from the Gasworkers’ and General Labourers’ Union, led by Will Thorne.  The significant absentees were most of the district organisations of the miners and most of the organised cotton textile workers.  Fewer than half the membership of the TUC was represented at the founding conference of the LRC.  However, this was to change dramatically over the next few years.  The Cooperative Union, who had been invited to attend, was not present because they were ‘moving in the direction of Parliamentary representation in their own particular way’.

The ILP, led by Keir Hardie and Ramsay MacDonald, was the chief guiding force behind the scenes of the Conference.  They worked closely with the trade union representatives to steer a mutually acceptable course away from what they regarded as the extreme positions of the SDF.  There were seven resolutions put before the conference, and in each case the alliance of ILP, Trade Unions and the lone Fabian defeated most of the SDF positions.  Thus the attempt to restrict Labour candidatures to the working class was amended to allow middle class candidates who accepted the LRC positions.  There was to be, however, control over which candidates to accept.  One of the most significant votes was the defeat of the SDF resolution to commit the new party to socialism and the class war. Hardie replaced this with an amendment that read:

“….a distinct Labour group in Parliament, who shall have their own whips, and agree upon their policy, which must embrace a readiness to co-operate with any party which for the time being may be engaged in promoting legislation in the direct interests of labour, and be equally ready to associate themselves with any party in opposing measures having an opposite tendency…”

This was the most important decision, and set the way for an independent Parliamentary party that would work out its programme and tactics as it went along.

The only other decision of importance was to agree to reduce the new Executive Committee from 18 to 12 at the expense of the trade unions and one Fabian representative.  This meant that, although the Conference had not formally committed to socialism at this stage, socialists could easily dominate the Executive if just two of the seven trade union representatives were socialist.

The new organisation could not afford a full time officer, but Ramsay MacDonald agreed to become the unpaid, full-time Secretary, as he had financial resources through his wealthy wife.  This was accepted and MacDonald was able to exert considerable power throughout the LRC.  The first chair of the LRC was Frederick Rodgers, a Trade Unionist and bookbinder.


From the left: First Chair of LRC, Frederick Rogers;  First Secretary of the LRC, Ramsay MacDonald

First Chair of LRC, Frederick Rogers          First Secretary of the LRC, Ramsay MacDonald

The long-standing rancor between the ILP and the SDF was exacerbated by the Conference.  The ILP were triumphant whilst the SDF accused them of treachery to socialism; causing a complete breakdown between their two executives.

The early years of the LRC: The 1900 election, and deals with the Liberals

It should be noted that, at this stage the LRC was not open to individual membership.  It was a federal body, and in so far as there was a local presence of the LRC, it was largely through the ILP branches and Trades Councils.  The SDF after less than a year’s membership decided to leave the LRC.

The first real test of the LRC on the national stage came only seven months after its formation in the general election of October 1900.  This election was called the Khaki election, as it was called in the midst of the Boer War shortly after the British Army adopted its new uniform of khaki colour (designed to blend more effectively with the South African landscape than bright red!).

Election posters for 1900 Election

The election was plainly an attempt by the Tory Party to cash in on the jingoistic atmosphere of wartime and in this it was successful.  For the new Labour Party this was a severe test as they had little finance or organisation.  They only managed to field 15 candidates, and of those only two were successful, Keir Hardie in Merthyr Tydfil and Richard Bell in Derby, both by virtue of the fact that the Liberal Party decided not to field candidates.

Although the TUC had formally backed the notion of an independent party of the labour movement, many of the old leaders and rank and file were still wedded to the Liberal Party.  They took the view that without some sort of deal the independent labour candidates faced an uphill struggle to win.  This led to behind the scene deals and agreements, often to back moderate candidates rather than socialist ones in return for the Liberals withdrawing their candidate.  However, these were not just local deals brokered by Liberal trade union leaders, but also involved MacDonald and Hardie, the leaders of the LRC.  In 1903 they concluded secret negotiations with the leaders of the Liberal Party to give some LRC candidates a clear run, hiding it from even their closest colleagues.  This unprincipled and opportunistic approach became apparent later and was also reflected in the conduct of parliamentary affairs.  It angered many in the ILP rank and file.

It could be argued, as no doubt it was, that as the LRC was a fledgling organisation competing for the same radical working class votes with the Liberal Party, they needed to do deals so as to get a foothold in Parliament.  Whilst there may be some sense in that argument, the fact of the matter was that MacDonald in particular was much more comfortable with Liberals than he was with out-and-out socialists, and the old Lib-Lab approach was still favoured by many trade union leaders.  Another difficulty was that by failing to present a clear, independent voice, many among the rank file became disillusioned and critical of the Parliamentary wing.

The Defection of the SDF

The SDF had, from the outset been prone to a mechanical and rigid approach to its Marxism and this, in turn, led to a sectarian mentality.  Having failed, at its first attempt, to get the LRC committed to a socialist programme and the idea of class war, it decided, after a year’s membership, to leave the LRC.  This cut the SDF off from the main body of the organised working class and meant that they could not continue to challenge the reformism of the ILP or the lingering Liberalism of the leadership.  The LRC was also the poorer for not having a vibrant Marxist wing to add depth and vigour to its deliberations.  The SDF was to return to the fold some time later but was absent through the tumultuous years of growing militancy and mass strike action between 1901 and 1914.

The Years of the LRC 1900-1906

Following the election of two LRC candidates to parliament in 1900, it won a further two in by-elections in the next two years, and another was returned unopposed.  This brought the total independent labour representation up to five, soon reduced back to four by the defection of Richard Bell to the Liberals.  It was thus a small group unable to make a significant impact on parliament.  It concentrated mainly on raising the issue of unemployment, which became a major problem after the Boer War.  There were in addition eight Lib-Lab MPs, who, by and large, held aloof from Hardie and his small group and followed the Liberal whip.

Membership of the LRC was boosted by trade union affiliations after the Taff Vale judgement in 1901.  This arose after the Taff Vale Railway Company sought £20,000 damages against the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants for losses sustained during a strike.  After an appeal the House of Lords upheld the decision in favour of the company.  This ruling made effective trade unionism impossible.

It led to major unions, such as the AEU and the Textile workers, moving to join the LRC.   Altogether, over two years, there were 127 new Trade Union affiliations and the LRC reached recorded a membership of 861,000 by 1903.  The number of Trades Councils who affiliated grew from seven to 76 in the same period.

Although the new party was growing, the principles of its organisation and policy were still only loosely defined.  There was a strong tendency for unions to run their own candidates rather than support candidates for the whole labour movement.  Some trade union leaders sought to exclude socialists.  To try and strengthen the authority of the LRC new constitutional measures were proposed at the 1902 conference, and after consultation with the unions, agreed in 1903. Thus a political fund was established to meet the expenses of parliamentary candidates and maintaining those elected.  Henceforth Labour MPs must represent all Labour interests, not associate with other parties and stand by the majority decision of the Labour Group in Parliament.  These measures were resisted but after a powerful speech by Hardie to the 1903 conference, the new Constitution was adopted, henceforth known as the “Newcastle Programme”, as conference was held in Newcastle that year.

It is usually stated in the broad overviews of Labour’s history that it did not have a local structure until after the adoption of the new Constitution in 1918. However, its secretary, Ramsay MacDonald was endowed with the authority to set up local LRCs pledged to the election of independent Labour representatives to Parliament and municipal bodies.  This certainly happened in Leeds, where a local LRC was established and after a few years was able to create Ward Branches in a number of working class districts.  It is unlikely Leeds was alone in this development.

The 1906 election and transition from LRC to The Labour Party

The build up to the 1906 election was marked by a growing sense of social unrest and the building of agitation for reforms that would address the terrible poverty and unemployment that had grown since 1902. Nor was this changing mood confined to Britain as was seen in the dramatic events of Russia in 1905 when a revolution challenged the hated autocracy of Russia.  Similarly, in Germany and France mass movements took place to demand major reforms.

In Britain agitations against the Poor Law, Unemployment, hunger and so on became regular occurrences.  In late 1905 a major delegation from the East End of London sent a deputation to the Prime Minister accompanied by a demonstration of thousands bearing banners with such slogans as, “Workers of the World Unite”, “The Poplar Unemployed Demand the Right to Work”, and “Work for Our Men – Bread for our Children”.

The 1906 election was held against this background and saw a landslide victory for the Liberal Party on a programme of major social reforms.  This election was the first real test for the LRC.  They fielded 50 candidates and secured the return of 29 (shortly after increased to 30).  This major advance took many by surprise.  The LRC Conference held after this election took place in the same hall as the inaugural conference six years earlier, namely Farringdon Hall in London.  Understandably it was an excited and triumphant conference.  Little is recorded of the conference except the resolution that henceforth the party shall be called, The Labour Party.  The LRC slid quietly into history.











The Years of the Labour Representation Committee

(Derek Gunby’s occasional Labour history series, continued.)

updated: 28 May 2020

4. The Socialist Organisations

(Derek Gunby’s occasional Labour history series, continued.)

updated: 11 May 2020

Click on links below, and download the files.

Derek Gunby - The socialist organisations

Part 2 The Social Democratic Federation

Part 3 The Fabian Society

Part 4 The Independent Labour Party

By Hexham activist, Bill Haylock, 8 May 2020

John Clare by William Hilton, 1820

John Clare – Voice of the Rural Dispossesed

John Clare was born in 1794, in the Northamptonshire village of Helpston (within walking distance of where I grew up) into a life of dire poverty, hard agricultural labour and, ultimately, mental breakdown.  And yet he wrote some of the most sublime poetry of the natural world, as well as fiery polemic protesting the impact of capitalist exploitation of the rural poor.

He also wrote with devastating poignancy about the experience of alienation that precipitated his collapse into madness:

“Into the nothingness of scorn and noise
Into the living sea of waking dreams”

as he wrote in perhaps the most famous poem of his long years in an asylum;“I am”.

Clare was not a “political” writer – his lack of education and experience of the wider world did not give him the frame of reference. But, he railed against cruel exploitation of people and of the natural world. Like that other great rural working class poet, Burns, Clare hated blood sports and sought the company of marginalised people – specifically Gypsies. He learned to play the fiddle in the Gypsies’ encampment on the outskirts of his village and loved to spend time talking, singing and playing music with them.

The alienation which eventually led to Clare’s mental collapse was brought about by Enclosure, a brutal process of change in land ownership that gathered pace in England from the 16th century and continued into the 19th. In our modern, urban capitalist world we have largely forgotten what a cataclysm this was for the rural poor and what a comprehehsive theft of their birthright – the first of Capitalism’s great crimes. Most people, if they know anything of rural history, know that the old feudal agricultural system of open fields and commons was transformed into the “modern, efficient” form of landholding we know, with enclosed fields surrounding individual farms. What most people don’t know is that this was expropriation on a grand scale – a land grab by the rich, the powerful and the well-connected. It was a process that happened over several centuries at different rates in different parts of England. It was a necessary prerequisite for the development of capitalist industry, since it helped to increase productivity, leading to the accumulation of surplus wealth by the elite, to be invested in the new production technologies of the Industrial Revolution. The disposession of the rural poor conveniently (for capitalism) created a huge reserve of under-employed labour. To avoid starvation, many moved to the rapidly-growing cities to work in the new industries (or, like my ancestors from Suffolk, to become domestic servants in London).

The enclosure of the parish of Helpston didn’t start until the first decade of the 19th century, during Clare’s early life. Clare’s is a rare and eloquent voice from among the dispossesed who were at the sharp end of enclosure. For him it meant much more than a life of insecure employment on poverty wages. It meant the end to a communal way of life, and it meant exclusion from the land where he had once wandered freely, developing an encyclopedic knowledge of the flora and fauna and an artistic eye for detail and description unparalled among the middle and upper class “nature poets”. He might even have feared it meant the end to his poetry, because his favoured way of composing verse was as he walked the fields: he talks of how he “kicked the words from the clods”

Now, mature trees he regarded as old friends were cut down for profit and the unbounded fields of his childhood were fenced in with “trespassers will be prosecuted” signs:

“Fence meeting fence in owner’s little bounds

of field and meadow, large as garden grounds,

in little parcels little minds to please,

With men and flocks imprisoned, ill at ease.”

Clare achieved a short spell of fame in the early 1820s when a local publisher did a deal with Keat’s publisher in London over the publication of a volume of Clare’s “Poems Descriptive of Rural Life”. This caught the tail-end of a fashion for pastoral, romantic poetry and became moderately successful, although Clare never made much money from it. Local gentry would come to view the spectacle of the “Peasant Poet” as he was labeled, and the London publisher even brought Clare down to the capital to parade him at literary gatherings.

Clare hated the condescention of the “peep show” as he called it. His developing mental illness reached a crisis after well-meaning patrons fixed him up with a cottage in a village three miles from Helpston. For Clare it might as well have been on the moon. It was strange and alien to him and the disruption of his sense of place – so tied up with his identity – was now complete. The same patrons now paid for him to be admitted to an asylum in Essex. The relatively enlightened regime there  allowed him to walk in the woods surrounding the asylum. One day, after a few months at the asylum, he kept walking – eating grass and sleeping under hedges – until he had walked the 80 miles home.

By now he was suffering delusions – sometimes that he was the poet Lord Byron, and at other times a famous prize-fighter of the day. His long-suffering wife Patty pleaded with his patrons to do something. He was committed to another asylum, this time in Northampton, and this time he stayed. The superintendent of this asylum was another enlightened man and encouraged Clare to continue writing, which he did prolifically for the remaining years of his life.

Much of Clare’s work has only been published in relatively recent times (with Mid-Northumberland Arts Group among other groups of Clare enthusiasts doing sterling work to popularise his work from the 1970s.) Interest in him has grown considerably in the last 30 years. Now, at last, he has the recognition which his social class denied him for so long, as one of the greats of English Poetry.

He himself understood the gift he had for language.  As his confidence grew he stopped trying to ape the poetic conventions of the day and found his voice in the direct every-day dialect of the people around him.  His mature work has a fresh, informal directness that belies its sophisticated construction. But for me, his voice is most important and most powerful as a testament to those  casualties of English capitalism who are now largely forgotten – the dispossesed rural poor. Two lines of Clare’s poem “Enclosure” powerfully sum up the fate of this forgotten section of the working class:

“Enclosure came, and trampled on the grave

Of labour’s rights and left the poor a slave”

The Origins and Early Development of the Labour Party  (cont.)


  1. Trade Unions


The two main strands comprising the British Labour Party are the Trade Unions and the ideas of Socialism. Both these topics require separate treatment and are dealt with next, but suffice it to say that by the second half of the 19th century Trade Unions had become a firm part of the social and political landscape and socialism, having struggled to gain a foothold through much of the century, had a major revival in the 1880s. It is the eventual co-joining of these two forces in 1900 that marks the start of the Labour Party.

Trade Union banners at the Durham Miners Gala

The Precursors

If we take the Webbs’[1] definition of trade unions as, “a continuous association of wage-earners for the purpose of maintaining or improving the conditions of their working lives” then the origins of trade unions lie in the gradual emergence of the modern working class from the late 17th and 18th centuries. Even then, the existence of continuous associations cannot really be said to exist. For that you have to jump to the middle of the 19th century. But early examples provide a basis for later development.

Medieval Guilds

Some historians seek to trace trade unions back into the medieval period by drawing parallels with the Guild system. But these were in many ways restrictive organisations designed to protect monopoly and prevent apprentices from earning too much or transitioning into skilled journeymen too soon. Both masters and journeymen were members of the craft Guilds. However, they can be seen as combinations designed to impact employment conditions for sectional interests.

Hatters and Chapels—the 17th Century

Tracing back the origins of modern trade unions is difficult because workers were often forced to act secretly. The masters were deeply hostile to any attempt to improve wages and conditions in trades. The most complete example we have of an early trade union is the Journeymen Hatters Trade Union of Great Britain and Ireland, which was founded in 1667 and carried on for over a century. In the 18th century more examples emerge when Tailor journeymen are recorded as well organised and Printers “chapels”, noted as early as 1666, had become established for compositors.

Onset of Industrial Capitalism—the 18th Century

The onset of industrial capitalism in the late 18th century heralded a much greater effort by workers to establish trade unions. Miners and those working in textiles made valiant efforts to build viable associations during this early phase of capitalism but were usually defeated and driven out of existence. Brief victories were quickly overturned. This was a period of unceasing bravery and determination in the face of impossible odds. The principles of workers unity, solidarity of action and detestation of scabs and blacklegs became scorched deep into the minds of trade unionists during this period. Both the new factory workers and the artisans working in their cottage industries were forced to defend their conditions in the face of relentless pressure from the new class of industrial capitalistsText Box: Cottage Industry Early factory production

To combat this the owners of factories and mines used the law to prevent combinations or to heavily circumscribe any actions such workers might want to take, especially strike action. In addition, leaders and any known members of unions were usually sacked, evicted, if in tied accommodation, and generally harassed.


Friendly Societies

Combinations of workers did not only exist to defend wages and conditions but also to provide benefits in times of sickness and death. These were called Friendly Societies and were common throughout the 18th century and later form an important aspect of modern trade union purpose.


Repression—1790s to 1824

In the fevered atmosphere of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the Government adopted numerous repressive pieces of legislation. Their main fears were uprisings and even revolution. The French Revolution and the War with France added to their panic. Among the measures adopted were the suspension of habeas corpus and the passing of the Combinations Acts of 1799 and 1800. This allowed capitalists to bring tough actions against organisers and agitators for socialism and trade unionism. The Combinations Acts were not relaxed until 1824. In addition, another law, passed in 1797 banning the administering of unlawful oaths, was directly aimed at trade unions. However, these measures failed to stem continued attempts to form trade unions. Some owners of factories, especially the larger ones preferred trying to reach some accommodation with their workers so as to maintain production and profits. The climax of agitation against repressive laws and lack of democracy occurred in 1819 with the event known as the Peterloo Massacre. This will be the subject of a separate piece.

Although constant efforts were made to form trade unions and press for improvements at work the capacity to create lasting and effective trade unions proved much more difficult. This was largely due to the poverty of workers and their inability to afford union dues but the constant oppression by the factory and mine owners also played a significant part. There were also a vast number of workers who were unskilled or subject to frequent lay offs. They proved difficult to organise at this time and they provided a pool of unemployed and desperate workers who could be deployed by the bosses to undermine strikes and other efforts to improve conditions. These workers remained without trade unions throughout most of the 19th century.


Artisans in weaving and knitting, usually working from home or in small groups, sought to form trade unions and combinations to defend their position against new mechanisation and the rise of factory production. Their position became desperate and they resorted to conspiratorial action to destroy new machines, set fire to factories and similar actions. They became known as the Luddites and were eventually defeated by the use of the army and militias and their leaders executed or transported to Australia. These cottage industries gradually collapsed and largely disappeared.

Attempts at General Unions

The repeal of the Combination Acts in 1824 and 1825 made it lawful for workers to belong to peaceful trade unions. But new harsher penalties were put into place for violence and intimidation. Trade Unions were still subject to criminal law when trying to pursue their objectives. In order to try to escape from the limitations of small unions, efforts were made to form more general unions. The Builders, mainly in London, were able to establish a brief viable general union in the 1830s and this together with the impact of the ideas of the socialist, Robert Owen, led to the creation of one big union for all workers. This was formed and called the Grand National Consolidated Trades Union (1833-34). It was met with enthusiasm and several workers sought to join from different trades.

Tolpuddle Martyrs

In 1834 some Dorset agricultural labourers from Tolpuddle formed a Friendly Society and decided to affiliate to the Grand National Union.

As there was considerable unrest throughout farming communities at this time, the Government acted quickly and arrested six labourers who were charged with administering unlawful oaths. They were transported to Australia for 7 years. This led to massive protests and demonstrations and they were eventually pardoned in 1836.

The Grand National Union collapsed after little over a year because very few of the half million members were able to afford to pay the Union dues.

The Aristocracy of Labour

The new era of trade unionism began on a smaller scale through the creation of industry-specific trade unions during the 1840s and 1850s. Carpenters, shoemakers, stonemasons and engineers achieved some success this way and gradually other craft trades followed suit. These new formations were less inclined to strike and placed emphasis on building up their finance, organisation and benefits, rather in the manner of Friendly Societies. They had full-time secretaries and gradually a small union bureaucracy was established. The success of trade unions at this time was largely limited to skilled workers and they adopted a superior attitude to the rest of the working class, their leaders often adopting the style and modes of the middle class or the bourgeois. This “aristocracy” of labour as it was termed began to develop ingrained “conservative” values and in so far as they took an interest in politics saw their place in urging support for the Liberal Party and occasionally the Tories. These  mid-19th century years represented the most stable period of Victorian Britain, when the new bourgeois class was confident in their power; the British Empire was expanding rapidly, and the British economy dominated the world. This laid the basis for what Engels was later to call the “bourgeoisification” of the leaders of these skilled workers, the so-called aristocracy of the working class.

Trades Councils

Trades Councils form an important part of our story as they played a significant role in the development of both the trade union movement and the early Labour Party. Probably the first such organisation was the Liverpool Trades Guardian Association, formed in 1848 to protect Trade Unions from suppression by the employers’ use of the criminal law.

Glasgow too had an early series of joint committees of delegates from Trade Unions with a similar purpose. An Association of Organised Trades was formed in Sheffield in 1857. In 1860, after several precursors, the London Trades Council was formed, by far the most powerful and significant of the Trades Councils. As a movement the idea spread, so that between 1858 and 1867 Trades Councils were established in 12 of the largest towns. This number doubled between 1870 and 1873, and in 1889-91 over 60 new Councils were established.

The Junta

The Junta was a name given by the Sidney and Beatrice Webb to describe the leaders of the five strongest, craft-based unions who established their headquarters in London with full-time secretaries and a small staff. These leaders dominated the London Trades Council and asserted themselves as the leaders of the national Trade Union movement, although provincially based Trade Unions and Trades Councils resented this assumption. The Junta achieved national prominence when they persuaded the Government to involve the Trade Unions in the Royal Commission on Trade Unions in 1867. The Junta comprised Robert Applegarth, secretary of the Amalgamated Carpenters Union, William Allan, secretary of the Amalgamated Engineers Union, George Odger, leader of the a Shoemakers Union, Edwin Coulson, general secretary of the “London Order” of the Bricklayers and Daniel Guile, secretary of the National Society of Iron Founders. These leaders combined extreme caution in trade matters and energetic agitation for political reforms. Although London-based, this powerful group had strong links around the country too, notably with Alexander MacDonald, Scottish organiser of the Miners’ National Union, John Kane of the North of England Ironworkers and William Dronfield leader of the Sheffield compositors.

The Formation of the Trades Union Congress 1868

The 1860s witnessed an increasing move by trade unionists to collaborate and form national organisations to defend individual trade unions. This was partly prompted by a downturn in trade and consequent efforts by capitalists to reduce wages and conditions. If trade unions resisted this, employers began to use the tactic of locking out workers and starving them back to work on reduced wages and conditions. The employers formed Federations to strengthen their position. The first effort by the Trade Unions to counter these moves was the formation, in 1866, of the UK Alliance of Organised Trades, based in Sheffield. It was resolved that Unions would contribute to a shared fund that could then be used to assist any Trade Union being locked out or involved in a dispute. Within a year the Alliance had folded due to lack of financial support by the individual unions.

In 1868 Sam Nicholson, President of the Manchester and Salford Trades Council and a compositor, together with Sam Wood the secretary, issued a fresh call to Trades Councils and Trade Unions to come together in a Congress for the purposes of discussion and publicity. This proved more fruitful.

The meeting took place in 1868 in Manchester with 34 delegates representing 11 provincial trades councils and several national and local trade unions. This is generally taken to be the founding year of the Trades Union Congress. The Junta and London Trades Council deliberately cold-shouldered the Congress, seeing it as an unwelcome rival to their assumed dominance in the Trade Union sphere. This first Congress was a small beginning, scantily reported, but it did decide to hold annual congresses. The London Trades Council soon affiliated.

The TUC: Law and Parliament—the 1870s

The Royal Commission on Trade Unions referred to above eventually led to fresh legislation in 1871. The Trade Union Act, 1871 was a big step forward for the trade union movement as it legalised Trade Unions for the first time and enabled them to protect their funds by registering under the Friendly Societies Act. The Criminal Law Amendment Act, 1871, however, outlawed even the most elementary form of picketing and criminal damages could still be sought from trade unions undertaking any strikes.

The passing of these new laws led to the end of the Junta as their job was effectively completed and the leaders retiring or moving into Government jobs. The TUC assumed the role of advancing the cause of trade unions through Parliament and set up a permanent Parliamentary Committee. It is from this point on that Trade Unionists began to enter the political affray, largely as Liberals. The Liberal Party was seen as the radical party that was more open to working class aspirations and the most likely to introduce fresh legislation both in favour of Trade Unions and in improving the lives of working people. The franchise had been extended in 1867 and again in 1884. Thus, by the time of the 1874 election, better-off workers could vote and this created the opportunity for new working class representatives to be elected. The first two elected MPs who were working class were Alexander MacDonald, the miners’ leader, elected at Stafford, and Thomas Burt, the Northumberland miners’ leader, elected for Morpeth, both as Liberals. Thus began a 25-year period of so-called Lib-Lab MPs.

Alexander MacDonald MP
Thomas Burt

The latter half of the 1870s saw a recession in the economy that dampened the growth of trade unionism. This phase lasted until well into the 1880s.

New Unionism—The 1880s

The later 1880s marked something of a watershed in both Trade Union development and the politics of socialism. We will come on to the political context in another episode but for now it is important to highlight the growth of what has been termed “new unionism”. This was the breakthrough of trade unionism into the previously, largely unorganised, sector of unskilled labourers. This process started in London in the 1880s but there had been intimations of a new mood in the working class in the 1870s. This was especially manifest in Tyneside where miners and engineers combined in a 5-month strike to force the Nine Hour Day in 1871. This was a remarkable feat of organisation, public relations and endurance. But it wasn’t until 1888 that another significant victory blazed onto the scene with the successful strike by the Bryant and May women match makers. They were supported by several prominent socialists, among them Annie Besant, a Fabian, and Eleanor Marx, the daughter of Karl Marx.

The match girl’s strike achieved considerable publicity and was followed very quickly by the organisation of some gas workers in London in 1889. They were ably led by one of their own number, Will Thorne, who formed the Gas Workers and General Labourers’ Union (the first manifestation of what became the General and Municipal Workers Union). They demanded, from the South Metropolitan Gas Company, an end to the long hours of a two-shift system of work and won, without a strike, a three-shift pattern, thus securing an 8-hour day. Will Thorne was assisted in the technical organisation of the Union by Eleanor Marx. Two figures who became giants in the development of trade unionism and labour politics, both engineering workers, John Burns and Tom Mann also provided valuable support in developing the union and helping to organise action. With their help the union quickly spread into the provinces and became one of the most important unions in the TUC.

In 1889 the London Dockers went on strike for a pay rise. Ben Tillett who led the Tea Operatives Union on the docks was overwhelmed when a spontaneous strike developed to demand a wage increase. It quickly spread to involve thousands of dockers, steverdores and lightermen. Tom Mann and John Burns again stepped in to help. John Burns was especially dominant and became the leading figure on their daily, colourful marches through London.

Huge amounts were collected, in support of the strike including £30,000 from the Australian labour movement, and the Dockers won their main demand for 6d an hour extra (‘the dockers’ tanner’, as it was called).  Tillett then set up the Dock, Wharf, Riverside and General Labourers Union (the forerunner of the Transport and General Workers Union). Other workers inspired by these successes set up their own new unions. The General Railways Workers Union was established to fill the gap caused by the refusal of the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants to adjust their subs to accommodate labourers. Havelock Wilson, a seaman working from Sunderland set about creating a new union that catered for both seamen and fire-fighters and by 1887 was able to form the National Amalgamated Sailors and Firemen’s Union. The National Union of Agricultural Labourers revived in 1890 under the leadership of Joseph Arch. Many other existing unions that had been declining now revived and expanded, especially the miners, bricklayers and boot and shoe operatives. After this there was no going back and trade unionism began to assume a major role in society.

Independent labour representation

Throughout this period the TUC and especially its Parliamentary Committee, continued to be dominated by craft union leaders who were members and several of whom were Liberal MPs. The key figure was Henry Broadhurst, the leader of the Stonemasons Union from 1875 to 1885. Broadhurst was a Liberal MP and resolutely opposed all ideas of independent labour representation. How this changed so that the TUC was able to lunch the Labour Party will be part of a later instalment.


The next topic will explore how the ideas of socialism eventually took firm root in late Victorian Britain.

[1]  The History of Trade Unionism, by Sidney and Beatrice Webb

2. The Origins and Early Development of the Labour Party

The Beginning, 1899

In the winter of 1899 a small committee met in London to plan a Conference that was to be the first conference of a new Labour Representation Committee. Around a table sat a committee of ten men who deliberated on how to put into effect a resolution of the Trades Union Congress (TUC), held that year in Plymouth. That resolution was to establish an independent working class party to represent the whole labour movement in parliament and local government. It was the culmination of many years of struggle by socialists and new trade unionists against the old Liberal (and some Tory) supporting trade unionists who clung to their old allegiances. The resolution was moved by a representative of one of the railwaymens’ unions and seconded by a Liverpool docker. The resolution passed on a card vote by 546,00 to 434,00 votes.


The ten men around the table represented the basic organised elements of the labour movement at that time.

There were four men from the TUC Parliamentary Committee

Sam Woods
Will Thorne
Richard Bell
W.C. Steadman

And six men representing the three main socialist political organisations.

Two from the Fabian Society, George Bernard Shaw and E. R. Pease, as shown below:

Two from the Independent Labour Party, Keir Hardie and Ramsay MacDonald, and two from the Social Democratic Federation, Harry Quelch, and H. R. Taylor.

Before looking in more detail at the background to these four agencies of the labour movement at the end of the 19th century, it’s worth placing the emerging Labour Party in a much broader historical context: what I call here “The Red Thread”.

The Red Thread

The roots of any social and political organisation run very deep.  In so far as the Labour Party represents a conscious effort to represent the interests of the most oppressed and exploited in our society, the long red thread could be said to go back to the very beginnings of class-based societies.

Of course, we can only speculate on how ordinary folk responded to their initial enslavement, but it needs little imagination to surmise that the seizure of land and all its resources by small elites some 10,000 years ago, went by without a murmur.  We will never know, but the agricultural (Neolithic) revolution, occurring initially in the Turkish hinterland and then spreading to the fertile crescent of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in present day Iraq and Syria, ended with the vast mass of the population living in conditions of slavery under an elite of priests and kings, supported by their military and administrative apparatus.  Such slave-based systems later spread to Persia and Egypt, and then Greece and Rome.

It seems inconceivable that the first revolt of slaves did not occur until Spartacus led his famous bands to near victory over the Romans in the century before the birth of Christ.

I think we can be sure that the human spirit that had flourished for over two million years in one form or another wouldn’t suddenly disappear simply because it was discovered that grass seeds could be engineered to produce corn!  No: there would have been countless rebellions, revolts and attempts to wrest back control and resist the harshness and loss of freedoms incurred by slave-based systems.  But we will never know the details, as records this far back are few and far between, and in any event, only recorded by those who ruled.

We get more details of revolts and rebellions during the feudal era.  Peasant revolts were frequent occurrences throughout Medieval Europe.  In Britain the most serious such revolt was the Peasants Revolt of 1381, which came close to toppling the monarch and aristocrats.  The radical itinerant priest John Ball, in preaching to the massed ranks of the peasantry besieging London, is supposed to have said,

“When Adam delved and Eve span, Who was then the gentleman? From the beginning all men by nature were created alike, and our bondage or servitude came in by the unjust oppression of naughty men.  For if God would have had any bondmen from the beginning, he would have appointed who should be bond, and who free.  And therefore I exhort you to consider that now the time is come, appointed to us by God, in which ye may (if ye will) cast off the yoke of bondage, and recover liberty. “

These words speak to us some 640 years later, in a recognisable and still relevant manner.

Moving on, tracing the red thread into the 17th century, we hail in passing the Midland peasants and small farmers opposing enclosures and levelling hedges and fences in 1607 before their revolt is expunged by force.   These early levellers gave their name to a later movement of radicals that emerged during the English Civil War, arguing for greater equality.  This movement was also defeated by force of arms in 1649 at Burford – an event marked annually by the Labour Movement today.  We recall too, from that same year, the Diggers, who sought by direct action to seize land and provide a means of independent livelihoods for the poor and landless.  This too was overwhelmed by armed force.

The great revolts of the 18th century occurred outside this country in America and France respectively but they had powerful echoes here, and were reflected in the major transformation of British society into an industrial capitalist system led by the bourgeois class.  Britain’s transformation through the industrial revolution and the creation of a mass working class provide the broad social and economic context for the origins of the Labour Party.  Revolt and opposition to the major changes inflicted on the mass of British people in the course of capitalist industrialisation require more detailed analysis and lie beyond the scope of this brief history, but here are some links to further information:

This is No 2, in a series of histories – coming up next:

Part 3: The Trade Unions

Part 4: The Socialist Organisations

Part 5: The Years of the LRC, 1900-1906

Part 6: The International dimension of the early socialist movement

Derek Gunby, 20 April 2020

1. The Red Flag

How many of us who have probably sung the Red Flag * countless times know of Jim Connell? Yet he was the author of the words, written in 1889 during the London Dock Strike. He was a member of the Marxist, Social Democratic Federation (SDF), although he eventually left that in 1890 and joined the ILP. It is said he composed the lyrics whilst travelling home after an SDF meeting on the Dock Strike. The SDF was the first socialist organisation in this country to be formed during the socialist revival of the 1880s and outlasted all its rivals. But that’s another story.

Jim Connell was born in 1852 in County Meath, Ireland and as a teenager became involved in land agitation and joined the Irish Republican Brotherhood. Aged 18 and a signatory to the Fenian Oath, he moved to Dublin where he worked as a docker until he became blacklisted for attempting to unionise the workers.

In 1875, he moved to London. He held a variety of jobs, including time as a staff journalist on Keir Hardie‘s newspaper The Labour Leader, and was secretary of the Workingmen’s Legal Aid Society during the last 20 years of his life.

Lenin awarded Connell the Red Star Medal in 1922. He died in 1929.

The Red Flag is normally sung to the German hymn”Oh Tannenbaum” though Connell had wanted it sung to “The White Cockade”, an old Scottish Jacobite song. Connell disapproved of the new rendition of it calling it “church music… composed to remind people of their sins and frighten them into repentance.”

In 1920 in How I Wrote “The Red Flag” he commented:

Did I think that the song would live? Yes, the last line shows I did: “This song shall be our parting hymn”. I hesitated a considerable time over this last line.

I asked myself whether I was not assuming too much. I reflected, however, that in writing the song I gave expression to not only my own best thoughts and feelings, but the best thoughts and feelings of every genuine socialist I knew… I decided that the last line should stand.


Derek Gunby, 23 March 2020

*Comrades might be interested to see our own Alan Newham at about 0:59 on the video

Daniel Defoe, National Maritime Museum, London

Daniel Defoe:  A man in advance of his times

I write about Daniel Defoe for two reasons. The first is to remind comrades that he wrote a very interesting book, especially for our times, A Journal of the Plague Year and second to point out that Defoe was an advanced political thinker.

The Journal of the Plague Year was written in 1722 towards the end of Defoe’s life. It is re-imagining of the Plague visitation of London in 1665 told through a fictitious inhabitant but using the actual statistics and occurrences and remembrances as recorded officially and unofficially at the time. In other words it combines Defoe’s two skills; that of the journalist and the novelist. The story of reaction to the plague shows that in some respects not much has changed. The slowness of authorities to react, the lockdown for households known to have the plague and later for hard hit districts with penalties for breaches of regulations. The rumour mill was very active then, as now but with a whole lot more superstition. Just as today, there were the unscrupulous ready to prey on the situation. In those days, with the lack of scientific knowledge and a general health service, the streets thronged with quacks, charlatans and magicians promising cures and potions designed to prevent infection. Our quacks and charlatans are Tory politicians promising ventilators, mass testing, safeguarding equipment, often lying and ultimately, miserably failing to deliver.

Defoe’s progressive outlook was rooted in his family background. They were Presbyterian and had been thoroughly in favour of Cromwell and the English Revolution. As small traders and producers they represented the petty bourgeois, hoping to advance and as such they were the harbingers of the new commercialism, heralded by the English Revolution and laying the basis for industrial capitalism that would emerge towards the end of the 18th century. Defoe was only 3 years old during the Plague year of 1665. After the Great Fire of London his father was able to establish himself as a successful butcher and sent his son to a progressive Presbyterian-run school in Newington Green. The emphasis there on the Cromwellian tradition of liberty of conscience and free and open debate helped to draw the young Daniel to politics. He also dreamed of commercial success and became a successful haberdasher only to fall prey to a rash of speculations and collapse that followed the euphoria of the 1688 return of a Protestant King. This led to an acute period of bankruptcy, hiding from bailiffs and a turn to writing. He moved in Whig circles and was interested in reforming commerce. He wrote An Essay upon Projects in 1692 that is remarkable for its far seeing ideas, many of which took 200 to 300 years to be implemented. Among his proposals were the establishment of a central bank, income tax and a roving commission to check evasion (now there’s a good idea!), the direction of labour, the building of national highways, various academies for improving education with special mention for women (this is an extremely progressive section for its time), a military academy, introduction of insurance and pension schemes, a Lottery and so on. This is kind of blueprint for a young capitalism. In a world of continued powerful monarchy, aristocracy and a large peasantry this was a progressive programme merging into a more democratic vision.

We remember Defoe in this our year of the Plague.


Derek Gunby 31 March 2020