Why does this topic matter?

The Labour Party was formed in 1900. But what led to its emergence? Historians have argued that the period beginning with the downfall of Chartism after 1848 and ending with the Taff Vale case (1900-1901) left a lasting legacy upon the institutional and ideological character of the Labour Party. Socialists may want to know why Labour has often failed to radically transform or attempt to overthrow the status quo. We may also want to know why, instead, the Party is deferential to the establishment in Britain. Examining this long prelude to the Labour Party’s birth can provide some answers.

What are the essential things to know about it? What are the key events?

In their history of the labour movement, Beatrice and Sidney Webb (both founding figures of the Fabian Society) highlighted the difference between the first and second halves of the 19th century. While the first was characterised by riotous uprisings of workers, artisans and radicals, in the second, especially after the defeat of Chartism, the labour movement became increasingly moderate, seeking to achieve its goals within the established system rather than attempt its total transformation. Many socialist historians have argued that this is because the working class movement of the 19th century was in many ways tied to a gradualist liberalism.

While the liberal idea may have had far more immediately radical effects in revolutionary America (1775), France (1789) and Haiti (1791) – where it was partly understood as the freedom of the individual from a tyrannical state – in direct contrast, the liberal tradition in Britain has been wedded to the ideal of slow and piecemeal change, or gradualism. It is this point that helps to explain why members of Britain’s so called ‘lower orders’ failed to rise up and overthrow the system in the latter half of the 19th century, despite growing in strength.

While the granting of the vote to ‘middle class’ men in 1832 helped to divide and undermine the radical movement in the first half of the century by showing that the aristocratic state was capable of reform, granting ‘respectable’ elements of the working class the same right in 1867 appeared to show that the state could be made to accommodate the interests of workers as well. Other 19th legislation – including the abolition of slavery, repeal of the Corn Laws, the Ten Hours Act and other laws benefiting trade union and civil rights – encouraged the same belief.

By the 1860s, Britain’s monopoly over world trade (an imperial ‘freedom’ which it alone possessed) facilitated an economic boom and the rapid development of its domestic industries. This boom, in turn, also provided an important context within which organised workers, through their unremitting pressure, could gain a stake in the system, however tenuous and unevenly spread.

While, in the workplace, workers achieved their goals by using their growing ability to strike to force employers to reach arrangements with them, change at the level of the state was won through campaigns in which middle class liberal leadership was frequently accepted – such as those who fought for parliamentary reform in the mid 1860s – and in which the labour movement co-operated directly with the Liberal Party.

A group of Liberal intellectuals and politicians emerged in this period – known as the New Liberals – who embraced trade unions as a part of a communitarian vision in which workers and employers were seen as mutually dependent. Yet there was an obvious class contradiction within this Lib-Lab alliance. As the mid-Victorian economic boom came to an end in the 1890s, Britain’s strike rate shot up and employees went on the offensive with the police and the bulk of the press abandoning any pretence of neutrality. The Liberals sought to play the role of referee in these disputes, but not always successfully, especially where employers rejected their efforts at conciliation and where workers’ demands went unmet.

At the same time, leaders of the labour movement found their attempts to become Liberal MPs were often frustrated, so that the number of working class MPs remained tiny. Both Keir Hardie and Ramsay MacDonald – two of the Labour Party’s founding figures – were snubbed by the Liberals for parliamentary selection, leading Hardie to form the Independent Labour Party in 1893. At the end of the century, after a decade of fierce industrial disputes, the court case between the Taff Vale Rail Company and Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants set a precedent in British law that effectively outlawed strikes. It was on the basis of this experience, and that of the 1890s more generally, that a bulk of Britain’s industrial trade unions shifted their formal alliances to the newly formed Labour Party, although they and the party maintained lasting links with liberalism.

What are the different perspectives on it? What are the big debates?

In the mid-1960s, two young, socialist, ‘New Left’ thinkers – Perry Anderson and Tom Nairn – developed an influential explanation in the journal New Left Review for what they saw as Labour’s limits as a socialist party. Anderson and Nairn argued that socialism in Britain was characterised by a non-Marxist gradualism, whose origins the pair traced back to Britain’s lack of a true ‘bourgeois revolution’ typified by the French model: a moment when the bourgeoisie mobilised other classes behind a revolutionary, egalitarian ideology, modernised the state, and bequeathed a radical political inheritance to later generations.

In response, the historian Edward Thompson provided a stinging criticism. He argued that by fetishising the ‘pure’ bourgeois revolutions of other European countries such as France, compared to Britain’s ‘incomplete’ one, Anderson and Nairn overlooked a rich history of working class radicalism in the UK. Thompson defended this tradition in his brilliant book ‘The Making of The English Working Class’.

According to Anderson and Nairn, Britain’s lack of a native Marxist tradition meant that the labour movement was captive to reformist illusions about the possibility of long term cross-class collaboration, and the use of the state to deliver reform from above. Labour’s characteristic ideology – ‘Labourism’ – was a mixture of Christian moralism, Parliamentarism and trade unionism which amounted to the prioritisation of short term material gains over a strategy that could overthrow the system. Whatever the merits of this account, the pair shared a diagnosis of what they saw as Labour’s narrow outlook or its ‘corporatism’ with liberal revisionist thinkers who sought to recast Labour’s history and its politics in terms of a ‘progressive’, rather than socialist, tradition.

This point of view was notably advanced by David Marquand, a former Labour Party MP, whose book ‘The Progressive Dilemma’ accused Labour of abandoning liberalism and with it Britain’s middle classes – although one could argue that this was just as true when stated the other way around (that the middle classes abandoned Labour). Nevertheless, the debate on Labour’s corporatism – the party’s narrow economic appeal to Britain’s male, industrialised workers – reveals the contradiction shared by both Labour and the Liberals insofar as an electoral majority in Britain has often required forming contradictory class alliances.

Other thinkers, taking a lead from Lenin, have emphasised what they called an ‘aristocracy of labour’ as the key variable that explains the timidity and reformism of the labour movement. This theory claims that Britain’s monopoly over world trade allowed employers and politicians to offer some sections of the working class privileges and rights, thereby co-opting this relatively small group and undermining the scope for broader working class unity. Far from all historians agree with this thesis, however a growing body of scholarship has emphasised the highly productive links between Britain’s empire and the growth of industrial capitalism.

What are the core things we can take from it for it to be relevant to today?

Born in 1891, the leader of the Italian Communist Party, Antonio Gramsci, is well known for his theory of hegemony. One puzzle that Gramsci wanted to answer was why a popular socialist revolution could occur in ‘backwards’ Russia, where capitalist industry was relatively undeveloped, but not in Britain, where capitalist social relations prevailed and the working class was far larger. Hegemony – the idea of rule by consent – helps explain this. In Russia, according to Gramsci, the state was brittle, depending too heavily on violence and repression. In contrast, in ‘developed’ societies the state was stronger since it ensured a degree of consent from the popular classes: force was only necessary as a last resort in exceptional circumstances. This is one way to see what had taken place in this period in Britain, leaving a lasting legacy of consent for liberal capitalism from the ‘lower orders’.

This period and the concept of hegemony also highlights the extent to which the ruling class can be flexible and adaptable to popular demands – something Boris Johnson demonstrated in his attempt to capture the Brexit zeitgeist and to move his party away from austerity. It is also worth remembering that substantive reforms gained in the 19th Century, like the Ten Hour Bill and expansion of the right to vote, were achieved by popular pressure, including from an emerging Labour Party.

Although unsuccessful in their immediate aims, the momentous labour disputes in the 1890s also helped deliver a lasting pattern of class relations via the process of collective bargaining (the scope for which has been radically limited by consecutive governments since Thatcher).

We should also note the liberal origins of the welfare state, which were greatly influenced by New Liberals like William Beveridge, as well as the crucial role of the empire in Britain’s development. The eventual downfall of the Liberal Party may also be a lesson for Keir Starmer. As the Liberals chased after working class votes in this period and after, many workers found they were better opting for a party that could credibly commit to their interests. The same is probably true for those voters today who want their politicians to represent ‘family, faith and flag’.

Finally, the claims that Labour emerged at the turn of the 20th century without an inclusive or hegemonic ideology – one capable of mobilising a coalition of classes behind socialist, working class leadership – continues to resonate. The question posed by this commentary still stands: what vision has the potential to unify a contradictory class coalition behind Labour today?

Want to learn more?


‘Age of…’ (Eric Hobsbawm)

Across four books (also available as audiobooks), Eric Hobsbawm provides a global history of modern capitalist societies, from the French revolution up to the 1990s. Hobsbawm was also an advocate of the ‘aristocracy of labour’ theory, and has written books focused exclusively on Britain as well. His works are excellent in emphasising the productive links between Britain’s empire and its domestic industries, without ever losing sight of the culture in which working people lived their lives.


Languages of Class (Gareth Stedman Jones)

In Chapter 3, ‘Rethinking Chartism’, Stedman Jones offers an account of the decline of Chartism as based on the British state’s capacity for reform. He argues this undermined radical Chartist narratives. You can find a PDF of the book here.


Casualties of History’, a podcast from Jacobin Magazine, discusses EP Thompson’s path breaking book ‘The Making of the English Working Class’. While the book examines the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the podcast also covers Thompson’s debate with Anderson and Nairn.

This bulletin only scratches the surface. Want to carry the discussion on? Click here to register for our call on Thursday 22 July at 7pm organised by our comrades at TWT, where we will be discussing Labour’s pre-history with the piece’s author Lewis Bassett and Momentum members across the country.

What can the development of the labour movement during the second half of the 19th century teach us about the current Labour Party? Why did Britain’s working class radicalism drop off during this period? What is Labourism? And can it help to tell us why the Party has often failed to radically alter the status quo?

Winning Climate Justice: COP26 and Global Solidarity

Join Jeremy Corbyn, Momentum’s co-chair Gaya Sriskanthan and other speakers from across the labour movement at 7pm on Tuesday 6 July to discuss how we can win the battle for climate justice. Click here to register.

Feminist movements around the world

Feminism is at the forefront of global resistance to capitalism. What can we learn from struggles across the world and how do we build solidarity? Join socialist feminist activists from India, Poland, Chile and the US on Wednesday 30 June (tonight) at 7pm to discuss. Click here to watch the event.

Taking on landlords: lessons from the Berlin housing movement

In recent years the Berlin housing movement has made big strides towards eradicating landlordism from their city. From rent controls to the expropriation by the state of private rented housing, major wins are on the horizon. Join activists from Berlin at 7pm on Wednesday 7 July to hear about the policies, politics and struggles in their city, and for discussion and reflection on what we can learn. Click here to register.

For a Socialist Future!

Bell Ribeiro-Addy and Ian Lavery will be joining Socialist Future candidates on Sunday 4 July at 6pm to hear about building a Young Labour that fights for liberation, not just representation. Click here to register.

Thank you for reading. Many thanks to Lewis Bassett for writing this month’s issue. His book ‘Heirs of Eternal Liberalism: A History of The Labour Party and Liberalism in Britain’ is due out at the end of 2022 and will be published by Verso. Make sure to pick it up.

Any feedback you have on the bulletin and ideas for how we can make it better are much appreciated. Email [email protected] with your thoughts.

In solidarity.

Casper, Momentum