History of Labor (Labour) Party

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LABOR PARTY (British spelling Labour), a British political party, resulting from a federation of tradeunion and Socialist bodies which occurred in London on Feb. 27, 1900. It was originally known as the Labor Representation Committee, the name Labor Party being adopted in 1906. The declared purpose of the organization was “to establish a distinct Labour Group in Parliament, who shall have their own whips and agree upon their own policy which must embrace a readiness to cooperate with any party which for the time being may be engaged in promoting legislation in the direct interest of labour.” The party may be considered an outgrowth of Fabianism (see Fabian Society) and of various other efforts to promote the interests of labor through nonviolent political action, but it was most directly an offspring of the independent Labor Party (ILP), formed in 1893. The ILP remained active within the Labor Party as a hardcore Socialistpacifist component, occasionally, as in 1914 and 1931, splitting from the main body.

In 1906, under its early leader, James Keir Hardie, chief organizer of the ILP, the Labor Party placed 50 candidates in the field and elected 29. By 1910 it had increased its membership in Commons to 42. At the outbreak of World War I, the party’s colorful Parliamentary leader, James Ramsay MacDonald, resigned because of his pacifist convictions, and Arthur Henderson replaced him, serving in the cabinet until 1917 and loyally supporting the government’s program, though himself an advocate of peace.’ The party won 57 Commons seats in 1918. Henderson then undertook the task of forging a national program and of reconciling the various Socialist and tradeunion factions. By 1922, Labor had established itself as the strongest opposition party, electing 144 members; it increased its representation to 192 in the following year. MacDonald was returned to Parliament in 1922, resumed leadership of the party in 1923, and on Jan. 22, 1924, having secured the support of the Liberals, was invited to form a cabinet.

Britain’s first Labor government was shortlived. MacDonald dealt boldly and, on the whole, successfully with several thorny international problems involving England, France, and Germany, but on the domestic front he had managed to achieve nothing more socialistic than an unemployment insurance bili, when the Liberals, taking issue with his proposal of treaties with the Soviet Union, withdrew their support. The publication, a few days before the elections of Oct. 29, 1924, of the “Zinoviev Letter,” purporting to be a Communist cali for revolutionary activity in England, frightened much of the electorate and ensured a decisive victory for the Conservatives at the polis. MacDonald resigned on November 4.

The Labor Party played an important, though politically isolated, role in the General Strike of May 1926, which many of its officers helped to organize and support. In 1929 the party returned to power, electing 287 members, 27 more than the Conservatives. The Liberal minority of 59 members allowed MacDonald to form another cabinet, but once again the radical reform long advocated by Labor leadership remained largely unrealized, as the prime minister became enmeshed in the enormous economic problems posed by the spreading worldwide depression. Relying increasingly on conservative advice, MacDonald was finally driven to resort to a policy of financial retrenchment and abrogation of social services, a policy which cost him both the support of the party rank and file and his position as party leader in 1931. He resigned as prime minister in August of that year, but immediately formed a coalition cabinet and, after Labor’s defeat at the polis in October, remained at the helm of a “National” government heavily weighted with Conservative ministers. MacDonald served as prime minister until 1935, with little support from his erstwhile colleagues and little reference to the Socialist aims and programs which he had advanced for the better part of his lifetime.

Meanwhile the Labor Party remained reasonably unified in adversity. It elected 154 members (an increase of 102) to the Parliament which was to serve from 1935 until 1945. Clement Richard Attlee became party leader in 1935, when advocates of rearmament prevailed over pacifists in the face of the NaziFascist threat. During World War II, Labor was well represented in the coalitiçn cabinet of Winston Churchill. But not even its own leaders seemed prepared for Labor’s great victory in the general elections held in July 1945, after the defeat of Germany. The party polled 11,971,464 votes and for the first time captured an absolute majority of the seats in Commons, electing 393 members. A new Labor government was immediately formed, headed by Attlee and filled with ministers who had gained considerable experience in the preceding coalition cabinet. A socialist legislative program was begun and by 1951 about one fifth of the British economy had been nationalized. A controversial national health insurance scheme was put into operation and a sweeping social security plan was enacted. In foreign affairs, notable events included the grant of independence to India in 1947, recognition of the Communist regime in China in 1950, and, later in the year, vigorous support of United Nations action against the Communist invaders of South Korea. In the general elections of February 1950, however, Labor was continued in power with a majority so drastically reduced that Prime Minister Attlee found it difficult to implement his leadership. Seeking renewal of popular confidence, he dissolved Parliament on Oct. 5, 1951; but at the elections 20 days later the Conservatives and their associates won a majority of 17 and took control of the government.

The general elections of May 26, 1955, reduced the Labor seats in Commons from 295 to 277. Attlee retired as party leader in December 1955 and was succeeded by Hugh Gaitskell, elected after a threecornered contest with Herbert Morrison and the chief spokesman of Labor’s dissident left wing, Aneurin Bevan. Although byelections held during the year following the Suez crisis of OctoberNovember 1956 indicated a considerable revival of popular support for Labor Party candidates, the party itself had become so dividld that it could not take advantage of its opportunity. Gaitskell worked to reunite the party and achieved a considerable success. After his death in 1963, he was succeeded by Harold Wilson, one of the comparatively moderate leaders of the party.

In the general election held the next year, Labor won 317 seats in the Commons, a bare majority of three, and Wilson formed the first Labor government in Britain in 13 years. Following marked success in byelections, Wilson dissolved the government in March 1966 and called a general election. Labor won an absolute majority of 97 seats. With a clear mandate, Wilson launched an ambitious program to solve Britain’s balance of payments problem. But the program fell far short of its goals, and following devaluation of the pound in 1967, Labor again suffered reverses in byelections. However, Labor’s mandate ran to 1971, and the chief threat to Wilson’s government came from dissident Laborites.





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