The Labour Representation Committee, later renamed the Labour Party, was founded at Congregational Memorial Hall, in Farringdon, London, on 27 February 1900, at a TUC congress.
In 1899, a Doncaster member of the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants, Thomas R. Steels, proposed in his union branch that the Trade Union Congress call a special conference to bring together all left-wing organisations and form them into a single body that would sponsor Parliamentary candidates. The motion was passed at all stages by the TUC, and the proposed conference was held at the Congregational Memorial Hall on Farringdon Street on 26 and 27 February 1900. The meeting was attended by a broad spectrum of working-class and left-wing organisations — trades unions represented about one third of the membership of the TUC delegates.
After a debate, the 129 delegates passed Hardie’s motion to establish “a distinct Labour group in Parliament, who shall have their own whips, and agree upon their 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 interests of labour.” This created an association called the Labour Representation Committee (LRC), meant to coordinate attempts to support MPs sponsored by trade unions and represent the working-class population. It had no single leader, and in the absence of one, the Independent Labour Party nominee Ramsay MacDonald was elected as Secretary. He had the difficult task of keeping the various strands of opinions in the LRC united.
Labour had a mixed heritage right from the start: dominated by the trade unions that founded it, with all their confused heritage.
It was always a broad church, half opportunist leadership, half a working class membership that did change social conditions on the ground… basically reformist, yes, but involvement in local councils, education, etc, did make a huge contribution to an evolution of people’s working lives.
On the other hand… much of this was pressure from below, or hashed up half-baked reforms to stave off revolt. And the constant betrayals, compromises, nationalist rubbish, introducing of immigration controls, supporting wars and promoting imperialism, disempowering people’s self-activity, succumbing to corruption, graft, paternalistic contempt… From signing up to the slaughter of World War 1, calling in the troops on strikers from their very first spell in government (no to mention any number of times during their most radical period in power, after WW2), to New Labour adopting Thatcherism with a yuppie face and dancing off to dismember the Middle east (again)… On the other hand there’s little doubt that much of the welfare state, social housing, the NHS which made such a massive difference to us all, reformist or not, owed a great deal to the impetus from grassroots support from Labour activists.
The party tends to spasm from left to right, in reaction to the dominance of the other faction… Now, of course, we are experiencing a leftward surge. History suggests that all the promises of Corbyn and co may end as many new Labour dawns do… Without wishing to engage in posturing, we desire much more than we will ever get from Labour. What is sad in many ways is the eternal renewals of faith in the party’s somewhat bankrupt structures, given new shots of life in every generation. Since Labour always disappoints, the big question is what forms the disillusion of the thousands currently flocking to sing Corbyn’s praises takes, when the dream turns sour.
A book that’s worth a read on the history of Labour: Labour: A Party Fit for Imperialism, by Robert Clough.
On Labour and post-WW2 strikes: The Labour Government versus the Dockers.
An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online