Part 7: The Labour Representation Committee and the strengthening of opportunism

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The foundation of the Labour Representation Committee (LRC) in 1900 was a victory for the right wing of the workers’ movement in Britain and for the forces of opportunism generally. It was consolidated in the years leading up to the 1906 election when 29 LRC candidates were successful and the LRC was transformed into the Labour Party. While both the LRC and the Labour Party remained part of the workers’ movement throughout this period and beyond, it is possible to see the dynamic of class collaboration that ultimately led to Labour’s betrayal of the working class in 1914. Contrary to various myths, there was no socialist Golden Age for the Labour Party. Even when it was part of the workers’ movement, it was very far from being the class party that socialists in Britain had been fighting for.

The structure of the LRC

The LRC was composed of individual trade unions, the main workers’ political organisations – the ILP and the SDF – as well as the Fabian Society. Each kept their separate identity, standing their own candidates in elections (with the exception of the Fabians) and promoting their own platforms, although there was a fair amount of mutual support for each other’s campaigns. However, far from maintaining the accountability of these organisations to their members, this arrangement strengthened the control of the leaders. The Executive of the LRC was composed of representatives chosen by the constituent organisations, allowing the leaderships to appoint whoever they wanted and thus to exercise considerable control over the preparation of the list of candidates for any election. The annual conference was likewise composed and the only accountability was to the TUC, to which it was required to present an annual report.

This last point underlines the fact that, from the start, the LRC was essentially a tool of the unions. Not only did they compose the majority of the membership and of the Executive, but they also provided the funding, even if this was very modest at first, requiring the constituent organisations to use their own resources. This reluctance is explained by the mutual hostility that had frequently characterised relations between the unions and the socialist organisations (particularly the SDF).

The ILP leadership hailed the new organisation, its official organ proclaiming “The national combination for which we worked and prayed [has been] brought about. How long have we dreamt of the ‘United Democracy'” (quoted in Poirier. The advent of the Labour Party, p89). In this way the ILP leaders glossed over the struggle of the previous years on the question of unity (see part six of this series, “1894-1900: Socialist party or labour alliance?”, WR 218) in order to present the LRC as the true culmination of all past efforts, thereby helping to start the myth that the bourgeoisie maintains to this day. Ramsay MacDonald, one of the ruling clique of the ILP, was appointed secretary and, although he was not officially on the Executive, the structure of the LRC allowed him to exercise a great influence, since he was responsible for the production of pamphlets and leaflets as well as the organisation of meetings with trade unions and trade councils. MacDonald was openly hostile to revolutionary socialism and in 1902 wrote a book defending ‘evolutionary’ socialism (subsequently he edited the ‘Socialist Library’ of the ILP, which published Bernstein’s Evolutionary Socialism in 1909).

The Fabian Society greeted the LRC as the fulfilment of its own policy, hailing the founding resolution as “typically Fabian in its Possibilist attitude towards politics” (quoted ibid, p88). Their place in the Executive was taken by Edward Pease, the secretary of the Fabian Society, who was quite clear about the significance of the LRC: “The Socialist lions have lain down with the Trade Unionist lambs, and if either party be ‘inside’ it is certainly not the lambs!” (ibid). Although not publicly active, he played a central role in strengthening the LRC, in particular through the establishment of the Labour Member’s Maintenance Fund at the Third Annual Conference in 1903. The Fund was financed by a levy on union members and administered by the LRC. As one of the standard histories of the Fabian Society concludes: “The connection of the Society with the Party, though unspectacular, should not be minimised; while the Party was ‘growing for six years in obscurity’… the secretary of the Society in accordance with Fabian discipline, was doing his donkey-work in the shadows” (Cole, The Story of Fabian Socialism, p91). At the same time the Fabians continued to be the main publisher of ‘socialist’ literature, frequently giving away thousands of copies of various Tracts to targeted groups, such as County Councillors and Trade Union Secretaries.

The presence of the SDF might appear odd at first sight, given its taste for ‘revolutionary’ and ‘marxist’ rhetoric, but in practice, given the aim of the ruling Hyndman faction to dominate the workers’ movement, it found no difficulty in taking up an opportunist position when it thought this might be to its advantage. Its withdrawal eighteen months later had less to do with its failure to ensure that all LRC candidates were ‘socialists’, than its inability to dominate the new body and its need to defend itself from charges of opportunism being made by many elements on the left of the Federation.

In summary, the structure of the LRC removed control from the working class and put it in the hands of unaccountable leaders who preferred to work behind the scenes through the use of informal networks and influence. This tendency in many ways mirrored the political manoeuvring typical of the bourgeoisie.

The growth of the LRC

In 1901 only 41 of the 1,272 unions were affiliated to the LRC. The combined membership of these unions was 353,000. Two years later it had grown to 127 unions, representing half of the nearly 1.9 million union members. This included nearly all of the new unions founded in the 1880s and 1890s which did not have the historical attachment to the Liberal Party of the older ones.

The rapid increase in affiliation was driven by the continued counter-offensive of the bourgeoisie against the wave of class struggle that ended the 19th century. A series of legal judgements, most notably the Taff Vale case of 1901, sought to limit trade union activities by removing the legal protection for their funds. The main aim of the unions was to get a new Trade Union Act passed to reverse this situation.

The bourgeoisie supports the growth of opportunism

One of the main themes of the period from 1900 to 1906 was the cooperation between the LRC and the Liberal Party. For the LRC this was the consequence of the weight of reformist ideology, the continuing attachment of many to Liberalism and its exclusive focus on elections. In 1900, Hardie called directly on Liberals to support an ILP candidate, declaring that he would “vote straight on every Liberal measure” and support “every item of what [was] known as the Liberal programme” (Poirier op.cit. p176). This position was supported by MacDonald, who wrote in 1905 that “Socialism marks the growth of society not the uprising of a class” (ibid, p91). Such attitudes led directly to efforts to make deals with the Liberals in order to get measures passed and win seats in elections.

From its earliest days the Fabian Society had rejected the class struggle and sought to draw Liberalism and Socialism together. This was one of the aims in joining the LRC, as Pease himself recognised: “In 1903 it transformed itself into a Party,[1] and then began the somewhat strange anomaly that the Fabian Society as a whole was affiliated to the Labour Party, while some of its members were Liberal members of Parliament… The Labour Party itself never complained of the anomaly in the position of the Society or questioned its collective loyalty. And the Liberals in our Society never took any action hostile to the Labour Party or indeed…supported any of the proposals occasionally made that we disaffiliate from it” (Pease, History of the Fabian Society, p151). Concerning the 1906 election, Pease comments that of the 29 successful LRC candidates “Four… were members of the Fabian Society, and in addition three Fabians were successful as Liberals…” (ibid, p153). The real ‘anomaly’ of the Fabian Society was that it was a bourgeois organisation within the workers’ movement. The fact that many of its members were leading figures in that movement does not alter this: it is not possible for a proletarian organisation to straddle the class divide since the bourgeois element will always be dominant given that the bourgeoisie is the dominant class.

However, in the period after the formation of the LRC the decisive role was taken by the leaders of the Liberal Party who allowed the LRC to fight a number of elections unopposed. This is presented by the bourgeoisie as a defence of its party interests against the threat posed by the LRC. In reality it was a defence of the class interests of the whole bourgeoisie, even if some of the more backward elements could not comprehend it and occasionally insisted on standing Liberal candidates when it had been decided to withdraw them. The aim was quite simply to draw the workers’ movement onto the terrain of the bourgeoisie. If this was an implicit recognition of the potential of the threat posed by the working class, more importantly it was an explicit recognition that the current weakness of the movement in Britain gave the bourgeoisie an opportunity to try and destroy that potential. This was grasped by Herbert Gladstone, the Liberal Chief Whip, who wrote in 1903: “The Labour party, was, in fact, a new, vigorous political movement, directed to a certain side of politics but none the less it was political, and being political, it could not be separated from other parties whose sympathies ran concurrently with its own on most of the great political questions of the day” (quoted in Poirier, op.cit. p185).

The possibility of derailing the workers’ movement had perhaps first been glimpsed by the bourgeoisie during the Boer war when socialists and anti-war Liberals united on the ground of Liberal, not proletarian, opposition to the war (we will return to this question in the next part of this series). Towards the end of the war a number of attempts were made to formalise this co-operation. In 1900 the National Democratic League was formed but failed to win support from the ILP, SDF or Fabians. Another attempt in 1902 by J.A. Hobson, one of advocates of ‘new liberalism’, was supported by Hardie, but also did not succeed. The underlying reason for these failures was that a significant part of the working class, for all the democratic and reformist illusions that weighed on it, remained hostile to such overt attacks on its political independence. The response of the bourgeoisie and the opportunist leaders was to make a secret deal behind the backs of the workers.

The leading figures in this were MacDonald and Hardie for the LRC and Herbert Gladstone for the Liberals. After the election of 1900, when only two LRC candidates were elected (one of them being Hardie) Gladstone claimed that the Liberals had deliberately left Labour and Socialist candidates clear runs. This was repeated in some of the by-elections that followed and in 1902 Phillip Snowden received the public backing of 26 Liberal MPs and leading Liberal papers, such as the Manchester Guardian. Co-operation also developed on issues such as free trade, where LRC members and Liberals shared platforms and signed petitions together. The Manchester Guardian went so far as to argue that the ILP had taken up the traditional policies of Gladstonian liberalism. The ILP also received funding from Liberal supporters, notably £500 from George Cadbury to assist leading ILP figures including Hardie and Snowden. Cadbury was quite open in his aim, writing to Herbert Gladstone “I hope that any influence I may have acquired will be used to prevent the ILP from opposing Liberals” (quoted ibid, p127).

The deal eventually agreed, following a number of secret meetings, provided for some 30 LRC candidates to be given a clear run by Liberals at the next election.

The 1906 election

The election saw a massive revival of the Liberal Party who won with an overwhelming majority. All of the workers’ organisations that participated trimmed their sails to the prevailing wind of opportunism. The LRC’s manifesto managed to avoid mentioning socialism altogether, taking its stand on the question of the representation of labour in Parliament and the demand for the reversal of the Taff Vale judgement. The TUC’s manifesto went further, declaring that “For the past ten years monopoly has been unchecked, and a government which came into office to give old age pensions to the aged poor has impoverished the people to benefit the idle rich” (quoted ibid, p246). The ILP’s manifesto was restricted to a list of reforms and the SDF also proposed “a series of palliatives of the existing capitalist anarchy” (ibid).

Of the LRC candidates elected in England and Wales, all but three had been given clear runs. The election of 29 Labour MPs was widely seen as an event of significance. Though in appearance an expression of the growing influence of ‘organised labour’, its true significance was grasped by one of Herbert Gladstone’s allies in a letter to Gladstone: “All of the LRC men and all other Labour men we supported won except in Birmingham, Darlington, Liverpool and York… The only seats won by the LRC men where a liberal was also stood were seats to which Labour was entitled…” (ibid, p264).

In the next part of this series we will look at the position of the British workers’ movement on the questions of internationalism and war. Questions which are vital for fully understanding both the dangers of opportunism and the struggle against it.


First published in World Revolution 222 (March 1999)

[1] As we have indicated, this did not actually happen until 1906.


The struggle for the class party in Britain 1848-1914