Chartist AGM 2018

The Independent Labour Party - lessons for today?

I must make it clear right away that I agreed to the title proposed on the understanding that 'lessons for today' was followed by a question mark. I have no ambition, still less ability, to prescribe lessons for Chartist, the Labour Party or anyone else. But I'm more than happy to suggest a few possible contenders on the understanding that lessons are, so to speak, very much in the eye of the beholder.

That said, it's tempting, in order to encourage more people to read Under Siege to argue that there just might be a valuable lesson to be learned on almost every page. I should explain that the title Under Siege refers to the fact that with the introduction of constituency parties by Labour's 1918 constitution the ILP lost what had up to then been its major function of providing a base for local Labour activists. This change necessitated a search for a new role which continued in one form or another throughout the interwar period. In this sense the ILP found itself 'under siege' by what was largely its own creation - the Labour Party. The new constitution also made a formal commitment to a socialist goal - something most ILPers were very sceptical about. Since a central purpose of the ILP was to get Labour to commit to socialism it was possible to argue that the ILP was now redundant.

One possible way out of this dilemma was for the ILP to throw in its lot with the new Communist Party and in 1920-21 and again in the earlier 1930s the ILP was also 'under siege' from this side. Predominantly, of course, the siege took place in the minds of its members although there was at least one instance of actual CP infiltration in the 1930s.

But back to 'lessons'. I'm going to suggest four possible negative ones and four positive ones. Most of the negative ones date from the 1930s rather than the '20s so I'm going to work backwards, though I should reassure anyone who is thinking of reading the book that that does proceed more or less chronologically in the normal way. My first contender can be summarised as follows: Whatever the provocation -and there have been plenty of those since I joined in 1964 - do think at least twice before leaving the Labour Party. The ILP disaffiliated in 1932. By 1939 its membership had dwindled from about 17,000 to less than 3,000 and a special conference was scheduled for 17 September to discuss the proposal by its national council that the ILP should again seek Labour Party affiliation. Had war not broken out on 3 September it seems a pretty fair bet that, though there would have been a great deal of opposition, reaffiliation would have won the day. As it was, the conference was cancelled and the ILP remained outside Labour until the mid 1970s.

My second suggestion as a negative 'lesson' would be to be very wary of revolutionary rhetoric. The ILP left Labour in 1932 because it saw the larger party as totally committed to what it - the ILP - called 'gradualism' and 'reformism'. Those who supported disaffiliation - and there were many ILPers who didn't - were agreed that the ILP should henceforward pursue a 'revolutionary policy.' But events would quickly show that there was no agreement about what constituted such a policy. For the Revolutionary Policy Committee, one of its main advocates, a revolutionary policy meant co-operating with the Communist Party with a view to an eventual merger. For the then ILP general secretary, John Paton, on the contrary, it meant crushing the totally useless and undemocratic CP politically and replacing it as the revolutionary alternative to Labour. To the then well-known intellectual Middleton Murray, who had recently joined the ILP , it meant not only all that but abandoning what he believed was a totally wrong interpretation of Marx. In May 1934 alarmed at what it saw as the trend towards co-operation with the Communists much of the Lancashire division - one of the largest in the ILP which had supported the notion of a revolutionary policy with enthusiasm - left and formed the Independent Socialist Party which pursued its own brand of revolutionary democratic socialism until after the Second World War. In 1932 everyone seemed to agree on adopting a revolutionary policy - but what that meant remained elusive.

My third contender takes us back to the late 1920s when very much under the leadership of the great socialist orator, Jimmy Maxton, the ILP's MPs behaved very much as a 'party within the party' in the Commons as critics - very justifiable ones usually - of the second minority Labour government of 1929-31. It is easy to sympathise with the ILP parliamentarians. But they acted with so much of what looked to many other Labour MPs like deliberately undermining your own side that one result was that when in 1932 the ILP decided to leave Labour many Labour MPs and ordinary members who actually agreed with much of the ILP stance greeted the decision with 'good riddance.' One person’s negativity may be another’s lively debate but granted that it's always difficult to determine the exact location of the line between constructive criticism and destructive undermining, the lesson, here, if there is one. would be though it's often tricky to pull it off 'try not to alienate potential allies.'

Finally, on the negative side, we go back to the first real Labour leadership election in 1922. The 'lesson' this time would be 'Be careful what you wish for.' The candidates were J R Clynes, a trade unionist who had served in the coalition government of the First World War and Ramsay MacDonald. The latter won by 61 votes to 56 - which means that MacDonald owed his success to the ILP, whose MPs had held a prior meeting which agreed to vote for him' Even, given the five vote majority, MacDonald owed it to to Maxton and the other Clydeside MPs soon to be MacDonald's fiercest and most determined opponents. Would the ILP or Labour generally have done better with Clynes? Probably not - but who can say? The ILP was certainly soon opposing MacDonald at every turn.

Now to look at some episodes in ILP history from which positive 'lessons' might conceivably be drawn. I must stress at this point that I am not suggesting that policies from the early 20th century should be resurrected. I'm suggesting only that the examples I am going to mention asked, as it were, the right questions. The answers they came up with are less likely to be applicable in the 21st century - though at least some features of them might still be.

In 1926 the ILP adopted a significant policy called The Living Wage. This was the outcome of a year and a half's work by what was called a commission made up of H N Brailsford, editor of the ILP's weekly the New Leader, the economist J A Hobson, plus Arthur Creech-Jones and E F Wise who between them had considerable civil service, co-operative, and trade union experience Before it was approved by the ILP annual conference it had been promoted by Brailsford in both a series of New Leader articles and a book - still worth reading - with the title Socialism for To-day.

As its advocates - and its opponents - never tired of pointing out, there was nothing new about the basic demand for a living wage. What the commission claimed was new was that they had proposed it not as an isolated demand but as part of a socialist strategy. Brailsford, perhaps put the argument best in Socialism for To-day.

Hitherto Socialists have argued in their propaganda that if industry and the land were nationalised, the consequence would be an increase in our national wealth, and a fairer distribution of the national income. The happy result looked to the average man [sorry about that - but it was written in 1925] rather remote and the preliminary processes did not grip his attention.

Instead, he went on, the 'order of thought and action' should be reversed. The strategy should be to put forward what he called 'the elementary human claim to a living wage and then enforce the wide economic changes by which alone it can be realised and secured.' It would be, he concluded 'a battering ram levelled at the present system.'

Family allowances - pioneered by Eleanor Rathbone who was not an ILP member - featured as part of the Living Wage report , by then sometimes renamed as the Living Income, which claimed that 'this policy has the merit of making a concrete appeal to the average worker and his wife' - [sorry again!] 'Family Allowances and the “Living Wage” touch them in their daily experience of life. Once their attention is concentrated on these things the rest of the scheme will enlist their defensive instincts.'

I was tempted when asked to speak at this AGM to concentrate exclusively on the Living Wage policy and what happened to it subsequently. There would be enough 'lessons' both positive and negative to at least fill up the whole of the time available this morning. But I will just leave it with Fenner Brockway's judgement from the 1970s. In the 'thirties he had much preferred to pursue the quest for a 'revolutionary policy' - the Living Wage had then seemed 'old hat'. But in his memoir Towards Tomorrow he wrote

The report was a notable document, extraordinarily relevant as I write fifty years later. It included a national minimum wage for all, the socialisation of what Nye Bevan afterwards termed 'the controlling heights of the economy,' workers' participation in management, national control of investment and import and export boards to balance foreign exchanges.

My next contender for a degree of contemporary relevance is the ILP programme - sometimes referred to as its constitution - adopted in 1922. Though G D H Cole, the most prominent exponent of guild socialism at the time was not very impressed, the 1922 ILP programme was seen as very much in line with guild socialist ideas. Debate on the programme was intense from the final months of 1921 until the ILP annual conference at Easter the following year. There were several rival versions of the programme.

One of these, which had a major input to the final result was known as the 'Allen-Attlee' version. Allen was Clifford Allen, then treasurer and later chair of the ILP and Attlee was the future Labour prime minister. Oddly, this episode does not feature at all in John Bew's lengthy recent biography of Attlee, Citizen Clem. Supporters of Allen-Attlee had several criticisms of the progamme drafted by the ILP's national council. Above all they wanted what they called 'clearer recognition' of 'the principles of workers' control.'

Successfully moving an amendment from his Limehouse ILP branch at the 1922 ILP conference Attlee said 'The idea of workshop control had been developed steadily' In the final version of the progamme the idea of a 'central body' to oversee production and internal management by workers and what was described as 'the representatives of organised consumers' came from the Allen-Attlee version.

The relevance of all this to 21st century concerns is, I hope, self-evident. The twenty first century is probably unlikely to see any revival of the elaborate blueprints of guild socialism - not even in the less complex version adopted by the ILP in 1922. Yet achieving at least a degree of representation for workers in both public and private sectors and creating effective forms of social management that go at least some way to reconcile the interests of producers, users, consumers and the community at large are still, surely, goals we should be aiming for.

My third suggestion for a possible 'lesson' concerns the almost lifelong campaign to make parliamentary democracy a reality by Fred Jowett. He was widely known as 'Jowett of Bradford,' his home town which he represented for many years as an MP. I devote the first chapter of Under Siege to Jowett and his ideas. I must confess to feeling very fond of Jowett - certainly one of my favourite Labour MPs of the twentieth century. I am reminded of him when I pass the Edith Cavell memorial near Trafalgar Square. It was Jowett as First Commissioner of Works - a cabinet position in MacDonald's short-lived 1924 government - who had Cavell's famous words beginning 'Patriotism is not enough' added beneath the statue. When MacDonald returned to government in 1929 Jowett was not given a government post - possibly because, like John Wheatley of Housing Act fame, he had upset MacDonald when he refused in 1924 to wear formal court dress to receive his seal of office at Buckingham Palace.

Jowett was a critic of parliamentary procedure and its lack of proper accountability even before he became an MP in 1906. Early Westminster experience served only to confirm his view. As he said in an article in the Clarion that summer. 'It is not Democracy, it is not even representative government - it is something very different from either.'

Jowett's initial political experience - he was a founder member of the ILP - was as a Bradford ILP councillor. He came to believe that the committee system - then the norm in local government - should be the model at national level. The dominance of the cabinet undermined democratic accountability. Over the decades he wrote numerous articles, made countless speeches, promoted the endorsement of reform proposals by ILP conferences and produced at least two notable pamphlets - What is the Use of Parliament? In 1909 and Parliament or Palaver? in 1926. To begin with Jowett's aim was to get rid of the cabinet altogether but by the time he wrote the second of these pamphlets he was no longer advocating the replacement of the cabinet by committees responsible for each area of government. A less dominant cabinet could remain with a leadership and co-ordinating role but all-party committees would enjoy much of the real power.

The famous 'Bradford resolution' by which in the years just before the First World War the ILP sought to get the Labour party in parliament to vote for each legislative proposal 'on its merits' according to Labour policy, ignoring any potential effect on the Liberal government of the day was promoted by Jowett as a first move towards breaking cabinet dominance.

Much later Jowett would oppose the restrictive standing orders of the parliamentary Labour party and support ILP disaffilliation - and in 1939 oppose reaffiliation - because he believed they prevented Labour MPs acting 'in accordance with their platform propaganda' As he concluded his pamphlet The ILP Says 'NO' on the eve of disaffiliation 'The answer to those who demand that it must surrender the freedom of its MPs to fulfil their pledges honestly made in accordance with the principles and policies advocated officially by the Labour Party for election purposes is - No - No - Never.'

You don't have to agree with Jowett's idea of moving real power to parliamentary committees, or his particular formula for ensuring accountability to support his aim of making elected representatives accountable to their constituents and the executive accountable to the people's representatives. That said, there has since Jowett's time been a significant shift towards a greater role for parliamentary committees though still well short of what he was proposing. But anyone who recalls the Commons Home Affairs Committee questioning Amber Rudd back in March can surely see some real value in the role of parliamentary committees. Three years after Jowett's death in 1943 Fenner Brockway published a biography of Jowett. It had a preface by the novelist and playwright - like Jowett born in Bradford - J B Priestley. He may have sometimes been wrong, Priestley concluded but never 'stupidly or ignobly wrong'.

My final suggestion for the contemporary relevance of the interwar ILP is much more general. The ILP, whatever mistakes it made, was both radical and democratic. From its very beginning it was more welcoming of women's participation and more supportive of the equal status of women than most political organisations including left-wing ones - despite the embarrassing language quoted earlier. Some of the ILP's values are timeless but need to be constantly reasserted - its internationalism, anti-imperialism, antimilitarism and its commitment to democracy. It was an early supporter of what we now call devolution. To some would-be Labour and ILP leaders trying to get the ILP to fall in behind them must have seemed like attempting to herd cats. Some, such as Robert Dowse in his history of the ILP, have seen the ILP's commitment to internal democracy as something taken to an extreme and a weakness. I have to disagree. I find it one of its most attractive and positive features.

Something of this combination of radicalism and democracy reinforced like-minded attitudes in the post -1945 Labour Party when many erstwhile ILPers returned to it. One thinks of Fenner Brockway's commitment first as a Labour MP and then as a member of the Lords right through till his death at the age of 99; of his fight as an MP against racial discrimination and his activities in the Tribune Group, CND, the Movement for Colonial Freedom and War on Want.

Some other prominent former ILPers later became Labour MPs including Bob Edwards who led the ILP contingent in the Spanish Civil War and John Paton who I mentioned earlier as ILP general secretary. And then there was that once firm supporter of disaffiliation, Jennie Lee who played such a crucial role in the creation of the Open University which Harold Wilson would later cite as the greatest achievement of his government. I failed to grasp this fully at the time but I now believe that Wilson's success in keeping us out of the Vietnam war is another strong contender for greatest achievement. I doubt whether a Tory government would have done so.

All in all I think we can confidently conclude that the influence of the radical and democratic ILP in the Labour Party of the later 20th century was an extremely positive one. I should mention before I finish that I was first inspired to write Under Siege when I reviewed Gidon Cohen's excellent book on the ILP in the 1930s. So I'll leave you to decide what the 'lessons' there are in all this, and I am very happy to try and answer questions.

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