ILP project

Under Siege on all Sides. The precarious survival of the radical democratic socialism of the ILP in inter-war Britain

She had heard someone say something about an Independent Labour Party, and was furious she had not been asked.

So writes Evelyn Waugh of Agatha Runcible, that leading member of the 'Bright Young People' in Vile Bodies.

The sad irony of this is that Agatha is based on Elizabeth Ponsonby, daughter of Arthur Ponsonby, a former royal page to Queen Victoria, who was active in the ILP after the First World War. He was made a peer by Ramsay MacDonald in 1930, the same year as Waugh's novel appeared. At the beginning of that year he had noted in his diary "my daughter becomes famous for her extravagant pranks in a wastrel society ." Alcoholism was to bring about her premature death a decade later.

But if even someone like Waugh, not usually seen as particularly attentive to Left-wing politics, was sufficiently aware of the ILP to make a good joke with its name, it does remind us that in 1930 the ILP was still a force to be reckoned with in Britain. There is sometimes a tendency to see the only important choices for the British Left in the 1920s and 1930s as being between the increasingly cautious and conventional Labour party and the would-be revolutionary Communists. For Robert E. Dowse the "lack of identity" of the ILP was "exacerbated by the foundation of the Communist Party in 1921 (sic) when the I.L.P. had its birth-right filched; it was no longer the most significant left-wing party in Britain." But as Gidon Cohen points out at the beginning of his ground-breaking book on the ILP in the 1930s it was more than five times as large as the CPGB at the time of disaffiliation from Labour in 1932.

True, size is not everything and ILP membership certainly declined after the party disaffiliated from Labour. But it had a good, if uneven, spread of branches throughout the country and in addition to its national publications the support of a number of local and regional papers such as the Bradford Pioneer, the Glasgow-based Forward, Labour's Northern Voice, The Merthyr Pioneer, the Town Crier in Birmingham, the Leicester Pioneer and the Huddersfield Worker. Much of this support was lost after disaffiliation but it was certainly not a moribund organization at any time in the inter-war period.

There is a tendency to adopt, consciously or otherwise, a Leninist perspective in seeing the ILP as a "centrist" organization. No doubt that is exactly how many saw it at the time and this view is still common. The problem with this is that it suggests a rather feeble-minded bunch of people uneasily adrift between the 'realistic' politicians of the Labour party mainstream and the sharp Marxist-Leninist intellects of communism. That the ILP had some distinctive ideas of its own, including ones that might be seen as being to the 'left' of the CPGB tends to get lost when it is looked at too exclusively in this way.

There were other 'sides' from which the ILP was "under siege". The post-war period saw former Liberal MPs like Ponsonby join the party, often with a perspective which prioritised international affairs much more than the general membership. And for a while, says Fenner Brockway, "wealthy careerists buzzed around us, anxious to be adopted as candidates, proffering contributions in the hope of securing rewards." Later on, Mosley had his supporters in the ILP - though very few followed him into fascism. In the 1930s the party was joined by some of the earliest Trotskyists. But the main "besiegers" were, plainly, the rival "orthodoxies" of the Labour party and the CP.

The Labour party constitution of 1918 threatened to make the ILP redundant by introducing individual membership and constituency organisations which overlapped with and threatened to duplicate the branches of the ILP. There were those at the time who argued it should be wound up or turned into what we would now call a "think tank". It might have given in to those forces. Equally, it might have been completely absorbed by the Communists. There was after all the effort of the "Left-Wing of the ILP" at the beginning of the '20s to affiliate it to the Third International - a move which had it been successful could only have resulted in its fairly speedy integration into the CPGB. And in the 1930s there was a very serious Communist attempt to infiltrate the ILP. That neither fates befell it should be seen as at least a limited success.

It's generally agreed that disaffiliation from the Labour party in 1932 was a disastrous mistake. Indeed, within a few years leading erstwhile supporters of that policy were recognising the error of their ways and taking steps towards seeking reaffiliation. It is probably the case that had not the Second World War broken out a fortnight before the special conference scheduled for 17 September 1939 the recommendation to re-affiliate by the party's NAC would have won the day. Dowse has little to say about the period after disaffiliation; for him it was such a disaster that what happened to the party subsequently was hardly worth discussing. Cohen's more recent book on the ILP takes a much more nuanced and positive view. What needs to be more widely recognised is that there were dangers for the survival of a radical and distinctive ILP whether or not the organization left the Labour party. Those who came to believe that the greater risk lay in disaffiliating were surely right, but accepting the terms insisted on by the Labour leadership in 1932 might have been the beginning of a process that saw the ILP's radicalism totally extinguished. Apart from the decline in membership and parliamentary influence the main danger of disaffiliation was that it would be in one way or another totally absorbed by the Communists. That it escaped both of these outcomes is not insignificant.

What needs to be recognised is that the ILP became a sort of residuary legatee of the pre-1917, pre-Leninist, British Left and some other more recent "non-conformist" currents. The policy on radical parliamentary reform, first associated with the MP Fred Jowett before the First World War, continued to influence the party after the war. The ILP took on something of guild socialism in the 1920s and in the 1930s had a flirtation with the idea of "workers' councils" that is oddly reminiscent of the "Left Communists" of the early years following the Russian Revolution. And like so much of the pre-1917 Left it put much stress on the virtues of internal democracy - though it did for a while adopt what Cohen calls "democratic centralism" for a period in the '30s. At the same time the ILP pursued an economically radical policy, predicated on the ideas of J.A. Hobson, among others, which is best exemplified by its Socialism in Our Time initiative. That something of this combination of constitutional and economic radicalism, a strain of distinctive radical democratic socialism, survived, albeit in a fairly marginalized state into the post-1945 period in and around the Labour party can be attributed, more than to any other single organization, to the ILP - particularly if we take a broad interpretation that includes the various "offshoots" of the ILP such as the Independent Socialist Party.

The aim of this study is not to tell the same sad story of decline once again. Rather it is to trace the arguments and debates that accompanied the changes of these interwar years and to focus on these distinctive ideas that not only help us understand more fully British politics of the period, but also constitute the ILP's lasting contribution to democratic socialist thinking and remain the most significant part of its legacy.

Evelyn Waugh, Vile Bodies (London: Chapman & Hall, 1930) 52.

Ponsonby Diary, 3 January 1930. Quoted in Raymond A. Jones, Arthur Ponsonby: The Politics of Life (1989), 183 and then in David Howell, MacDonald's Party. Labour Identities and Crisis, 1922-1931, (Oxford: OUP, 2002), 311.

Robert E. Dowse, Left in the Centre (London: Longmans, 1966) p 47.

Gidon Cohen, The Failure of a Dream. The Independent Labour Party from Disaffiliation to World War II, (London & New York: Tauris, 2007) 1.

Fenner Brockway, Inside the Left. Thirty Years of Platform, Press, Prison and Parliament (London: Allen and Unwin, 1942, 1947 edition.)

Cohen, 161

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