Purists may more properly date the origins of the modern party to the Labour Representation Committee of 1900, or the first socialist programme of 1918. But most historians of the left see the gathering in Bradford in 1893 as crucial in the development of the British radical tradition.
Labour Party plans to mark the centenary are curiously muted. In many ways there is little to celebrate. When in 1950 the Labour Party formally celebrated its 50th birthday, the future seemed assured. Francis Williams's book Fifty Years' March, produced to mark the event, portrayed the progress of Labour as an unqualified success, fittingly crowned by the achievements of the post-1945 Attlee government. Another 43 years on, that progress seems less a march than a stagger. After its fourth election defeat in succession, Labour is seemingly rudderless and incapable of mounting an effective challenge to the weakest Conservative administration of recent years.
Yet by distancing itself from the socialist pioneers and the culture of Labourism that surrounded them, the Labour Party misses the opportunity for a valuable period of introspection that might shed light on its current predicament and reinvigorate a membership jaded by a lengthy spell in the political wilderness. There are clear lessons to be drawn from the experience of a century ago.
The ILP was a party with a distinctive identity. While avoiding the narrowly Marxist posture of its rival, the Social Democratic Federation, it proved that a left-of- centre party could be a success on its own terms. Its programme was never comprehensive, and barely socialist, but it still demonstrated the concern for social justice and equality that marked out the Labour territory from that of the established parties. From today's perspective, such ILP policies as a minimum wage and the regulation of the working day seem downgraded in importance, but they show a concern for the plight of the poorly paid and an emphasis on basic human dignity that surely remains valid in any civilised
The present Labour Party remains the natural repository for such sentiments. Today, however, it needs to draw on the example set by its predecessors. It must shrug off the memories of the industrial militancy of the Seventies and embrace the cause of low- paid, non-unionised workers in a manner that emphasises not confrontation but rather the tradition of fairness and natural justice expressed by the founding fathers.
The ILP set the tone for a culture of Labourism that became the prevailing feature of the early Labour Party. At branch level it sought to provide a total environment for its members that combined educational opportunities, such as libraries and discussion groups, with a broader culture of conviviality in clubhouse games rooms and sports fixtures. Clarion Clubs captured the wave of popular enthusiasm for such new pastimes as cycling, scouting and amateur photography. There are clear lessons here for a party with an ageing rank and file that in some areas is facing extinction as a result of its failure to recruit young people.
The ILP also made a determined effort to enlist women. Most contemporaries noted the active presence of women at its meetings and R K Ensor, the Fabian journalist and historian, remarked in 1907 that women 'had played a larger direct part in the ILP than, probably, in any other English party or society'. In the United States, Bill Clinton's ability to appeal to female voters proved one of the major factors in the Democrats' electoral success. Labour's failure to repeat this formula in England is one of the single most daunting problems it faces. Here again it might profitably study the ILP's pioneering work in cultural and community- based politics.
Above all, the ILP was a broad church that meshed an overlapping series of loyalties. It included socialists, non-socialists, Liberals, trade unionists and co-operators.
One vital component was the unions. The ILP's strategy was rooted in an appeal to union financial backing - indeed, it grew directly out of a strike by cloth workers at the Manningham mills in Bradford in 1890-91. Despite this, it never allowed itself to become excessively dominated by union paymasters in the way the Labour Party did in the Seventies.
Confronting a dilemma still faced by the Labour Party of today, the ILP sought to reconcile the conflicting interests in its ranks in a manner that left their integrity fundamentally intact. John Smith take note - it did
so by means of a conference structure that was more democratic than in any other contemporary party, incorporating regional representation and one- member-one-vote principles for the election of its Administrative Council.
The ILP strongly embraced constitutional reform. Again, there are lessons here for a Labour Party which is reluctant to grasp the nettle of proportional representation. The Bradford conference affirmed 'the ILP is in favour of every proposal for extending electoral rights and democratising the system of government'.
In the Smith/Kinnockite New Model Labour Party, reference to the traditional culture of the socialist pioneers has become unfashionable. Such concerns are dismissed as the preserve of an eccentric fringe and viewed as profoundly unattractive to a wider audience. Labour is the only major party to shrink from its history like this: the Liberal Democrats have Gladstone and John Stuart Mill, while the Conservatives extol the virtues of past prime ministers such as Disraeli and Churchill.
The history of the ILP proves that the Labour Party is not beyond rehabilitation. Mr Smith and his colleagues might note the recent success of the US Democrats in rescuing the reputation of Roosevelt and the New Deal of the Thirties, and take heart from the example of those who operated in times even more hostile to Labour than ours.
The author is a lecturer in the departments of history at Manchester and Sheffield universities.
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