Left unity in the 1890s

Submitted by AWL on 7 March, 2008 - 7:37 Author: Cathy Nugent

From the mid-1890s, British socialists tried to unite under one umbrella. Tom Mann, as Secretary of the Independent Labour Party, was at the centre of the negotiations and debates that took place between the ILP and the Social Democratic Federation. These moves, popular with the members, were scuppered by the leaderships, mainly that of the ILP.

Left unity was an inevitable question thrown up by the formation of the Independent Labour Party in 1893. Why were there separate organisations of socialists, asked the members. Shouldn’t the groups merge, fuse or federate?

Both organisations were recruiting from the same political layer of the working class, after all. In the north of England, SDF and ILP members worked together all the time and some even had dual membership. The idea of left unity was natural, popular and urgent.

To contemporary activists, there didn’t seem to be political barriers to fusion. The ILP had a more trade union character, but there were plenty of SDFers in the trade unions. The ILP was more focussed on municipal and Parliamentary representation, but the SDF was increasingly involved in such “political action”. The SDF was fond of Marxist education, but many local ILPers were serious socialist pedagogues.

In time the differences would become clearer, but as Tom Mann’s biographer Joseph White puts it, at this point in the history, the ILP and the SDF had a “sui generis period-specific socialism from below”.

Tom Mann was not convinced of any difference of any great importance: “The only trifling difference discernible between them is that among members of the SDF there are some who question the wisdom of political action whilst in the ILP every member believes in the wisdom of political action and encourages the closest possible connection with the trade union.”[What the ILP is driving at (1894).]

Unfortunately some in the ILP leadership were so immensely hostile to the SDF that they were prepared to invent as much difference as they could. Bruce Glasier led the anti-unity campaign:

“There is no disguising that the ways of the SDF are not our ways. If I may say so, the ways of the SDF are more doctrinaire, more Calvinistic, more aggressively sectarian than the ILP. The SDF has failed to touch the heart of the people. Its strange disregard of the religious, moral and aesthetic sentiments of the people is an overwhelming defect.”

What lay behind the drive for unity? Firstly the idea was already in the air, first put forward by William Morris and his Hammersmith Socialist Society (the group Morris set up after the Socialist League was taken over by anarchists). He proposed union between his group, the SDF and the Fabians, and on May Day 1893 the combined groups issued a Manifesto of English Socialists.

In 1894 the Clarion editor, Robert Blatchford (a maverick inside the ILP) had called for the formation of a “United Socialist Party”, a fusion of the SDF, ILP and the Fabians.

Secondly, once it was clear that no big break through was going to happen for the socialists, unity seemed a way to strengthen everyone’s effectiveness.

In the 1895 election the ILP failed to score highly as they expected. Keir Hardie lost his West Ham seat. The election result must have invoked a feeling that socialists needed to strengthen their forces. In fact the 1895 failure led Hardie and others. ILPers to seek stronger links with the trade unions. Association with the SDF might hinder them in making broader alliances.

Thirdly, the composition of the labour movement was changing. In the 90s the employers had a counter-offensive against the unions. There was a bitter lock out of the engineers in 1897. After the 1894 recession, the working class experienced fifteen years of fluctuating unemployment; union membership was consequently unstable.

All unions, but especially the new unions had to look to ways to consolidate. The gas workers built up their membership in the north of England. There was a new base for a burgeoning political labour movement.

The trade union movement at all levels was reassessing, looking for way to recast how the working class (its members) were represented in Parliament. Both the ILP and the SDF worked to break trade union members from support for the Liberal Party.

Trades Councils began to sponsor “labour” candidates at the municipal level and in general elections with varying success. Sometimes the Trades Councils allied with socialist groups, and these campaigns formed the basis of local ad hoc Labour Parties.

Socialists were beginning to be active agents in the new political development by becoming representatives themselves — on councils and school boards. In West Ham and Bow and Bromley, the SDF was the motivating force in a local Labour Party which won the West Ham Borough Council in 1898 (it included Will Thorne of the gasworkers). In the two years until they were electorally defeated in 1900 they instituted an 8 hour day and a 48 hour week, they brought in a 30 shilling minimum wage for council employees. Free concerts and libraries open on Sundays were on the agenda. The council started to buy land on which to build houses.

Another factor behind left unity was the groups’ need to consolidate organisationally. Both the ILP and the SDF grew in the early 1890s, the ILP much more rapidly than the SDF. By 1897 the first flush of growth for the ILP had tailed off and was beginning to decline. The ILP really did need to find alternative sources of support and recruitment.

On the other hand, as the SDF gained ground in the mid-1890s, Hyndman and his supporters in the SDF, became more willing to countenance fusion or alliance with the ILP. The SDF knew they could hold their own in a united organisation.

Finally, and most importantly. the practical working together of the members drove left unity on. Lancashire was the centre of joint work.

By the 1890s it was one of the strongest areas for the SDF. As the SDF got involved in broader political representation it came into contact with the ILP. The SDF co-operated with the foundation of the Manchester ILP.

In Nelson a fledgling ILP and the more established SDF joined together with the Trades Council in the municipal elections of 1893, gaining two successes. That alliance continued into the 20th century.

In Blackburn the SDF and ILP had a political division of labour with the (fond of a tipple) SDFers appealing to working class Tories and the (teetotal) ILPers appealing to the radical wing of Liberalism. The SDF and ILP set up an Unemployed Demonstration Committee, stood in local elections, and produced a monthly newspaper, the Blackburn Labour Journal. Bit by bit the combined socialists became the main opposition to all-dominant Toryism in the town. By 1900 there were six — two Trades Council, two ILP and two SDF — on the School Board.

At the 1896 ILP Conference it was reported that Tom Mann had written to other socialist bodies to ask them what their stance was on a united socialist party. The SDF leaders, the delegates were told, were still hostile. However some leading SDF members, such as James MacDonald, the secretary of the important London Trades Council, were in favour.

In 1896 Mann stood in a by-election in Aberdeen as the joint candidate of the local SDF and ILP and Trades Council. Later in the year Mann floated the idea of another labour movement paper which he may have wanted to use a vehicle for socialist unity.

At the end of 1896 Tom Mann resigned as full time secretary of the ILP, in order, or so it was said, to help establish the International Federation of Ship, Dock and River workers. Mann continued to work for the ILP part-time. He spent much of his time campaigning for socialist unity.

At the 1897 ILP Conference Mann moved to change the name of the ILP to the Socialist Party. According to the minutes he argued: “There was no room in the party for anyone who was not prepared to subscribe to the principles of Socialism… the name of Labour had not brought a single trades union to them.” This did not go down well with some.

Hardie was against the name change. Although he could not have then been at all confident of eventual success, he wanted to win over more trade unionists, and whole sections of the trade union movement. “Socialist” in the title wouldn’t help the strategy. Bruce Glasier, Philip Snowdon, Ramsey MacDonald, all now national committee members, were already trying to steer the party in a politically “moderate” direction and were also therefore against.

But unity negotiations continued, and in 1897 the SDF, Fabians and ILP met to consider collaboration. The Fabians and SDF decided they didn’t want to work with each other; the ILP and SDF held a joint informal conference on 27 February 1897.

At the end of 1897 Tom Mann sent out a ballot on unity to the membership — voting would be for or against merger. The new moderates on the national committee and Keir Hardie were not happy about the ballot going out without any accompanying position statements. They made more unhappy when a huge majority for merger — 5,158 for and 886 against — was recorded.

Glasier, MacDonald, Hardie and others decided to mix up Mann’s handling of the ballot with other aspects of Mann’s behaviour which had come to their attention. Salacious and mendacious gossip had been circulating about Mann’s drinking and “going out” with a woman whom, Glasier records in his diary, was “regarded as a prostitute”. It was awful Victorian priggery, and, in Hardie’s case at least hypocrisy, Basically they drove Mann out of the ILP.

Mann took it quite magnimously, considering no one had bothered to ask him what was really going on in his personal life (his marriage was breaking down and he had met his future partner, Lancashire ILPer Elsie Harker). Always preferring to avoid unpleasantness, Mann offered his resignation.

Mann was going, not because of his fondness for whisky and women, but because he represented a different future for the socialist movement, one the ILP leaders didn’t like.

With Mann out of the way, the ILP leadership was free to undo the results of the ballot. At the 1898 conference of the ILP, despite the clear wishes of the membership, the leadership recommended not immediate fusion with the SDF but federation as a first step.

A resolution was passed which referred the question of federation or fusion to another ballot of the membership. This time a three-quarters majority would be required for fusion. A big ballot majority for federation followed, but the SDF leadership (almost certainly also acting off its own bat) rejected it. Socialist unity now seemed dead in the water, despite all the good will (and continued practical collaboration) on the ground.

If socialist unity had been achieved in the 1890s, what difference would it have made to the history of Labour, of working-class political representation? A great deal of difference is certain, but precisely in what way we will never know.

The issue of socialist unity did not go away. In some respects the negotiations leading up to the formation of the Labour Representation Committee in 1900 were another attempt at “socialist unity”.

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