Encyclopedia  |   World Factbook  |   World Flags  |   Reference Tables  |   List of Lists     
   Academic Disciplines  |   Historical Timeline  |   Themed Timelines  |   Biographies  |   How-Tos     
Sponsor by The Tattoo Collection
Labour Party (UK)
Main Page | See live article | Alphabetical index

Labour Party (UK)

The Labour Party is a centre-left or social democratic political party in Great Britain (see British politics), and one of the United Kingdom's three main political parties. Under its leader Tony Blair it won a landslide in the 1997 general election, and formed its first government since 1979. It retained its position in the 2001 general election.

Table of contents
1 Structure
2 Early years
3 The split under MacDonald
4 Post-War victory to the 1960s
5 The 1970s
6 The Thatcher years
7 New Labour
8 Leaders of the Labour Party since 1906
9 Deputy leaders of the Labour Party since 1922
10 See also
11 External links


The Labour Party is a membership organization consisting of Constituency Labour Parties, affiliated trade unions. Members who are elected to parliamentary positions take part in the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) and European Parliamentary Labour Party (EPLP). The party's decision-making bodies, on a national level, formally include the National Executive Committee (NEC), Labour Party Conference, and National Policy Forum - although critics claim that the national party leadership has accrued great power centrally in recent years at the expense of party democracy.

For many years, Labour had a policy of Irish unity by consent, and did not allow residents of Northern Ireland to apply for membership, instead supporting the nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP). The 2003 Labour Party Conference accepted legal advice that the party could not continue to prohibit residents of the province joining, but the National Executive has decided not to organise or contest elections there.

Early years

The Labour Party was establish by the reformist capitalist Fabian Society at a Conference on "Labour Representation" at Memorial Hall, London on February 27, 1900 as the Labour Representation Committee to act as the parliamentary arm of the trade union movement. Its first leader was James Keir Hardie. The group's Members of Parliament renamed themselves the Parliamentary Labour Party on February 15, 1906. In the party's early years, the Independent Labour Party (ILP) provided much of its activist base as the party did not have an individual membership until 1918 and operated as a conglomerate of affiliated bodies until that date. The Fabian Society provided much of the intellectual stimulus for the party.

British politics in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century was divided between the perceived 'establishment', represented by the Conservative Party (nicknamed the Tories), and a more radical 'non-conformist' tradition, based around Welsh Methodism. The latter tradition was embodied by the Liberal Party under leaders like William E. Gladstone and David Lloyd George. However the Liberal Party split between factions supporting leader David Lloyd George and former leader Herbert Asquith. Its split allowed the radical left of centre vote to be picked up by the Labour Party, which had its own Welsh methodist base and associations with 'non-conformism'. It was this non-conformist appeal, rather than its socialism, that led it to supplant the Liberal Party as the main opposition to the Conservatives at the 1922 general election. Labour formed its first minority government with Liberal support in January 1924, with Ramsay MacDonald as Prime Minister, with the main issue in the election being free trade. The Conservatives returned to power nine months later following a hoax "Red scare" over the Zinoviev Letter.

The split under MacDonald

The election of May 1929 saw Labour returned for the first time as the largest party in the House of Commons, and Ramsay MacDonald formed a second Liberal-backed government, though Labour's lack of a parliamentary majority again prevented it from carrying out its desired legislative programme.

The financial crisis of 1931 caused a disastrous split in the party, with MacDonald and a few senior ministers going into alliance with the Conservatives as the "National Government" (August 24, 1931) while most of the party rank-and-file went into opposition under the leadership of first George Lansbury and (from 1935) Clement Attlee. The ILP under James Maxton disaffiliated from the Labour Party in 1932, removing a substantial proportion of the left of the party from membership.

While MacDonald's "National Labour" following dwindled to a small parliamentary appendage to the Conservatives, opposition Labour rapidly regained most of the party's former electoral support, and entered the wartime coalition government of Winston Churchill (May 1940) on terms of near equality with the Conservative majority.

Post-War victory to the 1960s

With the end of the war in Europe in May 1945, Labour resolved not to repeat the Liberals' error of 1918, and withdrew from the government to contest the subsequent general election (July 5) in opposition to Churchill's Conservatives. Surprisingly to many (especially overseas) observers, Labour won a landslide majority, reflecting voters' perception of it as the party to carry through wartime promises of reform. The results were announced on July 26; Labour won 48% of the vote and a Parliamentary majority of 146 seats (the largest in post-war British history until the 179 seat Labour majority in 1997).

Clement Attlee's government was one of the most radical British governments of the 20th century. It presided over a policy of selective nationalisation (the Bank of England, coal, electricity, gas, the railways and iron & steel). It developed a "cradle to grave" welfare state under health minister Aneurin Bevan. The creation in 1948 of Britain's tax funded National Health Service remains Labour's proudest achievement.

Attlee's government however became split, over, amongst other things, the amount of money Britain was spending on defence (which reached 10% of GDP in 1950 due to the Korean War). Aneurin Bevan eventually quit the government over this issue. The government also faced a fuel crisis and a balance of payments crisis. Labour narrowly lost power to the Conservatives in October 1951, despite winning more votes.

Throughout the 1950s and early 1960s the party became split between moderate modernisers led by Hugh Gaitskell and more traditional socialist elements within the party. This split, and the fact that the public was broadly content with the Conservative governments of the period, kept the party out of power for thirteen years.

However, in the early 1960s, a series of scandals such as the Profumo affair engulfed the Conservative government, which damaged its popularity. The Conservative party was also seen as being out of touch with the changing country and the economy began to turn down.

Due largely to this, the Labour party returned to government under Harold Wilson in 1964 and remained in power until 1970.

The 1960s Labour government, although far less radical on economic policy than its 1940s predecessor, introduced some important social reforms, such as the partial legalisation of homosexuality, and also the abolition of the death penalty. Harold Wilson's government was narrowly defeated by Edward Heath's Conservatives in the 1970 general election. The party won power again in February 1974 with a minority and in October 1974 with a small majority, also under Harold Wilson.

The 1970s

The 1970s proved to be a disastrous time to be in government, and faced with a world-wide economic downturn and a badly suffering British economy, the Labour Government would be forced to go to the IMF for a loan to ease them through their financial troubles. However, conditions attached to the loan meant the adoption of a more liberal economic programme by the Labour Government, meaning a move away from the party's traditional policy base.

The 1970s were also dogged by a host of industrial problems, including widespread strikes and trade union militancy. The Labour Party's close ties to the increasingly unpopular trade unions caused the party to gradually lose support throughout the decade.

In 1976, citing his desire to retire on his sixtieth birthday, Wilson stood down as Labour Party leader and Prime Minister, and was replaced by James Callaghan.

In the same year as Callaghan became leader, the party in Scotland suffered the breakaway of two MPs into the Scottish Labour Party (SLP). This breakaway was prompted by dissatisfaction with the lack of progress being made by the then Labour government on delivering a devolved Scottish Assembly. Whilst ultimately the SLP proved no real threat to the Labour Party's strong Scottish electoral base it did show that people were beginning to think of breaking with the mainstream UK Labour Party, a forerunner of the SDP breakaway in the early 1980s. It also served to lose the party Jim Sillars, perhaps their most able and articulate Scottish MP, and certainly one of their leaders in the debate surrounding devolution in Scotland.

Ultimately, the economic problems facing the Labour Government of the 1970s, and the political difficulties of Scottish and Welsh devolution, proved too great for it to surmount despite an arrangement negotiated in 1977 with the Liberals known as the Lib-Lab Pact. In 1979 they faced the disastrous winter of discontent, and in the 1979 general election they suffered electoral defeat to the Tories, led by Margaret Thatcher.

The Thatcher years

The aftermath of the election defeat in 1979 provoked a period of bitter internal rivalry in Labour. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the party became bitterly divided between left wingers under Michael Foot and Tony Benn, who dominated the party organisation at grassroots level, and right wingers under Denis Healey. The election of Foot to the leadership (where he proved an electoral disaster) led in March 1981 to the formation of a breakaway group, the Social Democratic Party, under the Gang of Four: new SDP leader and former Labour deputy leader Roy Jenkins, and former senior ministers David Owen, Shirley Williams and William Rodgers. It formed an alliance with the Liberal Party (UK) under David Steel. The new SDP-Liberal Alliance initially was highly popular, leading Steel at one stage to tell his party, during a conference speech, to "Go back to your constituencies, and prepare for government".

The Labour Party, having lost most of its right-wing to the SDP, lurched to the left. With Michael Foot as leader they went into the 1983 General Election with what many regard as the most left-wing manifesto the Labour party ever conceived. The manifesto contained pledges to unilaterally disarm Britain's nuclear deterant, withdraw from the EC, and pledged a programme of mass nationalisation of industry.

The right-wing press took full advantage of this and wasted no time in attacking the party. Labour's chances of electoral success were further damaged by the fact that the Thatcher government's popularity was on the rise after successfully guiding the country to victory in the Falklands War. This bolstered Thatcher who had been low in the polls due to a severe economic downturn. The 1983 manifesto was arguably the 'nail in the coffin' to Labour's campaign and was famously described by the senior Labour politician Gerald Kaufman as being 'the longest suicide note in history'.

After suffering a landslide defeat at the 1983 election, the Labour party underwent a fundamental rethink as to its policies. The left wing Michael Foot was replaced by Neil Kinnock, who though initially a firebrand left winger, moved the party to the centre, expelling far left groups such as the Militant Tendency. Despite another General Election defeat in 1987 Kinnock managed to hold onto the party leadership and continued his reform of the party. By 1992, the party had reformed to such an extent that it was perceived as a credible candidate for government. However a disastrous electoral platform and an embarrassingly triumphalist party rally ahead of the election produced a backlash that saw the Conservatives under John Major unexpectedly returned to power. Following the 1992 defeat, Kinnock resigned as leader and was replaced by John Smith, a popular middle of the road socialist from Scotland, who continued Kinnock's reforms of the party. However in May 1994, he died suddenly from a heart attack.

New Labour

Following John Smith's death in 1994, the leadership of the party was won by Tony Blair. Under Tony Blair, the party dropped much of its socialist ideology. This move was centred on the replacement of Clause IV, which had been adopted in 1918 and committed the party to 'the common ownership of the means of production' (a defining characteristic of socialism and widely interpreted in the past as a policy of nationalisation). A special conference of the party approved the change in March 1995. Under the leadership of Mr Blair the party publicly adopted a Third Way economic policy, which sought to balance the laissez-faire capitalism of the Thatcherite era with measures that would lessen or reverse their negative impact on society. In practice, Labour actually adopted Thatcherism with very few revisions.

These changes completed the transformation that the Labour Party had been under-going since 1983, from a socialist and pro-trade union party, to a party of big business and fiscal conservatism. This move further reduced the party's membership and led to discontent amongst trade unions, with some unions disaffiliating from the Labour Party in recent years. However, it greatly increased the party's appeal to heads of capital and to the media. To christen the transformation of the Labour Party Tony Blair and his associates chose to rebrand the Party as "New Labour". The move was was part of a skilled media campaign designed to finally reassure corporations that the party had moved away from its traditional leftist image.

The changes, and the support of the media and business leaders, greatly increased Labour's appeal to "middle England", particularly the rural and suburban middle-class, and Labour gained a landslide majority in the May 1997 general election. It was helped by public exhaustion with the Conservative Party (which had been in power since 1979). The Tories were also damaged by allegations of sleaze aimed against some middle ranking ministers, and perceived Conservative disunity under John Major, between the more fundamentalist successors of Thatcher and more moderate members. Margaret Thatcher supported Tony Blair over John Major in the 1997 general election, and some saw New Labour as more Thatcherite than the Conservatives under Major, whilst others saw it as a moderate, centre-right alternative to the Conservative Party, particularly on the issue of Europe.

In government, Labour presided over cuts in spending, sweeping privatisations, and extensive constitutional reform during its first term. The party won a further landslide majority in 2001, the first time ever that the Labour Party has won two successive full terms of office. This election saw a very low turnout. Labour was able to take more votes from the Conservatives, and was aided by the absence of a maintsream left-wing party as an alternative and the tendency of traditional Labour voters to simply stay at home rather than voting against Labour. It has increased public spending during its second term, but tied these increases to part-privatisation in the health and education services that have led some to see it as to the right of the Conservatives. It was also the United States' key ally in the 2003 invasion of Iraq. These factors appear to have led to a decline in the party's popularity since 2001, reflected in a decline in membership: by July 2004 this had dipped to 214,952, the lowest level since the 1930s.

David Owen, the former leader of the SDP, claims that he and the rest of the gang of four (Roy Jenkins, Bill Rogers and Shirley Williams) in effect invented New Labour, though none of them rejoined the Labour Party. Those modernisers who stayed in the Labour Party in the 1980s reject the claim.

Will Hutton regards Gordon Brown as the first "real" Keynesian Chancellor. Private Eye has started to refer to Labour as "New" Labour, and John Reid (currently Secretary of State for Health), regards it as a natural development of Bevanism.

As well as being in government across the whole UK, the Labour Party is in power (jointly with the Liberal Democrats) in the Scottish Parliament. Until May 2003 Labour shared power with the Liberal Democrats in the National Assembly for Wales, and then took power on its own.

The Labour Party is a member of the Socialist International and the Party of European Socialists (the social democrat bloc in the European Parliament).

The Labour Party website at http://www.labour.org.uk/aboutlabour/ declares

"The Labour Party is a democratic socialist party. It believes that by the strength of our common endeavour we achieve more than we achieve alone, so as to create for each one of us the means to realise our true potential and for all of us a community in which power, wealth and opportunity are in the hands of the many not the few, where the rights we enjoy reflect the duties we owe, and where we live together, freely, in a spirit of solidarity, tolerance and respect."

See also:

Leaders of the Labour Party since 1906

From 1906 until 1922 the leader was formally "Chairman of the Parliamentary Labour Party".

From 1922 until 1970 the leader was formally "Leader of the Labour Party" and "Chairman of the Parliamentary Labour Party". However these two posts were occasionally split, usually when the party was in government or when the leader of the party did not sit in the House of Commons.

(''Arthur Henderson lost his seat in the Commons a couple of months after becoming leader. For the remainder of his leadership, the Chairman of the Parliamentary Labour Party was George Lansbury.)

In 1970 the posts of "Leader of the Labour Party" and "Chairman of the Parliamentary Labour Party" were split with the latter subsequently dwindling in importance.

Deputy leaders of the Labour Party since 1922

? Not sure if the post was filled for this period, covering Henderson's leadership after he, along with Clynes and Graham, lost their seats in the Commons. ? October - December 1935 - Attlee had just been appointed as an (initially) interim leader.

See also

External links