Labour Party (UK)

Template:Infobox British Political Party The Labour Party is a a centre-left political party in the United Kingdom (see British politics), and one of the United Kingdom's three main political parties. It describes itself as a Social Democratic party and is a member of the Socialist International. Under the leadership of Tony Blair it won by a landslide victory in the 1997 general election, and formed its first government since the 1979 general election. It retained its position in the 2001 and the 2005 general elections.



, Leader of the Labour Party since 1994
Tony Blair, Leader of the Labour Party since 1994

The Labour Party is a membership organization consisting of Constituency Labour Parties, affiliated trade unions and socialist societies, including the Co-operative Party, with which it has an electoral agreement. 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 (NPF) - although in practice the Parliamentary leadership has the final say. Questions of internal party democracy have frequently provoked disputes in the party.

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's origins lie in the late 19th century, when it became apparent that there was an increasing need for a third party in Britain to represent the interests and needs of the large working-class population (for instance, the 1899 Lyons vs. Wilkins judgement that limited certain types of picketing). Some members of the trade union movement were interested in moving into the political field and after the extension of the franchise to working class men in 1867 and 1885, the Liberal Party had endorsed some trade union-sponsored candidates. In addition several small socialist groups had been formed which wanted to link to the movement and give it a wider policy. Among these were the Independent Labour Party, the Fabian Society (an intellectual group whose members were mainly middle-class), the Social Democratic Federation and the Scottish Labour Party.

In 1899 a Doncaster member of the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants, Thomas R. Steels, proposed in his union branch that the Trade Union Congress call a special conference to bring together all the left-wing organisations and form them into a single body which would sponsor Parliamentary candidates. The motion was passed at all stages including by the TUC and this special conference was held at the International Hall, Farringdon Street, London on February 27-28, 1900. The meeting was attended by a broad spectrum of working-class and left-wing organisations; trade unions representing about one-third of the membership of the TUC sent delegates.

The Conference created an association called the Labour Representation Committee, and it was to have acted as a body coordinating attempts to elect to Parliament members who had been sponsored by trade unions as representing the working-class population. It had no single leader. In default of any other candidate, the Independent Labour Party's nominee Ramsay MacDonald was elected as Secretary. He had the difficult task of keeping the various strands of opinions in the LRC united. The October 1900 'Khaki election' came to soon for the new party to effectively campaign. Only 15 candidatures were sponsored, but two were successful: Keir Hardie in Merthyr Tydfil and Richard Bell in Derby.

Two candidates from the Social Democratic Federation were endorsed but the SDF was unhappy with the essentially compromising agenda of the Labour Representation Committee. At the SDF's 1901 conference it voted to withdraw. However support for the LRC among the trade unions was boosted by the 1901 Taff Vale case, a dispute between strikers and a railway company that ended with the union ordered to pay 23,000 damages for a strike. The judgment effectively made strikes illegal (since employers could recoup the cost of lost business from the unions). The apparent acquiesence of the Conservative government of Arthur Balfour intensified support for the LRC against a government that appeared uninterested in the problems of working people. In the 1902-03 period the LRC won two by-elections.

Missing image
Labour Party Plaque from Caroone House 8 Farringdon Street (demolished 2004)

The LRC won 29 seats in the 1906 election, helped by the secret 1903 pact between Ramsay Macdonald and Liberal Chief Whip Herbert Gladstone which aimed at avoiding Labour/Liberal contests in the interest of removing the Conservatives from office. In their first meeting after the election, the group's Members of Parliament decided to take the name "The Labour Party" (February 15, 1906). James Keir Hardie, who had taken a leading role in getting the party established, was elected as Chairman of the Parliamentary Labour Party (in effect, the Leader), although only by one vote over David Shackleton after several ballots. 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. One of the first acts of the new Liberal government was to reverse the Taff Vale judgement.

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. After the Representation of The People Act, 1884, most adult men had the vote but about 40% were still unenfranchised, mainly among the working class who would be more likely to support parties of the left. The non-conformist tradition was embodied by the Liberal Party under leaders like William Ewart Gladstone and David Lloyd George.

In 1909 the Osbourne judgment ruled that Trade Unions could not raise funds for political purposes, a move which threatened one of Labours main funding sources. This was especially detrimental to the Labour party as it supporters were generally poorer than other political parties. The two elections in 1910 saw Labour gain 40 seats and 42 seats respectively. In 1911 David Lloyd George gave MP's a wage of $400 per anum, which partly helped to alleviate the financial problemsm and the Osbourne judgment was overturned in 1913.

Support grew for Labour during the 1910-1914 period as a result of an unprecedented scale of strike action. Sailors, rail workers, cotton workers, coal miners, dockers and many other groups all organised strikes, with many sypathy strikes also occuring. This increase in action can partly be explained by the recession of 1908-09 and subsequent rise in unemployment, as well as the growing support for radical change among the working-class (such as support for syndicalism). This was no doubt helped by the sometimes heavy-handed measures of the Liberal government; Winston Churchill sent in troops to the Rhonda valley in 1910 to deal with coal miners, resulting in some fatalities.

During the First World War the Liberal Party split between factions supporting leader David Lloyd George and former leader Herbert Asquith. At the end of the war universal adult male suffrage was enacted, together with votes for women over the age of 30. The Liberal split, accompanied by this fundamental change in the system, allowed the Labour Party to co-opt some of The Liberals support, and by the 1922 general election Labour had supplanted the Liberal Party as the main opposition to the Conservatives. With The Liberals still in turmoil, Labour formed its first minority government with Liberal support in January 1924, with Ramsay MacDonald as Prime Minister; the government collapsed after nine months when the Liberals voted for a Select Committee inquiry which MacDonald had declared an issue of confidence but The Liberal electoral base had vanished. The ensuing general election saw the publication four days before polling day of the Zinoviev Letter implicating Labour in a plot for a Communist revolution, and the Conservatives returned to power. The Zinoviev letter is now generally believed to have been a forgery.

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 and Liberals 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

Labour Prime Minister 1945-1951,
Labour Prime Minister 1945-1951, Clement Attlee

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 landslide Parliamentary majority of 146 seats.

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.

Labour Prime Minister 1964-1970,
Labour Prime Minister 1964-1970, Harold Wilson

The 1960s Labour government, though claiming to be far less radical on economic policy than its 1940s predecessor, introduced several social changes, such as the partial legalisation of homosexuality and the abolition of the death penalty. In the 1970 general election, Edward Heath's Conservatives narrowly defeated Harold Wilson's government. Wilson's party won power again in February 1974. After possessing a minority government, they achieved a small majority in the October 1974-- 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,

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. From the mid 1970s, the party had became bitterly divided between left wingers under Michael Foot and Tony Benn, whose supporters dominated the party organisation at grassroots level, and right wingers under Denis Healey. After the defeat, the left had the upper hand when it asserted that the government had become unpopular because it had alienated its base by compromising, and needed to regain it by moving to a more left-wing policy.

The election of Foot to the leadership and the change to a system of leadership elections in which party activists and affiliated trade unions had a vote led to the decision by the Gang of Four former Labour cabinet ministers on January 26, 1981 to issue the 'Limehouse Declaration', and then to form the Social Democratic Party. The Gang of Four were Roy Jenkins, David Owen, Shirley Williams and William Rodgers. The departure of even more right-wingers further swung the party to the left, but not quite enough to allow Tony Benn to be elected as Deputy Leader when he challenged for the job at the September 1981 party conference. In response to the Troubles in Northern Ireland, the party committed itself to "campaign actively" for a United Ireland.


Led by Michael Foot, who was increasingly unpopular with the public, the party went into the 1983 general election with a manifesto dominated by the politics of the party's left-wing. The manifesto contained pledges to unilaterally disarm Britain's nuclear deterrent, withdraw from the European Community (EC), and pledged a programme of mass nationalisation of industry. A symptom of the divisions in the party was that the leading members of the right-wing had not resisted the manifesto, because they hoped that what they saw as an impending inevitable landslide defeat would discredit the policies.

The right-wing press took full advantage of the unpopular manifesto 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 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, Michael Foot immediately resigned. He was replaced by Neil Kinnock, who though initially a firebrand left winger, had generally supported Foot and was seen as a more pragmatic left-winger. Through his leadership Kinnock progressively moved the party to the centre. He vastly intensified moves to expel far left groups such as the Militant Tendency which had infiltrated the party while pursuing their tactic of entrism, and changed party policy to support EC membership. From 1985, Peter Mandelson as Director of Communications modernised the party's image.


At the 1987 general election, the party was again defeated in a landslide, but had established itself as the clear challengers to the Conservatives and had fought an effective campaign. Kinnock easily retained the party leadership when challenged from the left in 1988 and continued his reform of the party. The Labour Party ceased to be unilateralist in early 1989, and embarked on a thorough Policy Review.


By the time of the 1992 general election, the party had reformed to such an extent that it was perceived as a credible candidate for government. Most opinion polls during the campaign showed the party with a slight lead over the Conservatives although rarely with a lead sufficient to give a majority. However, the party ended up 8% behind the Conservatives in the popular vote, a result which was considered one of the biggest surprises in British electoral history. In the party's post mortem on why it had lost, it was considered that the 'Shadow Budget' announced by John Smith had opened the way for Conservatives to attack the party for wanting to raise taxes. In addition Neil Kinnock's seeming triumphalism at a party rally in Sheffield eight days before polling day gave the impression that victory had already been achieved.

Kinnock resigned after the defeat, blaming the overwhelming preponderance of Conservative-supporting newspapers for Labour's failure. John Smith, despite his involvement with the Shadow Budget, was easily elected to succeed him over Bryan Gould who was identified with the soft left. Smith's leadership saw a degree of tension between those who preferred progressive change and others who identified as 'modernisers' and advocated a further wholesale revision of the party's stance. At the 1993 conference, Smith successfully changed the party rules so that trade unions had less say in the selection of candidates to stand for Parliament by introducing a one member, one vote system, but only just carried the day because of a barnstorming speech by John Prescott and compromising on other matters in individual negotiations. However in May 1994, Smith 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. Blair began to reconstruct the party's policies. His first move was to revise Clause IV of the party constitution, which had been adopted in 1918 and committed the party to 'the common ownership of the means of production' (widely interpreted in the past as a policy of nationalisation):

"To secure for all the workers by hand or by brain the full fruits of their industry and the most equitable distribution thereof that may be possible upon the basis of the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange, and the best obtainable system of popular administration and control of each industry of service."

A special conference of the party approved the change in March 1995. The key phrase of the new clause IV is:

"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."

Blair characterized his political philosophy as being the "Third Way" though critics pointed to the lack of any concise statement of its meaning, and the term later fell from use. Labour's economic policy sought to balance the laissez-faire capitalism of the Thatcherite era with measures that would lessen or reverse their negative impact on society. One of the most popular policies introduced was Britain's first National Minimum Wage Act. The party itself was rebranded New Labour (as opposed to the democratic socialist 'Old Labour') for the purpose of election campaigning, which critics on the left charged was a separate party.

The "modernisation" of Labour party policy, and the unpopularity of the Conservative government, greatly increased Labour's appeal to "middle England". The party was concerned not to put off potential voters who had previously supported the Conservatives, and pledged to keep to the spending plans of the previous government, and not to increase the basic rate of income tax. Labour won a landslide majority in the May 1997 general election.

One of the first acts of the Labour government was to give the Bank of England operational independence in setting interest rates, a move that had not been foreshadowed in the manifesto or during the election campaign. Labour held to its pledges to keep to the spending plans set by the Conservatives, causing strain with those members of the party who had hoped that the landslide would lead to more radical policies. Left-wing MPs rebelled when the government moved to cut benefits paid to lone parents in December 1997. The government also promoted wider use of Public Private Partnerships and the Private Finance Initiative, which were opposed particularly by trade unions as a form of privatisation.

The party won a further landslide majority (on a very low turnout) in 2001, the first time ever that the Labour Party won two successive full terms of office. The second term saw increases in public spending, especially on the National Health Service, which the government insisted must be linked to the reforms it was proposing. Spending on education was likewise increased, with schools encouraged to adopt "specialisms". The Prime Minister's spokesman Alastair Campbell was much criticised by education professionals and teachers' trade unions when he stated that this policy meant the end of "the bog-standard comprehensive".

Labour's foreign policy kept it close to the United States. Tony Blair managed to persuade Bill Clinton to take a more active role in Kosovo in 1999, and UK forces assisted in the international coalition which attacked the Taliban regime in Afghanistan in 2001. The UK was one of the allies of the United States that actually participated in the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

The decision to engage in the conflict was met with much public disapproval, and many called Tony Blair's credibility into question when doubts emerged as to whether intelligence concerning Iraq's Weapons of Mass Destruction was at all reliable. This loss of support led to the substantial reduction of Labour's majority in the 2005 general election.

Tony Blair has promised to retire in his third term, which means he will retire in 2010 at the latest. However, there are some who believe Blair will retire earlier than that to allow time for his successor to settle into his position before another election campaign, assuming the next election will be held in 2010.

The Labour Party today

Missing image
Labour, the incumbent party displayed campaign posters, even prior to the 2005 election being called. This one is seen in Brighton in mid-January, 2005.

The party's popularity has declined since 2001. Nevertheless, Labour won the 2005 general election with a reduced majority of 66.

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 having no policy role.

Deputy leaders of the Labour Party since 1922

See also

External links

cy:Plaid Lafur da: Labour de:Labour Party es:Partido Laborista (Reino Unido) eo:Brita Laborista Partio fr:Parti travailliste (Royaume-Uni) id:Partai Buruh (Britania Raya) ja:労働党 (イギリス) kw:Parti Lavur nl:Labour Party nn:Det britiske arbeidarpartiet no:Arbeiderpartiet (Storbritannia) pl:Partia Pracy (brytyjska) pt:Partido Trabalhista do Reino Unido sv:Labour Party, Storbritannien zh:英国工党


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