Is there much that Keir Hardie, Labour's first MP would recognise about his party 100 years on? Leaving aside the enormous social changes that have transformed a once overwhelmingly proletarian movement into a more sedate party of largely public servants, the answer is yes. But this would largely depend upon which Labour Party he might be looking at: the Labour Party and its trade union affiliates which voted last week for Ken Livingstone, or the "New" Labour Party (circa 1994) which did all in its power to block him.
Of course Hardie would immediately recognise the former rather than the latter, for although no slouch (Keir Hardie was a practical man who preferred the possibilities afforded by Labour representation in Parliament to endless semantics) he would surely have celebrated the democratic impulses of the rank and file. He would also have been somewhat gratified that the old alliance between the trade unions and the party that they created remains largely intact. This despite the buffetings of a few years ago, which - according to then Opposition spokesman Stephen Byers, who foolishly confided in four journalists in a Blackpool restaurant - would have had the gawky New Labour teenager effect an escape from the clutches of the elderly union relatives. Yet as recent events have shown, the strains of that relationship are growing, as is the crisis of democracy within the party.
A hundred years ago, Thomas Steels, a Doncaster railwayman, submitted a resolution through his union calling for the setting up of a "Labour Representation Committee", the forerunner of the modern Parliamentary Labour Party. This would of necessity be free of the old Liberal Party, which trade unionists believed was not much interested in their affairs, and which socialists - then, as now - reckoned to be positively hostile to notions of solidarity and collective action. "Without this historic event," reads an advertisement from Steel's old union to mark Labour's centenary, "we would not have seen the advances made towards a fairer and just society." And just in case anyone might dispute the depth of that relationship, it continues "And now a hundred years on, the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport workers (RMT) is still associated within the Labour Party with the fight for justice, freedom and equality, at home and throughout the World."
Yet a hundred years on, in an act of fearful symmetry, the London executive of that very same union met last week to urge Ken Livingstone to run as an independent candidate against the officially supported Frank Dobson. Such have been the political pressures piled on Labour's founding union that its ruling executive increasingly leans towards Arthur Scargill and his Socialist Labour Party. Such is the distance covered by "New" Labour since the time of John Smith, that some observers believe that the RMT, the union which helped found the Labour Party, may soon be the first to wash its hands of it altogether.
But shenanigans around the block vote and Labour ballots are nothing new, so why the sense of crisis? This current escalating drama over democracy and representation may in the longer run damage Labour as much as sleaze damaged the Tories, because it has become steadily more difficult to disguise it from the public. And in a sense the Livingstone stitch-up was centrally organised, with more powerful forces at work than the good old Labour shambles of the past. But long drawn out, fiercely fought elections, most inevitably sullied by accusations of skulduggery, have usually tended to act as cover for a much deeper battle for the soul of the Labour Party. And this - 100 years on - is exactly what is happening today.
Labour at its inception was never really a socialist party, although many socialists keenly clambered aboard. So it differed from sister parties on the Continent. In France, Germany or Spain, trade unions might alternatively affiliate to Communist parties or indeed Christian Democrats. …