British Labour Party

Labour party

Labour party, British political party, one of the two dominant parties in Great Britain since World War I.


The Labour party was founded in 1900 after several generations of preparatory trade union politics made possible by the Reform Bills of 1867 and 1884, which enfranchised urban workers. Although the Labour Representation League, organized in 1869, elected parliamentary representatives, they were absorbed into the Liberal party. A Marxist organization, the Social Democratic Federation, was founded by H. M. Hyndman in 1881; but more important for the history of the Labour party was the founding of the Fabian Society (1883) and the Independent Labour party (ILP; 1893). With the help of the Fabian Society and the Trades Union Congress, the ILP in 1900 set up the Labour Representation Committee, renamed the Labour party in 1906. The new party elected 29 members to Parliament in 1906; in the two elections of 1910 it elected 40 and 42. Its strength lay in the industrial North and in Welsh mining areas; the evolutionary socialism espoused by the Fabians was the dominant ideology.

1914 to 1945

At the outbreak of World War I, Ramsay MacDonald led a pacifist wing of the party, but the majority of the party supported the war effort, and the party's leader, Arthur Henderson, served in the wartime coalition governments. Until 1918 the party was distinctly a federation of trade unions and socialist groups and had no individual members. After the war economic depression, the growing political consciousness of the working classes, and the split in the Liberal party gave Labour a national following. In 1918, Labour withdrew completely from the coalition, and in 1922 it became the second largest party in the House of Commons and thus the official opposition.

In 1924 the party formed its first ministry, with MacDonald as prime minister. As Labour was a minority in Parliament and depended on Liberal support, the enactment of legislation proved difficult, and the government's domestic program of unemployment relief and housing differed little from that of its Conservative predecessor. Effective primarily in foreign affairs, the ministry recognized the USSR. The party was turned out of office in Oct., 1924, in an election marked by Conservative exploitation of the Zinoviev letter (see under Zinoviev, Grigori).

In 1929, Labour formed another minority ministry. MacDonald and Philip Snowden reacted to the severe depression with conservative economic policies that involved reducing unemployment relief. When the majority of the cabinet refused to accede, MacDonald formed (1931) a coalition government, but he and the Labour leaders who joined him were expelled from the party. Heavily defeated in the election of 1931, the Labour party moved slightly to the left, advocating nationalization of major industries and more progressive taxation. In the next few years Labour found new leaders in Clement Attlee (later Earl Attlee), Herbert Morrison, and Ernest Bevin.

In the early 1930s the party passed antiwar resolutions and advocated collective security through the League of Nations, but it favored aid to the republican government in the Spanish civil war and eventually came to accept rearmament against the threat from Nazi Germany. After the fall of France to German forces in World War II, Labour agreed to join Winston Churchill's coalition government; Bevin as minister of labor and Attlee as deputy prime minister, together with other Labour ministers, took charge of domestic affairs during the war years.

The Postwar Years

In 1945 the party won an overwhelming electoral victory, and Attlee became prime minister in Labour's first majority government. The new government nationalized the Bank of England, the fuel and power industries (coal, electricity, gas, and atomic energy), transportation, and most of the iron and steel industry. It also enacted a comprehensive social security system, which included a national health service. In the areas of colonial and foreign policy, it granted independence to India and Pakistan, Burma (Myanmar), and Ceylon (Sri Lanka), and allied itself with the United States in a strong anti-Communist posture.

Faced with postwar shortages and the problems of reconstruction, Attlee's government encountered severe financial difficulties, despite American assistance. Rationing continued to be a necessity, economic recovery was slow, and the cost of rearmament increased the strains on the economy. The government barely maintained its majority in the general elections of 1950, and the following year it was defeated by the Conservatives.

During the long period of opposition that followed (the Conservatives were returned to power in 1955 and in 1959), the Labour party argued and almost split on questions of disarmament, aid to developing countries, and furtherance of socialism at home. When Attlee and other elder leaders retired and Hugh Gaitskell became party leader, Aneurin Bevan, leading the left wing of the party, unsuccessfully contested Gaitskell's position. Although Bevan was soon reconciled with the party leadership, his supporters continued to urge a policy of diplomatic neutralism and unilateral disarmament, in addition to a strong socialist program. The party's right-wing, on the other hand, argued that prosperity had diminished the appeal of socialism to the average worker and that the party should adopt a broader, more pragmatic program. Gaitskell consolidated his position as leader in the early 1960s, and the party achieved a new solidarity.

The 1960s to the Present

Harold Wilson, who became leader on Gaitskell's death in 1963, was able to lead the party to victory in 1964. He was prime minister until the Conservative party returned to power in 1970. Wilson's administration was marked by a continued decline in Britain's international political and economic position, which gave little opportunity for social innovation.

After 1970, the Labour party, in opposition, again found it difficult to present a united front. The reversal of the party's position on Britain's entry into the European Community (now the European Union), after having earlier supported it, and a renewed call for further nationalization of industry were indications of a greater left-wing militancy within the party. The party returned to power as a result of the elections of Feb., 1974, but as a minority government. Wilson's second administration began renegotiation of the terms of Britain's membership in the European Community and announced plans for large-scale nationalization. Despite continuing economic difficulties he called new elections in Oct., 1974, and Labour won a small majority. James Callaghan took over as prime minister following Wilson's resignation in 1976.

The party lost power to the Conservatives under Margaret Thatcher in the 1979 elections and remained in the opposition until the late 1990s. Michael Foot became party leader in 1980 but was succeeded by Neil Kinnock in 1983. Kinnock led the party to abandon some of its traditional left-wing positions but proved unable to achieve victory at the polls. He resigned in 1992 after the Conservative victory in the general elections and was succeeded by John Smith. After Smith's untimely death in 1994, moderate Tony Blair was chosen to lead the party. Under Blair's leadership, the party formally abandoned traditional socialism in 1995 and subsequently won (1997, 2001) consecutive resounding victories at the polls. The party's narrower victory in 2005 marked the first time Labour had won three consecutive national elections. Blair stepped down as party leader and prime minister in 2007, and was succeeded by Gordon Brown. In the 2010 elections Brown and Labour lost to the Conservatives, who won a plurality. Brown resigned the party leadership, and Ed Miliband was elected party leader. In 2015 Labour did poorly, in part because of the successes of the Scottish National party, and Miliband stepped down. Jeremy Corbyn, from the left wing of the party, succeeded him, and survived a leadership challenge in 2016; he led to party to some gains, but still a loss to the Conservatives, in 2017.


See H. Wilson, The Labour Government 1964–1970 (1971); B. Jones and M. Keating, Labour and the British State (1985); K. Laybourn, The Rise of Labour (1988).

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright© 2018, The Columbia University Press.

British Labour Party: Selected full-text books and articles

The New Labour Experiment: Change and Reform under Blair and Brown By Florence Faucher-King; Patrick Le Galès; Gregory Elliott Stanford University Press, 2010
Reinventing Britain: Constitutional Change under New Labour By Andrew McDonald University of California Press, 2007
Politics of New Labour: A Gramscian Analysis By Andrew Pearmain Lawrence & Wishart, 2011
The Rise of New Labour: Party Policies and Voter Choices By Anthony F. Heath; Roger M. Jowell; John K. Curtice Oxford University Press, 2001
New Labour Triumphs: Britain at the Polls By Anthony King; David Denver; Iain McLean; Pippa Norris; Philip Norton; David Sanders; Patrick Seyd Chatham House Publishers, 1998
New Labour at the Centre: Constructing Political Space By Andrew Hindmoor Oxford University Press, 2004
The First Labour Government, 1924 By Richard W. Lyman Chapman & Hall, 1957
A Short History of the Labour Party By Henry A. Pelling MacMillan, 1961
Churchill to Major: The British Prime Ministership since 1945 By R. L. Borthwick; Martin Burch; Philip Giddings; Richard Hodder-Williams; J. M. Lee; Colin Seymour-Ure; Donald Shell M. E. Sharpe, 1995
Labour Governments and Private Industry: The Experience of 1945-1951 By H. Mercer; N. Rollings; J. D. Tomlinson Edinburgh University Press, 1992
Looking for a topic idea? Use Questia's Topic Generator
Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.