Challenging 'Common Sense.' (Independent Labour Party's 100th Anniversary)

History Today, March 1993 | Go to article overview

Challenging 'Common Sense.' (Independent Labour Party's 100th Anniversary)


* One hundred years ago, on January 13th, 1893, around 120 delegates -- mainly young working-class men from the industrial north and Scotland, but als including the Fabian activist and playwright, George Bernard Shaw -- came to a conference at Bradford in Yorkshire presided over by Keir Hardie, who the year before had won a seat in Parliament as an |independent labour' candidate. The organisation that conference launched -- the Independent Labour Party -- was in due course the driving force behind the body that became the British Labour Party of today. Now in its centenary year the ILP is not only organising the customary round of commemorative activities, but also relaunching itself as a political pressure group.

Bradford became the ILP's launchpad because of its strong radical tradition as an industrial base, its political awareness heightened by a strike in 1890-91 against wage cuts in the town's Manningham Mills by around 5,000 low-paid workers. That strike strengthened the argument at the inaugural conference for a distinctive |labour' body that would challenge the existing two-party system of liberals and Tories. The ILP's aims and objectives reflected classic tensions in British politics of the left -- between striving for long-term Utopian socialism and practical short-term improvements in the lives of ordinary people via the electoral process, and the compromises that might entail within a then, as now, conservative culture. Butt despite early setbacks -- Hardie lost his seat in the 1895 General Election -- the distinctive grass-roots socialism of a third party developed, as Edward Thompson has described it, |amongst the mills, brickyards and gasworks of the West Riding'.

Like the suffragettes of the same period, the early ILP members were as keen on using state-of-the-art communication and popular techniques as any of today's political marketing men or image consultants. The gospel of labour was preached from touring |Clarion' vans (named after the party's newspaper), and Clarion cyclists -- who perhaps today would have been dubbedd |lycra Socialists' -- rode on ahead to give advance notice.

With the Socialist Sunday School movement -- where members learnt a Socialist version of the Ten Commandments, including |love learning which is the food of the mind' -- the Masses Film and Theatre Guild, and a stream of books, pamphlets and summer schools, the ILP sought to bolster electoral activity with what today's ILP secretary, Barry Winter, described (in a booklet produced for the centenary) as |comradeship, commitment and fun'. …

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