Sunday, 6 August 2017

The importance of knowing about Labour history

A few months ago I was asked if I would facilitate some sessions on the history of the Labour Party as part of the political education activity in a Constituency Labour Party. Unfortunately with the turmoil in the Party in the period heading up to the General Election these sessions were put on hold, and may be activated later.
The thinking behind the sessions was that with so many new members of the Party, there is not much knowledge or understanding about the history of the Party. Indeed longer term members also do not know much about it.

This is nothing new. When I joined Battersea Labour Party in the early 1970s there was little knowledge of even its own history, and we used the 50th Anniversary of the General Strike in 1976 to kick-start work on the history of the Party and the labour movement, which I have continued to work on since. That early work also linked in with initiatives within the wider Labour Party in London, and through Labour Heritage, the affiliated history group which concentrates on Party history within the wider movement, and of which I was Secretary for a couple of years in the early 2000s.

The Party was luke warm about commemorating the 2006 Anniversary of its adopting the name Labour Party having been the Labour Representation Committee formed in 1900. in 2006. This was because It was now controlled by New Labour, which had no understanding of Party history or if it did not want members to know too much about it. New Labour was in the midst of changing the nature of the Party trying to turn it into a different kind of organisation than it had been in the past. It introduced a form of ‘democratic centralism’ with the emphasis on dictat and control from the top, in which the collective voice of the membership was kicked into the side lines.

I have just rediscovered the text of a talk I gave at the West London West London Labour History Day School in October 2002 in which I reflected on New Labour and history.

I suggested that there was a fundamental contradiction at the heart of New Labour.

·       On the one hand it wanted citizens to be actively involved in the decisions that affect them in the neighbourhoods, local authorities and regions in which they live. This was central to the Government’s Urban White Paper, Neighbourhood Renewal, regeneration and social inclusion strategies.

·       On the other hand it had disempowered its own members, and belittled the historic achievements of labour movement and Party activists – Old Labour as it calls them.
The legacy of the labour movement in its widest sense from the 18th Century was the creation of collective organisations through which the social injustices of capitalism could be challenged and through which support services could be provided when workers and their families needed it: the benefits and medical services provided by the friendly societies and trade unions, unadulterated food and other goods at fair prices through the retail co-operatives, home ownership along with which increasingly went the vote through building societies, social and leisure activities through the working men’s and miners’ welfare clubs, education activities through the co-operative societies, trade unions and then through the Workers’ Educational association which would celebrate its 100th Anniversary in January 2003.

At the political level a range of organisations fought for the extension of the vote to include men and later women. The organised labour movement broke through into Parliament in 1892 and then in local government, and campaigned and when in power developed public services. And while there were disagreements over strategy and tactics, there was a vision to achieve social justice and equal opportunities as a minimum and the overthrow or transformation of capitalism into socialism as a maximum.

Without this legacy there would have been no Labour Government in 1945 with its breakthrough in the development of public services, especially the Health Service. While public services were never perfect, they began to be damaged when Labour took a wrong turn in 1976 with the deal with the International Monetary Fund, culminating in the Winter of Discontent, and laying the foundations for the Thatcherite attack on the organised labour movement and its legacy and its attempt to destroy support for socialism in the UK.  At the heart of that attack was the roll-back of the New Unionist agenda of the late 1880s and early 1890s based on fair wages, direct labour and municipally controlled services.

When New Labour gained power in 1997 it inherited a legacy of tremendous damage not just to services and employment, but to thousands of communities, and more importantly to millions of people who had been thrown by Thatcherism onto the scrap heap with public services crumbling around them.

The New Labour Government recognised that it would take 15-20 years to reverse the damage. It wants to mobilise people, but it continues to marginalise the very organisations that gave it birth, the trade unions, in some cases to vilify them, and to hamstring its own members. It blundered to confrontation with the Fire Brigades Union because of its failure to address fundamental issues of pay and conditions of public sector workers that are not as simple as take-home pay and overtime, but housing and transport costs. The problem of the cost of public service workers has been an Achilles Heel in the relationship between the public sector trade unions and labour movement controlled local authorities since the 1890s.
The labour movement from the 19th Century and Labour Party political support in the 20th Century were built from below. It is precisely why remembering and celebrating that past history, warts and all, is important.

I went on to argue that If we wanted the fundamental changes needed went on to argue that ions ofmne the workers has been an Acholles Heel in the relationship between the public sector we need to re-build the faith of ordinary people that their collective voice and action can have an effect. The history of the Labour movement and Party shows that this was done in the past. 
As older forms of working-class and labour movement associations like friendly societies have withered, there has been a mushrooming of new forms of collective organisation especially the diverse range of community organisations and social enterprises. Instead of seeing them as a threat Labour Councillors should see them as allies, moulded in the same tradition out of which the labour movement and the Party itself grew: collective action to address poverty and what we now call social exclusion, to obtain social and economic justice and create a fairer society.

New Labour promoted mutualism, including new forms. Stephen Yeo, an active campaigner and former head of Ruskin College, was writing at the time about Labour’s roots in the working class associational culture of the 18th and 19th Centuries. He talked about New Labour, Old Labour and Old, Old Labour. I referred to my discussion paper ‘Mutuality and Radical Politics’ in which I reviewed mutuality and its relationship to politics at the time.


Labour Heritage

It continues to be active with annual West London and Essex Day Schools, the Annual General Meeting talks and its Bulletin. The Bulletin is an excellent and easy to read source on a wide range of aspects of Labour Party history inc. biographical sketches of activists. It contains the following pieces by me:

·       The summary of my 2002 talk above:

·       Battersea Women’s Socialist Circle 1908-10

·       Workers Educational Association in West London (summary)

·       Preparing to Celebrate the 100th Anniversary of the Renaming of the Labour Party (1906)

·       Labour in Holborn in the 1930s and 1940s

Mutuality & Radical Politics

In May 2002 I took part in a Day School run by Independent Labour Publications speaking about Mutuality and Radical Politics. It can be read at

Co-operative, Mutual and Social Action in Battersea and Lambeth

My pamphlets:

From Exclusion to Political Control. Radical and Working Class Organisation in Battersea 1830s-1918
Organising Together in Lambeth. A Historical Review of Co-operative and Mutual Social Action
are available from me at
 and-radical-politics/nd 1940srun by Independent Labour Publications speaking about Mutuality and Radical Politics.
Workers' Educational Association

Sections of my essay Battersea and the Formation of the Workers' Eductaional Association in  A Ministry of Enthusiasm: Centenary Essays on the Workers' Educational Association. ed. Stephen K. Roberts (Pluto Press 2003) . 

can be seen on Google Books.

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