Friday, 16 August 2013

Keir Hardie will be spinning in his grave

To call the organisation led by Ed Miliband the ‘Labour Party’ is a grotesque distortion of meaning and history.

It is many years since the Labour Party even attempted to represent the interests of those who make their living through selling their labour. Today’s Labour Party is indistinguishable from the Tories: both parties now champion free-market capitalism and put the generation of private wealth before the public interest.

Looking at the events that led to the creation of the Labour Party shows the extent of today’s betrayal of the organisation’s founding principles and the people who gave so much to build a political party to represent ordinary men and women.

Towards the end of the 19th Century, significant changes began to affect the working-class as suffrage (the right to vote) was extended. At elections in 1885 and 1886, the Highland Land League (HLL), essentially an organisation representing the interests of crofters, made a spectacular breakthrough by securing the election of 5 MPs committed to land reform. An office bearer of the HLL was an Ayrshire-based Miners’ organiser called James Keir Hardie.

Members of the working-class entitled to vote initially put their faith in the middle-class Liberal Party. However, growing frustration with this situation led to agitation for the fielding of candidates who truly represented those who were forced to sell their labour to make a living.

This led to Liberal-Labour (Lib-Lab) candidates fighting elections in seats where there was a large working-class population. In March 1888 a by-election in the constituency of Mid-Lanark was caused by the resignation of the sitting Liberal MP. James Keir Hardie, a member of the Liberal Party at the time and also the trade union organiser for Miners working in Lanarkshire pits, put himself forward as a Lib-Lab candidate for the seat. But, despite his local credentials and support from trade unions and workers, the Liberal Party declined Hardie’s offer and, instead, selected as its candidate John Philipps, an English solicitor.

Against this background, and without the support of a recognised political party, James Keir Hardie stood in the by-election as an independent representative of labour. In support of his campaign a broad grouping of individuals and organisations came together, including the Scottish Miners’ Federation, trade unions, socialist societies, Highland Land League MPs and the radical Liberal MP Robert Cunninghame Graham who represented the seat of North West Lanarkshire. Cunninghame Graham had been elected at the 1886 General Election, on a manifesto that included: the abolition of the House of Lords; universal suffrage; the nationalisation of land, mines and other industries; free school meals; disestablishment of the Church of England; the introduction of an eight-hour working day; and Scottish Home Rule.

Hardie finished third with a credible 8 per cent of the vote. Philipps retained the seat for the Liberal Party ahead of the second-placed Conservative, William Bousfield, another English solicitor. However, the Mid-Lanark by-election proved to be a crucial point in the development of working-class representation.

Following the Liberal Party’s decision to field a London-based lawyer instead of the local Miners’ organiser, Hardie and others reached the conclusion that for the interests of the working-class to be represented in parliament, there required to be a party of labour. After a series of meetings preparing the ground, the organisations and people who had supported Hardie’s candidacy in Mid-Lanark met in the summer of 1888 to formalise a new political body, which they called the Scottish Labour Party.

The first electoral test for the new party came at the General Election of 1892. Robert Cunninghame Graham had resigned from the Liberal Party and stood down from his North West Lanarkshire seat in order to contest the Glasgow Camlachie constituency for the Scottish Labour Party. In total, the SLP fielded five candidates at the 1892 election but none were elected.

However, James Keir Hardie had been invited to stand as an independent labour candidate in the working-class London constituency of West Ham. Although offering no support to Hardie, the Liberal Party did not stand, which meant a straight fight between the candidate of labour and a Conservative. Hardie polled 5,268 to the Tory candidate’s 4,036 and was elected with a majority of 1,232.

Hardie’s outspoken advocacy of the rights of the working-class, and his confrontational style of speaking in parliament made him a focal point for the Britain-wide labour movement.

At a Trades Union Congress meeting in September 1892, proposals were moved for the establishment of an independent labour organisation to represent the working class of Britain. It was agreed that a conference on the subject should be held in January 1893. A large delegation from the Scottish Labour Party attended the conference held in Bradford from January 14-16, where it was agreed to work on a cross-Britain basis to form the Independent Labour Party (ILP). James Keir Hardie was elected chairman of the new political body.

From its beginning the Independent Labour Party’s stated objective was to secure for the people “the collective and communal ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange”. The party also advocated an eight-hour working day, free education and provision for the sick, disabled, widows and the elderly. In addition, the ILP also supported Home Rule for Scotland and Ireland.

In 1894 the leadership of the Scottish Labour Party took the decision to merge the body with the Independent Labour Party. There then followed 8 years of internal restructuring before, in 1906, a political organisation to represent the interests of the working-class across the British Isles was formed. It was called the Labour Party.

Today, that party sides with the Tories in attacking ordinary men and women as spongers and shirkers. Today, that party stands shoulder-to-shoulder with the Tories in attempting to prevent Scots from completing the powers of ‘home rule’ and restoring our independence. Today, that party refuses to repeal the Tories’ anti-trade union laws. Today, that party says it would retain the Bedroom Tax, vicious legislation that punishes the poor and vulnerable. Today, that party has turned its back on the working-class and now endorses an economic system that allows the rich to get richer, while the poor get poorer.

Keir Hardie and the organisation’s founders will be spinning in their graves to see the Tory-clone that the Labour Party has become.

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