Some, even on Labour’s left, advocate electoral alliances or coalitions between Labour and non-labour movement “progressive” parties — mostly, in practical terms, meaning the SNP and the Lib Dems.
From a class-struggle, socialist point of view, there are many arguments to be made against such “progressive alliances”. Here I try to draw some lessons from Labour’s history, focusing on alliances with the Liberals.
Debating “progressive alliances” with Janine Booth from Workers’ Liberty at the 2019 Labour conference fringe event The World Transformed, left Labour MP Clive Lewis cited the 1906 Lib-Lab electoral pact as a positive step forward (for the other side, see Janine Booth here). Lewis argued that without this pact the Labour Party would never have got off the ground.
That is wrong. I’ll look at the experience of 1906 as well as the Liberal-supported Labour governments of the 1920s and 1970s, and the war-time coalitions Labour took part in; and try to draw some conclusions for today.
How Labour began
The Labour Party arose not through clever electoral manoeuvres, but a growth of working-class consciousness, organisation and political self-expression which broke through the Liberal-oriented politics and alliances of the labour movement’s established leaders.
It took a long time. From the mid-1830s, Britain had the first independent working-class party in the world — Chartism, organised around the demand for universal suffrage (usually “universal” male, but some Chartists demanded votes for women too). But Chartism as a movement disappeared in the 1850s, though many former Chartists remained active in various struggles.
For decades after this, there was only a small trade union movement, mostly “craft” unions of better-off “skilled” workers. Political trade unionists generally supported the Liberals, the party representing pro-free trade industrialists and big capitalist landowners (in some parts of the country, where the major employers were Liberals, trade unionists responded by supporting the Tories).
Until the 1867 Reform Act, pretty much no workers could vote. The 1867 Act enfranchised over a million workers, perhaps a majority of the (adult, male) urban working class. It was the product in part of a militant labour movement campaign, led by trade unionists who a few years earlier had demonstrated energy and internationalism in the fight to prevent British intervention in support of the slave-owners in the US civil war.
It did relatively little immediately to challenge the working class’ political subordination. To Marx’s disgust the bulk of the trade unionists, with whom he had worked closely, backed the Liberals, some attempting to become Liberal candidates.
In 1874, Friedrich Engels wrote that “no separate political working-class party has existed in Britain since the downfall of the Chartist party”, identifying one reason as concessions made to some workers on the basis of Britain’s domination of the world market. He noted that the British ruling class had gradually conceded important elements of the Chartists’ demands as safeguards were put in place. They also conceded greater freedom and legal space for trade unions, and began to cultivate some union leaders.
One of the most important safeguards for the ruling class was the weakness of independent working-class politics. In the 1874 election, the first trade unionists were elected to Parliament — two of them, as Liberals. Ten trade union candidates standing against both major parties were defeated.
The thoroughly capitalist Liberal Party was extremely resistant to accepting any more trade unionists as candidates - a factor in pushing many union leaders towards independent politics, eventually. Later, after Labour's founding, the Liberals did accept more labour movement activists as candidates - but only a small minority, and in any case by then it was "too late".
As Labour leader Ramsay McDonald later wrote: “We didn’t leave the Liberals. They kicked us out and slammed the door in our faces.”
Engels pointed out the increasing absurdity of failing to stand independent candidates now that a large and growing number of workers were enfranchised. Many labour movement activists also noted, and took inspiration from, the presence (after 1874) of Irish nationalist parties in the House of Commons, holding a large block of seats independently of the two British capitalist parties and dragging concessions from them.
The 1880s saw the enfranchisement of a majority of male workers and then the rise of strikes and mass trade unionism (“New Unionism”) among “unskilled” workers. The new unions were less tied to the old Liberal-only strategy and more open to the idea of labour representation. The socialist movement also revived, a bit earlier in the 1880s: its activists played key roles in New Unionism.
It took many years of agitation by the socialists for the cause of independent workers' representation to reach a tipping point. A counter-attack by the ruling class, Liberal as well as Tory, against the new unions and the working class in the 1890s also played a role.
Future Labour leader Keir Hardie first proposed an independent labour party at the 1887 TUC Congress. Hardie was elected as an Independent Labour MP in 1892; and he was central to the (broadly socialist, but woolly) Independent Labour Party founded in 1893. Not until 1899 did TUC Congress pass a resolution, originating with rail trade unionists, leading to the founding of the Labour Representation Committee in 1900.
Socialist groups of various sorts were the pioneers, pulling along the unions (and at first only a minority of them) with them.
At the second LRC conference in 1901, the Marxist Social Democratic Federation moved a motion committing the organisation to the class struggle. When it was defeated they walked out.
The “walkout” was in fact only from the SDF’s national affiliation to the LRC. SDF members remained active and often central in local Trades Councils (which were generally the local LRC organisations: the LRC and then the Labour Party had no individual membership until 1918). They were active in LRC and Labour conferences as delegates from Trades Councils. SDF members sometimes stood as Labour candidates.
But nonetheless the “national” walkout must have helped reinforce the controlling influence of Liberal-minded union officials, the fuzzy socialists of the ILP and the middle-class elitist Fabians in this new political movement of the organised working class.
The organisation’s first year saw only a small proportion of unions affiliate — representing about 350,000 out of two million members, many fewer than had been formally represented at its founding conference.
Very important unions remained hostile and committed to Liberalism — in particular the miners’ unions with their four hundred thousand-odd members (ironically: the Liberals were very much the mine-owners’ party). Not until 1908 did the unified Miners’ Federation of Great Britain back Labour.
1906 and all that
The vote for independent labour candidates drifted up during the 1890s, but in 1900 the LRC and other independent labour candidates won less than 50,000 votes and only two MPs. In 1906, with the non-aggression pact with the Liberals in certain constituencies, the LRC won over 250,000 votes and 29 seats; immediately after the election it renamed itself the Labour Party.
(The 1906 LRC manifesto is pictured above: note the very clear class-based message, but also the lack of socialist politics and the chauvinist appeal against Chinese workers - in South Africa!)
But to think this advance proves Clive Lewis’ point is to miss the powerful movement for independent working-class representation that had been built over decades. The 1900 election took place too soon for the LRC, a very new organisation, to campaign properly; it was not a proper test of the wider social movement which was already well off the ground.
The LRC gained major accessions of strength soon after 1900 but well before 1906. Again, the actions of the capitalists provided important push. In 1901, the House of Lords confirmed a legal ruling against the main rail union that trade unions were liable for costs incurred by employers during strikes. (The verdict was in favour of the Taff Vale Railway Company in South Wales; hence the Taff Vale judgement.)
Obviously this was a disaster for organised labour, threatening to abolish the de facto right to strike that workers had won over decades. There was outrage across the labour movement. In 1902 LRC affiliations increased from 350,000 to 450,000, in 1903 to 850,000, in 1904 to 956,000. By then 165 unions and 176 trades councils were affiliated. In terms of institutional support and grassroots popularity, the campaign for labour representation became a mass movement.
For what this meant electorally, consider some by-election results. In the 1895 and 1900 general elections, the Lancashire seat of Clitheroe was taken by the Liberals unopposed. In a 1902 by-election, the Liberals wanted the LRC to stand aside; but organised local cotton workers insisted on standing one of theirs, David Shackleton, and it was the Liberals who lost their nerve and stood down. (Shackleton was elected unopposed. In 1906 he would defeat an independent conservative with 76% of the vote.) The textile workers’ union joined the LRC soon after.
In a 1903 by-election, future Labour leader Arthur Henderson narrowly defeated the Tories and the Liberals in the previous Liberal safe seat of Barnard Castle, County Durham. In the 1907 by-election for Colne Valley in West Yorkshire, socialist Victor Grayson narrowly defeated both major parties as an Independent Labour candidate, supported by local Labour activists despite the fact that the national party refused to support him.
It seems clear that the Labour Party emerged out of a major social-political thrust towards independent working-class politics, rooted in long-term changes in British society and the rise of the labour movement, developing slowly at first but in flood by 1906.
International factors were also in play: labour and socialist movements were rising across Europe and in the US, and the world had just been shaken by the 1905 Russian revolution.
Without the 1906 Lib-Lab pact, the course taken would of course have been different. But the pact was not Labour’s ladder to heights it would not have reached otherwise.
It actually ran counter to the more independent, class-based (though far from fully socialist) approach into which the labour movement was rapidly shifting. Those responsible for it knew that: which is why it was largely kept a secret at the time!
Far from being a consensual or popular strategy, it was not something even the mostly Liberal-inclined Labour leaders were particularly comfortable advocating or defending.
These leaders did not want to replace the Liberals, as they soon would; they did not dream at first of Labour becoming the government. They only wanted to exert pressure (the second LRC MP elected alongside Keir Hardie in 1900, Richard Bell of Derby, soon defected “back” to the Liberals). However, they were leading a movement with its own logic and drive, one they could not fully halt or control even while they sat astride it.
We can’t know how many MPs Labour would have won in 1906 without the pact (though, in addition to the by-election record, five of 29 were elected in seats with a Liberal candidate). That was the crucial question for the right-wing Labour leaders, but not fundamental for working-class politics.
Under great pressure, the Liberal government backed legislation to overturn the Taff Vale judgement, introducing unparalleled legal freedoms for trade unions — the freedoms the Tories would attempt to curtail in 1927, 1972 and, successfully, after 1980. They also introduced the first, extremely limited elements of a welfare state.
To go from a mistaken reading of these years, when Labour was just emerging but already had potential to supplant the Liberals, to advocating today’s Labour Party gives the fairly marginal Liberal Democrats a hand up by standing aside for them in multiple seats is to redouble the mistake. Central to both mistakes is a failure to adequately grasp the idea that, now as then, workers need our own independent political voice.
The '20s: Liberal-supported Labour governments
Labour’s big leap came in the 1918 election, held on the threshold of a post-war radicalisation, and with all men and many women able to vote for the first time, and when it broke the pact with the Liberals. Although it gained only 17 more seats, its vote more than tripled from 1910, to 20.8%. The Liberals split over continuing the wartime coalition with the Tories, with “Lloyd George” and “Asquith” Liberals winning 13% each. The Tories went down 8% to 38%, but won a clear majority.
The growth of the unions, a strengthening of working-class consciousness, waves of mass workers’ struggles in Britain and revolutions in Europe, all played through in Labour’s continued rise. In 1922, Labour won 29.7% and almost tripled its parliamentary group to 142. In 1923 it won 30.7% and 191 seats, and together with the Liberals denied the Tories their majority.
This was an unprecedented political situation for Britain. A working class-based political party now became the government for the first time. But as socialist historian Brian Pearce put it, this first Labour government “marked a new phase both in the advance of the working-class movement and in the degeneration of its leadership”.
The new Labour prime minister, Ramsay MacDonald, had opposed World War I on a pacifist basis, and came from the “soft left” of the Labour Party, then represented by the ILP (which was, literally, a “party within a party”). His government carried out some pro-working class reforms, notably the Wheatley Housing Act of 1924.
But the Labour leaders had tamed the radicalism widespread after the war. Far from being socialist, the Labour government did not begin to approach even the more radical reformism of 1945. It carried out no nationalisations; it maintained and administered the British empire with essentially no changes; it did not disband the strike-breaking organisations soon put into operation by the Tories in the 1926 General Strike.
MacDonald included Liberals in his cabinet, in addition to the ex-Liberal minister Viscount Haldane, symbolising a string of Liberal politicians’ migration to Labour.
This government was not very different from the Liberal one of 1906; it demonstrated the strict limits of Labour’s political break from Liberalism even after it had displaced the Liberals as the UK’s second party and formally come out for socialism (in Clause 4 of the party rulebook, adopted in 1918).
Labour depended on the Liberals for its majority, but the Labour leaders’ left-Liberal politics were almost certainly more decisive for determining what they did and did not do. They showed no real sign of wanting to escape the political limits they faced.
The second MacDonald government (1929-31) was also dependent on Liberal support, and again committed to essentially Liberal politics. Its response to the economic crisis after 1929 was essentially an orthodox free-trader one, and more conservative in fact than the Liberals, who became the first big party to back “Keynesian” public spending.
Rejecting proposals for state intervention and provision to deal with burgeoning unemployment, the Labour government instead cut unemployment benefit, putting it to the right of some prominent Liberals. The cuts programme eventually led to a split in the party, with MacDonald and his allies defecting to lead a Tory-dominated national government, but even on the eve of the split a majority of cabinet members supported further cuts in the dole (11-9).
The wartime coalition
In the First World War, Labour had entered the Liberal-led coalition along with the Tories, but it was fairly marginal to it. There was only one Labour cabinet member, and great swathes of the Labour Party and labour movement regarded the coalition as wrong and illegitimate.
In the Second World War, Labour was the major coalition partner with Winston Churchill’s Tories, holding five cabinet posts alongside eight Tories and three others. Labour leader Clement Attlee was deputy prime minister.
Today it is often argued that participation in coalition with the Tories was a necessary prelude to Labour’s election victory and the reforming government from 1945. But in fact that victory was based on widespread working-class hostility to the Tories, on a wave of left-reformist political radicalisation, and on a prompt withdrawal from the coalition (in May 1945, before the war ended).
The '70s: “the banks can now sleep safely”
After the war, the Liberals declined dramatically, winning only 2.5% in the 1951 general election. Between the 1970 and February 1974 elections, the Liberal vote recovered from 7.5 to 19.3%, as a section of voters looked for “middle ground” in the hot class struggles of those years. In the October 1974 election, they maintained 18.3%; Labour, which since February had led a minority government, now gained a majority of three.
Alongside the rise of working-class struggles, the old working-class politics was in crisis. It would either be reconstituted on a more radical basis, as socialists fought for in the ‘70s and early ‘80s, or decline severely, as eventually happened after many defeats for the labour movement and left. Increased support for Liberals was a symptom of this crisis.
In 1977 Labour lost its small majority through by-election defeats. Prime Minister James Callaghan made a deal with the Liberals to remain in office.
To win Liberal support, the government promised to step away from the relatively radical policies it had included in its 1974 manifesto — and some of which it had implemented in 1974, despite being a minority administration, because the Tories and Liberals were convinced blocking these measures would discredit them.
In fact Callaghan and co. had already shifted further to the right when they made a deal to secure an IMF bail-out in 1976.
The terms of the Lib-Lab pact included direct elections to the European Parliament (which many on the left, motivated by nationalism, opposed) and progress on establishing devolution in Scotland and Wales.
But Labour also committed to abandon proposals to expand local authority-run “direct works” projects. There was also strong implied commitment as to what Labour would not do. “The banks”, declared Liberal leader David Steel, “can now sleep safely”. In addition to his broader meaning, he boasted specifically that thanks to the Liberals nationalisation of the banks and insurance companies was now off the agenda.
As Workers’ Action commented at the time: “Labour’s pact with the Liberals is a pact of betrayal. Not because of its [specific] terms, but because this pact draws the Government even further away from any accountability to the organised working class...
“In reality there has been nothing socialist in the government’s policy even without the Liberals... What makes the Labour Party a working-class party is its connection with the organised working class. And what makes the pact with the Liberals criminal is that Callaghan says to the working class: I will consult the junior Tories before I consult any decisions of the working-class movement...
“The terms of the pact don’t give the Liberals much. There wasn’t much left to give. Socialism as a guiding principle or goal has been surrendered not by this government but by the leaders of the Labour Party from its inception 71 years ago...
“But the temporary informal coalition is an open rebuke to the Labour left, a clear victory for the coalitionist forces [represented by various Labour Party] Libs in Labs clothing.”
Workers’ Action called for an organised campaign in the Labour Party and the unions to oppose and overthrow the pact. In fact the pact fizzled out in 1978, leaving Labour once again a minority government — but one still committed to pro-capitalist, essentially Liberal policies. Thus the great workers’ struggles of the ‘70s ended with Labour paving the way for Thatcher’s first victory in 1979.
For class politics
The “Corbyn surge” beginning in 2015 opened possibilities to renew and rebuild the labour movement and working-class politics, many of which had been lost — at least temporarily — by the time Jeremy Corbyn departed as Labour leader in 2020.
The basic problem is that, even with a greatly expanded Labour membership, the labour movement’s base in workplaces and working-class communities has continued to stagnate and decay. In many respects “Corbynism” did not even try to rebuild it.
Labour post-2015 was not “too much” a working-class party, but “not enough” of one (the phrase is from Tribune magazine, though Tribune was expressing wrong, pro-Brexit conclusions).
The defeats we have suffered are not a result of failure to make deals with non-labour movement-based, pro-capitalist parties like the Lib Dems, but a failure to build up working-class consciousness and organisation, as ends in themselves and as a more solid platform for Labour and socialist advance.
“Progressive alliance” deals and politics cut against this urgent necessary work.