A Quick Guide to the Labour Party

The UK Labour Party is one of the two main British political parties, with policies that tend towards the centre-left. With its origins dating back to the 19th century socialist parties and trade union movements, the modern party as it stands today encompasses a variety of ideologies and trends from those that are moderate and socially democratic up to those that are strongly socialist. At the present time, the Labour Party are the official opposition in the UK parliament, with their last period in government having from between 1997 and 2010. The current leader is Jeremy Corbyn, who was elected to the post in September 2015.

The Founding of the Labour Party

In the Victorian and Edwardian eras, the main party in opposition to the UK’s Conservative Party was the Liberals, however a need was identified for a new party to be created representing the interests of the rapidly increasing numbers of urban working class. Several existing trade union members had an interest in trying their hand at politics and after the voting franchise was extended first in 1867 and then again in 1885, some of these candidates were sponsored by the Liberal Party. The election of 1870 saw the first Liberal/Labour candidate – George Odger in the constituency of Southwark, and at the same time a number of other small groups were forming based around socialist politics. These included the Independent Labour Party, the Marxist Social Democratic Federation, the Scottish Labour Party and the Fabian Society. After a spectacular failure to win votes in the general election of 1895, Keir Hardie, the leader of the Independent Labour Party, decided that the left wing groups should all join together to form a more formidable opposition, and the first meeting bringing together representatives from each organisation took place in 1900. This led to the formation of the Labour Representation Committee, which became officially known as the Labour Party in 1906, and the newly created body won 29 seats in the election of the same year setting them on the road to success.

A Brief History of the Labour Party

In 1918, virtually all male adults were granted the right to vote together with the majority of women over the age of 30. This tripled the electorate and paved the way for a massive increase in parliamentary Labour representation. In the early 1920’s, the Liberal Party underwent a process of decline that led to the Labour Party attracting many former supporters of that organisation. In 1922, they won 142 seats and officially became the second biggest political party in the country and thus the official opposition. The party’s first official leader, elected to the post in the same year, was Ramsay MacDonald, who became Prime Minister in 1924 and formed the first ever Labour government, although it only lasted for 9 months. The 1929 election saw the Labour Party achieve their first majority government, winning 37.1% of the popular vote. In this year too, the first female cabinet minister was appointed, Margaret Bondfield, who was given the position of Minister of Labour. During the 1930’s, splits in the party led to a period of decline, however they returned to the government during the Second World War, forming part of the wartime coalition. Several senior figures in the Labour Party undertook major roles, some of the most notable being Ernest Bevin who directed Britain’s economy during wartime and A.V. Alexander who became First Lord of the Admiralty. After peace was declared in 1945, Clement Attlee’s Labour government was voted in, which proved to be a radical move. This proactive government nationalised major utilities and industries, conceived the welfare state and began the dismantling of the British Empire. Between 1970 and 1974, Labour once more became the opposition party with Harold Wilson at the helm, however the problems caused by the Three Day Week and the 1973 oil crisis led to a restoration of Labour power in 1974. This lasted until 1979 when Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government won by a landslide and internal rivalry within the party led to 18 years in the doldrums. The New Labour movement led by Tony Blair resulted in a more middle-of-the-road stance that appealed to the majority of the public, and in 1997 Labour once more won a general election – this time with their largest ever majority. The years that followed saw a raft of social reforms being brought into force including the establishment of a minimum wage, devolution of Welsh, Northern Irish and Scottish powers and stronger regulation within the banking system. Over the next decade several controversies led to the Labour Party falling from public favour once more. Blair’s role in supporting the Iraq War and the Cash for Peerages scandal were both partly responsible for the result of the 2010 general election during which neither the Conservative nor Labour Party achieved an overall majority.

Opposition From 2010 Until the Present

After Gordon Brown’s resignation as Prime Minister and Leader of the Labour Party in 2010, Ed Miliband won the leadership election. With his arguments for better regulation of energy companies and banks the party’s performance began to rally and in 2012 Labour found that they had consolidated their position in the Midlands, Wales and the North and had gained further ground in the South. Despite plans put forward by Ed Balls, the Shadow Chancellor, to balance the government’s budget by 2020, Labour lost once again the 2015’s General Election, and this resulted in Miliband’s resignation as leader of the party. On September 12th of the same year, Jeremy Corbyn was elected as the new party leader despite all the odds. Originally considered to be a fringe candidate, a huge number of new members gave him their support, enabling him to take the coveted position. Lacking the popular support of the main players in the party, Corbyn soon found that his leadership was causing tensions when over 24 members of his Shadow Cabinet resigned and a vote of no confidence against him was supported by his MPs. Regardless of this setback, Corbyn retained his leadership and remains at the helm today.

Labour Party Ideology

As a left of centre party, the Labour Party was formed originally as a way for trade unionists to represent themselves in the political arena. It then developed a socialist commitment with the developing of the party constitution of 1918. This tended toward nationalisation and common ownership and steps were taken towards this goal during the post-war period when many industries, transport companies and utilities were brought under national control. Tony Blair’s New Labour government during the 1990’s and early 2000’s saw the removal of Clause IV which proposed this socialist theme from the party constitution, thus bringing the party into a more centralised alignment. Today, the Labour Party is broadly democratic socialist, believing that through common endeavour it is possible to achieve more together than can be achieved independently and that wealth, opportunity and power should be in the hands of the many rather than the few. The party believes that the rights of the individual should reflect the duties they owe and that all people should be free to live together in the spirit of mutual respect, tolerance and solidarity.