Skip to Content

Book Review: 'Socialists, Liberals and Labour: The Struggle for London, 1885-1914'

How the Liberals Lost London

'Socialists, Liberals and Labour: The Struggle for London 1885-1914', by Paul Thompson, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 63s.

From the passing of the Third Reform Act to the First World War the Liberals in London depended for funds and local organisation on Nonconformist tradesmen and for votes on the working class.

As Thompson puts it:

    "The Liberal Party . . . was based on a working class majority and a middle class religious minority interest. Its difficulty was to rouse the enthusiasm of the one without alienating the funds of the latter."

This book is the story of their failure to do this. They came to be replaced by the Labour Party, a thoroughly opportunist outfit which stood for much the same as them but insisted that "Labour" be represented in parliament and on the local councils by people independent of both Tories and Liberals. The best hope for the Liberals lay in the development of the "Lib-Labs", drawing trade unionists into their local organisations. Their greatest success in this was in Battersea where former Social Democrat John Burns, of the engineers, became the Liberal MP and later the first member of the working class to enter the Cabinet. There were also those who called themselves Socialists—the Social Democratic Federation, the ILP and the Fabians. So there was a chance that the Liberals might have been replaced by a working class party openly claiming (as Labour did not till 1918) "Socialism" as its aim. The Fabians, as Thompson shows, have been able, thanks to loudmouths like Shaw, to inflate their own significance in this period both on the Liberals (for at first they stood for "permeation") and on Labour.

The working class in London was largely indifferent to religion. It had no nonconformist background. Quite the contrary, for there was a long tradition of secularism amongst politically minded London workers. It was this, argues Thompson, that opened the way for the SDF with its crude Marxism as the most successful "socialist" party in London rather than for the ILP with its moralizing that went down so well in the North. The working class in London at least saw through that and the ILP found their nonconformist vocabulary out of place. The SDF was a peculiar organisation. It was set up in 1884 with Hyndman as leader; it accepted the class struggle and pioneered the spread of Marxist ideas amongst the working class in Britain. It had two great drawbacks from the Socialist point of view: Hyndman and its programme of "stepping stones" to Socialism. These immediate demands differed little from those of radical Liberals. When the Labour Representation Committee (to become the Labour Party in 1906) was set up in 1900 the SDF was affiliated to it but withdrew the next year. The SDF then tried its luck at becoming an independent force. This was not unrealistic since it was clear that Labour really depended on the Liberals for seats in parliament (We now know that for the 1906 election there was a secret pact between Ramsay MacDonald and Herbert Gladstone to let some Labourites in if they would stand down in other places). However, the SDF attacks on Labourism were a little disingenuous since on the local level they too made deals with Labour and the Progressives (as the Liberals called themselves for municipal politics).

In 1904 some former SDF members set up the Socialist Party of Gt. Britain which rejected such opportunism, had no "reform programme and declared that the party seeking working-class emancipation must be hostile to every other party". When it contested local elections there were no deals or compromises (Incidentally Thompson is wrong when he says that the Socialist Party scorned trade unions: we have always considered the economic side of the class struggle necessary though limited).

Off the Labour bandwagon the SDF failed to make headway. In 1907 it changed its name to Social Democratic Party and in 1911 became, with a few ILP branches and others the British Socialist Party. By 1914 it was back in the fold but by now it was clear that the Liberals were to be replaced by the non-Liberal, non-Marxist Labour Party.

When the war came the BSP split, with a majority against. These later disappeared into the so-called Communist Party. The others formed their own National Socialist Party and later became the SDF again, lingering on till 1939. The Socialist Party of course opposed the war and is still an independent party.

Thompson's book discusses the subject in great detail, perhaps in too great detail for the ordinary reader. Nevertheless it will be useful to all students of working class history. Interesting is his argument that "London with its lack of working class nonconformity and its secularist traditions offered no strong resistance to Marxist theory". For, for good or ill, our Party is in this London working class tradition with our complete opposition to anything that smacks of religion, our emphasis on understanding, education and rational argument, our leaderless democratic organisation, our opposition to all censorship and our open meetings.

Adam Buick