The Rise and Fall of the ILP

With proposals to set up a united leftwing party to challenge Labour, we look at a previous attempt at this.

The Independent Labour Party was born on 13 January 1893 in the Labour Institute, Peckover Street, Bradford. The birth was the culmination of a series of efforts dating back to the creation of the Scottish Labour Party some five years earlier. >From the spring of 1891 local ‘Labour Unions’ were formed, with the similar Manchester and Salford Independent Labour Party following in May 1892. The party and its predecessors were primarily the offspring of James Keir Hardie, ILP chairman 1893 to 1900 and long time (1887-1904) editor of The Labour Leader.  Hardie had launched his paper (it remained his personal property until 1904 when it was taken over directly by the party) in January 1887 and it would remain the focus of the ILP activity through several renamings (becoming The New Leader in 1922 and The Socialist Leader in 1946) until its termination in the late ‘70s. Essentially the party was a radical split from the Liberal Party and its ideology and outlook were determined by this.

The early ILP’s conception of socialism was a bit of a joke. In 1896 Hardie defined it as “…brotherhood, fraternity, love thy neighbour as thyself, peace on earth, goodwill towards men, and glory to God in the highest” (Justice, 6 June 1896). While, in a 1903 letter to Edward Carpenter (quoted in Stanley Pierson’s British Socialism) John Bruce Glasier, a near-forgotten ILP bigwig, more obscurely referred to socialism as “a power that began with the beginning of the world and permeates infinitude”. I fear he may have been confusing socialism with some form of quantum physics.

Despite its talk of peace and brotherhood, this is what Glasier, then Party Chairman, said at the 1903 Conference:

“Our foreign trade is flagging; our internal freedom and external defence are less secure; our military glory is dimmer; our national character, our literature, our science, our inventions are in less repute; our young and virile population is quitting the country as if it were a sinking ship, and we are getting in pauper aliens and rich predatory aliens instead.”

The ILP was oriented towards parliament from its inception. Hardie had been elected for West Ham South in 1892 but it was not until the formation of the Labour Representation Committee in 1900 that the real breakthrough occurred. The LRC, renamed the Labour Party in 1906, was essentially a tactical move of the formerly Liberal-orientated trade unions but until 1918 the political input was very much from the ILP. In 1906 the party scored seven MPs with a further eleven being trade union endorsed members.

The early strongholds of the ILP were as one might expect in the old industrial zones of West Yorkshire and South Lancashire with considerable support in Leicester, Norwich and Merthyr Tydfil. Scotland, later known as the heartland of the ILP, was to develop later during and after the First World War.

First World War

If the ILP ever got anything right it was by accident and this is seen most obviously in its attitude to the First World War. Opposition to the 1914-18 war was clearly the correct policy: it is now generally admitted that it was an imperialist war, fought not for ‘freedom’ but for economic reasons. During the early months of the war Ramsay MacDonald (as might be expected) but also Keir Hardie (as might not be) encouraged young men to enlist. Despite this wobbling the ILP should be acknowledged as the largest organisation in Britain in opposition to the war and both Hardie and MacDonald came out against the war. However its policy originated in a faulty concept of what the war was all about. In a contemporary leaflet the ILP argued that the war was “a diplomatist’s war, made by about half-a-dozen men…we sit down and ask ourselves… ‘Why has this war happened?’ the only answer we can give is, because Sir Edward Grey has guided our foreign policy during the past eight years.” (Fenner Brockway, Inside the Left, p. 45). That Sir Edward, what a bastard.

Such a conspiratorial theory blended well with the wet pacifism endemic in the lower ranks and the antagonism to Tsarist Russia. But the diplomatic cause theory was to cause problems for the ILP, as it attracted a host of golden daffodils in the shape of the Union of Democratic Control. The UDC essentially consisted of Liberals, some high ranking, who wished for a more democratic and open foreign policy. They also viewed the war as caused by secret diplomacy. The bourgeois intellectuals of the UDC, including HN Brailsford, migrated into the ILP diluting the Northern spit and sawdust of the early party and providing the germ of the London based ‘intellectual’ (wobbly) ILP of the 1930s and after.

The First World War saw the ILP gain a Red reputation with its somewhat half-hearted backing of the Russian Revolution and its incidental association with the ‘Red Clydeside’ strikers. The war also saw the death of Hardie in late 1915 and the rise of James Maxton.

Golden Age

Before the First World War the ILP and the Labour Party were pretty much identical. The ILP leaders, notably Ramsay MacDonald (ILP Chairman 1906-9), were also those of the Labour Party. The 1918 constitution, particularly through the introduction of local Labour Parties, redefined the Labour Party not just as a political wing of the trade unions but as a party in itself. As a result the ILP had to redefine itself and in the 1920s its role came to be that of the left wing of the Labour Party. At first such a role was of considerable use to the party. Boosted by the ‘successes’ of the Labour Party, the ILP reached unprecedented heights in 1926 with an all-time high of 60,000 members in 1075 branches and a New Leader circulation of 70-80,000. Three years later the ILP had 37 MPs plus another 123 who were members of the party standing under other endorsement.

In 1924, to mark the new left turn, the ILP issued the report of its Socialist Plan Committee. Also known as “Socialism in our time”, this became the basis of ILP policy. It defined socialism as the establishment of “a minimum living income” and the “nationalisation of the pivots of capitalism” (i.e. “the banking system, land, mining, electrical generation and distribution, and transport.” (Fenner Brockway, Inside the Left, p. 148) In other words a typical confection of Leftist pseudo-socialism. With the exception of nationalisation of land and the minimum wage this was essentially the programme adopted by the Labour Party in the late 30s and carried out by the 1945-51 government. Given this it might well be asked, “what was the point of the continued existence of the ILP?” The answer is not a lot as we shall see.


Something very bizarre happened to the ILP in the early 1930s. Ordinarily the left wing acts as the shock troops of the Labour Party, brought out at election time to do donkey work for a small pay off after. Despite grumbling this usually works well. However occasionally the left gets ideas above its station – the Militant case is typical – or revolts at the unpleasant doings of the Parliamentary party. In this case the particular left of the era receives the order of the boot. They never want to go despite the sniping and grumbling and the parting is acrimonious. After the McDonald debacle however the ILP left voluntarily. This turned out to be a ghastly mistake from their point of view.

Officially the issue at stake was over Standing Orders – whether ILP MPs should without fail follow the Labour Party line. The ILP MPs, led by Maxton, essentially wanted freedom of action – to justify their separate existence as much as anything else. The PLP wanted (as well it might) loyalty in exchange for endorsement (which essentially meant actually getting elected). Neither side was willing to give way, leading to an inevitable break. However behind this was the looming shadow of MacDonald. Disaffiliation occurred in the summer of 1932. MacDonald had formed his National Government with his power-hungry toadies and the Tories the previous year. The Labour Party was badly split and in severe disarray. A major realignment seemed certain. To the ILPers it seemed as if their time had come.

After disaffiliation the ILP clearly didn’t know what to do. Archibald Fenner Brockway, darling of the old left and big cheese of the ‘30s ILP, remarked: “Since 1932 the Party has been a crucible of the change from reformism to revolutionism” (Inside the Left, p. 237). ‘Revolutionism’ clearly meant desperately jobbing around for popular leftwing causes. In the course of the seven remaining years of the 30s the ILP
“experimented in many directions, at one time approaching the Communist International, and at another moving towards the Trotskyist position, at one stage attaching its hope to united fronts and at another reverting to purism, at one period going all out to prepare for Soviets and at another recognising again the value of Parliament.” (Inside the Left, p. 237)

Reflecting this uncertainty of orientation and plagued by internal factions (pro- and anti-CPGB and Trotskyist) membership plummeted. Immediately before disaffiliation the ILP had 16,700 members in 653 branches. By 1935, just three years later this was down to 4,400 members in 284 branches. This was a particularly dramatic decline given the ongoing depression which had boosted almost all other left wing groups and the ILP’s relatively firm handling of Spain (sending a contingent including George Orwell) and fascism (giving important backing during the Battle of Cable Street).

Despite this the ILP retained local predominance in parts of Glasgow with numerous local councillors and a range of MPs. This was partly due to an electoral pact with Big Labour and lasted until around 1950. There were other residual centres of strength including Merthyr, Bradford, Norwich, Derby and rather bizarrely Great Yarmouth (where one LF Bunnewell was ILP councillor from 1937 to after 1975).

Second World War and after

The ILP recognised the Second World War as basically a conflict between rival capitalists. However confusion remained. The ILP’s ‘Peace Terms’ were: 1. Self determination of ‘peoples’, 2. Subordination of nations to ‘international unity’ and 3. “The establishment of an international economic organisation for the distribution of the world’s resources according to the needs of all peoples”. All of which displays the ILP failure to recognise that whilst the world’s resources are still owned and controlled by the capitalist class, conflicts between sections of that class are inevitable. 

The 1945 election was rather successful for the ILP with three candidates, James Maxton, George McGovern and the Reverend Campbell Stephen, elected (one more than the Communist Party). Fresh with a new influx the ILP seemed set for revival. The success was not to last

Maxton died little less than a year later. The following year his replacement, James Carmichael joined up with Big Labour. As did McGovern and Campbell. Fenner Brockway also took the jump, in 1947. Maxton had clearly been holding the party together and without him the thing fell apart. Re-affiliation might have saved the day. In 1945 it had knocked on Labour’s door, asking very politely for re-affiliation, but Labour (sensibly) didn’t open it.

Left out in the cold the ILP fished around for other potential alliances including with us. At the 1947 Conference a motion proposed ‘loose links’ and joint campaigns (peace, colonial freedom and other ‘causes’) with the Anarchist Federation, the Commonwealth Party and the SPGB. We said no. Further proposals were made in 1954 (“Need for a United Socialist Party”) and late 1957. We debated representatives of the ILP, including in 1928 Maxton himself, on numerous occasions throughout its career, the last being in Bolton in 1972.

The ILP gradually faded from view. It soldiered on however until someone let it back in. In 1975 it re-entered the Labour Party as Independent Labour Publications. Actually this was a bit of a cheat as individual members joined up and on 31 March 1975 the party as such declared itself terminated (a similar thing happened to the trotskyist Revolutionary Communist Party in 1949).

Despite the fact that the Independent Labour Party does not now exist, its ghost may be found haunting Left wing shindigs and the like. It remains well thought of by Leftists of a historical bent, but clearly not well remembered.


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