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The rise of the Labour Party

An important political development during the war was the rapid growth of the Labour Party. Although it was formally established in 1900, its beginnings dated from 1874, as part of the trade union movement. The trade unions themselves had grown enormously, from two million members to five million by 1914, and eight million by 1918. In that year, for the first time, all men aged twenty-one and some women over thirty were allowed to vote. The number of voters doubled from eight to sixteen million people, most of whom belonged to the working class.

As a result of these changes, the Labour Party, which had won twenty-nine seats in the 1906 election, won fifty-seven seats in 1918, 142 seats in 1922, and 191 seats in 1923. The following year the first Labour government was created. The Labour Party, however, was not "socialist". Its leaders were, or had become, members of the middle classes. Instead of a social revolution, they wanted to develop a kind of socialism that would fit the situation in Britain. This was partly because Labour's leaders did not wish to frighten the voters. It was also because middle-class thinkers before the war had almost completely failed to interest the working class in socialist ideas. In fact Karl Marx, who spent most of his life in Britain studying and writing, was almost unknown except to a few friends. Both he and his close friend Friedrich Engels, who owned a factory in Manchester, had little hope of the British working classes becoming truly socialist. In 1885 Engels had written of the trade unionists: "The fools want to reform society to suit themselves, but not reform themselves to suit the development of society." Most working-class people wished to improve their financial situation and to enjoy the advantages of the middle class without becoming involved in socialist beliefs. The trade unions and the Labour movement had been shaped by the experiences of the nineteenth century. They did not believe they could bring down the existing form of government, and in any case they wanted to change things by accepted constitutional means, in Parliament. This was partly because they were supported not only by the working class but also by radicals already in Parliament.

By 1914 the socialist Beatrice Webb could write: "The landslide in England towards social democracy proceeds steadily, but it is the whole nation that is sliding, not one class of manual workers." That slide has continued for most of this century. As a result, the effect on Britain of the 1917 Bolshevik revolution in Russia was not as great as many feared it would be. Enough people were interested in Marxism to establish a Communist Party, but the Labour Party firmly refused to be connected with it. However, Marxism stirred a deep-seated fear in the Conservative Party, which has continued to see evidence of Marxist Socialism behind the Labour Party, the trade unions and strike action.

As a result of Labour's success in 1924, the Liberal Party almost completely disappeared. Liberals with traditional capitalist ideas on the economy joined the Conservative Party, while most Liberal "reformers" joined the Labour Party.



Date: 2015-01-02; view: 1817

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