Gidon Cohen, The Failure of a Dream

The Independent Labour Party from Disaffiliation to World War II, Taurus, 2007

This account of the ILP in the 1930s begins with an outline of the Party's history during the seven years between leaving the Labour Party and the outbreak of war. The second chapter looks at the disaffiliation itself and the remaining chapters – apart from the Conclusion – are thematic, covering aspects ranging from membership and organisation, relationships with the Communist and Labour parties, and the ILP's international involvements. This structure has both merits and drawbacks. On the positive side we get to view the Party from a number of different angles and in varying perspectives; but inevitably, especially given the short period that the book covers, there is a lot of repetition with the same events, groupings and individuals turning up in the different contexts.

The ILP's crucial role in the foundation of the Labour Party meant that up until the end of the First World War it had functioned as the main vehicle for individuals to participate in the larger Party, locally and nationally. The introduction of constituency parties by the post-war constitution of the Labour Party threatened to make this role redundant and presented the ILP with a dilemma over where it should be going and what its relationship should be with the larger entity. But it is difficult to entirely go along with Cohen's characterisation of it as developing in the direction of a 'think tank' in the 1920s under the chairmanship of Clifford Allen. It was surely much more than this. For a start, it was much bigger than most organisations designated in this way today. It was more than five times the size of the CPGB at the time of disaffiliation in 1932 as we are reminded in the very first sentence of the Introduction.

Cohen rejects the view that disaffiliation was simply an act of 'insanity'. But he is clear that most ILPers would have preferred to remain affiliated and that the majority of members who supported disaffiliation came to this position with the greatest reluctance. As late as the beginning of 1932, the year of the breach with Labour, six of the nine ILP Divisions, accounting for about 80% of the membership, voted to remain affiliated to Labour at their meetings preceding the Party's national conference. Yet within a quite shortly thereafter the decision to disaffiliate was taken, with the result that about a third of the membership departed. So, why, if there was so much reluctance to part company with Labour and so much opposition to doing so, did the delegates to the crucial conference resolve on disaffiliation?

There were groupings, notably the 'Revolutionary Policy Committee' formed the previous year, which had their own reasons for supporting disaffiliation, but Cohen is clear that the key role was played by the conflict over the Standing Orders of the Parliamentary Labour Party. This went back to 1929 after a period when the more militant ILP MPs, notably Maxton, had been fierce Left-wing critics of the Labour leadership and, from the latter's point of view, had signally failed to display the loyalty it expected from its parliamentary supporters. Incompatible decisions by both parties were then taken. The ILP for its part resolved that all ILP MPs and candidates should formally undertake to support the policies determined by its conferences while the Parliamentary Labour Party introduced new Standing Orders which precluded MPs from voting against the decisions of the PLP. This might have seemed something that concerned mainly the ILP Parliamentary Group, but when at by-elections and subsequently the general election of 1931 Labour failed to endorse ILP candidates – 19 of them at the general election – resentment and anger were widespread among their supporters.

Nevertheless, at the regular ILP annual conference in 1932 delegates voted against immediate disaffiliation and resolved by a very large majority to re-open negotiations with Labour on a compromise solution for the Standing Orders conflict. This was, says Cohen, 'a victory for the politics of Micawber.' Labour had already made it crystal clear that it was not prepared to give any ground at all on the question and the hope that something would turn up to rescue the ILP from its dilemma was doomed to failure. A special conference in July 1932 bowed to the inevitable and took the decision to disaffiliate. But it would have been interesting to hear a little more about exactly how the decision to call the 'disaffiliation conference' was made. And anyone could be forgiven for wondering how the Labour Party, so soon after the MacDonald defection and the disastrous 1931 election which reduced its number of MPs from the 287 won in 1929 to 46, could contemplate the loss of the ILP so calmly.

One outspoken supporter of the ILP line on the Standing Orders was the veteran ILPer and former MP, and indeed former minister, Fred Jowett. For him what was at issue was the electorate's right to elect MPs who would honour the pledges made during the campaign – in the case of those supported by the ILP the policies determined by the Party's conference. Again, it would have been very interesting if these arguments had been explored further. Jowett had a long record as a critic of what passed for representative government going back well before the Great War. He had doggedly pursued the celebrated 'Bradford Resolution' for years and continued to advocate the replacement of Cabinet government by a committee system, though he served in MacDonald's first Cabinet. His position on the PLP Standing Orders was closely related to his more general stance on democracy. So much is clear from Brockway's account in his biography of Jowett. How big a part did this play in ILP attitudes more generally at the time of disaffiliation?

As far as ILP membership is concerned, the book presents a more nuanced picture than the usual one of inevitable and precipitate decline. Significant fluctuations in membership were new neither to the ILP nor in other left-wing parties where, for example, the CP suffered a much greater percentage of loss during the first ten months of the disaffiliated ILP. What was more worrying for the ILPers that remained was that membership continued to fall by slightly larger proportions in the following two years. And as a result of serious declines in old strongholds such as Lancashire, Yorkshire and Wales, less 'traditional' areas where membership decline had been lower came to carry a greater weight within the organisation. But the picture was not one of universal decline; some areas saw substantial new growth in membership and branches. And in elections the Party achieved some modest success in some of its strongholds.

Though the ILP became more consciously orientated towards the trade union movement following disaffiliation its impact was patchy and, overall, modest. It should have done better with women. One of the features of the early ILP back in the 1890s and 1900s had been that it was far less 'masculine' in tone than its rival socialist organisations, notably the SDF. Women had played a relatively large part in its organisation at all levels and in a variety of roles, with, for example Katherine Bruce Glasier taking over the editorship of the Labour Leader for several key years either side of the end of the Great War. In the post-disaffiliation period there were only three women members of the NAC, two of whom, Dorothy Jewson and Jennie Lee, lasted only until 1934 and 1935 respectively leaving Kate Spurell as the sole female member. Separate representation of women within the Party, already declining in previous years, was brought to an end – with the support of the 'revolutionary' element – soon after the breach with Labour.

Another area where the impact of this wing of the membership can be seen concerned the organisation of the Party. Since its inception, the ruling body – between national conferences – had been the National Administrative Council. The name was deliberately chosen to suggest that this body would not behave in the authoritarian way attributed to many, if not all, executive committees. At a time when such issues as whether the ILP should have a 'president' caused much debate and when the Clarion, weekly rival of Labour Leader, would inevitably leap on any pretensions to 'leadership' among the notables of the Party and was prone to spot the slightest sign of incipient bureaucracy this was very much in accord with the times.

But in the 1930s sterner attitudes came to the fore. In 1934, against the inevitable objection of many, notably Jowett, the ILP adopted its own version of 'democratic centralism' involving the creation not only of an Executive Committee but also the rather sinister sounding Inner Executive. The latter was supposed to enable the Party to function 'underground' should the ILP be made illegal, but by 1935 it consisted of three MPs – James Maxton, Campbell Stephen, and John McGovern – who met in a committee room of the House of Commons (rather than the Doge's Palace as the name might have led one to anticipate.). It became a controversial force, accused of dictatorship, especially in relation to the 'Abyssinian' crisis. I would have welcomed more about the arguments on both sides of the 'democratic centralism' debate and the subsequent criticisms and defences of the new structure.

The key chapter of the book in explaining 'the failure of a dream' seems to be 'Divided We Fall'. It is always difficult to draw the line between productive critical debate and destructive factionalism and this was exemplified by what took place in the ILP during the years in question. Apart from those wishing to remain affiliated to the Labour Party who helped form the Socialist League, there were at least three distinct groupings pulling in very different directions. The Revolutionary Policy Committee's notion of a 'revolutionary' policy did not correspond to the interpretation of other would-be revolutionaries in the Party. It stood among other things for closer co-operation with the Communists, nationally and internationally, an approach which seemed to flourish for a couple of years and then become untenable after the events in Spain and above all in Barcelona put the two organisations at loggerheads. Soon after the RPC left en masse to join the CP. In the meantime, unimpressed by the progress being made by the RPC, the CP had infiltrated both the ILP's youth movement and the ILP itself. The CP's Central Committee set up a Committee for Affiliation to the Comintern within the ILP. Those who had been ILP members in 1920 and 1921 must have recalled the attempts of the 'Left-Wing of the ILP' to secure the Party's affiliation to the Third International. But this time the ILP also attracted the attentions of Trotskyists in the shape of the 'Marxist Group'.

Moves in these directions were opposed by a 'Unity Group' – whose title was not of course intended to be ironic, though much of it left to form the Independent Socialist Party in 1934. The group was committed to 'ethical socialism'. It would have been good if this had been explored more fully, though Cohen does supply some interesting examples of the related social activities of the Party. To some extent at least the ILP by the 'thirties had become a sort of residuary legatee of much of the pre-Leninist radical Left, including aspects of the Clarion movement, the Guild Socialists, the syndicalists and perhaps even the old SDF as well as the ILP's 'traditional' features. Its opponents within the Party represented the more recent trends which we are now more familiar with from other, wider, contexts.

There is a great deal of fascinating detail and helpful insights in this book. But one might wish that important elements, notably the move towards 'democratic centralism' and the nature of 'ethical socialism' , had been unpacked and explored a little more. One final frivolous thought – will this book be the first, or perhaps the only, academic study in 2007 to cite work (on Maxton) by the current PM?

Ian Bullock