Left in the Centre as the title of Robert E Dowse’s pioneering history of the Independent Labour Party, According to him, soon after the First World War when the Communist Party was formed, the ILP “had its birth-right filched; it was no longer the most significant left-wing Party in Britain” . I want to question both the assumption that the ILP had lost its significance and was less significant than the CP and also that it was always somehow in the “centre” between the Labour Party and the Communist Party.
My argument will be that the story of the ILP in these years had, and has, not only some historical importance but also a lasting significance for subsequent British politics of the Left. But first I want to do two things. With apologies to those already familiar with this, I’d like to try and summarise the key points in the history of the ILP. Secondly, I want to explain – even more briefly – how I came to be interested in exploring the story of the ILP in the interwar years.
So, what do we need to bear in mind about the ILP? First, that without it there would have been no Labour Party – or at least not the party as we have known it. The ILP was formed out of a number of local organisations mainly in the north of England in 1893 – seven years before the Labour Party saw light of day as the Labour Representation Committee in 1900.
Its formation reflected the growing dissatisfaction with the strategy of seeking working-class representation via the Liberal Party which had seen about a dozen “Lib-Lab” MPs - mainly in mining areas - elected during the previous two decades. Independent meant, essentially, therefore, independent of the Liberals. Failing to make an electoral breakthrough in 1895, the party pursued Keir Hardie’s strategy of a “Labour Alliance” with the trade unions which led to the formation of the Labour Party.
Until a new constitution which inaugurated constituency Labour parties at the end of the First World War the Labour Party had a federal structure and the ILP was the usual way for individuals who were not leading union figures to participate in the larger party. The new constitution would pose the question of whether the ILP still had any role.
But meanwhile most of the early leaders of the ILP – Hardie, Ramsay MacDonald, Philip Snowden - were also, effectively, the leaders of the Labour Party as were many of the most prominent MPs such as Fred Jowett.
Between 1914 and 1918 the ILP was distinguished by its opposition to the war and its support of the struggle against conscription. Three of the most prominent figures in the interwar ILP – Clifford Allen, James Maxton and Fenner Brockway were conscientious objectors and radical anti-war activists. This opposition led to nearly all ILP MPs, including MacDonald, losing their seats in the “khaki election” of December 1918.
For a while in 1920, at the height of enthusiasm for the Bolsheviks, it looked as though the ILP would decide to affiliate to the new Third, or Communist, International. Since the Comintern policy was to allow only one affiliate in each country had this policy been adopted it would have meant a swift end ot the ILP and its absorption into the new Communist Party. Affiliation was rejected in 1921 but, as we shall see, something similar was being again advocated a decade later.
At the time of the khaki election most of the Labour candidates associated with the ILP had been rejected. However, over the next few years the ILP’s anti-war stance came to seem retrospectively justified to many more people and MacDonald and others were able to get elected again. In MacDonald’s case this was just in time for him become the first leader of the Labour Party. Formally, as in earlier years, it was simply an election for the chairmanship of the parliamentary party.
But the new political circumstances made it infinitely more significant. With the Liberals weakened by splits, Labour MPs were in effect also electing a leader of the opposition and when Baldwin, though leading the largest party following the 1923 election, declined to form a minority Tory adminstration, MacDonald became the first Labour prime minister.
He owed this position to the ILP. He had risen to Labour prominence in its ranks and he won the leadership election very narrowly by 61 votes to the 56 for his union-backed rival, Clynes. The vote was so close that not just the votes of ILP MPs were crucial but those of the so-called “Clydesiders” from Glasgow, most notably Jimmy Maxton – soon to be his sternest critics on the left.
With the advent of Labour party individual membership many outside the ILP, but only few within its ranks, wanted it to become simply what we might now call a research and propaganda organisation like the Fabian Society. The ILP would eventually do this – but not until 1975!
From the later 1920s, under the leadership of the widely respected and increasingly iconic Jimmy Maxton, the ILP functioned more and more as radical ‘party within a party” inside the parliamentary Labour Party, and in 1932, following Labour’s disaster the previous year, it left the Labour Party to promote what it called a “revolutionary policy.” At the time of disaffiliation it had five times as many members as the British Communist Party.
That will do, I think, as a general introduction.
My own path to researching the ILP during this period has been a long one. For many decades now I have tried to explore the often tricky and contradictory relationship between socialism and democracy in the British context.This began with my l thesis, here at Sussex, exploring this in the context of the pre-first world war decades which was much later published together with work by Logie Barrow who had explored similar movements in the unions of the period as Democratic Ideas and the British Labour Movement, 1880-1914. Much more recently, I tried to explain the impact what I call “the myth of Soviet democracy” on the British left in the early post Great War years in Romancing the Revolution.
My ILP new project grew out of my previous work and preoccupation with the socialism and democracy relationhip I became convinced that the ILP more clearly than any other organisation came to be what I call the ‘residuary legatee’ of forms of pre-1917, socialism in Britain during the inter-war period , It preserved not only the ideas and attitudes of its own past but also to some extent those of other pre Leninist trends of the British Left such as guild socialism. My interest was reinforced when I was asked to review Gidon Cohen’s account of the ILP in the 1930s.
The Failure of a Dream is an excellent book – but it left me wanting to explore further.the ideas of the ILP in that decade, and the whole of the inter-war period.
I want to argue that in the first part of the period – up until at least the late 1920s – the ILP stood for principles that remain relevant for any democratic socialist or social-democratic party in the 21st century, while in the later years it tested the notion of a “revolutionary party” in the British context to destruction – at least for the rest of the last century.
The ILP held many positions that would commend themselves to many of us today. It was firmly anti-imperialist and anti-militarist (though not completely pacifist). It favoured devolution, and opposed capital punishment. It stood for and tried to practise equal rights for women,. Its South Wales organiser, Minnie Pallister.was one of those very active in promoting greater participation by women.
But I want to focus on three particular policies which I believe still have considerable relevance – not in their details but in their underlying principles.
The first concerns parliamentary reform. This actually goes back well before the 1920s though it was supported by the ILP throughout the interwar period and beyond. It was what some thought the obsession of a founder member and sometime chair of the ILP, Fred Jowett. Even before his election as Labour MP for West Bradford in 1906 he was extremely critical of the parliamentary system as it then operated. In particular he attacked “the theory of Cabinet responsibility” in his regular column in the Clarion newspaper. It was, he said, ”one of the most mischievous delusions that constant repetition has ever succeeded in foisting upon the public.” His experience as an MP only strengthened this view.
Jowett’s apprenticeship as an elected representative had been served on Bradford City Council. In 1909 he set out his argument for the replacement of the cabinet system by a committee system similar to that then practised in local government. in a Clarion pamphlet, What is the Use of Parliament? His proposal would, he maintained, make parliamentary scrutiny of the administration more effective, lessen the possibilities of manipulation by permanent officials, and give MPs a badly needed and adequately serious role rather than that of simply being voting fodder for their leaders.
After the demise of the first Labour government in 1924, in which Jowett served, he returned to the issue. It was deemed important enough for the ILP to also publish a pamphlet, The Reform of Parliament, giving the speeches by Jowett and his main ILP opponent on the issue, H B Lees Smith, at the 1925 ILP Conference. Jowett’s emphasis had now shifted. He no longer seemed to be advocating the complete replacement of the cabinet by committees with their chairs taking on a quasi-ministerial role. Instead the cabinet would remain as a “General Purposes Committee” co-ordinating the work of the government. He then wrote another pamphlet , Parliament or Pallaver? Answers to objections to Proposal for Reform of Parliament. Jowett would carry on arguing the case for departmental committees in every area of policy for the rest of his life and ILP conferences would continue to pass resolutions supporting his position.
The century or so since What is the Use of Parliament? has seen what Jowett might have thought contradictory developments. On the one hand the local authority committee system has tended to give way to local “cabinets” rather than becoming a model for national government. On the other, parliamentary committees have achieved greater roles, though to the casual observer they might seem to be better at sometimes bringing outside bodies to book than increasing the accountability of government departments which Jowett saw as their essential role.
His determined opposition to the Parliamentary Labour Party standing orders, which he believed made it impossible to make honest commitments to the electorate, and his consequent support for disaffiliation from Labour in the early 1930s, was based on the same principle of making democratic representative government a reality.
Jowett's particular format may have long outlived its sell-by date, but given the cynicism, indifference and even hostility with which politics and politicians are now viewed surely his underlying aim to make elected representatives more accountable to their constituents and the executive accountable to the people’s representatives is more relevant than ever?
I believe David Howell was right to characterise the years when Clifford Allen was the dominant figure in the ILP as the “most intellectually vital period” Allen was first treasurer - very successful in raising funds from sympathisers with his antiwar stance - and then chair of the ILP. He is largely responsible for my second example of what I believe to be significant policies.
Allen was determined to find a distinctive role for the ILP. One result was the adoption in 1922 of a constitution that was broadly guild socialist. Guild Socialism, promoted by the National Guilds League and, notably, by G D H Cole had been gaining support on the wider Left for several years,. From about September 1921 onwards there was considerable debate in the ILP.with the draft programme of the National Administrative Council [ the NAC] being challenged by the more radical “London” or “Allen-Attlee” version as it was known . This was put together by as small group which included the future Labour prime minister. Attlee had been an ILP member before 1914 but not followed the party in opposing the war He had joined up, been seriously wounded and ended the conflict as a major. This didn’t in any way deter him from collaborating with Allen and other former conscientious objectors on the issue of the ILP’s constitution.
The version proposed by the ILP’s NAC declared the party’s belief I.L.P.in “democratic organisation both in its political and industrial aspects,” Politically, the whole body of citizens should exercise authority through a directly elected national assembly together with what it called “a decentralised and extended system of local government.” It went on:”The basis of industrial democracy must be 1) the organisation of wage and salary earners ; and 2) the organisation of consumers.
Supporters of the Allen-Attlee version, which included H N Brailsford , the editor of the ILP’s weekly the New Leader, and Fenner Brockway, wanted a more definite commitment to industrial democracy. They sought to add to the reference to "organisation of wage and salary earners” the words “to whom shall be secured the internal management of industry.”
To “the organisation of consumers” they wished to add “A central body , representative of the people, both as producers and consumers, must decide the amount and character of communal production and service necessary, “ plus “The internal management of each industry must be in the hands of the workers, administrative, technical and manual engaged therein, operating in conjunction with the representatives of organised consumers.”
The programme eventually adopted included features of both drafts, Mostly, in Brockway’s later words “the London draft which emphasised workers control" was adopted .The collapse of the Building Guild in January 1923 and of the National Guilds League itself not long afterwards meant that much less was subsequently heard of guild socialism either in the ILP or elsewhere. But it is not necessary to advocate the kind of elaborate reconstructions of the state that were so earnestly debated in those years to see the general contemporary relevance.- a least to those broadly on the social-democratic side of politics – of finding ways to see adequately represented the interests and views of both workers and consumers.
My final example is the “Living Wage” policy adopted in 1926. In his speech as Chair to the 1924 conference Allen insisted that “a living wage must be enforced as a national policy.” The following year he proposed to “set up a national commission” to conduct an “ impartial enquiry “ to determine “what constituted a living wage in a civilised community.”
The contemporary resonance of this after a decade or more of the new “Living Wage” campaign, not to mention the more recent rise of “zero hours” employment, will be evident.
The group that produced the Living Wage report comprised H.N. Brailsford, J.A. Hobson, A. Creech Jones and E.F. Wise, all, as one-time ILP secretary John Paton later insisted, “men with a high sense of responsibility, wide knowledge, and a good practical sense” Wise had been Assistant Director of Army Contracts and later Second Secretary to Ministry of Food during the war. He would be a Labour M.P.in 1929-31. Arthur Creech Jones shared with Wise both his civil service background and his later – much longer – career as a Labour M.P A wartime conscientious objector, he left the civil service and became a national officer of the Transport and General Workers’ Union, Hobson was, of course, already well-known chiefly for his underconsumptionist” economics, while Brailsford was long well established as a leading journalist and still at this stage editor of the New Leader.
The report sought to offer a coherent strategy which could be pursued by the next Labour government – whether majority or minority – and by which it would “stand or fall.” The promotion of the “Living Wage” policy was, predominantly, the work of Brailsford who throughout 1925 ran a series of articles in the Leader which then formed the basis of his book Socialism for To-day. A future Labour government, Brailsford argued, must be prepared for “an effort revolutionary in extent if not in method.” Its measures could not be carried out in isolation. “One could not, for example,” he wrote, “impose on industry the obligation to pay a true living wage, without facing at the same time the regulation of credit, the control of prices through the importation, by a National Board, of food and raw materials, and the reorganisation of the more depressed industries” to make it possible. But he was clear that the key demand should be for the living wage Pursuing it would necessitate and lead on to more fundamental economic developments.
The fixing, whether by combined Trade Union action, or by a Royal Commission, of any adequate figure, would drive us at once into big political changes. The demand is a battering-ram levelled at the present system.
Writing in the New Leader on New Year’s Day 1926, Brailsford observed that “Strangers who watch our movement often liken it to 'religion' The analogy is dangerously true,” But the Living wage was “a simple human demand, which must carry with it, if we can stir the ambitions and stimulate the thinking of the average worker and his wife, assent to all the rest”
Their reaction to proposals for giving priority to, for example, bank nationalisation, were, Brailsford said, likely to be cold, bewildered and sceptical. This point was reiterated in the Living Wage report itself: The policy would make:
a simple and concrete appeal to the average worker and his wife. Family Allowances and a Living Wage touch them in their daily experience of life.
The alternative title for the Living Wage, or Living Income as it soon became - was “Socialism in Our Time.” This was a great slogan – for socialists. The problem was that it shifted the emphasis from where to begin, with a wide appeal for a decent basic income for all, When Maxton, who David Howell has accurately, if perhaps a little cruelly, described as “a rhetorical Socialist” took over from Allen this emphasis became more and more predominant. Brockway’s outline of the Socialism in Our Time proposals in 1928, called Socialism - with Speed, reinforced the trend as its title suggests. So did Maxton’s speech at the ILP annual conference the following year which sought to state again the ILP’s goals. It began with “the road of public ownership of Land, Mines, Transport, Banks.”. Only in second place came the “lifting up the standards of life of the people, “
Later, John Paton, would comment on this, in his autobiographical account, Left Turn.
The original, balanced and carefully planned “Living Income Programme” ...had disappeared under the accretions with which it had been loaded (each more extreme than the last) and now was embodied in the slogan “Socialism in Our Time” This represented now little that was stable or recognisable as a programme but expressed really an ever-fiercer impatience and an extreme militancy of spirit.
Brailsford’s argument still seems relevant to any left of centre initiative in Britain– and no doubt elsewhere. The need to make “ a simple and concrete appeal to the average worker,” including those who happen to be wives, remains more urgent than ever, one might think.
I think the 3 policies I have outlined still have some contemporary relevance, in terms of their underlying aims and principles if not their specific details.
If there are “lessons” from the ILP of the earlier 1920s they are, then, I argue, positive ones. Those of the later interwar period are almost entirely negative. The history of the ILP in these years seems to demonstrate the impracticability of supposedly revolutionary politics in 20 century Britain. And it does it rather well and quite comprehensively.
Largely in response to the campaigns waged against government policy by Maxton and the ILP group in the Commons, the second Labour government had been attempting to tighten its control over backbench MPs. Standing orders required them to support government policies. For some, notably Fred Jowett, this was the central issue.in the disaffiliation debate. How could candidates at elections promise to support the policies adopted by the Labour Party at its conferences when the cabinet might decide to pursue a quite different course and require backbench MPs to support it? As Jowett put it in his pamphlet The I.L.P Says No
the present Standing Orders empower the Parliamentary Party, at its own discretion, to prohibit Labour members from acting in the House of Commons in accordance with their platform propaganda.
But for many others, probably most, in the ILP the standing orders controversy was just another symptom. The disease was Labour’s servile commitment to what was called “reformism” and “gradualism.” What was needed was a revolutionary policy.
In his 1942 book Inside the Left, Fenner Brockway mentions a conversation he had with Arthur Henderson, the Labour Party secretary at the Geneva Disarmament Conference early in 1932 some months before the decision to disaffiliate was made by the ILP. . To Brockway’s surprise he found that Henderson did not concentrate on “the letter of the Standing Orders” and had taken the view that organisational difficulties could be overcome. His concern was rather about where the ILP was heading in terms of policy.
He challengingly raised the issue as to whether we had any real faith in Parliament. He had gathered that we believed that ultimately the transition from Capitalism to Socialism would be made not through Parliament but by a direct struggle for power between the working-class and the possessing class. Did this mean that we stood for Socialism by revolution?
Well, yes it did – but there were very different and irreconcilable differences among those bent on leaving the Labour Party concerning just what this entailed. Even those who opposed disaffiliation – which included all the authors of the original Living Wage report, were adamant in rejecting at least the sort of “gradualism” pursued by the MacDonald government. But , they argued, with MacDonald now heading a so-called “national” government Labour was already moving in the right, radical direction. The ILP’s task was to ensure that this continued.Supporters of disaffiliation rejected this. But they were just as deeply divided, as the events of the next few years would amply demonstrate.
The most vociferous supporters of disaffiliation and a decisive move into the revolutionary camp was the Revolutionary Policy Committee.- or RPC. Its notion of what a revolutionary policy entailed was working towards a united front with the Communist Party and eventually to a merger with it.
But this was the exact opposite of what many other would-be ILP revolutionaries wanted, The stance of the party’s general secretary at the time of disaffilation, John Paton, who supported disaffiliation, exemplified this. He would later write:
It was clear to me that the success of the new I.L.P. could only be achieved at the expense of the Communist Party. The new policy would consolidate within the I.L.P. those elements which tended to be attracted to Communism; it might hope to draw from the Communist Party those of its adherents who were dissatisfied with its constant failures; and it would stand a good chance of drawing fresh support to the I.L.P. from the considerable numbers of people of Left views but attached to no party. It was a policy, in my view, which would set the I.L.P. not only in definite competition with the Communist Party, but in active and determined opposition to it in a struggle from which I believed the I.L.P. would emerge victoriously.
Disaffilation saw a loss of membership, with ex-ILPers in England and Wales playing a leading part in forming the Socialist League, and much of the Scottish division of the party – which was one of the strongest divisions together with Lancashire, leaving to form the Scottish Socialist Party. Both quickly affiliated to Labour. But that was only the beginning.
Initially, the trend in the ILP seemed to be in the RPC direction. This produced a reaction among those who feared what they thought was an inevitable take-over by the Communists and in 1934 many – including a very substantial part of the Lancashire division - left and set up the Independent Socialist Party. The ISP intended a cautious move back towards Labour but was thwarted by the Labour Party executive proscribing it and it eventually disappeared a few years after the Second World War. Paton had already resigned in 1933 as had R C Wallhead a former chair of the ILP and one of the few Labour MPs to survive the 1931 election.
But the fears about subordination to the Communists turned out to be unfounded. Rather ironically this was largely because by the end of the decade, which began with the Communists in their uncompromising “class against class” sectarian mode, the CP and the ILP had effectively swapped places. It was now the ILPers who were the uncompromising revolutionaries while the Communists, in support of Soviet attempts to secure an alliance with Britain and France against Germany, were committed to the notion of the “Popular Front.”
Brockway, was criticised by RPC members for a series of articles deploring the new – very unrevolutionary, he thought – course of Soviet foreign policy and eventually a whole series of issues brought matters to a head around the time of the general election in 1935. At that point most of the RPC people departed to join the Communists. The following year, 1936, most of the Marxist Group, a small band of Trotskyists, including the well-known author, historian, and cricket writer, C L R James, which had joined the ILP in 1934, also found it impossible to turn the ILP into their conception of a revolutionary party and likewise departed.
A central feature of the RPC’s notion of a revolutionary policy involved the downgrading of the importance of parliamentary politics in favour of what were called “workers’ councils.” Like much of the British left the ILP was prone to acceptance of the myth of soviet democracy. But the attempt to move the focus of political activity from parliament to some kind of quasi-soviets revealed more disagreements.. Some argued that workers’ councils were not only impracticable but undesirable given that local bodies such as trades councils already fulfilled their function.
Support for workers’ councils was by no means confined to members of the RPC. C A Smith, later to chair the ILP, believed that “Parliament, the instrument created by the capitalists to give legal sanction to their exploitation...cannot become the means by which their power is overthrown.” But for others this looked extremely worrying.
In his resignation letter Wallhead vehemently rejected the new policy of the ILP for “relegating the use of Parliament to a minor place and substituting for it a physical force revolution through Workers' Councils.” Jowett lambasted those who wanted “to get power by civil war.” at the 1933 annual conference He was totally opposed to this but thought that, in any case, it was” unlikely to happen in a country where you needed a licence to hold gun.” A little earlier a New Leader piece by him bore the title “Not by Civil War, A Parliamentary Majority Must be Won.”
Early in 1934 changes were introduced intended to improve ILP efficiency and to provide “a real leadership for the party.”. This was to be achieved by adding to the long established NAC a smaller executive committee, and an even smaller group with power to take emergency decision. which came to be known as the “Inner Executive.” But this rather sinister sounding body met - not as one might expect from the name in some dark Venetian interrogation room in the Doge’s Palace -but at the House of Commons.. From 1935 it comprised 3 of the 4 ILP MPs. This was a strange situation for a supposedly revolutionary party which was, officially, at very least sceptical about the value of parliamentary representation.
Another of the trappings thought essential to a proper revolutionary party was the adoption of “democratic centralism” where policies having been agreed democratically were then accepted and supported by all without criticism. If this ever works in the way it is supposed to it certainly didn’t in the case of the ILP. The weekly New Leader was no longer to be a vehicle for debate and criticism. It was now instructed to promote the party line. Opponents, like Elijah Sandham, chair of the Lancashire division and later leading figure in the breakaway ISP, perceived this as the adoption of what he called “the Communist and Russian model. No controversy is allowed in the New Leader in case the workers hear something which is not fit for their ears. Everything in the party has to be designed by the select few supermen at the head of affairs, then told in simple language to the humble rank and file. “
But if anything like this had been the intention it failed dismally.. The chief offender seemed to be the, new national secretary, Fenner Brockway. His articles critical of Soviet foreign policy led to protests and accusations of breaching ILP policy from the most determined proponents of ‘democratic centralism’ in the RPC Internal argument was not silenced; it was simply displaced from the New Leader to the aptly named discussion journal called Controversy. Its role, as reported to the 1937 ILP conference, was to maintain a genuine open forum, with the “regular presentation of I.L.P policies and also of opposed policies.” Nor was its circulation even confined to ILP members. By 1939 a virtue was made of the fact that it sold to what were called “serious students of politics” in the Communist, Labour, and Co-operative parties. If the idea was to show a united front to the world and keep internal disagreements within the party, it was no more successful than such attempts usually are.
In July 1939 C A Smith, now chair of the ILP, complained, in the new internal discussion organ Between Ourselves of the “deplorable lack of discipline” in the party. Since 1934, he wrote, there had been a series of episodes which he regarded as as abusing ILP freedom and even as “flagrant treachery.” Party platforms had been used to advocate policies not accepted by the ILP. There were groups with their “own policy and discipline” sometimes acting in conjunction with outside bodies and there were attacks on the party and its leadership, and refusal of specific duties such as the distribution of the New Leader. “All such anti-Party conduct must cease, “ he demanded – probably with more hope than expectation.
Was “democratic centralism” in the ILP any more than part of the attempt to be “revolutionary” by adopting a Leninist vocabulary which had little correspondence to the party’s reality?
When Mussolini invaded Ethiopia – or Abyssinia as it was then more generally known - in 1935, the ILP became split between the advocacy three different policies. . There were those, notably Maxton the ILP chair and the other MPs, who saw the imminent conflict in terms of the two rival dictators-Mussolini and Haile Selassie, the Ethiopian emperor. Secondly, followig the Communist Party line there were the supporters of League of Nations’ sanctions like the RPC. And, thirdly, those who rejected this in favour of trying to support the “small defenceless nation” by means of “workers’ sanctions.”
Brockway took the lead in demanding “workers’ sanctions” – action by trade unionists – especially dockers – to refuse military supplies to Italy. It was, said the New Leader, which Brockway was editing “ up to the workers to do everything in their power to stop war supplies going to Mussolini” and it predicted that “Threatened with a mass movement at home, France and Britain will think again before vouchsafing open or camouflaged support to Italian Fascism.”
This was all of a piece with the general line of the ILP at the time, Any notion of a “popular front” was rejected in favour of a “workers’s front,” Brockway published a substantial book with this title in 1938. But Maxton and the other members of the Inner Executive still insisted on their position of staying neutral between the “two dictators”
All this came to a head at the 1936 annual conference. By 70 votes to 57 a motion was passed congratulating Brockway “on the line adopted by him on the sanctions issue” – the workers’ sanctions line - and declaring that the conference dissociated itself “from the declaration of the Inner Executive” which it said conflicted with party policy and was a “contradiction of Party discipline.” It seemed as though the authority of the annual conference as the policy-making body of the party had been vindicated and the “rival dictators” position of the parliamentarians repudiated - along with its interpretation of “democratic centralism” . But the following day Maxton, chairing the conference, told delegates that
The Chairman of the Party, the three members of the Inner Executive, the Parliamentary Group, and other members of the National Council are unable conscientiously to operate the decision reached yesterday.
Faced with this bombshell and the prospect of the resignations of its MPs the NAC, citing the narrowness of the majority, decided to refer that matter to a “ballot vote” of all ILP members.
This duly took place’ The “ballot vote” was supposed to establish clearly the view of at least the majority of ILP members and to draw a line under a divisive and confusing issue. But if this was hardly the result. The vote itself became a divisive issue. Some objected to it taking place at all - the decisions of the annual conference should be upheld. Others considered the wording on the ballot paper to be misleading and inaccurate. Of the 3,751 ballots papers sent out only 1,442 - considerably less than half =were returned. The Inner Executive position was endorsed – but with substantial opposition.
This was hardly the sort of thing that was supposed to happen in a revolutionary party practising “democratic centralism.” And it demonstrated the dominance of Maxton and his parliamentary colleagues of a party that was supposed to have relegated parliamentary politics to a subordinate place.
Like the greater part of the Left, most members of the ILP remained mesmerised by the apparent revolutionary success of the USSR. The British CP was often treated with disdain. But it took a great deal to begin to shift attitudes towards a more critical view of a Russia seen as the home, and the hope. of revolutionary socialism. But by the second half of the thirties it was underway.
The final years of the 1930s saw the collapse of the latest effort to produce a “united front” of left-wing parties and a growth of extreme hostility between the ILP and the Communist Party. This was occasioned by what one might call – in retrospect – the Homage to Catalonia aspect of the Spanish Civil war and the ILP’s growing disillusionment with the USSR occasioned chiefly by that war and by the notorious Moscow show trials of 1936 to ‘38. It is ironic, particularly for a party routinely seen as “in the centre” or “centrist,” that by the later 1930s the ILP and the CP had effectively swapped places on the conventional political spectrum as we have seen. It advocate a “workers’ front” not the ‘popular front. And it was now the ILP rather than the CPGB that pursued a form of “class war.” It supported outright revolution in Spain.
In spite of its uncompromising position by the end of 1937 the ILP began to contemplate rejoining the Labour party. Brockway, particularly and perhaps surprisingly , was a leading advocate of the doing this for “tactical” reasons and with the greatest of reluctance it was agreed in 1939 to call as special conference to consider the recommendation of the leadership to seek reaffiliation.
Only the outbreak of the Second World War a week or two before the conference was scheduled prevented this from taking place. By this time ILP membership had dwindled from nearly 17,000 at the time of disaffiliation to less than 2,500. As in the previous conflict the ILP became opponents of the war and remained in a much reduced form for several decades until they rejoined the Labour Party – now as a “think tank” called Independent Labour Publication in 1975.
Meanwhile, many had already rejoined Labour. Some, like Brockway and Bob Edwards, the leader of the ILP volunteers who fought in Spain, would play an active parliamentary role in the post-war decades. Brockway records that such people, whether they had supported or opposed disaffiliation in 1932 were clear that it had been a huge mistake.
What conclusions can we draw from all this? As already argued, I believe there was much about the ILP, especially the three policies I highlighted and outlined, that seem to me relevant to any party of the democratic left today. But the experiences of the post-disaffiliation ILP seems to me to show that there was no real prospects for success for a revolutionary party in 20th century Britain .
It was unlikely that sufficient agreement on what exactly constituted a revolutionary policy could be maintained long enough to have any substantial impact. And in any case the prospects for revolution never looked good. Its appeal was very limited.Such is my case for the contemporary relevance of the interwar ILP experience. There were positive aspects – particularly the 3 policies from the 1920s that I’ve highlighted.
As for the pursuit later of “revolutionary policy one can easily appreciate Tawney’s well-known remark, made about what he called the “infantile disease of Left-wingism” in the 1930s no doubt with the would-be revolutionary ILP, and many others, in mind. “Invitations to hunt tigers were issued by sportsmen with whom a brave man might well hesitate to shoot rabbits.”