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The Labour Party (UK)

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The Labour Party is one of the United Kingdom's two main political parties, and currently dominates British politics.

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Early Years

It was established at a Conference on Labour Representation at the Memorial Hall, London on February 7, 1900 as the Labour Representation Committee[?] to act as the parliamentary arm of the trade union movement. Its first leader was James Keir Hardie. The group's Members of Parliament renamed themselves the Parliamentary Labour Party on February 15, 1906. In the party's early years, the Independent Labour Party (ILP) provided much of it's activist base as the party did not have an individual membership until 1918 and operated as a conglomerate of affiliated bodies until that date.

British politics in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century was divided between the perceived 'establishment', represented by the Conservative Party, (nicknamed the Tories) and a more radical 'non-conformist' tradition, based around Welsh Methodism. The latter tradition was embodied by the Liberal Party under leaders like William E. Gladstone and David Lloyd George. However the Liberal Party split between factions supporting leader David Lloyd George and former leader Herbert Asquith. Its split allowed the radical left of centre vote to be picked up by the Labour Party, which had its own Welsh methodist base and associations with 'non-conformism'. It was this non-conformist appeal, rather than its socialism, that led it to supplant the Liberal Party as the main opposition to the Conservatives at the 1922 general election, Labour formed its first minority government with Liberal support in January 1924. The Conservatives returned to power nine months later following a hoax "Red scare" over the Zinoviev Letter.

The Split Under MacDonald

The election of May 1929 saw Labour returned for the first time as the largest party in the House of Commons, and Ramsay MacDonald formed a second Liberal-backed government, though Labour's lack of a parliamentary majority again prevented it from carrying out its desired legislative programme.

The financial crisis of 1931 caused a disastrous split in the party, with MacDonald and most senior ministers going into alliance with the Conservatives as the "National Government" (August 24, 1931) while most of the party rank-and-file went into opposition under the leadership of first George Lansbury and (from 1935) Clement Attlee. It was also in this period that ILP leader James Maxton led the ILP out of the Labour Party, removing a substantial proportion of the left of the party from membership.

While MacDonald's "National Labour" following dwindled to a small parliamentary appendage to the Conservatives, opposition Labour rapidly regained most of the party's former electoral support, and entered the wartime coalition government of Winston Churchill (May 1940) on terms of near equality with the Conservative majority.

Post-War Victory to the 1960s

With the end of the war in Europe in May 1945, Labour resolved not to repeat the Liberals' error of 1918, and to withdraw from the government and to contest the subsequent general election (July 5) in opposition to Churchill's Conservatives. Surprisingly to many (especially overseas) observers, Labour won a landslide majority, reflecting voters' perception of it as the party to carry through wartime promises of reform.

As prime minister for more than six years, Attlee presided over a policy of selective nationalisation (the Bank of England, coal, electricity, gas, the railways and iron & steel) and the development of a "cradle to grave" welfare state under health minister Aneurin Bevan. The creation in 1948 of Britain's National Health Service remains Labour's proudest achievement.

Having lost power to the Conservatives in October 1951[?] the Labour party spent thirteen years in opposition. They returned to government under Harold Wilson in 1964[?] and remained in power until 1970.

The 1960s Labour government, although far less radical on economic policy than it's 1940s predecessor, introduced some important social reforms, such as the legalisation of abortion and homosexuality, and also the abolition of the death penalty. Harold Wilson's government was narrowly defeated by Edward Heath's Conservatives in the 1970 general election. The party won power again in 1974[?], also under Harold Wilson.

The 1970s

The 1970s proved to be a disastrous time to be in government, and faced with a world-wide economic downturn and a badly suffering British economy, the Labour Government would be forced to go to the World Bank for a loan to ease them through their financial troubles. However, conditions attached to the loan meant the adoption of a more liberal economic programme by the Labour Government, meaning a move away from the party's traditional policy base.

The 1970s were also dogged by a host of industrial problems, including widespread strikes and trade union militancy. The Labour Party's close ties to the increasingly unpopular trade unions, caused the party to gradually lose support throughout the decade.

In 1976, Wilson stood down as Labour Party leader and Prime Minister, and was replaced by James Callaghan.

In the same year as Callaghan became leader, the party in Scotland suffered the breakaway of the Scottish Labour Party (SLP). This breakaway was prompted by dissatisfaction with the lack of progress being made by the then Labour government on delivering a devolved Scottish Assembly. Whilst ultimately the SLP proved no real threat to the Labour Party's strong Scottish electoral base it did show that people were beginning to think of breaking with the mainstream UK Labour Party, a forerunner of the SDP breakaway in the early 1980s. It also served to lose the party Jim Sillars, perhaps there most able and articulate Scottish MP, and certainly one of their leaders in the debate surrounding devolution in Scotland.

Ultimately, the economic problems facing the Labour Government of the 1970s proved too great for them to surmount. In 1979 they faced the disastrous winter of discontent, and in the 1979 general election they suffered electoral defeat to the Tories, led by Margaret Thatcher.

The Thatcher Years

The aftermath of the election defeat in 1979 provoked a period of bitter internal rivalry in Labour. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the party became bittered divided between left wingers under Michael Foot and Tony Benn, who dominated the party organisation at grassroots level, and right wingers under Denis Healey. The election of Foot to the leadership (where he proved an electoral disaster) led in March 1981 to the formation of a breakaway group, the Social Democratic Party, under the Gang of Four, new SDP leader and former Labour deputy leader Roy Jenkins, and former senior ministers David Owen, Shirley Williams and William Rodgers. It formed an alliance with the Liberal Party (UK) under David Steel. The new SDP-Liberal Alliance initially was highly popular, leading Steel at one stage to tell his party, during a conference speech, to "Go out and prepare for government".

However Britain's First Past the Post electoral system, which can produce results that bare no comparison nationally with the percentages received in elections, worked to the SDP-Liberal Alliance's disadvantage. Though it received one quarter of all votes cast, it won only a handful of seats in the 1987 general election. Ultimately, the two parties merged to form the Liberal Democrats (though a small minority in each party founded new parties with the names SDP and the Liberals).

The Labour Party having lost most of its right-wing to the SDP lurched to the left. With Michael Foot as leader they went into the 1983 General Election with what many regard as the most left-wing manifesto the Labour party ever conceived. The manifesto contained pledges to unilaterally disarm Britain's nuclear deterant, withdraw from the EC, and pledged a programme of mass nationalisation of industry.

The right-wing press took full advantage of this and wasted no time in attacking the party. Labour's chances of electoral success were further damaged by the fact that the Thatcher government's popularity was on the rise after successfully guiding the country to victory in the Falklands War. This bolstered Thatcher who had been low in the polls due to a severe economic downturn. The 1983 manifesto was arguably the 'nail in the coffin' to Labour's campaign and was famously described by the senior Labour politician, Gerald Kaufman as being 'the longest suicide note in history'.

After suffering a landslide defeat at the 1983 election. The Labour party underwent a fundamental rethink as to its policies. The left wing Michael Foot was replaced by Neil Kinnock, who though initially a firebrand left winger, moved the party to the centre, expelling far left groups such as the Militant Tendency. Despite another General Election defeat in 1987 Kinnock managed to hold onto the party leadership and continued his reform of the party. By 1992, the party had reformed to such an extent that it was perceived as a credible candidate for government. However a disastrous electoral platform and an embarrassingly triumphalist party rally ahead of the election produced a backlash that saw the Conservatives under John Major unexpectedly returned to power. Kinnock resigned and was replaced by John Smith, a moderate middle of the road socialist from Scotland. He continued Kinnock's reforms of the party. However he died suddenly in 1994 of a heart attack.

New Labour

Under the leadership of Tony Blair the Labour Party, rebranded itself as New Labour, a move designed to reassure the voters of 'middle-England' that they have moved away from their old leftist image. This shift has been characterised by the party moving more to the centre and away from its socialist policies of the 1980s. Under skilled media manipulation, with a moderate social democratic policy platform, and a more media-friendly public image, and aided again by the unproportional nature of Britain's electoral system, Labour won a landslide majority in the May 1997 general election on a percentage of the popular vote that under proportional electoral systems would have seen it win at best a small majority. Labour though skill and rebranding won the election. It was also helped by public exhaustion with the Conservative Party (which had been in power since 1979) and some commentators have suggested that even 'old Labour' would have won in 1997. The Tories were also damaged by allegations of sleaze aimed against some middle ranking ministers, and perceived Conservative disunity under John Major, between the more fundamentalist successors of Thatcher and more moderate members.

The Labour Party has continued to hold the centre ground in British politics, winning a further landslide majority in 2001, the first time ever for the Labour Party. Some both inside and outside the party have accused its leader and his aides of tailoring policy to media tastes and exploiting internal mechanisms of control.

Although the Labour party currently has an overwhelming majority in Parliament, there are tentative signs that the Conservative Party leadership is beginning to regroup by moving leftwards towards the centre. Having suffered the humiliation of failing to win any new seats in the 2001 general election, questions have been raised as to its longterm prospects. It problems have been added to by the perceived ineffectiveness of its current leader, Iain Duncan Smith. Some have suggested that the crisis in the Conservative Party today, with battles between moderates and right wingers, coupled with an effective leader, mirror those of the Labour Party in the 1980s under Michael Foot. While the Liberal Democrats did win a dramatic increase in seat numbers in the 1997 and 2001 elections, it has yet to show clear evidence of its ability to overtake a demoralised and divided Conservative Party, in the same way Labour overtook the Liberals in 1922.

David Owen, the former leader of the SDP, claims that he and the rest of the gang of four (Roy Jenkins, Bill Rogers[?] and Shirley Williams), in effect invented New Labour. Stephen Fielding[?] of Salford University, claims that New Labour is a media myth. Will Hutton[?] regards Gordon Brown as the first "real" Keynesian Chancellor. Private Eye has started to refer to Labour as "New" Labour, and John Reid (leader of the House of Commons, and a Labour cabinet member), regards it as a natural development of Bevanism.

As well as being in government across the whole UK, the Labour Party are in power (jointly with the Liberal Democrats) in the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly.

The Labour Party is a member of the Socialist International and the Party of European Socialists (the social democrat bloc in the European Parliament).

See also:

Leaders of the Labour Party since 1906

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