A brief history of the
Labour Party
Rowena Hammal
History of the Labour Party
In 1900 the Labour Representation Committee was formed, and in 1906 it changed
its name to the Labour Party. It was made up of a collection of groups including:
Labour Party
a small political
party founded in
Trade unions
who wanted to
be represented
in Parliament
including the
Socialist League
and the Social
The Fabians
who favoured
the gradual
introduction of
History of the Labour Party
Early years
The new party faced several problems:
1. The FPTP system
made it difficult for a
new party to win seats.
1. In 1903 Labour and
the Liberal Party made
an electoral pact not to
oppose each other in
certain constituencies.
This won Labour 29
seats in the 1906
2. Many workingclass men, and all
women, did not have
the vote.
2. Working-class
men, and women
over 30 who were
householders, were
enfranchised by the
Representation of
the People Act
3. After the 1917
Russian revolution,
there was
considerable public
fear of communism.
3. Ramsay
MacDonald, party
leader from 1922,
embraced moderate
History of the Labour Party
The 1920s: a period of progress
In 1924 Labour formed its first minority government. It lasted just 9 months, but
the party had entered the corridors of power. However, they had yet to win an
election, as the Conservatives won more seats in the 1923 election, but failed to
win a majority.
Labour’s first prime minister, James Ramsay MacDonald, pursued moderate
policies and attempted to show the electorate that Labour could be trusted with
In 1929 Labour won its first election, after an uninspiring campaign by the
Conservatives. Labour formed its second minority government, which included
Margaret Bondfield, Britain’s first female cabinet minister, as minister of labour.
History of the Labour Party
1931: disaster strikes
By 1931, rising unemployment and falling trade (a result of the 1929 Wall Street
Crash) had produced a large budget deficit.
How to balance the budget?
The economist John Maynard Keynes called for investment in public works. He
argued this would be a stimulus to the economy and thus reduce unemployment.
Those on the left of the Labour Party supported Keynes, or were keen to raise
taxes to balance the budget.
Prime minister Ramsay MacDonald, and his chancellor of the exchequer Philip
Snowden, disagreed. They wanted to cut government expenditure, including
a very controversial cut to unemployment benefit. The Conservatives and
some Liberals supported this.
MacDonald could no longer command the support of the cabinet or his party.
History of the Labour Party
1930s: division and despair
MacDonald offered his resignation to King George V but was persuaded to form a
National Government with the Conservatives and National Liberals. MacDonald
knew this would ruin his reputation within the Labour Party, but felt that his
country needed him.
MacDonald was expelled from the party he had helped to build.
Arthur Henderson became leader, but Labour won just 46 seats in the 1931
election. It was an unmitigated disaster for the party.
MacDonald’s National Government enjoyed a landslide victory, but the vast
majority of its MPs were Conservatives.
Labour struggled to seem relevant during the early 1930s. The party’s pacifist
leader, George Lansbury, did not offer convincing solutions to the rise of fascism.
In 1935, Clement Attlee became leader and focused on building up the party.
History of the Labour Party
1940s: war and a fresh start
In 1940 Winston Churchill invited Labour to join his coalition government. This
gave the party a chance to rebuild its image.
While Churchill focused on the military aspects of the war, Labour ministers were
left to manage much of the home front. This enhanced their public reputations,
and gave them useful experience.
The dominant ideology shifted to the left during the war. Many felt that the
sacrifice of both British civilians and armed forces should be rewarded with a
welfare state that would care for British civilians ‘from the cradle to the grave’.
Total war required massive state intervention, so Labour’s policies of
nationalisation and the creation of the welfare state no longer seemed
History of the Labour Party
1945: victory and a New Jerusalem
In 1945 Labour won a landslide victory and formed its first majority government.
Attlee promised ‘a New Jerusalem’, with a welfare state, the nationalisation of
industry, and low unemployment.
Labour created the NHS, expanded national insurance, and nationalised many
key industries including mining and the railways.
However, the economy was very weak. Rationing continued for years after the
war, and austerity was the order of the day.
The left wing of the party opposed the government’s support for the USA, its
pursuit of the nuclear bomb, and its NATO membership.
History of the Labour Party
1950-51: running out of steam
Labour won the 1950 election with a tiny majority.
In 1951 several left-wing ministers, including Aneurin Bevan, resigned from
government in protest at the introduction of NHS prescription charges.
In 1951 Attlee called an election in the hope of increasing his majority but,
despite winning the popular vote, was defeated by the Conservatives.
History of the Labour Party
1951-1964: which way, Labour?
Period dubbed the ‘thirteen wasted years’ by Harold Wilson.
Conservatives enjoyed a long period in office while the economy recovered from
the deprivations of wartime and post-war reconstruction.
Labour was split between Bevanites on the left of the party, and Gaitskellites on
the right.
- led by Aneurin Bevan (died
- dedicated socialists
- keen to nationalise all significant
- aimed to protect and expand the
welfare state
- anti-nuclear and anti-NATO
-led by Hugh Gaitskell (died 1963)
-social democrats
-wanted to remove Clause IV (which
called for nationalisation of industry)
from Labour’s constitution
-not prepared to raise taxes to pay for
the welfare state
-pro-nuclear and pro-NATO
History of the Labour Party
1964-70: Wilson in power
Harold Wilson promised to modernise Britain, but he did not achieve all his aims:
•Social reforms: homosexuality and abortion legalised, divorce laws reformed,
capital punishment abolished.
•Comprehensive schools introduced, Open University created.
•Steel industry renationalised (to the delight of the Labour left).
•Economic: a trade deficit led to the devaluation of the pound in 1967, and rising
unemployment and inflation remained a problem.
•Wilson’s plan to limit the powers of the trade unions was laid out in the White
Paper ‘In Place of Strife’, but this was blocked by his opponents on the left of the
History of the Labour Party
The troubled 1970s
Labour lost the 1970 election and was replaced by Ted Heath’s Conservative
The economy struggled, an oil crisis led to a shortage of energy, and a miners’
strike led the government to impose a 3-day working week.
In February 1974 Labour was returned to power as a minority government, and
in October it won a tiny majority in a subsequent election.
History of the Labour Party
Discontented times
Wilson held a national referendum on membership of the European Economic
He won a mandate for Britain’s membership, despite opposition from within
In 1976 Wilson stood down as leader and was replaced by James Callaghan.
In response to soaring inflation, Callaghan favoured a policy of wage restraint
and cuts in public spending.
Callaghan’s policies were deeply unpopular with unions and resulted in hugely
disruptive strikes during the notorious ‘Winter of Discontent’.
Even grave diggers and rubbish collectors went on strike. Bodies were not
buried, and rubbish lay piled high in the streets.
History of the Labour Party
1980s and 1990s: the long road back
• Margaret Thatcher’s Conservatives won the 1979 election.
• Labour split: some well-known moderates founded the Social Democratic Party
(SDP), while the Labour Party moved to the left under leader Michael Foot.
• In 1983 Labour had its worst election result since 1918.
• New leader Neil Kinnock took steps to modernise the party and defeat the
Trotskyist group Militant, but Labour still lost the 1987 and 1992 elections.
History of the Labour Party
From Smith to New Labour
• John Smith replaced Kinnock in 1992.
• Smith managed to reduce the power of trade unions in the selection of
parliamentary candidates by introducing One Member One Vote (OMOV). He died
suddenly of a heart attack in 1994.
• Tony Blair became leader in 1994 and created ‘New Labour’.
Blair’s strategies to put ‘New Labour’ in the centre-left of the
political spectrum:
-Clause IV rewritten (removing the party’s long-standing commitment to
-Advocated a ‘Third Way’ rather than socialism
-Emphasised the party’s commitment to low taxation and free markets
History of the Labour Party
1997: things can only get better
Labour won its largest ever landslide victory and had various successes:
•Introduction of a national minimum wage
•Investment in the NHS – increases in wages, training, improvements in buildings
•Investment in education – reduction in primary school class sizes, free nursery
places for 4-year-olds, higher spending per pupil
•Devolution of Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland, and the creation of the
Greater London Authority
•Introduction of tax credits to make benefits part of the tax system
•Labour won a second landslide victory in 2001
Click here for the Labour Party’s list of its own top 50 achievements in government,
and here for a critique from within the party.
History of the Labour Party
2001-2003: war and division
The government was focused on domestic issues until the events of 9/11
intervened. Blair sent British troops to invade Afghanistan in 2001, which was
relatively uncontroversial compared to what was to come.
In 2003 Blair supported the US-led invasion of Iraq, claiming that Iraq possessed
weapons of mass destruction (WMD) that threatened British security. (No WMDs
were subsequently found.)
Up to a million people took part in the ‘Stop the War’ march.
The Conservatives and the majority of the Labour Party supported the invasion of
Iraq. They were opposed by the Liberal Democrats and many on the left of the
Labour Party.
N.B. The decision to invade Iraq is currently being investigated by the Iraq Inquiry.
History of the Labour Party
2003-2007: Blair v Brown
Towards the end of Labour’s second term in office, Blair’s troubled relationship
with Gordon Brown, chancellor of the exchequer, came under increasing scrutiny.
Blair won a third victory in 2005 – the first time a Labour government had ever
won three consecutive terms in government – but with a reduced majority. Many
Labour voters turned away from the party after the invasion of Iraq.
In 2007 Blair bowed to pressure within the party and stood down as leader.
Gordon Brown replaced him.
History of the Labour Party
2008-2010: economic crisis
In 2007 Brown considered calling an early election to obtain an electoral
mandate, but decided against it, causing Labour’s popularity to fall.
The polls turned further against Labour as a result of the 2008 economic crisis.
Some commentators have credited Brown’s government with preventing even
greater disaster.
Brown was forced to admit that his actions as chancellor of the exchequer had
contributed to Britain’s economic problems.
Brown’s 2010 election campaign was dogged by gaffes and low personal
After the 2010 election produced a hung parliament, Brown attempted to form a
‘rainbow coalition’, before stepping down when the Liberal Democrats agreed a
coalition with the Conservatives.
History of the Labour Party
2010-2014: opposition
Ed Miliband won the 2010 leadership election by calling for a change in direction
for Labour. He beat his Blairite brother David, and Brownite Ed Balls, although
his victory was dependent on union support as he did not win the MP or party
As leader, Miliband said that the decision to invade Iraq was wrong.
Miliband has called for more responsible capitalism in the wake of the economic
He has focused on the cost of living crisis, and criticised the coalition for not
doing enough to ease pressures on ordinary families.
He has suffered from low poll ratings, and criticism of his leadership style.
Miliband is under huge pressure to win a majority in 2015. The boundaries
system is in his favour, but Labour may lose votes to UKIP.
History of the Labour Party
Questions to consider
1. Have Labour overachieved or underachieved in terms of winning elections?
2. What themes have you noticed in Labour’s history?
3. What have been the biggest achievements of Labour in power?
4. What have been the greatest failings of Labour in power?
5. Who do you think was the most successful Labour prime minister, and why?
6. Who do you think was the least successful Labour prime minister, and why?

A brief history of the Labour Party