Labour party

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Labour party,

British political party, one of the two dominant parties in Great Britain since World War I.


The Labour party was founded in 1900 after several generations of preparatory trade union politics made possible by the Reform Bills of 1867 and 1884, which enfranchised urban workers. Although the Labour Representation League, organized in 1869, elected parliamentary representatives, they were absorbed into the Liberal partyLiberal party,
former British political party, the dominant political party in Great Britain for much of the period from the mid-1800s to World War I. Origins
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. A Marxist organization, the Social Democratic Federation, was founded by H. M. HyndmanHyndman, Henry Mayers
, 1842–1921, English Socialist, an early advocate of Marxism in England. He was a journalist by profession. In 1881 he founded the parent organization of the Social Democratic Federation, which in 1911 became the British Socialist party, with Hyndman
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 in 1881; but more important for the history of the Labour party was the founding of the Fabian SocietyFabian Society,
British socialist society. An outgrowth of the Fellowship of the New Life (founded 1883 under the influence of Thomas Davidson), the society was developed the following year by Frank Podmore and Edward Pease.
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 (1883) and the Independent Labour party (ILP; 1893). With the help of the Fabian Society and the Trades Union Congress, the ILP in 1900 set up the Labour Representation Committee, renamed the Labour party in 1906. The new party elected 29 members to Parliament in 1906; in the two elections of 1910 it elected 40 and 42. Its strength lay in the industrial North and in Welsh mining areas; the evolutionary socialism espoused by the Fabians was the dominant ideology.

1914 to 1945

At the outbreak of World War I, Ramsay MacDonaldMacDonald, Ramsay
(James Ramsay McDonald), 1866–1937, British statesman, b. Scotland. The illegitimate son of a servant, he went as a young man to London, where he joined the Social Democratic Federation (1885) and the Fabian Society (1886).
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 led a pacifist wing of the party, but the majority of the party supported the war effort, and the party's leader, Arthur HendersonHenderson, Arthur,
1863–1935, British statesman, organizer and leader of the British Labour party. In early life he was an ironworker and a labor union leader. Elected (1903) to Parliament, he was chairman of the parliamentary Labour party (1908–10, 1914–17),
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, served in the wartime coalition governments. Until 1918 the party was distinctly a federation of trade unions and socialist groups and had no individual members. After the war economic depression, the growing political consciousness of the working classes, and the split in the Liberal party gave Labour a national following. In 1918, Labour withdrew completely from the coalition, and in 1922 it became the second largest party in the House of Commons and thus the official opposition.

In 1924 the party formed its first ministry, with MacDonald as prime minister. As Labour was a minority in Parliament and depended on Liberal support, the enactment of legislation proved difficult, and the government's domestic program of unemployment relief and housing differed little from that of its Conservative predecessor. Effective primarily in foreign affairs, the ministry recognized the USSR. The party was turned out of office in Oct., 1924, in an election marked by Conservative exploitation of the Zinoviev letter (see under Zinoviev, GrigoriZinoviev, Grigori Evseyevich
, 1883–1936, Soviet Communist leader, originally named Radomyslsky. He joined the Russian Social Democratic Labor party in 1901 and sided with Vladimir Lenin's Bolshevik faction after 1903 (see Bolshevism and Menshevism).
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In 1929, Labour formed another minority ministry. MacDonald and Philip SnowdenSnowden, Philip Snowden, 1st Viscount
, 1864–1937, British statesman. Born to poverty, he was a civil service clerk until crippled by a spinal ailment.
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 reacted to the severe depression with conservative economic policies that involved reducing unemployment relief. When the majority of the cabinet refused to accede, MacDonald formed (1931) a coalition government, but he and the Labour leaders who joined him were expelled from the party. Heavily defeated in the election of 1931, the Labour party moved slightly to the left, advocating nationalization of major industries and more progressive taxation. In the next few years Labour found new leaders in Clement Attlee (later Earl AttleeAttlee, Clement Richard Attlee, 1st Earl
, 1883–1967, British statesman. Educated at Oxford, he was called to the bar in 1905.
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), Herbert Morrison, and Ernest BevinBevin, Ernest
, 1881–1951, British labor leader and statesman. An orphan who earned his own living from childhood, he began a long career as a trade union official when he became secretary of the dockworkers' union in 1911.
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In the early 1930s the party passed antiwar resolutions and advocated collective security through the League of Nations, but it favored aid to the republican government in the Spanish civil war and eventually came to accept rearmament against the threat from Nazi Germany. After the fall of France to German forces in World War II, Labour agreed to join Winston Churchill's coalition government; Bevin as minister of labor and Attlee as deputy prime minister, together with other Labour ministers, took charge of domestic affairs during the war years.

The Postwar Years

In 1945 the party won an overwhelming electoral victory, and Attlee became prime minister in Labour's first majority government. The new government nationalized the Bank of England, the fuel and power industries (coal, electricity, gas, and atomic energy), transportation, and most of the iron and steel industry. It also enacted a comprehensive social security system, which included a national health service. In the areas of colonial and foreign policy, it granted independence to India and Pakistan, Burma (Myanmar), and Ceylon (Sri Lanka), and allied itself with the United States in a strong anti-Communist posture.

Faced with postwar shortages and the problems of reconstruction, Attlee's government encountered severe financial difficulties, despite American assistance. Rationing continued to be a necessity, economic recovery was slow, and the cost of rearmament increased the strains on the economy. The government barely maintained its majority in the general elections of 1950, and the following year it was defeated by the Conservatives.

During the long period of opposition that followed (the Conservatives were returned to power in 1955 and in 1959), the Labour party argued and almost split on questions of disarmament, aid to developing countries, and furtherance of socialism at home. When Attlee and other elder leaders retired and Hugh GaitskellGaitskell, Hugh Todd Naylor
, 1906–63, British statesman. Educated at Oxford, he taught economics at the Univ. of London. During World War II he was a civil servant in the new ministry of economic warfare (1940–42) and in the Board of Trade (1942–45).
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 became party leader, Aneurin BevanBevan, Aneurin
, 1897–1960, British political leader. A coal miner and trade unionist, he served (1929–60) in Parliament as a member of the Labour party. As minister of health (1945–51) he administered and developed the National Health Service instituted by the
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, leading the left wing of the party, unsuccessfully contested Gaitskell's position. Although Bevan was soon reconciled with the party leadership, his supporters continued to urge a policy of diplomatic neutralism and unilateral disarmament, in addition to a strong socialist program. The party's right-wing, on the other hand, argued that prosperity had diminished the appeal of socialism to the average worker and that the party should adopt a broader, more pragmatic program. Gaitskell consolidated his position as leader in the early 1960s, and the party achieved a new solidarity.

The 1960s to the Present

Harold WilsonWilson, Harold
(James Harold Wilson, Baron Wilson of Rievaulx), 1916–95, British statesman. A graduate of Oxford, he became an economics lecturer there (1937) and a fellow of University College (1938).
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, who became leader on Gaitskell's death in 1963, was able to lead the party to victory in 1964. He was prime minister until the Conservative party returned to power in 1970. Wilson's administration was marked by a continued decline in Britain's international political and economic position, which gave little opportunity for social innovation.

After 1970, the Labour party, in opposition, again found it difficult to present a united front. The reversal of the party's position on Britain's entry into the European Community (now the European UnionEuropean Union
(EU), name given since the ratification (Nov., 1993) of the Treaty of European Union, or Maastricht Treaty, to the European Community (EC), an economic and political confederation of European nations, and other organizations (with the same member nations)
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), after having earlier supported it, and a renewed call for further nationalization of industry were indications of a greater left-wing militancy within the party. The party returned to power as a result of the elections of Feb., 1974, but as a minority government. Wilson's second administration began renegotiation of the terms of Britain's membership in the European Community and announced plans for large-scale nationalization. Despite continuing economic difficulties he called new elections in Oct., 1974, and Labour won a small majority. James CallaghanCallaghan of Cardiff, Leonard James Callaghan, Baron,
1912–2005, British statesman. He was first elected to Parliament as a Labour member in 1945. As chancellor of the exchequer (1964–67), he introduced extremely controversial taxation policies, including employment
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 took over as prime minister following Wilson's resignation in 1976.

The party lost power to the Conservatives under Margaret ThatcherThatcher, Margaret Hilda Roberts Thatcher, Baroness,
1925–2013, British political leader. Great Britain's first woman prime minister, nicknamed the "Iron Lady" for her uncompromising political stance, Thatcher served longer than any other British prime minister in the 20th
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 in the 1979 elections and remained in the opposition until the late 1990s. Michael FootFoot, Michael,
1913–2010, British politician. He joined the Labour party in the 1930s, entered Parliament in 1945, and served there until 1992. An superb debater and orator, he became an eloquent spokesperson for Labour's radical left wing.
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 became party leader in 1980 but was succeeded by Neil KinnockKinnock, Neil Gordon
, 1942–, British politician, b. Tredegar, Wales. The son of a miner, he studied at University College, Cardiff. In 1970 he was elected to Parliament as a Labour party member.
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 in 1983. Kinnock led the party to abandon some of its traditional left-wing positions but proved unable to achieve victory at the polls. He resigned in 1992 after the Conservative victory in the general elections and was succeeded by John SmithSmith, John,
1938–94, British politician. A barrister, he was first elected to Parliament in 1970 as a Labour party member from Scotland. He served as secretary for trade in 1970 and subsequently as Labour spokesperson on a number of economic and industrial issues,
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. After Smith's untimely death in 1994, moderate Tony BlairBlair, Tony
(Anthony Charles Lynton Blair), 1953–, British politician, b. Edinburgh. An Oxford-educated lawyer, he was first elected to Parliament in 1983 as the Labour party candidate from a district in N England.
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 was chosen to lead the party. Under Blair's leadership, the party formally abandoned traditional socialism in 1995 and subsequently won (1997, 2001) consecutive resounding victories at the polls. The party's narrower victory in 2005 marked the first time Labour had won three consecutive national elections. Blair stepped down as party leader and prime minister in 2007, and was succeeded by Gordon BrownBrown, Gordon
(James Gordon Brown), 1951–, British politician. From 1975 to 1980 he taught at Edinburgh Univ. and Glasgow College of Technology; he then joined Scottish Television (1980–83) as a journalist.
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. In the 2010 elections Brown and Labour lost to the Conservatives, who won a plurality. Brown resigned the party leadership, and Ed Miliband was elected party leader. In 2015 Labour did poorly, in part because of the successes of the Scottish National party, and Miliband stepped down. Jeremy CorbynCorbyn, Jeremy Bernard,
1949–, British politician. A trade union organizer, he served on the Haringey District Council in London (1974–83) before he was first elected to Parliament, where he became a spokesman for the left wing of the Labour party.
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, from the left wing of the party, succeeded him, and survived a leadership challenge in 2016; he led to party to some gains, but still a loss to the Conservatives, in 2017. In the 2019 elections, however, the party suffered significant losses. Corbyn subsequently resigned, and was succeeded by Keir Starmer.


See H. Wilson, The Labour Government 1964–1970 (1971); B. Jones and M. Keating, Labour and the British State (1985); K. Laybourn, The Rise of Labour (1988).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia™ Copyright © 2013, Columbia University Press. Licensed from Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

Labour Party

1. a British political party, formed in 1900 as an amalgam of various trade unions and socialist groups, generally supporting the interests of organized labour and advocating democratic socialism and social equality
2. any similar party in any of various other countries
Collins Discovery Encyclopedia, 1st edition © HarperCollins Publishers 2005
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