In 1888 Fleet Street media fed the news and gossip hungry Londoners with their daily snacks. During the warm summer stories of Mrs Benz driving an automobile designed by her husband a staggering 40 miles alongside updates from India and speculation surrounding Jack the Ripper’s latest victim kept the greasy wheels of gossip turning. It was on this street that the British Labour movement was born as 200 determined young women bounded to the offices of The Link newspaper demanding to meet with the radical journalist Annie Beasant.
They were employees of the Byrant and May match company who after reporting huge dividends of 22% the previous month were paying their employees a measly twenty pence per week and seemingly firing the unskilled workers at will. Beasant investigated the claims of the girls and ensured that their story captured the imagination of the liberal middle classes whose pennies and pounds funded a popular strike. After weeks of a standoff the factory owners acquiesced to the demands of the girls. They had shown that unskilled workers could organise themselves to put pressure on unscrupulous bosses.
Their lesson was learnt and the following year 10,000 London dockers went on strike over their dangerous working conditions and demeaning pay. International trade at the heart of the British empire virtually ceased. Through patient leadership and an organised system of funding and mobilisation the strikers were successful. Over the next five years two million British men joined trade unions and a Labour movement was born. Those who had sown the seeds of success in representing the workers turned their eyes towards the bigger prize of representing the people in the field of politics.
Within ten years their political nous was developing and West Ham soon became the first Labour council in London. A minimum wage was introduced alongside an eight hour working day coupled with two weeks of holiday per annum. Although they lost their power two years later, their ability to reform and organise at a local level was clear.
The next step was to climb up to the daunting heights of national politics and in 1900 at a meeting called by the Trade Union Congress a ‘distinct Labour group in parliament’ was created. This group who would have their own party whips and a clear policy was led by Keir Hardie. A Scottish mine worker who had vigorously worked in various unions for decades, Hardie had become the socialist MP for West Ham in 1892. He refused to don the traditional garb of a member of parliament and instead entered the Palace of Westminster in a tweed suit, a red tie and a deerstalker hat. He advocated women’s rights, free education, the abolition of the House of Lords alongside a staunch anti immigrant stance for Scotland stating that, “God made Scotland for the Scotchmen and I would keep it that way.”
Hardie’s choice of attire symbolised the different approach of the Labour Party
The election of 1900 came too soon for the Labour Representation Committee (LRC) but nonetheless MPs were elected in Merthyr Tydfil and Derby. Six years later however the party, benefitting from a secret pact created by Ramsay MacDonald with the Liberals, won 29 seats. In their first meeting the members of parliament decided to ditch their LRC title and adopt the name of the Labour Party instead with Hardie as their leader. Initial successes included their support of the Workmen’s Compensation Act, the Old Age Pension Act and the Health Insurance Bill. They experienced their first taste of government during the war but in 1929 came the success they had been waiting for, a majority government.
The Labour movement of the early 1900s owed it’s popularity to the demand for urban workers in the Industrial Age to the greed of their employers who underestimated the strength of their workforce in cooperating to achieve their aims. Success of political parties depends on their ability to reflect the wants and needs of the populace. This was true in 1900 and is true in 2015.