Red Clydeside: A history of the labour movement in Glasgow 1910-1932

Political parties and organisations of the Red Clydeside period

ILP: Independent Labour Party

Michael Byers 2002, Glasgow Digital Library

Independent Labour Party 35th anniversary conference certificate

The more militant extension of trade unionism from 1888 to 1892 led indirectly to the formation of the Independent Labour Party. The growth in militant trade unionism during this period influenced Keir Hardie, a Liberal-Labour MP for West Ham, and he began to argue that if real gains were to be made for the working classes of Britain, the working classes would need their own independent political party, not a partnership with liberalism.

As a result of his campaigning, a conference was held in Bradford in 1893 at which Hardie, along with other delegates from various labour and socialist organisations, formed the Independent Labour Party. The distinctive features of the ILP were that it stood for the political independence of labour rather than its previous political partnership with liberalism, and that it was committed to achieving equality in society by the application of socialist doctrines. From its inception the main objective of the party was 'to secure the collective ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange'.

The ILP directed its appeal towards working people, firm in the belief that the working class credentials of its leaders, and the experience gained by many of them in trade union struggles, would gain the party the support of many ordinary workers.

The ILP was one of the bodies involved in creating the Labour Representation Committee in 1900, which subsequently became the Labour Party, and it remained an important force within the Labour Party until the late 1920s. At its peak in the mid 1920s, ILP membership in Scotland accounted for a third of all membership of the party in Britain, and out of a total over just over 1,000 branches throughout Britain, over 300 were in Scotland.

'The Means Test Scandal' leaflet by ILP MP Davie Kirkwood

In Scotland the party was to the fore agitating and campaigning on the major issues affecting the working classes. James Maxton campaigned tirelessly against poverty and the means test, whilst John Wheatley organised the rent strikes of 1915-16 and fought for improved housing conditions for Clydeside's urban working classes.

Election address of Emanuel Shinwell, 1919

The ILP was also active in the anti-conscription movement, and its leadership in Scotland opposed Britain's involvement in the first world war. On the industrial front, ILP members were actively involved in resisting the Munitions Act of 1915 and in opposing the introduction of dilution. Indeed two future ILP MPs, Davie Kirkwood and Emanuel Shinwell, were leaders of the CWC during the 40-hours strike of 1919.

Election address of Agnes Dollan, 1921

Another notable feature of the ILP in Scotland was the prominence of many women within the party. Female involvement in political agitations and campaigns was a characteristic of ILP front-line politics in Glasgow, doubly significant in an era when women did not feature so prominently in public and political life. Women like Mary Barbour, Agnes Dollan and Helen Crawfurd proved themselves more than capable of operating in the male-dominated and hostile arena of municipal politics.

Up until the late 1920s in Scotland, and particularly on Clydeside, the ILP was seen by its supporters as the Labour Party. It was the electoral advances of the ILP in Scotland which helped to break the Liberal hegemony of British politics and which contributed to the elevation of the Labour Party as the second party in British politics.

A graphic illustration of the ILP's influence in Labour's electoral rise can be highlighted by the fact that in the 1922 general election in Scotland, 40 out of the total of 43 prospective Labour candidates were members of the ILP. It was in the general election of 1922 that the ILP was to record perhaps its most famous electoral victory, when the party won 10 out of the 15 parliamentary constituency seats in Glasgow.

Election address of James Maxton, 1924

This was a great reversal of electoral fortunes for the party who had managed to win only one Glasgow seat in the previous election in 1918, and it allowed the ILP stalwarts of the Red Clydeside period such as John Wheatley, James Maxton, Davie Kirkwood and Emanuel Shinwell to enter parliament.

The ILP's co-operation with communists at the local level, its pacifism and its theoretical approach to politics, were regarded as electoral liabilities by the leadership of the Labour Party. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, as the Labour Party sought to present itself as a potential party of government, it increasingly employed a strategy of respectability and compromise in order not to alienate themselves from middle-class voters. The policy of the Clydeside ILP MPs on the other hand was to harass and confront Conservative and Liberals MPs in parliament, especially on the issues of poverty and unemployment. This was to lead to confrontation with the leadership of the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP), who viewed the ILP tactics as little more than cheap political stunts which discredited the PLP as a whole.

ILP condemnation of the Labour leadership for deviating from its socialist principles led to outright disillusionment with the Parliamentary Labour Party and eventual ILP disaffiliation from the Labour Party in 1932.