The history of the Labour Party divides into two phases. As any history book says the first stage began with the founding of the Labour Representation Committee on the weekend of 26-27th February 1900. However only 2 Labour MPs were elected in the 1900 election and progress was slow. 29 were elected in 1906 forming the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP), but after the two elections of 1910 the Party still only had 42 MPs.

It was in fact very difficult to see Labour making real progress and challenging the Liberal and Tory Parties while voting was limited to men and some 40% of men – the poorest working class males – did not have the vote. Since middle and upper class males were never going to vote Labour, the existing parties were secure for the time being.

This all changed in 1918 when the vote was extended to men over 21 and women over 30. Though full equality would not be achieved till 1928, the tripling of the electorate totally changed the political landscape. As most of the new voters were working class manual workers, it was widely assumed they would vote Labour if given the chance. The Fabian element of the Party saw the possibilities of the new voting system and Sidney Webb of the Fabians drew up a new constitution which was passed by the NEC and the Party conference. His pamphlet on the subject is the key guide to what had been decided – and the start of the second phase of Labour history. A Labour government was a real possibility but the Party had to have a broader appeal than the old Representation Committee had achieved. The second phase which is still on-going was based on an attempt to become an election winning organisation

The Second Phase

The explanatory pamphlet which Webb wrote to explain what the party had decided is a vital document. The subtitle indicates why the New Constitution was more than just a rule book, giving prominence to the phrase A Party of Handworkers and Brainworkers. The key organisational difference between what had gone before and the 1918 model was set out in the first paragraph as being “Instead of a sectional and rather narrow group, what is established is a national party, open to anyone of the 16,000,000 electors agreeing with the party programme”.

The second paragraph defines what he meant by the previous organization being “sectional”, which Webb saw as a party of trade unions, mainly the large ones, three ‘relatively small Socialist Societies’, Trades Councils, local labour parties, co-operative societies and the Woman’s Labour League. Gaining some MPs, the party membership as existed proved in Webb’s view “definitely and avowedly socialist in their opinions”. However these members could only join affiliated organizations and what had to happen to win in constituencies was to have a constituency membership. 

The third paragraph defines the new Party, “organized on the double basis of national societies and constituency organizations”. The trade unions and socialist societies would stay as they were, but alongside them at conference. would be constituency organizations The aim was to get three or four hundred in the next few months. The constituency organizations would be bodies of individually enrolled members, and Webb was at pains to stress – in paragraphs 5 and 6 – there would be “a special appeal to the 6,000,000 women electors”. Labour had never had a woman on the National Executive, but “strenuous efforts will be made to enroll individual woman” and “provision is made for there being always at least four women members on the National Executive”.

Webb then spends a paragraph on election to the Executive, to take place at Conference and always by card vote as the unions wanted. This seventh paragraph states there would be three lists to vote for the National Executive, a trade union list of 13 members, five from the constituency parties designed for men, and four for women. This meant, though Webb did not point this out, the union delegates had a majority on the 22 member committee.

The Crucial Eighth Paragraph

The eighth paragraph was in many ways the most important for it defined both the main objective of the new party and this, stressed on the first page, was to attract specific groups. Webb says that while the party has never been formally confined to manual workers – a point misunderstood to this day – the party was now “publically thrown open to all workers ‘by hand or brain’ and though Webb did not define clause 4 of the constitution as stating this, it was the case that this was where the statement was made, thus creating a legend. He went on to spell out key aspects of the new objective namely that the wage earner who was the target would find the party aiming

“To secure for the workers by hand or brain, the full fruits of their industry and the most equitable distribution thereof…on the basis of the common ownership of the means of production and the best obtainable system of popular administration and control of each industry or service”. 

It is a widespread illusion that the party had decided upon nationalization as the only method to achieve this aim, but Webb is clear the declaration “leaves it open to choose from time to time whatever form of common ownership” would be appropriate, including the co-operative to the nationalized firm and administration including national guilds, ministries of employment and municipal management. 

Paragraph nine discusses the Party’s post war programme – while arguing in paragraph ten that the programme was less important than “the spirit underlying the programme”, standing against inequality and the struggle for survival. Labour rejects the survival of the fittest – social Darwinism – and claimed that this was a scientific approach to achieve “either the fullest life or its utmost efficiency”. Webb claims the party was internationalist – as opposed to Liberal ‘cosmopolitanism’ – and repudiates Imperialism. The NEC has supported the idea of a League of Nations, Webb claims this was ahead of other parties.

The pamphlet appears to have been published in April 1918, and Webb is cautious about its chances in what Lloyd George would announce as a ‘Khaki election’. The party was in his view “the party of inspiration and promise” and might be “the party of the future”. Perhaps it might be, as the final sentence spells out, “ destined… to play as large a part in the political history of the twentieth century as the Liberal Party did in that of the nineteenth”.

An Enduring Foundation

Webb’s constitution evolved over time and Clause 4 in particular lost its iconic status being revised in the Blair era. Other aspects written in 1918 were less successful, the hope for female involvement was not really successful till the feminist movement of the 1970s which was roughly the time that the manual worker membership began to be overtaken by white collar and professional membership, though it is still the case that when the Red Wall or traditional manual working class deserted Labour in 2019 this came as a shock. Sociologists had been pointing to demographic shifts as early as the 1970s, perhaps the decade when the Webb party model began to appear out of date, but as Labour does not have a research department this had not been understood.

However, despite evolution the basic structure of constituency parties and affiliates – mainly trade unions – remains in place. When Keir Starmer tried to revive an electoral college for leader elections at the 2021 conference this was rejected, but conference remains much as Webb envisage it operating. At a more fundamental level, the rise of individual member democracy reflects the need to have active constituency operators for electoral purposes – which is what Webb wanted to happen. 

The party in 2021 is not the party of 1918, but it is a plant grown from the seed planted by Webb and his colleagues in the last months of the First World War. The Webb document outlining his hopes and achievements, long neglected, needs to be brought into focus as the key historical document it has always been

Trevor Fisher 26 10 21

Published by Labour Heritage December 2021