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Level FONDS
Reference Code LP
Title Labour Party Archives
Extent and Medium c.2860 boxes of documents - correspondence, minutes, personal papers
c.16,000 political pamphlets
c. 80,000 photographs
Biographical History The Labour Party was founded on 28 February 1990 at a conference in central London. This conference was convened as a result of a motion submitted by some Doncaster railwaymen to the Trades Union Congress of 1899. It called for a distinct group of working class representatives to be elected to the House of Commons. Not long afterwards, the Labour Representation Committee (LRC), the forerunner of the Labour Party, fought its first general election and returned two MPs. There was not initially a strong response from the trade unions. However, in 1901 the House of Lords ruled against the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants in a civil dispute with Ammon Beasley, the manager of the Taff Vale Railway Company. Beasley sued his railway workers for damages incurred whilst they had been on strike. The decision in his favour undermined the whole basis of a worker's right to strike, which had been won in 1871. As a result of this most trade unions started to affiliate to the LRC. Subsequent by-election victories at Woolwich, Barnard Castle and Clitheroe indicated that the Labour Party, as it was renamed in 1905, was a political force to be reckoned with. The Liberal Party, which had been out of power for ten years, became worried about its re-election prospects. The Liberal chief whip, Herbert Gladstone, and the General Secretary of the Labour Party, Ramsay Macdonald, made a pact whereby seats were distributed to the two parties ensuring candidates did not oppose each other. As a result the Labour representation in the House of Commons increased to 29 MPs at the general election of 1906. The Labour MPs supported the radical measures undertaken by the Liberal government during its administration from 1906 to 1914. These included the introduction of old age pensions and labour exchanges, education reform and the drastic curtainling of the powers of the House of Lords. The most important act, as far as the Labour Party was concerned, was the Trades Disputes Act of 1906, which completely reversed the Taff Vale decision and gave the trade unions all their demands. When World War I broke out, Labour MPs took part in government for the first time. Arthur Henderson, the Party leader, became Minister of Education. The Party was divided over support for the war itself. However, the War Emergency Workers National Committee kept the Party in touch with its grassroots supporters over everyday domestic issues, such as factory conditions and food distribution. When Henderson resigned from the government in 1917, the Party and its grassroots were prepared for the coming post-war general election. In 1918 all men over 21 and propertied women over 30 acquired the vote, creating a big increase in the franchise. The economist and political thinker Sidney Webb drew up a new constitution for the Party based on local constituency parties and containing Clause IV, which gave the Party a distinct socialist ideology. Divisions within the Liberal Party helped to increase the Labour Party's share of the vote and its number of MPs in the general elections of 1918 and 1922, after which it became the official opposition in parliament. Following the general election of 1923, it formed a government for the first time in January 1924, with Ramsay Macdonald as the first Labour Prime Minister. The government was very much a miniority one and only lasted nine months, but John Wheatley's Housing Act was passed in this period. Labour returned to power at the general election of 1929. The government was still in a minority and whilst it set out a reforming agenda was not able to bring in much radical change. As a result of the sterling crisis of 1931, Ramsay Macdonald left the Labour Party to form a National Coalition Government with the Conservatives. At the subsequent general election Labour's parliamentary representation fell to 52 MPs. It was however the only party that was not participating in the government and was united in this aspect, unlike the Liberals, who once again became divided and continued to lose votes. At the general election of 1935, the Labour Party regained the votes it had in 1929, but still remained in opposition. In 1940, ten months after World War II had been declared, the Labour Party was asked to join a coalition government. The Party leader Clement Attlee became deputy Prime Minister and Ernest Bevin, a major trade union leader, became Minister of Labour with responsibility for mobilising the entire British workforce to the war effort. Herbert Morrison later became Home Secretary. In 1945, when the war in Europe was over, a general election was held and Labour was returned with a landslide majority. For the first time it could enact policies which had only been dreamed of previously. A National Health Service and improved pension scheme was introduced and the railway and coal industries were nationalised. India achieved independence, thereby paving the way for further colonies to be free. At the general election of 1950, Labour's representation was reduced from 393 to 315. It was further reduced to 293 when it was defeated at the 1951 election. It was defeated in spite of the fact that more people voted for the Party than any other party before, and that more votes were polled for Labour than the Conservatives. The Conservatives remained in power until 1964 and did not in fact go back on any of the Labour government's legislation, apart from the nationalisation of steel. The Labour government's legacy remained virtually intact. When the Labour Party was returned in 1964 under Harold Wilson it faced economic problems, and the first years were spent keeping inflation down, which they succeeded in doing, even though this meant that they had to devalue the pound. Acts abolishing capital punishment, decriminalising homosexuality, refoming divorce laws and outlawing racial discrimintion were passed. The Party lost the general election of 1970 however and spent another four years in opposition. The Conservative government of 1970 to 1974 passed the 1971 Industrial Relations Act, which, for the first time, brought in the law courts as arbiters in industrial relations. But the law never worked - trade unionists were jailed, which was never intended to happen. With the oil crisis and the resulting rise in inflation, the government failed to get the co-operation of the trade unions. The government acceeded to the miners' demands during their 1972 strike. They were on strike again in 1974 when Edward Heath, the Prime Minister, called the general election. Labour was returned with a minority government which was increased to a majority later in the year. The governments of Harold Wilson and James Callaghan, who succeeded Wilson as Party leader and Prime Minister in 1976, were beset with economic difficulties, arising from the oil crisis. Progressive housing legislation was introduced, ports and the aircraft industry were nationalised. The Industrial Relations Act was abolished and attempts to work with the trade unions were on the whole successful. A series of disputes in the public sector hit the headlines in the winter of 1978-79, most of which were settled without long strikes. The Conservatives were returned to power under Margaret Thatcher in 1979. During the eighteen years of Conservative government much of the previous Labour governments' work was dismantled. Essential industries, gas, electricity and telecommunications were privatised; local government was curtailed; the National Health Service was put in the hands of hospital trusts and general practioner fundholders. In 1980 Michael Foot succeeded James Callaghan as Party leader. Bitter internal divisions over policies and constitutional changes within the Party led to some MPs leaving to form the Social Democratic Party and to form an alliance with the Liberals. This meant that in 1983 the Party suffered the worst defeat in its history. The election of Neil Kinnock as Party leader in that year united the Party again, but it had a long way to go to won back power. It had to learn new ways of presenting itself and to adopt ideas and policies more in tune with the last decades of the twentieth century. Labour failed to gain many votes and seats in the general election of 1987. The Conservatives started to lose popularity, with fortunes being lost on the stock market and the poll tax causing riots. John Major was elected leader in 1990 and Labour lost a fourth election in 1992. Neil Kinnock was succeeded by John Smith, who tragically died in April 1994. Tony Blair became leader and continued the modernising policies of Kinnock and Smith. Elections for the Party leader, the National Executive Committee and parliamentary candidates were opened up to all members. The Party manifesto was submitted to a party member referendum and Clause IV was amended. On May 1 1997, the Labour Party had its best electoral result in its history with a 179 majority in the House of Commons. It was the first general election in which the Party did not lose a single seat and there were some seats gained a Labour MP for the first time. Tony Blair's government quickly started to implement its programme: a budget to pay for more jobs; referenda in Scotland and Wales for their own assemblies; the signing of the European Social Chapter to ensure healthy industrial conditions and changes in government structure to make it more accountable. On 5 May 2005 the Labour Party achieved a first in its history - a third consecutive term in government. In 2007 Gordon Brown became leader and in 2010 Harriet Harman became acting Leader of the Party following resignation of Gordon Brown. The subsequent leadership election was won by Ed Milliband.
Restrictions Photocopies and photographic copies of material in the archive can be supplied for private study purposes only, depending on the condition of the documents. Prior written permission must be obtained from the Archive for publication or reproduction of any material within the Archive. Please contact the Labour History Archive and Study Centre, People's History Museum, Left Bank, Spinningfields, Manchester, M3 3ER, Tel: +44 (0)161 838 9190, archive@phm.org.uk
Conditions Access by appointment.

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