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Welsh History Review


Vol. 8, nos. 1-4 1976-77

The evolution of the Labour Party, 1910-1924 : Book review.

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County Council will one day get a memorial as substantial and scholarly
as that which Professor F. M. L. Thompson has lately given to the defunct
borough of Hampstead.
Oxford University Press, 1975. Pp. xviii, 261. £ 5.75.
The decline of the Liberal Party, as Dr. Kenneth O. Morgan has
remarked, seems to have replaced the rise of the gentry as a major
preoccupation of modern historians. Despite its title, Dr. McKibbin's
welcome addition to the Oxford Historical Monographs series will
certainly add fuel to the flames of this controversy.
For his discussion of the rise of the Labour Party between the 'Peers v.
People' election and the first MacDonald government focuses on the
crucial question, 'Why did Labour replace the Liberals as the second
great party of State?' It also has two other principal objectives: to
analyse the Labour Party as a mass organization; and to argue that the
attempt to create in Britain a 'global' working-class movement, along the
lines of the German SDP, was a failure.
Implicit, too, in this engrossing book, based on largely uncatalogued
archives and correspondence, is the further question 'Was the replace-
ment of the Liberals by Labour inevitable?' At first sight, Dr. McKibbin's
method may seem idiosyncratic, since he eschews discussion of
Westminster politics and the impact of the First World War.
He justifies the first omission by arguing that it has been tackled by
others (notably Trevor Wilson), and that anyway it is irrelevant to the
emergence of Labour which was due, first and foremost, to broad social
and economic trends in the country as a whole. He omits dealing with
the war on the grounds that it probably had little impact on these broad
trends or on mass working-class attitudes.
Not everyone will find these arguments convincing, and anyway they
do lead to certain inconsistencies and problems, of which more in a
moment. As it stands, Dr. McKibbin's book has three parts. The first
reveals in fascinating regional detail Labour's ramshackle structure before
1914. The second describes how the many separate factions which made
up this loose alliance clashed in 1918 when drafting the constitution
which apparently committed the party to socialism.
Finally, he discusses the evolution of a mass party, more haphazard
yet more centralized than had been foreseen by the constitution-makers
in 1918. Here Henderson, rather than MacDonald, emerges quite clearly
as the key figure, party secretary from 1911 to 1934, whose ruthlessness
when necessary belied his avuncular reputation-an intriguing comparison
with another party leader, now prime minister, Mr. James Callaghan.
The problem here, however, is to determine just how far the Labour
Party still was in 1924 'at all levels a working-class organization
a truly proletarian party', as Dr. McKibbin asserts. In 1918 trade unionists
still dominated the Parliamentary party. By 1924 they constituted a bare
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