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  More than 5000 entries on the history, culture and life of Britain (published in 1993 by Macmillan, now out of print)

More than 5000 entries on the history, culture and life of Britain (published in 1993 by Macmillan, now out of print)
Labour Party

The political party which since the 1920s has provided the alternative to the *Conservatives under Britain's *two-party system. Its working-class inspiration derived distantly from the *Chartists and more immediately from the activities of independent radical politicians, among them Keir *Hardie (one of the founders of the Scottish Labour party in 1888 and of the Independent Labour party in 1893). An important intellectual input came from the *Fabian Society.

The party was established in 1900 at a conference of *trade unions and was called the Labour Representation Committee. It won only two seats in the election of that year, but 29 members were returned in 1906 when the name was changed to the Labour party. The pacifism of its first two leaders, Keir *Hardie and Ramsay *MacDonald, reduced support in the years around World War I, but 142 seats in 1922 made Labour the official Opposition. The election of 1923 gave MacDonald 191 seats, enough to form a brief coalition government with the Liberals, and in 1929 he led for the first time the largest party in the House. But it was not until the landslide victory of 1945 that Labour had an overall majority.

In this postwar government, under *Attlee, Labour was able to achieve many of its stated policies, putting into place much of the *welfare state and nationalizing the country's major industrial resources. In the following decades two issues in particular seemed to distinguish Labour from the Conservatives, and neither was popular with the voters. The party was committed by Clause Four of its constitution to a continuing programme of nationalization; and there was a strong grass-roots inclination towards unilateral nuclear disarmament, in a tradition going back to the pacifism of the early leaders. Hugh *Gaitskell fought against both but lost on Clause Four, though the commitment to public ownership has been quietly dropped in recent years.

The party had periods of government in the 1960s and 1970s under *Wilson and *Callaghan, but in 1979 began a long spell in opposition (with Michael Foot, Neil Kinnock, John Smith and Tony Blair as successive leaders). During the 1980s two main threats to Labour's electoral chances were identified. One was the *Militant Tendency, whose intrusions were eventually dealt with – though not before the left-wing and unilateralist trends within the party had provoked defectors into forming the *SDP. The other was the trade unions.

Since the unions were instrumental in forming the party in 1900 and have funded it ever since, it is not surprising that they have retained a powerful influence. This is expressed at the annual conference, which elects the *NEC and votes on resolutions which have in the past been allowed to constitute party policy. But the casting of block votes (weighted according to the total membership of each union) gave an unappealing impression of old-fashioned baronial power until replaced from 1993 by *OMOV.

In 1997 Blair led the Labour party to a resounding electoral victory with a majority in the House of Commons of 178, the largest majority in the party's history.

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