By the later years of the nineteenth century, working class representation had become an important political issue. Many advocates of increased working class political activity and the election of workingmen to parliament saw the Liberal Party as the main vehicle for achieving this. In the early period most of these, including the Labour Representation League (formed in 1869 and initially primarily concerned with the registration of working class voters), were quickly absorbed into the apparatus of the Liberal Party. Subsequently many trade unions also became concerned with issues of representation. From the 1870s a series of working class candidates financially supported by trade unions were accepted and supported by the Liberal Party often through the work of the Labour Representation League. The Trades Union Congress formed a Labour Electoral Committee in 1886, changing its name to the Labour Electoral Association in 1887. These Lib-Lab MPs appeared to many to offer the prospect of increasing working class representation in parliament; the Fabian Society for example had adopted a policy of gradual permeation of the Liberals within two years of its foundation in 1884.
However, working with the Liberals to achieve working class representation in parliament did not appeal universally. Some, particularly socialists such as those within the newly formed Social Democratic Federation (SDF) argued for the need for representation to be accompanied by a distinctive set of working class policies. Others were frustrated with the institutions of the Liberal Party, and the sometimes rather low priority they appeared to give to adopting working class candidates. Out of these ideas and activities came a new generation of activists including, perhaps most notably Keir Hardie, an illegitimate Scot who had become convinced of the need for independent labour politics whilst working as a Gladstonian Liberal and trade union organiser in the Lanarkshire coalfield. Working with SDF members such as Henry Hyde Champion and Tom Mann he was instrumental in the foundation of the Scottish Labour Party in 1888.
In 1890 the United States imposed a tariff on foreign cloth which led to a general cut in wages and then a strike in Bradford, which led to the Manningham Mills strike and then to the establishment of the Bradford Labour Union, independent of both major political parties. This initiative was followed by others in Colne Valley, Slaithwaite and Salford. With such developments support for separation from the Liberals was growing in strength. Arguments for the formation of a new party were to be found in Robert Blatchford’s Clarion newspaper, founded in 1891, and in Workman’s Times edited by Joseph Burgess, who collected some 3500 names of those in favour of creating an Independent Labour Party, and published the bulk of them. A ‘socialist’ bloc at the TUC could count on approximately 25 per cent of the votes. In the 1892 General Election, held in July, three working men were elected without support from the Liberals, Keir Hardie in South West Ham, John Burns in Battersea, and Havelock Wilson in Middlesbrough who faced Liberal opposition. Wilson soon became an orthodox Lib-Lab and Burns after conflict with Hardie also followed in the same direction the following year, concurrently Hardie adopted a confrontational style and increasingly emerged as parliamentary spokesman for independent labour. At the TUC meeting in September a meeting of advocates of independent labour organisation was called, and chaired by Hardie, an arrangements committee was established and a conference called for the following January.
This conference, held in Bradford 14-16 January 1893, was the foundation conference of the Independent Labour Party. The discussion and decisions there suggest the central issues which the party had to deal with in the early years of its existence and were prescient of the route taken by the early Labour Party. The inaugural conference, although deciding on a labour rather than socialist name for the new party overwhelmingly accepted that the object of the party should be ‘to secure the collective and communal ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange’. The party’s programme called for a range of reforms, with much more stress on the social – an eight hour working day, provision for sick, disabled aged, widows and orphans and free ‘unsectarian’ education ‘right up to the universities’ – than on the political reforms which were standard in Radical organisations. They also created an organisational structure for the new party. Conference, made up of branch delegates, was declared the ‘supreme and governing authority of the party’ and a secretary was to be elected under the control of a central body, know significantly not as an executive but as a National Administrative Committee, made up of regionally appointed delegates which was confined to act according to instructions given to it by branch conferences.
The new party was founded in an atmosphere of great hope and expectation. However, the first few years were difficult. The direction of the party, its leadership and organisation were heavily contested and the expected electoral progress did not emerge.
Some of these divisions were to be expected. It has frequently been commented that the ILP was a party which grew from the bottom up. Precursor parties had emerged in different localities, facing very different political circumstances. There was a common emphasis on the need for political autonomy but there was a diversity of approaches each of making sense in a particular situation. In some it sprang from industrial conflict with Mill owners who dominated the local Liberal Party. Elsewhere it came from the need to recruit from the large number of working class Tories. With this diversity came different emphases – on ‘socialism’ or ‘Labour Representation’ and different attitudes towards other political parties. The party did not fare well in its first major test of national support, the 1895 General Election. With the NAC taking a lead in organising the party’s contests, and with finance tight 28 candidates ILP candidates. A special conference decided that support should only be given to ILP or SDF candidates – which brought a further four contests into the picture. None was elected, even Hardie was defeated in a straight fight with the Conservatives. It was the end of the unfettered optimism which had attended the party’s foundation.
Organisationally functions and purposes were contested from the outset. Initial decisions about party organisation were rooted in an idea of strict democracy. These arguments did have some impact, a conference was held to agree policy prior to the 1895 General Election and the abolition of the position party ‘President’ in 1896 was based on such arguments. However, in practice the NAC came to possess considerable power across the range of the party’s activities, and virtual control in crucial areas such as electoral decisions and relations with other parties. Electoral defeat in 1895 saw a retrenchment of the party’s position which hastened such processes. The years immediately after defeat saw the emergence onto the NAC four figures who remained at the centre of the party and together shaped its direction for the next twenty years. Of these Keir Hardie was already known as the party’s President and then subsequently Chairman. Bruce Glasier, illegitimate Scot and advocate of a romantic version of socialism, was elected onto the NAC in 1897 and succeeded Hardie as Chairman in 1900. In 1903 Phillip Snowden, an evangelical socialist from the West Riding, became the Party's third Chairman. Finally, the last and most influential of the four was Ramsay MacDonald, Chairman from 1906, and Labour's first Prime Minister, whose adhesion to the ILP had been secured after his disillusionment with the Liberal rejection of the trades council candidate in the 1894 Sheffield Attercliffe by-election. There were substantial personal tensions between the four, but crucially they had an agreed view that the party should aim for a Labour alliance with the unions and not socialist unity with the SDF and all saw Radical-Liberal opinion as crucial. The attitude of the NAC and its leadership, following the electoral failure of 1895, was cautious about entering candidates in subsequent by-elections without very good reason, and by 1898 a decision was taken to restrict electoral contests to those where a reasonable performance could be expected rather than putting forward as many candidates as possible to maximize the total vote.
The relationship with the trade unions was also problematic. In the nineties the ILP was lacking in alliances with the trade unions. Individual trade unionists could be persuaded to join the party out of a political commitment shaped by their industrial experiences. The ILP in the nineties – ‘a party lacking alliances with the unions, but a party which individual trade unionists might be led to join through a political commitment evolving out of industrial experiences – and the post-1900 situation. The ILP prospered at least in electoral and membership terms, as a partner in the Labour Alliance. It became a natural organisation for rising trade union leaders to join.’
The ILP played a central role in the formation of the Labour Representation Committee in 1900, and when the Labour Party was formed in 1906, the ILP affiliated to it. This affiliation allowed the ILP to continue to hold its own conferences and devise its own policies, which ILP members were expected to argue for within the Labour Party. Also, as in most constituencies, the Labour Party did not operate individual membership until 1918. The ILP provided much of Labour's activist base in the early years.
The relationship between the ILP and the Labour Party was characterised by conflict. Many ILP members viewed the Labour Party as being too timid and moderate in their attempts at social reform, and consequently many ILP branches chose to amalgamate with the Social Democratic Party of H. M. Hyndman in 1912 to found the British Socialist Party. However the new party was little more than the SDP rebranded and the ILP soon resumed its position as the largest of a number of small socialist parties and groups in Britain.
On April 11, 1914 the party celebrated its 21st anniversary with a congress in Bradford. However, the coming of World War I exposed the gulf between the Labour Party, based on the trade union bureaucracy, and the ILP when the latter, prior to the war, opposed war on ethical principles based on a pacifism grounded in the Christian beliefs of much of both the leadership and rank and file membership.
The ILP's attitude during the war remained ambiguous. "The ILP during the war had never said 'Stop the war'," said Mr Snowden at one of their meetings in Glasgow in December 1915. 
The 21st anniversary congress of the ILP occurred in April 1914, four months before the outbreak of World War I. Perhaps tragically and ironically, the flags pictured are those of some the major combatants. Only Austria-Hungary is missing. Shown from left to right, they are:
When the Second International was relaunched after the war, the ILP was involved in the organising discussions (see Berne International). However, the majority of members saw the International as compromised by its support for war. The ILP disaffiliated from the International in August 1920.
Meanwhile, the right-wing leadership of the ILP, notably Ramsay MacDonald and Philip Snowden, opposed affiliation to the newly formed Third International. Nonetheless, a great deal of sympathy was evidenced within the ILP for Soviet Russia (i.e. the USSR). A compromise was sought whereby the ILP proposed to affiliate to the Third International on condition it need not accept the idea of armed revolt - a proposal rejected by the Third International.
The "centrism" of the ILP, caught between the reformist politics of the Second International and the revolutionary politics of the Third International, led it to leading a number of other European socialist groups into the "Second and a Half International" between 1921 and 1923.
A small minority in the ILP, including Emile Burns and S Saklatvala, formed the "ILP Left Wing" around the journal International and local "Left-Wing Committees" to continue a campaign to join the Third International. When their position was again defeated in 1921, they left to join the Communist Party of Great Britain.
At the 1922 general election several ILP members became MPs (including future ILP leader Jimmy Maxton) and the party grew in stature. The ILP provided many of the new Labour MPs, including John Wheatley, Emanuel Shinwell, Tom Johnston and David Kirkwood. However, the first Labour government (returned to office in 1924) proved to be hugely disappointing to the ILP. Their response was to devise their own programme for government but the Labour Party leadership rejected this.
For the duration of the second Labour government (1929-31) 37 Labour MPs were sponsored by the ILP and they provided the left opposition to the Labour leadership. The 1930 ILP conference decided that where their policies diverged from the Labour Party their MPs should break the whip to support the ILP policy.
It was becoming clearer that the ILP was diverging further away from the Labour Party and at the 1931 ILP Scottish Conference the issue of whether the party should still affiliate to Labour was discussed. It was decided to continue to do so, but only after Maxton himself intervened in the debate to speak up to continue to do so.
At the 1931 general election the ILP candidates refused to accept the standing orders of the parliamentary Labour Party, resulting in them standing without official Labour Party support. Five ILP members were returned to Westminster and created an ILP group outside the Labour Party. In 1932 the ILP held a special conference and voted to disaffiliate from Labour. The same year, it co-founded the "London Bureau" of left-socialist parties (later called the International Revolutionary Marxist Centre).
The Labour left-winger Aneurin Bevan described the ILP's disaffiliation as a decision to remain "pure, but impotent", and in the long run his criticism was arguably vindicated, as once outside of the Labour Party structure the ILP's political influence went into decline. Some members of the ILP who chose to remain within the Labour Party were to be instrumental in creating the Socialist League.
In the 1930s the party suffered a massive decline in membership owing to the decision to disaffiliate from Labour, but they remained active. Moving to the left as a result of pressure from the more active layers of the membership in the Depression they also recruited many young people and workers as a result. But while winning new members they also lost members to the right, to the Labour Party, and to their left to the Communist Party and to the Trotskyists as well as losing a breakaway in the north west the Independent Socialist Party in 1934.
They were particularly active in supporting the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War, and around twenty-five members and sympathizers (including George Orwell) actually went to Spain to assist the POUM as part of an ILP Contingent of volunteers. (The POUM was the ILP's sister party in the "Three-and-a-Half International" of democratic socialist parties, which the ILP administered and Fenner Brockway chaired for most if its existence in the 1930s.)
From the mid-1930s onwards the ILP also attracted the attention of the Trotskyist movement with various Trotskyist groups working within it, such as the Marxist Group of which CLR James, Denzil Dean Harber and Ted Grant were members. This was in addition to the presence within the party of a group of members sympathetic to the CPGB, the Revolutionary Policy Committee, who eventually left to join that party.
As in 1914 the ILP opposed World War II on ethical grounds and turned to the left. One aspect of its leftist policies in this period was that it opposed the war-time truce between the major parties and actively contested Parliamentary elections. In one such by-election in Cardiff, this was with the result that Fenner Brockway, the ILP candidate, found himself opposed by a Conservative candidate for whom the local Communist Party actively campaigned.
The end of war can be said to mark the final descent of the ILP into the political wilderness, as its conference rejected calls to reaffiliate to the Labour Party. A major blow came in 1946 when the party's best known public spokesman, James Maxton MP, died. Although the ILP narrowly held his seat in the Glasgow Bridgeton by-election, 1946, all their MPs had defected to Labour by 1948, and the party was roundly defeated at the Glasgow Camlachie by-election, 1948, in a seat they had won easily only three years earlier. The party was never again able to take a significant vote in a Parliamentary election.
Despite these blows, the ILP continued and throughout the 1950s and into the early 1960s pioneered opposition to the nuclear bomb and sought to publicise ideas such as workers' control. The small party also maintained links with the remnants of its fraternal groups, such as the POUM, who were in exile, as well as campaigning for de-colonisation.
1893: Keir Hardie
1900: Bruce Glasier
1903: Philip Snowden
1906: Ramsay MacDonald
1909: Frederick William Jowett
1913: Keir Hardie
1914: Frederick William Jowett
1917: Philip Snowden
1920: Richard Wallhead
1922: Clifford Allen
1926: James Maxton
1931: Fenner Brockway
1934: James Maxton
1939: C. A. Smith
1941: John McGovern
1943: Robert Edwards
1948: David Gibson
1951: Fred Barton
1953: Annie Maxton
1958: Fred Morel
1962: Emrys Thomas