The rise of the Labour Party

The rise of the Labour Party


Following the Reform Act of 1884 the majority of the adult males of Wales were given the vote.

Image: William 'Mabon' Abraham, member of parliament for the Rhondda in the late 19th century.

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More information about: The rise of the Labour Party

Most men given the vote for the first time in 1884 were content to support the Liberal Party, some because of their Nonconformist loyalties and others because they considered Liberalism to be an umbrella movement capable of accommodating a wide range of radical causes - the furtherance of the interests of the working class among them.

In 1885 William 'Mabon' Abraham was elected MP for the Rhondda. As a trade union leader accepting the Liberal whip, he was a leading representative of the Lib-Lab tradition. There were those however, who argued that as the majority of the population was working class, their interests should be paramount.

The Independent Labour Party was founded in 1893. A highly idealistic movement, it established a few branches in Wales but failed to gain a mass following.

The year 1900 saw the founding of the Labour Representation Committee. A joint venture of trade unionists and members of socialist societies, it was the organisation from which the Labour Party evolved. Keir Hardie, the Committee's candidate in 1900 in the two-member constituency of Merthyr Tydfil was elected, a breakthrough of great significance.

However, it was the legal decision of 1901 concerning the Taff Vale Railway - effectively outlawing strike action - which ensured the Lib-Lab tradition was abandoned and even Mabon was obliged to join the Labour Party. Yet as late as 1914, only five of the 34 Welsh MPs were Labour members.

Labour unrest

The early years of the 20th century were a period of widespread strike action. The century opened with one of the longest disputes in British history - the three-year strike at the Penrhyn Quarry in Bethesda.

Following the Tonypandy riots of 1910, the Rhondda experienced virtual military occupation. In 1911 a riot in Llanelli led to six deaths. Syndicalism, the belief that working-class liberation could be achieved through industrial action, received considerable support.

During the First World War the south Wales coalfield, where a major miners' strike took place in 1915, proved to be the most militant part of Britain.

Following the war, hopes for the fulfilment of working-class aspirations and even of social revolution ran high, but they were dashed by the failure of the General Strike and the miners' lockout of 1926.

Thereafter, rampant unemployment deprived the working class of its bargaining power, although the colliers did succeed in the 1930s in ridding the coalfield of unions controlled by employers.

The triumph of the Labour Party

A minority party in 1914, Labour won half the constituencies of Wales in 1922. This was partly the result of the parliamentary reform of 1918 which increased the representation of the industrial areas and granted the vote to young males who were not householders.

More significant, however, were the wounds which the war inflicted upon the Liberal Party. Dedicated to individual liberty, the party's involvement in total war did much to undermine confidence in it, as did the split consequent upon Lloyd George's acceptance of Conservative support in his successful bid for the premiership in 1916.

Liberalism remained strong in rural Wales. As late as 1945, 7 of Britain's 12 Liberal MPs represented Welsh rural constituencies, but support for the party in industrial areas collapsed.

Since 1922, the Labour Party has enjoyed an unbroken predominance in Welsh politics. In 1931, when the Parliamentary Labour Party was reduced to 52 members, the 16 seats it won in the south Wales coalfield constituted its largest stronghold.

Support for the party reached its peak in the general election of 1966, when it won 32 of the country's 36 constituencies and 61% of the popular vote.

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