Placing the Emergence of the Scottish Labour Party in a Comparative Perspective

By Jason Parry

Scotland has always been a place of significance for the Labour Party. Many key figures in the party’s formative years were Scottish, including its first (albeit unofficial) leader, Keir Hardie, and its first prime minister, Ramsay MacDonald. Hardie’s link with the mining unions in Lanarkshire, as well as his candidature in Mid Lanark in 1888, contribute to the idea that Scotland was ideologically important for Labour. Indeed, the Independent Labour Party (ILP), the socialist organisation that pre-dated the formation of the Labour Party in 1900, owed much of its existence to Hardie’s failed election attempt in 1888, which represented one of the first challenges to Liberalism by an independent labour candidate. Hardie himself acknowledged that the ‘birth’ of the ILP was very much a Scottish affair. Despite this, before 1914 Labour failed to make a significant parliamentary impact in Scotland. There are several reasons for this, all contributing to the idea that Labour’s early politics were highly localised before 1914 and reliant upon existing labour movements as well as the work of party activists.

First, and unlike the Liberal or Conservative parties, Labour emerged from outside of Parliament. This meant that the party’s growth was often highly localised and influenced by the local political and socio-economic contexts. In the case of Scotland, in its early years Labour faced a strong and often hostile Liberal Party which was, unlike in other parts of England and Wales, unwilling to make concessions to Labour. Second, Scottish trade unionism, although significant in areas such as Glasgow, was comparatively weak when compared to the urban industrial centres of the North East, Midlands and Lancashire, places where Labour started pose a real electoral challenge to both Liberalism and Conservatism prior to 1914. Third, and connected to this, Labour thus did not tend to concentrate on Scotland in the early days, at least in an electoral sense. In 1904, for instance, the Labour Party produced a poster depicting a dog with ‘Labour’ on its collar standing above a bone marked ‘Industrial Constituencies’ with the caption ‘His Own’. This poster in many ways epitomised those areas where the party was strongest and how Labour developed its early election strategy. Labour’s early leaders were predominately concerned with running parliamentary candidates only in areas where the chances of electoral success was deemed the best. Hence, fostering local politics was not a priority. Although this attitude began to change by 1910, the lack of a proper national organisation meant that candidates were usually funded through individual trade union or socialist societies rather than a constituency party itself. Such a process for running candidates meant that ‘carpet-bagger’ candidates (or outsiders) were favoured over members of the local labour movement. With no electoral arrangement with the Liberal Party, this meant that Scottish Labour candidacies were not a priority for the sponsoring unions, despite local labour movements becoming increasingly active and militant over this period.

What is also interesting is how Labour in Scotland had established an individual identity for itself, even before the formation of Labour in 1900 as the Labour Representation Committee (LRC). The Scottish Parliamentary Labour Party, which would later become simply the Scottish Labour Party (SLP), was formed after Hardie’s election attempt in 1888. Although the SLP merged into the ILP in 1895, the name was salvaged and used once more when a conference on Scottish independent labour representation was called in 1899. Hence, when the LRC formed in 1900 it encompassed a variety of existing local labour movements including the SLP. The initial lack of cohesion from the national LRC (and later the Labour Party) encouraged this separate identity – and other local organisations across the country took on their own character, even in terms of how they identified themselves. So, for instance, alongside the SLP, in Woolwich and Plymouth there were local Labour Representation Associations, whilst after 1906 there was much variation amongst constituency organisation names, usually alternating between ‘LRC’ and ‘Labour Party’ all contributing to an understanding of Labour consisting of a variety of identities and representing a wide and often divergent membership.

Scottish political history has often been portrayed as ‘peculiar’, thus almost warranting a specific approach. Certainly, in the early years of the Labour Party, the Scottish perspective was very different to how Labour developed in other areas. However, this was also the case for many other areas across England and Wales, reflective of the way in which the Labour Party emerged from existing labour movements. Certainly, one particular area may provide a unique perspective, but it is only when taking a comparative approach that we as historians can assess the wider significance and relevance of an issue such as labour representation. The case of Scotland provides an excellent example of how true this really is.


D. Howell, British Workers and the Independent Labour Party 1888-1906 (Manchester, 1984).
J.G. Kellas, ‘The Mid-Lanark By-Election (1888) and the Scottish Labour Party (1888-1894)’, Parliamentary Affairs, 18 (1964-5).
A. McKinlay and R.J. Morris (eds.), The ILP on Clydeside 1893-1932: From Foundation to Disintegration (Manchester, 1991)

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