Labour has transformed millions of lives – but 120th birthday is bittersweet

Today is a bittersweet moment for Labour as it marks its 120th birthday.

The party will look back on its past 12 decades with pride.

A movement founded by 129 delegates on the February 27 1900 has gone on to transform the lives of millions of people for the better.

But it also has to live with the knowledge that in those 120 years it has been in power for only 30.

Labour was born at a meeting of trade unionists, activists and social societies, gathered at the Congregational Memorial Hall on London’s Farringdon Road who agreed to form a Labour Representation Committee to give a voice to working people in Parliament.

Led by Scottish trade unionist Keir Hardie, they won just 29 seats at the 1906 election. But in 1924 Labour found itself in
government, with Ramsay MacDonald as Prime Minister.

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Although in office for just a few months, the first Labour administration showed the difference a left-wing party can make if handed the reins of power.

Benefits were expanded and a Housing Act passed that provided council homes for thousands of low-paid workers.

However MacDonald’s second administration from 1929 to 1931 was a less illustrious moment in Labour history.

In the “great betrayal” he split the party by forming a National Government with the Tories in order to ram through a series of cuts that were unacceptable to most of his Labour colleagues.

A pattern that has characterised Labour for so much of its history was set: Brief spells in Government were followed by long years in the wilderness.

The party was not to return to office until 1945 when Clement Attlee surprised a confident Winston Churchill to win a landslide victory.

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In the next six years Attlee and his stellar Cabinet of Nye Bevan, Ernie Bevin, Stafford Cripps, Ellen Wilkinson and Herbert Morrison rebuilt a country left broken and bankrupt by war.

Flagging industry was revitalised through
nationalisation, thousands of jobs were found for returning soldiers, the welfare state was created and the NHS was founded.

Few governments in British history have been so prodigious or left such a lasting legacy.

Yet true to Labour’s past it was unable to cement its hold on power nor quell the divisions within its own ranks. After Labour's defeat in 1951 the sores which are still plaguing Labour today erupted.

The party was split between those such as Bevan who thought Labour should be true to its socialist roots and those such as Morrison who wanted a more moderate path that gave them a better chance of winning power.

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It took another 14 years before Harold Wilson was able to lead Labour back to government.

Although Wilson’s time in No10 was dogged by economic problems this did not stop Labour from once again from ushering in changes that were to transform millions of lives.

The Open University was established, homosexuality and abortion legalised, capital punishment abolished, the Equal Pay Act passed, the Race Relations Act brought in and 400,000 much-needed homes built a year.

The Tony Blair and Gordon Brown years proved just as industrious.

Between 1997 and 2010 Labour lifted half a million children out of poverty, set up Sure Start centres, brought devolution to Scotland and Wales, peace to Northern Ireland, introduced the National Minimum Wage and rebuilt the country’s schools and hospitals.

History shows us the party tends to burn brightly for a few years before retreating to its old habits of division and defeat.

But it also tells us that when in power it has the ability to bring about genuine and lasting change.

Change has never been more needed when 4.1million children are in poverty, record numbers are on zero hours contracts and public services continue to buckle after a decade of cuts.

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