After the war several proto-socialist groups emerged. The most important of these groups were the Levellers, who advocated electoral reform, universal trial by jury, progressive taxation and the abolition of the monarchy and aristocracy and of censorship. This was strongly opposed by Oliver Cromwell's government, who also persecuted the moderate reformist group the Fifth Monarchy Men and the radical utopian group the Diggers.
The pioneering work of Robert Owen, a Welsh radical, at New Lanark in Scotland, is sometimes credited as being the birth of British Socialism. He stopped employing Children under the age of 10, and instead arranged for their education, and improved the working and living conditions of all his workers. He also lobbied Parliament over child labour, and helped to create the co-operative movement, before attempting to create a utopian community at New Harmony.
From 1830 on, attempts were made to set up national general unions, most notably Robert Owen's Grand National Consolidated Trades Union in 1834, which attracted a range of socialists from Owenites to revolutionaries. It played a part in the protests after the Tolpuddle Martyrs' case, but soon collapsed.
Militants turned to Chartism, the aims of which were supported by most socialists, although none appear to have played leading roles.
More permanent trade unions were established from the 1850s, better resourced but often less radical. The London Trades Council was founded in 1860, and the Sheffield Outrages spurred the establishment of the Trades Union Congress in 1868. Union membership grew as unskilled and women workers were unionised, and socialists such as Tom Mann played an increasingly prominent role.
Many ethical socialists grouped themselves around Robert Blatchford's newspaper The Clarion, and some set up a socialist church movement which can be seen as a forerunner of later Christian socialism in the labour movement. A strand with less of a base in the unions became the Fabian Society and began to work to get the Liberal Party to adopt reformist socialist policies.
The first group calling itself Christian Socialists formed in 1848 under the leadership of Frederick Denison Maurice. Its membership mainly consisted of Chartists (see below). The group became dormant after only six years, but there was a considerable revival of Christian socialism in the 1880s, and a number of groups sprang up. Ultimately, Christian socialists dominated the leadership of the Independent Labour Party, including James Keir Hardie.
The Chartists published several petitions to the British Parliament (ranging from 1,280,000 to 3,000,000 signatures), the most famous of which was called the People's Charter (hence their name) in 1842, which demanded:
The government subsequently subjected the Chartists to brutal reprisals and arrested their leaders. The remaining party then split as a result of a divide in tactics: the Moral Force Party believed in bureaucratic reformism, while the Physical Force Party believed in workers' reformism (through strikes, etc).
The Chartist movement's reformist goals, although not immediately and directly attained, were gradually achieved. In the same year as the People's Charter was created, the British Parliament instead responded by passing the 1842 Mining Act. Carefully valving the steam of the working class movement, British Parliament reduced the working day to ten hours in 1847.
The party soon split, with the Socialist League of William Morris becoming divided between anarchists and Marxists such as Morris and Eleanor Marx. A much later split produced the Socialist Party of Great Britain, Britain's oldest existing socialist party, and the Socialist Labour Party.
Although Marxism had some impact in Britain, it was far less than in many other European countries, with philosophers such as John Ruskin and John Stuart Mill having much greater influence. Some non-Marxists theorise that this was because Britain was amongst the most democratic countries of Europe of the period, the ballot box provided an instrument for change, so a parliamentary, reformist socialism seemed a more promising route than elsewhere.
In 1874, the Liberals agreed not to put candidates against Thomas Burt and Alexander Macdonald, two miners leaders who were standing for Parliament. Both were elected and became known as Liberal-Labour or Lib-Labs for short. Other miner’s leaders entered Parliament via the same route.
In 1888 Robert Cunninghame-Graham the MP for Lanarkshire North-West since the 1886 general election left the Liberals and formed his own, independent, Scottish Labour Party, becoming the first socialist MP in the United Kingdom Parliament.
In the 1892 general election Keir Hardie, another Liberal politician who had joined Cunninghame-Graham in the Scottish Labour Party, was elected as an Independent Labour MP, and this gave him the spur to found a UK-wide Independent Labour Party in 1893.
In 1900, representatives of various trade unions and of the Independent Labour Party, Fabian Society and Social Democratic Federation agreed to form a Labour Party backed by the unions and with its own whips. The Labour Representation Committee was founded with Keir Hardie as its leader. At the 1900 election the LRC won only two seats, and the SDF disaffiliated, but more unions signed up.
The LRC affiliated to the Socialist International and in 1906 changed its name to Labour Party. It formed an electoral pact with the Liberals, intending to cause maximum damage to the Unionist Government in the forthcoming election. This was successful, and in the process, 29 Labour MPs were elected.
This activity took place against the background of the First World War. The Labour Party, like almost all the Socialist International, enthusiastically supported their country's leadership in the war, as did the leadership of the British Socialist Party. This split the BSP, and a new anti-war leadership emerging.
The CPGB soon became known for its loyalty to the line of the Comintern, and proposed the motion to expel Leon Trotsky from the international. Under the leadership of Harry Pollitt, it finally gained its first MP, and began to expel Trotskyists.
In 1926, Welsh miners went on strike over their appalling working conditions. The situation soon escalated into the General Strike, but the Trade Union Congress, ostensibly worried about reports of starvation in the pit villages, called the strike off. The miners tried to continue alone, but without TUC support had eventually to give in.
Labour won a minority government in 1929 again under MacDonald, but following the Stock Market Crash of 1929, the Great Depression engulfed the country. The government split over its response to the crisis. MacDonald and a few supporters agreed to form a National Government with the Liberals and the Conservatives. The majority of the Labour Party regarded this as a betrayal and expelled them, whereupon they founded National Labour.
The Great Depression devastated the industrial areas of Northern England, Wales and Central Scotland, and the Jarrow March of unemployed workers from the North East to London to demand jobs defined the period.
In 1936, the Spanish Civil War was viewed by many socialists as a contest against the rise of fascism which it was vital to win. Many CPGB and Independent Labour Party members went to fight for the Republic and with the Stalinist led International Brigades and the POUM anti-fascistforces, including George Orwell who wrote about his experiences in Homage to Catalonia.
The Labour Party leadership always supported World War II, and they joined a national government with the Conservative Party and the Liberals, and agreed a non-contest pact in elections. The CPGB at first supported the war, but after Joseph Stalin signed a treaty with Adolf Hitler, opposed it. After the fascist invasion of the Soviet Union, they again supported the war, joined the non-contest pact, and did all in their power to prevent strikes. But strikes did occur, and they were supported by the anti-war Independent Labour Party and the newly-formed Trotskyist Revolutionary Communist Party.
The CPGB also grew on the back of Stalinist successes in Eastern Europe and China, and recorded their best-ever result, with two MPs elected (one in London and one in Fife). The Revolutionary Communist Party collapsed, their perspectives falsified and unable to deal with the ensuing factional discord .
Labour lost office in 1951 (despite polling 200,000 more votes than the Conservatives), and after Clement Attlee retired as leader in 1955, he was succeeded by the figurehead of the "right-establishment" Hugh Gaitskell, against Aneurin Bevan.
Although there were some disputes between the Bevanites and the Gaitskellites, these disputes were more about personality than ideology, and the rift was healed when Harold Wilson, a Bevanite, was elected leader after Gaitskell's death.
The CPGB became increasingly divided between Stalinists and Eurocommunists when they voted to disapprove of the Soviet Union's invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. The party suffered a series of splits. Various Maoist inclined elements left, the most significant forming the Communist Party of Britain (Marxist-Leninist). Later in 1977 other traditionalist pro-Russian elements left to form the New Communist Party.
Throughout most of the rest of the twentieth century, Labour alternated in office with the Conservatives, most notably in the Wilson-Heath years (1964-1976). During this period, Labour introduced In Place of Strife, a plan designed to circumvent strikes by imposing compulsory arbitration. Opposed by many socialists and trade unionists, it had little success as union militants, many close to the CPGB, led the successful 1974 UK miners' strike, the well-supported but ultimately unsuccessful Grunwick dispute, and the 1978-79 Winter of Discontent.
In 1981 the right-wing split from the Labour Party to found the Social Democratic Party. In the 1983 UK general election, Thatcher rode a wave of nationalism brought about by the Falklands War and compounded by a the Labour leadership's failure to campaign on their manifesto, their most left-wing for many years (famously described by the right-wing Labour MP Gerald Kaufman as "the longest suicide note in history"). Labour suffered their worst election defeat since 1918 with eight and a half million votes, over three million votes down on the previous general election. Many former Labour voters voted for the SDP-Liberal Alliance instead. During this period, the Labour Party was split between the right, including Healey and Roy Hattersley, a "soft left" associated with the Tribune group, and a "hard left" associated with Benn and the Campaign Group.
The Trotskyist Militant tendency, working in the Labour Party, had gradually increased their support. By 1982, they controlled Liverpool City Council, and took the lead in opposing Conservative budget cuts. However, after a fight, many of their councillors were surcharged and thrown out of office. The Labour leadership followed this by expelling Militant members from the party. Thatcher's other chief opponent in local government, Ken Livingstone of the Greater London Council, was left powerless when she abolished the metropolitan county councils and GLC in 1986. The term municipal socialism is used to describe the control of some urban local authorities by the Labour left in this period.
The defining event of the 1980s for British socialists was the 1984-5 miners' strike. Miners in the National Union of Mineworkers, led by Arthur Scargill, struck against the closure of collieries. Despite widespread support, including alliances forged with students, campaigners for gay rights and the prominent role of many miners' wives in Women Against Pit Closures, the strike was eventually lost. This increased the Tories' confidence, and they undertook massive privatisations and other neo-liberal legislation.
After the 1983 election, the right-winger Neil Kinnock was chosen as the new leader of Labour. He attempted to reform the party by expelling revolutionaries and dropping many socialist policies. In the process the party beat off the challenge from the SDP. However, Labour lost the 1987 UK general election by a wide margin.
The early nationalist parties had little connection with socialism, but by the 1980s they had become increasingly identified with the left, and in the 1990s Plaid Cymru declared itself to be a socialist party.
Following the establishment of the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly, both the Scottish National Party and Plaid have been challenged by socialists in recent years. The Scottish Socialist Party, who include an independent Scotland in their programme, has had successes including the election of six MSPs. Forward Wales, with a less militant programme, are aiming to replicate this success.
Irish nationalism and sometimes Irish republicanism came to be supported by socialists in Britain. Labour's election manifesto's for 1983, 1987 and 1992 included a commitment to Irish unification by consent.
The CPGB finally disintegrated in 1991, although their former newspaper, The Morning Star, continues to be published by the Communist Party of Britain. The Eurocommunists, who had controlled the party's magazine Marxism Today formed the Democratic Left
In the run-up to the 1992 general election, polling showed that there might be a hung parliament, but possibly a small Labour majority. In the event, Major got in again with a majority of 21. This has been attributed to both triumphalism of the Labour Party (in particular the infamous Sheffield Rally) and the Tories' "Tax Bombshell" advertising campaign.
After the brief stewardship of John Smith, Tony Blair was elected leader. He immediately decided to re-write Clause IV, dropping Labour's commitment to workers' control. Many members of the party were unhappy with the proposed changes and several unions considered using their block vote to kill the motion, but in the end their leaderships backed down and settled for a new clause declaring the Labour Party a "Democratic Socialist Party".
Several party members, such as Arthur Scargill regarded this as a betrayal of Labour's ideology and left Labour in disgust. Scargill formed the Socialist Labour Party (SLP) which initially attracted some support, much of which transferred to the Socialist Alliance on its formation, but the SA has since been wound up and the SLP has become marginalised. The Scottish Socialist Party have proven much more successful, while Ken Livingstone became the Mayor of London, standing against an official Labour Party candidate. Livingtone was re-admitted into the Labour party in time for his re-election in 2004.
Under Blair, Labour launched a massive PR campaign to rebrand as New Labour, introduced women-only shortlists in certain seats and central vetting of Parliamentary candidates, to ensure that its candidates were seen as on-message. Labour won the 1997 UK general election with a large majority, and have been in power ever since. However, they have not reversed many Tory policies, and have disappointed many socialists.
George Galloway after his expulsion from the Labour Party in October 2003 (following controversial statements about the war in Iraq) joined with some far-left groups, mainly the Socialist Workers Party, then the largest left-of-Labour grouping, and independents, including leading figures from the Muslim Association of Britain, to form RESPECT The Unity Coalition. Galloway succeeded in being elected as a Respect MP for Bethnal Green and Bow in the 2005 UK general election. Respect hopes to take over the left-wing space they see as having been deserted by New Labour and start to pull disaffected labour grass-roots members.
Other socialists place their hopes in a trade union revival, perhaps around the "Awkward Squad" of the more leftist trade union leaders, many of whom have joined the Labour Representation Committee. Others have turned to more community-based politics. Yet others believe they can reclaim the Labour Party.