The origins of the paper lie in The Miner, a monthly publication founded by Keir Hardie in 1887. The paper's main purpose was to advocate for a federation of Scottish miners. The first issue contained an influential programme for labour, co-authored by Hardie and Chisholm Robertson, marking Hardie's switch from support for the Liberal Party to advocating independent labour candidacies. It was used as Hardie's platform in the Mid Lanarkshire by-election, 1888, following which Hardie became a founder member of the Scottish Labour Party and relaunched The Miner as the Labour Leader.
In 1893, the Scottish Labour Party affiliated to the Independent Labour Party (ILP). Hardie became the party's first leader, and began using the Labour Leader as a forum for the development of policy for the new party. In 1894, he was able to increase the paper's frequency to weekly.
Hardie continued to publish and edit the Labour Leader until 1904, when he sold it to the ILP, amid some controversy on the appropriate recompense due to him. The ILP appointed John Bruce Glasier to replace Hardie as editor in January 1905. Glasier was able to take sales from 13,000 at the start of his editorship, to 43,000 in 1908, but attracted criticism from some ILP members for consistently endorsing all the actions of the party's leadership. He stood down from the post in April 1909.
Throughout this period, the paper was known for investigative reporting and high quality journalism. As early as 1899, an investigation by Hardie had sensationally exposed poor conditions at the Overtoun Chemical Works, while in 1913 and 14, Walton Newbold worked on a lengthy expose of the interests of the defence industry.
World War I
In 1912, Fenner Brockway became the paper's editor. He maintained a policy of strident pacifism, opposing World War I with front page headlines such as "The War Must Be Stopped" and "Down With The War". In 1915, the newspaper's offices were raided by the police, and Brockway was charged with publishing seditious material. Brockway won the case, but commented, "if we weren't dangerous to the government we were failing in our duty!" However, his work in the No-Conscription Fellowship led to his repeated imprisonment, and by 1916 he felt unable to continue in the post. With Brockway's departure, Katherine Glasier took over the editorship. In 1917, the government prohibited the export of the Labour Leader from the UK. By 1918, she had increased circulation to 62,000, but became increasingly at odds with prominent columnist Philip Snowden. His opposition to the October Revolution was vocally opposed by Glasier, and in the ensuing dispute, sales fell away. The stress of this contributed to her nervous breakdown.
With the departure of Glasier, ILP treasurer Clifford Allen decided that a new approach was necessary. The paper was renamed the New Leader, and H. N. Brailsford appointed editor. Alarmed at Brailsford's left wing reputation, Ramsay MacDonald ensured that Mary Agnes Hamilton was appointed as his more moderate deputy, although she soon left the post. Brailsford championed articles on cultural topics, alongside an increased proportion of theoretical pieces. Brailsford himself contributed numerous articles proposing a programme for a living wage. However, by 1926, circulation had fallen, and Brailsford had fallen out of favour with the ILP leadership. Brockway returned to the helm, supporting James Maxton's call for the ILP to stand for "socialism in our time". In the 1929 UK general election, Brockway was elected as the Member of Parliament for Leyton East. In order to concentrate on his elected position, he stood down and was replaced by John Paton.
Paton was an advocate of the living wage policy, but only gave reluctant support to the ILP's movement towards a split from the Labour Party. Out of Parliament again in 1931, Brockway returned to the editor's chair, remaining in position until 1946, when he resigned from the ILP and rejoined the Labour Party.
Post World War II
Facing a severe decline as many of its activists defected to Labour, the ILP relaunched the paper as the Socialist Leader in 1947. F. A. Ridley and George Stone were appointed joint editors, Ridley standing down the following year, but continuing to write regularly for it. Stone pursued a "third force" policy, opposing both capitalism and the Soviet Union. The party continued to decline, but remained able to publish a weekly newspaper. Conservative politician Cyril Wilson Black successfully prosecuted the paper for libel, after it described him as a racist.
In 1975, the ILP decided to dissolve itself into the Labour Party, renaming its paper as the Labour Leader once again, and moving to monthly publication. Declaring itself to be "Labour's Independent Monthly", it was published by Independent Labour Publications until 1986.
- 1888: Keir Hardie
- 1905: John Bruce Glasier
- 1909: J. T. Mills
- 1912: Fenner Brockway
- 1916: Katherine Glasier
- 1922: H. N. Brailsford
- 1926: Fenner Brockway
- 1930: John Paton
- 1931: Fenner Brockway
- 1947: Frank Ridley and George Stone
- 1948: George Stone
- 1960s: Robin Jenkins
- 1970s: Alistair Graham
- "Hardie, (James) Keir", Oxford Dictionary of National Biography
- David Howell, British Workers and the Independent Labour Party, 1888-1906, p.146
- "Glasier, John Bruce", Oxford Dictionary of National Biography
- "Jowett, Frederick William", Oxford Dictionary of National Biography
- White, John Campbell, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography
- "Newbold, (John Turner) Walton", Oxford Dictionary of National Biography
- Fenner Brockway, Learn Peace (Peace Pledge Union)
- Brockway, (Archibald) Fenner, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography
- "Glasier, Katharine St John Bruce", Oxford Dictionary of National Biography
- Cases of general interest, The National Archives
- "Allen, (Reginald) Clifford", Oxford Dictionary of National Biography
- "Hamilton, Mary Agnes", Oxford Dictionary of National Biography
- "Brailsford, Henry Noel", Oxford Dictionary of National Biography
- "Paton, John", Oxford Dictionary of National Biography
- Janus: The Papers of Fenner Brockway
- The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell Volume 1 - An Age Like This 1945-1950 p.373 (Penguin
- David H. Tribe, 100 Years of Freethought
- Terry Liddle, "Unfair to F. A. Ridley", Solidarity 3/87
- "The "IS tradition" and the Independent Labour Party, Solidarity 3/87
- "Black, Sir Cyril Wilson", Oxford Dictionary of National Biography
- The ILP - a brief history, Independent Labour Publications
- Newspapers - main runs, Working Class Movement Library
- Labour Leader, Arbejdermuseet & Arbejderbevægelsens Bibliotek og Arkiv