David Shackleton was born on 21 November 1863 at Cloughfold, Lancashire, the only surviving child of a power-loom weaver, William Shackleton, and his wife, Margaret Shackleton. He was educated at a dame-school before beginning work at the age of nine as a half-timer in a weaving shed. Shackleton became a full-time worker at the age of thirteen. (1)
Shackleton joined the Accrington Weavers' Association. In 1883 he married Sarah Broadbent, a fellow mill worker and over the next few years they had a son and a daughter. Like other leaders of the labour movement, such as Keir Hardie, Arthur Henderson, George Lansbury and Arthur J. Cook, Shackleton was active in the temperance movement. (2)
Shackleton became an active trade unionist and became full-time secretary of the Ramsbottom weavers. He held a similar position with the Darwen weavers. A member of the Liberal Party he was elected to the Darwen town council in 1894.
On 27th February 1900, representatives of all the socialist groups in Britain (the Independent Labour Party, the Social Democratic Federation and the Fabian Society, met with trade union leaders at the Congregational Memorial Hall in Farringdon Street. After a debate the 129 delegates decided to pass Hardie's motion to establish "a distinct Labour group in Parliament, who shall have their own whips, and agree upon their policy, which must embrace a readiness to cooperate with any party which for the time being may be engaged in promoting legislation in the direct interests of labour." To make this possible the Conference established a Labour Representation Committee (LRC). (3)
As Henry Pelling, the author of Origins of the Labour Party (1965) has pointed out: "The early components of the Labour Party formed a curious mixture of political idealists and hard-headed trade unionists: of convinced Socialists and loyal but disheartened Gladstonians". Shackleton definitely fell into this category and had to be reprimanded for appearing to support a Liberal candidate in an election. (4)
In the 1900 General Election fifteen LRC candidates attempted to enter the House of Commons. However, a shortage of funds made campaigning very difficult. Only two were elected, Keir Hardie, the former secretary of the Scottish Miners' Federation and Richard Bell, the general secretary of the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants. (5)
In 1902 Ughtred Kay-Shuttleworth, the Liberal MP for Clitheroe, was raised to the peerage. The LRC made it clear they intended to put forward Philip Snowden, one of the ILP leaders for the by-election. Officials of the Liberal Party, worried that a three-way fight for the seat might allow the Conservative Party to win, offered to withdraw in favour of LRC if it selected a non-socialist candidate. Ramsay MacDonald thought this was a good idea and after persuading Snowden to stand down, selected David Shackleton as its candidate. (6)
John Bruce Glasier wrote to Hardie: "We must not seem to act as if we were either disappointed at Shackleton's selection, or were disposed to allow ourselves to be reckoned outsiders. It must be our campaign as well as that of the Trade Unionists." Realising they now had no chance of winning the by-election, the Tories, decided not to oppose Shackleton and he was returned for Clitheroe without opposition. (7)
In the House of Commons he always supported the Liberal Party. According to his biographer, Kenneth D. Brown, "Shackleton... always believed that the trade unions were the most authentic and comprehensive representatives of working-class interests and that they should not be unduly constrained by the Labour Party connection. Coupled with his moderation, this attracted adverse comment from the party's socialists, of whom he was always deeply suspicious." (8) The socialists disliked Shackleton and in 1907 Ben Tillett described him along with Richard Bell as "softly feline in their purring to Ministers and their patronage… betrayers of the class that willingly supports them". (9)
Others were more complimentary: "Shackleton was returned unopposed, the older political parties showing no anxiety to combat the nominee of the new and almost unknown Movement, more particularly when he was so popular figure in the constituency. Shackleton immediately became a force in the House of Commons, his amiable suavity and quiet reasonableness, coupled with his commanding presence, proving a useful foil to the more romantic figure of Keir Hardie.... Well over six feet high, his frequent appeals for the abolition of the half-time system were always in a measure amusingly discounted by his own robust physique as an example of what a half-timer might become." (10)
At the 1906 General Election thirty-one LRC candidates, including Shackleton, did not have to face a Liberal opponent. In a large number of seats the LRC did not stand against Liberals who had a good chance against the Conservative candidate. The Liberals, led by Henry Campbell-Bannerman, won a landslide victory, winning 377 seats and a majority of 84 over all other parties. The Conservatives lost more than half their seats, including that of its leader, Arthur Balfour.
The LRC won twenty-nine seats. This included Shackleton, Ramsay MacDonald (Leicester) Keir Hardie (Merthyr Tydfil), Philip Snowden (Blackburn), Arthur Henderson (Barnard Castle), George Barnes (Glasgow Blackfriars), Will Thorne (West Ham), Fred Jowett (Bradford) and James Parker (Halifax). At a meeting on 12th February, 1906, the group of MPs decided to change from the LRC to the Labour Party. Hardie was elected chairman and MacDonald was selected to be the party's secretary. Despite providing the two leaders the party, only six of the MPs were supporters of the ILP. (11)
This success was due to the secret alliance with the Liberal Party. Of these 29 MPs only 18 were socialists. Hardie was elected chairman of the party by one vote, against Shackleton, the trade union candidate. His victory was based on recognition of his role in forming the Labour Party rather than his socialism. (12)
Some people in the party were worried about the new dominance of the trade union movement. The Clarion newspaper wrote: "There is probably not more than one place in Britain (if there is one) where we can get a Socialist into Parliament without some arrangement with Liberalism, and for such an arrangement Liberalism will demand a terribly heavy price - more than we can possibly afford." (13)
Shackleton's main focus was to reverse the Taff Vale judgment. In 1901 the Taff Vale Railway Company sued the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants for losses during a strike. As a result of the case the union was fined £23,000. Up until this time it was assumed that unions could not be sued for acts carried out by their members. This court ruling exposed trade unions to being sued every time it was involved in an industrial dispute. As a result of Shackleton's efforts the House of Commons passed the 1906 Trades Disputes Act which removed trade union liability for damage by strike action. (14)
This was seen as a great victory for the Labour Party. The historian, Ralph Miliband, has argued: "The only issue on which the Labour Party was unambiguously pledged was the legislative reversal of the Taff Vale decision of 1901, which had seriously jeopardized the unions' right to strike, but which had also been of crucial importance to the LRC, since it was this above all else which had persuaded more unions that they did indeed require independent representation in the House of Commons, and who therefore agreed to affiliate to the LRC. The Trades Dispute Act... ultimately met the Trade Unions' demands could legitimately be claimed as a success for the Parliamentary Labour Party." (15)
In 1908 Shackleton was elected President of the Trade Union Congress. He continued to be an effective member of Parliament and was praised for his stamina and imperturbability." It is claimed that he was in "constant negotiation with the government about the precise terms under which labour exchanges were set up and he did much to ensure that they did not become blackleg recruitment centres". (16)
The 1910 General Election saw 40 Labour MPs, including David Shackleton, elected to the House of Commons. Soon afterwards Winston Churchill, a member of the government, invited Shackleton to become senior labour adviser at the Home Office. The following year he was made a national health insurance commissioner. In 1916 he was appointed permanent secretary of the newly created Ministry of Labour. It was claimed that he was chosen for this task because he enjoyed the confidence of both employers and trade unionists. He retired from office in 1925.
David Shackleton died at his home in Lytham St Annes on 1st August 1938.
Despite his later attendance at Accrington Mechanics' Institute, Shackleton never improved much on his limited education. Outside family life, in which he was a strong believer, his interests lay predominantly in temperance, trade unionism, and politics. As was the case with many of his contemporaries, his concern with labour questions derived mainly from his own experience. Hard-working, plain-spoken, and pragmatic, he became the best-known of the second generation of cotton union leaders. Fifteen months after joining the Accrington Weavers' Association he became a committee member and then president in 1889. He was briefly the full-time secretary of the Ramsbottom weavers before taking a similar position with the Darwen weavers, a post he held until 1907. In 1904 Shackleton was elected to the council of the TUC and it was a measure of his popularity that, unusually, he was elected president in successive years.
The Taff Vale Judgment was given by the House of Lords in the same year, and its full import as a means of effectively crippling the Trade Unions was clearly in the minds of officials and rank and file alike. It was evident that this "judge made law" could only be rectified by legislation, and it is true to say that no single factor contributed so much to the early upbuilding of the political Labour Movement. The United Textile Factory Workers, representing practically the whole of the cotton workers of Lancashire, affiliated almost immediately, and upon the elevation of Sir U. Kaye Shuttleworth to the peerage creating a vacancy in the Clitheroe Division, the active Socialists and L.R.C. supporters in this textile constituency were anxious to adopt Philip Snowden then a rising orator in the Movement, and fresh from a vigorous by-election fight at Wakefield, where as an I.L.P. candidate he had polled 1,979 votes against 2,960 votes cast for a Conservative opponent. However, they were prevailed upon to concentrate upon the candidature of David Shackleton, of the Darwen Weavers. Shackleton, a burly, genial giant of a man, had centred his activities upon the Textile Trade Union Movement with which he was associated, and although almost unknown at the time in the larger Labour world, he was a force to be reckoned with in his own industry and in his own county. Well over six feet high, his frequent appeals for the abolition of the half-time system were always in a measure amusingly discounted by his own robust physique as an example of what a half-timer might become. Perhaps the most illuminating light that has ever been shed on David Shackleton was his own testimony to the daily perusal of the Manchester Guardian as the main source of his literary and general knowledge. Shackleton was returned unopposed, the older political parties showing no anxiety to combat the nominee of the new and almost unknown Movement, more particularly when he was so popular figure in the constituency. Shackleton immediately became a force in the House of Commons, his amiable suavity and quiet reasonableness, coupled with his commanding presence, proving a useful foil to the more romantic figure of Keir Hardie.
Early in 1901 the Taff Vale Railway Company sued the Railwaymen's Union for fantastic damages because of the action of Union men in a trade dispute. After a case, which was conducted on lines which amazed every Labour man in the country, the House of Lords gave a final decision against the Union, which was mulcted of "3,000 damages, and incurred expenses amounting to a further £19,000. Other capitalists were not slow to realize the significance of this judgment! Trade Unions were sued on the most absurd grounds; the Taff Vale decision was quoted as a precedent; and Labour lost action after action.
(2) Martin Pugh, Speak for Britain: A New History of the Labour Party (2010) page 18
(3) Ralph Miliband, Parliamentary Socialism (1972) pages 19 and 20
(4) Henry Pelling, Origins of the Labour Party (1965) page 225
(5) Paul Adelman, The Rise of the Labour Party: 1880-1945 (1972) pages 30-31
(6) Henry Pelling, Origins of the Labour Party (1965) page 148
(7) John Bruce Glasier, letter to Keir Hardie (13th July, 1902)
(9) Geoffrey Elton, The Life of James Ramsay MacDonald (1939) page 147
(10) Herbert Tracey, The Labour Party: Its History, Growth, Policy and Leaders - Volume I (1924) pages 124-125
(11) Martin Pugh, Speak for Britain: A New History of the Labour Party (2010) page 71
(12) Paul Adelman, The Rise of the Labour Party: 1880-1945 (1972) page 39
(13) Philip Poirier, The Advent of the Labour Party (1958) page 145
(14) Kenneth D. Brown, David Shackleton : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)
(15) Ralph Miliband, Parliamentary Socialism (1972) page 22
(16) Kenneth D. Brown, David Shackleton : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)