While on holiday in the United States in 1881, H. M. Hyndman read a copy of Karl Marx's Das Capital. Hyndman was deeply influenced by the book and decided to form a Marxist political group when he arrived back in England. The Social Democratic Federation (SDF) became the first Marxist political group in Britain and over the next few months Hyndman was able to recruit trade unionists such as Tom Mann and John Burns into the organisation. Other significant members included Eleanor Marx, William Morris, George Lansbury, Edward Aveling, H. H. Champion, Theodore Rothstein, Pete Curran, Helen Taylor, John Scurr, Guy Aldred, Dora Montefiore, Frank Harris, Clara Codd, John Spargo and Ben Tillett. Hyndman became editor of the SDF's newspaper, Justice. (1)
In October 1883 Edith Nesbit and Hubert Bland decided to form a socialist debating group with their Quaker friend Edward Pease. They were also joined by Havelock Ellis and Frank Podmore and in January 1884 they decided to call themselves the Fabian Society. Podmore suggested that the group should be named after the Roman General, Quintus Fabius Maximus, who advocated the weakening the opposition by harassing operations rather than becoming involved in pitched battles. (2)
By March 1884 the group had twenty members.The following month Edith Nesbit wrote to her friend, Ada Breakell: "I should like to try and tell you a little about the Fabian Society - it's aim is to improve the social system - or rather to spread its news as to the possible improvements of the social system. There are about thirty members - some of whom are working men. We meet once a fortnight - and then someone reads a paper and we all talk about it. We are now going to issue a pamphlet." (3)
Over the next couple of years the group increased in size and included socialists such as Sydney Olivier, William Clarke, Eleanor Marx, Edith Lees, Annie Besant, Graham Wallas, J. A. Hobson, Sidney Webb, Beatrice Webb, Charles Trevelyan, Arthur Ransome, Cecil Chesterton, Ada Chesterton, J. R. Clynes, Harry Snell, Clementina Black, Edward Carpenter, Walter Crane, Arnold Bennett, Sylvester Williams, H. G. Wells, Hugh Dalton, C. E. M. Joad, Rupert Brooke, Clifford Allen and Amber Reeves.
Sidney Webb explained how the Fabian Society differed from other socialist organisations: "We repudiated the common assumption that socialism was necessarily bound up with insurrection, on the one hand, or utopianism, on the other, and we set to work to discover for ourselves and to teach to others how practically to transform England into a social democratic commonwealth... What we Fabians aim at is not the sub-division of property, whether capital or land, but the control and administration of it by the representatives of the community." (4) Beatrice Webb pointed out that they preferred the ideas of Robert Owen to those of Karl Marx. (5)
The SDP decided they would get involved in parliamentary elections. John Burns was the SDF candidate in the 1885 General Election at Nottingham West. His programme included free education, Irish Home Rule, adult suffrage and the abolition of the House of Lords, the eight-hour day and the nationalisation of railways, mines and land. However, he won only 598 votes but this dwarfed the total of 59 cast for the two SDF candidates in London. (6)
In the 1880s working-class political representatives stood in parliamentary elections as Liberal-Labour candidates. After the 1885 General Election there were eleven of these Liberal-Labour MPs. Beatrice Webb was disappointed by the result: "To us public affairs seem gloomy; the middle-classes are materialistic, and the working-class stupid... the Government of the country is firmly in the hands of little cliques of landlords and great capitalists and their hangers-on." (7)
Some socialists like Keir Hardie, the Liberal-Labour MP for West Ham, began to argue that the working class needed their own independent political party. This feeling was strong in Manchester and in 1892 Robert Blatchford, the editor of the socialist newspaper, the Clarion joined with Richard Pankhurst to form the Manchester Independent Labour Party. (8)
The activities of the Manchester group inspired Liberal-Labour MPs to consider establishing a new national working class party. Under the leadership of Keir Hardie, the Independent Labour Party was formed in 1893. It was decided that the main objective of the party would be "to secure the collective ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange". Leading figures in this new organisation included Robert Smillie, George Bernard Shaw, Tom Mann, George Barnes, Pete Curran, John Glasier, Katherine Glasier, H. H. Champion, Ben Tillett, Philip Snowden, Edward Carpenter and Ramsay Macdonald. (9)
In 1895 the ILP had 35,000 members. However, in the 1895 General Election the ILP put up 28 candidates but won only 44,325 votes. All the candidates were defeated but the ILP began to have success in local elections. Over 600 won seats on borough councils and in 1898 the ILP joined with the the SDF to make West Ham the first local authority to have a Labour majority. This example convinced Keir Hardie that to obtain national electoral success, it would be necessary to join forces with other left-wing groups. (10)
On 27th February 1900, representatives of all the socialist groups in Britain (the Independent Labour Party (ILP), the Social Democratic Federation (SDF) 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). The committee included two members from the ILP (Keir Hardie and James Parker), two from the SDF (Harry Quelch and James Macdonald), one member of the Fabian Society (Edward R. Pease), and seven trade unionists (Richard Bell, John Hodge, Pete Curran, Frederick Rogers, Thomas Greenall, Allen Gee and Alexander Wilkie). (11)
Whereas the ILP, SDF and the Fabian Society were socialist organizations, the trade union leaders tended to favour the Liberal Party. As Edmund Dell pointed out in his book, A Strange Eventful History: Democratic Socialism in Britain (1999): "The ILP was from the beginning socialist... but the trade unions which participated in the foundation were not yet socialist. Many trade union leaders were, in politics, inclined to Liberalism and their purpose was to strengthen labour representation in the House of Commons under Liberal party auspices. Hardie and the ILP nevertheless wished to secure the collaboration of trade unions. They were therefore prepared to accept that the LRC would not at the outset have socialism as its objective." (12) Henry Pelling argued: "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". (13)
Ramsay MacDonald was chosen as the secretary of the Labour Representation Committee. As he was financed by his wealthy wife, Margaret MacDonald, he did not have to be paid a salary. The LRC put up fifteen candidates in the 1900 General Election and between them they won 62,698 votes. Two of the candidates, Keir Hardie and Richard Bell won seats in the House of Commons. Hardie was the leader of the ILP but Bell, the General Secretary of the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants, once in Parliament, associated himself with the Liberal Party. (14)
Many members of the party were uncomfortable with the Marxism of the Social Democratic Federation and H. M. Hyndman had very little influence over the development of the new organization Hardie was hostile to the SDF and thought it vitally important that he persuaded the more conservative trade union movement to support the LRC. In August 1901 the SDF disaffiliated from the LRC.
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. (15)
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. (16)
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." (17) The socialists disliked Shackleton and 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". (18)
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." (19)
In 1903 Hardie, Bell and Shackleton were joined in the House of Commons by two other LRC men at by-elections. Will Crooks, a former casual labourer at East India Docks, won Woolwich by 8,687 votes to 5,458. He was joined by Arthur Henderson who was elected to represent Barnard Castle on 25th May 1903. In a three-cornered contest he polled 3,370 votes.
During this period the artist Walter Crane emerged as an important figure in the Labour movement. It has been claimed that Crane "placed his talent at the disposal of the movement" and produced "membership cards, logos, cartoons, invitation cards, posters and illustrations." John Gorman argues that it was "Walter Crane's cartoons, his black and white illustrations and engravings... that shaped the imagery of socialism on trade union banners for thirty years". (20)
Crane contributed illustrations for various socialist newspapers and journals. As he later explained that he agreed to work for free as "all the work on the journal was gratuitous, from the writers of the articles to the compositors and printers." In one of his most popular drawings: "Capitalism was represented as a vampire fastening on a slumbering workman, and an emblematic figure of Socialism endeavours to arouse him to a sense of his danger by the blast of a clarion." (21)
Crane's posters could be found "brightening the dreary walls of dingy meeting rooms" and in the homes of socialists: "Capitalism was a serpent, a wolf or a dragon; the workers were men of Morris's England, labourers and craftsmen, strong and determined, ever ready to slay the monster of evil, the capitalist system. Socialism was a sunny future, the millennium, almost but not quite within the eager grasp of a Phrygian-capped proletariat... The image of socialism bearing the torch, the banner of the keys of freedom was invariably a woman. Grecian robed, wearing the cap of liberty, sometimes graced with the wings of an angel, a heroine that was neither Britannia nor Joan of Arc yet encapsulated motherhood, beauty and courage... The influence of Crane's art upon the iconography of the working class movement was immense and nowhere was it in greater evidence than upon the giant silken banners of the trades unions that had their golden age during the last decade of the nineteenth century". (22)
The Independent Labour Party (ILP) was the main left-wing pressure group in the early years of the Labour Party. Ralph Miliband, the author of Parliamentary Socialism (1972) has argued that its members attempted "to push their leaders into accepting more radical policies and programmes, and to press upon them more militant attitudes in response to challenges from Labour's opponents". (23)
In February, 1903, Ramsay MacDonald and Keir Hardie had meetings with Herbert Gladstone and other leading members of the Liberal Party about the possibility of an electoral pact. As a result of these discussions it was agreed that such a deal would prove very harmful to the Conservative Party: "An arrangement would mean that the future for both the Liberals and the LRC would be very bright and encouraging. It would mean votes for the Liberals from erstwhile Liberal working men and even from Tory working men. The main benefit, however, would be the effect on the public mind of seeing the opponents of the Government united." (24)
At its conference that year it increased subscriptions which gave it an annual income approaching £5,000. The LRC also established a compulsory parliamentary fund for the payment of members of the House of Commons. At that time MPs were not paid a wage. This move provided an effective way of making members of Parliament and parliamentary candidates toe the party line. (25)
At the 1906 General Election thirty-one LRC candidates 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 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), David Shackleton (Clitheroe), Will Crooks (Woolwich), J. R. Clynes (Manchester North-East), John Hodge (Gorton), Stephen Walsh (Ince) 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. (26)
This success was due to the secret alliance with the Liberal Party. This upset left-wing activists as they wanted to use elections to advocate socialism. (27) However, of their 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. (28)
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." (29)
Labour MPs campaigned 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. (30)
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." (31)
In January 1907, the Independent Labour Party in Colne Valley selected Victor Grayson as their parliamentary candidate to replace Tom Mann, who had decided to concentrate on trade union matters. In the past, there had been an arrangement where the labour movement supported the Liberal Party candidate in Colne Valley in return for help in winning other seats for ILP candidates. The executive of the Labour Party therefore decided not to endorse Grayson as their candidate. In choosing their candidate the people of Colne Valley "selected someone with little experience whom they trusted." (32)
Keir Hardie was unhappy with the decision. He wrote to John Bruce Glasier that "I don't like the man they have chosen but that cannot be helped". Hardie later reported: "Mr Grayson's work in the movement, valuable as it had been, was a matter of very few years... There was neither anger nor bias against Mr Grayson, but simply a desire that men who had grown grey in the movement should not feel that they were put aside to make room for younger men." (33)
Victor Grayson became a regular speaker in the town. Kenneth O. Morgan points out that Grayson was "a spell-binding orator, with a kind of film-star charisma, a supreme rebel propelled from nowhere to smash down the crumbling edifice of British capitalism". What was also surprising that he was able to do it in Colne Valley: "How could the solid, respectable, nonconformist cotton and woollen workers of Colne Valley, close to much older forms of industrial production, relatively well-housed and well-paid, and almost all in regular employment allow themselves to be so swept up in the millenarian intensity of Grayson's crusade in 1907?" (34)
The Colne Valley Guardian was shocked by the appeal of Grayson's socialist campaign: "It is somewhat of a paradox but nevertheless true, that the measure of its discontent, and the higher the wages, the more eager is the straining after the chimerical ideals of Socialism. For the last seven or eight years the Colne Valley has enjoyed an unparalleled period of commercial prosperity. That has not been due entirely to the manufacturers, nor yet to the mill-workers but to both combined." (35)
Harry Hoyle, who was only 12 years old at the time, remembers Grayson speaking in the town: "I can picture him now in front of the Co-op at the Market Place in Marsden. They had a wagon for a platform... He seemed so enthusiastic about everything he attempted, he gave you the impression that this is what we want and this is what we must have... it was infectious. It was really. People just went hay-wire. They went mad at his meetings." (36)
Colne Valley ILP refused to back down and in the by-election held in July, 1907, Grayson stood as an Independent Socialist candidate. Only three leading figures in the ILP, Katherine Glasier, Philip Snowden and J. R. Clynes were willing to speak at his meetings during the campaign. As Reg Groves, the author of The Strange Case of Victor Grayson (1975), has pointed out: "The socialists had no money, save the pennies collected amongst their fellow workers in the mills and factories and at meetings. As the campaign grew, money was raised by more desperate measures; watches, household goods, even wedding rings were pawned to keep the supply of money flowing. They had no efficient, smooth working electoral machinery; it had to be improvised on the spot. The trade union machinery which might well have added much in the way of organisation and wide-flung influence was not likely to give its unstinted support, since the Labour Party refused its endorsement; the ILP, too, was antagonistic, and many of the local union officials favoured a policy of working with the Liberals, not against them." (37)
Although the ILP was committed to the parliamentary road to socialism, during the election, Grayson advocated revolution. In his election address Grayson wrote: I am appealing to you as one of your own class. I want emancipation from the wage-slavery of Capitalism. I do not believe that we are divinely destined to be drudges. Through the centuries we have been the serfs of an arrogant aristocracy. We have toiled in the factories and workshops to grind profits with which to glut the greedy maw of the Capitalist class. Their children have been fed upon the fat of the land. Our children have been neglected and handicapped in the struggle for existence. We have served the classes and we have remained a mob. The time for our emancipation has come. We must break the rule of the rich and take our destinies into our own hands. Let charity begin with our children. Workers, who respect their wives, who love their children, and who long for a fuller life for all. A vote for the landowner or the capitalist is treachery to your class. To give your child a better chance than you have had, think carefully ere you make your cross. The other classes have had their day. It is our turn now." (38)
At least forty clergymen worked on Grayson's behalf. His supporters sung Jerusalem, England Arise and The Red Flag at meetings and their main slogan was "Socialism - God's Gospel for Today". (39) One of his most important campaigners was W. B. Graham, the giant curate of Thongsbridge. The left-wing journalist, Robert Blatchford, described him as "six foot a socialist and five inches a parson". Graham's mission was the "Christianizing of Christianity". (40)
Grayson also campaigned for votes for women. Hannah Mitchell joined his campaign and later recalled: "I must have worked the Colne Valley from end to end, often under the auspices of the Colne Valley Labour League. Sometimes we just went... from door to door to ask the women to come and listen (to Victor Grayson), which the Colne Valley women were usually willing to do." (41) Emmeline Pankhurst also visited the town in support of Grayson. (42) The Daily Mirror pointed out that "Colne Valley mill girls... many of them who cared nothing about votes before are now eager in their desire to enjoy the privileges of the franchise." (43)
In one of his speeches Grayson outlined his view on women's suffrage: "The placing of women in the same category, constitutionally, as infants, idiots and Peers, does not impress me as either manly or just. While thousands of women are compelled to slave in factories, etc., in order to earn a living; and others are ruined in body and soul by unjust economic laws created and sustained by men, I deem it the meanest tyranny to withhold from women the right to share in making the laws they have to obey. Should I be honoured with your support, I am prepared to give the most immediate and enthusiastic support to a measure giving women the vote on the same terms as men. This is as a step to the larger measure of complete Adult Suffrage." (44)
The election took place on 18th July, 1907. Almost every eligible registered elector cast his vote and a turn-out of eighty-eight per cent was recorded. Grayson received 3,648 votes and this gave him a majority over his two opponents: Philip Bright - Liberal (3,495) and Grenville Wheeler - Conservative (3,227). The Daily Express reported: "The Red Flag waves over the Colne Valley... the fever of socialism has infected thousands of workers, who, judging from their merriment this evening, seem to think Mr Grayson's return means the millennium for them." (45)
In his victory speech Grayson pointed out: "The very first joy that comes to my mind is this, that this epoch-making victory has been won for pure revolutionary socialism... You have voted, you have worked for socialism: you have voted, you have worked for the means of life to be the property of the whole class instead of a few small classes. We stand for equality, human equality, sexual equality... It is a splendid victory comrades." (46)
Wilfred Whiteley was a local member of the ILP: "The winning of Colne Valley was largely due to his vivacity and his enthusiasm, and his youth; and it just carried the day. I would say that it was almost entirely the platform work of Grayson that gave him his appeal, and that led people to follow him, and of course his great capacity for telling stories really attracted the listeners to a tremendous degree." (47)
The Independent Labour Party and the Social Democratic Federation welcomed Grayson's victory as it showed that a revolutionary socialist could be elected to Parliament. The Labour Party was unhappy with Grayson's victory as it posed a threat to their relationship with the Liberal Party. In the House of Commons he attacked the gradualism of the Labour Party: "We are advised to advance imperceptibly - to go at a snail's pace - to take one step at a time. Surely there are some young enough to take two steps or more at a time." (48)
In his maiden speech in the House of Commons Grayson criticised the recent decision to grant the diplomat, Evelyn Baring, the 1st Earl of Cromer, £50,000 for his services in Egypt. He attacked the government for rewarding a man for "consolidating Imperialism". Grayson added that Cromer had already been well-paid "while outside the four walls of this House people are dying of starvation". Pointing to the government front-bench he said he was looking forward to the day when those seats "will be occupied by socialists, sent there by an indignant people".
On Tuesday, 31st October, 1908, Grayson stood up in the House of Commons and shouted out: "I wish to move the adjournment of the House so that it can deal with the unemployment question... people are starving in the streets." When he refused to sit down he was escorted from the Commons. As he left he turned to Labour members and shouted: "You are traitors! Traitors to your class." (49)
Grayson was now suspended from the House of Commons. Grayson's actions gained the approval of people like George Bernard Shaw, but provoked predictable hostility from Labour members. (50) "Grayson's activities were profoundly embarrassing to his colleagues, both because these activities were deemed to compromise the Labour Group's respectability, and also because they offered to the activists a striking contrast with the Group's own lack of impact." (51)
Keir Hardie, the leader of the ILP, was quick to make it clear that he completely rejected the tactics of Victor Grayson: "Grayson came to the House of Commons, consulted no one and did not even intimate that he meant to make a scene. This may be his idea of comradeship; it is not mine." J. R. Clynes added: "I do not believe causes are served by violent language and violent action." (52)
Fred Jowett also attacked Grayson for his behaviour. "Men are now described as traitors by Victor Grayson who undertook the task of founding a Socialist Movement at a time when the chilling frost of almost universal indifference was far harder to bear than are the violent alternations between the excitement of hostility and the enthusiasm of fellowship in which Victor Grayson now lives and moves. We must recognise that the man who can make a crowd shout is not necessarily an organizer of men. The gift of platform oratory, skill in making striking phrases, is a dangerous one. It is the man behind that matters. If his skill is employed in setting, not class against class, but men of the same class against their kith and kin, sewing seeds of distrust and hatred where the love of a common cause should produce the fellowship of kindred spirits, it were better if he had no such skill." (53)
At first Keir Hardie was chairman of the party in the House of Commons, but was not very good with dealing with internal rivalries within the party, and in 1908 resigned from the post and Arthur Henderson became leader. However, it was Ramsay MacDonald who held the most power. As David Marquand has pointed out: "The LRC conference unanimously elected him as secretary of the new body. He was the only person in the entire LRC whose responsibility was to the whole rather than to any of the constituent parts. He had no salary, little formal power, and few resources. But on the strategic questions that determined its fate, his was the decisive voice." (54)
During this period the Labour MPs gave its support to the Liberal government. The chief whip reported in 1910: Throughout this period I was always able to count on the support of the Labour Party." One Labour supporter asked: "How can the man in the street, whom we are continually importuning to forsake his old political associations, ever be led to believe that the Labour Party is in any way different to the Liberal Party, when this sort of thing is recurring." (55)
John Bruce Glasier argued that Ramsay MacDonald gave him the impression that he had lost faith in socialism and wanted to move the Labour Party to the right: "I noticed that Ramsay MacDonald in speaking of the appeal we should send out for capital used the word 'Democratic' rather than 'Labour' or 'Socialist' as describing the character of the newspaper. I rebulked him flatly and said we would have no 'democratic' paper but a Socialist and Labour one - boldly proclaimed. Why does MacDonald always seem to try and shirk the word Socialism except when he is writing critical books about the subject." (56)
In 1909 David Lloyd George announced what became known as the People's Budget. This included increases in taxation. Whereas people on lower incomes were to pay 9d. in the pound, those on annual incomes of over £3,000 had to pay 1s. 2d. in the pound. Lloyd George also introduced a new supertax of 6d. in the pound for those earning £5000 a year. Other measures included an increase in death duties on the estates of the rich and heavy taxes on profits gained from the ownership and sale of property. Other innovations in Lloyd George's budget included labour exchanges and a children's allowance on income tax. Ramsay MacDonald argued that the Labour Party should fully support the budget. "Mr. Lloyd George's Budget, classified property into individual and social, incomes into earned and unearned, and followers more closely the theorical contentions of Socialism and sound economics than any previous Budget has done."
Arthur Henderson did not have the full-support of the party and in 1910 he decided to retire as chairman. Ramsay MacDonald was expected to become the new leader but recently his youngest son had died of diphtheria. Eight days later his mother also died. It was therefore decided that George Barnes should become chairman. A few months later Barnes wrote to MacDonald saying he did not want to become chairman and was "only holding the fort". He continued, "I should say it is yours anytime". (57)
The 1910 General Election saw 40 Labour MPs elected to the House of Commons. Two months later, on 6th February, 1911, George Barnes sent a letter to the Labour Party announcing that he intended to resign as chairman. At the next meeting of MPs, Ramsay MacDonald was elected unopposed to replace Barnes. Arthur Henderson now became secretary. According to Philip Snowden, a bargain had been struck at the party conference the previous month, whereby MacDonald was to resign the secretaryship in Henderson's favour, in return for becoming chairman."
MacDonald's chairmanship was soon blighted by personal tragedy. On 8th September 1911, his wife, Margaret MacDonald, died of blood poisoning due to an internal ulcer. Her body was cremated at Golders Green on 12th September. Her son, Malcolm MacDonald, later recalled: "At the time of my mother's death... my father's grief was absolutely horrifying to see. Her illness and her death had a terrible effect on him of grief; he was distracted; he was in tears a lot of time when he spoke to us... it was almost frightening to a youngster like myself." (58)
The Liberal government's next major reform was the 1911 National Insurance Act. This gave the British working classes the first contributory system of insurance against illness and unemployment. All wage-earners between sixteen and seventy had to join the health scheme. Each worker paid 4d a week and the employer added 3d. and the state 2d. In return for these payments, free medical attention, including medicine was given. Those workers who contributed were also guaranteed 7s. a week for fifteen weeks in any one year, when they were unemployed.
MacDonald declared in the House of Commons that the premiums were too high and the balance between state, employer and employee was unfair. However, he believed that the Labour Party should try to get the measure modified. Some leading figures in the movement, including Keir Hardie, Philip Snowden, Will Thorne and George Lansbury, disagreed and called for the bill to be rejected. MacDonald was furious about this rebellious behaviour. He continued to negotiate with David Lloyd George and managed to get important concessions including low-paid workers exempted from contributions.
Ramsay MacDonald also clashed with some members of the party over votes for women. He had argued for many years that women's suffrage that was a necessary part of a socialist programme. He was therefore able to negotiate an agreement with the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) for joint action in by-elections. In October, 1912, it was claimed that £800 of suffragist money had been spent on Labour candidatures.
However, some leaders of the Labour Party, including Keir Hardie and George Lansbury, supported the campaign of the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU). Lansbury was especially critical of the Cat & Mouse Act and was ordered to leave the building after shaking his fist in the face of Herbert Asquith, the Prime Minister, and told him that he was "beneath contempt" because of his treatment of WSPU prisoners. In October, 1912, Lansbury decided to draw attention to the plight of WSPU prisoners by resigning his seat in Parliament and fighting a by-election in favour of votes for women. Lansbury was defeated by 731 votes. (59)
MacDonald rejected their use of violence: "I have no objection to revolution, if it is necessary but I have the very strongest objection to childishness masquerading as revolution, and all that one can say of these window-breaking expeditions is that they are simply silly and provocative. I wish the working women of the country who really care for the vote ... would come to London and tell these pettifogging middle-class damsels who are going out with little hammers in their muffs that if they do not go home they will get their heads broken." (60)
MacDonald also pointed out, the WSPU wanted votes for women on the same terms as men, and specifically not votes for all women. He considered this unfair as at this time only a third of men had the vote in parliamentary elections at this time. MacDonald's friend, John Bruce Glasier, recorded in his diary after a meeting with Emmeline Pankhurst and Christabel Pankhurst, that they were guilty of "miserable individualist sexism" and that he was strongly against supporting the organisation. (61)
Most of the women in the Labour Party supported the NUWSS. Ada Nield Chew attacked the policy of the WSPU: "The entire class of wealthy women would be enfranchised, that the great body of working women, married or single, would be voteless still, and that to give wealthy women a vote would mean that they, voting naturally in their own interests, would help to swamp the vote of the enlightened working man, who is trying to get Labour men into Parliament." (62)
Several campaigners for votes for women, such as Charlotte Despard, Isabella Ford, Katherine Glasier, Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence, Jessie Stephen and Elizabeth Wolstenholme-Elmy were members of the Independent Labour Party and for a long time had been active in socialist politics. However, although most Labour MPs supported the principle of women's suffrage they refused to treat it as a priority. (63)
The Labour Party was completely divided by their approach to the First World War. Those who opposed the war, included Ramsay MacDonald, Keir Hardie, Philip Snowden, John Glasier, George Lansbury, Alfred Salter, William Mellor and Fred Jowett. Others in the party such as Arthur Henderson, George Barnes, J. R. Clynes, William Adamson, Will Thorne and Ben Tillett believed that the movement should give total support to the war effort. (64)
Keir Hardie made a speech on 2nd August, 1914, where he called on "the governing class... to respect the decision of the overwhelming majority of the people who will have neither part nor lot in such infamy... Down with class rule! Down with the rule of brute force! Down with war! Up with the peaceful rule of the people!" (65)
Ramsay MacDonald agreed and stated that he would not encourage his members to take part in the war. "Out of the darkness and the depth we hail our working-class comrades of every land. Across the roar of guns, we send sympathy and greeting to the German Socialists. They have laboured increasingly to promote good relations with Britain, as we with Germany. They are no enemies of ours but faithful friends." (66)
On 5th August, 1914, the parliamentary party voted to support the government's request for war credits of £100,000,000. Ramsay MacDonald immediately resigned the chairmanship and the pro-war Arthur Henderson was elected in his place. (67) MacDonald wrote in his diary: "I saw it was no use remaining as the Party was divided and nothing but futility could result. The Chairmanship was impossible. The men were not working, were not pulling together, there was enough jealously to spoil good feeling. The Party was no party in reality. It was sad, but glad to get out of harness." (68)
Almost alone amongst left-wing political figures, Victor Grayson gave recruiting speeches and wrote articles urging young men to join the armed forces. Some socialists accused him of being paid by the government to make these speeches. He attempted to explain why he changed his views on war: "This war has made havoc of many ready-made theories and doctrines, and some of my most cherished antipathies have succumbed to its effects. I am facing the fact that some 178 Peers of the Realm are now in khaki fighting an enemy country." (69)
In an interview Grayson gave to a newspaper he argued that the working-class would be rewarded if the Allied forces won the war: "The war has cast everything into the crucible. So far as Socialism can be defined intelligently, I still believe that the products of the workers belong to the workers... The war has wrought a marvellous change in the division of classes and masses. The working man has changed his attitude towards the worker, hence new political, industrial and ethical conditions will be the result of our inevitable triumph." (70)
Opponents of the war in the Labour Party joined forces with rebels in the Liberal Party to form the Union of Democratic Control. Members of the UDC agreed that one of the main reasons for the conflict was the secret diplomacy of people like Britain's foreign secretary, Sir Edward Grey. They decided that the Union of Democratic Control should have three main objectives: (i) that in future to prevent secret diplomacy there should be parliamentary control over foreign policy; (ii) there should be negotiations after the war with other democratic European countries in an attempt to form an organization to help prevent future conflicts; (iii) that at the end of the war the peace terms should neither humiliate the defeated nation nor artificially rearrange frontiers as this might provide a cause for future wars. (71)
Ramsay MacDonald came under attack from newspapers because of his opposition to the First World War. On 1st October 1914, The Times published a leading article entitled Helping the Enemy, in which it wrote that "no paid agent of Germany had served her better" that MacDonald had done. The newspaper also included an article by Ignatius Valentine Chirol, who argued: "We may be rightly proud of the tolerance we display towards even the most extreme licence of speech in ordinary times... Mr. MacDonald' s case is a very different one. In time of actual war... Mr. MacDonald has sought to besmirch the reputation of his country by openly charging with disgraceful duplicity the Ministers who are its chosen representatives, and he has helped the enemy State ... Such action oversteps the bounds of even the most excessive toleration, and cannot be properly or safely disregarded by the British Government or the British people." (72)
In May 1915, Arthur Henderson, became the first member of the Labour Party to hold a Cabinet post when Herbert Asquith invited him to join his coalition government. Bruce Glasier commented in his diary: "This is the first instance of a member of the Labour Party joining the government. Henderson is a clever, adroit, rather limited-minded man - domineering and a bit quarrelsome - vain and ambitious. He will prove a fairly capable official front-bench man, but will hardly command the support of organised Labour." (73)
Horatio Bottomley, argued in the John Bull Magazine that Ramsay MacDonald and James Keir Hardie, were the leaders of a "pro-German Campaign". On 19th June 1915 the magazine claimed that MacDonald was a traitor and that: "We demand his trial by Court Martial, his condemnation as an aider and abetter of the King's enemies, and that he be taken to the Tower and shot at dawn." (74)
On 4th September, 1915, the magazine published an article which made an attack on MacDonald's background. "We have remained silent with regard to certain facts which have been in our possession for a long time. First of all, we knew that this man was living under an adopted name - and that he was registered as James MacDonald Ramsay - and that, therefore, he had obtained admission to the House of Commons in false colours, and was probably liable to heavy penalties to have his election declared void. But to have disclosed this state of things would have imposed upon us a very painful and unsavoury duty. We should have been compelled to produce the man's birth certificate. And that would have revealed what today we are justified in revealing - for the reason we will state in a moment... it would have revealed him as the illegitimate son of a Scotch servant girl!" (75)
After the overthrow of Tsar Nicholas II in Russia, socialists in Britain, France, Germany, Austria-Hungary, United States and Italy called for a conference in a neutral country to see if the First World War could be brought to an end. Eventually, it was announced that the Stockholm Conference would take place in July 1917. Arthur Henderson was sent by David Lloyd-George to speak to Alexander Kerensky, the leader of the Provisional Government in Russia. (76)
At a conference of the Labour Party held in London on 10th August, 1917, Henderson made a statement recommending that the Russian invitation to the Stockholm Conference should be accepted. Delegates voted 1,846,000 to 550,000 in favour of the proposal and it was decided to send Henderson and Ramsay MacDonald to the peace conference. However, under pressure from President Woodrow Wilson, the British government had changed his mind about the wisdom of the conference and refused to allow delegates to travel to Stockholm. As a result of this decision, Henderson resigned from the government. (77)
Herbert Tracey has argued that Henderson's resignation marked an important change in the development of the Labour Party: "The divergence of policy between him and the War Cabinet thus became clear, and he resigned from the Government, feeling that his future course of action must be guided by the decision of the party to which he belonged... One thing is certain: Mr Henderson's resignation from the War Cabinet had a vitally important and permanent effect upon the development of the political Labour Movement, by restoring its independence and enabling it to begin reorganising in preparation for the coming of the peace." (78)
William Adamson replaced Arthur Henderson as chairman of the party in October 1917. David W. Howell has argued: "His experience as effectively party leader in the Commons was unhappy. Many felt that he lacked the necessary qualities." Beatrice Webb commented in her diary: "He is a middle-aged Scottish miner, typical British proletarian in body and mind, with an instinctive suspicion of all intellectuals or enthusiasts... He has neither wit, fervour nor intellect; he is most decidedly not a leader, not even like Henderson, a manager of men." (79)
In the 1918 General Election, a large number of the Labour leaders who opposed the war lost their seats. This included Arthur Henderson, Ramsay MacDonald, Philip Snowden, George Lansbury and Fred Jowett. At the Labour Conference that year they decided to make a statement of objectives. This included: "To secure for the producers by hand or by brain the full fruits of their industry, and the most equitable distribution thereof that may be possible, upon the basis of the common ownership of the means of production and the best obtainable system of popular administration and control of each industry and service." (80)
The new Constitution had been drafted by Sidney Webb. It presented the case for a minimum standard of life for all, for full employment, public ownership and greater equality. (81) G.D.H. Cole described the Constitution as "an historic document of the greatest significance" because "it unequivocally committed the Labour Party to Socialist objectives". (82) Clement Attlee agreed and called it "an uncompromisingly Socialist document". (83)
By the end of 1892 it was felt that the various Labour Unions should be merged into a National Party. So steps were taken to call a Conference, which met at Bradford in January 1893. To this Conference delegates from the local unions, the Fabian Society (which at the time was doing considerable propaganda work among the Radical Clubs), and the Social Democratic Federation, were invited. There were 115 delegates present at this conference, and among them was Mr. George Bernard Shaw, representing the Fabian Society. He played a conspicuous part in the Conference. Mr. Keir Hardie, fresh from his success at West Ham, was elected Chairman of the Conference.
Disobedience, in the eyes of anyone who has read history, is man's original virtue. It is through disobedience that progress has been made, through disobedience and through rebellion. Sometimes the poor are praised for being thrifty. But to recommend thrift to the poor is both grotesque and insulting. It is like advising a man who is starving to eat less. For a town or country labourer to practise thrift would be absolutely immoral. Man should not be ready to show that he can live like a badly fed animal. Agitators are a set of interfering, meddling people, who come down to some perfectly contented class of the community, and sow the seeds of discontent amongst them. That is the reason why agitators are so absolutely necessary. Without them, in our incomplete state, there would be no advance towards civilization.
Socialists do not propose by a single Act of Parliament, nor by a sudden revolution, to put all men on an equality, and compel them to remain so. Socialism is not a wild dream of a happy land, where the apples will drop off the trees into our open mouths, the fish come out ot the rivers and fry themselves for dinner, and the looms turn out ready-made suits of velvet with gold buttons, without the trouble of coaling the engine. Neither is it a dream of a nation of stained-glass angels, who always love their neighbours better than themselves, and who never need to work unless they wish.
Socialism is a scientific scheme of national organization, entirely wise, just, and practical. It is a kind of national cooperation. Its programme consists, essentially, of one demand, that the land, and all other instruments of production and exchange, shall be the common property of the nation, and shall be used and managed by the nation for the nation.
This generation has grown up ignorant of the fact that socialism is as old as the human race. When civilization dawned upon the world, primitive man was living his rude Communistic life, sharing all things in common with every member of the tribe. Later when the race lived in villages, man, the communist, moved about among the communal flocks and herds on communal land. The peoples who have carved their names most deeply on the tables of human story all set out on their conquering career as communists, and their downward path begins with the day when they finally turned away from it and began to gather personal possessions. When the old civilizations were putrefying, the still small voice of Jesus the Communist stole over the earth like a soft refreshing breeze carrying healing wherever it went.
That Anarchist world, I admit, is our dream; we do believe - well, I, at any rate, believe this present world, this planet, will some day bear a race beyond our most exalted and temerarious dreams, a race begotten of our wills and the substance of our bodies, a race, so I have said it, 'who will stand upon the earth as one stands upon a footstool, and laugh and reach out their hands amidst the stars,' but the way to that is through education and discipline and law. Socialism is the preparation for that higher Anarchism; painfully, laboriously we mean to destroy false ideas of property and self, eliminate unjust laws and poisonous and hateful suggestions and prejudices, create a system of social right-dealing and a tradition of right-feeling and action. Socialism is the schoolroom of true and noble Anarchism, wherein by training and restraint we shall make free men.
One day in June, 1894, in the Commons, an address of congratulations was moved on the birth of a son to the then Duchess of York. This child later became King Edward VIII. Hardie moved an amendment to this address, crying out that over two hundred and fifty men and boys had been killed on the same day in a mining disaster, and claiming that this great tragedy needed the attention of the House of Commons far more than the birth of any baby. He had been a miner himself; he knew. The House rose at him like a pack of wild dogs. His voice was drowned in a din of insults and the drumming of feet on the floor. But he stood there, white-faced, blazing-eyed, his lips moving, though the words were swept away. Later he wrote: "The life of one Welsh miners of greater commercial and moral value to the British nation than the whole Royal crowd put together."
By day I watched the ordinary people as they came to the shop. By night I read voraciously the ideas of those who wanted to create a new society.
This literature was without doubt the basic reason why my thoughts began to turn towards socialism. My father was a stern though kindly man, but the sort of fatalistic attitude which he and many of his generation had in the essential inevitability of things remaining as they were naturally rankled in my youthful mind. For my parents' generation the long reign of Victoria seemed a symbol of stability and even if there were many evils of poverty, squalor and disease constantly at hand these probably appeared to be in the divine order of things rather than the defects of a man-made society.
My generation in its youth was as restless as any youthful generation always is. If our parents never thought of questioning the established order of things we young socialists were equally convinced that every facet of it demanded criticism and probably change. Fortunately for us this desire to create a better world and to get rid of the bad old one did not exhibit itself in some anti-social activities which so aggravate the situation today. Thanks to the flood of books and pamphlets by wise and far-seeing writers, both in fiction and in fact, we had our thoughts harnessed to purposeful and feasible ambitions.
I cannot therefore claim that a faith in the socialist way of life was a sudden revelation, but it certainly was born very early. Its growth into a practical contribution was natural and inevitable despite, and perhaps because of, the environment in my home where criticism of the established order of things was regarded as futile, unjustified, and even wicked.
Maxton was Keir Hardie's natural successor. Hardie created the Labour Party. Maxton sought to make it a Socialist Party. He did not succeed - few would say that it is yet Socialist in practice - but he converted more people to real Socialism, its spirit and purpose, than any man in Britain. In his sixty-one years he addressed more meetings and spoke to more people than anyone, and he rarely spoke without making converts, changing their conception of life fundamentally. He did this not only by convincing argument and inspiring eloquence, but because Socialism to him was a religion and his hearers sensed intuitively that his words were himself. When he entered prison he registered Socialism as his religion and when told that this was politics replied that it was his one guide to life. Walter Elliott in his obituary tribute on the BBC said that Maxton was a Socialist before Socialism. Everyone who knew Maxton knows how true that was. He treated all human beings as equals, the Labourer and the Lord, at the same time subservient to none. When sympathy was voiced that he had had to mix with criminals in prison he retorted that he had only twice seen criminal features - in a senior official of the High Court and in his mirror.
When the MacDonalds arrived back in England in late December, the election campaign, which did not formally begin until January 1910, was, for all practical purposes, under way. In Leicester, the result was scarcely in doubt. As in 1906, MacDonald faced only one Liberal candidate; as in 1906, he was comfortably elected, only a few hundred votes behind the Liberal. But the rest of the country spoke with a more uncertain voice. When the House of Commons assembled in February 1910, the Liberals had 275 seats only two more than the Unionists. The Irish had 80; the Labour Party, its strength augmented by the miners' members, had 40. If the Irish abstained, the Labour Party might hold the balance. If it combined with the Irish and dissident Radical back-benchers, the Government might be severely shaken, perhaps even overthrown. On paper, Labour's position was stronger than ever before. In practice, it was to be a source of confusion, dissension and bitterness.
The confusion was due largely to the new problems created by the election results: the dissension and bitterness were exacerbated by the old problem of finding an acceptable chairman. Hardie had stayed in the chair for only two years. Henderson followed Hardie's precedent, and after two years as chairman he, in turn, retired. Thus the party's first task after the general election was to choose his succcssor. Even in 1908, MacDonald's name had been canvassed. By now, with the debate on the "right to work" Bill to his credit, his standing in the party was higher. Unlike Hardie, he was acceptable to the non-socialist trade unions; unlike, Henderson, be was a socialist, and a member of the I.L.P. There is little doubt that he believed himself, and was widely believed, to be the best candidate. Yet be was reluctant to throw his hat into the ring. The British Labour movement had traditionally been reluctant to combine symbolic authority with real power. Its "chairmen" and "presidents" were figureheads: power rested with "secretaries", theoretically responsible to committees. The L.R.C., and later the Labour Party, followed this tradition. The chairman presided over the National Executive: it was MacDonald, the secretary, who controlled the machine. Under Hardie and Henderson, the parliamentary party had followed a similar pattern. Thus the temporary chairmanship of the parliamentary party would be a poor exchange for the permanent secretaryship of the party outside, while it would be difficult to persuade, the party to allow both offices to be held at once or to make the parliamentary chairmanship permanent.
A Socialist Government cannot carry on a capitalist system better than the capitalists. The men bred by a capitalist system are men of affairs who understand their business. They are not apprentices.
It was the practice, and still is, for Socialist propagandists to refer to the great industrial magnates and their friends in the House as nonentities - stupid, cruel, selfish people who had fallen heir to positions of power which they have not the capacity to uphold. I have found that it is not so. The men in charge, whether in the world of industry or in the world of politics, are very able men. To change the system is a sound proposition. If those of us who wish to change the system can persuade a sufficient number of our fellow-citizens that a change is desirable, then a change will come. But merely to change masters is not worth striving for. If the system is to remain, I prefer that the men in control should be men who can do the job.
Participation in public life at Swinbrook revolved around the the church, the Conservative Party and the House of Lords. My parents took a benevolent if erratic interest in all three, and they tried from time to time to involve us children in such civic responsibilities as might be suitable to our age.
My mother was a staunch supporter of Conservative Party activities. At election time, sporting blue rosettes, symbol of the Party, we often accompanied Muv to do canvassing. Our car was decorated with Tory blue ribbons, and if we should pass a car flaunting the red badge of Socialism, we were allowed to lean out of the window and shout at the occupants: "Down with the horrible Counter-Honnish Labour Party!"
The canvassing consisted of visiting the villagers in Swinbrook and neighbouring communities, and, after exacting a promise from each one to vote Conservative, arranging to have them driven to the polls by our chauffeur. Labour Party supporters were virtually unknown in Swinbrook. Only once was a red rosette seen in the village. It was worn by our gamekeeper's son - to the bitter shame and humiliation of his family, who banished him from their house for this act of disloyalty. It was rumoured that he went to work in a factory in Glasgow, and there became mixed up with the trade unions.