John Robert Clynes, one of seven children of Patrick Clynes, an illiterate Irish farmworker, and his wife, Bridget Scanlan, was born in Oldham on 27th March 1869. His father had been evicted in 1851 and emigrated to Lancashire, where he gained employment as a gravedigger.
Clynes began work as a piecer at the local cotton mill when he was ten years old. He later recalled: "I remember no golden summers, no triumphs at games and sports, no tramps through dark woods or over shadow-racing hills. Only meals at which there never seemed to be enough food, dreary journeys through smoke-fouled streets, in mornings when I nodded with tiredness and in evenings when my legs trembled under me from exhaustion."
James Smith Middleton has pointed out: "Out of his early wages he bought a tattered dictionary for 6d. and Cobbett's Grammar for 8d. He received 3d. a week for reading regularly to three blind men, whose discussions of the political news aroused his interest. He paid 8d. for tuition on two nights a week from a former schoolmaster."At the age of sixteen, Clynes wrote a series of anonymous articles about life in a cotton mill. The articles illustrated the harsh way children were still being treated in textile factories. Clynes argued that the Spinners Union was not doing enough to protect child workers and in 1886 he helped form the Piercers' Union.
In 1892 Will Thorne recruited Clynes as organiser of the Lancashire Gasworkers' Union. Clynes joined the Fabian Society where he met George Bernard Shaw, Edward Carpenter and Sidney Webb. He also joined the Independent Labour Party and was one of the delegates at the conference in February, 1900 that established the Labour Representation Committee. A few months later Clynes was elected as one of the Trade Union representatives on the LRC executive.
Clynes was a talented writer and in the early 1900s became a regular contributor to socialist newspapers such as The Clarion. Clynes, the Secretary of Oldham's Trade Council, was asked to be the Labour Party candidate for North East Manchester in the 1906 General Election. Clynes won the seat soon established himself as one of the leaders of the party in Parliament. Like George Lansbury and Philip Snowden, Clynes was a strong supporter of votes for women.
A popular and well-respected member of the House of Commons, Clynes was elected as vice-chairman of the Labour Party in 1910. Ramsay MacDonald, the chairman of the party, was totally against Britain's involvement in the First World War. His views were shared by other senior figures such as James Keir Hardie, Philip Snowden, George Lansbury and Fred Jowett. Others in the party such as Clynes, Arthur Henderson, George Barnes, Will Thorne and Ben Tillett believed that the movement should give total support to the war effort.
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. He 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." Arthur Henderson, once again, became the leader of the party.
In May 1915, 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." Clynes initially opposed the entry of Labour into the Herbert Asquith coalition. However, he continued to support the war effort and in July 1917 the Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, rewarded Clynes by appointing him as Parliamentary Secretary of the Ministry of Food in his coalition government.
William Adamson replaced Arthur Henderson as chairman of the party in October 1917. In the 1918 General Election, a large number of the Labour leaders lost their seats. This included Henderson, Ramsay MacDonald, Philip Snowden, George Lansbury and Fred Jowett. Adamson held the post until February 1921 when he was replaced by Clynes. Snowden commented: "Clynes had considerable qualifications for Parliamentary leadership. He was an exceptionally able speaker, a keen and incisive debater, had wide experience of industrial questions, and a good knowledge of general political issues. In the Labour Party Conferences when the platform got into difficulties with the delegates, Mr. Clynes was usually put up to calm the storm."
Clynes was strongly opposed to working with the Communist Party of Great Britain: "In countries where no democratic weapon exists a class struggle for the enthronement of force by one class over other classes may be condoned, but in this country where the wage-earners possess 90 per cent of the voting power of the country agitation to use not the power which is possessed but some risky class dictatorship is a futile and dangerous doctrine."
In the 1922 General Election the Labour Party won 142 seats, making it the second largest political group in the House of Commons after the Conservative Party (347). David Marquand has pointed out that: "The new parliamentary Labour Party was a very different body from the old one. In 1918, 48 Labour M.P.s had been sponsored by trade unions, and only three by the ILP. Now about 100 members belonged to the ILP, while 32 had actually been sponsored by it, as against 85 who had been sponsored by trade unions.... In Parliament, it could present itself for the first time as the movement of opinion rather than of class."
At a meeting of the Parliamentary Labour Party on 21st November, 1922, Emanuel Shinwell proposed Ramsay MacDonald should become chairman. David Kirkwood, a fellow Labour MP, commented: "Nature had dealt unevenly with them. She had endowed MacDonald with a magnificent presence, a full resonant voice, and a splendid dignity. Clynes was small, unassuming, of uneven features, and voice without colour." After much discussion, Clynes received 56 votes to MacDonald's 61. Clynes, with characteristic generosity, declared that the whole party was determined to support the new leader.
In the 1923 General Election, the Labour Party won 191 seats. Although the Conservatives had 258, MacDonald agreed to head a minority government, and therefore became the first member of the party to become Prime Minister. MacDonald had the problem of forming a Cabinet with colleagues who had little, or no administrative experience. As MacDonald had to reply on the support of the Liberal Party, he was unable to get any socialist legislation passed by the House of Commons. Clynes was appointed lord privy seal and deputy leader of the House of Commons.
Clynes was strongly opposed to working with the Communist Party of Great Britain
When MacDonald became Prime Minister again after the 1929 General Election, he appointed Joseph Clynes as his Home Secretary. Clynes was active in the area of prison reform and also ordered an inquiry into the cotton trade. However, he caused some controversy when he refused permission for Leon Trotsky to settle in England. As James Smith Middleton has pointed out: "In 1931 Clynes introduced an electoral reform bill providing for the alternative vote, and also abolishing university representation, a clause which was deleted by four votes in the committee stage in the House of Commons."
The election of the Labour Government coincided with an economic depression and MacDonald was faced with the problem of growing unemployment. MacDonald asked Sir George May, to form a committee to look into Britain's economic problem. When the May Committee produced its report in July, 1931, it suggested that the government should reduce its expenditure by £97,000,000, including a £67,000,000 cut in unemployment benefits. MacDonald, and his Chancellor of the Exchequer, Philip Snowden, accepted the report but when the matter was discussed by the Cabinet, the majority, including Clynes, George Lansbury and Arthur Henderson voted against the measures suggested by the May Committee.
Ramsay MacDonald was angry that his Cabinet had voted against him and decided to resign. When he saw George V that night, he was persuaded to head a new coalition government that would include Conservative and Liberal leaders as well as Labour ministers. Most of the Labour Cabinet totally rejected the idea and only three, Philip Snowden, Jimmy Thomas and John Sankey agreed to join the new government.
In October, MacDonald called an election. The 1931 General Election was a disaster for the Labour Party with only 46 members winning their seats. Clynes lost his seat at North East Manchester. He now devoted himself to the work of his union, the National Union of General and Municipal Workers, it covered nearly half a million members in a wide range of industries.
Clynes returned to the House of Commons at the 1935 General Election. Now sixty-years old he was considered an elder statesman of the labour movement. In 1945 he retired on reaching the parliamentary age limit set by his union and lived quietly on the pension which it gave him, in his Putney home. In 1947 he complained to The Times about his insufficient pension" and a fund was raised by his former parliamentary colleagues.
John Robert Clynes died at his home, 41 St John's Avenue, Putney Hill, on 23rd October, 1949.