by Pete Goddard and Atul Hatwal
It was early 1902 and times were tough for the Labour representation committee. They had a worryingly low bank balance, only 2 MPs and not enough members to deliver leaflets.
The parliamentary Labour party couldn’t even descend into proper factionalism as Keir Hardie and Richard Bell got on quite well. This wasn’t what the left was about at all.
The Taff Vale ruling by the Lords had thrown the LRC a much needed lifeline, forcing more unions into the arms of the party, but support wasn’t growing quickly enough. Although more were affiliated by 1902 than 1901, numbers were still down on the founding conference in 1900.
Something needed to be done.
Fortunately, Ramsay Macdonald was on hand. He was a sharp operator and he had a cunning plan.
As party secretary, Macdonald had a key role in developing the party machine and fixing things about which the saintly Keir Hardie didn’t have to ask too many questions.
Secondary duties included taking minutes, making the tea and, eventually removing his glasses, shaking his hair out and waiting for Keir Hardie to say “why Mr Macdonald, you’re beautiful.”
In 1902 Macdonald saw an opportunity to help his party.
A by-election was called in Clitheroe, Lancashire. The sitting Liberal MP, Sir Ughtred Kay-Shuttleworth had been elevated to the Lords in recognition of his services to amusing names.
This was working class territory and the LRC were well placed. The early favourite for the Labour selection was Philip Snowden. He was the choice of the independent Labour party (ILP), and a major presence within the movement in the north of England.
All in all, Snowden was a perfectly qualified, and suited to the position. He felt that was enough to merit him the opportunity to be the LRC candidate. The fool.
Unfortunately for Snowden, the general secretary of the textile factory workers association, David Shackleton, was also interested in having a go at politics. The union had high membership in Lancashire and wasn’t affiliated to the LRC. Yet.
As if by magic, Snowden withdrew and Shackleton was appointed the candidate. Shackleton romped home. This task had been made rather easier by the absence of both Conservative and Liberal candidates. They hadn’t fancied fighting such a clear favourite and had retired from the campaign to “spend more time with their children.” And by “with” they meant “beating” – they were Victorians after all.
The Clitheroe by-election marked three historic firsts. It was the first by-election contested by Labour, the first selection stitch-up in the party’s history and the first embrace of quotas (albeit informal at this stage) for parliamentary candidates with the adoption of all union leader shortlists .
Well, traditions have to start somewhere, don’t they?
Shackleton marched off to take his seat in parliament. Shortly thereafter, his union affiliated to the party. What a coincidence.
Clitheroe was a turning point in LRC fortunes. By 1903, the number of unionists affiliated to the LRC had hit 850,000 and for the first time the majority of TUC was now also with the party.
The LRC took this opportunity to put its finances on a firmer footing and instituted membership fees of 1p a member. This is more than most people today are prepared to pay, true, but then the notion of having a vote was still something of a novelty for many.
This income allowed the party to start paying its MPs, providing them with £200 a year. This may not seem like much, but they did make up for it by claiming expenses on a second slum.
In March 1903 another opportunity presented itself for Macdonald to work his magic when a by-election was called in Woolwich. The Conservative MP, Charles William de la Poer Beresford resigned after the government realised that ‘”Mr” was a wholly inadequate prefix to such a splendid name, and made him an admiral of the fleet.
Macdonald’s previous experience of tinkering with elections had been so much fun, he decided to try a more ambitious fix.
The LRC’s man for Woolwich was Will Crooks, a grande fromage in the coopers union, mayor of Poplar and a member of London County Council (LCC). He was also, apparently, a tremendous fan of traffic congestion and commuter frustration, as shown by his enthusiastic campaigning to build the Blackwall tunnel.
Crooks was not only a union thoroughbred, he had the added advantage of being jolly good chums with lots of Liberals from his days on the LCC.
Spotting his chance, Ramsay Macdonald had a little chat with Crooks and his Liberal friends.
“You guys get on pretty well, right?” he said.
“And we all want the Tories to lose, right?” he said.
“So how about you Liberal fellows sit this one out eh? We’ll take care of that nasty Tory.”
Not standing for election may have flown in the face of what people go into politics for, but nevertheless the Liberals somehow found themselves agreeing with Obi Wan Macdonald that this wasn’t the seat they were looking for.
Without a Liberal fighting, Crooks triumphed handsomely over the Tory, winning by a handy 13% margin.
Headline writers of the day may have complained that “Crooks in parliament” was hardly news, but the result proved the soon-to-be important point that the Tories could be beaten in relatively safe seats if Labour and Liberals worked together.
Labour barely had a chance to pop the non-alcoholic champagne (“Keir, this champagne… it’s just grape juice, isn’t it?”) when another by-election came along.
Up in Barnards Castle, in Durham, the Liberal MP Joseph Pease died, triggering a poll in July 1903.
This time there was no question of Ramsay Macdonald working his LRC mind tricks on the Liberals. They were definitely going to put up a candidate.
The Tories weren’t going to be persuaded to stand aside either so Labour’s party secretary just had to content himself with making sure a union leader got the Labour ticket.
Arthur Henderson was the man, an organiser in the iron founders union and treasurer of the LRC. The independent Labour party objected to Henderson’s impure past as a Liberal, forcing Macdonald to give them a stern lecture about party unity and accuse them of opposing equalities for criticising his union candidate.
Henderson won, squeaking Barnard Castle by 47 votes over the Tory while the Liberal vote had collapsed.
By winning, yet another first was chalked up for the LRC – the first win when running against a Liberal and a Conservative. Every other LRC member had only fought one or the other or, in Shackleton’s case, by-passed the “having proper opponents” thing entirely.
The win also proved an important point for the future of the party: even with a Liberal candidate, it was possible for Liberal voters to switch wholesale to Labour.
The net result of these by-elections and the still-rising union support was that by summer 1903 the LRC was on an altogether firmer footing. Five MPs were in place and funds and members were flowing in.
While the House of Lords had been instrumental in initiating this revival, the likes of Ramsay Macdonald had been shrewd enough to make the most of it.
Now to move things up a gear, all the party needed was another massive stroke of luck and the implosion of the Tory party, which was only the most historically united, successful election-winning machine in world history.
Enter Joseph Chamberlain, the Tory colonial secretary of state, with a plan to deliver tariff reform and end free trade.
“Gentlemen, I think I can help you there.”
Pete and Atul are not historians