Labour history uncut: Lib-Labbery and the 1906 election

by Pete Goddard and Atul Hatwal

By late 1903, initial worries over the survival of the LRC had abated. But these were soon replaced by the eternal question for every small party: how do we make this a big party, with national standing, official stationery and an annual conference that doesn’t take place above a pub?

There were two schools of thought: the first was to go to the nation, stand in as many seats as possible on a purely socialist platform and trust the people to embrace the need for change and bring about a new dawn for the nation.

The second stood a chance of actually working.

It entailed finding something in common with a bigger, more successful party and hanging out with them – the law of the playground on a national scale.

Ramsay Macdonald had already cosied up to the Liberals in the Woolwich by-election, securing a clear run for LRC man Will Crooks to go head to head with the Tory. It was a tactical victory but a more systematic alliance seemed unlikely without a clear issue to bring Labour and Liberals together.

Step forward Joseph Chamberlain, secretary of state for the colonies in the Tory government and all round political homewrecker.

Joseph Chamberlain was a major force in politics, despite being operated the entire time by ventriloquist Ray Alan

He had an idea: that Britain’s traditional reliance on free trade should be replaced by a system of imperial preference – a sort of EU but for the empire.

To fight for his idea, Chamberlain resigned in September 1903. This plunged the Conservatives into a civil war the type of which they would not experience again for another 90 years, when another system of preferential tariffs, the actual EU, would split them again.

It was par for the course for Yoko Chamberlain, who couldn’t pass a party without joining it, then breaking it up.

As a Liberal cabinet minister in the 1880s, his opposition to home rule for Ireland had helped shatter the party. A band of what became known as Liberal unionist MPs crossed the floor of the house to join the Tories with Chamberlain prominent among their leaders.

And then in 1903 the Tories got their turn on Chamberlain’s wheel of misfortune.

The Liberals couldn’t believe their luck. They stood resolutely for free trade, which had always been one of their core principles.

But what of the party of the working man?

In 1903 there was no doubt about it – but it not in the way you might expect.

The LRC was unequivocally a free trade party. Yes, Labour’s founding fathers were tremendously keen on government getting out of the way of business and letting multinational companies’ trade with each other, unfettered by tariffs.

But at the time, this wasn’t considered a controversial stance for the LRC. These giants of socialism understood a simple truth: free trade meant lower prices and therefore cheaper food.  Starvation was a bigger problem than obesity, so the more turkey twizzlers the people could afford, the better.

Suddenly, with free trade at the top of the agenda, the Liberals and Labour had something substantial in common. Perfect.

Ramsay MacDonald, seized the opportunity. He made an unofficial pact with the Liberal party chief whip, Herbert Gladstone (the son of the more famous William Gladstone, who some ten years previously had retired from the post of prime minster to spend more time with his prostitutes).

Both parties agreed they would not stand against each other in elections in England and Wales in various constituencies to give themselves a clear run at the Tories. Without the free trade vote split between them, they would have a fighting chance of winning.

So along with the influx of money that had come from a hugely increased membership (largely thanks to Taff Vale), MacDonald’s ability to make a sneaky deal behind closed doors meant that the LRC was well placed for its next big test at the 1906 election.

Once again the party brains trust got to work on the manifesto. The previous document had been just 150 words but set out 13 pledges.

The 1906 platform offered greater value for money at a weighty 237 words. But unlike 1900, it forgot to include any actual policies.

Instead there was a dismissal of protection (ok, that’s sort of a policy by implication) a call for more working class people to be elected and an attack on the use of Chinese labour by mine owners in South Africa.

Chinese labour was a major issue because of the perception of Chinese workers taking jobs that British workers’ felt they should be doing – allowing for a uniquely imperial take on a classic theme: “we don’t want them, going over there, taking our jobs.”

In January 1906, when the election was called, the LRC candidates, supporters and hangers-on took to the streets and campaigned for their they were worth in the 50 seats where the party fielded candidates.

This Conservative election poster from 1906 is incorrect. It is, in fact, Obi Wan Kenobi

Just as in Woolwich, canny Ramsay Macdonald’s pact worked.

At the end of the election, there were 29 LRC MPs, mostly from Yorkshire and Lancashire. They managed to not fight amongst themselves in parliament, presumably thanks to a shared hatred of London.

From two MPs up to 29. Now this was progress.

Sure, the Liberals had 400 seats for themselves, but there was no denying it – things were really moving in the right direction and the party was in a better position than ever to change the country.

Candidates wave goodbye as they are packed into a giant drawer for safekeeping

So on to business.

With poverty endemic, workers oppressed and society divided, what could be more important than an immediate rebrand of the party?

One of the first acts of the Labour representation committee after the 1906 result was to change its name to the Labour party.

The name was carefully thought out.

The “Labour” part was important because it wasn’t a divisive word like “union” or “socialist.” It encapsulated what the diverse membership had in common. In addition, they had one eye on the future and “Labour” was something anyone who was an employee of anyone else could relate to.

The “party” element was simply to allow an ill-advised attempt to woo the youth vote with Keir Hardie rapping “there ain’t no party like a Labour Party ‘cos a Labour Party don’t stop… until we’ve reconfigured the ownership and control of the means of production and brought about an egalitarian socialist utopia.”

Plus, the name change was great news for Uncut readers, because now people reading won’t keep thinking “who’s this LRC they keep banging on about and when are they going to get to the Labour party?”

So, with the important business out of the way, the parliamentary Labour party could turn their attention to making their mark on the nation.

But what exactly was the party going to do?

Pete and Atul are not historians

One Response to “Labour history uncut: Lib-Labbery and the 1906 election”

  1. Les Abbey says:

    Pete and Atul are not historians

    No, just another piss-take from the clever young boys.

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