by Pete Goddard and Atul Hatwal
At the start of 1908, the Labour party was divided: visionary socialists on one side; limited, practical union men on the other: two mis-matched groups forced to work together, like 1970’s undercover cops. Though fortunately in this case they did have more than 24 hours to solve the problems of global capitalism and centuries of inequality, before the DA took their badge.
With Keir Hardie away on an eight month cruise for his health, leadership of the MPs had fallen to PLP vice-chair David Shackleton, a union man and friend of the Liberals. Everything the party’s left disliked.
Shackleton was Keir Hardie’s opposite in almost every respect.
Keir Hardie was a powerful symbol of socialist zeal, particularly for the independent Labour party (ILP). He was unbending, principled and socialist to the core. The flip side of this was a lack of consultation with colleagues and a tendency to be so focussed on high-minded principles, he’d neglect the more mundane details, such as showing up to meetings on time.
Shackleton, in contrast was moderate, consensual, organised and just not that bothered about socialism.
When Keir Hardie was in charge, the ILP and the left were prepared to give the party the benefit of the doubt and tolerate such impurities as the pact with the Liberals. With Shackleton running the show, it was a different matter.
In summer 1907, the discontent bubbled over in the form of a charismatic young man named Victor Grayson.
A by-election had been called in the Liberal seat of Colne Valley. In line with the pact, the Labour party dutifully refused to stand a candidate.
The local ILP was outraged. They weren’t in politics to simply roll over and hand victory to their opponents at the last minute. If they’d wanted that, they could have signed up for trials with the England football team.
Step forward firebrand socialist Grayson to take on the political establishment.
With no official backing from the Labour party he was forced to stand as an independent socialist, which was fair enough, because Victor was both of those things in a big way.
Grayson’s candidature was like a new release from Morrissey – everyone was watching, everyone was hoping, but expectations were low.
That didn’t bother Grayson. He ploughed his own furrow regardless. “We have not trimmed our sails to get a half-hearted vote,” he yodeled, twirling a fistful of gladioli above his head (probably).
Local Labour MP, Philip Snowden – an ILP left winger who, wholly coincidentally, had been the candidate cajoled into standing down from the Labour selection for Clitheroe in 1902 in favour of Shackleton – pitched in for Grayson. More importantly, so did large numbers of rank and file party members from across the north.
And lo, this charming man won.
Admittedly, it was by 153 votes, a margin so thin it could have modelled that year’s spring collection, but as far as the socialists were concerned, the point was proved.
Unlike most of the PLP, Grayson had fought the Liberals and the Tories and, with only normal members at his side, he still triumphed. Socialists felt the party could come out of the closet, ditch its Liberal beard and finally be out and proud.
This burgeoning desire on the left for Labour to distinguish itself from the Liberals defined the preparations for the eighth Labour conference in January 1908.
By the time the party gathered at that year’s glamorous location – Hull – several resolutions had been submitted by members promising all kinds of nationalisation, socialisation and assorted statery.
The leadership wasn’t so keen. They held back the radical tide for the first two days, but on the third day, like a child who has swallowed a diamond ring, conference passed an important motion.
The motion stated “the party should have a definite object, the socialisation of the means of production, distribution and exchange.”
This was a statement of socialism if ever there was one.
And Shackleton hated it. He argued that the proposal, “endangered the ‘federal understanding’ on which party unity depended”.
This “federal understanding” had been the secret to much of Labour’s success so far. By avoiding a clear, national position, local organisations and candidates were able to adapt their stance to the conditions in local areas.
It also made it possible for the party to remain together, despite including Christians and atheists, drinkers and temperance campaigners, little Englanders and internationalists, and Sharks and Jets.
The Liberals looked on enviously as Labour candidates were out on the street being all things to all people with Labour’s third party status meaning they were rarely held to account for their massive contradictions.
Be careful what you wish for, Liberals.
Whilst it was useful at the time, if the Labour party wanted to be more than just a minority interest and climb the league to national prominence, this lack of coherence was likely to become more problematic than helpful, and the socialists had a point.
The problem was, if the party was going to stand for something, there were plenty of ex-Liberal and union members who would prefer it wasn’t socialism.
The motion was put to the vote. It passed on a card vote 514,000 to 469,000.
This was a solid victory for the socialists that sent a clear message to the parliamentary leadership. The leadership, for their part, filed that message carefully with the pizza flyers, curry menus and old copies of Watchtower.
A few days later, back at Westminster, Keir Hardie fulfilled his promise to stand down and the party elected its second leader in 2 years.
On the plus side for the socialists, Shackleton did not stand. He’d had enough of the ILP and troublesome left-wing membership.
On the downside, the man nominated as an alternative by Shackleton stood unopposed and was, from the perspective of an eager socialist, just as bad: Arthur Henderson.
Henderson was…yes, another former union official. Worse, he was a former Liberal. He couldn’t have been much more antagonising to the socialists if he owned a mine or ran a railway company.
The ILP did have one of their own in a senior position of power. Ramsay Macdonald, the secretary of the party, had very little experience of the union movement and wasn’t afraid to describe himself using the s-word.
But, he was also a realist. Macdonald was more than aware that Labour was a parliamentary minnow, too small to make an impact on its own. He may have been keen to renovate the nation, but he knew he barely had the tools to paint the country’s skirting boards.
Instead, his vision for Labour was of a creeping socialism, gradually advancing through the framework of the existing power structure like, um, rising damp.
Not very exciting for the supporters, true, but have you ever tried to get rid of damp?
So although conference socialists had achieved fine words for the party handbook at conference in 1908, the positions of power remained dominated by the unionists and gradualists. The result? A party descending into ever deeper division.
To deal with this difficult situation, what Arthur Henderson really needed was a period of calm to establish his leadership.
Peter and Atul are not historians