Electoral Hegemonies Do Not Last Forever

EDITION: 5th Birthday.

The left are told we must vote Labour, because otherwise the Tories will win. But the late 19th century shows us how fragile these anti-Tory hegemonies can be.

Despite the appointment of Rishi Sunk as Prime Minister, by far the most likely outcome of the next two years remains a Labour win at the next general election. The problem for left-wing activists is that our opportunity to influence that party has been altogether blocked. Left-wing MPs are being deselected, and left candidates kept off shortlists. As Tom Blackburn noted on this site recently, “it may be that the last new recruit to the Campaign Group has already been elected.”

Since the Conservative came into power in 2010, activists have spent much more time campaigning against proposed laws than we have calling for Conservative promises to be enacted, even when those pledges would be progressive (the abolition of no-fault evictions which the Conservatives have been pledging since 2019, or laws banning employers from taking workers’ tips – also in the manifesto). Although there may well be some reforms pledged in Labour’s next manifesto, the left will, in all likelihood, have a similar relationship to a Labour government. We will spend a great deal of time trying to thwart its plans to increase deportations. The many authoritarian laws introduced under the Conservatives will be repealed, if they are removed at all, at a pace which would make a snail blush.

All of which is a good way to start thinking of what happens to electoral parties which are guaranteed a majority among left-wing voters, since we have — as Peter Mandelson said of working class Labour supporters in South Wales 25 years ago — “nowhere else to go”.

In the third quarter of the nineteenth century, radicals faced essentially the same situation. There was one electoral party which spoke for the left, the Liberals. That party was able to draw on very long memories of previous moments of polarisation in British life, including the 1640s, the 1790s, and the 1840s. At every point there had been a left, whether republican, sympathetic to the French revolution, or in favour of extending the franchise to workers. At every point, there had been coalitions of privileged grandees who had been in favour of advancing left-wing causes, but slowly. As a leftist, you could not abandon the Liberal cause – for they were the party who had delivered on, for example, electoral reform and enfranchising religious minorities.. And yet remaining tied to the Liberals meant putting off into the indefinite future any hopes for genuine social reform, whether that meant pensions, socialised healthcare, or public education.

In the 1640s, the 1790s, and the 1840s, there had been a left. At every point, there had been coalitions of privileged grandees who had been in favour of advancing left-wing causes, but slowly.

From the early 1880s onwards, groups of socialists began to get organised, initially by forming their own political parties (including the Social Democratic Federation, the Socialist League, and the Independent Labour Party) and then by standing candidates to the Liberals’ left. Each of these candidates was subject to abuse from the great and the good of the day, insisting that any failure of gratitude towards the Liberals could only possibly have the effect of keeping the Conservatives in government always. Voters would never agree with “extreme Socialistic legislation”, an 1893 editorial in the Manchester Guardian observed. Anyway, ran the argument, why should people turn their back on the tried and the tested? “Let them remember, that it was the Liberal party that gave the Labour question much of its prominence during the last seven years.”

What had happened in those seven years? Protests in London on behalf of the unemployed in 1886 had been the first sign of significant numbers of people (the unemployed and Irish workers) marching not behind their traditional flags — those of the Liberals and their Radical left wing — but on demonstrations called by socialists.

In 1888-9 there had been a huge influx of activists and energy into the trade unions, with strikes by workers at Bryant and May, the rapid organisation of the Gas Works at Beckton, and a London Dock Strike. Through these protests, a series of new organisations were formed: new unions interested in organising unskilled workers, socialist clubs in many of Britain’s largest cities, papers such as The Clarion, and thousands of new people were recruited to the cause including some who would become the leading socialist or left-leaning personalities of the next thirty years, from Oscar Wilde (“We are often told that the poor are grateful for charity. Some of them are, no doubt, but the best amongst the poor are never grateful. They are ungrateful, discontented, disobedient, and rebellious. They are quite right to be so”) to H. G. Wells(“The Commune which sank at Paris will rise next in London. That is the star we wait for”).

As well as the profusion of working class institutions formed in this period, 1888 saw the establishment of one of the great bourgeois institutions — the Financial Times— whose chairman was the well-known Liberal activist and journalist Horatio Bottomley. He was the prospective parliamentary candidate of the Liberals for a seat with a proud radical history, Islington North. Seeing the rise of trade unionism, and recognising that most trade unionists were likely to vote Liberal, Bottomley spread the word that he was supporting workers’ strikes. When the tram drivers asked for donations to their strike fund, he donated 10 guineas.

But, as a significant player in the emerging new media of his day, the most useful thing Bottomley could have done would have been to spread the news of the strikes, and encourage his readers to support them. This, Bottomley refused to do, insisting that the real victims of the ‘matchgirls’’ strike were not the workers with their low pay, their phossy jaws and their reduced life expectancy, but the employers. The bosses in London wanted to pay more, and what held them back, he wrote, were “the much cheaper productions of Sweden,” where business would pay almost nothing for timber, and could therefore undercut British employers.

Over the next 20 years, Bottomley remained a fixture of London left politics. Failing to secure election in Islington North, he switched his attention to South Hackney where he was finally elected as a Liberal candidate in 1906. He faced a recurring problem of workers from the local trades council threatening to run candidates against him. They said that the labour movement needed to nominate socialist MPs, not Liberal-voting businessmen, and called Bottomley “an unscrupulous Company Promoter” and “a City swindler”. In return, he threatened the Gas Workers and General Labourers’ Union and Hackney Trades Council with libel action: “your action leaves me no alternative but either to apply for an immediate Order for a criminal prosecution, or to impose a Writ against you for damages…”

Horatio Bottomley faced a recurring problem of workers arguing that the labour movement needed to nominate socialist MPs, not Liberal-voting businessmen. In return, he threatened the Hackney Trades Council with libel action.

Eventually, in 1922, Bottomley went to prison for fraud – Herbert Morrison won the seat for Labour for the first time the following year.

Outside London, the same dynamics of popular disenchantment with the Liberal Party could be seen. A key moment was the strike at Manningham Mill, pitting the town’s workers against an employer- Samuel Lister- who was the High Sheriff of Yorkshire, and the son of Bradford’s Liberal MP. In December 1890 Lister cut wages at his plant by 30 percent. The ensuing strike lasted for five months. Lister boasted that his plant was a model factory, a Yorkshire counterpart to Robert Owen’s New Lanark mills. The subsequent defeat of the weavers convinced them of the need for Labour representation in Parliament. They supported Ben Tillett, a Labour Union candidate, for election in Bradford in 1892, and he won 30 percent of the vote.

Following this strong performance, the Independent Labour Party held its first conference in Bradford in January 1893, with one of its speakers, Keir Hardie, declaring that the “aim of the Labour movement is to direct the attention of the workers [to] the one problem of how to restore to the working classes of the community the capital and the land without which they cannot carry on their industrial operations.”

It was in this context that the Manchester Guardian’s editorial was written. The paper reminded its readers that it had always been on the side of the workers. Nothing would be more foolhardy, the paper went on, than to split the existing left vote, from which no one save for the most vehement anti-Labourites (i.e. the Conservatives) could prosper: “There is a great deal to be done by … insisting on a plentiful direct representation of Labour; but there is nothing to be done by embarrassing Liberalism to the sole profit of the one anti-Labour party in the state.”

Time and again, as the 1890s and 1900s wore on, left Liberals insisted that their party was entitled to trade unionists’ votes, even if it offered nothing for them.

In 1900, a conference in Bradford announced the formation of a Labour Representation Committee with 130 delegates, representing 861 members of the Fabian Society, 9,000 members of the Social Democratic Federation, 13,000 members of the Independent Labour Party, and 540,000 members of sponsoring trade unions. Robert Blatchford, writing in the Clarion, said of the delegates: “It is to be hoped that they will steer clear of entanglements with the official Liberal Party, who are nothing but Tories in disguise and the unavowed but none the less vigorous enemies of all legislation which makes for Collectivism.”

Even once Labour MPs were elected to Parliament in considerable number from 1906 onwards, the custodians of the Liberal hegemony did not go away. Bottomley became an independent, but did not cease to warn against the risks of left breakthrough. When miners struck in 1915, Bottomley and John Bull insisted that any workers following them must be “arrested, treated as deserters and punished according to martial law.”

In 1918, the Guardian insisted that it would be better if the voters remained with their trusted leaders in the Liberal Party, a message it repeated in 1922, 1924, 1929, 1950, and 1974.

In 1918, the Guardian warned of the “danger” of a Labour breakthrough, insisting that the party could not win an election and would always be at “an electoral disadvantage.” It would be better if the voters remained with their trusted leaders in the Liberal Party, a message that the newspaper repeated in 1922, 1924, 1929, 1950, and 1974.

Looking back on the Liberal hegemony, what is clear is that for all its appearance of solidity it was, in fact, fragile. Over the course of several elections, socialists won the argument that the Liberals offered the dispossessed nothing. Today, in England, Labour plays the same role that the Liberals once did, as the automatic home of anti-Conservative votes. Just like the socialists of the 1880s, we should say to Labour: ‘We are not in awe of you. If you will deliver for our people, then we will support you. But if it becomes clear that nothing we can do will ever shape Labour policy whether on housing or for the unions or on the environment, we are not afraid of organising outside and against you.’

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