Conference report: ‘The Liberal Party, Unionism and Political Culture’

A conference report for us from two of  the Victorian Commons:

Alongside their research for the History of Parliament’s 1832-1868 Commons project, Dr. James Owen and Dr. Kathryn Rix share an interest in late nineteenth century political culture. They were invited to speak at a conference on ‘The Liberal Party, Unionism and political culture in late 19th and early 20th century Britain’ held at Newman University College, Birmingham last weekend. Alongside papers from Professor Robert Colls on political culture, Dr. James Thompson on election posters, Dr. Ian Cawood on the Liberal Unionist party and Dr. Matthew Roberts on by-elections, they gave presentations focussing on different aspects of party organisation.

Dr. James Owen’s paper was on ‘Rethinking Labour’s anti-caucus traditions, 1868-1888’. The two decades after the Second Reform Act witnessed a sustained and concerted campaign for working-class parliamentary representation to an extent that was hitherto unseen in British political history. From the very beginning of the period, working-class radicals and Liberals contested the right to select candidates, with the party machinery of the Liberal ‘caucus’ at the heart of these struggles. Would-be labour candidates often complained that their claims to representation had been ignored by the wire-pullers of the Liberal party organisation, and this was later mythologised as a key part of the Labour party’s history. Yet although the relationship between labour and the caucus was fraught with tension, there is a need to distinguish between the rhetoric and reality of labour’s attitudes towards those running the party machine. Indeed, a striking aspect of labour’s activism was the sheer diversity of their responses to official Liberalism. While labour politicians could indulge in virulent anti-caucus rhetoric, they were also pragmatic and flexible enough to put their misgivings aside and work with official Liberalism when and where it suited them.

Dr. Kathryn Rix spoke on ‘Professionalisation and political culture: the party agents, 1880-1914’, drawing on her research on the professional party agents of the Liberal and Conservative party. This period saw the solicitor agents who had undertaken the work of registration and electioneering as a sideline to their legal practice replaced by full-time professional agents who ran local party organisations on a year-round basis. These new party agents came from a wide diversity of backgrounds – J.H. Linforth, who served in turn as Liberal agent for Lichfield, Nottingham and Leeds, had formerly been a cabinet-maker and joiner, as well as writing articles for the Birmingham Daily Post.The agents set up their own professional bodies, with professional examinations and journals, and held regular meetings, at which they exchanged information. This contributed to greater uniformity of practice in methods of political work and electioneering across the constituencies. However, at the same time, these agents put down strong local roots in their constituencies, getting involved with sporting clubs, religious and educational activities, and local charities. This helped to familiarise them with electors’ needs and interests, information which proved particularly useful when it came to choosing the leaflets, pamphlets and posters to be distributed in the constituency at election times.


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