MPs’ social background has been making the news recently, after a study conducted by the Conservative think tank Policy Exchange demonstrated that only 4% of today’s MPs have been ‘manual workers’.
Of course, for much of the period covered by the History of Parliament, MPs were largely members of the propertied elite. Some indeed rose from ‘humble’ beginnings; for example, James Morrison’s father was a Wiltshire innkeeper but he became a silk merchant, MP and ‘probably the richest commoner in England’. John Easthope was the son of a barge master but his success as a stock broker led him to not only to a parliamentary career but also proprietorship of the Morning Chronicle and a baronetcy.
By the late nineteenth century, a wider range of men were entering the House of Commons, thanks to the extension of the franchise in 1867 and 1885, as well as the 1883 Corrupt and Illegal Practices Act which limited the cost of elections. Although a large number of MPs were still of the ‘leisured, independent’ class, a growing number of middle-class professionals were elected, and some from working-class backgrounds.
This change in Parliament’s social composition is reflected in the responses to a questionnaire issued by the History of Parliament’s founder, Josiah Wedgwood. Wedgwood wanted to discover the backgrounds, experiences and motivations for his fellow MPs in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. To do so he sent out a questionnaire to MPs, or their families, who sat between 1885 and 1918. The responses to these questionnaires are still in our archives and last year Priscilla Baines published a book based on them and the biographies that Wedgwood subsequently wrote.
As part of his questionnaire, Wedgwood asked MPs about their ‘trade, profession or occupation.’ This was not a rigorous study and although responses were often ‘impressionistic and subjective,’ answers still reflected the changing nature of the House of Commons. Of the small number from working class backgrounds, most were elected as Liberal-Labour candidates (Trade Union MPs with the Liberal party’s support), or for the new Labour Party, as the Labour Representation Committee was renamed in 1906. The twenty respondents from these parties had been miners, steelworkers, sailors, labourers (as well as some who were teachers and journalists). Most ‘depended entirely on trade unions or similar sources of funds’ for support whilst in parliament, certainly before MPs’ salaries were introduced in 1911.
As with many MPs, family influence had a significant impact on this group’s political beliefs – but these beliefs were rather different than those of their contemporaries! Many were from families who were interested in politics, often from a tradition of working-class radicalism. For example, James Hodge, Labour MP 1906-23, said that his father ‘held Chartist opinions’ and his mother was ‘an extreme radical.’ Between the two, ‘this laid my outlook on life politically.’
In addition to the radicalism found at home, personal experience was a significant factor in forming the political opinions of the working class MPs. Many stated these experiences as their motivation for entering Parliament, not always the case of those from more affluent backgrounds. Hodge said he did so ‘to help my fellow workman.’ Keir Hardie, the Labour Party’s first leader, had passed away in 1915 so his brother answered Wedgwood’s questionnaire on his behalf. He said that his brother felt that politics had been ‘manipulated’ by the Conservative and Liberal politicians of the day and gave ‘little or no practical results so as the well-being of the working people was concerned.’ Hardie felt that the House of Commons could be a platform for the ‘needs and wishes of the Common people.’ Others, such as George Barnes, MP from 1906-22 and Trade Union official, said his political views were influenced by ‘seeing poverty and plenty’ in his home city of Dundee. Their backgrounds and personal experiences were important to this group and they felt they were bringing a different perspective to Westminster.
Today, the History of Parliament is building on Wedgwood’s legacy in our oral history project. We again intend to explore the influences behind the politics of MPs and record their experiences in Parliament. Over the coming year, we will develop the oral history section on our website and explore further how background influenced MPs in the later 20th Century – watch this space!
With thanks to Priscilla Baines for her help with this blogpost. All quotations are from Priscilla’s book, ‘Colonel Josiah Wedgwood s Questionnaire: Members of Parliament, 1885-1918’ still available from Wiley.
You can read about the Wedgwood archive on our website or in Priscilla’s blogposts: ‘Colonel Josiah Wedgwood’s Questionnaires: An introduction’; ‘Col. Josiah Wedgwood’s Questionnaires (2): MPs, their backgrounds and experiences’ and ‘Col. Josiah Wedgwood’s Questionnaires (3): Using the results’.