Parliaments, Politics and People Seminar: The struggle for political representation: Labour candidates and the Liberal Party, 1868-1888

The latest paper in our ‘Parliaments, Politics and People’ seminar series was given by Dr James Owen, of the Victorian Commons. James’ book, titled Labour and the Caucus, has just been published by Liverpool University Press. Here he gives us an overview of his paper, ‘The struggle for political representation: Labour candidates and the Liberal Party, 1868-88’…

The focus of my paper for the ‘Parliaments, Politics and People Seminar’ was the tension that existed in the third-quarter of the nineteenth century between the British labour movement, which sought political representation in the Commons, and the Liberal Party, to which labour looked to help realise this ambition.

The current scholarly orthodoxy stresses the confluence of the labour movement and Liberalism during this period, yet, as I argued, the relationship between the two could be tense and troubled. This was certainly apparent at the 1874 general election when, despite the return of the country’s first two working-class MPs, the ten other candidates put up by the Labour Representation League were defeated. In these contests, labour candidates were unable to overcome a myriad of obstacles, including chronic lack of money, suspicion of ‘outsider’ candidates and the superior canvassing tactics of the local Liberal party machine, which included the control of urban space. Yet, in the aftermath of defeat, the Labour Representation League focused their ire almost exclusively on local Liberal Party ‘wire-pullers’ and called upon their supporters to form a ‘great Labour Party’. Of course, there was no serious plan to form an independent party at this time, but it is an important example of how the labour movement constantly re-evaluated its relationship with the Liberals.

Prominent labour activists were especially concerned about the rise of ‘machine politics’ in the late 1870s, the epitome of which was the National Liberal Federation. As I discussed, the leaders of the labour movement felt that the rise of professional party organisations such as the Birmingham Liberal Association, which became known pejoratively as a ‘caucus’, would concentrate the power of selecting parliamentary candidates in those who held the local party’s purse strings.

However, despite their hostility to middle-class party managers, labour activists were pragmatic. They appreciated the importance of efficient party organisation and sought to broker deals with Liberal associations to secure working-class candidates at parliamentary elections. For example, in London at the 1885 general election, George Howell was able to tap into a vibrant tradition of radical clubs operating outside of Liberal bodies and use that support to leverage a deal with the local Liberal association. Yet, these conditions were not replicated throughout the country. So while the 1885 general election witnessed the election of twelve labour candidates in the Liberal interest (they subsequently became known as Lib-Labs), this unity inside the walls of the Commons was not reflected in certain localities in England, where working-class candidates with a significant trade union following continued to challenged the authority of local Liberal party managers who had refused to endorse them.

By way of conclusion, I stressed that it is problematic to give a national picture of the labour movement’s relationship with the Liberals at this time. The ability of labour candidates to secure the Liberal nomination was contingent on the local political environment and so there was a diversity of responses from labour towards organised Liberalism. This being the case, labour had direct personal experience of the power that party organisations could yield for both good and evil. In the context of the longer-term history of labour politics, this is important. The assumption that the Labour Party was forged out of strong anti-caucus traditions is a pervasive one. Yet, the Labour Party that emerged in the early twentieth century, under the guidance of Ramsay MacDonald, manifested a strong, centralised party machine. We can perhaps better understand this paradox by appreciating the culture of labour politics in the third-quarter of the nineteenth century; namely that Labour, through both bitter and sometimes positive experience, recognised the necessity of an effective party machine in a new era of mass politics.

Following my paper, I was fortunate to be asked a number of thought-provoking questions from those attending. These included whether labour activists could have done more to exploit the opportunities presented by a double-member constituency where electors had two votes; in what ways being a working-class member of a local Liberal association shaped individual political identity and whether there were cultural similarities between Lib-Labism in England, Scotland and Wales. These questions encouraged much lively debate and opened up new avenues to explore when considering the important relationship between working-class radicals and Liberalism.


You can buy James’ book, ‘Labour and the Caucus’, here.

Parliaments, politics and people’ returns next week for the final in the trio of History of Parliament speakers: Phil Baker will speak on ‘But private notes for my owne memory’? Parliamentary diaries in seventeenth-century England’. Hope you can join us!

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