Putting aside party controversy: party organisers and the First World War

One hundred years ago this month, the main British political parties decided to prioritise war in Europe over electoral battles. Dr Kathryn Rix, of the Victorian Commons, tells us more…

In October 1914 the Conservative Agents’ Journal urged party organisers in the constituencies that the outbreak of war made it necessary to put aside ‘party controversy and acrimony’, and ‘Keep the Flag Flying’. A similarly patriotic note was struck by the editor of the Liberal Agent, who wrote that

the complete cessation of Party strife, conceived at Westminster and loyally observed in the constituencies throughout the length and breadth of the land, receives the assent of every Liberal Agent, for in this life and death struggle, all must be for the State.

At the end of August 1914, the Chief Whips of the Liberal, Conservative and Labour parties had signed an electoral truce, agreeing that any by-elections held before January 1915 (or the end of the war, should that come sooner) would not be contested, allowing the party which previously held the seat to retain it. This agreement was subsequently extended, and greatly diminished the number of contested by-elections held between 1914 and 1918. It did not, however, eradicate electoral warfare completely. There was, for example, a contest at Merthyr Tydfil in November 1915 between rival Labour candidates. Moreover, as Martin Pugh points out, this formal truce between the parties masked their continued antagonism: when matters such as the shape of the post-war electoral franchise were raised, the rival parties still ‘manoeuvred for advantage’.

The political ceasefire prompted by the outbreak of war had other effects, such as the granting of an amnesty to suffragettes who had been imprisoned, and the suspension of militant activity by the Women’s Social and Political Union. The curtailing of party hostilities extended to municipal level also. The Conservative Agents’ Journal reported in October 1914 that in several towns, including Manchester, Rochdale, Salford and Bury, the three main parties had agreed to discourage contests for local council seats.

For constituency agents, September and October were usually busy months, when the annual registration courts took place. These revised the lists of voters drawn up by the local overseers. The political parties played an important part in this process, collecting information to ensure that as many of their supporters were registered as possible, and objecting to the claims of political opponents. Much of the preparatory work was done over the summer, and in many constituencies, agents carried out their duties in the registration courts in autumn 1914 as before, working on the assumption that a general election would take place in 1915 as planned. In some constituencies, a more conciliatory note was struck, and rival agents made agreements not to lodge objections to political opponents, ‘as evidence of patriotic feeling’.

The danger that men who were fighting for their country might lose their votes (the franchise being based in part on twelve months’ residence) had already prompted the government to act swiftly to pass the Electoral Disabilities (Removal) Act soon after the outbreak of war. Based on a similar measure passed in 1900 during the Boer War, it provided that ‘members of the Reserve, Militia, Yeomanry, and Territorial Forces’ should not be excluded from the electoral register ‘by reason of absence on the Naval or Military service of the Crown’.

In July 1915 the situation changed significantly for party organisers when a measure was passed to postpone the next general election and suspend work on the parliamentary electoral registers. Speaking in favour of this bill, the Glasgow MP Thomas McKinnon Wood informed the Commons that Scottish Liberal agents had told him that ‘We are all engaged in recruiting work or thrift work, and we do not want to make a useless register this year’. However, although registration work was curtailed, party organisers were keen that political activity in the constituencies should not cease entirely. The professional party agents were naturally concerned to prevent the winding down of party organisation and the consequent loss of their salaries. Later that year, the Liberal Whips sent a circular to the chairmen of local Liberal associations urging them

as far as possible to keep the organisation alive by the retention of your Agent, who has many duties in the working of the constituency beyond registration, and who, during war time, is called upon to undertake much unpaid public work.

From the very beginning of the war, agents had set aside their political duties to help the war effort. The Liberal Agent in January 1915 printed a ‘Roll of Honour’ of agents who had enlisted. Among those who saw active service were Major Charles Tippett, formerly Conservative agent for Sudbury in Suffolk, who was killed at Gallipoli in August 1915. Major Thomas Bagley, another Conservative agent, who had been secretary to the Tariff Reform League, died of dysentery on his way home from Salonika, and was buried in Greece in November 1915. Serving at Ypres, Sergeant-Major J.C. Nicholson, a former bank clerk who was Conservative agent for Doncaster, 1904-8, and then for North-West Staffordshire, was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal in March 1916,

For conspicuous gallantry on all occasions, especially when in charge of wire parties. He has also performed excellent work in repairing parapets under heavy fire, and has invariably shown a marked devotion to duty.

Other agents contributed through work for bodies such as the Red Cross and in the recruiting campaign. The chief Liberal agent, Sir Robert Hudson, led the way, overseeing the collection and administration of almost £17 million for the British Red Cross Society. In July 1915, Sir Harry Samuel praised the ‘splendid’ endeavours of Liberal, Conservative and Labour agents in the recruiting campaign, for which their organisational skills and local knowledge of their constituencies were clearly useful. At national level, the chief professional organisers of the parties became joint secretaries of the Parliamentary Recruiting Committee, deploying the machinery of party organisation, such as offices, clerical staff and canvassers, to undertake this crucial work. While the party truce may have curtailed the need for the usual work of electioneering and registration, party organisation was by no means redundant. And with the appointment in 1916 of the Speaker’s Conference to discuss post-war registration and electoral reform, party organisers began to think about a new political landscape in which their electoral battles, in abeyance for the duration of the war, would resume.

KR

Recommended reading:

Martin Pugh, Electoral reform in war and peace, 1906-18 (1978)

John Ramsden, The Age of Balfour and Baldwin 1902-1940 (1978)

 

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One Response to Putting aside party controversy: party organisers and the First World War

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