Parliaments, Politics and People Seminar: Peter Catterall, The Free Churches and the Parliamentary Labour Party, c.1918-39

At our first ‘Parliaments, Politics and People’ Seminar of the term, Peter Catterall (University of Westminster) spoke on ‘The Free Churches and the Parliamentary Labour Party, c.1918-39‘. Here he gives an overview of his paper…

Did the Labour Party, in Morgan Phillips’ famous phrase, owe ‘more to Methodism than Marx’? After all, Nonconformity had historically been closely associated with Liberalism. A historic witness for liberty from an Erastian Church of England and the State had helped to produce that allegiance: indeed, the British Quarterly Review commented in 1862 ‘it may almost be said that there would be no Liberal party at all without Dissent’. This relationship arguably reached its apogee in 1906 when opposition to the 1902 Education Act produced a phalanx of Nonconformist candidates to fight and sometimes win in 1906 in seats that the Liberals in recent elections had tended to leave uncontested. According to the Christian World 163 Nonconformists were returned for English or Welsh constituencies. Reflecting the partisanship of the moment, they did not include in their list the handful of Free Churchmen returned that year as Tories.

The Christian World did, however, include those Nonconformists returned for Labour. Estimates of how many members of the first Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) were in fact Nonconformists vary between seven and eighteen out of thirty, depending on how churchmanship is defined. If, for instance, a Baptist is defined as someone who has undergone believer’s baptism and is in membership with a Baptist church, then inter-war Labour MPs like Arthur Greenwood (who clearly identified as Baptist) should be excluded. Such a definition might also exclude sermon-tasters, like Ramsay MacDonald, who regularly attended the services conducted by Congregationalist and socialist T. Rhondda Williams, or Ben Turner, who was cradled in Congregationalism and laced his parliamentary speeches with scripture. If a more inclusive definition of Free Churchmanship is used to include those who were occasional attenders and culturally Nonconformist then some 44% of inter-war Labour MPs fall into this category.

Their presence within the PLP declined through the period, so that only 20% of the cohort first elected in 1935 were Nonconformist. This, though, meant that Nonconformity was still disproportionately represented in the inter-war PLP. Their numbers reflected the way in which the chapels inculcated drive and ideals, speaking and organisational skills and a reputation for honesty in their adherents. The minority who acquired these attributes in the late nineteenth century could be highly prized in the trade union movement, even though they might also have personal characteristics (such as temperance) which separated them from the average working man.

Electorally, however, the working-men’s clubs (and particularly the CIU) and Catholicism were much more important as social bases for the Labour vote than Nonconformity. Nonconformists may have been a significant element within the PLP, but some characteristic emphases such as temperance were gradually dropped despite the protests of the Wesleyan lay preacher and party general secretary Arthur Henderson, who nearly resigned from the National Executive Committee over the issue in 1927. Individual Labour MPs, such as C. H. Wilson may have succeeded their Liberal counterparts as the parliamentary spokesmen on certain issues of direct concern to the Free Churches, as became apparent during the debates on the Tithes Act 1936. The generality of Labour Free Churchmen, however, were less committed on moral issues such as gambling or alcohol, while the structure of the party meant it was less easy for outside bodies like the Free Churches to influence it than had been the case with the more amorphous pre-1914 Liberal Party.

Accordingly, Nonconformity’s contribution to Labour was more in terms of personnel than of policies. There was, however, a contribution as well in terms of rhetoric and tone. The moral crusading tone adopted by the ‘Nonconformist Conscience’ of the late nineteenth century found its way from Free Church pulpits to Labour platforms. This rhetoric served to emphasize the righteousness of Labour’s cause. It was also used in a spirit of rivalry to claim Labour’s moral superiority over churches which had failed to heed their own message, inferring that the discarded mantle had fallen on the Labour Party. The Nonconformist Conscience was thus adapted to the needs of the party. Indeed, J. R. Clynes, who was claimed as a Congregationalist in the denominational press, was as Lord Privy Seal in the first Labour government of 1924 to reassure a churches’ deputation that the party’s policy was based upon the Sermon on the Mount.


Join us tonight for the next in our Parliaments, politics and people seminar – Chris Kyle (University of Syracuse) will speak on ‘‘A Dog, a Butcher and a Puritan’: The Politics of Lent in Early Modern England‘. Full details here.

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