At our last ‘Parliaments, Politics & People’ seminar, Dr. Kathryn Rix, assistant editor of our Victorian Commons project, spoke on ‘The professionalisation of electoral politics: the Liberal and Conservative party agents, 1880-1910’. The professional party agents are the subject of her recent book, Parties, agents and electoral culture in England, 1880-1910, recently published by Boydell and Brewer in the Royal Historical Society’s Studies in History series. Here she shares some of the key themes of her work…
Parties, agents and electoral culture in England, 1880-1910 is the first major study of the professional constituency agents during a key transitional period in British politics. Following the electoral reforms of 1883-5 – which extended the franchise, redrew the electoral map and introduced more stringent corrupt practices legislation – the Liberal and Conservative parties faced the challenge of harnessing the support of a mass electorate. The expansion of local government, with county councils from 1888 and parish and district councils from 1894, created another potential arena for partisan effort. The solicitor agents who had typically undertaken the work of registration and electioneering on a part-time basis prior to 1880 were increasingly replaced by a new breed of full-time professional organisers, who handled the work of registration, electioneering and the day-to-day political, educational and social activities of local parties in the constituencies. These professional agents performed a vital role as intermediaries between politics at Westminster and at grass-roots level, bridging the gap between ‘high’ and ‘low’ politics, and between politicians and those they sought to represent. The relationship between central party organisation and the localities is one of the underlying themes of this book.
My research considers the agents not only as political figures, but also as men (and occasionally women) determined to establish their status as professionals, placing them within the broader socio-economic context of late nineteenth-century professionalisation. It analyses the agents’ social and occupational backgrounds, drawing on a collective biographical study of almost 200 agents. Significantly for a group who often served as local figureheads for their party, agents came to a surprising extent from working-class and lower middle-class backgrounds. My seminar paper looked in particular at two of these working-class agents, James Linforth, a former joiner and cabinet-maker, who served in turn as Liberal agent for Lichfield, Nottingham and Leeds, and James Bottomley, a former factory worker and bank clerk from Oldham, who became Conservative agent for Doncaster and Lancaster.
In exploring the agents’ efforts to improve their position by means of professional associations (established on a national basis by the Liberal agents in 1882 and 1893, and by the Conservatives in 1891), I am particularly interested in the impact which this had on political culture. In particular, my book analyses how far the professionalisation of party organisation can be equated with the ‘modernisation’ or ‘nationalisation’ of politics. It argues that while the agents’ professional networks and their high levels of geographical mobility contributed to a growing uniformity in certain aspects of party organisation, such as registration and canvassing, local forces continued to play a vital role in British political life. The balance of local, regional and national factors is explored particularly in relation to three key aspects of the election campaign: the selection of candidates; the ‘platform’ campaign of speeches by leading party figures, MPs, candidates and other activists; and the vast provision of election literature by local, regional and central party bodies.
One of the major questions which has occupied historians in assessing Liberal and Conservative party activity in the later Victorian period is how the ideals and beliefs espoused by each party’s members were reflected not only in the policies they presented to the electorate, but also in the organisational structures and methods through which they sought to cultivate their political appeal. The Liberal approach to politics has been characterised as a more rational, sober and serious-minded one, while the Conservatives have been seen as more proficient at creating a social appeal and defending the ‘pleasures of the people’, such as sport and the public house. Viewing these issues from the agents’ perspective sheds new light on these important debates about party identity and suggests that the cultural differences between the parties were less clear-cut than might be supposed. Many Liberal agents, for example, were keen to overcome the impression that Liberalism was the creed of dull, temperance-abiding killjoys, and made efforts to develop the social side of party organisation in their constituencies. Although the main focus of my research is the two established political parties, the role of professional organisation within the embryonic Labour party is also considered.
Overall, my work highlights the transformation of the function and standing of the political agent between 1880 and 1910, and the impact which the presence in the constituencies of this professional cadre of party organisers had on political and electoral culture.
And join us tonight for the last Parliaments, politics and people seminar of the academic year. Elliot Vernon will speak on ‘Religious policy and faction in the Second Protectorate Parliament, 1656-8.’ Full details here.
For more on Kathryn’s new book, Parties, Agents and Electoral Culture in England, 1880-1910, read her Victorian Commons blogpost here.