‘I am a political animal, but I am not a politician’: Leah Manning as a sponsored parliamentary candidate in the 1930s.

Next up in the Women and Parliament series we hear from Dr James Parker of the University of Exeter. He explores the sponsorship of Leah Manning’s candidature by the National Union of Teachers…

Leah Manning (1886-1977) was the thirteenth woman to be elected as a Labour Member of Parliament, representing Islington East in the House of Commons from February to October 1931 and later serving as MP for Epping from 1945-50. A teacher by profession, Manning was a committed campaigner, particularly on educational issues, social reform and foreign affairs; she is perhaps best remembered for organising the evacuation of 4,000 Basque children to Britain during the Spanish Civil War.

Like her Labour colleagues Ellen Wilkinson and Margaret Bondfield, Manning combined her political work with trade union activity. Elected president of her union, the National Union of Teachers (NUT) in 1930, the fourth woman to have held the post, Manning was also a full-time national NUT official after 1931. Despite her prominence on both the industrial and political sides of the Labour movement, including a stint on the party’s national executive from 1931-32, her career illustrates some of the challenges faced by Labour women seeking election to Parliament in the decades after 1918. It is also notable for a novel experiment in positive discrimination within the NUT, of which Manning was – briefly – the beneficiary.

Manning was one of just four Labour women (with Wilkinson, Bondfield, and Mary Macarthur) before 1945 to fight a parliamentary election as the sponsored candidate of a trade union. Union sponsorship was a distinctive, and not uncontroversial, feature of Labour politics for much of the twentieth century, its logic bound up closely with the very principle of independent Labour representation. As well as recognition as an ‘official’ candidate of a union, sponsorship typically included provision by the union of all or part of a candidate’s election expenses, plus an annual grant for constituency work to the members of a union’s ‘panel’ of candidates. Some unions, such as the National Union of Railwaymen, elected their panel members by an exhaustive ballot of the membership. Others, including the NUT, left it up to their political committee to select suitable members.

Unlike other sponsoring unions, the NUT was not affiliated to the Labour party and followed a ‘non-political’ policy in candidate selection – in practice this meant supporting candidates in each of the main parties. During the First World War the union’s general secretary James Yoxall sat as a Liberal MP; his assistant Frank Goldstone was the Labour Chief Whip. By the mid-1920s there was a well-organised Labour faction based around the Teachers’ Labour League (TLL) within the union. Most applicants for a place on the NUT’s panel were Labour party members, although, the union continued to sponsor one official candidate from each of the Conservative, Liberal and Labour parties.

In February 1924 the union’s political committee agreed to sponsor a further official candidate irrespective of party, significantly, she had to be a woman. This was a unique departure: at this point, no other trade union reserved a panel place for a woman candidate. The change was proposed by Labour-supporting members of the committee and it was likely they had Manning, the current president of the TLL, in mind. Yet with factional control of the executive changing hands a Conservative, Essie Conway, was instead selected as the first official NUT woman candidate. However, Conservative party managers appeared less than amenable to the idea of a woman teacher candidate. When Conway withdrew from the NUT panel after six years in May 1930, having been unable to secure nomination for a constituency, Manning, who had recently succeeded to the presidency of the NUT, was the obvious choice to replace her.

Manning resigned her headship of the Cambridge Open Air School on her appointment as a candidate. She was later to reflect that ‘I made a mistake. I gave up work I loved and at which I was successful for work to which I was not suited. I am a political animal, but I am not a politician.’ Her experiences as an NUT candidate likely contributed to this assessment. In December 1930 she was effectively manoeuvred out of a promising possible candidature at Bristol East as the party leadership sought a seat for the Labour government’s new solicitor-general, Stafford Cripps. There seems to have been little protest from the NUT over this snub, perhaps in part due to the fact that Manning was soon given the chance, in February 1931, to fight a by-election at Islington East.

She emerged victorious with the Conservative vote split between an official Conservative, Thelma Cazalet, and an Empire Crusade candidate, Alfred Critchley. The party magazine, Labour Woman, declared in March 1931 that ‘her vigorous personality will triumph over every discouragement of these difficult days’. Difficult days were certainly ahead for Labour, with the collapse of the government during the financial crisis of the summer, which was followed by a crushing electoral defeat in October. Manning was one of many to lose her seat despite a well-resourced campaign, in which, thanks to NUT financial support, she was able to substantially outspend Cazalet in a straight fight.

Although a number of complaints were received by the union’s political committee over the extent of her expenditure – similar financial support for men NUT candidates did not appear to attract much criticism – the importance of adequate funding was soon demonstrated. In common with other unions, the NUT sought to scale back its political expenditure with the result that Manning – appointed to an NUT organising post after her defeat – resigned the Islington candidature due to financial pressures in 1932, having been forced to find the money for continued constituency activities from her ‘not overwhelming’ union salary. Her resignation allowed the political committee to quietly drop the commitment to a reserved place for a woman candidate, and when she was later adopted as one of two Labour candidates for Sunderland, it was without the official backing of the NUT. Finance was not everything, but it did help: Labour’s two Sunderland candidates spent less between them at the 1935 general election than Manning alone had spent in her 1931 campaign.

Although she would later serve as MP for the marginal seat of Epping in the 1945 parliament, after defeat at Sunderland, Manning did not seek a parliamentary candidature again for a decade. Despite her prominence in the union and the sacrifice of her teaching career for politics, her candidature in the interwar period – and by association, the experiment in positive discrimination on the NUT’s panel – foundered due to a number of factors. These included the divided political makeup of the union, its leadership after 1930 by a general secretary who, in Manning’s words, ‘had a rooted dislike of non-complaisant women’, and pressure to cut back political expenditure in the economic context of the early 1930s. Manning’s experience provides a distinctive, but not unusual, illustration of the difficulties faced by women candidates in an interwar Labour movement where, as Pamela Graves and others have argued, women’s claims were often marginalised in a predominantly masculinist political culture.


Further reading:

  • Leah Manning, A Life for Education (London, 1970).
  • Ron Bill and Stan Newens, Leah Manning (Harlow, 1991).
  • Pamela Graves, Labour Women. Women in British Working-Class Politics, 1918-1939 (Cambridge, 1994).
  • Hilda Kean, Challenging the State? The Socialist and Feminist Educational Experience, 1900-1930 (London, 1990).
  • Alison Oram, Women Teachers and Feminist Politics, 1900-39 (Manchester, 1996).
  • NUT Parliamentary Committee minutes, Modern Records Centre, University of Warwick.

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