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‘CONTESTS OF VITAL IMPORTANCE’: BY-ELECTIONS, THE LABOUR PARTY, AND THE RESHAPING OF BRITISH RADICALISM, 1924–1929*

  • MALCOLM R. PETRIE (a1)

Abstract

Via an examination of the Labour party's approach to by-election campaigning in Scotland between the fall of the first Labour administration in October 1924 and the party's return to office in May 1929, this article explores the changing horizons of British radicalism in an era of mass democracy. While traditional depictions of interwar politics as a two-party contest in which political allegiances were shaped primarily by social class have increasingly been questioned, accounts of Labour politics in this period have focused chiefly on national responses to the challenges posed by the expanded franchise. In contrast, this article considers local experiences, as provincial participation and autonomy, particularly in candidate selection and electioneering, came to be viewed as an impediment to wider electoral success, and political debate coalesced around attempts to speak for a political nation that was, as the focus on Scotland reveals, indisputably British. Often portrayed as evidence of ideological divisions, such internal quarrels had crucial spatial features, and reflected a conflict between two models of political identity and participation: one oppositional in outlook, local in loyalty, and rooted in the radical tradition, the other focused upon electoral concerns and Labour's national standing.

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Corresponding author

University of Edinburgh, Teviot Place, Edinburgh, eh8 9ag Malcolm.Petrie@ed.ac.uk

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*

I would like to thank William Knox, Gordon Pentland, Andrew Thorpe, and the editors and anonymous referees at the Historical Journal for their helpful comments on earlier drafts of this article.

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References

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1 Manchester Guardian, 30 Apr. 1929.

2 L. Beers, Your Britain: media and the making of the Labour party (Cambridge, MA, 2010), pp. 11–26; S. Nicholas, ‘The construction of a national identity: Stanley Baldwin, “Englishness” and the mass media in inter-war Britain’, in M. Francis and I. Zweiniger-Bargielowska, eds., The Conservatives and British society, 1880–1990 (Cardiff, 1996), pp. 127–46.

3 For an influential account of these fears, see Lawrence, J., ‘Forging a peaceable kingdom: war, violence, and fear of brutalization in post-First World War Britain’, Journal of Modern History, 75 (2003), pp. 557–89.

4 On the link between popular radicalism and public protest, see P. Joyce, Visions of the people: industrial England and the question of class (Cambridge, 1990), pp. 27–53; J. Vernon, Politics and the people: a study in English political culture, c. 1815–1867 (Cambridge, 1993). On changing attitudes in the 1920s, see Lawrence, J., ‘The transformation of British public politics after the First World War’, Past and Present, 190 (2006), pp. 185216; Beers, Your Britain, pp. 50–67; Petrie, M. R., ‘Public politics and traditions of popular protest: demonstrations of the unemployed in Dundee and Edinburgh, c. 1921–1939’, Contemporary British History, 27 (2013), pp. 490513 .

5 For accounts that posit a polarization on broadly class lines, albeit from very different perspectives, see M. Cowling, The impact of Labour, 1920–1924: the beginning of modern British politics (Cambridge, 1971); Clarke, P. F., ‘Electoral sociology of modern Britain’, History, 57 (1972), pp. 3155 ; R. McKibbin, ‘Class and conventional wisdom: the Conservative party and the “public” in inter-war Britain’, in The ideologies of class: social relations in Britain, 1880–1950 (Oxford, 1990), pp. 259–93.

6 J. Lawrence, ‘Labour and the politics of class, 1900–1940’, in D. Feldman and J. Lawrence, eds., Structures and transformations in modern British history (Cambridge, 2011), pp. 237–60; Beers, L., ‘Education or manipulation? Labour, democracy, and the popular press in inter-war Britain’, Journal of British Studies, 48 (2009), pp. 129–52.

7 Toye, R., ‘“Perfectly parliamentary”? The Labour party and the House of Commons in the inter-war years’, Twentieth Century British History, 25 (2014), pp. 129 .

8 The crowd at Glasgow Central station was estimated to number 250,000: W. W. Knox, ‘The Red Clydesiders and the Scottish political tradition’, in T. Brotherstone, ed., Covenant, charter and party: traditions of revolt and protest in modern Scottish history (Aberdeen, 1989), pp. 92–104.

9 Jarvis, D., ‘“Mrs. Maggs and Betty”: the Conservative appeal to women voters in the 1920s’, Twentieth Century British History, 5 (1994), pp. 129–52; idem, ‘The shaping of Conservative electoral hegemony, 1918–1939’, in J. Lawrence and M. Taylor, eds., Party, state and society: electoral behaviour in Britain since 1820 (Aldershot, 1997), pp. 131–52; J. Lawrence, Electing our masters: the hustings in British politics from Hogarth to Blair (Oxford, 2009), pp. 120–9; L. Beers, ‘Counter-Toryism: Labour's response to anti-socialist propaganda, 1918–1939’, in M. Worley, ed., The foundations of the British Labour party: identities, cultures and perspectives, 1900–1939 (Farnham, 2009), pp. 231–54.

10 Labour and the nation (London, 1928), pp. 5 and 33.

11 On the representation of sectional voices before 1914, see Lawrence, Electing our masters, pp. 71–83; J. Thompson, British political culture and the idea of ‘public opinion’, 1867–1914 (Cambridge, 2013), pp. 1–27.

12 D. Butler, ‘By-elections and their interpretation’, in C. Cook and J. Ramsden, eds., By-elections in British politics (London, 1997), pp. 1–12. On the pre-1914 period, see T. G. Otte and P. Readman ‘Introduction’, in Otte and Readman, eds., By-elections in British politics, 1832–1914 (Woodbridge, 2013), pp. 1–22.

13 Pugh, M., ‘“Queen Anne is dead”: the abolition of ministerial by-elections, 1867–1926’, Parliamentary History, 21 (2002), pp. 351–66.

14 Labour Party, Report of the 25th annual conference, 29 Sept.–2 Oct. 1925 (London, 1925), p. 40.

15 Dundee Public Library, Dundee Trades Council Collection Acc. 2563: In Memoriam: E. D. Morel Dundee Trades and Labour party memorial service, Caird Hall 23 November 1924; Scotsman, 14 and 24 Nov. 1924.

16 The election followed the defeat of the Labour government on the issue of the abandoned prosecution for sedition of J. R. Campbell, editor of the Communist Workers' Weekly. On the Conservative campaign and the forged ‘Zinoviev Letter’, see J. Ramsden, The age of Balfour and Baldwin, 1902–1940 (London, 1978), pp. 202–7. On the use of accusations of rowdyism to discredit Labour, see Lawrence, ‘Transformation of British public politics’, pp. 198–203; Thackeray, D., ‘Building a peaceable party: masculine identities in British Conservative politics, c. 1903–1924’, Historical Research, 85 (2012), pp. 651–73, at pp. 663–6.

17 R. McKibbin, Parties and people: England, 1914–1951 (Oxford, 2010), pp. 60–3.

18 Labour History Archive and Study Centre (LHASC) Labour Party National executive committee records (LP NEC): E. Wake, Kelvingrove by-election report, 13 and 28 May 1924. On Kelvingrove, see D. Howell, MacDonald's party: Labour identities and crisis, 1922–1931 (Oxford, 2002), pp. 390–4. Between 1912 and 1965, Conservative candidates stood as Unionists in Scotland. When referring to events in Scotland, Unionist will be used. Detailed election results for each constituency can be found at the end of the article.

19 Similar conclusions had been reached as a result of events in Motherwell. At the 1922 general election, J. T. Walton Newbold was nominated by the local Trades Council, which was affiliated to the Labour party, although he stood as a Communist. Having been victorious in a four-cornered contest that featured a Liberal, a National Liberal, and Hugh Ferguson, an independent Unionist, he was defeated a year later after Ferguson received the official Unionist nomination. The Reverend James Barr regained the seat for Labour in 1924. See Duncan, R., ‘“Motherwell for Moscow”: Walton Newbold, revolutionary politics, and the labour movement in a Lanarkshire constituency, 1918–1922’, Scottish Labour History Society Journal, 28 (1993), pp. 4770 ; Howell, MacDonald's party, pp. 385–6.

20 LP NEC, The Labour party and the Communist party, 24 Sept. 1924. Capitalization in original.

21 Most prominent among these members were James Maxton, John Wheatley, and Campbell Stephen. See W. W. Knox, ‘“Ours is not an ordinary parliamentary movement”: 1922–1926’, in A. McKinlay and R. J. Morris, eds., The Independent Labour party on Clydeside, 1892–1932: from foundation to disintegration (Manchester, 1991), pp. 154–76.

22 For this shift in outlook, see G. Walker, Thomas Johnston (Manchester, 1988), pp. 59–63, 72–8, and 86–9. On Johnston's selection, see Dundee Advertiser, 20 Nov. 1924; Scotsman, 20 Nov. 1924.

23 LHASC LP NEC: 21 July 1924.

24 Dundee Advertiser, 9 and 10 Dec. 1924; Times, 22 Dec. 1924. On the infamous 1922 general election, which saw the defeat of Winston Churchill, see Walker, W., ‘Dundee's disenchantment with Churchill: a comment on the downfall of the Liberal party’, Scottish Historical Review, 49 (1970), pp. 85108 . On the wider historical context of radical politics in Dundee, see J. Kemp, ‘Red Tayside? Political change in early twentieth-century Dundee', in C. A. Whatley, B. Harris, and L. Miskell, eds., Victorian Dundee: image and realities (2nd edn, Edinburgh, 2011), pp. 217–38.

25 Dundee Evening Telegraph and Post, 16 Dec. 1924.

26 C. V. J. Griffiths, Labour and the countryside: the politics of rural Britain, 1918–1939 (Oxford, 2007). See also N. Tiratsoo, ‘Labour and the electorate’, in D. Tanner, P. Thane, and N. Tiratsoo, eds., Labour's first century (Cambridge, 2000), pp. 281–308.

27 LHASC LP NEC: National agent's report on the general election, 7 Nov. 1924.

28 Griffiths, Labour and the countryside, p. 339.

29 LHASC LP NEC: 21 Apr. 1925.

30 As Michael Dawson has noted, the ability of Labour to contest such seats was partly a result of the reduction in election expenditure that was one consequence of the electoral reforms of 1918. This facilitated Labour's efforts to appear as an alternative party of government, and hampered the Liberal claim to be the only progressive challenger to Conservatism in rural and suburban constituencies. See Dawson, M., ‘Money and the real impact of the fourth Reform Act’, Historical Journal, 35 (1992), pp. 369–81.

31 See, for example, the distinction between urban and rural electoral contests made in M. Dyer, Capable citizens and improvident democrats: the Scottish electoral system, 1884–1929 (Aberdeen, 1996), pp. 104–54.

32 Scotsman, 2 June 1925; Daily Herald, 4 and 5 June 1925; Ayrshire Post, 5 June 1925; National Library of Scotland (NLS) Acc. 10424/124: Ayr Burghs by-election: P. J. Dollan, the Labour candidate (1925). Dollan would later exemplify Labour's journey to respectability, becoming lord provost of Glasgow in 1938: W. W. Knox, ed., Scottish Labour leaders, 1918–1939: a biographical dictionary (Edinburgh, 1984), pp. 92–9.

33 Glasgow Herald, 6 June 1925.

34 Dollan addressed fifty-seven meetings in ten days: Daily Herald, 9 and 12 June 1925; Glasgow Herald, 13 June 1925.

35 Daily Herald, 15 June 1925.

36 Scotsman, 6 Nov. 1925. At this level, the contest was a success, with a divisional Labour party being subsequently established in Galloway in early 1926: LHASC LP Scottish executive committee records (SEC), 12 Apr. 1926.

37 Labour Party, Report of the 26th annual conference, 11–15 Oct. 1926 (London, 1926), p. 13.

38 Daily Herald, 7 Nov. 1925; NLS Acc. 10424/124: John Mitchell, Labour candidate: to the electors of Galloway (1925); Glasgow Herald, 11 Nov. 1925.

39 Glasgow Herald, 14 Nov. 1925. On Baldwin's efforts to appear as a national rather than partisan figure, see P. Williamson, Stanley Baldwin: Conservative leadership and national values (Cambridge, 1999).

40 See Lawrence, ‘Labour and the politics of class’, pp. 246–7. This was, of course, opposed by those on the left of the ILP: Howell, MacDonald's party, pp. 264–87; W. Kenefick, Red Scotland: the rise and fall of the radical left, c. 1872–1932 (Edinburgh, 2007), pp. 195–203.

41 Knox, ed., Scottish Labour leaders, pp. 15–57.

42 Glasgow Herald, 16 Nov. 1925.

43 The contest in East Renfrewshire was the last such ministerial by-election: Pugh, ‘“Queen Anne is dead”’, pp. 365–6.

44 Daily Herald, 1 Jan. 1926; Scotsman, 1 Jan. 1926.

45 Daily Herald, 16, 22, 27, and 28 Jan. 1928.

46 Glasgow Herald, 15 Jan. 1926; Times, 19 and 23 Jan. 1926; Daily Herald, 28 and 29 Jan. 1926.

47 Scotsman, 15 Jan. 1926.

48 Daily Herald, 16 Jan. 1926.

49 The contest in Dunbartonshire highlighted the difficulties faced by the Liberal party during the 1920s. The decision not to enter the by-election was repudiated by local Liberals, who nominated William Reid in open defiance of the leadership: Scotsman, 9 and 12 Jan. 1926.

50 In 1929, Dunbartonshire was won for Labour; East Renfrewshire, where Munro stood once more, was not.

51 NLS Acc. 10424/124: Bye-election 1926, parliamentary division of East Renfrewshire: election address of Mr A M MacRobert, Unionist candidate (1926) and Parliamentary by-election 1926: Dunbartonshire division: candidature of Lt.-Col. J G Thom DSO, MC: the Unionist candidate (1926). Capitalization in original.

52 See McKibbin, ‘Class and conventional wisdom’; Jarvis, D., ‘British Conservatism and class politics in the 1920s’, English Historical Review, 111 (1996), pp. 5984 .

53 Glasgow Herald, 1 Feb. 1926.

54 NLS Acc. 10424/124: Bothwell division by-election, Friday 26th March 1926: candidature of Mr. Joseph Sullivan (Labour candidate) (1926). Capitalization in original.

55 Scotsman, 29 Mar. 1926; Daily Herald, 25 Mar. 1926. This reflected the changing outlook of the Daily Herald, which increasingly sought to engage rather than educate its readership, culminating in the 1929 decision of the Trades Union Congress, which had assumed control of the paper in 1922, to sell a majority stake to Odhams Press: Beers, ‘Education or manipulation?’, pp. 143–9.

56 Times, 23 Mar. 1926; Daily Herald, 25 Mar. 1926; Scotsman, 13 Mar. 1926.

57 W. W. Knox, James Maxton (Manchester, 1987), pp. 94–106; A. McKinlay and J. J. Smyth, ‘The end of “the agitator workman”: 1926–1932’, in McKinlay and Morris, eds., The ILP on Clydeside, pp. 177–203; Howell, MacDonald's party, pp. 264–308.

58 Howell, MacDonald's party, pp. 380–403.

59 A. Clinton, The trade union rank and file: trades councils in Britain, 1900–1940 (Manchester, 1977), p. 148; M. Worley, Class against class: the Communist party in Britain between the wars (London, 2002), pp. 62–6.

60 R. Martin, Communism and the trade unions, 1924–1933: a study of the National Minority Movement (Oxford, 1969), pp. 78–101.

61 Worker, 27 May 1927.

62 Communist Review, 2 (Nov. 1927), p. 154.

63 LHASC LP NEC: 2 July 1926.

64 Parliamentary Archives, Stansgate papers (PA ST)/85/2: P. Snowden to W. Wedgwood Benn, 5 Feb. 1927.

65 Daily Herald, 7, 9, and 10 Feb. 1927; PA ST/292/2/1: unpublished autobiography, ch. 8 (unpaginated).

66 Daily Herald, 7 and 23 Feb. 1927.

67 PA ST/66: political diary, 7 July 1924.

68 Edinburgh Evening Dispatch, 1 and 12 Mar. 1927; Manchester Guardian, 17 Mar. 1927.

69 PA ST/292/2/1: unpublished autobiography, ch. 8 (unpaginated).

70 Daily Herald, 1 and 11 Mar. 1927.

71 Edinburgh Evening Dispatch, 8 Mar. and 16 Mar. 1927.

72 Edinburgh Evening Dispatch, 22 Mar. 1927; Workers' Life, 25 Mar. 1927.

73 LHASC LP NEC: Egerton Wake, Leith by-election report, 27 Apr. 1927.

74 H. Morrison, ‘When “left” is “right” and so righted is wrong: is British Labour having a little too much Russia?’, Labour Magazine, 6 (1927), pp. 102–3.

75 LHASC LP SEC, file 2, 15 Aug., 14 Nov., and 12 Dec. 1927, and 16 Jan. 1928.

76 LHASC LP SEC, file 2, 13 Feb., 13 Mar., and 14 Apr. 1928. Capitalization in original.

77 Labour Party, Scottish Council: report of the 14th annual conference (1929), p. 32; NLS Acc. 11177/23: Edinburgh TLC minutes, 2 and 14 Apr. 1929.

78 Workers' Life, 27 Apr. 1928.

79 NLS Acc. 11177/23: Edinburgh TLC minutes, 12 Apr. 1929; Scotsman, 1 June 1929. There were also joint Labour and CPGB meetings in Leith in August 1929: Edinburgh Evening News, 3 Aug. 1929.

80 LHASC LP SEC, file 2, 30 June, 8, 15, and 20 Sept. 1930.

81 NLS Acc. 11177/23: Edinburgh TLC minutes, 14, 15, and 21 Oct., 23 Nov., 19 Dec. 1930, 20 Jan. 1931.

82 The Unionist candidate, the author John Buchan, received 88 per cent of the vote: Scotsman, 2 May 1927.

83 Bo'ness Journal and Linlithgowshire Advertiser, 9 Mar. 1928.

84 P. M. Slowe, Manny Shinwell: an authorised biography (London, 1993), pp. 105–23 and 140–1; Scotsman, 19 Mar. 1928.

85 Scotsman, 27 Mar. 1928.

86 E. Shinwell, Conflict without malice (London, 1955), p. 90.

87 See Joyce, Visions of the people, pp. 329–31; J. Lawrence, Speaking for the people: party, language and popular politics in England, 1867–1914 (Cambridge, 1998), pp. 227–63.

88 A. Thorpe, The British Communist party and Moscow, 1920–1943 (Manchester, 2000), pp. 156–7.

89 H. Morrison, ‘The ECCI's lament’, Labour Magazine, 7 (1928), p. 13.

90 Glasgow Herald, 16 and 17 Mar. 1928; Scotsman, 17 and 23 Mar. 1928; Times, 26 and 27 Mar. 1928. On the centrality of debates over the limits of the franchise to radicalism in the nineteenth century, see J. Vernon, ed., Re-reading the constitution: new narratives in the political history of England's long nineteenth century (Cambridge, 1996).

91 Bo'ness Journal and Linlithgowshire Advertiser, 23 Mar. 1928.

92 For Rose's career, see the obituary: Times, 11 July 1928. On the local dispute, see Aberdeen Evening Express, 20 Nov. 1924; Aberdeen University Library (AUL) MS 2270/3/1/12: Aberdeen TLC minutes, 25 Nov. and 3 Dec. 1924.

93 LHASC LP SEC, 14 Apr. 1928.

94 Aberdeen Evening Express, 28 and 31 Oct. 1919.

95 Aberdeen Evening Express, 26 July 1928; Aberdeen Press and Journal, 31 July 1928.

96 Imperial War Museum Acc. 804: interview with R. Cooney, reel 1; AUL MS 2270/3/1/13: Aberdeen TLC minutes, 14 Nov. 1928.

97 Forward, 18 Aug. 1928. There were some 1,500 meetings during the campaign: over half were organized by the CPGB: Aberdeen Evening Express, 15 Aug. 1928; Scotsman, 15 Aug. 1928; Forward, 25 Aug. 1928.

98 Aberdeen Citizen, 10 Aug. 1928.

99 Workers' Life, 20 July 1928.

100 Aberdeen Citizen, 17 Aug. 1928.

101 Labour Organiser (Sept. 1927), pp. 97–9.

102 Daily Herald, 4, 8, and 14 Aug. 1928.

103 Aberdeen Citizen, 10 Aug. 1928.

104 Daily Herald, 11 Aug. 1928.

105 W. Joss, ‘The lessons of North Aberdeen’, Communist, 3 (1928), pp. 484–6.

106 AUL MS 2270/3/1/13: Aberdeen TLC minutes, 5, 12, and 26 Sept., 3, 10, and 17 Oct., and 21 Nov. 1928.

107 See McKibbin, Parties and people, pp. 65–8; S. Todd, The people: the rise and fall of the working class (London, 2014), pp. 58–60.

108 Scotsman, 4 Jan. 1929. Clark held the seat for Labour between December 1923 and October 1924.

109 Times, 19 Jan. 1929.

110 Glasgow Herald, 11 Jan. 1929.

111 Scotsman, 22 Jan. 1929.

112 Daily Herald, 22 Jan. 1929.

113 Glasgow Herald, 5 Jan. 1929; Times, 18 Jan. 1929. On Labour's changing attitude to constitutional reform in this period, see M. Taylor, ‘Labour and the constitution’, in Tanner, Thane, and Tiratsoo, eds., Labour's first century, pp. 151–90, at pp. 156–61. On the decline of Scottish home rule as a political issue, see Knox, W. W. and McKinlay, A., ‘The re-making of Scottish Labour in the 1930s’, Twentieth Century British History, 6 (1995), pp. 174–93.

114 Glasgow Herald, 12 Jan. 1929. Graham had been a founding member of the Scottish Home Rule association, the Scottish Labour party, and the National party of Scotland.

115 Scotsman, 31 Jan. 1929. It should be noted that Clark lost the seat in May 1929.

116 Glasgow Herald, 16 Jan. 1929.

117 Glasgow Herald, 31 Jan. 1929.

118 I. G. C. Hutchison, Scottish politics in the twentieth century (Basingstoke, 2001), pp. 34–41.

119 Glasgow Herald, 4, 7, and 20 Mar. 1929. For Lee's account of the election, see J. Lee, Tomorrow is a new day (London, 1939), pp. 120–3.

120 NLS Acc. 10424/124: North Lanarkshire parliamentary by-election: polling day Thursday 21st March 1929: the Liberal candidate Miss Elizabeth B. Mitchell (1929).

121 Scotsman, 21 Feb. 1929; Daily Herald, 16 and 22 Mar. 1929.

122 Daily Herald, 23 Mar. 1929.

123 The Labour Party, Scottish Council: report of the 14th annual conference, pp. 6–7.

124 W. W. Knox, Industrial nation: work, culture and society in Scotland, 1800 – present (Edinburgh, 1999), pp. 232–48; M. Worley, Labour inside the gate: a history of the British Labour party between the wars (London, 2005), pp. 120–68; McKibbin, Parties and people, pp. 69–105.

125 The Labour Party, Scottish Council: report of the 14th annual conference, p. 14.

126 The early 1930s continues to be viewed as heralding a leftward move by Labour: P. Williamson, National crisis and national government: British politics, the economy and empire, 1926–1932 (Cambridge, 1992), pp. 457–8; Worley, Labour inside the gate, pp. 150–1.

127 M. Francis, ‘The Labour party: modernisation and the politics of restraint’, in B. Conekin, F. Mort, and C. Waters, eds., Moments of modernity: reconstructing Britain, 1945–1964 (London, 1999), pp. 152–70.

128 On the precursors of ‘New’ Labour, and the extent to which Labour politics had long rested upon the ‘contested strategy’ of appealing to both the working and middle classes, see S. Fielding, The Labour party: continuity and change in the making of ‘new’ Labour (Basingstoke, 2002), esp. pp. 90–3 and 206–10; A. Thorpe, A history of the British Labour party (3rd edn, Basingstoke, 2008), pp. 59–83.

129 Communist, 2 (1927), p. 106.

* I would like to thank William Knox, Gordon Pentland, Andrew Thorpe, and the editors and anonymous referees at the Historical Journal for their helpful comments on earlier drafts of this article.

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