As we have seen, there was a very strained relationship between Murphy and other leaders of the CPGB from the mid-1920s onwards. There had been the major argument immediately after the General Strike, with Murphy's polemical article in Communist International (with Page Arnot) attacking the party's failure to criticise the ‘left’ trade union leaders. Then there had been Murphy's critique of the party's acceptance of the TUC's instruction to trades councils to disaffiliate from the Minority Movement. This was followed by the bitter and protracted battle to gain the party's acceptance of the need for a sharp leftward turn towards the Comintern's ‘Third Period’ new line, exemplified by the political bureau's attempt to prevent Murphy attending the Ninth ECCI Plenum and Murphy's resignation from his leadership position within the party in September 1928. Moreover, Murphy's proposal for a Workers’ Political Federation, and his distinctive position on such tactical issues as the non-payment of the political levy, had even pitted him against those members of the central committee who agreed with the general thrust of the new line, such as Pollitt and Palme Dutt. Such tensions were reflected in a number of bitter exchanges within the political bureau during 1930 over a range of tactical issues, which resulted in Murphy's appointment to, and then removal from, the industrial department within the space of just a few days. This chapter explores the way these tensions were further exacerbated in early 1931 over a conflicting assessment of the Labour Party's fortunes, which eventually culminated in May 1932 with Murphy's expulsion from the CP over an argument about credits to the Soviet Union. It also charts his subsequent political trajectory towards left reformism.
A ‘DISINTEGRATING’ LABOUR PARTY?
The conflicting assessment of the Labour Party was a major turning point. In early 1930 Murphy was appointed head of the CP's parliamentary department and, as part of the political offensive against Labour, he stood as the party's candidate in a by-election in the Sheffield constituency of Brightside against the Labour candidate Fred Marshall. Murphy wrote a special pamphlet entitled The Labour Government: An Examination of its Record, which explained how:
After the war Murphy was only just able to survive on the meagre unemployment benefit he received by selling some furniture and books and with financial support from his mother. However, freed from the constraints of work, he was able to throw himself into full-time activity as chair of the Sheffield Workers’ Committee and assistant secretary of the National Administrative Council of the SS&WCM. He also became active in the Sheffield branch of the Plebs League, which organised study classes among trade unionists, and gave two weekly Labour College lectures on Marxist economics and industrial history. In addition, after being elected an executive committee member of the Socialist Labour Party (SLP), he went on to play a central role in reshaping the party's policy and in conducting socialist unity negotiations with other revolutionary groups that eventually led to the formation of the British Communist Party.
Of major significance during this period of 1919–1920 was his political evolution from syndicalism to communism, as he combined his own wartime shop steward experiences with the events in Bolshevik Russia to develop a new form of revolutionary socialist politics. This involved three main features: an appreciation of the soviet as the chief agency of socialist revolution and the need for the working class to conquer state power; the central role of a vanguard political party; and the relationship between revolutionary socialists and the Labour Party. He also further developed his wartime analysis of the trade union bureaucracy.
THE THEORY OF SOVIET POWER
It was only after the war, in the context of the Russian revolution and revolutionary turmoil throughout Europe, including massive labour unrest in Britain, that the full revolutionary implications of their own wartime practice of independent rank-and-file organisation came to be appreciated by Murphy and the others shop stewards’ leaders. Aided by theoretical developments within the SLP and the BSP, which their own practice helped to promote, the stewards’ leaders initiated a new burst of theoretical activity during the autumn of 1918 which was to extend beyond the concept of rank-and-file independence to the idea of the seizure of state power by the Workers’ Committees, which were now conceived of as embryonic ‘soviets’, the economic and political nucleus of a future workers’ state similar to that which existed in Russia.
A noticeable feature of Murphy's political trajectory after his expulsion from the Communist Party was his growing distance from the working-class movement in which he had earlier played such a prominent role. Thus, as a member of the Socialist League's national leadership, he found himself amidst a predominantly public school and university educated group of people. Amongst the 23 people who served as national council members between 1932 and 1937 there were two Etonians, three Wykehamists, and one old Harrovian. At least nine had been at Oxford or Cambridge, and four at London University. The formal education of only two, one of whom was Murphy, ended at elementary level.Ironically, despite the fact the Labour Party had a primarily working-class membership, Murphy now mixed in a social milieu which was less than ideally suited to the task of enticing the labour movement from its inherent suspicion of left-wing middle-class intellectuals.
In addition, Murphy increasingly began to write for, and closely associate with, a number of liberal reformist journals which were linked to different middle-class groups and individuals. There was Adelphi, which was owned by John Middleton Murry who espoused a form of Christian communism and who grouped around him a number of young writers with a ‘synthesis of aestheticism, post-Impressionism, Nietzsche, D. H. Lawrence and socialism’. As well as writing for the journal, Murphy became particularly friendly with its editor, Sir Richard Rees, whom Murphy's wife Molly described as ‘a typical representative of the English intelligentsia, a pacifist and well-dressed gentleman’. There was also New Britain, a journal connected with a Bosnian Serb intellectual, Dimitrije Mitrionovic, who set up a national organisation known as the New Britain Movement (NBM) that operated between 1933 and 1934. It called for personal alliance (individuals consciously entering into unity with others to achieve a new unity), Monetary Reform, Industrial Guilds (which would run and control industry), the Three Fold State (separate parliamentary ‘houses’ for politics, economics and culture), and the Federation of Western Nations. In addition, there was the House of Industry League, a successor body to the NBM, which formed in 1936. It sought collective ownership of industry in an Economic Chamber, to be known as the ‘House of Industry’, representatively based on national Industrial Guilds.
In 2005 General John de Chastelain, chairman of the international body responsible for the oversight of paramilitary decommissioning, announced that, on the basis of personal observation by himself and his colleagues, he was satisfied that PIRA had honoured its pledge to put weapons and materiel ‘beyond use’. Two clerics, the Catholic Father Alec Reid and the Methodist Reverend Harold Good, who had been present as observers during the decommissioning exercise, eloquently expressed their conviction that a crucial stage in the ‘peace process’ had indeed been reached.
This news was greeted with the greatest satisfaction by Governments in London, Dublin and Washington, and the hope was expressed that early inter-party dialogue would lead to the revival of the Assembly Executive, the return of devolved government, and the fulfilment of the promises embodied in the Belfast Agreement of 1997. These hopes were to be lowered if not dashed by a response from unionist politicians which was at best guarded and, in the case of the newly dominant DUP, sceptical to the point of hostility. The ‘blame game’ showed early signs of shifting from republicans (‘Why do they retain their arms and persist in criminality?’) to unionists (‘Can we not now see that, whatever others deliver, they will never share power with nationalists?’).
This grudging reaction to the satisfaction of a demand constantly reiterated can best be explained by the length of delay in the decommissioning process, a persistent unwillingness to trust the motives of the republican movement, the lack of any clarity about the future role (if any) of PIRA, a suspicion of continuing republican involvement in criminality and localised ‘enforcement’, and the continuing absence in the statements by Gerry Adams and others of any convincing element of regret or remorse. There was indeed a strong inference in such statements that victims of the violence in the Army or police had been wholly legitimate targets, combatants in a ‘war’.
Yet the acts of decommissioning, following the earlier statement that the ‘armed struggle’ had been brought to an end, clearly represented a significant turning point in Northern Ireland's affairs. In the distant days of 1968 Terence O'Neill had used the imagery of ‘Ulster at the crossroads’. Now, once again, Northern Ireland had reached a crucial turning point. But in what direction would it choose to turn?
When I read Modern History at Oxford in the late 1940s, there were relatively few well-known and reliable works about the history and politics of Northern Ireland. The ‘special subject’ options available in the final year of the course did not include – as they do today – a study of the recent history of the Province.
As a by-product of the turbulence to come, we now have available a huge variety of accounts: biographical, autobiographical, journalistic, polemic or sociological. We are able to read the accounts of a wide range of eminent historians, journalists or protagonists. It would be tempting to conclude that yet another book would simply add a further cairn to the mountain of controversy and analysis.
I would not have put pen to paper if I could not hope to offer a distinctive perspective. The son of English parents who settled in Northern Ireland in 1929, I bring to the consideration of controversial events no overwhelming baggage of inherited loyalty or affiliation. True, I am associated with the Protestant tradition; baptised into the Church of England, confirmed in the Church of Ireland, but also at various times a member of Methodist and Presbyterian congregations. My ‘baggage’ is essentially British; but while I personally remain at ease with Northern Ireland's position within the United Kingdom, I have always been comfortable with the concept that ultimate status should be determined by majority opinion, that peaceful advocacy of an end to partition should be regarded as a wholly legitimate political activity.
I have never been a member of any political party. In spite of this I can, I believe, validly claim to have been closer to political events in Northern Ireland throughout a most turbulent period than any outside observer and most political protagonists. Now and then I was a subordinate player in important events; more often a privileged and fascinated spectator.
Between 1956 and 1991, save for relatively brief intervals, I was involved in a close working relationship with the political leaders of Northern Ireland. My appointment in 1956 to be Private Secretary to the Northern Ireland Finance Minister, Captain Terence O'Neill, led on in time to my senior role in the Northern Ireland Cabinet Office under the last three Unionist Prime Ministers – O'Neill, Chichester-Clark and Faulkner.
The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great deal of morbid symptoms appear.
It is too early to say. [Chinese leader Zhou Enlai in 1989, when asked about the effects of the French Revolution.]
The party of moderate progress within the bounds of the law?
Sinn Féin's decision in January 2007 to accept the legitimacy of the PSNI completed a process that fundamentally changed the nature of Provisional ideology, and radically transformed the contours of politics throughout Ireland. The hand of history was felt on a great many shoulders in this period, but, for once, the description ‘historic’ was no mere political soundbite. The logic of Provisional politics from the late 1980s seemed to lead inexorably towards this point, a process described by one Provisional as ‘moving from an historical position, strategy and culture of resistance to one of engagement, negotiation and governance’. It reflected a widely-held view that the vote signalled not merely the end of one form of Provisionalism, but, more generally, the passing of militant Irish Republicanism as a historic force.
Beginning with the abandonment of abstentionism in 1986 and ending with the vote on policing in 2007, the Provisionals had revised so many positions previously regarded as fundamental and crossed so many Rubicons that this sense of a qualitative historical shift within Republicanism seemed fully justified. Just as cultural critics had defined Ireland as a ‘post-nationalist’ society, it now seemed possible to use similar terminology to define the Provisionals as ‘post-Republican’.
It became commonplace to compare the Provisionals’ trajectory with other revisionist projects. For example, the Provisionals’ effective public relations and ideological modernization drew comparisons with New Labour's vacuous politics of presentational slickness and abandonment of core values. Other comparisons were prompted by historicist parallels between the Provisionals’ evolution into ‘constitutional revolutionaries’ in the 1990s and Fianna Fáil's embrace of ‘slight constitutionality’ in the late 1920s. The Big Lad was following The Chief: the latest ‘legion of the rearguard’ had been transformed into yet another ‘party of moderate progress within the bounds of the law’.
The majority of the population live in clustered housing estates where sectarianism … extortion, poor health and paramilitaries are too ordinary to raise any comment. These conditions have attracted vast sums of money to Northern Ireland, but the beneficiaries are not on the housing estates. Those who manage the money [and] apportion it … are part of a vast public sector who depend on outside money. In the leafy Victorian suburbs, those who live outside the conflicts fought in the housing estates … are on benefits just as much as those on the ‘bru’.
The thirty-year war between the Republican movement and the British state has primarily been considered as a military and political conflict: in comparison to these main battlefields, social and economic factors have been relegated to peripheral roles. In particular, the terrain of civil society and its relationship with the state has rarely been theorized as a decisive factor in the conflict in Northern Ireland.
The power of the contemporary state is often characterized by the degree to which it can successfully create and reproduce political and social hegemony, a type of power that rests on complex forms of consent as opposed to simple coercion. In post-Gramscian theorization, for example, this dominant consensus is produced by a multifaceted interaction between the state in all its forms and ‘independent’ civil society.
The very term ‘civil society’ is itself problematic in political theory. Some readings in the 1990s saw civil society as an intermediate layer standing apart from, and independent of, the state, providing a transcendent element that could ensure democratization in societies undergoing transition, such as in Eastern Europe and Southern Africa. Many hoped that after the Belfast Agreement such a form of civil society could develop in Northern Ireland as a means of weakening communal and sectarian division.
Ardoyne is a small community in Belfast, which has borne more than its fair share of suffering in the past 20 years of conflict. This week its people came together to remember their dead and to rededicate them to the struggle for lasting peace in their community and their country… The staunchness of the ordinary working-class community of Ardoyne and of many another communities like it across the Six Counties is a shining example to all the oppressed sections of the Irish people. Neither [sic] occupation, criminalization, extradition, imprisonment nor even assassination can defeat them. They are the real stalwarts of freedom.
Characterizing the Provisionals has been a central issue in Northern Irish politics since the 1970s. Throughout the Troubles, it has proven difficult to fit Provisionalism into the theoretical categories of conventional politics. Stressing the ‘traditional’ nature of Republicanism or situating it solely within a terrorist paradigm ignores the complexities of the contemporary movement. ‘Terrorology’ is as useful as theology in explaining the emergence of New Sinn Féin over the last sixteen years.
Events since the signing of the Belfast Agreement have confirmed the scale of this transformation. The Provisionals’ participation in the institutions of the Good Friday Agreement ‘was a departure no previous Republican has endorsed. Not even de Valera when he departed Sinn Féin in 1926 argued that Republicans should end abstentionism in the context of parliamentary representation in Northern Ireland.’ The vast ideological distance that the Provisionals have travelled during the peace process was highlighted even more dramatically by Sinn Féin's cooperating with the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) to form a restored executive in 2007. To understand the dramatic shift in Republican politics, we need to understand Provisionalism's contradictory character as a hybrid combination of bureaucratic political party, popular protest movement and military organization. For most of its history, this was an inherently unstable ideological and organizational form: the peace process itself was a prolonged working through of some of these contradictions, resulting in a new form of Provisionalism. Sinn Féin, according to Taoiseach Bertie Ahern, has ‘done its utmost to move away from its past’, and so is now deemed an acceptable partner in government by even its most vehement former enemies in the DUP.
For many, the pictures of Gerry Adams and Ian Paisley around the table in Stormont signalling their intentions of going into government together were a ‘telling and forceful image’ marking the end of the Troubles and the start of a new era in which ‘real politics can begin’ in Northern Ireland. This was just the latest in a line of what one Secretary of State for Northern Ireland called ‘it'll-never-happen moments’, which reinforced the sense of normalization that had been a central strand in the narratives of the peace process since the early 1990s.
If there was widespread agreement that these events were historic, there were contrasting views among the participants about their true meaning. For Gerry Adams they represented ‘a new start … with the potential to build a new, harmonious relationship between nationalists and Republicans and Unionists.’ Ian Paisley was characteristically more direct, claiming them as ‘a great victory for the Unionist people’ because ‘Gerry Adams will sit in our Assembly – a British institution of the British state … [and] will take an oath to … support the rule of law,’ which meant ‘the end of Republicanism’.
While the Provisionals claimed that they remained ‘unrepentant Republicans’, some within their political tradition agreed with the Democratic Unionists that it was they who were ‘writing the agenda … and forcing Republicans to adhere to their demands.’ To these other ‘unrepentant Republicans’, the historic compromise was a fundamental defeat for the Republican project, and marked a decisive shift in Northern Irish politics. Other commentators pointed to the contradictions within this ‘curious kind of peace’, which they defined as simply the continuation of war by other means. In these assessments, a political Rubicon had not been crossed in 2007; the essential political conflict ‘driven by invariant understandings of nationhood and political identity’ remained intact. So while the Provisional IRA had changed from being a revolutionary movement committed to overthrowing the state to a constitutional party prepared to govern it, many questions still remained unanswered about what exactly was ending and what was beginning as a result of this new departure.
We cannot, and we should not ever tolerate, or compromise with (by government structures or any other means), loyalism [Unionism]. Loyalism is a major obstacle to democracy in Ireland, and to Irish independence. [Emphasis added]
The [Good Friday] Agreement was an historic compromise between Irish nationalism and Irish Unionism. As such it can only work with the willing participation of both political traditions … Cherished positions have been reworked and remoulded to facilitate changed political realities… Such realities require … a Unionism which takes ownership – co-ownership with nationalists – of the agreement and its institutions. [Emphasis added]
‘We need to reach out to each other’
Provisional strategy after 1998 appeared ultimately to rest upon nothing more substantial than a faith in the dynamics of the Belfast Agreement and an optimistic belief in the inevitability of demographic and economic change. As a result, the role of dialogue and the power of persuasion assumed even greater significance in the Republican rhetoric of transition during this period. This new language perfectly accorded with the tenor of the times: the theme of the ‘historic compromise’, with its implications of a new beginning and a unique opportunity to bring peace, has become the dominant political discourse in Northern Ireland. The descriptions of the new Sinn Féin–DUP government in May 2007, for example, drew heavily on these tropes of healing and reconciliation by suggesting that a process of normalization was underway that gave the region a ‘chance to shake off those heavy chains of history’ and become ‘a place of peace and promise.’ Sinn Féin joined in this narrative of transformation by arguing that this compromise had occurred because ancient enemies had come together to make ‘history rather than hype … [in] one of the mightiest leaps forward’ for the whole island. Typical of this new Republican discourse were Gerry Adams's frequent calls for a:
genuine enlightened dialogue between all of us who share this island. The big question for Unionist leaders is the one provided by the example of the Good Samaritan: ‘Who will have the courage to cross to the other side?’… For too long we have each kept a distrustful distance from each other… Now we need to cross the road and address one another's injuries and pain. Now we need to comfort and restore one another.
[Michael Corleone:] Kay, my father's way of doing things is over – it's finished. Even he knows that. I mean in five years the Corleone family is going to be completely legitimate. Trust me. That's all I can tell you about my business.
‘Let's not kid ourselves that we are better than… the Sticks were or Fianna Fáil’
By 2007, the Provisionals’ long journey into Northern Ireland's political mainstream seemed complete. From sitting in a ‘partitionist assembly at Stormont’ through to the decommissioning of IRA weapons, and now jointly heading a devolved government with the DUP, the previously unthinkable had become the commonplace for the Provisionals. Taking responsibility for policing and taking the pledge of office upholding the rule of law were more than just symbolic acts to restore devolution. Recognizing the state's legitimate monopoly of violence and its ultimate right to enforce its will marked ‘the irrevocable final step away from trying to overthrow the state’. Given what these symbols represented for longstanding Republican aims, the belief that this acceptance of ‘Britain's illegal claim to sovereignty in Ireland’ and ‘their total immersion into the English system in Ireland’ constituted defeats seemed accurate.
There were other signs of significant political change within the Provisional movement. Twelve years after the first IRA ceasefire it seemed that the balance of power within the movement had finally shifted away from the armalite towards the ballot box. The IRA statement of July 2005, instructing volunteers to dump arms and ‘assist the development of purely political and democratic programmes through exclusively peaceful means … to advance our Republican and democratic objectives, including our goal of a united Ireland’ appeared to end the central ambiguity in Provisionalism between electoral politics and the military instrument. Other evidence in 2006 seemed to confirm that the IRA was indeed going away: according to the Gardai, the Provisionals had ‘abandoned organized crime’ in the Irish Republic, while the Independent Monitoring Commission's eleventh report in September 2006 declared that:
[The IRA] is not engaged in terrorist activity, by which we mean undertaking attacks, planning … them, or developing a terrorist capability by … procuring weapons or training members. The leadership is opposed to the use of violence in community control, has taken a stance against criminality and disorder amongst the membership and has been engaged in successful dialogue to prevent violence during the 2006 parades season.
They moved through Washington as smoothly as sharks in warm water… Whatever they were, or had been, they were politicians to their fingertips, wholly at ease in their surroundings.
Where British cultural symbols are involved in public life, equivalent Irish cultural symbols should be given equal prominence. Statues of Irish Republican icons placed at Stormont will make it more welcoming for nationalists.
From Loughgall to Stormont
On 10 May 2007, the Sinn Féin weekly newspaper An Phoblacht carried a front page photograph of a smiling Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness at the swearing-in of Northern Ireland's new devolved executive. Tucked away at the top of the same page was the strapline: ‘Huge Crowds Pay Tribute to Loughgall Martyrs’, referring to a Republican commemoration for eight IRA volunteers killed by the SAS in May 1987. The juxtaposition of the two events was commented on by supporters and critics of the Provisionals as symbolizing the distance that the Provisional movement had travelled in the last twenty years. To the Provisionals’ unrepentant Republican opponents, the new devolved executive ‘solidified English rule’ and was a betrayal of the cause for which the Loughgall volunteers had died. For Martin McGuinness, the distance between Loughgall and the assembly at Stormont was not just a question of time. Speaking at the commemoration, he argued that the journey undertaken ‘by the Republican struggle … [had opened] up … a democratic and peaceful path towards Irish unity and independence’.
It is easy to contrast the statesmanlike rhetoric of 2007 with the militant language of 1987. In 2007, the Provisionals’ ‘primary political objective is to deliver Irish reunification and a genuine process of national reconciliation on the island’: in 1987, Republicans were ‘committed to the armed struggle … [as] the only means by which the British government can be forced to break its stranglehold on political progress and peace’. Given that the initial contacts of the peace process were already underway before Loughgall, the conversion of the Provisionals from militant revolutionaries into constitutional nationalists is already passing from the realm of contemporary politics into that of history. It is an accomplished fact for a political generation whose members are too young to remember the Troubles: to them, veteran Provisionals are simply middle-aged politicians appealing for votes.
Early interest in suffrage on Merseyside coincided with the growth of socialism. In April 1905, both collided at the annual general meeting of the LWSS when an argument about organisation developed. Although the society was attracting attention, it had made no effort to extend its committee or alter its working practices. Concerned with the limitations of this approach, two socialist supporters brought an amendment to the AGM suggesting that, instead of automatically re-electing the committee en bloc, there ought to be a ballot of members. Mr Buxton, the proposer, explained that wholesale re-election was
calculated to deprive the members of any share whatever of representation on the committee… ninety per cent of the women who would be enfranchised by the Women's Enfranchisement Bill would be working women, and yet [they] had no representation on the committee…
Mrs Alice Morrissey, seconding, had further criticisms of the society:
She had been a member… for twelve months and had been very much disappointed in the work. She had thought the society would be a real live organisation and she would wish to take an active part in it. No headway would be made unless meetings were to be held in different parts of the town…
Buxton, who refused to negotiate the point in private, added that he ‘strongly resented the idea that the committee should be reserved to ladies of a particular class or clique’.
Stung by a public attack from fellow suffragists, the leaders of the LWSS retaliated. Mr T. Patterson, from the Chair, felt that the difficulty faced by ‘Miss Rathbone and the ladies… on the committee’ was ‘how to induce the working women of Liverpool to take an interest in the movement’ which the socialists denied. Eleanor Rathbone, who found the motion ‘distinctly discourteous’, remarked cuttingly that
If the committee which had worked for the movement for many years before the lady and gentleman who brought forward the amendment entered the society… had been advised that there was a desire for a more democratic organisation, they would have been delighted to agree.
The meeting rejected the amendment almost unanimously.
The campaign for parliamentary suffrage provided local Conservative women with the organisational base that the Primrose League had failed to deliver. It also had far-reaching effects on the local political development of the Liberal and socialist parties. For women who continued to work within parties there were difficult and painful choices between their personal wish for the vote, the official attitudes of their parties towards the question, and the perceived political opportunities that their parties continued to offer them. The WLF eventually split over the Liberal government's repeated attempts to avoid the issue in Parliament, while socialist women attracted to the WSPU found themselves forced either to prioritise their allegiance to men from their own class within their party, or to follow the WSPU's directive to stop party work until the vote was won. Or at least that was the national picture. Locally, it is possible to discern occasions when individual women circumnavigated these choices, buoyed up by support networks of close friendships and political camaraderie. Their actions demonstrate that political activism is rarely as simple as studies of national movements would have us believe.
Liberal Party Women
Local Liberal women were in a very difficult position in 1905. The election of a Liberal government should have given them cause for celebration, but many of them were committed suffragists and the government was somewhat reticent on this question. Furthermore, the local party was in decline following a series of municipal defeats. Conseqeuently members had to be very careful in any criticism of government policy for fear of being left open to accusations of furthering the local Liberal demise.
By 1905 the WLF had local branches at Wavertree, West Toxteth, East Toxteth and Birkenhead. Kirkdale and Walton had folded but had been replaced at Waterloo and West Derby in 1906, making a total of six branches which remained until the First World War. Membership of these provided women with direct political experience and they continued their successful work as Liberals on the Boards of Guardians. However, this often resulted in the WLF losing some of its best workers. In January 1905, for example, Miss Japp resigned the Chair of East Toxteth WLF ‘to the great regret of all, [due to] pressure of work’ as a Guardian.
By the end of the nineteenth century, the political party was an important site for women. Liberals and Conservatives alike had been forced to reconstruct their organisations’ appeal in the face of a rapidly expanding electorate. Both realised the potential of women campaigners and began to formalise female space within their ranks. Simultaneously socialist parties were forming, influenced by ideologies that radically challenged existing orders of class and gender. From the outset they gave women and men equal membership rights. In Liverpool, women found that party politics now offered accessible routes to public activity. The local Liberal and Conservative parties opened branches of their national auxiliary women's organisations. Socialist groups were also forming which actively sought women members. The generation of female activists who joined these organisations in Liverpool held strong party-political convictions. These allowed for some circumnavigation of the traditional local political boundaries of class and religion as women activists placed their party identity above these. However, being a party member also meant giving up some personal autonomy; women were placed at the mercy of the vagaries of local and national party politics. There were some deviations from national trends. Particular local circumstances restricted the success of Conservative women's organisations. Women Liberals in Liverpool fared slightly better, but were nevertheless affected by their party's local decline. Socialist women achieved slightly more within their parties, but found that a lack of socialist electoral success limited their opportunity for public work as will be shown. Ultimately, in all political groups, women members were supposed to serve the interests of their parties and not the other way around.
The Primrose League
When the Conservative Party regained control of Liverpool City Council in 1895, a number of women were among those credited with achieving this victory. They had organised through the local branches or ‘habitations’ of the Primrose League. The League, founded in 1883, was closely associated with Conservatism although it eschewed overt party politics in favour of a vague ideology of Church, Crown and Empire. From 1884, it admitted women to its ranks, thus becoming ‘the first body to recognise the usefulness of women in politics’. Women members enjoyed autonomous organisation under the direction of a Ladies’ Grand Council, but most of their actual activity was within local, mixed-sex habitations.
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