Clarion History 14: The General Election of 1895

By 1895 there were two main national papers that identified with the Independent Labour Party (ILP) founded with considerable help from the Clarion in 1893. But – as mentioned in earlier episodes of this series – Keir Hardie the president of the new party had begun his own paper the following year – 1894. Although the Labour Leader wasn’t actually taken over by the ILP until the 20th century it nevertheless, because of Hardie’s prominence, tended to be regarded as the party’s official organ from the start.

It’s fair to say that Hardie and Blatchford didn’t get on and that they had very different perceptions of what the priorities should be for socialists. Hardie, already an MP wanted to advance the cause through conventional electoral politics. Blatchford wasn’t against doing that but thought it was a low priority which could be left more or less to look after itself. What was crucial was ‘making socialists.’ The phenomenal success of Merrie England which,again, I explained in an earlier episode, seemed to support this sense of priorities.

And, again, as we have already seen, the Clarion notion of ‘real democracy’ went way beyond anything Hardie and the ILP were proposing. And there was criticism from ILPers before the general election which took place in the summer, of the Clarion Cycling Club holding its ‘Meet’ at Easter -at the same time as the annual conference of the ILP. On the Clarion side Blatchford and Co insisted that democracy began at home. They waged a campaign – quite widely supported in the ILP – to drop Hardie’s title of ‘president’ and were successful in 1896 when it was changed to ‘chairman’. Not that it made too much difference to what the Clarion regarded as Hardie’s domination of the new party.

But before continuing with the tale of the election from the ILP/Clarion standpoint this is one of those occasions when to get a sense of what was really at stake we need to adopted a wider and longer-term perspective. At the moment the media is full of tales of splits in the Conservative and -to a lesser extent for the moment – the Labour parties. But if we could be joined by a well-informed observer of the political scene from 1890s or 1900s s/he would be likely to say ‘Splits! You ain’t seen nothing yet!’

The ace splitter was Joseph Chamberlain who managed the remarkable feat of splitting first the Liberal Party over Home Rule for Ireland and then, in the early twentieth century, the Conservative Party over Tariff Reform. In 1895 he was the Leader of the Liberal Unionists– i.e. the Libs who objected to Home Rule – and in alliance with the Conservatives. Gladstone had retired the previous year -after being PM on four different occasions, still a record today – and the Tory/Lib Unionist coalition was successful at the general election.

This would have far-reaching results. Chamberlain became the minister for the colonies and was largely responsible for the pretty disastrous Boer war 1899-1902 which among other things saddled Britain with the guilt of inventing the concentration camp.

But back to the 1895 election. Like all new movements and revivals hopes were high among Clarion readers and ILPers generally as the election approached. As usual on such occasions the heightened enthusiasm of a significant minority tended to obscure the fact that there were even more folk on the electoral register who were not carried away by the prospect of the new ILP.

The ILP fielded 28 candidates hoping to gain a small parliamentary foothold. But none were elected. And Keir Hardie lost his seat too. From his point of view the fact that no one else from the ILP succeeded did have the advantage of meaning that – given how important parliamentary representation is even to many who say they don’t believe in it – there was no real rival for leader of the party, though Blatchford remained as a sort of unofficial leader of the internal opposition.

In the four or five years that followed Hardie settled down to pursuing his objective of the ‘Labour alliance’ – which meant allying with trade unions or at least some of them; the miners for example were quite content to elect Lib-Labs until after the 1906 election which gave Labour its foothold in the Commons. The unions, still mainly Liberal in politics, were relatively speaking well off. The ILP was close to broke. It’s best bet, Hardie realised, was to tap the resources of as many of the unions as possible. The Labour Alliance strategy would succeed in 1900 when the Labour Representation Committee – already known unofficially as the Labour Party – was formed.

There was some disappointment among the readers and staff of the Clarion in August 1895 but winning elections was not their main thing. After 1895 they would turn their attention to a number of projects which had in common a belief in the virtues of direct democracy.


Next Time: ‘Socialist Unity’ and the Clarion Referendum


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