16 ‘Socialist Unity’ and the ‘Clarion Referendum ‘ – Part 2
Quick resumé – since the previous episode was last year!
Blatchford and the Clarion had urged the The SDF and the ILP to merge and form a united socialist party. In 1897 an informal committee of well-known members of both parties had recommended ‘fusion’ – the merging of both organisations. This had been put to the memberships of both SDF and ILP in a referendum. Of the 6,044 taking part most supported the recommeded ‘fusion.’ But the the leadership of the ILP insisted on having another vote of ILP members and recommended the looser form of unity -‘federation’ – which won out – though a substantial minority still favoured ‘fusion’ . The SDF then took umbrage in its turn and insisted that it was bound by the first referendum of both parties and would have nothing to do with ‘federation’.
The Clarion, as usually daggers drawn with the ILP leadership, sided with the SDF and the disappointment with the failure to secure ‘socialist unity’ led in 1898 to the ‘Clarion Referendum.’
Thompson (aka ‘Dangle’) suggested in an article that July that ‘a plain manifesto of the aims of British Socialism ‘ should be submitted to the members of both the SDF and the ILP. Responding to this in September a well-known activist, Harry Reade, suggested a postal referendum on the desirability of a ‘United Socialist Party.’ Thompson, so often – like the Clarion generally – too eager to do sufficient preparation took up the idea – and got it off to a bad start. Proposed ‘planks’ of the united party were published in the paper – only to be cancelled together with readers’ votes responding to them after there were many complaints about lack of clarity in the proposals. A new list of proposed ‘planks’ was then published which readers were asked to send in their votes indicating which they supported.
Nevertheless, in spite of this initial fiasco an impressive 8,835 votes were received of whom 5,937 identified themselves as ‘unattached’ to either of the socialist parties. Thompson had hoped for an even larger response but was gratified that the most popular measure to be included in a ‘practical’ parliamentary programme was the referendum and initiative with 5,965 votes. As I explained in an earlier episode – Thompson was a great advocate of this in several Clarion pamphlets and many articles. In the Clarion Referendum it came ahead of Old Age Pensions (5,115 votes) and Work for the Unemployed (4,913)
The whole thing – like so many of the Clarion’s initiatives including the ‘Clarion Scheme’ which will be our next subject – was ill-prepared and not carefully enough thought through . But it was enough to alarm ithe Clarion’s opponents in other parts of the socialist movement. The leading Fabian, Sidney Webb, was in Australia but his private secretary wrote in to remind readers of his employer’s opposition to ‘direct democratic control’ as did another correspondent, Larner Sugden, who said that he allowed the Fabian Society to ‘do most of my political thinking for me.’
Keir Hardie’s Labour Leader charged – on the basis of no discernable evidence – that the Clarion was trying to lead socialists towards the Liberal Party. David Lowe, the Leader’s manager accused Blatchford’s paper of ‘diddlling’ ILP branches into ‘wrangling over the presidency and official positions’ and promoting ‘a gospel of suspicion and mistrust’
Notions of ‘Socialist Unity’ were now dead – at least for the time being
Next Time The ‘Clarion Scheme’ or NIGFTLU (