CLARION HISTORY 22 – The Labour Party and Victor Grayson
As I pointed out in an earlier episode about the 1895 election – a disaster from the socialist and especially ILP point of view with even Hardie losing his seat – the only way forward seemed more than ever to be Keir Hardie’s notion of a ‘Labour Alliance.’ This meant the political Left – above all the ILP itself – working with the – previously largely Liberal-supporting – trade unions. The socialist groups operated on a shoe-string. Relatively speaking the unions were well-off.
The eventual outcome of this strategy was the formation in 1900 of the Labour Representation Committee (LRC) By no means all the unions took part – the miners, with their exceptional degree of influence and control in mining areas – remained LibLab supporting until after the 1906 general election which, aided by a not very transparent deal with the Liberals, gave Labour a parliamentary foothold. The official name was changed to Labour Party – a title already often used informally.
The Clarion approach was basically that of converting as many people as possible to socialism. The politics, which would probably be messy and sometimes not too admirable, could, the paper often implied, be left to take care of itself . The big issue of the time was whether Labour should explicitly commit itself to socialism rather than just pursuing the not very clearly defined working-class interests that the term ‘Labour’ implied. The oldest British socialist organisation, the Social-Democratic Federation (SDF) left the LRC after a year, frustrated by the failure to make a socialist commitment. This, it was later recognised by most SDFers, was perhaps the biggest mistake the SDF made. But that’s another story. What of the Clarion?
The attitude of the Clarion can perhaps best be illustrated by an editorial in the paper in March 1903 which asked:
If avowed Socialists are going to water down their principles and programmes for the sake of the fleshpots of Independent Labourism, what will be the difference between such conduct and that of the Liberal-Labour man who waters down his Labourism in order to gain the sops thrown by the Liberal Party?
Clarion confidence in Labour got, if anything, worse as time went on. Then in 1907 came something which gave those who demanded a more forthright attitude and approach great encouragement – actually rather more than would be justified by later events. When Sir James Kitson, the Liberal MP who had represented the constituency of Colne Valley since 1892 was ‘elevated’ to the peerage as Baron Airedale the local Liberals selected Philip Bright – son of the famous radical free trader John Bright – as the prospective replacement. The local ILP selected the 27 year old Victor Grayson.
So far, so good. But there was a snag. Colne Valley was part of the deal with the Liberals. Labour would not run a candidate there in return for being given a clear field in other constituencies. So the national executive committee of the Labour Party refused to endorse Grayson’s candidature.. The Colne Valley Labour League (C. V Socialist League the following year) supported Grayson as an Independent Socialist candidate. Much to most people’s surprise he won though with a percentage of the vote and a majority not unlike that of Labour in the recent Peterborough by-election.
Grayson was not a great success as an MP, attending the Commons only rarely, and he lost his seat to the Liberals in 1910. Meanwhile he had become part of the Clarion editorial team and wrote numerous articles for the paper. He later mysteriously disappeared in 1920 and his subsequent fate is unknown and has led to much speculation. Was he murdered or did he take on another identity? Those have been among the various speculations’
Grayson probably had relatively little to contribute except ardour for the cause though that’s always imporant. But he provided a symbol of the discontent of socialists with the Labour Party which has endured now for well over a century. The Clarion shared this discontent. Yet the fact that an inexperienced and virtually unknown man in his ‘twenties could become an overnight hero – and to some on the Left a legend for generations to come – on the basis of a narrow victory in a by-election and less than three years as an MP, must give pause for those – at the time and since – who dismiss the importance of electoral politics altogether.
Nor did the Clarion view of Labour get much better in 1910. Its suspicion of the party and union leaderships is well-reflected in its reaction to the publication of the autobiography of John Wilson a miners’ MP who remained a Liberal. Given that Labour Leader was the title of the ILP’s weekly and the Clarion’s rival the reaction of the to Wilson’s Memoirs of a Labour Leader can be seen as covering a much wider field than the author of the autobiography himself. The reaction was a bit Pavlovian.
Not to have been a Labour Leader and not to have written the story of your life, or have it written for you, argues a very commonplace character in these early twentieth century times. In the days of our youth the rewards for good conduct at Sunday School took the form of literature of the ‘Long Cabin to the White House’ class. Today the budding youth of the greatest Empire feeds its aspirations on ‘From Workshop to Westminster,’ ‘From Butcher’s Bench to Parliamentary Bar’, ‘From Cab Rank to Cabinet Rank’. Or some other impossible jumping of place to fame and glory.
Given all this it is not surprising that the following year, 1911, the Clarion supported, and indeed the Clarion Cycling Club took an active part in, one final pre-1914 effort at ‘socialist unity’ outside the Labour Party.