New book: Labour and the Caucus

One of our Research Fellows on the 1832-68 project, Dr. James Owen, has just published his first book, with Liverpool University Press, Labour and the Caucus: working-class radicalism and organised Liberalism in England, 1868-1888. James recently gave a paper on his work to the Parliaments, Politics and People seminar at the IHR, which you can read about here, and he shares some of his key insights in his blog for us today:

Labour_and_the_CaucusLabour and the Caucus focuses on the tense and troubled relationship between the labour movement and the Liberal Party in the third quarter of the nineteenth century and, in doing so, provides a new pre-history of the British Labour Party.

The relationship between working-class parliamentary candidates and local Liberal associations, which became pejoratively known as the ‘caucus’, is seen as central to explaining the evolution of independent labour politics. This can, in part, be traced back to Labour’s own narrative concerning Keir Hardie’s by-election defeat as an independent labour candidate at Mid-Lanark in April 1888. Hardie had failed to gain the Liberal nomination, and following his defeat he had declared that the result marked ‘a turning point in history’. Hardie’s attempt to mythologise his electoral failure has been largely successful, as the date of April 1888 is indelibly etched into histories of the Labour Party. Yet, there was nothing intrinsically new about the tone of Hardie’s campaign and the rhetoric that followed. Nearly twenty years prior to this by-election, there were self-styled ‘labour’ candidates asserting, through actions and words, their independence from organised Liberalism. Labour and the Caucus therefore examines this critical twenty year period, which has been neglected in the recent historiography of the labour movement.

The third quarter of the nineteenth century witnessed a new era of mass politics which created significant opportunities and challenges for the labour movement. The sustained and concerted campaign for working-class parliamentary representation by a range of labour organisations, from the fledging Labour Representation League in the 1870s to the nascent Labour Electoral Association in the late 1880s, prompted the labour movement to continually re-evaluate the nature of its relationship with the Liberal Party.  The existing scholarly orthodoxy stresses the confluence of labour and Liberals during the Victorian era, yet these parliamentary campaigns revealed real and significant tensions between the two groups. Similarly, in the early 1870s, urban and rural working-class activists, such as republicans and agricultural labourers, who were frequently denied their own public ‘space’ for political meetings, carved out an identity that separated themselves from mainstream Liberalism.

The 1870s and 1880s also witnessed important developments that prompted the labour movement to question the future of its relationship with the Liberals. The first was the introduction of more sophisticated forms of electoral machinery to manage an expanded electorate, epitomised by Joseph Chamberlain’s National Liberal Federation. It is common knowledge that a perennial concern of labour activists was that those who held the local party’s purse strings would never select a working-class man unable to pay his own way, but what is less well known is that working-class candidates at local and national elections were pragmatic and flexible: they appreciated the importance of effective political machinery and were assertive in their attempts to broker deals with organised Liberalism. Their ability to do so was largely shaped by the local political environment, which underlines the inadvisability of trying to provide a one-size-fits-all picture of the relationship between labour activists and Liberals.

A second important development was the Irish Nationalist movement, which inspired a new generation of labour activists to postulate what a ‘third party’ could achieve in British politics and what a ‘Labour Party’ would look like.  The notion of what constituted a ‘Labour Party’ was highly contested in the 1880s, and revealed fault lines between the Lib-Labs and the wider labour movement that have arguably been glossed over by historians who stress a straightforward progression from Gladstonian Liberalism to the embryonic Labour Party of the early twentieth century.

All these campaigns and developments which had the potential to change the contours of the relationship between the labour movement and the Liberal Party are examined from fresh perspectives in Labour and the Caucus. The book therefore explores important questions that remain about how working-class radicals and Liberals shared and negotiated power, and how this relationship changed over time.

For more information about the book, see here.

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