One of the most controversial political and legal struggles of the Victorian era, the ‘Bradlaugh case’ has long been considered a broad-based populist movement in which social and political tensions were largely absent. This chapter, however, suggests that the campaign is better understood as an uneasy and fragile alliance of two mutually suspicious factions. By offering contrasting perspectives on the nature and importance of the case and the ‘true’ meaning of the English constitution, radicals and liberals unwittingly drew attention to the important differences that separated the two traditions. This chapter also uses newspaper reports, election songs, poems and posters to uncover subtle differences in the way that working-class and populist radicals handled political concepts and articulated their understanding of the social order. Establishing the existence of such tensions helps to account for the tone, strategy and ideological basis of newer forms of politics that began to emerge in Charles Bradlaugh’s final years.
The conclusion summarises the book’s main arguments and suggests that its analysis has important implications for the study of modern British history. It recapitulates the theoretical and methodological approaches taken and argues that these could be used to understand political, cultural and ideological changes in other regions of Britain. The conclusion also offers some comments on contemporary debates regarding the Labour Party’s orientation, its ‘true’ identity and values, and its enduring relevance in a post-Blair, post-Brexit age.
The introductory chapter begins by providing readers with a brief history of the subject matter and a summary of the debates about politics, identity and ideology in nineteenth- and early twentieth-century England. After highlighting weaknesses in ‘stagist’ and ‘continuity’ accounts of these issues, the introduction outlines the book’s three primary aims: first, to establish the existence of a class-conscious radical tradition in England during the mid- to late nineteenth century; second, to demonstrate that working-class radicals exhibited a strong but conciliatory sense of class and articulated a highly distinctive interpretation of terms, phrases and ideological concepts; and third, to demonstrate that the emergence and growth of labour politics and ideology in these areas represented the renewal rather than the abandonment of the working-class radical tradition. The introduction then outlines the book’s key historiographical, empirical and theoretical contributions to the literature and provides a summary of the book’s methodology and a brief chapter outline.
This chapter explores the nationalisation of British culture – or the process through which localised forms of politics gave way to national electoral alignments – from the perspective of the local political activist. Drawing on local Labour newspapers and correspondence between Labour head office and constituency organisations, it argues that the pre-1914 Labour Party contributed to this process in four ways. First, the presence and activities of a small body of Labour MPs in the House of Commons provided activists in constituencies with an example to follow. Second, the existence of a national Labour Party promoted the idea that the party was a co-ordinating centre that could draw together previously disconnected trade unionists and socialists. Third, Labour’s presence on the national stage contributed to the standardisation of labourist discourse. And finally, Labour candidates challenged territorialised notions of politics by promising to represent a class if elected to office in addition to (and sometimes over and above) a geographic constituency.
This chapter considers the extent to which the First World War contributed to the post-war realignment of progressive politics. With notable exceptions, scholars have largely agreed that certain developments during the war years, including splits in the Liberal Party, the expansion of the wartime state and the growth of trade unionism, provided the necessary framework for a political realignment in which Labour replaced the Liberals as the dominant force on the British left. This chapter offers a fresh perspective on this debate by examining the ideological evolution of Labour activists in towns and cities at the forefront of this realignment. Drawing on trade union and party-political records, election posters, handbills, pamphlets and newspaper reports, it argues that the theoretical framework that generated labourist responses to the war was far from new. As before the war, labourists articulated a conciliatory vision of society that, while based on an exclusivist conception of class, did not entail a recognition of the class struggle. Far from undergoing a significant ideological conversion, labourists felt that wartime developments proved the veracity of their assumptions about democracy, liberty, the state and other concepts that had formed the core of pre-war labourism and, before it, working-class radicalism.
This chapter examines the way in which Labour activists articulated their understanding of the working class prior to the First World War. It shows that Labour activists’ definition of the working class, as well as their conception of the social order, owed a great deal to older notions of class relations. It does so by interrogating the way activists interacted with women, the unemployed, non-manual workers, non-British workers, agricultural labourers, ‘the poor’ and others who had historically been excluded from labourist definitions of the working class. The aim of this chapter is show that long-held and restrictive assumptions about gender, place, work, nationality and race were hard to shake off even in the face of social and political change.
This chapter considers the impact of Labour’s decision to adopt a new constitution and publish its first comprehensive policy document, Labour and the New Social Order, in 1918. These changes were part of a deliberate effort to shift the Labour Party’s image from that of a trade-union pressure group to that of a party of government. As intended, from 1918, middle-class defectors from the Liberal Party and women of all classes joined Labour in considerable numbers. But this chapter argues that we should not overstate the intellectual significance of these changes. Male labourists continued to hold restrictive assumptions about groups that had historically been marginalised within the party. Labourist conceptions of the social order remained influential at a local level, and, like their political ancestors, labourists exhibited a strong sense of class while rejecting the theory of the class struggle. And while the constitutional changes of 1918 expanded the intellectual space in which non-labourist currents could exist and grow, labourism remained a major intellectual current in the party as it prepared to form its first government in January 1924.
In ‘stagist’ and ‘continuity’ accounts of the period 1867–1880, English radicals are often portrayed as compliant partners in a cross-class radical–liberal coalition which offered voters an attractive mix of liberty, retrenchment and reform. This chapter revises these interpretations by demonstrating the existence of a class-conscious form of radicalism that existed outside of both mainstream liberal and populist radical politics. Drawing on previously untapped newspaper sources, trade union records and election ephemera, it explores the dynamics of popular politics in five towns and cities where working-class radicals sought to challenge the unrepresentative nature of local Liberal organisations. It suggests that working-class radicals engaged in these activities because they understood the socio-political order through the lens of class. Departing from previous studies, this chapter also suggests that working-class radicalism was a coherent ideology whose advocates offered a distinctive interpretation of concepts such as democracy, rights and liberty. Utilising the conceptual approach to the study of ideologies, it takes the novel step of constructing conceptual frameworks for both working-class and populist forms of radical ideology.
This chapter considers how working-class radicals responded to debates about the role of the state in the final years of the nineteenth century. During this period, ‘collectivism’, a term often used synonymously with socialism, became a hotly debated topic in political and intellectual circles. Working-class radicals were not absent from these discussions. Those who established socialist societies lamented the moderation of their former allies and claimed that they were the true heirs of the radical legacy. Working-class radicals who came to describe themselves as ‘labour’ activists also embraced the collectivist spirit of the times, but while they came to see the state as an effective tool for alleviating social distress, they remained stubbornly attached to their old ways of thinking about democracy, liberty and other concepts at the core of working-class radical ideology. In this sense, the development of local labour parties and the emergence of ‘labourist’ ideology in the 1880s and 1890s represented the renewal rather than the displacement of the working-class radical tradition.
The renewal of radicalism maps the trajectory of Labour politics from its origins in a ‘class-conscious’ radical tradition through to its emergence as a major electoral force in the 1920s. During the 1880s and 1890s, working-class radicals in the East Midlands, East Anglia and the South West embraced the collectivist spirit of the times and built local labour parties that eventually became local branches of the national Labour Party. But even as they established new organisations, ‘labour’ activists – as they came to be known – remained committed to the cultural assumptions, discursive practices and ideological beliefs of their political predecessors. Focusing on largely neglected areas in provincial England, this book offers a new narrative of continuity that challenges conventional understandings of English political history. By applying the conceptual analysis of ideologies to the world of local politics, it identifies, for the first time, the conceptual building blocks of radical and labourist ideologies, suggesting that both deserve to be treated separately from liberalism and socialism. It also offers fresh perspectives on the Labour Party’s contribution to the ‘nationalisation’ of political culture; the survival of restrictive assumptions about gender, place, work, nationality and race in the face of political and economic change; and the process through which political identities and ideologies were forged at a local level.