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The Origins of the British Socialist Party

D. Morris
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EVER SINCE its birth in 1906 the British Labour Party has been the subject of intense debate and disagreement among socialists. Advocates of working inside the party have consistently argued that, for all the compromises necessitated, it is the only credible vehicle for socialist advance, and especially so in British conditions. Alternative perspectives offered—from the SDF (Social Democratic Federation)" through to the Communist Party of Great Britain and other groups on the extra-Labour left—are seen as being mistaken and of marginal importance. That no other viable option exists or has existed is a central belief of many on the socialist left in Britain. But for some socialists the Labour Party, far from being a short-cut to socialism, was, and is, a detour. Alternative traditions have challenged the dominant one, seeking to build a socialist alternative to the Labour Party, or at least a body in separate if fraternal co-operation. These in turn faced problems. The specificities of British development that were seen as moulding the character of the Labour Party could also be seen as barriers to a socialist alternative. Moreover, the different components of any proposed socialist alternative carried with them sharply different ideas on strategy and organisation.

It is not surprising that earlier debates still hold resonance for contemporary developments. It is proposed here to look at one such forerunner—the British Socialist Party (BSP)—brought into existence following the Socialist Unity conference held at Manchester in 1911. One conventional response to the BSP has been to dismiss it as a slightly larger version of the SDF and as an initiative that failed. By 1914 the image was certainly close to the truth. But to return to the formative years and the forces that shaped it, presents a slightly different picture and one that deserves closer attention. The origins of the BSP illuminate the debates and developments amongst socialists regarding strategy and attitudes to the Labour Party at this formative period. It can be argued—as I shall attempt to do in this study—that understanding the BSP requires setting it in the context of the left wing of the Independent Labour Party (ILP) and debates among non-party socialists, as well as that of the SDF. The Lancashire area is crucial to this understanding. It provided the ILP's largest division for most of the period;1 the strongest provincial centre of the SDF;2 and was the heartland of the Clarion movement.3

The building of 'socialist unity' was an ever present alternative to the strategy adopted by the ILP in 1900 of allying with the trade unions on a labourist—rather than socialist—platform. SDF-ILP unity had been close—in the late 1890's—a move that was largely frustrated by the ILP's National Administrative Council (NAG).4 Despite the 1900 settlement a section of the ILP still held more aggressively and autonomously socialist definitions of the party's role. Many of those who joined in the heady optimism of the mid 1900's differed sharply from the pragmatic policies of the party leadership.5 Veterans of the 1893 founding conference, such as Russell Smart and Leonard Hall ,6 had access to an alternative ILP tradition—as did figures such as Robert Blatchford outside the party.

Aspects of post 1900—and especially post 1906—developments tended to erode such traditions. But the nature of socialist politics was such that it could also sustain the resilience and relevance of alternative interpretations. ILP strategists certainly distinguished their party policy from the SDF's by their commitment to activity within the labour alliance. Thus could tangible benefits be gained in contrast to the isolation of the rival body. The arguments regularly stressed by the ILP establishment 7 were also evoked by local and more radical figures. In public debate with the SDF at Manchester in 1909, J.M. Mcalchlan put the case for ILP strategy, the belief that:

'The socialists in the Labour Party have the power in their hands to make the movement go right for socialism'. 8

His opponent, Edward Hartley, argued that socialists were 'swamped' within the Labour Party, and should unite outside it since there was little prospect of achieving socialism through that structure. 9 Both arguments were familiar ones, but it was evident that a cost-benefit equation was involved. For the ILP the costs of com­ promise were balanced with the gains accrued through the labour alliance in prestige, status and strength.

The ILP's choice of strategy reshaped its relationship with the SDF—which had left the Labour Party despite attending the founding conference. ILP branches in the localities tended to build and enter local Labour parties. These brought in their wake substantial gains at local government level while squeezing out the SDF. In many areas this led to a disruption of socialist fraternity as ILP gains were made at the SDF's expense. No little bitterness was caused—especially in towns such as Black burn and Nelson where the SDF had preceded the ILP and had been of equal strength until the 1900's. James Dawson of the Blackburn SDF was typically resentful of:

'Mr. Snowden and the ILP (who) came along and gathered the fruits we had so zealously guarded'.12

John Moore of the Rochdale branch even referred to the party being 'politically dead' 11 in many towns as a result of this process. For some inside the SDF this strengthened the case for re-affiliation. Dan Irving of Burnley who, 'could never see any reason for our leaving the LRC", 12 was prominent in his advocacy. 13 He and others pointed to towns where the SDF maintained close co-operation with local LRC's. Local developments certainly exacerbated the SDF's strategic problem regarding the Labour Party—whether to be an alternative to it, a ginger group on its left, or part of it. The lines of fissure were complex. Tsuzuki's identification of the Lancashire branches with the 'right'—who favoured re-affiliation 14 —is somewhat over-simplified. Irving's stance was far from uniform. 15 Those who advocated re-affiliation often advocated conditions—being allowed to stand as 'Labour and socia list' or a definite socialist clause in the Labour constitution—which were unlikely to be granted. It was certain that the perspectives of socialist unity held by non-SDF socialists would face the problem of coming to terms with these different nuances.

But these factors which tended to strengthen Labour hegemony and lay down clear lines of division were checked by other characteristic features of contemporary socialist politics. The looseness and centrifugal tendencies of ILP branch organis ation militated against a cohesive display of loyalty to the labour alliance. Links to the Labour Party were not always tight. In 1908-9 for instance only sixteen of the twenty three Manchester ILP branches were affiliated to the local LRC. Suspicion of centralisation and organisation was prevalent amongst the rank and file. In a typical instance Joe Burgess—a founding member—complained that, 'they might be better organised but they might be organised to death'. ' 1 ' Expressions of branch autonomy took different forms. Some branches styled themselves as 'socialist society' (Macclesfield, St. Helens, Chorlton) 'socialist union' (Blackley and Moston) or even the grander 'Socialist party' (Didsbury). Many such groups had existed prior to joining the ILP. At this level also the conceptions of party differences might be looser than those held by national leaders. A correspondent toClarion observed:

'I live in Altrincham where there is only one socialist party, the ILP, so that no socialist in Altrincham need hesitate which party they should belong to. But if I removed to say Stretford where there is only one socialist party the SDF, I would certainly join that'.17

Given such attitudes it was hardly surprising that ILP and SDF members were often capable of co-operation over specific issues, in social events and at joint demonstra tions and rallies. The traditions of the 1890's survived the 1900 settlement in part. The Chorlton Socialist Election Committee in Manchester brought together socialists of all parties to contest elections to the Board of Guardians. A Rochdale Socialist Council united socialist forces to contest the general elections of 1900 and 1906— although the ILP's alliance with local trade unions later broke this up. 18 A degree of fraternity was of course reconcilable with political differences, but the dialogue posed threats to ILP orthodoxy. The NAC-which tended to view the SDF as a disruptive influence 19 —issued a general wanting against dual membership and joint action. 20

The problem was further intensified by the existence of a socialist periphery beyond the SDF. In the north, especially, the Clarion movement with its kaleidoscopic network of social, recreational and political groups provided a forum for socialists of any or no party. It suggested the existence of a periphery of 'un-attached socialists'.21 If Clarion politics were often ambiguous and its levels of support uneven, it was still viewed with suspicion by ILP and Labour loyalists. The Clarion newspaper was open to ideas and debates which were denied expression in the ILP's loyalist press. Along with the Huddersfield Worker and A.R. Orage's New Age, it - provided constant socialist criticism of Labour Party policy. ILP rank and file support for such journals worried the party's leadership. 22 Indeed, much of that leadership's attention in these years was dedicated to breaking the links between the ILP and non Labour Party socialists, to detaching the ILP from its traditional periphery. As Macdonald had warned the 1909 conference:

'Where the members of the ILP have not muddled their minds by becoming members of socialist organisations with different methods and standpoints and where the ILP itself has kept clear of joint action with other sections which have nothing in common with it but name, Socialism has flourished, but where dual membership has been common, Socialism has not flourished, the public have been confused, the distinctive features of the ILP have been obscured and the work of many years thrown away'. 23

But these links and traditions assumed a sharp relevance when the strains of compromise that were inevitable inside the labour alliance began to be felt amongst the ILP rank and file. The party leadership—under pressure from the trade union section of the Labour Party—attempted to tighten the links that bound the ILP to the Labour Party. But this was both a reaction to and further cause of rank and file discontent. Influenced by the socialist periphery the radical wing of the ILP became increasingly frustrated at Labour's apparent failure to confront the Liberals, at the alleged timidity of the Parliamentary Labour Party of distinct socialist policies.

Election policy was central to these frustrations. In order to maintain a cautious and restrained electoral strategy, the ILP leadership sought to revise the party constitution—so that ILP candidates could not stand independently of the Labour Party, 24 and again to prevent ILP support being given to SDF and independent socialist candidates. 25 But rank and file resistance—fuelled by the spectacular success of Victor Grayson at the 1907 Colne Valley by-election 26 —saw support being extended to non Labour candidates; to Edward Hartley who stood at Newcastle in November 1908 after a Labour candidate was withdrawn; and to Dan Irving at Manchester North-West five months earlier. In a hopeless contest Irving received substantial local ILP support. 27 While the NAC frowned upon the contest, 'the rank and file of all sections, ILP and trade unions worked with a will'. 28 It was claimed that a 'wider feeling of comradeship' 29 had grown out of the campaign. The unity displayed by that coalition of forces could have wider implications. Electoral frus trations had led some inside the ILP to propose setting up an electoral Socialist Federation to support non-Labour socialist candidates. 30

Other lines of debate raised similar issues. Increasing concern over the constraints on democratic control inside the ILP were articulated by Leonard Hall and Russell Smart. On the sidelines New Age and Clarion added their criticisms of the 'junta'. Victor Grayson became a focus for criticisms of parliamentary timidity. His idiosyncratic charisma raised problems for ILP radicals as well as loyalists, but he became a figure of symbolic significance in 1907-9. The period following his expulsion from the Commons in November 1908 was one of the most critical faced by the ILP leadership. There were widespread fears that Grayson was poised to lead a substan tial breakaway group. 31 Hardie resignedly referred to speaking at Manchester—a recognised centre of dissent—and pointing to:

'the unwisdom of creating new socialist organisations... but cannot tell how it affected the crowd... I fear the circus is still there'.32

'Graysonism', as a current within the ILP, suffered defeat at the 1909 conference. A strong radical challenge attracted the support of a third of the delegates but the leadership rode the storm and probably benefitted from raising the issue of Grayson's personality to deflect attention from policy criticisms. The stage-managed resignations of the four senior members of the NAC—Macdonald, Hardie, Glasier and Snowden—on the final morning of conference further stressed the need for loyalty.

Despite defeat the debates had revealed the potential for an alternative. ILP strategy was certainly under question by those members who felt that the com promise was too great or that the structure and internal balance of the Labour Party made socialist agitation inside it impractical. Such considerations were balanced by doubts regarding the success of any alternative and the extent to which ILP fortunes were tied in with the Labour Party. But by 1909 opinion on the left of the ILP seemed to be hardening in favour of socialist unity.

Grayson was a key figure in this current. His links with socialists of all parties in the Manchester area—where he had first come to prominence as an agitator—and his status as the member elected under the auspices of the Colne Valley Labour League 33 always tended to place him outside the pale of what passed for ILP orthodoxy in the mid 1900's. The Problem of Parliament, the book he co-authored with G.R.S. Taylor in 1909, was expressly dedicated to the creation of a socialist party. 34 The failures of existing organisations were contrasted with the fact that, 'the rank and file of the SDP and the IL? are much alike... they feel themselves comrades in the same cause'. 35 A new party, resolutely socialist in its policy and actions, could be built out of members of the ILP, SDF and Clarion groups, and an electoral socialist federation could commence this process. 36 As Grayson distanced himself from the ILP he moved towards disenchanted ILPers and unattached socialists, using the Clarion as a forum, and evoking a response. The socialist unity current that eventually led to the formation of the BSP initially arose out of this link. But the inbuilt tensions within this current and especially between it and the SDF were also characteristic of the process.

The first firm steps were taken in the Manchester area in the latter half of 1909. George Simpson, secretary of the Clarion Cycling Club and the manager of the Manchester Clarion cafe, suggested in Justice that, 'the time is fully ripe when the question of Socialist Representation Committee or no SRC should be considered'. 37 A week earlier Alfred Sugar—another Manchester Clarionite—had suggested the Chorlton Socialist Election Committee as a successful example of a Socialist Repre­ sentation Committee. An SRC, he had argued, would attract those:

'...local socialist bodies within six miles of the centre of Manchester and un attached to either SDF or ILP'. 38

The traditions of co-operation, the existence of unattached groups and of ILP branches who had left the parent body created favourable terrain for such initiatives in the Manchester area. Simpson would later argue that this process of creation from below in the localities was the central feature of the socialist unity campaign. 39 But given the lukewarm response of the national parties it had to be so. An anonymous Mancunian correspondent who urged the forming of SRC's was reminded in an editorial note in Justice that this would be detrimental to the SDF since the ILP would be unlikely to join.40 Simpson was undaunted by partisan suspicions. By the close of 1909 86 branches of various groupings in and around Manchester had been circularised by the nascent SRC. Thirty three delegates from the twenty branches that responded voted overwhelmingly that an SRC be set up41 The momentum escalated after the general election in January. At West Salford the local SRC had lent its support to Albert Purcell's candidature as an independent socialist.42 Grayson, following his defeat at Colne Valley, issued a unity appeal that backed the SRC and went on to argue:

'There are thousands of unattached socialists that must be yearning for a party that knows its mind and has courage and culture to express it. There are branches that are chafing against the tightly held rein. Let them come together under a common banner and rejuvenate our good cause'. 43

Simpson also interpreted the election as proof that the: 'ILP as a party has been entirely dominated and submerged by the Liberal party... we must have a socialist party in the House of Commons'.44

Raising the question of a new party was a slight shift in emphasis—even if the idea was already implicit in the SRC movement. By March the Manchester group had set up a committee and claimed 800 members. All the local SDF branches were affiliated as well as a handful of smaller ILP branches and a number of socialist societies. It was claimed that the SDF and the ILP contributed six each to the twenty one affiliation ists, the others being socialist societies.'45 The fourth clause was accepted as part of the constitution, evoking the traditions which underlay the SRC.46

By now the E.C. of the SDF was giving 'considerable attention' to 'the present situation in Manchester'.47 The SRC was in the peculiar position of being the object of SDF suspicion and of ILP hostility48 Its status was still confused. In mid June the 'Provisional Committee for the promotion of common ground among socialists' had issued its first statement, the signatories including Albert Purcell (by then an SDF member) and A.M. Thompson of Clarion. Although its primary object was to solidify socialist election alliances rather than forming a new party, it was seen in some quarters—along with the SRC's—as a threat to the SDF. 49 The Manchester SRC, which met monthly in the Clarion Cafe throughout 1910, had agreed by June to call a special conference:

'...keeping in mind the object of the committee, viz, the promotion of a national socialist party'.50

Grayson was already touring the country promoting the idea of a new party, often in the company of Blatchford, who emerged briefly from privacy and shook off his pessimism to endorse the new venture.

If the SDF might appear well placed to gain by the growth of the SRC the official reaction was still guarded and wary of some of the elements involved in the SRC. 51 Negotiations on socialist unity—initiated by the International Socialist Bureau— were still pending with the ILP and the Fabians. The emergence of the SRC's sharpened the divisions within the party. SDF branches within the Manchester SRC proposed amalgamation with the SDF District Council. 52 Their case was put at a meeting in mid September, where seven SDF branches and fourteen other groups accepted the proposal put by Purcell and Hyndman that:

'Unity can best be achieved by affiliation to a socialist organisation—the SDF and pledges itself to work for unity along these lines'. 53

The appeal to the ILP which followed was in the context less than straightforward. Indeed the secretary of Weaste Socialist Society alleged that the SDF had manipu lated the debate and that most of the independent delegates had abstained on the vote.54 The SDF scheme certainly differed from George Simpson's view: '...the only way to get (socialist unity) is to link up the various individual socialist societies with ILP and SDP branches into Socialist Representation Committees as we have done in Manchester'.55

SDF attitudes appeared to change in 1910-11. There was a greater willingness to countenance unity outside the Labour Party and a more flexible and less sectarian definition of that unity. The shift was aided by the failure of attempts to reaffiliate on favourable terms. Furthermore, the strength of the socialist unity campaign demanded a more positive response. Hyndman—although 'still not in love with SRC's56 wrote an enthusiastic report on the 'magnificent unity demonstration' at Manchester's Free Trade Hall in September 1910.' 6 The 1911 party conference passed a socialist unity resolution from the Rochdale branch. The motion aimed for a 'United British Socialist Party, 57 and seemed explicitly aimed at the rank and file of all organisations. But complications remained. The nature of unity was still largely undefined. Much would depend on the nature of the non-SDF elements. The weaker and less organised these elements, the stronger would be the dominance of the SDF.

The campaign, spearheaded by Grayson and Clarion, and based on disaffected ILP branches and individuals who had joined or were joining SRC's intensified throughout 1911. In Oldham, Bury and Ashton SDF and ILP branches joined together to form socialist societies.58 In January George Simpson attended the founding meeting of the Birmingham SRC. That body was shortly to recruit Leonard Hall from the ILP, disillusioned by the failure of his attempt to reform the party from within.59 By September Russell Smart, 'not without much searching of heart', had come to a similar conclusion.60 ILP defections and the exhuberant industrial mili­ tancy of 1911 gave socialist unity the appearance of an idea whose time had come. Membership forms for the new party appeared in Clarion throughout August and September 1911 along with an editorial entitled 'The British Socialist Party—who is ready?' 61 Grayson was dearly intent on building a new party whatever the SDF might do. 62 SDF leaders had to warn their members against filling the Clarion forms. 63 Tensions were apparent, despite the fact that the SDF Executive had agreed to support the unity conference called for September. Its convening circular, signed by Simpson and backed by a number of SRC's and independent socialist societies, had appeared in Justice. But problems were never far from the surface during conference that met in Manchester—an emiently suitable location—on the weekend of 30 September-1 October 1911.

Conference delegates claimed to represent 40,000 members of an impressive range of organisations: thirty-six dissident IL? branches; eight prematurely formed branches of the BSP; thirty Clarion groups; thirty-eight independent socialist group ings (including Labour Churches, SRC's and local socialist groups); and seventy-five SDF branches, the 'largest gathering of socialists ever held in England'. 65 Six of the ten members elected onto the Provisional Executive to draft a new constitution were from outside the SDF. 66 Despite some hints of discord, there was a genuine atmos phere of unity, comradeship and enthusiasm. But closer examination of the party's composition suggested points of weakness.

Much evidence suggests that estimates of membership were exaggerated. Outside of the SDF and ILP branches no reliable membership figures existed for the bodies represented. Recreational Clarion groups were not necessarily committed to the new party, and none finally joined the BSP (although individual members did so). 67 There was a fair degree of over affiliation. SRC's attended along with their affiliates. Many Clarion group members who attended were also members of existing socialist organisations. There were numerous cases of overlap—an ILP branch and a Clarion group from Glossop, Gorton and Salford, a Clarion group and branches of the SDF and BSP from Rochdale, an SDF and a BSP branch from Stockport; Clarion groups and SDF branches from Nelson, Padiham and Clitheroe. If this was partly attributable to enthusiasm, it still meant the membership levels were inflated.

Internal division posed a more serious problem. The party's geographical balance reinforced such divisions and suggested the real location of the socialist unity initiative. Crucially there was a concentration of groups from Lancashire and Che shire, and especially from an area within a thirty mile radius of Manchester. Of the thirty eight socialist societies to attend the conference, nineteen came from Lanca shire, four from Cheshire and three others from nearby areas. 68 Six of the eight BSP branches were from Lancashire and Cheshire. Twenty three of the thirty Clarion groups were from Lancashire 69 and thirteen of these from the immediate surround ings of Manchester. Finally twenty two of the thirty six ILP branches were from Lancashire and five from Cheshire. The dominance of one area lent credence to George Simpson's claim that the BSP was formed: 'mainly be the agitation carried on by Manchester socialists in favour of a United Socialist Party'.70

It was significant also that the area was one where Clarion influence and circulation was strongest. 'The peculiarities of Manchester' were crucial to the socialist unity initiative. It was perhaps no surprise that Simpson's proposal to move BSP party headquarters to Manchester were opposed by the SDF old guard. 71

ILP recruitment was heavily concentrated in this area. Precise figures are difficult to estimate. Labour Leader put the figure as low as 5%, one that appeared to be lowered by sectarian considerations. Grayson had claimed that 30% of BSP membership forms in the Clarion had been filled by ILPers, an analysis confirmed by Hall. 72 This might be an exaggeration, but the fall of 900 in IL? membership in the Lanca shire division in 1911-12 was certainly attributable in part to defections to the BSP. The twenty-two branches at the conference were nearly a quarter of the divisional total of branches—if not of members. There were further losses in the Cheshire division—partly attributable to the influence of the previous NAC member, Chris Douthwaite, who had himself joined the BSP. By 1913 Altrincham was the only ILP branch left in its federation .73 Individual ILPers also found their way into the new party through socialist groups. Openshaw Socialist Society, for instance, was an old ILP branch that had disaffiliated—as indeed was the case with the Colne Valley Socialist League.

But ILP losses—which were crucial to the kind of party that the BSP would be—had definite limits. They were far more prominent in south Lancashire. In the north-east of the county—as elsewhere in Britain—the BSP was still little larger than the SDF,74 and could be seen as a continuation of it. The fact that many branches had left the ILP prior to 1911 lessened the impact of the BSP. To a certain extent the MP leadership were unworried by the loss of members, 'who were really out of sym­ pathy with the policy and aims of the ILP'.75 Ridding the ILP of such members fitted in with leadership strategy.76 It was also evident that few branches came over in total and that some which attended the Socialist Unity conference remained in the ILP.77 The branches shed were generally smaller ones with traditions of disaffection and semi-autonomy. If Hall and Douthwaite were both ex NAC members and if Smart and Grayson had been prominent, if rebellious members, the BSP failed to attract many ILP dissidents. Its recruitment level was lower than the size of the ILP radical opposition would have suggested. It was suggestive that J.M. Mcladflan—a key figure on the ILP left, an author of the Green Manifesto, and a director of the Manchester Clarion Cafe—did not join the BSP. for many such, too much had been invested in the labour alliance for support to be withdrawn in favour of a new initiative which did not seem able to promise the same levels of success. It was the perennial problem of building a socialist alternative.

Yet 1912 opened enthusiastically for the new party. The newly formed Manchester District Council—which had the reputation of being one of the best organised in the country78—claimed 37 branches.79 If the number was inflated, and soon to be reduced,80 BSP members in the area were notably active as the branch reports in Justice showed. South Salford, an old and traditionally strong SDF branch, claimed 230 members.81 The Openshaw branch sent in regular enthusiastic reports written by the young Harry Pollit. Simpson proposed setting up a monthly paper for the district.82 The campaign launched by the national Executive Committee in June talked of enrolling 100,000 members by the 1913 conference. During the miners strike in the spring the Openshaw branch distributed 6,000 leaflets and the Pendleton branch 7,50083, while an open air meeting at Wigan attracted 4,000.

But this feverish and enthusiastic activism obscured several serious difficulties. As early as March there were complaints of, 'branches that have not paid a single penny of their dues'.84 The Wigan branch was defunct by June.85 Even the South Salford branch suffered from, 'the slump which has been in evidence all over Manchester'.86 From mid-summer the number and regularity of branch reports in the party press declined sharply. The power struggle within the party—as the SDF old guard squeezed out the newer elements—contributed to the loss of enthusiasm." By the end of 1912 George Simpson was complaining volubly of this uncomradely behaviour;88 and Clarion was increasingly a platform for BSP dissidents whereas it had previously led the unity campaign. The Manchester District Council had demanded a policy referendum in September,89 but the issue was settled without recourse to one. After bitter struggles on the Executive Committee the SDF old guard were firmly in control by the 1913 conference. By the middle of that year Hall and Simpson had left the party, and Grayson had been largely inactive since the early months of 1912.90 Within the Colne Valley Socialist League there were moves to disaffiliate due to the 'predominance of the old SDF'.91

The immediate pre-war membership of 13,50092 and the renewed drive to re-affiliate to the Labour Party indicated a substantial shift in composition and expectations from the Socialist Unity conference. The decline was buttressed by electoral failure (the Leicester by-election in 1913 was the only one contested by the party). The 1912 local elections, on which great emphasis had been laid,93 proved disappointing. Results in London, for instance, were poorer than those of the old SDF. Lancashire followed the national pattern and none of the Mancunian candidates were successful. Even the Openshaw candidate—for all Pollit's enthusiasm—obtained only 260 votes against a Labour candidate 94

If the BSP's failure was self-evident the reasons behind it were significant for the ILP left wing and its periphery. The failure predictably served as a justification for official IL? policy of allying with Labour. Both the failure to attract sufficient ILP recruits and the amorphous nature of the non-SDF elements were crucial factors. The enthusiasm of the early months was proof that the 'unattached' did exist but what followed was proof also of the difficulty of creating a viable organisation out of such elements. Blatchford and Grayson, who in different ways had been major inspirations behind socialist unity, symbolised the problem. For all the virtues of their wide comradeship, neither a coherent political thinker and both were probably incapable of sustained work within any organisation. They did indeed represent a large periphery, full of goodwill to all socialists, that filled the Clarion membership forms in thousands but went little further. This feature affected internal debate between the SDF and the socialist unity current since the former found it easier to mobilise support.

Several lines of fissure became evident. Attitudes to the Labour Party was a major one. A strong—and eventually dominant—current inside the SDF saw socialist unity as a step towards reaffiliation. Grayson, Hall and others interpreted it essentially as being outside the Labour Party. Why else should they or anyone else have left the ILP? Grayson had long been a critic of the reaffiliationist tendency within the SDF.95 He had argued that there was: 'no longer any need for the ILP... its alliance with the Labour Party has obliterated its primary aim'.96

To George Simpson the labour alliance was, 'one of the greatest barriers to socialism'.97 He would agree with Grayson that the ILP could not be socialist, 'while it remains a component part of the Labour party'.98 They were asserting a position that was in the course of being rejected by the majority of the SDF leadership.99

The BSP was also divided in its views on organisation. A whole current on the left had always been suspicious of centralised leadership. Grayson, Hall and others had left the ILP party because of their opposition to 'juntas'. Full and free discussion, branch autonomy and rank and file control were jealously guarded virtues. They had hoped to build the BSP on these lines and within that tradition. As Grayson urged: 'Don't wait for leaders or orders. Do it ourselves and do it now'.100

Simpson, in similar mood, warned against 'putting party before socialism'.101 But those who adopted this approach were less skilled at infra-party manoeuvering and less willing to place themselves in effective leadership positions. Indeed Blatchford had stated at the outset:

'No Clarion man will stand for president, nor shall we ask that the Clarion be made the official organ of the party'.103

A loose federal form of organisation was favoured in contrast to the SDF's advocacy of 'complete amalgamation, complete fusion'." Ex ILPers retained their anti-'junta' sentiments. Grayson urged that: 'the rank and file should keep the string in their own hands and not allow a caucus, however well intentioned to pull or control them'.104

After the Socialist Unity conference he noted: 'a very strong tendency amongst the rank and file of the new revolutionary party to avoid a central caucus'.105

But this kind of line on party structure spilled over into an antipathy to any form of organisation, which made it easier for the SDF old guard to retain control. Organisational control remained in their hands. Grayson complained bitterly that, 'the SDP has not ceased to exist as a separate organisation either nationally or locally'.106 But the naive attitude of Grayson and others had aided that process,107 one which loaded the dice in all policy debate.

Such attitudes towards organisation—however attractive in many respects—brought with them inherent problems. The BSP was also sharply divided in its attitude to industrial struggles and the balance between industrial and political action. SDF orthodoxy—in the mould of He-war social democracy—had involved a perverse attitude to industrial militancy.107 Official attitudes to the industrial unrest of the 1910's was sceptical. The anti-parliamentary strand of the socialist unity current suggested a different approach. In this approach socialists in parliament had a propagandist role but much of the emphasis was on the making of socialists in the country'.109 Grayson's parliamentary sojourn and his later analysis of it typified this approach.110 Indeed some in the SDF leadership suggested that Grayson was too contemptuous of parliament.

But it was no surprise that this tendency should have laid such stress on industrial action. A supplement in Clarion to build support for the BSP was subtitled 'prepare for the general strike'.111 Grayson, Taylor and the Clarion lent enthusiastic support throughout to the strike wave. Hall also gravitated towards a syndicalist position. The BSP he urged should: 'not be a politicians' party but an agitators' party. If we later decide to send a few men to parliament or to local councils it will not be to co-operate with the spoof machine and fakirs (which has been the tragic mistake of the parliamentary Labour group) but to expose and squash them. The people's real hope and strength lies for the present in the industrial field'.112

Indeed the manifesto of the Birmingham section of the BSP—published before the Socialist Unity conference—was a straightforward syndicalist document. It recognised the class struggle, favoured the 'general or combined strike' as method, and aimed for a 'workers commonwealth' rather than 'state capitalism'.113 Hall had argued at the conference in favour of this conception of the new party. No compromise with the parliamentary road should be envisaged and a 'second edition of the so called Labour Party' should be avoided.114

Such an attitude—which bore a resemblance to aspects of the ILP tradition of the 1890's—was a major strand within the socialist unity current. Hall came second in the ballot for the EC at the 1912 conference which suggests the strength of support they could claim. But they were anathema to SDF orthodoxy. The issue had been a sensitive one ever since Tom Mann had left the party in May 1911 and, 'declared in favour of Direct Industrial Unionism'.115 Prominent figures such as Dan Irving were hostile to industrial action,116 and the settling of affairs within the new party was predictably bitter. Hyndman had launched a fierce attack on syndicalism in April 1912 while sharing a platform with Hall and Simpson.117 The attack intensified after the stormy conference of that year. Following an EC statement in November con­ demning syndicalism, Hall and Smart resigned the executive and soon afterwards left the party. Hall, like George Simpson, later joined the Socialist Labour Party. 118 The disruption weakened the BSP as those initially attracted by it drifted away. It was suggestive that Albert Purcell—who had been prominent in the Manchester SRC—played little active part in the BSP. He was actively involved in the syndicalist movement, and had concluded by mid 1912 that: 'the best work trade unionists can now do is neither in parliament nor on municipal bodies but outside amongst the workers in the industrial field'.119

The BSP that emerged from its internal debates offered little to those who shared Purcell's priorities. Two other points of difference amongst socialists played a minor role in the problems of the BSP. Attitudes to armaments and war divided the SDF and the socialist unity current. Both Blatchford and Hyndman were under attack over this issue before the Socialist Unity conference.120 This might have deterred some ILPers from responding to the unity appeal, since the pacifist and internationalist traditions of the ILP were frequently contrasted with the aggressive nationalism of Blatchford and his ilk.121 The issue continued to divide the BSP and was not resolved until the split of 1916.

The SDF's position on women's issues, which divided it from most of the left, might also have deterred some potential recruits as well as increasing friction within the BSP. The socialist unity current was generally sympathetic to the women's cause. Grayson had issued a special appeal for women to join the new party.122 Leonard Hall had close personal and political links with women militants. G.R.S. Taylor had also given special attention to the issue in a series of Clarion editorials in November-December 1912—an implicit criticism of the stance of the BSP leadership.

The BSP was, therefore, an uneasy amalgam of forces and carried within it the seeds of its own dissolution. The non-SDF elements within it were handicapped by their lack of cohesion and differences of style and strategy. Even amongst those who clearly rejected the Labour Party no firm basis for unity was established. As far as the socialist unity current was concerned, disaffection with the ILP was insufficient cause to ally successfully with the SDF. The direction of dispersal of those who left the BSP in disillusion is significant, and illustrates the original diversity. Some turned to trades unionism, some back to mainstream labourism, some such as the Openshaw branch (condemned by Hyndman as 'impossible anarchists'123 to the path that led eventually to the CPGB, and many to the organisational limbo from whence they had come. Many certainly remained active in socialist politics without being attached to any party. The Daily Herald and the Leagues which it spawned in 1912-14 became a repository for the values and traditions which had failed to find expression in either the Labour Party or the BSP. A stress on extra-parliamentary action, an attitude of healthy scepticism towards the Labour party, and support for the women militants were all features of 'Herald' politics. It was hardly surprising that it lent support to BSP dissidents; nor that Hall, Smart and Taylor were regular contributors. There were numerous overlaps with the periphery that brought the BSP into being—not least in the concern with democratic forms that could prevent the emergence of 'juntas' and caucuses.

This tradition was always somewhat peripheral to both the Labour Party and to the Communist Party of Great Britain which became the only coherent alternative to it. The traditions that had originally inspired socialist unity remained largely subsumed within organisations and subordinate ones within the movement as a whole. The failure of the BSP checked a development which briefly appeared to have the potential to alter radically the physiognomy of the left at a crucially formative period.


* The SDF presents a problem of nomenclature since the title was changed to 'Social Democratic Party' (SDP) in 1908. Unless quoting a source that refers to the 'SDP', this study will use the original title.

1 In 1909, for instance, affiliation fees for the Lancashire division totalled £246, second only to Yorkshire. When it was fused with the Cheshire division it became the largest single division.

2 Peter Whatnough, Bulletin of the Society for the Study of Labour History, No. 30.

3 The major study of the Clarion movement is by Judith Fincher, 'The Clarion Movement: A Study of a Socialist Attempt to implement the Co-Operative Commonwealth in England 1891-1914' (M.A. Manchester 1975).

4 The unity campaign of the 1890s is discussed in Fincher, op.cit., part 3, and in H. Pelling, Origins of the Labour Party (London 1965), pp.169-191.

5 It was sometimes argued that the new members were a disruptive influence inside the ILP. See, e.g. Philip Snowden's article in Labour Leader, 20.4.09.

6 For an account of Hall's career see, J.B. Smethurst, Leonard Hall (Eccles, 1973).

7 For a typical instance written at the peak of intra-party crisis see Keir Hardie, My Confession of Faith in the Labour Alliance (London 1909).

8 J.M. Mclachlan and E. Hartley, Should Socialists Join the Labour Party—A verbatim report of debate (Manchester 1909).

9 Ibid. See also Forward 23.7.10-30.9.10 for a similar debate in its correspondence columns between Tom Johnston and John Maclean.

10 Blackburn Times 9.5.08.

11 Justice 4.4.08.

12 SDF Conference Report 1905 p.13.

13 See e.g. Justice 4.4.08.

14 C. Tsuzuki, H.M. Hyndman and British Socialism (London 1961).

15 At the 1905 Conference, for instance, four of the thirteen branches from Lancashire voted against a motion proposed by Burnley in favour of socialist unity.

16 ILP Conference Report 1913, p.64.

17 Clarion 7.6.07. See also James Leatham's editorial article in Huddersfield Worker 13.3.09 for a similar approach.

18 Further manifestations of SDF-ILP co-operation in Manchester are discussed by N. Reid in North West Labour History Society Bulletin No. 5(1979(, pp•25-31. It is possible that the size of Manchester made co-operation easier than in smaller towns such as Nelson and Blackburn where competition was fiercer.

19 ILP News July 1901 warned branches against procuring the speaking talents of the SDFer Bill Gee, the 'Socialist Dreadnought'. Gee apparently was in the habit of recruiting ILP branches for the SDF.

20 Labour Leader 18.10.07.

21 The term was first popularised by Blatchford in reference to the gap between socialist support and actual membership of socialist organisations. (Fincher, op.cit, p.232). It referred also to members of local socialist groups and Clarion clubs. ILP loyalists sometimes sought to deny that any substantial group of "unattached" socialists existed.

22 Ramsay Macdonald-Bruce Glasier undated 1907 (Bruce Glasier Papers 1.1.07/8).

23 ILP Conference Report 1909 p.46.

24 ILP Conference Report 1907, p.17. This was the clause that created the conflict between the Colne Valley branches and the NAC, since they insisted on the candidature of Victor Grayson who was not on the Labour Party list of candidates.

25 Labour Party Conference Report 1909 pp.66-8. The clause was accepted by the ILP. Attempts to control election policy were of course underlain by the nature of the relationship between Labour and the Liberals. For ILP activists and for socialists generally, electoral conflict with the Liberals was the necessary proof of Labour's independence.

26 The Colne Valley contest is discussed in D. Clarke, 'Origins and Early Development of the Labour Party in the Colne Valley', (Ph.D. Sheffield 1978), pp.374-402. A sympathetic account can also be found in Reg Groves, The Strange Case of Victor Grayson (London 19674) and a contemporary account by Grayson's first biographer in Wilfred Thomp­ son; Victor Grayson, His Life and Work (Sheffield 1910) pp.16-29.

27 Labour Leader, 24.4.08. Irving's opponents were Churchill, and Joynson Hicks for the Conservatives.

28 Justice 2.5.08.

29 Justice 16.5.08.

30 See the suggestion by the Rev. W.B. Graham—a socialist cleric who had worked for Grayson in the Colne Valley—in Huddersfield Worker 31.10.08. 'Socialist Vigilance Committees' had also been advocated for the same purpose by Sam Hobson in New Age 11.7.08.

31 The rumours are mentioned in the letters—Bruce Glasier-Ramsay Macdonald 5.11.08;
R.C. Wallhead-Ramsay Macdonald 3-11.08 (Macdonald Papers—PRO 30/69-1152).

32 Keir Hardie-Bruce Glasier undated 1908 (Glasier Papers 1.1.08/55).

33 The League—which later changed its title to Socialist League—linked up the various branches in the Colne Valley. Its history meant that its autonomy was jealously guarded. In 1907 it had sponsored Grayson without official Labour Party and NAC support.

34 Victor Grayson and G.R.S. Taylor; The Problem of Parliament (London 19091.

35 ibid p.55.

36 ibid pp.82-3.

37 Justice 10.7.09.

38 Justice 3.7.09.

39 Clarion 4.11.10.

40 Justice 26.6.09.

41 Justice 25.12.09.

42 Purcell had originally been nominated as a Labour Party candidate but he withdrew—and left the Labour Party—since the constitution would not allow him to stand as a 'Labour and Socialist' candidate.

43 Clarion 25.2.10.

44 Clarion 28.1.10.

45 Clarion 25.2.10.

46 Justice 2.4.10; 18.6.10. The 'fourth clause' had been part of the founding constitution of the Manchester and Salford ILP, having apparently been inspired by Blatchford and South Salford SDF. It proposed that no socialist either work or vote for any other party—Liberal or Conservative. Despite the advocacy of the Lancashire branches in the 1890s it failed to become official ILP policy in the 1890s. Official SDF policy was not a fourth clause one. The contrast between its policy and that of the Manchester SRC was discussed in SDP News June 1911.

47 SDP News August 1910.

48 Hardie, op.cit, pp.7, 12-13 contains virulent criticisms of the SRC's.

49 See e.g. the comments made by Henry Boardman of Salford in SDP News August 1910. He was especially critical of Purcell.

50 Justice 2.7.10.

51 See e.g. Justice 16.7.10.

52 Justice 23.7.10.

53 Justice 24.9.10.

54 Clarion 23.9.10.

55 Clarion 4.11.10.

56 Justice 1.10.10.

57 SDP News February 1911.

58 Clarion 4.11.10.

59 Hall had been one of the four dissident NAC members who issued the so-called 'Green Manifesto' in the summer of 1910. K. Hall et al; Let Us Reform the Labour Party (Manchester 1910). The defeat of this attempt to reform the ILP and Labour Party marked a shift in Hall's approach. He had previously been prominent amongst those who demanded effective processes of democratic accountability within the party.

60 Clarion 29.9.11.

61 Clarion 4.8.11.

62 Grayson appears to have been the first to use the title of 'BSP'. His approach caused concern amongst non SDFers as well. Leonard Hall was wary of "Grayson's attempts to form a Grayson party—as distinct to a United Socialist Party" (Leonard Hall—H.B. Williams 24.12.11—BSP Papers).

63 Justice 19.8.11.

64 Socialist Unity Conference Report. The BSP did not formally come into existence until January 1912.

65 Justice 7.10.11.

66 The six being Hall, Russell Smart, Simpson, Grayson and George Nagger and Tom Groom from the Clarion Cycling Clubs.

67 Daily Herald 17.7.12.

68 The groups at Glossop (which was in the ILP's Cheshire division although geographically in Derbyshire), Colne Valley and Huddersfield.

69 The exceptions were the national body, the London union and four groups from Yorkshire.

70 BSP Conference Report 1912, p.29.

71 'bid, pp.29-30. A third of the SDF branches at the Socialist Unity conference had come from Lancashire, but the party was far more London-oriented than the Socialist Unity current. The conference attendance figures were of course distorted by the fact that groups from the Lancashire area would find it less financially burdensome to attend.

72 Clarion 14.10.11. A further 50% were claimed to have been filled by the 'unattached'. The fifth, who were presumably SDF members, would have been cause for concern for that party's leadership.

73 Labour Leader 7.7.13.

74 See e.g. Justice 10.1.13 for reference to Blackburn.

75 ILP Conference Report 1912, p.10.

76 A number of sources suggest that by the late 1900s, senior figures within the ILP wanted the party rid of those who disagreed with the Labour party. During the 'Green Manifesto' crisis, for instance, W.C. Anderson suggested of the dissidents that, "in some ways it would be well to fire them out even if they took a few thousand with them... the movement would be more steady and solid". W.C. Anderson-Ramsay Macdonald 3.9.10 (Macdonald Papers—PRO 30/69-115.

77 Daily Herald 17.7.12 sugests that only twenty ILP branches eventually joined the BSP.

78 Socialist Record, October 1912.

79 Justice 20.1.12.

80 The original total included branches such as Colne Valley and Wigan which were hardly Mancunian ones. There was also a fair degree of geographical overlap within Manchester itself.

81 Justice 20.1.12.

82 Justice 2.3.12. The local ILP was already bringing out the Manchester Weekly Citizen, although this folded in November 1912.

83 Justice 30.3.12.

84 Clarion 29.3.12.

85 Justice 15.6.12.

86 Justice 13.7.12.

87 This is discussed at some length in Walter Kendall, The Revolutionary Movement in Britain 1900-21 (London 1969), ch. 5.

88 Justice 19.10.12.

89 Socialist Record September 1912.

90 After February 1912 Grayson ceased to write for Clarion—the problem arising in part out of his refusal to marry Winnifred Blatchford. He did not attend any E.C. Meetings. Health problems necessitated a long visit to America; and, despite some contributions to the "Daily Herald", Grayson's influence after his return was minimal.

91 Huddersfield Worker 18.10.13.

92 Kendall op.cit., p.312.

93 Justice 26.10.12.

94 This election is described in Harry Pollit, Serving My Time (London 1937), pp.12-13. The fact that the BSP candidate stood against a Labour man gave rise to some acrimony (see e.g. Report of Gorton Trades Council meeting in Manchester Weekly Citizen 25.10.12). The only other instance of BSP-Labour electoral conflict in Lancashire was at Colne. But in this case a re-styled 'SDP' had split themselves off from the BSP.

95 Clarion 28.4.11.

96 Clarion 10.11.11. Grayson's first biographer also observed that rejection of the Labour Party was central to his political stance. (Thompson, op.cit., pp.196-9). His attitude had hardened a great deal since 1907.

97 Clarion 4.11.10.

98 Clarion 4.8.11.

99 It was noticeable that the attitudes of Hall and Grayson to the Labour Party were at this stage more virulently hostile than the SDF's (see e.g. their contributions in Clarion 13.10.11).

100 Clarion 11.3.10.

101 Clarion 4.11.10.

102 Clarion 22.7.10.

103 Justice 9.9.11.

104 Clarion 6.10.11.

105 Clarion 13.10.11.

106 Clarion 5.1.12.

107 Kendall, op.cit., p.40.

108 It was evident, however, that the large number of SDF members who were active and prominent trades unionists adopted a different approach. See E.J. Hobsbawm, 'Hyndman and the SDF', in Labouring Men (London 1968), pp.231-238 for further discussion of this aspect of SDF politics.

109 George Simpson in Clarion 28.7.11.

110 Grayson's analysis of parliamentarianism is elaborated in Grayson and Taylor, op.cit, pp•86-9.

111 Clarion 1.9.11.

112 Clarion 15.9.11.

113 Clarion 22.9.11—copy also in BSP papers.

114 Socialist Unity Conference Report, p.11.

115 Justice 13.5.11.

116 See e.g. his article in Justice 4.5.12.

117 Justice 13.4.12.

118 Smethurst, op.cit., p.15.

119 Manchester Weekly Citizen 6.7.12. Purcell was however prominent in the anti-war section of the BSP in Lancashire.

120 Blatchford was more jingoistic and had been criticised by the SDF on account of his infamous articles in the 'Daily Mail'. (Justice 15.11.10).

121 See e.g. Labour Leader 14.4.08; 2.4.09.

122 Clarion 15.9.11.

123 Pollit, op.cit., p.52. The routes that led to the CPGB are further discussed in Eddie and Ruth Frow, The Communist Party in Manchester 1920-26 (Manchester 1979).