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Social-Democracy and the Labour Movement: the Social Democratic Federation in Lancashire

Jeffrey Hill
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LANCASHIRE is recognised as having been a key area in the development of the Social Democratic Federation (SDF). Though accurate details of the movement's membership are hard to come by it seems reasonably certain that from about the early 1890s onwards a substantial proportion of the SDF's branches and members was located in the North West of England. Indeed, Lancashire was probably the Federation's most important provincial centre, often rivalling London in the extent and seriousness of its social-democratic activity.1 However, few labour historians have seen fit to examine the SDF's development in this region. No doubt this is a reflection of the neglect from which the Federation has suffered nationally from historians, most of whom seem to feel that the organisation was a negligible force in workin-class politics and contributed little or nothing to 'mainstream' develop­ ments.2 This view has some massively influential support behind it, of course, starting with Engels and coming through to Henry Collins.3 It also contains a good deal of truth. The SDF was a small movement and though many political activists passed through its 'revolving doors' it was never at any one time a leading influence in working class life nationally (though in some districts of London and Lancashire it may have been). The question is: why was the SDF unable to establish a more prominent place in the labour movement? The orthodox answer hinges on the fact that it failed to grasp the complexities of marxism. Under the continuing influence of H.M. Hyndman, it is claimed, the SDF adhered to a rigid brand of socialism which produced stultifying tactics and ultimately consigned the Federation to the role of a sect.4 A similar explanation has been offered to account for the failure of Marxism (in the form of Guesdism) in France.5 The problem with these explanations is that they rest on certain features of party development which are more often assumed than demonstrated. It may well be the case with the SDF, for example, that its national leadership possessed theoretical shortcomings but there is no necessary connection between this fact and the failure of the movement to form strong links with the working class at grassroots level. In fact, there has been a tendency to regard the SDF as a unitary organisation (despite its name) and from this some important miscon­ ceptions have been perpetuated. The present essay seeks to shift the emphasis in discussing the SDF away from theoretical issues and towards the day-to-day activi­ ties of the local membership in order to suggest other explanations for the party's essential failure.

IN MANY ways it was appropriate that the North West should become a social-democratic stronghold; not only was it a region of long-standing radicalism, a former hub of Chartism (some of whose ideas the SDF was to take up), but it also loomed large in the minds of British Marxists as a society ripe for class struggle. From the earliest days of the SDF as an essentially London-based group of disillusioned ex-radicals gathered around the controversial figure of H.M. Hyndman, its leading

figures had been anxious to lay down the movement's roots among the industrial workers of the North. The massed ranks of cotton workers and miners to be found in Lancashire attracted them as a potential advance guard of the proletarian army. Nobody represented this view better than Hyndman himself. He regarded the North as the perfect arena for social conflict and class confrontation, proclaiming in an important article written in 1881 that, ' has no middle class to break the force of collision between the capitalist and those whom he employs'.6 In this way the northern industrial towns were invested with a special significance in the Marxist teleology; they were to signify—to use the title of the article just quoted from—'The Dawn of a Revolutionary Epoch'. Hyndman's vision of a bi-polar society of bour­ geoisie and proletarians no doubt owed something to the schematic representation of such in the Communist Manifesto though, in some ways, it was not an inaccurate picture of many Lancashire towns; what it significantly obscured, however, was the important cultural relationships not only within the working class itself but also between workers and bosses which contributed in part to Lancashire's celebrated working class Toryism and which, to the perceptive observer, might in turn raise doubts about the region's potential for sudden radicalisation.7 Nevertheless, on the basis of Hyndman's somewhat flawed analysis, the SDF became committed at an early stage of its activities to converting the Lancashire working class to socialism, an aim the Federation was to pursue with enduring faith and some success over many years.

In the 1880s, when the SDF was in the process of establishing itself as a political movement, some of its attitudes and tactics in the North West do lend credence to the view that it was an intransigent body possessed of an alien creed. During this time local social-democrats appeared to rely heavily on the guidance of London organ­ isers when forming their branches and there was thus imported into Lancashire a number of metropolitan attitudes which might not have been appropriate for the northern environment. Certainly they caused the early SDF to run counter to some of the established trends in Lancashire working-class politics.

By the mid-eighties social democratic groups were active in Oldham, Rochdale, Blackburn, Darwen and, most notably, Salford. They concerned themselves for the most part with direct action on the question of unemployment, following the guidelines laid down in The Manifesto of the Social Democratic Federation which had been issued in February 1886 shortly after the Trafalgar Square riots in London.8 This activity engaged Lancashire socialists in a year-round programme of street politics which included kerbside meetings, demonstrations and marches aimed not merely at publicising the plight of the unemployed, but at pressing for action by the municipal authorities. These techniques of unemployment agitation were in fact to become a signal feature of British left-wing politics for many years after and an outstanding contribution by the SDF to working class action. They were exemplified (at this time) in the work of the SDF in Salford. Here, under the inspiration of the energetic Londoner John Hunter-Watts, a recruit to the SDF from the Secularist movement, the main thrust of social-democratic campaigning was seen in 1887 when the branch orchestrated a monster procession through the streets of the city culminating in the presentation to the Lord Mayor of a series of demands for the alleviation of the problems: '...that the local authorities organise the labour of the unemployed upon useful and productive work at fair rates of wages by carrying out necessary improvements', among which were numbered the demolition of slum dwellings, their replacement with sound workers' cottages, the construction of baths and gymnasia and the provision of playing fields.9 In the following year the cam  paign was pursued in the form of a mass rally on Blackstone Edge, near Rochdale, organised jointly by the Salford, Oldham and Bolton branches. According to an enthusiastic correspondent in Justice, the SDF newspaper, the occasion attracted a crowd of some 20,000 people and momentarily, at least, recalled the heroic days of Lancashire Chartism.10

Propaganda of this kind undoubtedly brought a new element into the politics of the working class and, at the same time, established a concern for municipal reform from which SDF groups in the region were rarely to depart in the future. But it was rather optimistically regarded as the only form of action required to make contact with the industrial proletariat. 'Neglect politics', advised Hyndman at this time, 'and use every available means to force temporary proposals upon the ruling class'.11 This advice resulted in SDF branches moving away from conventional politics at a time when many local trades councils were beginning to get involved in modest municipal campaigns to achieve 'labour representation', expressing their labour consciousness for the first time at the ballot box.12 'Let us only recognise', urged Hyndman, 'that political action is after all quite secondary... and more in the interests of the possessing classes—as likely to save them from attempts at violent revenge—than of the proletariat'.13 On the question of trades unionism the SDF's position was even more rigid, its line neatly summed up in the circumstances surrounding the formation of the Federation's very first Lancashire branch at Black­ burn in the early months of 1884. The occasion was a lengthy stoppage in the local weaving trade with the operatives trying to restore wage levels that had been cut during the Great Strike of 1878. It was quite plain from the reports sent back to Justice from the SDF's London representatives in Blackburn—J.L. Joynes, Jack Williams and James MacDonald—that they saw the strike as an opportunity to attack the trade unions involved, to denounce their sectional interests and to draw the attention of working people to the inadequacy of the industrial weapon in the proletarian struggle.' This objective was partly helped by the unsuccessful outcome of the dispute in the spring of 1884, following which Justice came out with a lengthy piece by one of the Federation's leaders, H.H. Champion, in which he counselled workers against attempting to emulate the uniosn of the 'labour aristocrats'. The skilled men, he argued, should seek to join hands with the mass of the working population ('the men and women who suffer') to form one big union against poverty and exploi­ tation.15 Hostility on the part of the Federation's leadership (though Champion himself later retracted and left the SDF) remained a prominent feature of its policies, constantly reiterated in the columns of Justice; the upsurge of 'new unions' of .the unskilled in 1889-90 appeared to make little difference with Justice still expecting workers to channel their militancy into socialism through the SDF. This leader of 1891 captures the mood fairly well:

'...the business of the social democrats as trade unionists is to permeate their trade unions with social democracy and on no account whatever to sacrifice to mere trade organisations that energy and enthusiasm which ought to be devoted to the spread of social democracy and social democracy alone. Look at it how we will, trade unionism, old or new, can never reorganise society... every social democrat ought to belong to the trade union of his particular trade just as every sensible man in the middle class insures against death and disablement for the sake of his family. But trade unions tend to degenerate into benefit societies and mere wage raising organisations. Therefore, every social democrat's first and paramount duty is to strengthen the only social democrat organisation in Great Britain—the SDF and to work vigorously for the overthrow of capitalism'.16

BUT whether this intransigence any longer truly reflected the opinions of local militants must be doubted. Certainly it would be misleading to assume that the behaviour of the early years prefigured the SDF's later experiences in the North West. Quite the contrary, in fact, for by the turn of the century there had developed considerable pressure from social-democrats for what had come to be known as the 'Labour Alliance'; in other words, the combination of socialist and non-socialist forces to create a political movement capable of expressing an independent labour point of view in local and national government. Furthermore, such pressure was accompanied by moves to establish the SDF as a permanent element in the labour parties that were springing up at this time. It is usual to think of this movement for independent labour as being inspired in varying measure by the pragmatic needs of trade unions coupled with the more far-seeing ideals of the Independent Labour Party (ILP): SDF involvement is generally regarded as having been at best oppor­ tunist, at worst destructive. In reality, SDF attitudes were neither of these, though the protean nature of social-democratic activity does tend to lay the movement open to charges of opportunism. It is certainly true that few branches displayed any consistency in policy during the 1890s and that a wide variety of tactics emerged in the North West. Historians have found it useful to discuss these developments around the twin polarities of labour alliance and socialist unity but the point to be emphasised is that these positions were not mutually exclusive ones, and that in all the to-ing and fro-ing there appears to be a general tendency towards labour alliance.

The idea of a labour alliance may well have had its earliest manifestation in Salford during the early 'nineties. It was evident as an SDF tactic throughout the moves to establish the Salford Labour Electoral Association in the summer of 1891 and in the subsequent creation of the Manchester and Salford ILP a few months later. As we have already seen, the SDF in Salford was one of the oldest social-democratic formations in Lancashire. It was based in the Ordsall area of the South Salford parliamentary division and by the early 1890s had acquired a rich political history17 Unemployment agitation continued to be a vital part of the group's activities although Hunter-Watts, the 'rather anarchistic'18 organiser of the 1887 campaign, had gone by 1889 and the direction of affairs had passed to a cadre of local men, prominent among whom were George Tabbron of the Brassfounders' Union, the gasworker Bill Horrocks, Alf Settle, a copper plate engraver of Irish descent and a former mineworker W.K. Hall. Under their aegis the branch made contact with other socialist groups, notably the Manchester Fabians, and became involved in the trade union struggle, playing a key part in the fight to form a branch of the Gasworkers Union at the Manchester and Salford Gasworks in the summer of 1889.19 The effect was to draw the SDF into the orbit of the local trades council and thence into the confrontation between organised labour and the Manchester Liberal Union over the issue of municipal labour candidates that boiled up to crisis in July 1891. Thus was set in motion the whole train of events that resulted in the creation of the ILP.

Far from being, as is often supposed, a rival to the SDF the ILP in this context can be seen as an extension of social-democratic activities to incorporate wider labour and, particularly, socialist interests. It was this feature of its parentage that largely accounted for the Manchester ILP's strongly 'leftist' pre-occupations, as N. Reid has shown in a recent article.20 From the outset the SDF participated alongside many other labour groups in a series of meetings during the summer of 1891 on the subject of a local workers' political body. The unifying factor among an otherwise disparate collection of labour spokesmen was their common enmity towards official Liberal­ ism, stemming from the high-handed refusal of the Liberal Union to consider seriously Trades Council claims for municipal labour representation.21 The SDF sought to maintain this sense of labour solidarity, endeavouring to foster a united labour party along the lines of the Bradford Labour Union, whose leaders (especially Bartley of the Workman's Times) the Salford people were in touch with. However, a mixture of personal rivalry and ideological incompatibility killed the Salford Labour Electoral Association at an early stage. The SDF probably made the mistake of seeking too strong a control of affairs and this, together with memories of the party's earlier intransigence, was sufficient to set socialists and non-socialists at logger­ heads. At the Association's inaugural meeting, for example, Alf Settle struck a strident note by declaring that ' ... if he joined the Association he should endeavour to make it subservient to his Socialistic instincts...he would try to get it worked along the lines he advocated (but) if he found it went contrary to his opinions he would not support it'.22 There seems also to have been personal friction between Settle and the radical secretary of Carters and Lurrymen's Union, John Kelly, who was sponsored by his own union to oppose Settle's candidature in Ordsall Ward in the municipal elections of 1891, thereby splitting the labour vote and wrecking Settle's otherwise good prospects.23 Such rancour spilled over into the selection of a Labour candidate to represent the Association in South Salford at the next General Election; initially it was to have been Thomas Harris of the Fabians but when he withdrew and was replaced by W.K. Hall the idea of a social-democratic nominee was totally unaccept­ able to many non-socialists.24 In fact Hall's campaign, which was underway by the end of the year, was dearly designed to go some way towards a rapprochement: he stood essentially as an advanced Liberal, offering to promote political and social reform—Home Rule for Ireland, Payment of MPs and Old Age Pensions.25

It is interesting to see the SDF projecting itself in this way, under-playing its Marxism for the sake of labour unity. Hall was nevertheless roundly defeated in the General Election of March 1892, by which time the Labour Electoral Association seems to have become defunct. The formation of the ILP shortly afterwards was an attempt to restore something of the temporary labour unity of the previous year, though by 1892 it was more a unity of various strands of socialism—SDF, Blatchfor­ dites, Fabians and the independent labour movement inspired by Joseph Burgess in the Workman's Times. As N. Reid has shown, social-democrats were very much in evidence at the inaugural meeting of the ILP26 and a good deal of the ILP's early propaganda campaigns, notably its unemployment agitation of 1893, betrayed strong traces of social-democratic influence.27

The Salford experiment in Labour Alliance was by no means the only example of SDF moves in this direction. During the next few years groups at Accrington, Nelson and Blackburn all engaged in similar initiatives with varying degrees of success.28 The SDF at Blackburn was probably the most successful, participating as it did in a triangular alliance with the local trades council and the ILP to form a labour party which by 1900 had out-stripped the Liberals as the chief opponent of a very powerful brand of local Toryism; it laid the basis for Philip Snowden's spectacular LRC campaigns of 1900 and 1906 which finally broke the Tories' long-standing monopoly of parliamentary representation in the borough.29

The work of the SDF in Blackburn spanned the two poles of social-democratic activity, in fact, serving to illustrate not only the politics of the labour alliance but those of socialist unity as well. The co-operation of SDF and ILP in Blackburn, clearly outlined in the pages of their joint publication the Blackburn Labour Journal, exem­ plifies the willingness of most SDF branches in the 1890s and early 1900s to establish links with other socialists. In the late 'nineties, perhaps as a symptom of the generally unfavourable conditions for working class politics at this time, socialist unity was a popular tactic throughout Lancashire. Much pressure was exerted on the national leaderships of both main socialist movements from rank-and-filers for a fusion of the parties. Littleborough, Droylsden, Preston, Bolton, Stockport, Liver­ pool and, of course, Blackburn all exhibited enthusiasm for such a move; at Stockport the members of the ILP actually withdrew from their parent body as a protest over the leadership's refusal to implement fusion.30 And despite the inability of the rival leaders to achieve a national reconciliation there is no doubt that socialist unity became a fact of life in many localities. Charles Higham of Blackburn ILP told his national conference in 1899, ' Blackburn, Nelson, Rochdale, Ashton and several other places, the local branches of the ILP and SDF already work cordially side by side and for elections and many propaganda purposes are already virtually federated together'.31 Socialist co-operation of this kind brought with it no particular tactical imperatives during these years, indeed a variety of approaches was manifested by the groups concerned. At Blackburn, as we have seen, the outcome was a lively socialist-labour party, whereas at Rochdale by way of contrast the emphasis was towards a Blatchfordian style of socialism with more interest in proselytising than in securing the return of labour candidates.32 The result may have been, in this case, to drive a wedge between the socialist and labour forces in the town. This at least was the impression of the local trades council secretary who observed in 1902 that, '...if the principle of independent labour representation should have been completely divorced from socialism here in Rochdale, it is directly owing to the doctrinaire socialists of the SDF type who on every opportunity have vilified trade union candidates who did not happen to be socialists', adding, '... the ILP appears to have drifted into that exclusive position that characterises the SDF'.33

Such complaints about the SDF were not uncommon throughout its whole history and they made it difficult sometimes for social-democrats to shed the image of single-minded intransigents. What was emerging on a broad front, though, was an open-minded, not to say pragmatic, form of social-democracy in which a willing­ ness to change, to dispense with dogma and, above all, to seek genuine contacts with the labour movement was clearly evident.

The latter point is well illustrated by the development of the SDF in Burnley. Here the movement was, to an extent, sui generis. By 1893 it had become the most dynamic SDF branch in the North West with an ambitious policy that sought to win for social-democrats a hegemonic role in the local labour movement. What is more, the branch came near to succeeding, acquiring a measure of support in the locality that few other SDF groups were ever able to match. This success was in part due to the favourable circumstances in which social-democrats found themselves in north-east Lancashire. Burnley and the surrounding district was an area of rapid and recent economic growth; in the 'nineties business activity was still mushrooming and there was an accompanying influx of immigrant workers from the nearby Pennine Hills, like Philip Snowden's family who crossed the border from the West Riding to settle in Nelson.34 In the twenty or so years from 1890 the population of Burnley increased by almost 20%, to over 106,000.35 With so many immigrants from relatively close-by, the town acquired a well-organised chapel community and a predilection for Libera­ lism and it was from among such quarters that Burnley's working class leadership was initially drawn, typified in the figure of the Weavers' Association President David Holmes. But being something of a 'new frontier', Burnley lacked an established set of working class institutions. The trade unions in both weaving and coalmining, the town's principal industries, had a fairly unstable history, especially in mining where it was only in 1888 that a secure branch of the Lancashire Miners Federation came into being.36 The union leadership was unable fully to discipline its rank-and­ file and there was plenty of grassroots discontent in the early 'nineties over issues such as wages and working hours, which the SDF was able to exploit. Its speed in doing so can be explained by the fact that the branch, established in 1891, was organised by two experienced socialist campaigners: Dan Irving, who arrived by way of the socialist colony at Stamthwaite in the Lake District, and Joe Terrett (known as A.G. Wolfe—"'Wolfe" a good fighting, somewhat ferocious name—and as for the "A.G.", well, they were the first two letters in agitator') who had worked for the SDF in some of its London strongholds.37 Together they brought an aggres­ sive approach to the branch, setting up a newspaper—The Socialist and North East Lancashire Labour News—and instilling a much-admired discipline into party . organisation:

'A committee of thirty-six members was appointed and this committee was divided into twelve threes: three for each ward of the town. The duty of these three members is to go to private addresses of each member of the Party in the ward to collect his weekly subscription and to leave his copy of Justice. Inciden­ tally, a deal of information is obtained. Each collector is provided with a book in which he notes whether the subscribing member is a member of the Weavers' Association or the Co-operative Society. By means of this information and industriously whipping up the members, the SDF has been able to place Socia­ lists upon the Committee of the Weavers' Association and also upon the Commit­ tee of the Co-operative Society'.38

Although Terrett left Burnley for Sheffield around 1894, Irving was able, during the next few years, to take the Burnley branch through the full gamut of socialist experience, cultural as well as political,39 always sure of being able to draw on a residuum of support from trade unionists in mining and weaving. This originated in the SDF's Eight Hour Day campaign of 1892 which earned the movement a repu­ tation for championing the cause of the ordinary worker at a time when the union leaders and employers seemed to be conspiring against him. In the face of poor trade and threatened wage reductions, the SDF had urged a curtailment of working hours as a means of reducing overstocked markets and stimulating demand, but the employers, supported by Holmes in particular, argued that such a move would jeopardise Lancashire's trading position against its Far Eastern competitors.40

Nevertheless, the SDF won round the membership of both the Burnley and Nelson Weavers' Associations sufficiently to secure the passage of Eight Hour Day resolu­ tions in 1892.41 In the following year Terrett campaigned among the miners, exploi­ ting the class conflict inherent in the lock-out of 1893, and established yet another hardcore of support. The Workman's Times (usually pro-ILP) commented: 'Comrade A.G. Wolfe took advantage of the miners' holidays by holding afternoon meetings, and so popular and effective (sic) has he permeated socialism in the miners that they not only voted for us but worked with an enthusiasm and determination never excelled'.42 With mills closed through lack of fuel, frustration was also running high among the weavers. In the municipal elections of 1893 the SDF sponsored five candidates on a platform of comprehensive social reform and independent labour. 'THE TWO POLITICAL PARTIES HAVE COMBINED', proclaimed The Socialist, 'to prevent the return of Labour candidates... we hope you will at once become alive to this fact and AS WORKERS ALSO COMBINE to further YOUR interests, and send men pledged to a definite Labour programme'.43 Two candidates were successful, John Sparling of the Miners and John Tempest of the Twisters' and Drawers' union, their election to the town council completing a rewarding year for the SDF which had earlier seen Sparling become an official of the local miners' branch and two other members—John Markham and James Roberts—secure election to the executives of the Weavers Association and the Trades Council respectively.44

On the strength of these early victories the SDF moved directly into a confron tation with Lib-Labism. The main objective was to capture the Weavers' Association as a base for labour representation. By assiduous 'whipping' of the social-democratic membership it proved possible in 1894 to secure the passage in the Weavers of an SDF resolution supporting the policy of local labour representation, thereby gaining access to an important financial source. At the same time the SDF was able to remove from the control of the Liberal-inclined Executive Committee of the Weavers the choice of the Association's delegates to the TUC, in this way directing the nature of the involvement of the Weavers in wider political circles.45 But these moves were less striking than they seem. They had the effect principally of stimulating a Lib-Lab counter-attack which revealed just how strong were the anti-socialist forces in the town. Taking a leaf from the SDF's book and likewise packing the meetings of the Weavers, the old guard was able to nullify most of the SDF's gains and a measure of the disunity this caused lay in the fact that in 1894, though no fewer than ten labour candidates appeared at the polls in the municipal elections, there was no concerted action and none was successful, though ironically a member of the Lib-Lab leader­ ship—Robert Pollard—standing as a Liberal in Stoneyholme did get in.46

This period of confrontation in Burnley is interesting not only for indicating the strength of the two sides but also for establishing the pattern of Burnley working class politics in the period up to the First World War. There was never any effective unity of purpose during this time. This was never more clearly illustrated than in the General Election of 1906 when there were, in fact, two Labour candidates competing for the working class vote—Hyndman for the SDF and Fred Maddison of the Liberals. Tension between these two wings was never far below the surface, though it is worth noting the extent to which it was the SDF which sought to heal the breach. For a time between 1904 and 1906 Dan Irving succeeded in creating a local Labour Representation Committee which mounted a united Labour campaign in the Board of Guardians election of 1904 and in the municipal contest of the following year, though in 1906 its chief financial support—the Weavers' Association—was lost following further disagreements between socialists and Lib-Labs, this time over the question of religious education in schools.47

BY THE beginning of this century probably the most marked feature of SDF tactics in Lancashire was their flexibility. This did not necessarily mean that continuity with the early years had been lost—there was still a strong emphasis on the politics of unemployment and this if anything increased in the early part of the twentieth century with the inauguration of the SDF's national 'right to work' campaign. In all the areas where the Federation had branches there were marches, demonstrations and May Day rallies on the issue of unemployment. But much else had also been taken aboard, notably an interest in electioneering and the formation of electoral pacts with trades councils and the ILP. Professor Tsuzki, indeed, has sought to classify the Lancashire members of the SDF—'many of whont were unionists in the cotton towns, anxious to maintain the SDF link with the trade unions through the Labour Representation Committee'48—as belonging to the 'right' of the Federation, in contrast with those of other areas who took a more revolutionary line. There is clearly some validity in the claim though it is perhaps too rigid a characteriation and fails to capture the degree of fluidity in local activity. Nevertheless, it is true that many Lancashire branches favoured the SDF's national co-operation with the Labour Alliance and strongly opposed the decision taken in 1901 at the Birmingham conference to withdraw from the LRC.49 Nelson social-democrats, supported by those of nearby Burnley, argued that such a move would shut the SDF off from local labour developments to the detriment of the Federation's own development.50

And so it did prove in Nelson itself, where between 1902 and 1905 the local Labour forces not only secured the by-election victory of David Shackleton at Clitheroe but the more important (in some respects) capture of Nelson Town Council in 1905, the first Lancashire council to fall to Labour. It was in order to be able to participate in such developments that many Lancashire members campaigned within the Feder­ ation to keep the contact with the LRC. 'All over the country', daimed J.H. Thornton of the Burnley branch in a letter to justice, 'the SDF rank-and-file are joining and working as LRCs for local purposes'.51 The sentiment was reiterated by John Moore of Rochdale, one of the less isolationist members of his branch, who noted that, ' every direction I go I find the opinion of the majority of SDF members I come into contact with is in favour of re-joining the LRC'. 52 Moore in fact made a strong bid, with the support of Blackburn and Burnley, to secure re-affiliation at the 1905 SDF conference, though his motion was eventually lost by a large majority, as was a similar one put the following year by the East Liverpool branch.53 Nevertheless, the idea remained a potent one for many social-democrats and their views were summed up in this comment from Thornton:

'Either we believe this Labour Representation movement is one that is tending towards the emancipation of the workers from capitalism and wage slavedom or it is a mere game of blind man's bluff and will lead the workers into a mere political quagmire. If it is the former, we feel that it is the duty of the Social Democrat to be inside the movement, helping it on the right channel to its ultimate coal. If the latter, then our duty is plainly to oppose it for all we are worth...'54

There was little doubt where Thornton's preferences lay, but equally there were social-democrats who saw it as their duty to oppose the Labour Alliance. Very often these people came from branches with a tradition of socialist unity. In the 1890s, when the tactic of socialist unity had come into being, it was frequently a spontaneous response to circumstances. By the early twentieth century, however, circum­ stances had changed and socialist unity had in some cases become a far more assertive tactic with far-reaching implications for the duties of the social-democrat. This seemed particularly true of branches in the Manchester area which by the early 1900s were heavily involved in the Federation's 'right to work' agitation. Between 1904 and 1906, at the time when in Burnley Irving was working for a united Labour party, Skivington and Watson were similarly engaged in co-operation with other labour forces to prepare a draft parliamentary bill on unemployment and to get Skivington elected to the Board of Guardians.55 But over and above this 'respectable' activity they were taking to the streets to protest over the Government's failure to effect legislation and dashing with the police in some turbulent battles. In 1906, to publicise the idea of 'the right to work', the SDF seized control of uncultivated private land in Levenshulme, setting unemployed men to work on it and getting into further trouble with the police and authorities.56 In one sense this activity chimed well with the idea of labour representation since progress on unemployment could be assisted by municipal election successes. Skivington profited in some ways from his election as a Guardian in 1905 for it enabled him to fight in the Board for an improved distribution of poor relief. No doubt the SDF's attachment to the Man­ chester Labour Party was guided by similar motives.57

But in another sense the exponents of unemployed agitation were finding them­ selves distanced strategically from the labour-alliance principle. This was especially so after 1906 with the disappointing, not to say obsequious, showing of the Labour Party at Westminster where it adopted a quietly subordinate role in relation to the ruling Liberal Party. The alliance of Liberals and Labour seemed a most unpromising vehicle for the kinds of solutions on the unemployment issue that many socialists had come to expect, solutions which demanded radical new measures in land nationalisation and public spending. In the emerging philosophy of New Liberalism such ideas found little sympathy and for many social democrats it must have seemed that an accommodation with the political powers-that-be would lead only up a blind alley. Consequently confrontation became, for such socialists, the order of the day: confrontation not only with the Liberal Party but with its Labour allies also. In other words the way ahead lay with socialist unity rather than labour alliance. It was no coincidence either that much of the stimulus for this kind of politics came from Manchester, which had been the hub of the unemployment agitation as far as the North West was concerned. It was from Manchester that a number of national moves were set in motion to activate socialist unity; the issuing of the 'Green Manifesto' to reform the Labour Party in 1910, the establishment of Socialist Representation Committees and the formation in 1911 of the British Socialist Party out of the SDF and the more 'left' elements of the 'LP.58 With such developments the diversity of social-democratic politics in the North West was maintained, carrying through to the First World War and the eventual fragmentation of the Federation under the impact of wartime pressures.

LIMITATIONS of space have prevented a fuller treatment of the local activities of the SDF in this important region, though the essay has served to emphasise some of the key aspects of the movement's development there. What has become abundantly clear is that, on the whole, theory did not play as large a part in the thinking of local militants as it perhaps did in the minds of the national leadership. The very variety of local action is in itself a demonstration of the absence of any hidebound attitudes. Social democrats do not emerge, at the local level, as the single-minded sectarians they are sometimes portrayed as being. In fact there often seems little to distinguish the SDF from the ILP in terms of tactics. Branches clearly enjoyed a good deal of freedom of action and their political experiments seem to have been guided by the 'sound instincts' of local leaders, to use Hobsbawm's term.59 In this sense a valuable parallel may be drawn between the SDF and the French Marxists of the POF who, as Willard has shown,60 were similarly affected by regional autonomy which produced local diversity and a marked contrast in style between the 'centre' and the 'peri­ phery'. It may well have been this feature of the SDF's make-up that reduced its impact in the British labour movement. Though on the one hand local autonomy was a source of strength in that it allowed social-democrats to adapt to their immediate environment, on the other hand it produced a movement notoriously prone to internal divisions over strategy and one which ultimately was unable to preserve its identity as a unified socialist force.


1 The estimates of P.A. Watmough (The Membership of the Social Democratic Feder­ ation, 1885-1902', Society for the Study of Labour History Bulletin, 34, (Spring 1977), pp.35-40) suggest that by the mid 1890s Lancashire had come to account for about a third of the SDF's national membership; by the early 1900s its paying membership was in excess of that of London, where membership figures were falling from the late 1890s onwards. Watmough shows that until 1902 London always possessed the largest number of branches, but whether this was true after 1902, with membership in London falling, may be doubted. In 1906 Justice claimed 44 branches in Lancashire which may have represented the largest figure for any one region (Justice, 22nd November 1906).

2 Such tends to be the view of H.M. Pelting in his seminal work The Origins of the Labour

Party (Oxford, 1965 ed.).

3 See Henry Collins, 'The Marxism of the Social Democratic Federation', in A. Briggs and

J. Saville (ed.), Essays in Labour History, vol. 2 1886-1923 (London, 19711, pp•47-69.

4 Collins, loc.cit.

5 Claude Willard, Les Guesdistes: le mouvement socialiste en France, 1893-1905 (Paris,


6 H.M. Hyndman, 'The Dawn of a Revolutionary Epoch', Nineteenth Century, IX (1881),


7 On working-class toryism of the North West see P.F. Clarke, Lancashire and the New

Liberalism (Cambridge, 19711, chapters 2-4 inc.

8 The Manifesto of the Social Democratic Federation, 15th February 1886 (British Library

of Political and Economic Science, London).

9 Justice, 10th December, 1887.

10 Ibid., 5th December, 1888.

11 Ibid., 1st January, 1887.

12 For these developments see J. Hill, 'Working Class Politics in Lancashire, 1885-1906; A Regional Study in the Origins of the Labour Party', (unpublished Ph.D. thesis, Keele

University 1971), ch. 7.

13 Justice, 1st January 1887. The SDF in Bolton did in fact put forward six (unsuccessful)

candidates in the municipal elections of 1887, though this was something of an excep 
tion even for Bolton SDF. (Bolton Weekly Guardian 24th September; 29th October 18871.

14 Justice, 16th February; 1st March; 24th May; 29th September, 1889.

15 Ibid., 21st June, 1884.

16 Ibid., 29th August, 1891.

17 Including some interesting quarrels with the Socialist League which can be followed up in the Socialist League Papers, SL 894/1-2, 2521/1-4. International Institute of Social

History, Amsterdam.

18 The phrase is from H.W. Lee and E. Archbold, Social Democracy in Britain (London,

1935), pp.85-6.

19 Justice, 14th September, 1889. Biographical details in Workman's Times (HereafterWT),

9th January, 1892 and Clarion, 9th April, 1892.

20 N. Reid, 'Manchester and Salford ILP: a more controversial aspect of the pre-1914

period', North West Labour History Society Bulletin, 5, pp.25-31.

21 WT 24th October, 1890, 29th August, 1891.

22 Ibid., 21st August, 1891.

23 Ibid., 7th November, 1891.

24 Ibid., 12th March, 1892.

25 Ibid., 11th September, 1891; Manchester Guardian, 3rd November, 1891; Salford

Chronicle, 12th March; 9th April, 1892.

26 Reid., wc. cit; WT 28th May, 1892.

27 Manchester Guardian 2nd November, 1893; E.S. Pankhurst, The Suffragette Movement

(London, 1931), pp.95, 129-30.

28 Rochdale Star 1st July, 1892; Justice 26th November, 1892; Nelson Chronicle 12th May,


29 For details of Blackburn see Blackburn Labour Journal, July, October and November, 1899; Northernm Daily Telegraph, 3rd November, 1903; 29th March 1904; P.F. Clarke, 'British Politics and Blackburn Politics, 1900-1910', Historical Journal X11(1969), pp.302-


30 ILP National Administrative Council Minutes (British Library of Political and Economic

Science, London), reports of 16th June, 25th June-16th July, and frequent reports of August-September, November-December, 1898.

31 ILP Conference Report, 1899, p.9.

32 See Rochdale Labour News, July, September, December 1897.

33 Labour Party Letter Files (Transport House, London) LRC 5/149, J. Firth to J.R. Mac 

Donald 28th December, 1902.

34 W. Bennett, The History of Burnley (BO rnley 1951), Part IV, Chapter VI; P. Snowden, An Autobiography (London, 1934).

35 Census of England and Wales 1891 and 1911.

36 Bennett, op.cit., Ch. VII.

37 Biographical details from The Social Democrat, Ill, 1899.

38 WT 12th August, 1893.

39 On the cultural activities of the SDF in Burnley see C. Tsuzuki, The Life of Eleanor Marx 1855-1898: A Socialist Tragedy (Oxford, 1967), p.276.

40 Justice, 6th October, 1892; Cotton Factory Times, 24th June, 1892.

41 Burnley Weavers' Association Ms. Minute Book (Weavers' Offices, Burnley), 11th May; 24th September, 1892; Nelson Chronicle, 19th August, 1892.

42 11th November, 1893.

43 The Socialist, 14th October, 1893.

44 WT, 8th July, 1893; The Socialist, 4th November, 1893.

45 Weavers' Minute Book, 1st August, 10th August, 1894; Burnley Gazette, 4th August, 1894.

46 Ibid., 3rd November, 1894.

47 For details, Burnley Gazette, 2nd, 12th September, 1903; 21st October, 1905; Cotton

Factory Times, 9th February, 1906; Burnley Textile Trades Federation Minute Book (Weavers' Offices, Burnley), sub-committee reports 6th, 21st February, 1905.

48 C. Tsuzuki, H.M. Hyndman and British Socialism (Oxford 1961), p.135.

49 Justice, 10th August, 1901.

50 Ibid., 5th April, 1902.

51 Ibid., 4th March, 1905.

52 Ibid., 11th March, 1905.

53 Ibid., 29th April, 1905; 21st April, 1906. East Liverpool's proposal of 1906 received more

support than did Moore's of the previous year, the voting being 55-11 (1905) as against 55-29 (1906).

54 Ibid., 5th May, 1906.

55 Ibid., 21st January, 4th February, 1905.

56 Ibid., 21st January, 8th April, 1905; 21st July, 18th August, 1906. See also K.D. Brown, Labour and Unemployment 1900-1914 (London, 1971), pp.44, 59, 76.

57 The SDF was affiliated to the Manchester LRC at its inception in 1903 (Justice, 8th August, 1903).

58 See Reid, loc.cit.

59 E.J. Hobsbawm, Labouring Men: Studies in the History of Labour (London, 1968 ed.) pp•231-8.

60 Willard, op.cit. pp.595-602.

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