officers and members of the committee of the Junior Liberal Club (which
included also Joseph Cowen, the then sitting MP).49 In 1895 Burt, as well
as the other most influential minersâ€™ leader, Charles Fenwick, were listed
as members of the Newcastle upon Tyne Liberal Club.50 In 1884 among
the â€˜Additional Members of the General Committeeâ€™ were Henry
Broadhurst and Joseph Arch. In 1886 the NLF vice-presidents included
Lib-lab worthies such as Henry Broadhurst, Thomas Burt, William
Crawford, Charles Fenwick, Benjamin Pickard, Joseph Arch, and even
George Howell,51 who, only a few years earlier, had been one of the
bitterest labour critics of the â€˜caucusâ€™. In 1891 it was Thomas Burt who
was chosen to deliver the welcome address to Gladstone at the com-
mencement of the famous Newcastle meeting of the NLF.52
However significant some of these personalities were, to the labour
movement as a whole it was of little use that the NLF was ready to bestow
honours on those of their representatives who were already successful
anyway. On the other hand, this attitude was not specific to the NLF,
but reflected common practice at the time. In a letter to Conor Cruise
Oâ€™Brien, Henry Harrison, a veteran Nationalist MP, stated that in
Parnellâ€™s days â€˜a rich as well as politically robustâ€™ parliamentary candidate
would be preferred to a poor one, on the grounds not of class, but of
costs to the party funds.53 This is precisely the reason why the Liberal
caucuses preferred â€˜bourgeoisâ€™ candidates and were reluctant to nomi-
nate penniless and expensive working men. The difference was that while
in Ireland this social bias was missed in the general nationalist fervour, in
Britain it was interpreted along â€˜class exclusionâ€™ lines by ambitious and
disappointed labour candidates. However, this strategy amounted to
laissez-faire in the politics of party organization, a free-market approach
to power relations within the party. It was totally inadequate, for what the
Admittedly, it was only a marginal component: for example, the list of delegates nomi-
nated to attend the 1877 conference included representatives of only one working menâ€™s
club, that of Banbury. Resolutions passed at the Conference, 31 May 1877, 9, in
NLFAR. The representatives were Thomas Olds and Israel Bunton.
Newcastle upon Tyne Junior Liberal Club, List of Officers and Committee for 1880, 14 Oct.
1880: in Tyne and Wear Archives, 200/104.
Ibid. 51 Meeting of the Council, Stoke-on-Trent, 7 Oct. 1884, in NLFAR.
Cf. Proceedings of the Annual Meeting of the Council, Tyne Theatre, Newcastle upon
Tyne, 2 Oct. 1891, in NLFAR.
Cruise Oâ€™Brien, Parnell and his party, 139, n.1. The letter was written in 1943 and
Harrison had become a candidate in 1890.
Radicalism and the caucus in Britain and Ireland 179
labour movement needed was a political machine for the fostering of
working-class interests through a much wider parliamentary representa-
tion. That some form of mass organization was a necessity for popular
liberals is confirmed by the fact that, from the early 1880s, some of the
most interesting tensions in the Liberal/radical camp took place not
between individual candidates and the â€˜machineâ€™, or the latter and
â€˜free-bornâ€™ artisans, but between two competing â€˜machinesâ€™. Again,
Newcastle upon Tyne offered various examples of this phenomenon in
the early 1880s, when Joseph Cowen set up his own anti-caucus caucus
in order to prevent the election of John Morley.54 A similar case occurred
in Sheffield in 1885, when the United Committee of Radical and Labour
Associations challenged the official Liberal association in order to impose
its candidate on one of the new city constituencies.55 The irony was that
one of the aims of the founders of the Sheffield caucus had been to avoid
any future splitting of the Liberal vote.56
What divided these people were not issues of principle, but personality
clashes and power relations: this is well illustrated by William Abraham,
â€˜Mabonâ€™, in South Wales. In 1885, at the beginning of his parliamentary
career, when â€˜Mabonâ€™ was struggling against the local Liberal Three
Hundred, he branded it as a â€˜conspiracyâ€™ against working-class represen-
tation.57 Ten years later, when he had become a successful and estab-
lished Lib-lab politician, he accepted invitations to be the main guest at
the inauguration of Liberal clubs,58 and was a speaker (and a singer) at
the 1895 NLF Council meeting.59 Meanwhile the minersâ€™ union in South
Wales had become the most effective caucus in its region. While some of
these â€˜organicâ€™ caucuses eventually incorporated, or were incorporated
into, the local official Liberal associations, the fact is that they, rather than
the Liberal associations, were the real answer to the new needs of
working-class electoral politics. Trade union caucuses, which dominated
local Liberal party councils with their â€˜block voteâ€™, can be seen as the first
Biagini, Liberty, chapter 6.
See the â€˜Memoâ€™ dated 28 Mar. 1885, H. J. Wilson Papers, 37P/20/46, in Sheffield
University Library. For a few other examples see Biagini, Liberty, chapter 6.
R. Leader to H. J. Wilson, 1 Jan. 1885, in H. J. Wilson Papers, 37P/20/9/iâ€“ii.
See Mabonâ€™s speech in â€˜Representation of the Rhonddaâ€™, Cardiff Times and South Wales
Weekly News, 1 Aug. 1885, 8.
Rep. â€˜Liberalism at Ferndale, opening of a working menâ€™s clubâ€™, Glamorgan Free Press,
2 Nov. 1895, 5.
W. Abraham (Mabon), motions on labour legislation and administration, in Sixteenth
Annual Meeting of the Council, Cardiff, 16â€“19 Jan. 1895, 103, in NLFAR; on 18
January Mabon opened the meeting by leading the council in the singing of Welsh
hymns and songs: see ibid., 107.
180 British Democracy and Irish Nationalism
experiments in what would become the constitutional framework and
â€˜machineâ€™ of post-1918 Labour politics.
These developments took place, not because of, but despite the efforts
of the Liberal associations directly involved, and independent of the
NLF. Indeed the latterâ€™s passion for decentralization, besides antagoniz-
ing frustrated labour Liberals, thus reducing the NLFâ€™s electoral effec-
tiveness, hampered the formulation of coherent policies based on broad
strategies. Moreover, localism did not help the party to deal with â€˜fad-
dismâ€™, one of the problems which the NLF had set out to solve in the first
place.60 While tensions among parallel but unco-ordinated â€˜currents of
radicalismâ€™ were common to all liberal and democratic movements in
Europe,61 faddism was potentially more disruptive in Britain than in any
other country, as British liberalism was more vigorous and popular than
elsewhere in Europe. The application of the representative principle to
popular liberalism aimed at creating for all Liberal and Radical pressure
groups an overarching â€˜civic communityâ€™, which would encompass pre-
existing allegiances within a federal hierarchy of assemblies. Such an aim
was moderately successful in certain contexts, such as Birmingham.
Given the Victorian enthusiasm for discussion and political meetings,
its potential should not be underestimated, especially as we bear in mind
the extraordinary clubbability of the Victorians, a passion which did not
know barriers of either class or gender. In particular, the contemporary
blossoming of parliamentary debating societies offers a further indication
of the general passion for political participation and debate in the country
at the time.62
However, in general the caucus model of party politics did not work
because, on the one hand, it was based on unrealistically high expec-
tations of civic â€˜virtueâ€™ and participation,63 while, on the other, pre-
Watson, The National Liberal Federation, 6. Cf. Report of the Committee, 11th Annual
Meeting, Birmingham, 6â€“7 Nov. 1888, 26â€“7, in NLFAR: â€˜The associations . . . cover the
whole ground, so far as England and Wales are concerned, and it is hoped they will
prevent that multiplication of organizations for special purposes which in times past have
wasted the means and energy of the Liberal party with no commensurate beneficial
Cf. Pombeni, â€˜Trasformismo e questione del partitoâ€™, 215â€“28.
Some of these societies counted more than a thousand members: the one in Newcastle
had 1,100 in 1882 (The Debater. A Weekly Record of the Newcastle Parliamentary Debating
Society (Tyne and Wear Archives 200/124, 16 Mar. 1882, 4)). Seventy-five debating
societies sent delegates to the 1882 national conference: The Debater, 20 Apr. 1882, 3.
This article argued that most of these societies had been established between 1879 and
1882: this was the period when the NLF took off as a more permanent feature of Liberal
politics; it was also the age of the Midlothian campaigns and the great duels between
Gladstone and Disraeli.
For an example see Lawrence, â€˜Popular politicsâ€™, 76.
Radicalism and the caucus in Britain and Ireland 181
existing community allegiances proved too strong for the caucus to
absorb them. Though a degree of â€˜democratic centralismâ€™64 was sup-
posed to characterize the Federation, it was hardly comparable with
what the Labour party was to achieve after 1918,65 or, as we shall see,
with the degree of centralism achieved by the Irish Nationalists after
1885. Liberal energies could be focused on a single long-term effort
only when either a charismatic leader took over (as happened, in
1886â€“94, with Irish Home Rule, under Gladstone), or when a sponta-
neous rising of the rank and file occurred to defend some threatened
Liberal dogma (as in 1903â€“6 with free trade).
The claim that the caucus was the forum for popular Liberalism66 was
rather inaccurate, in view of the comparatively small size of the NLF and
the fact that local Liberal associations were often resented, or even
resisted, by working-class radicals. Nevertheless, it was an interesting
claim, because it involved a repudiation of the caucus in Ostrogorskiâ€™s
sense of the word â€“ that is, as a â€˜machineâ€™ to deliver electoral victory. To
NLF activists, as much as to their critics, such a caucus would have been
incompatible with the spirit and principles of Liberalism. In short, the
main point in the Liberal apologia for their mass organization was that it
was not a â€˜partyâ€™ organization.
There was some truth in this apologia. For, as Michael Barker has
observed,67 unfortunately for the Liberals, the NLF could not really
operate like that party â€˜machineâ€™ which it was expected to be and which
the labour left needed in order to assert its influence in the party and in
Parliament. The NLF fell altogether short of such requirements, combin-
ing, as it did, exasperated localism with inadequate support from the
centre: indeed, as Hanham has pointed out, â€˜its resources were small.
Its income (and consequently its expenditure) remained well below that
of the great nonconformist propaganda agencies.â€™68 The Liberal machine
relied on voluntary work and the support offered by social and religious
groups on the basis of local allegiances. From this point of view the
structure of NLF politics was rather similar to the pattern of traditional,
pre-1877, popular agitations. Features of this continuity included
both the emphasis on locality and grass-roots democracy, and the extra-
parliamentary aspect. While the relationship between the NLF and the
T. Marsh, Joseph Chamberlain: entrepreneur in politics (1994), 120.
K. O. Morgan, â€˜The high and low politics of Labour: Keir Hardie to Michael Footâ€™, in
M. Bentley and J. Stevenson (eds.), High and low politics in modern Britain (1983), 291.
J. Chamberlain, â€˜A New Political Organizationâ€™, Fortnightly Review, n.s., 22 (July
Barker, Gladstone and radicalism, 153â€“4.
Hanham, Elections and party management, 140.
182 British Democracy and Irish Nationalism
parliamentary party was not clearly defined until 1907 at least, all the
Victorian editions of its constitution focused on the democratic nature of
the extra-parliamentary party. Thus the 1877 constitution proclaimed
that â€˜[t]he essential feature of the proposed Federation is . . . the direct
participation of all members of the party in the direction of its policy, and
in the selection of those particular measures of reform and of progress to
which priority shall be given.â€™ It went on to say that â€˜[t]his object can be
secured only by the organization of the party upon a representative basis:
that is, by popularly elected committees of local associations, by means of
their freely chosen representatives, in a general federation.â€™69
Though the ultimate aim was to reorganize the party as a whole on a
federal, representative basis,70 the means of achieving this result were not
specified by the constitution. Nor was it clear how it would affect the
internal authority structure as between the parliamentary party and
the leader on the one hand, and the mass party on the other. By contrast,
the political aims of mass agitation were discussed in detail. In 1880 they
included a seven-point programme asking for the extension of the house-
hold franchise to the counties, the redistribution of seats, the prevention
of corrupt practices at elections, county councils, the curbing of the
powers of the House of Lords, and â€˜comprehensive schemes of land law
reform for Great Britain and Irelandâ€™. The last would consist of four
parallel and concomitant strategies: abolition of primogeniture and
entail, free sale, tenant rights and land purchase. In order to achieve
such a programme the federated associations committed themselves â€˜to
take united action, whenever it may be deemed desirable, in defence or
support of the Liberal Policy and Governmentâ€™.71
The typically rural emphasis of this programme was both a memento of a
democratic tradition stretching back to Chartism and evidence of the
enduring Radical concern with land reform, which would culminate with
the Lloyd George campaign in 1914.72 The last point, the plan of cam-
paign by popular agitation, amounted to a proclamation of loyalty to
Gladstoneâ€™s government and foreshadowed the post-1886 alliance
between the mass party organization and a leader whose power depended
on his ability to use the media and popular radicalism as â€˜sounding boardsâ€™
for his rhetoric. If the Reform League had idolized Bright, Gladstone and
indeed Mill, the NLF needed Gladstone as an icon and national â€˜platform
National Liberal Federation, Constitution Submitted to the Conference of 1877, V,
â€˜Special General Meetings of Councilâ€™, in NLFAR.
Cf. National Liberal Federation, Its General Objects, and Its Immediate Work, Autumn
1880, â€˜Constitutionâ€™, 35â€“6; Annual Reports and Council Proceedings of the Conference
of 1886, â€˜Objectsâ€™, in NLFAR.
NLF, â€˜Immediate Workâ€™, 37, ibid. 72 Packer, Lloyd George.
Radicalism and the caucus in Britain and Ireland 183
oratorâ€™.73 What was remarkable was that the NLF combined the tempera-
ment of an old radical organization with the functions of a â€˜nationalâ€™
electoral machine.74 Its novelty lay in the adoption of the principle of
rank-and-file sovereignty by a party whose primary expression remained
the parliamentary group. For the first time the rank and file of a major party
were able to challenge not only the system of aristocratic patronage at
constituency level, but also the authority of their leaders in Parliament,
and claimed the right to define party policy and priorities.
The dream of party democracy, 1886â€“95
The decision to endorse Home Rule was a turning point in the history of
the NLF. â€˜Not a single constituency organization, save in Birmingham,
rejected a Gladstonian candidate. They stuck as one with Gladstone.â€™75
Terry Jenkins has suggested that support for Gladstone came from the
NLF â€˜wirepullersâ€™ rather than from the ordinary Liberal voters. He argues
that the caucus men were concerned only with winning elections, and that
any challenge to Gladstoneâ€™s authority was seen as a threat to the per-
formance of the party.76 This interpretation reproduces a contemporary
analysis by the Pall Mall Gazette, and, like that, suffers from two main
problems. First, Home Rule was not a vote winner, and this quickly