This short article was written in 1997, when I stood as parliamentary candidate for the Socialist Labour Party – in the days when I still had some illusions about political parties, though NOT any illusions in parliamentary democracy, believing, like Victor Grayson, that the best thing that a Socialist can do in the House of Commons is get thrown out of it…
HOW RED WAS MY VALLEY!
Colne Valley has the distinction – or the notoriety – of having elected the first ever Socialist to Parliament. It was also the catalyst for the first split of Socialists from the Labour Party. Now, ninety years on from that brief triumph, Socialists are again to contest the seat in the face of opposition from Labour.
1997, and another General Election looms. Sadly, few people enter the campaign with much idealism. How different it was 90 years ago, when the eyes of Britain were on the Colne Valley. A by-election was called after Sir James Kitson, the sitting Liberal MP, was elevated to the House of Lords. He had won the seat in 1895 and 1900. In 1906, he was returned unopposed.
But in 1907, the Liberal candidate, Philip Bright, son of the famous Liberal leader John, faced two challengers. One was a Tory landowner, Grenville Wheeler. The other was a 25 year-old former engineering apprentice and theology student, Victor Grayson. After witnessing appalling poverty in Ancoats, he had abandoned the Unitarian church to devote himself to Socialism. The Colne Valley Labour League (CVLL), impressed by his enthusiasm, adopted him as candidate without consulting the Labour Party.
But Grayson was not concerned about the lack of official endorsement. It left him free to call himself a Labour and Socialist candidate. His vision of a new society was proclaimed in almost every town, village and hamlet of the Colne Valley Division. Since the constituency then stretched over to Saddleworth and, unlike the other parties, Socialists had few motor cars at their disposal, this demanded tremendous energy. Sympathisers from all over Britain came to help – but due to obstruction from the top, only one of the Labour Party’s 29 MPs, Philip Snowden.
Observers noted the religious fervour of the campaign. Clergymen like Father Healey of the Community of the Resurrection at Mirfield, the Reverends W.B. Graham, curate of Thongsbridge and F.R. Swan, Congregationalist minister at Marsden, fueled the atmosphere of religious revival. True Christianity and true Socialism were the same thing in their gospel.
Emmeline Pankhurst joined local suffragettes in calling for votes for women, one of Victor’s main demands. His manifesto also included nationalisation of the land, railways and canals, the introduction of old age pensions and free education, the right to work, and and abolition of the House of Lords.
Hundreds of meetings, often outdoors, were held – 50 on the eve of poll day alone. Victor was very skilled at dealing with interruptions. When someone repeatedly shouted ‘As thi ony hooves [callouses] on thi ‘ands ?’ he retorted ‘You apparently have them on the brain’. Socialist hecklers also disrupted opponents meetings. One persuaded most of the audience to desert a Tory speaker to listen to Victor down the road.
Polling day, Thursday 18th July, dawned bright and sunny. The haymakers were busy in the fields as Victor, his agent Councillor Whiteley, and the president of the CVLL, J.I. Swallow, toured the constituency by motor car. From Slaithwaite they drove over Standedge to the villages of Saddleworth, returning in the afternoon to Outlane and Golcar. After tea they visited Honley , dubbed by one leading Tory ‘The most Socialistic village in Yorkshire’,* where the crowd glowed with red flags and ribbons. Then via Netherton, Meltham and Marsden, back to Slaithwaite. The joyous reception along the route already resembled a triumphal procession.
Some had left the mills early to vote, but there was an extra rush in the last two hours of the poll. Of the 11,771 voters, 10,370 turned out. The count was at Slaithwaite Town Hall on Friday morning. Soon after midday, as the declaration appeared imminent, the strains of the ‘Red Flag’ filled the streets. When the returning officer appeared at the open window with Victor at his side, the crowd erupted into cheers. It was a while before the results could be audibly announced. Victor had won with 3,648 votes over Bright’s 3,495. Wheeler had 3,327.
The ecstatic crowd moved off to the front of the Dartmouth Arms, where the new MP and the officers of the CVLL spoke from the car. J.I. Swallow, referring to a success for Labour, was forced by cries of ‘Socialism !’ to add, ‘ There was no difference, in the Colne Valley at any rate, between Labourism and Socialism.’ Victor continued the theme amid deafening cheers ‘…this epoch-making victory has been won for pure revolutionary Socialism. We have not trimmed our sails to win a half-hearted vote.’
By Tuesday, Victor had taken his seat in the Commons – but he was to spend little time there. Over the following months, he addressed meetings all over the country in a whirlwind campaign which increasingly took a toll of his health. The conditions of the growing number of unemployed was of special concern to him. Parliament continued to ignore their plight while discussing trivial matters. In October 1908, he brought matters to a head by insisting that a debate be held. The speaker ruled him out of order and, refusing to be silenced, he was ejected from the House. His stance earned him the hostility of Labour MPs, like Snowden, who he denounced as ‘traitors’, but earned him the respect of most Socialists in the Colne Valley.
In the 1910 general election, Victor was beaten into third place, but still won 3,149 votes. The now renamed Colne Valley Socialist League, disillusioned by Labour dithering in Parliament, followed Victor into the new British Socialist Party in 1911.
Victor again sought nomination for the Colne Valley in 1914, but his recurrent health complaints, nervous exhaustion and drink problems foiled his attempt. A few months later, war broke out and, after a brief stay in Australia and New Zealand, Victor joined up and became an active recruiter for the army. This killed much of the respect he had in the Colne Valley, where most of his former supporters were firmly opposed to the war.
Victor Grayson mysteriously disappeared in 1920. If he lived it was only to see his youthful dreams undone by a former comrade. In 1922, Philip Snowden was elected as Labour Party candidate for the Colne Valley. He went on to betray everything that Victor and the local Socialist pioneers had fought for, joining Ramsay MacDonald‘s infamous defection from Labour to the right-wing National Government. Amongst their measures – cutting the dole to the unemployed.
* For Honley see: https://undergroundhistories.wordpress.com/honley-socialist-club/