Saturday, 5 April 2008

How political parties reacted to women's suffrage: the Labour Party

Between 1903 and 1914, no political party in Parliament adopted women’s suffrage as part of its official programme[1]. Within all the major parties there was at least, some support for women’s suffrage though this was counterbalanced by support for the Antis and fears about the consequences of giving women the vote. The militant activities of the WSPU were viewed with outrage by those opposed to women’s suffrage. There is also evidence suggesting that some supporters of votes for women were irritated by WSPU militancy. The rapid increase in membership of the NUWSS in this period is significant. The fact that those who were sympathetic to women’s suffrage but disapproved of the activities of the WSPU had a non-militant alternative is important. It ensured that women’s suffrage had a ‘respectable’ side and prevented moderate support from being alienated. The WSPU may have brought the women’s movement considerable publicity and kept the issue in the public eye. However, the NUWSS ensured that the issue was not written off as something that could only appeal to extremists. How to respond to women’s suffrage campaigns was something that taxed all political parties between 1903 and 1914.

To understand why women’s suffrage was not viewed as a high priority in the decade before the outbreak of war in 1914, it is important to have some idea of the attitudes of the main political groupings. It is not easy to pinpoint these accurately as they were constantly in a state of flux. However, in general terms, the following opinions predominated:

  • The Liberal party was in power during the whole period of WSPU militancy, from late 1905 to 1914. Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman (prime minister, 1905-8) probably sympathised with the suffragettes but merely advised them to ‘keep pestering’. His successor, Henry Asquith, was against women having the vote and was the brunt of much harassment. His opposition was grounded in the belief that if women were enfranchised on a property qualification, it would give the vote to many upper class women who would vote Conservative. A number of Asquith’s colleagues actually favoured female suffrage, among them Edward Grey (Foreign Secretary, 1905-16), Richard Haldane (Secretary of State for War, 1905-12) and Lloyd George (Chancellor of the Exchequer, 1908-16). They were, however, reluctant to go against Asquith when it came to voting on suffrage bills in the Commons.
  • Most backbench Conservative MPs were against women having the vote; in contrast to some of the more prominent Tories, such as Arthur Balfour (prime minister 1900-1905) and Bonar Law (prime minister briefly in the early 1920s), who were sympathetic. There was a fear amongst the Tory opposition that adult suffrage would be granted giving the vote to working class men and women. They felt this would upset the balance of the electorate and work against them.
  • During this period, the Labour Party was in its infancy and its main priority was to secure the vote for working class men[2]. Women’s suffrage was, therefore, a secondary issue. Many working class men who were not socialists took a dim view of women organising and this too influenced Labour party thinking. Prominent Labour party members who supported votes for women were George Lansbury, Philip Snowden and Keir Hardie. By 1912, womanhood suffrage had become official Labour party policy, so long as the vote was extended to all men at the same time.

From 1907, the WSPU became middle class in character and Mrs Pankhurst, in particular, moved towards the right gradually disassociating herself from the Labour party. It now appeared that her aim was limited suffrage for women; she had deserted working class women.

The Labour Party

The Labour Party emerged as a political force in British politics between 1903 and 1914[3]. The second and third Reforms Acts, respectively in 1867 and 1884, meant that more working class men were able to vote. With the exception of Keir Hardie and two other ‘Independent’ MPs elected in 1892, the only members of the working class to be elected to Parliament before 1900 were ‘Lib-Lab’ MPs (working class MPs sponsored and supported by the Liberal Party). Nevertheless, from the early 1880s, there was a growing momentum for setting up an independent working class (or ‘labour’) party to promote the interests of working class interests and provide working class representation.

The Independent Labour Party (ILP) was set up in 1893 but it remained weak because it lacked trade union support. Membership of the ILP grew rapidly between 1893 and 1895 when it had 35,000-50,000 members in over three hundred branches. Most of these branches were in Yorkshire (100), Lancashire and Cheshire (over 70) and in Scotland (40 and the Scottish Labour Party dissolved itself into the ILP in 1894) and London (30). Most of the remainder were in the Midlands and North East. There were few branches in Wales, the South East and South West or in Ireland. It was, therefore a provincial rather than a national party. The ILP had many women supporters who were allowed to be full members of the ILP, something that was not the case in the Conservative and Liberal Party branches at that time. Expectations were high in the 1895 election but all twenty-eight of its candidates were defeated, including Keir Hardie.

The biggest problem facing the ILP between 1895 and 1900 was opposition from the Lib-Lab leaders of the trade unions. However, attitudes softened because of legal challenges to the position of trade unions by employers that exposed their political vulnerability. The number of Lib-Lab MPs remained small; there were only thirteen after the 1892 election and this had shrunk to eleven by 1898. The Liberal Party seemed reluctant to back Lib-Lab candidates and this increased the annoyance of those trade unionists with political ambitions. It was only in 1900, when a number of trade unions agreed to set up the Labour Representation Committee (LRC) that an independent labour party with a real chance of gaining electoral success was born. Two LRC MPs were elected in the 1900 election (Keir Hardie and Richard Bell) compared to eight Lib-Lab MPs. The LRC picked up three more seats in by-elections in 1902 and 1903 (David Shackleton was elected for Clitheroe, Will Crooks for Woolwich and Arthur Henderson, Barnard Castle). In 1903, an electoral pact was made between the LRC and the Liberal Party when it was agreed that the Liberals would not oppose LRC candidates in thirty constituencies where it was thought that a LRC candidate was more likely than a Liberal to defeat the Conservatives.

By 1906, Arthur Henderson and Ramsay MacDonald, respectively chairman and secretary of the LRC, had created the skeleton of a national party machine. In the general election, the LRC won twenty-nine seats. The LRC was renamed ‘Labour Party’ in 1906. It had some success in the 1906-14 period wining 40 and then 42 seats in the 2 general elections in 1910 (the Liberal Party got 274 and 272 seats respectively). Then it grew in spectacular fashion after the First World War replacing the Liberal Party as the main party of opposition after the 1922 general elections (Labour won 142 seats and the Liberals 115) and won enough seats in the December 1923 general election to form the first Labour government. It was a minority government under Ramsay MacDonald and lasted less than a year.


General position 1903-14

It might have been expected that the Labour Party and the women’s suffrage movement would have been natural allies. However, this was not the case. The only group within the party to support and promote women’s suffrage was the ILP. As the women’s question grew more acute, Labour’s approach to it repeated that of the Conservative and Liberal parties. There were similar displays of male prejudice, a reluctance to divide the party by giving priority to women and similar calculations of political advantage. Martin Pugh recognises that the Labour Party was less divided than the other parties were over the issue and he points out that a small group of Labour MPs consistently voted for women’s suffrage as a group.

Negative reaction

Some leading members of the early Labour Party were hostile to suffragists because suffragettes were campaigning for the ‘equal franchise’ (the vote on the same basis as men) rather than the ‘universal franchise’ (votes for all). Socialists who did not believe in property qualifications were suspicious of a campaign that was led by middle class women, who had little in common with (and little apparent interest in) working class men. Indeed, some suffragists argued that they should have the vote because they were superior to members of the working class. Some individuals were particularly hostile to women’s suffrage. Pugh cites the comments made by John Bruce Glasier in his diaries and that Ramsay MacDonald, a lukewarm suffragist, was alienated by the WSPU’s militant campaign.

Not just individuals were alienated by WSPU militancy. The Women’s Cooperative Guild was formed in 1883. It supported women’s suffrage and argued that women should have full equal rights with men. In 1909, the Women’s Cooperative Guild changed its demand for women’s suffrage to a demand for universal adult suffrage because it disliked the WSPU approach. The Guild also played an important role in the campaign for the Maternity Insurance Benefit. Many leading women trade unionists such as Margaret Bondfield and Mary Macarthur were active in the organisation. It also carried out research to obtain information that would support its campaigns. For example, Dr. Armand Routh provided evidence that working class women were much more likely to suffer still-births than non-working women. By 1910, the Women’s Co-operative Guild had 32,000 members.

Ramsay MacDonald (1866-1937)[4], one of the leading members of the Labour Party, had been a supporter of women’s suffrage since the 1890s.

  • His mature position was outlined in detail in Socialism and Government (1909 edition) in which he argued that women’s suffrage was a necessary part of a socialist programme. If the sole function of the state had still been to protect its citizens from attack, he accepted, the classical objections to female enfranchisement might still be valid. In fact, the state was increasingly assuming the functions of the family. The family was not an exclusively masculine institution, and the socialist state could not be exclusively masculine either. Women’s suffrage was desirable because it would benefit the state, not because it would benefit women. It would benefit the state, not because women had the same rights as men, but because they performed different duties.
  • This position was by no means identical with that of even the more moderate suffragists of the NUWSS but it was sympathetic enough to allow for a degree of cooperation between them. The WSPU was a different matter and MacDonald opposed the militant methods they used for the same reason that he opposed violence in trade union or international relations: because in his eyes, it was irrational and did more harm than good. He said, in the Leicester Pioneer (9th March 1912), “I have no objection to revolution, if it is necessary, but I have the very strongest objection to childishness masquerading as revolution, and all one can say about these window-breaking expeditions is that they are simply silly and provocative. I wish the working women of the country who really care about the vote…would come to London and tell these pettifogging middle class damsels who are going out with little hammers in their muffs that if they do no go home they will get their heads broken.”
  • The essence of MacDonald’s argument was that women deserved the vote because of the unique role they played in the family. When the suffragettes appeared on the scene, it became less plausible to argue that the reason for giving women the vote lay in their role as guardians of the hearth and home. MacDonald’s opposition to the WSPU hardened as their campaign developed because their violent methods were merely the outward and visible sign of their revolt against precisely the conception of women in which MacDonald believed.
Positive reaction

Other leading members of the Labour Party were close supporters of the suffragists and reacted positively to the militancy of the WSPU. Keir Hardie, for example, was close to the Pankhursts and supported the militant campaign. The Labour MP, George Lansbury was an enthusiastic supporter of the WSPU. When the Conciliation Bill was defeated in early 1912, he was called upon by the Speaker to withdraw from the Commons following an altercation with Asquith in which he shook his fist at the prime minister and accused him of torturing innocent women. In October 1912, he circulated a memorandum to all Labour Party branches and affiliated organisations calling on all Labour MPs to vote against all government legislation until women were given the vote. He was condemned for disloyalty by the National Executive Committee of the Labour Party but this only made matters worse. In November 1912, he resigned his seat at Bow and Bromley and fought a by-election on the suffrage issue. Despite, or because of, the support of the NUWSS and WSPU, he lost.

In 1912, two significant developments suggest that the party as a whole was becoming more inclined to give priority to women’s suffrage.

  1. At the annual conference in January, Arthur Henderson’s proposal that the Labour Party should only support an Adult Suffrage Bill if it included women’s suffrage was passed.
  2. The NUWSS dropped its non-party stance and made an electoral pact with the Labour Party establishing an Election Fighting Fund (EFF) to support Labour candidates in elections. Ironically, Ramsay MacDonald played a major role in working out the agreement for joint action in the spring and summer of 1912. By October 1912, Catherine Marshall, one of the suffragist leaders was able to claim, in a letter to MacDonald that £800 of suffragist money had been spent on Labour candidates[5]. The NUWSS leadership believed that joint campaigning with the Labour Party represented the most effective pressure suffragists could exert on the Liberal government. The purpose of EFF activity was twofold; first, to embarrass anti-suffragist cabinet ministers by ensuring they were challenged by Labour at future elections; and secondly, to strengthen the number of Labour MPs in the House of Commons.

This policy caused friction within the NUWSS and between it and Liberal suffrage opinion. The subsequent formation of the Liberal Women’s Suffrage Union (LWSU) in early 1914 was an attempt to hold the loyalty of Liberal women who were also committed suffragists but who had difficulty in supporting an electoral alliance with Labour. The LWSU hoped to convince the NUWSS that it should restrict its EFF campaigning to anti-suffragist Cabinet ministers and not all anti-suffragist Liberal MPs and constantly argued against greater involvement in Labour politics. Initially, the NUWSS remained deaf to these pleas and relations between the two groups deteriorated rapidly after March 1914. A meeting between the two groups on 27th July 1914 proved inconclusive but its record suggests the growing influence of the LWSU in Liberal circles, the strength of the NUWSS’s commitment to its alliance with the Labour Party and the polarisation among women suffragists that was developing with the approach of the general election[6].

Keir Hardie (1856-1915)[7] was ardently committed to women’s suffrage: indeed, he depended partly on the financial support of women members of the Weavers’ Union in the early twentieth century[8]. The Cockermouth by-election in mid-1906 found Hardie under pressure from his party because he had show a singular lack of direction in the campaign in support of Bob Smillie, the Labour candidate. This arose from the failure of the Labour party to force an alliance with the suffragettes in the constituency. Indeed, the eventual eve-of-poll advice from the WSPU to the Cockermouth electorate was to vote Conservative. Since Hardie himself was so intimately involved with the suffragette leaders, and so often championed their cause, the odium of the suffragettes’ decision fell, rather unfairly, on him.

Hardie had always been an uncompromising supporter of women’s rights. Votes for women had figured in his election addresses at Mid-Lanark and West Ham in the 1890s, and he had long established his reputation as one of the most determined and dependable advocates of women’s suffrage. His personal secretary, Mrs Margaret Travers Symons, the daughter of a wealthy Welsh architect, was a militant suffragette.

  • Hardie claimed to link women’s rights with socialism: “the sex problem is at bottom the labour problem.” His support was based on broad democratic arguments that there were no political or moral grounds for discriminating between men and women.
  • Apart from his special interest in women’s trade union, Hardie had no particular Labour or socialist slant to the arguments he used. He saw the granting of the franchise to all adult women, in parliamentary and local elections, as an essential key to a wider emancipation. Without the right to share in the exercise of power, women would always remain a subordinate and subjected section of the community, without rights, status or security.
  • He had a personal reason for promoting rights for women in 1906, namely his close friendship with the Pankhurst family. He had been in touch with them since Richard and Emmeline Pankhurst became leading figures in the Manchester ILP in the early 1890s. He was closely in touch with Emmeline when she founded the WSPU in 1903. His attachment to Sylvia Pankhurst was of a different character and he drew closer to her in 1907 when she was imprisoned in Holloway. The significance of the affair between Sylvia and Hardie lent a powerful personal dimension to Hardie’s advocacy of women’s suffrage and massively reinforced the pressure that the women’s movement was bringing to bear on the Labour Party.

However, there was a growing rift between the Labour Party and the WSPU coinciding with increasing dissatisfaction with Hardie’s leadership of the party. At the beginning of 1906, it was natural that the Labour Party should champion the cause of women. The ILP had several prominent women on its Executive Committee including Margaret Macmillan, Emmeline Pankhurst and Margaret Bondfield. The trade union movement regarded itself as the champion of women’s social rights. There was, initially, no protest when Hardie championed the cause in the House of Commons. However, by the summer of 1906, Hardie was absorbed, almost to the point of obsession, with the women’s suffrage question. No other Labour MP was so uninhibited in championing the women’s cause. Only Philip Snowden was so ardent in the cause, and he was soon to attack Hardie’s preoccupation with the women’s question.

The potential division between Labour and the WSPU came in the summer of 1906 over the Cockermouth by-election. Instead of urging voters to support Labour, the WSPU concentrated on the campaign to turn out the Liberal candidate: in practice, that usually meant urging the electors to vote Conservative. After the by-election, Hardie was urged to devote more time to leading the Labour Party, and less to his contacts with the Pankhursts. He appears, very reluctantly, to have accepted that the Labour Party would have to cut itself adrift from the WSPU. The problem of his position as both party leader and spokesman for women’s rights came into the open at Labour annual conference in Belfast in January 1907.

When the sensitive issue of the Women’s Enfranchisement Bill, recently introduced by the Liberal MP, W. H. Dickinson came up, a motion was carried against the executive’s advice to endorse the immediate and total enfranchisement of all women. Hardie’s reaction was to state that party conferences could not bind the party in Parliament and that MPs should be able to vote according to their ‘conscience’.

In 1907 and 1908, Hardie upheld in the press the WSPU’s tactics of demanding votes for women on the same terms as those enjoyed by men. He pressed for the release of Christabel Pankhurst from prison and in 1909, joined a deputation to the Home Secretary, Herbert Gladstone, demanding an inquiry into the conditions of suffragettes detailed in gaol. The forcible feeding instituted under the ‘Cat and Mouse’ Act in 1911 roused Hardie to a new fury on behalf of women’s equality.

However, by 1909, Hardie was realistic enough to sense that women’s rights were a double-edged sword, especially in view of the disruptive tactics of the WSPU itself. The Labour Party was deriving little direct benefit from its involvement in the suffragette cause. He and Snowden continued to agitate on behalf of the women’s grievances in the Commons but even so, there was a gradual withdrawal by Hardie from the major involvement in the women’s causes that so dominated his life between 1906 and 1908. He now feared that the growing militancy of the WSPU would result in it becoming a small, sectarian and disruptive rump. Hardie was personally embarrassed in October 1908 by the actions of his personal secretary who used her position to interrupt a debate in the House with cries of ‘Votes for Women’ and in December 1911, she was convicted for obstruction during a stone-throwing demonstration.

In 1912, Hardie emerged as the champion of George Lansbury, a passionate defender of women’s suffrage and critic of the Labour Party’s failure to oppose the government sufficiently over forced-feeding. The National Executive ruled that Lansbury could not be officially supported by the party when he resigned his seat in November 1912 to fight a by-election. Hardie defied the official party line, along with Snowden and campaigned for Lansbury. He argued that Labour should vote against the government’s Franchise Bill if female suffrage was not included. Lansbury lost and the whole affair was deeply saddening for Hardie. His attitude over the Franchise Bill strained relations with his Labour colleagues. He no longer captured the allegiance of the suffragettes either. Despite, his proven record of support for women’s suffrage, Hardie now found himself often heckled by women when he made speeches. They regarded him as a “man of words, not deed”, whose gradualism and constitutionalism had produced no tangible results.

[1] David Morgan Suffragists and Liberals, Oxford University Press, 1975 remains important on the relationship between political parties and women suffragists.

[2] Laura Ugolini ‘It is Only Justice to Grant Women’s Suffrage: Independent Labour Party Men and Women’s Suffrage 1893-1905’ in Claire Eustance, Joan Ryan and Laura Ugolini (eds.) A Suffrage Reader: Charting Directions in British Suffrage History, Leicester University Press, 1999, pages 126-145.

[3] On the early development of the Labour Party see the contrasting views of Duncan Tanner Political Change and the Labour Party, Cambridge University Press, 1990 and Ross McKibbin The Evolution of the Labour Party 1910-1922, Oxford University Press, 1974. Duncan Tanner, Pat Thane and Nick Tiratsoo (eds.) Labour’s First Century, Cambridge University Press, 2000 adopts a thematic approach with a useful discussion of Labour and gender, pages 191-220. Andrew Thorpe A History of the British Labour Party, Palgrave, 2nd ed., 2001 is the most recent general study.

[4] David Marquand Ramsay MacDonald, Jonathan Cape, 1977, pages 147-150 is the clearest statement of MacDonald’s vacillating position. It also introduces the problems facing the emerging Labour Party in the first two decades of the twentieth century.

[5] Sandra Stanley Holton Feminism and Democracy, Cambridge University Press, 1986, pages 76-115 examines the creation of the electoral alliance and its operation in 1913 and 1914.

[6] The 1911 Parliament Act had reduced the length of time between general elections from a maximum of seven years to a maximum of five years. Given that the last general election was in late 1910, most people expected the Liberals to call an election in late 1914 or early 1915.

[7] Kenneth O. Morgan Keir Hardie: Radical and Socialist, Weidenfeld, 1975 is perhaps the best biography available though it is, in places, in need of revision.

[8] MPs were not paid for their services until after the 1911 Parliament Act.


Anonymous said...

Think there's an error near start, where you say no party had women's suffrage as official policy before 1914, then later say Labour adopted it in 1912.

Richard Brown said...

Labour only adopted women's suffrage as a part of policy when linked to advances in male suffrage.