H.M. Hyndman

Further Reminiscences

Chapter III
Contested Elections

SOCIAL-DEMOCRATS are opposed to one of their number taking office in any Ministry of the governing class. In fact it has been declared by solemn decision of International Congresses that no man can do so except with the consent and at the wish of the party as a whole. Why, then, should a Socialist attempt to enter Parliament, which is manifestly nowadays a capitalist institution, or to sit upon a Municipal Council, which is quite as much dominated by the same influence?

The answer is, of course, easy, and to my mind quite sufficient. As Wendell Phillips said in one of his finest orations, we are living not in a college, or in a monastery, but in the world. Regardless, therefore, of strict logic, we have to make use of such opportunities of spreading our theories, and partially applying our principles, as we can command. In fact, just as the moneyed and middle class gradually made itself felt in the Parliament of the nobles and landowners, while their economic position and social status were gaining ground outside; so the wage-earning class, with a definite clear-cut consciousness of working-class subordination under existing conditions, may push its claims to the front in the modern capitalist Assembly, while the inevitable progress of events outside is helping it to achieve an even stronger position in the mills and factories, as well as in the streets.

As members of Municipal Councils, on the other hand, Socialists might learn the practice of administration, introduce a few half-way palliative measures even in the midst of existing municipal anarchy and corruption, and make ready the period of which Bronterre O’Brien spoke when a nucleus of determined men in all the great industrial centres would be able, in a moment of crisis, to paralyse the bourgeoisie. Moreover, no party of the people can be effectively active or even keep itself alive on abstractions and theories alone. Without a high ideal nothing great can be achieved, even if the economic and social development is understood. But without some immediate object to strive for, and some opportunity of testing growth and strength at intervals, it is impossible to keep men together.

As affairs go today the House of Commons is the best platform in the world, if used with vigour, tempered with reasonable discretion. For the House of Commons provides such a sounding board that every utterance of a speaker, when once he has made an impression, reaches far beyond the limits of the House itself, and gives him an influence at times greatly in excess of his ability at outside meetings. Therefore it is in the highest degree desirable that any cause which aspires to make its way among the people, and eventually to control, through its adherents, public affairs, should have its representatives and champions on the floor of the popular assembly long before the party based upon its principles is ready to organise and administer the public business of the community. It is quite true that none of the highest minds of the nation have ever devoted themselves to political life, or have regarded the party struggles of their time as of the highest importance. This is true of Socialism as of other departments of human development. None of the real founders of Socialism in Europe, with perhaps two exceptions, have ever been engaged in politics. Possibly even they might have gained something by a closer touch with the actualities of life, as Gibbon declared his passing and superficial acquaintance with soldiering was of advantage to him in writing his great history.

My connection with the borough of Burnley began by my going over from Nelson or Colne, I forget which, and it does not in the least matter, on a propagandist mission in 1883 or 1884. I was warned solemnly when I thus went to speak there for the first time that I must not imagine for a moment that the Burnley workers were in any sense poor or depressed people. They earned, I was told, about the best wages of any Lancashire folk, they had fine Co-operative Stores, large sums of money, for them, in the Savings Banks, took a solid holiday at mid-summer extending over a full fortnight, for which period they heartily enjoyed themselves at Blackpool or some other pleasure resort, had good food, good clothing, and good housing, and altogether, being besides shrewd and fairly well educated, I should find them to be quite different from the working men and working women whom I had encountered in the South of England and even in other parts of Lancashire. So I really did enter the town with some trepidation. If the mill-hands and pitmen who formed the population of the place were so well-to-do as all this, my opinion that on the average the better paid and more intelligent the workers the more hopeful the outlook for Socialism, might receive a rude shock.

It did receive a rude shock, but scarcely in the way I anticipated. Do you know Burnley? If not, don’t. I do not say it is so wholly revolting a place as Dewsbury, or quite so depressing as Macclesfield, or so manifestly inhabited by inferior humans as parts of Manchester or Liverpool; but to any one who enters it as I did, under the impression that I was about to visit a clean, well-kept industrial centre such as Stuttgart or Cannstadt, it will look quite bad enough. Surrounded by fine breezy moors and beautiful valleys, with a district called in derision Rose Grove as one of its principal stations on the railway, there is no reason in the world but the frightful indifference of the dominant class to everything except the acquisition of profit why Burnley should not have been from the beginning a wholesome and happy town, in so far, at any rate, as the ordinary life of its inhabitants might be arranged, in “good times.” As it was, I soon found out that Burnley was on a very slightly higher plane than the worst of the other cotton and coal towns.

At that time the reign of organised middle-class municipalism had barely begun. A huge engine, puffing, snorting, and blowing out clouds of smoke, dragged the tramcars along the rails – the entire system belonging to a private company, of which Councillors and Aldermen were the chief shareholders; the whole town was shrouded in semi-darkness owing to the practice of vomiting forth huge volumes of black half-consumed carbon from the factory chimneys without restraint; the housing of quite a large portion of the population was almost as abominable as in great areas of Liverpool; the infant mortality was so terrible that out of 1000 births only 500 attained the age of five years; half-time for children in the factories was still the rule, the limit of age being only eleven, and the parents themselves strongly supported this ruinous sweating of their own flesh and blood; education was of the lowest character, and parents were fined if they did not send their children to the wretched schools and pay for their education, even if they had to deduct the fees from their absolutely necessary food; steaming in some of the sheds was carried to such an extent that the constitutions of the people who worked there were positively rotted out of them. In short, all the elements of a thoroughly degrading form of capitalist wage-slavery were present in the most revolting shape and forced themselves upon my attention.

I have used the past tense in writing of what I saw and investigated. I state no more than the exact truth when I say that in many respects matters are quite as bad, in some, perhaps, even worse, today. I shall never forget the first time when, in quest of a little fresh air, I walked up to the top of the Manchester Road and looked down upon Burnley from the hill-top. There it lay in the hollow, one hideous Malebolge of carbon-laden fog and smoke, the factory chimneys rising up above the mass of thick cloud like stakes upon which, as I said to my companion, successive generations of the workers and their children had been impaled. When I took Morris up to the same spot later, and we looked down together upon this infernal pit of human degradation, his language of denunciation of the system, and the classes who engendered and maintained such horrors, was nothing short of apocalyptic in its fury. For William Morris understood far better than Ruskin the causes which had led to this abysmal deterioration and misery and the manner in which alone they could be overcome and removed.

So this was the town in which I was warned to take heed to my parts of speech, and where I was told I should find a well-paid, capable, and self-respecting community. Twenty-eight years at least have passed, during which period I have seen more of Burnley and have done more work in it than in any place in Great Britain, except London. Beginning by agitation in the open-air in the market-place, and going on until all Burnley was alive with Socialism, it is impossible to recognise an extent of improvement at all in proportion to the amount of work done and sacrifices made.

Yet, to begin with, there did seem likelihood of rapid progress. The pitmen had been on strike not very long after systematic agitation for Socialism began. Men who have now gone away, or who have altogether left the movement, or are dead, such as Widdup, Parrott, and others, had done admirable local work, and the old guard of the Lancashire movement – Horrocks, Evans, Massey, Hall – used to come over regularly from Manchester and Salford to Burnley, as to the other outlying towns, to preach the new gospel of Socialism. Those were the days when John Stuart Mill’s confession of his conversion to Socialism, Henry George’s Progress and Poverty, Gronlund’s Co-operative Commonwealth – now almost forgotten – Bellamy’s Looking Backward, as well as The Summary of the Principles of Socialism, News from Nowhere, England for All, and even the harder teachings of the Capital and the Communist Manifesto were discussed at the open-air meetings, not only in Burnley but all through Lancashire and the adjacent districts of Yorkshire. As a result of all this, following upon the strike of the colliers, we succeeded in returning two representatives of the miners, who had distinguished themselves by their vigour on behalf of their fellows as Social-Democrats, to the Burnley Municipal Council. This victory, coining hard upon all the abuse and vilification and other more material manifestations of disagreement with our views, which we had all become accustomed to as inevitable concomitants of our apostolic preachings, perhaps unduly elated us.

We thought the workers, having put their hand to the revolutionary plough, would not look back. We forgot that the motive power must be continuous, not spasmodic, which shall conduct us to the end of our furrow. We overlooked the horses; or, to put it plainly, we did not fully appreciate the truth, which has been forced upon us ever since, that unless the mass of the people are really educated in Socialism and have learnt, in such thorough fashion that they cannot possibly clear their minds of the knowledge, how Liberals and Tories constitute merely two wings of the capitalist army which indulge in sham fights over political issues in order to divert the attention of the disinherited classes from the social matters which directly concern them – that until this amount of progress has been achieved, and the teaching has been completely assimilated and its results organised, the complete success of a thoroughgoing Socialist candidate against both parties is well-nigh impossible.

Not only so, but there is no continuous support or helpful outside counsel and criticism for those who, by the accident of temporary discontent and local revolt, are put forward successfully as representatives upon Municipal Councils or Committees. In this Burnley case the Municipal Councillors, Tempest and Sparling, were unduly blamed because they had not the power to impress themselves upon their fellow-members, when, as a matter of fact, had they gone vigorously forward, they would have found little backing among their fellow-townsmen so soon as the men had gone back to work.

However, by 1892, after nearly ten years of continuous Socialist work, it was thought there was sufficient support in the place to justify a genuine Social-Democratic candidature. I was chosen as the – shall I say? – victim. The two parties were so solidly organised that the very idea of an independent Socialist opponent was scouted as ridiculous. Burnley was and always had been a thoroughly Radical constituency, and even the downfall of the sainted Jabez Balfour, who had carried the seat on strictly puritan and sacrosanct temperance principles, had not shaken the politico-religious convictions of the men of God whom he had prayed with and subsidised. Having been overtrustful in that case with a man of finance, they betook them to an aristocrat of quite respectable family to hold the fort for them. The Tories, on the other hand, had a man of business to represent them. Mr. Philip Stanhope and Mr. Mitchell – that was the fight. Both parties well organised, and the Tories, hopeful of at last shaking the Radical rule which had so long dominated, not to say bullied, the inhabitants of the town in the interest of that section of the capitalists and profit mongers which held the true political faith, were “ better together,” to use a boating phrase, than they had ever been before.

The leader of the Radicals was one Greenwood, who, starting as a poor lad with few advantages, had brought himself to the front by dint of thrift, individual force of character, and sheer personal power. He was now an Alderman and virtual master of the Municipal Council. There was no doubt about his ability, and but for local jealousies he would undoubtedly have been the Radical candidate. A man of fine physique, with a powerful head and face, with long beard and an imposing presence generally, his method of speech, though not eloquent, very businesslike and impressive, he was something of a contrast to the refined and cultured but rather weak type represented by Philip Stanhope, the aristocratic Radical, whose brother Edward, the Tory Cabinet Minister, I had known intimately. It is convenient for a highly respectable but not too wealthy family to have a brother in each party. Well, the contrast between the powerful Greenwood and the slightly effeminate Stanhope was so marked that I got some fun out of it. And the Napoleon of Burnley and little Philip his puppet figured forth as a pleasing couple on the political stage of the borough for many months before the election. Not very long before that date Dan Irving, for some years now an influential person on the Municipal Council, had come into the borough and had become Secretary of the Social-Democratic Federation.

We had tried several “propaganda candidatures” prior to the General Election of 1895, and we had been mainly instrumental in gaining John Burns the seat for Battersea, a success which, as I have pointed out before, he used solely for his personal and pecuniary advantage and directly against the interests of his class. But in other contests we had not been fortunate, and I cannot say that I had much if any hope of gaining the seat in Burnley at the first attempt, as “landslides” such as occur not infrequently in the United States are almost unknown among us slow-going, not to say slow-thinking, English. Moreover, I had a warning on the very first day my candidature opened which I now see was entirely justified, but which I could not believe at the time was as sound as after events have proved it to be. I was going from one part of the town to another in a tram when a man I knew by sight as a frequent attender at our meetings came and sat close beside me.

“I am entirely with you, Mr. Hyndman, in this fight, and I am myself a thorough Social-Democrat, though I cannot take an active open part in the movement owing to the necessities of my business. You can ask any of our people about me. I want to warn you not to be disappointed if you never win here. I have been for years on the inner Radical Committee in this town, though, of course, I have left it now, and I know all their political dodges of every kind. The Radicals will fight to the death to keep their hold on Burnley and particularly to keep out a Socialist. They have very good reasons for doing so. They would infinitely rather have a Tory in as member for Burnley than have you, though you would vote on their side on all democratic political questions. Even when you think you are winning, and when you certainly would win if all the voting were honest, you will be beaten at the last moment. The Irish vote, on which I know you have a right to reckon, will never go for you, do what you may. The Irish leaders are not only dead against Socialism, but they are absolutely bound to the Liberals and will never break away. But there is more than that, and this I should not dare to say unless we were alone in this car as we are now. There is no town in England more corrupt than Burnley. There are always enough voters to be had at a price to enable the Liberals or, if they ever get sufficiently near to make it worth while, the Tories to turn the election at the last moment. And this will be done against you to a certainty. Of that you may be quite sure. My old colleagues are past masters at that sort of thing, and we used to enjoy concerting plans which should render detection practically impossible. You will make a good fight and Socialism will gain ground, I have no doubt; but unless you can prevent bribery on a large scale the night before the election, or can secure the solid Irish vote, so as to outweigh the purchased vote, you will never be member for Burnley.”

I told my friends and supporters privately what I had heard and who had told me. They admitted there was a great deal of truth in what my ex-Radical friend said, but they believed, as I believed, that, with time, we should overcome all difficulties, and this was only a trial trip, as it were. My agent on this occasion was a dear old Scotchman named Maben, thoroughly up to his business and capable of making the best of an unprepared and unorganised constituency. After two days of going about he told me privately I should poll 1,250 votes, which he considered would not be bad considering how well the other parties were organised. At the same time the Liberals and Tories were agreed that I should not poll more than 500 at the very outside.

Where were the votes to come from? they asked. They could count the constituency between them to a man. None the less, and in spite of all gloomy prognostications, we worked as if we were sure to win. Maben kept things well together; the Burnley men and Irving did their utmost; my wife canvassed so successfully that the generally received opinion in the town was she could squeeze a vote out of stone; I spoke indoors, out-of-doors, and wherever two or three were gathered together. Our meetings were so crowded, so enthusiastic, and so successful in every way, that there was eventually a little scare even in the ranks of our enemies. I overheard one man say to another a couple of days before the polling-day: “If meetings go for anything, there may be a great surprise here.”

But meetings did not go for anything and I polled 1,500 votes, which was considered, when people thought the matter over, as a very remarkable thing. In my own opinion, on a fair poll without any queer dealings, the Tory would have won. There were some amusing incidents as usual in an election. I am in the habit of reading the most rubbishy sort of tales and romances when I have any heavy strain put upon me; for the excellent reason that if I read anything serious it gives my brain no rest, and if I sit still I begin to think, which is the hardest work of all. This practice nearly shocked our excellent and enthusiastic Maben out of his Scotch sobriety of demeanour. I was reading such a volume as I have described quite comfortably in the corner of the Committee Room at a most exciting period of the election, when we had just got out some of the bitterest and strongest placards we had put upon the walls, and I was waiting for my next turn of duty. Maben espied me thus engaged. He beckoned to Irving, and pointing to me said, “There, just look at him reading a shilling shocker at the most critical moment of the election.” He could not make it out at all. Irving only laughed. He knew me.

When we had been beaten and Philip Stanhope had won, we began to look seriously into the voting, and we discovered that 93 per cent of the total electorate had gone to the poll on a three-years-old register in the very middle of the annual holiday. Money had certainly not been lacking on the Liberal side, and the Countess Tolstoy’s fortune, the Russian lady whom Mr. Philip Stanhope had married, was used to good purpose. I therefore declared that the election had been won by Russian roubles and Radical resurrectionists. I am confident to this day though I, of course, could not have won anyhow that the graveyards of Burnley were brought to the poll with assiduity and success on a scale never before heard of. The day after, I met an old Radical caucus man named Heap, whom I had christened Uriah of that ilk, a little unfairly I now admit. I was walking with my wife, and Heap came up to talk to us. He spoke freely of the election. So did I. I remarked that of all the dead men’s pollings I ever heard of, yesterday’s was the most Burke-and-Hareish. The old fellow pretended not to understand. Resurrections, he averred on pressing, were not in his line. A little later, however, he told us a story about how he had contrived to poll no fewer than forty-seven dead ’uns himself at one election. “You old rascal,” cried my wife, “I believe you did it yesterday.” “No, not yesterday, not yesterday,” and off he went laughing. That was my introduction to contested elections in Burnley.

My next fight was in 1906, and then I confess I thought I should win, and so did the majority of the people in Burnley. Much had passed since 1895. For one thing, the Boer War, in which I had taken the right side at great personal and pecuniary risk, but had left Stanhope, who was also an anti-war man, to meet Mitchell single-handed. He was beaten by the reactionary votes of his own supporters. It was now generally recognised, however, that the war had been a disgrace to the nation, and was little short of a disaster, although we nominally gained the victory. There were plenty of Liberals, also, who thought I ought to be in the House of Commons in spite of my opinions, and a few perhaps on account of them. At one moment it even seemed not improbable that I should be left alone to contest the seat against Mr. Gerald Arbuthnot, who now came forward to contest the constituency in place of Mr. Mitchell. But the local people would not stand that. When respectable members of the party refused one after the other to come down to Burnley to try to keep me out, they dug up a discredited Liberal-Labour man of the name of Maddison, who had earned the distrust of the railway men by what they considered the very suspicious conduct of their journal during a serious strike, and he was chosen to bear the Radical flag.

I shall never forget that election and the magnificent way in which I was backed up by men and women of all classes, not only by coming down and speaking, but with money. The following list gives some idea of what was done: Lady Warwick, Mrs. Montefiore, Michael Davitt, Bernard Shaw, Quelch, Burrows, Hunter Watts, Kennedy, Blatchford, Cunning hame Graham, Grayson, the Revds. Widdrington, Proudfoot, Hugh Wallace, Conrad Noel, and many more.

It was a hard and a bitter struggle. The Tories behaved well even when they fought their hardest. The Liberals behaved like the meanest of creatures, as, in my experience, they invariably do. Maddison himself was always right to the front when there was any specially dirty work to be done. They stuck at nothing. According to them and their fly-sheets and placards, I was a South African mineowner, an employer of imported Chinese labour, a surreptitious backer of Imperialism, a fraudulent bankrupt. Things got to such a pass when it began to look as if I should come out at the top of the poll, that we placarded the constituency with a huge poster, Liberal Lies and Liberal Liars, in which we gave them a certificate of character, and produced evidence of their persistent and deliberate mendacity. Dan Irving, who had experienced some of their methods locally, had charge of the election, and there was certainly no lack of vigour on our side. I stood, of course, as a definite revolutionary Social-Democrat, and I am bound to say we gave our enemies more than as good as they brought. Up to the very eve of the poll, I believe, I had won. A tremendous meeting was held two days before which had been addressed by Davitt and myself, the great Irish agitator and organiser appealing most vigorously to his countrymen in Burnley to rally to my support as a man who had stood by Ireland when it was dangerous to do so, had been a member of the Land League in the old days, and advocated Home Rule as I had in 1880. There was great enthusiasm, and party feeling ran very high. But what my ex-Radical friend of the tramcar spoke of took place. At the last moment the Liberals played their old game, and though I polled just 5,000 votes, I failed to carry the seat, and Maddison was member for Burnley.

I fought twice afterwards in 1910. At the first election, if I had been willing to accept Mr. Lloyd George’s preposterous Budget, I should, no doubt have got in, and many even of the Social-Democrats thought I ought to do so. But I regarded the Budget as about the biggest fraud, and its author as the most unscrupulous and treacherous political adventurer, that had been seen in our time. [1] I therefore positively declined, for the sake of possible victory, which would have committed me virtually to fraudulent practices, to declare that I was on the side of the Liberals. So I was beaten again, but the fact that Maddison and the Liberals were beaten too gave me some satisfaction. At the second election of the same year, when Mr. Asquith came down at the last moment to help the Liberal candidate, I was beaten once more, and about 1,000 votes were knocked off my two previous polls. This, although the whole town talked and looked as if it wished me to be member. Well, I thought that was about enough of it, and I retired from any further political candidature in Burnley.

I had been visiting and speaking and agitating in the town for seven-and-twenty years, and this was the end of it. I do not pretend to say I was not sad and disappointed, and the farewell to my never-discouraged supporters, hundreds of whom were at the Manchester Road Station and travelled with me to the next stopping-place in order to give my wife and myself a parting evidence of their goodwill and affection, touched me deeply. I left behind me so much of misery that I hoped to help to remedy, so much of squalor that I was ambitious to relieve – not only in Burnley, but all over Great Britain. It was useless to repine or to seek for the causes of my defeat. Whatever may be my personal defects, or however great the dexterity of my opponents, the plain truth stood out boldly before me as I travelled down to speak at Bradford on my way home. In spite of all our efforts and the steady work of enthusiastic comrades, the people were not educated enough to understand the crucial importance of Socialism to themselves and their children in their daily life.

The same men who had been locked out by coal-owners and cotton-kings voted steadily for the candidates of their masters (whom they would not trust for five minutes not to cheat them on the weighing-bridge or in the sheds), and handed over the control of the national interests to the dominant class. But the end is not yet. The political upheaval will follow hard upon the industrial stir. Meanwhile, strange to say, I do not feel myself to be the failure which Mr. Philip Snowden, the Liberal-Labour member for Blackburn, and others declare that I am. I venture to predict, indeed, that the day is not far distant when it will be considered rather odd that Messrs. Stanhope, Mitchell, Maddison, Arbuthnot, and Morrell – not one of whom has ever said, or done, or written anything which anybody can remember, or would remember if he could – should all have been preferred to me as the Parliamentary representatives of a purely industrial constituency such as Burnley.



1. My objection to Mr. Lloyd George’s absurdly named “People’s Budget” arose not at all from his special taxation of land, though that impost was fiscally unsound and practically worthless. I denounced it to the utmost of my power because, while pretending to tax only the capitalists and the landlords, it mulcted the mass of the people to an extent far surpassing anything ever attempted before. The landlords who raised the greatest hubbub have got off almost scot-free: the working classes who hurrahed for Lloyd George as their saviour have the privilege of paying through the nose for their salvation of short-commons.

Last updated on 1.11.2007