Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History

The Aylesbury By-election of 1938

As we announced briefly in our second issue, the pioneer British Trotskyist Reg Groves died on 17 May of this year. Apart from his contribution to establishing Trotskyism in these islands and his many valuable books on revolutionary history, in Groves the British labour movement lost a courageous defender. As a reminder of this and in tribute to his memory, we print the following account of his finest campaign for the independence of the working class-the Aylesbury by-election of 1938.

This article first appeared in the form of a paper read to the Conference for the Study of Leon Trotsky and the History of the Revolutionary Movement which took place in London on 20 September 1980, and is reproduced here by kind permission of the author.

Martin Upham gathered the material for this article in the course of the research for his PhD, The History of British Trotskyism to 1949, which was accepted by the University of Hull in 1981. He is a member of the Labour Party, on whose behalf he fought the general elections of 1983 and 1987 in the constituencies of Market Harborough and Enfield North respectively.

The activities of the Stalinists during the Aylesbury by-election were raised in the context of the recent factional disputes within the Communist Party of Great Britain after theoretician Erie Hobsbawm made his well-publicised call just prior to the 1987 general election for tactical voting for the Liberal/Social Democratic Alliance. Both George Matthews, on behalf of the Eurocommunist party executive committee, and Bert Ramelson, for the old-fashioned traditionalists, whilst disagreeing on the relevance of the tactics of the 1930s for today, nonetheless agreed that their party’s conduct during the Aylesbury by-election was perfectly in order. See their letters in 7 Days, 2, 16 and 23 May 1987.

From 1936 the Communist Party of Great Britain and most of the Labour left favoured a Popular Front of all organisations and individuals opposed to Fascism and war. This was a reversal of an earlier view held by the Labour left: their principal policy had been for a Labour government, with a majority, to implement the full socialist programme. Alliances with those outside the working class movement were rejected since they would involve watering the programme down. [1] The CPGB had by 1934 moved from its sectarian policy of the ‘United Front from Below’ to advocacy of a United Front without this qualification. The Seventh Congress of the Communist International in July 1935 confirmed a change which had already occurred. In 1936 the Communists of France and Spain were the most enthusiastic protagonists of Popular Front governments. These represented an alliance of working class parties with those outside the labour movement who, it was suggested, had a common interest with them.

In Britain this argument took the form of the thesis that the widest possible unity was required to defeat a National Government which was soft on Hitler. Specifically it was denied that Labour could hope to build a majority for its programme by the time the next general election was due in 1940. [2] This was the motor force behind the Unity Campaign of the Socialist League, the CPGB and the Independent Labour Party, which was launched with great optimism in January 1937 but had collapsed by the middle of the year, The right wing of the Labour Party, led by those most likely to hold the leading ministerial positions if it was elected with a majority, people who had not made the running when the Socialist League’s influence was at its peak in 1932-34, now presented themselves as the guardians of Labour’s Socialist integrity. [3] They rejected alliances and pacts especially with the Communists, and called for maximum effort to be placed behind putting Labour in with a majority for the implementation of Labour’s Immediate Programme. [4]

In the early 1930s the left (and principally the Socialist League) had urged that Labour should not take power except with a majority and should then carry out the most radical Socialist measures to win popular support. This was in response to the MacDonald betrayal of 1931. But by 1937 many of the same people, before and after the May 1937 dissolution of the Socialist League, had lost faith in Labour winning a majority and were prepared for an alliance across parties. The right wing, including some who had served with MacDonald and had even sought to follow him [5], now had to hand the plausible argument of Socialist fundamentalism with which to stem the growing Communist influence on the Labour Party. The convenient guise of single-minded crusaders for the Socialist commonwealth well suited their intention to remain in unchallenged control of the labour movement. [6]

Trotskyists in Britain had always favoured a United Front of working class organisations [7] They derived their inspiration from Trotsky’s speech to the Executive Committee of the CI on the subject in 1922. [8] The United Front was a tactic for those countries where the working class was split in its allegiances. It was a limited agreement openly concluded between mass organisations. They retained their own separate programmes and the right to criticise each other. [9] In 1932, when organised Trotskyism first emerged in public in Britain, its advocacy of the united front was criticised by the CPGB as a betrayal. By 1937, when Trotskyists of all factions opposed the phoney front of the Unity Campaign in the name of a genuine United Front, they were attacked by the CPGB as splitters, disrupters and people with the same ends as the National Government.

On 24 April 1937 the Mid-Buckinghamshire Divisional Labour Party [10] selected Reg Groves as its prospective parliamentary candidate. [11] By chance the Conservative member for the constituency resigned two months later, making a by-election certain. There was a delay in moving the writ and polling day was only fixed for 19 May 1938. By this time the Aylesbury by-election and the presence of Groves, a Trotskyist, as the Labour candidate, had assumed considerable importance. The principal reason for this was the enhanced fear of war following the Anschluss of March 1938 whereby Austria was annexed to Germany, and the call for a ‘peace alliance’ by Walter Elliott, the editor of Reynolds News on 19 March which revived the flagging forces of the Popular Front. Pressure mounted for the standing of the single candidate most likely to win at by-elections against the National Government’s candidates. 12

In Mid-Bucks, where the Liberals had always held second place to the Conservatives, a Progressive Alliance Group was formed with the object of obtaining the strongest possible anti-government protest in the form of votes for the Liberal candidate, T. Atholl Robertson. Its founding resolution, which was signed by prominent local Labour members including Christopher Addison, called on Groves to stand down. [13] The South Bucks Unity Committee made the same demand. [14]

To the positive desire for an alliance was added distaste for Groves as a Trotskyist. Groves himself had the chance to reach beyond propaganda and demonstrate in practice the fallacy of Popular Front thinking. [15] He encountered opposition within the leading bodies of the constituency.[16] George Shepherd, Labour’s national agent, also initially sought both his withdrawal and a candidate more congenial to Transport House. Support on the executive for his candidature fell, but he still had a majority behind him. [17]

Groves resisted these rumblings and began to campaign. By 6 May he had held 30 meetings and other functions. [18] The Daily Herald loyally supported him.[19] The Daily Worker followed the Peace Alliance argument but went further in its vituperation against Groves. [20] The first leaflet of the local Communists, while it called for unity, did not attack Groves and the Aylesbury party. When the Daily Herald made a pointed comparison between the Liberal Party platform and Labour’s Immediate Programme, the CPGB pressed a different argument:

It would, of course, be splendid if Labour had a chance of winning the seat, although even then it would need a candidate who would strengthen Labour's fight against reaction instead of a Trotskyist, the effect of whose policy would be the break-up of the Labour movement from within. [21]

The more prestigious Manchester Guardian wondered on 12 May ‘how small an increase in the Labour vote here will be held to have justified the decision’ to stand and predicted that not only was a rise unlikely but that it was more probable that Groves would lose his deposit.

One important event on 12 May was the announcement by the Council of Action for Peace and Reconstruction that both Liberal and Labour candidates had answered its questions satisfactorily and that it would therefore play no part in the election. [22] This surprising eventuality was commented on by other Trotskyists after polling day. [23]

From mid-May Groves mounted a strong offensive against Robertson. He challenged the Liberal to substantiate his claims of Labour support. [24] The Daily Worker, his bitterest enemy among the press, grew more abusive [25], but he had strong support from Labour papers. [26] One of the remarkable features of the campaign was the appearance on Groves’ platform of Harold Laski, Ellen Wilkinson and even D.N. Pritt, all of whom favoured a Popular Front. Even Reynolds News respected the decision of the local party. It was a reward for standing firm. [27] New branches of the Labour Party were established in the division, the Attlee meeting was held and support came from the ILP. [28] On the eve of the poll his backers and opponents clashed in their expectations. [29]

Aylesbury voted on 19 May 1938. The Tory candidate won with more than twice the vote of Robertson, who came second. Each had lost around 3,000 votes over their parties’ polls in 1935. Groves was the first Labour candidate in Aylesbury not to lose his deposit and had raised his vote by 3,560. [30] He was also the only candidate to raise his share of the poll, which he did in spite of a reduced turnout. [31] The swing against the Tories was greater than the average of all pre-Munich by-election results. He also surpassed the anti-Tory swing of the Munich by-elections at Oxford and Bridgwater. [32]

Groves was jubilant: ‘We have delivered the death-blow to Liberalism in this division.’ [33] The Daily Herald echoed his delight. [34] The New Statesman and Nation was surprised [35] though the News Chronicle affected not to be. [36] The Daily Worker was the bitterest of all. [37] Groves argued that Labour was being built in Aylesbury against Liberalism as well as against Toryism. A pact, he suggested, would have led to the loss of support. He thought that support for the Popular Front lay ‘among the middle class element; the university socialists, the “week-enders” who had never done a day’s work for the local party, and the social élite of the Left Book Club’. [38] Frederick Warburg congratulated him (‘magnificent work’) [39] as did J.P. Millar, who announced he had ‘no faith whatever in the Popular Front’. [40] The New Leader was equally enthusiastic. [41]

But pressure for an alliance against the government did not relent. Later in the year a reluctant Patrick Gordon Walker stood down as the Labour candidate in favour of a ‘progressive’ candidate, A.D. Lindsay, who still failed to win Oxford on 27 October. United support did, however, permit Vernon Bartlett to win Bridgwater from the National Government candidate on 17 November.

The Trotskyist movement held an ambivalent attitude towards the Aylesbury result. The Workers International League thought it showed that a revolutionary approach by the Labour Party would meet with success and that the campaign was part of the experience through which ‘the broad masses become aware of the treachery’ of the labour bureaucracy. It believed, however, that a truly Marxist programme would never have received the approval of the ‘reactionary’ Councils of Action. The Revolutionary Socialist League congratulated Groves on doubling the Labour vote and taking a progressive stand against the Popular Front but firmly declared that the Fourth International could not tolerate within its ranks anyone who, like Groves, could give the Council of Action replies indistinguishable from those offered by the Liberal candidate. [42]

Martin Upham



1. When Lloyd George complained to the National Trade Union Club in 1935 about doctrinaires in the labour movement who opposed a Liberal alliance, Harold Laski rebuked him and argued for a firm Labour commitment to a socialist programme. He warned that in such an alliance “you give up all that you have been fighting for to secure the victory of unity”. (The Siren Voice of Mr Lloyd George, Forward, 24 August 1935)

2. G.D.H. Cole doubted Labour’s ability even to equal its 1929 result. The extra votes needed to get there would not be won on a Socialist programme, he argued. Indeed, no government of the left would be achieved “if we merely wait for the Labour Party to win a majority in Parliament by continuing its present methods of appeal”. Labour, he concluded, was “not even in sight of an independent majority”. (G.D.H. Cole, The Peoples Front, 1937, p.275)

3. Attlee did not reject an alliance in the face of an imminent world crisis (and indeed was to make one in 1940) but to the proposition that Labour should drop its nationalisation policy to gain Liberal support and a majority, he replied, “I am convinced that it would be fatal for the Labour Party to form a Popular Front on any such terms”. (C. Attlee, The Labour Party in Perspective, 1937, p.130)

4. The Communists in Bethnal Green, near Herbert Morrison’s base, had called for an anti-Fascist alliance with the Liberals. Morrison rejected it arguing that the CPGB favoured unity to its right but not to its left. “Would Mr Pollitt appear on a platform with Socialist, Working Class Trotsky? He would not, he declared and demanded: ‘Who says the Communists are on the left? This Labour Party is more of a left party than the Communist Party.’”(Labour Party Conference Report, 1937, pp.l61-4)

5. Attlee and Morrison had been junior ministers in 1929-31. Morrison entertained hopes of joining the National Government in August 1931, but was dissuaded by MacDonald, who told him not to ruin his career. (B. Donaghue and G.W. Jones, Herbert Morrison, Portrait of a Politician, 1973, pp.162-70)

6. C.F. Brand, The British Labour Party, 1965.

7. “To reach the wide masses of workers organised under the banner of reformism, the Communist Party needs to apply correctly the tactic of the United Front. It is only by the wise and determined use of the United Front policy that the party can break down its isolation and win a foothold in the trade unions and factories.” (The Red Flag, June 1933)

8. L. Trotsky, On the United Front, The First Five Years of the Communist International, Volume 2, London 1974 pp.91-107.

9. “In the blind panic that followed the German catastrophe, the CI swept over to offering terms to the reformists which cannot be justified under any conditions. The offer to suspend criticism is in direct opposition to the United Front policy laid down by Lenin in 1921.” (The Red Flag, June 1933)

10. Mid-Bucks had been the base of the leading Socialist Leaguer E.F. Wise who represented it at party conferences. After his death his widow was nominated for the League national committee and was also sent as a delegate to the party conference. (Socialist League, Second Annual Conference, Final Agenda, 1935; LPCR, 1935)

11. Groves’ motives for taking up the position remain obscure. His selection occurred on the eve of the dissolution of the SL and some months after the Marxist League had failed to prevent it from participating in the Unity Campaign. There is no evidence that it was a considered move by the League, and Groves’ handwritten notes of the time strongly convey his disenchantment with factional warfare. (Warwick MSS 172/ LP.A)

12. Labour had lost in a straight fight against the Conservatives at Ipswich on 16 February and against a National Liberal at Lichfield on 5 May. Between these two there had only been a tiny Liberal vote at West Fulham on 6 April. (C. Cook and J. Ramsden (eds.), By-Elections in British Politics, 1973 p371)

13. “The greatest service he could render to the cause of democracy and peace would be to withdraw from the contest and lend his support to the candidate who had in comparably the better chance of defeating the representative of the National Government.” (Progressive Alliance in Action, handbill, n.d.)

14. Members of the Labour and Liberal Parties sat on this committee which covered a neighbouring constituency.

15. W.G. Hanton, a former Communist Leaguer, arrived in Aylesbury for the campaign. Groves was not pleased to see him, portraying him in his private notes as dour and dogmatic. No other Trotskyists are recorded as having visited Aylesbury. Fight, the journal of the Revolutionary Socialist League, of which most of Groves’ former comrades from the Marxist League days were members, reviewed his study of Chartism, But We Shall Rise Again, in May but did not mention his candidature.

16. Groves suspected at least one EC member of being a covert Communist. At one meeting, Kneeshaw, an opponent of his candidature, protested “how will Attlee feel on the same platform as Reg Groves?”, another delegate enquired “how will Reg Groves feel on the same platform as Attlee?”.

17. On 23 April the EC backed him 21 to 8. A week later, in Shepherd’s presence, it stayed behind him but by 15 to 10. (News Chronicle, 9 May 1938)

18. The Star, 6 May 1938. On 7 May The Star described Groves’s campaign as “hopeless” and called for a fourth condemnation of the government (following Ipswich, Fulham, and Lichfield) behind a united opposition candidate. That same day the News Chronicle also recalled these earlier by-elections and advised “the lesson of Lichfield ought not to be lost on Aylesbury”.

19. The Herald drew special comfort from the large audiences Groves was drawing to his meetings. (A.J. McWhinnie, Why Labour will Fight Mid-Bucks, Daily Herald, 9 May 1938)

20. Harry Pollitt wrote, “Aylesbury has become the testing ground of the struggle between the forces of reaction, backed by the Cliveden set and the Trotskyists”. He appealed to local Labour Parties to protest against “this cynical attempt to hand over a seat to Chamberlain and his Fascist friends”. (Daily Worker, 9 May 1938) The next day the paper repeated a call for withdrawal from the Taunton Left Book Club which stated “peace and democracy anxiously await a decision” (viz. a withdrawal).

21. Daily Worker, 11 May 1938. The article concluded that Labour support for a Liberal who called for arms for Spain, defence of democratic liberties and the economic and social advance of the people would be a big step on the path for socialism.

22. Two of the questions asked (and to which the Council expected a positive response) concerned support for action by the League of Nations. Groves’ success was therefore puzzling. (Daily Worker, 14 May 1938) In his manifesto Groves declared “a successful League of Nations is not possible until the people are able to express and enforce effectively their will to peace”.

23. A full appreciation of the campaign cannot be achieved without reading the close and often verbatim reports of speeches in the local press, the Bucks Herald, the Bucks Advertiser, and the Bucks Examiner. For comments on the campaign see H. Dewar, Communist Politics in Britain, 1976, pp.l26, 153.

24. In reply to Robertson’s claims, the Divisional Labour Party claimed that all but four of its members were working loyally for Groves. (Manchester Guardian, 14 May 1938).

25. It insisted that only the defeat of Chamberlain mattered, accused Groves of “sailing under the false colours of a Labour candidate” and of being “a Trotskyist agent to carry out the same disruptive policy in Mid-Bucks” as in France, Spain, China and the USSR. (Daily Worker, 13 May 1938) This article was circulated in Aylesbury as a Communist Party leaflet.

26. The Daily Record and Mail for 13 May must have raised eyebrows with its declaration that Groves had ‘no more connection with Trotsky than Mr Attlee or Mr Herbert Morrison’, but it was on strong ground in recalling earlier Communist hostility to orthodox capitalist parties and Liberal hostility to socialism which threatened a repeat of the 1929-31 experience.

27. Despite its misgivings, Reynolds News reports were accurate and fair. On 15 May 36. it wrote: “Mr Reg Groves, the Labour candidate, is putting up a splendid fight, He is appealing to the electors on a clear-cut Socialist platform and declares that there an be nothing in common between Labour and Liberal policy.” Pritt's behaviour could occasionally be quixotic. He had declined a Transport House suggestion to stand against Fenner Brockway at Norwich. (F. Brockway, Towards Tomorrow, 1977, p.115)

28. On 16 May Groves received a letter from Fenner Brockway pledging NAC support and declaring “we need an alliance to oppose the National Government. But it must be an alliance not of workers and capitalists, but of workers and workers.” (New Leader, 13 May 1938)

29. The Daily Herald, which had reported the establishment of new town branches of the party in the area, predicted on 16 May “a greatly increased Labour vote”. Two days later the Manchester Guardian predicted he would come third and complained:

… he is preaching the entire Socialist doctrine, and that, in a short campaign, is more likely to confuse possible recruits than to convert them.

30. The result, with 1935 votes in brackets, was:

Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History

Sir Stanley Read (Conservative)  



T. Atholl Robertson (Liberal)



Reginald Groves (Labour)



31. The turn-out fell from 70.2 per cent to 63.1 per cent between 1935 and 1938. Groves raised his share from 11 percent to 19. 1 per cent but the Tory’s share fell by 3.3 per cent and the Liberal’s by 4.8 per cent. (Cook and Ramsden, op. cit., p371)

32. The swing against the Tories is put by different measures at 5.8, 10.1 and 5.3 per cent. (Ibid.) The peak anti-government swing at the time of Munich was 4.1 per cent. (I. McLean, Oxford and Bridgwater, in ibid., pp.l4O-64)

33. Manchester Guardian, 21 May 1938.

34. “Congratulations, Mr Groves and Goodbye, Popular Front” (Daily Herald, 21 May 1938)

35. It favoured local electoral pacts and complained that all of Labour’s counter-arguments were aimed against national alliances, see issues of 14 May and 11 June 1938.

36. It believed Groves had attacked the Liberals more strongly than he had the Conservatives and concluded that a victory for the latter was inevitable in these circumstances.

37. It complained of “the money that was poured out” against a Peace Alliance and spoke darkly of cheers in “certain rooms” at Transport House. (Daily Worker, 21 May 1938)

38. How we Fought the Liberal-Communist Alliance, Forward, 28 May 1938.

39. F. Warburg to Groves, 31 May 1938; J.P. Millar to Groves, 7 June 1938.

40. Wilfred Wigham, who had acted as Groves’ driver for the duration, thought Groves had thrust the Labour Party back to Socialism and put the case for turning out the whole working class: “Thanks to the Liberal-Communist challenge, he has been backed even by moderate Labour elements”. (New Leader, 20 May 1938)

41. The Lesson of Aylesbury, Workers International News, June 1938.

42. Fight, June 1938. However, Stuart Purkis, who had left the Communist League in 1934 but had supported the Trotsky Defence Committee, examined Groves’ submissions to the Council (Fight claimed he had not) and declared them sound. (Fight, August 1938.)

Updated by ETOL: 7.7.2003