A militant and independent socialist who was elected to parliament a century ago, shouldn’t be forgotten, writes James Dean
One hundred years ago a fiery socialist, independent of the Labour Party, was elected to parliament, creating hysteria in the media. He inspired thousands of working people across Britain, yet today many people would not even know his name.
When Victor Grayson was elected to parliament in 1907 he believed it was a victory “for pure revolutionary socialism”. He won against all early expectations and without the backing of the newly formed Labour Party.
Grayson was born in Liverpool on 5 September 1881. He was an apprentice engineer in Bootle, cutting his teeth as a public speaker at a Nonconformist Christian mission.
At this time a period of industrial militancy known as the new unionism was ebbing away, and the ruling elite went on the offensive. This culminated in the Taff Vale decision in 1901 that outlawed picketing and made unions compensate employers for money lost during strikes. Many felt that there was a need for independent working class representation in parliament.
The Labour Representation Committee (LRC) was founded in 1900. It formed an alliance between the trade unions and the Independent Labour Party (ILP), creating a broader party to represent working class people.
Trade unionist MPs had been elected to parliament as members of the Liberal Party, one of the two major ruling class parties, and were known as Lib-Labs.
The LRC would elect MPs who could form a distinct Labour group in the House of Commons.
This initiative aroused little enthusiasm among trade union members, with one ballot over affiliation recording a turnout of only 4 percent. The LRC made little progress – only two candidates were successful in the general election of 1900.
As a result two ILP leaders – Keir Hardie and Ramsay MacDonald – agreed a secret pact with the Liberal Party, whereby Labour and Liberal candidates would not contest the same seats in certain areas. In the 1906 general election 24 out of 29 LRC MPs were returned on this basis.
Although this pact remained secret for over 50 years, it was clear to many that the Labour Party was tailing the Liberal Party. Labour MPs backed the Liberal government in 86 percent of votes between 1906-1908.
The Labour Party was wedded to parliamentary procedure and starved of funds because a law known as the Osborne Judgement had outlawed political levies on trade union members.
The party’s future was by no means certain. It now faced a new challenge as a 25 year old socialist left his training as a Unitarian minister to stand for parliament without its sanction.
Grayson was adopted by the Colne Valley Labour League (CVLL) in West Yorkshire to be its parliamentary candidate, even though the Labour Party refused to endorse him. Members of the CVLL had carried out much preparatory work in the constituency, holding over 125 public meetings in the previous year.
The anti-socialist editor of the Colne Valley Guardian noted, somewhat baffled, that “the higher the wages, the more eager is the straining after the chimerical ideals of socialism”.
The election was fought in the early summer of 1907. Although in his first formal election address Grayson was referred to as the ‘Labour and socialist candidate’, the words Labour and socialist were later reversed.
Grayson said that he wanted “emancipation from the wage-slavery of capitalism”. He was victorious, winning by 3,648 votes.
The mainstream press greeted Grayson’s victory with a mixture of disdain and hysteria. The Colne Valley Guardian lamented that “in the estimation of the country, Colne Valley has grievously fallen and it will take a decade, perhaps a generation, to restore it to its former position”.
The Daily Express ran the headline, “The Menace Of Socialism”. This exaggerated the threat Grayson posed to the ruling elite, but he proved to be a menace to them on more than one occasion.
When Grayson entered parliament the biggest Liberal majority in the party’s history ruled the House of Commons. There were 30 Labour MPs, with half claiming to be socialists. Grayson was asked to join the Labour group but he refused as he did not want to be hamstrung by its decisions.
His maiden speech was not the usual apolitical fair. The government moved a motion to grant £50,000 to Lord Cromer for his services in Egypt. Grayson irreverently stated, “We find ministers… making a grant to an Egyptian official while outside the four walls of this building people are dying of starvation.” This proved to be the first of many controversial speeches that he made.
Grayson traveled the country with his message. He told his audience in Wigan, “I am looking forward to the time when a British soldier will emulate his brother of the National Guard of France and when, asked to fire on the people, who are fighting for their rights, will turn his rifle in the other direction.”
One Saturday night he spoke at Huddersfield town hall. Grayson responded to calls to evict a heckler with characteristic good humour, saying, “Don’t chuck him out. I know what it is to be chucked out.”
He went on to address a packed meeting at St George’s Hall in Bradford, an audience of 2,000 in Keighley and 5,000 at St Pancras in central London. His popularity deeply troubled Labour leaders, who attempted to smear him in order to undermine his support among working people.
When strikes broke out in Belfast in 1907, Grayson took the side of the strikers. He spoke at a meeting in Huddersfield saying, “If the people have no shrapnel, they have broken bottles.”
Grayson was voted Yorkshire’s most popular MP in a poll conducted by a Yorkshire newspaper – he won 27,000 votes against the 22,000 cast for his nearest rival.
On Thursday 2 November 1908, members of the House of Commons were discussing the Licensing Bill. Grayson moved an adjournment so that the house could discuss unemployment.
He refused to stay silent, stating that “the people are starving in the streets; they demand the immediate attention of this house”. He was forced to leave the chamber. As he left he shouted across to the Labour benches, “You are traitors! Traitors to your class.”
The following day he was suspended from the house for making a similar protest, calling the commons “a house of murderers” on his way out.
Grayson lost his seat in the 1910 election. He still polled over 3,000 votes despite division within the Colne Valley Socialist League (successor to the CVLL) and an ill-prepared campaign.
Now outside parliament he became the political editor of the radical Clarion newspaper, and threw his weight behind the drive to form a new socialist party.
In August 1911 he formally resigned from the ILP. This coincided with a period of unprecedented industrial militancy that became known as the Great Unrest.
This period, lasting from 1910 to 1914, saw the first national strikes of miners, dockers and rail workers. Trade union membership doubled and the number of strike days quadrupled.
On the back of this the British Socialist Party was founded in Manchester on 30 September 1911. It could have challenged the Labour Party for influence among working people.
But it was split between syndicalists, who believed in the primacy of strike action, and reformists, who believed in the primacy of parliament. It fractured with the onset of the First World War.
Imperialism proved to be Victor Grayson’s Achilles heel. He defended the British Empire and supported the First World War, even serving in the trenches. However, Grayson also opposed conscription and became bitter at the fact that those who had profited from the war received political honours at the expense of those who had served in the army.
At the end of the war Grayson was isolated – cut adrift from the left and viewed with suspicion by the right. His last political act was to expose the selling of honours by the government, which he declared to be “a national scandal”.
After exposing the honours outrage, he disappeared in mysterious circumstances in 1920 never to be seen again.
Grayson saw parliament as a platform for his ideas, and used his position to bring working class issues to the fore. He was an inspiration to many.
Unfortunately he was held back by a lack of theory – he didn’t see the need for regular industrial work and did not see the importance of independent revolutionary organisation. Lenin described him as “a very fiery socialist but one not strong in principles and given to phrasemongering”.
Despite his sad demise, he deserves to be remembered for so much more. When he was elected to parliament, he said, “I am simply a bullet fired by the Colne Valley workers against the established order.” We could do a lot worse than be bullets too.