On this day … 13 March 1893

On 13 March 1893, the Preston branch of the Independent Labour Party (ILP) was formed. The ILP had held its inaugural conference in Bradford in January, where the delegates included the founder of the Labour Party Kier Hardie. The suffragette Edith Rigby joined the Preston branch in 1905.

At the 1895 general election, the ILP fielded James Tattersall as their candidate for one of the two Preston seats. He came in third behind the two successful Conservative candidates: Hanbury, 8,928; Tomlinson, 7,622; Tattersall, 4,781. Tattersall later joined the Conservative party, representing it as an alderman on Leeds city council.

ILP leader Keir Hardie

In the next general election in 1900, Kier Hardie (pictured) stood for the ILP in Preston, doing no better than Tattersall: Hanbury, 8,944; Tomlinson, 8,067; Keir Hardie, 4,834.

The first true working class Parliamentary candidate in Preston was Thomas Mottershead, who stood for one of the Preston seats in the 1874 election as the ‘Working Men’s Candidate’. His campaign wasn’t helped by the Preston Chronicle, as revealed on the excellent Lancashire Working Lives website. The paper’s editorial, probably penned by its editor the Preston historian Anthony Hewitson, included the following:

Who is Mottershead, what does he want here? Now we have nothing against the individual character of Mr Mottershead but we object entirely to his mission among us. We have no faith politically speaking in the “Working Men’s Candidate” idea. We believe it is the outcome of a selfish delusion and we are of opinion that just in the ratio of its development, there will be brawling, discord, pettifogging and chaos.

It does not involve greater prosperity and happiness for the working classes, but the consolidation of their order into one great mass envy of superiors, disaffected towards the middle and upper classes, filled with delusive ideas of their actual position in the arena of life.

The only tangible argument we have in favour of sending Working Men’s Candidates to Parliament is this. That if they got there they would soon find out what foolish dreams they have been dreaming, how useless and helpless they are, and generally what a large and asinine bubble they have been blowing.

The result was: Hermon (Con) 6,512; Holker (Con) 5,211; Mottershead 3,756. The Liberals did not contest the seat, lending their support to Mottershead.

Many saw an element of cynical opportunism in that Liberal support, including, later in his life, Mottershead himself, who, according to the socialist writer Henry Hyndman, ‘did not believe that his Liberal paymasters who bought and used him meant any good to the workers. He knew better than that’. Whereas, again according to Hyndman, ‘Sir John Holker, the Tory lawyer, who was one of his opponents, had always been a good friend to him from that time onwards’.

Any working class candidate in Preston faced an uphill struggle when the Conservatives held a stranglehold on the borough, which returned two Tory MPs at every election from 1865 to 1906.

One of the chief reasons for this Conservative success was down to the local party’s superb grassroots organisation which helped turn out the working class for the party throughout those forty years. This was largely down to the now-forgotten Primrose League, a national body that fostered the sort of working-class deference of which Hewitson would have approved, and had remarkable success throughout Lancashire, prompting one Liberal commentator to complain, ‘Frailty! thy name is Lancashire!’

Preston-born John Gorst, (pictured) a former pupil of Preston Grammar School, was instrumental in setting up the Primrose League and served as its president until 1906, by which time he had become disenchanted with the Conservatives. In 1910 he stood unsuccessfully as Liberal candidate in Preston; presumably the Primrose League was marshalled against him.

For more on John Gorst:

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