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Parties, Agents and Electoral Culture 1880-1910

A review

by Michael Meadowcroft

The demise of the traditional party agent and its replacement by the "campaign manager" has been an unremarked evolution over the past thirty years. In addition there have been very few books of memoirs of agents or indeed of books about political agents. Kathryn Rix is thus filling a long standing niche, at least as a first instalment.

Kathryn Rix chooses her commencing and terminal dates with a measure of logic. She argues that 1880, as the last election with cities as single constituencies, saw a sea change in the agent's role. Previously the candidate's agent was more often than not a local solicitor, doing it as a professional duty without necessarily being of the same political hue as his candidate. He - and it was always a "he" - usually specialised in the vagaries of election law and handled the legal process of electoral registration. Although the lawyers progressively gave way to political agents the lawyer/agent syndrome clearly survived much longer in the far flung areas. I recall Jo Grimond relating how in 1945, on the recommendation of his local Liberal party officers in Orkney and Shetland, he went to see a local solicitor whom he invited to act as his agent. The solicitor responded, "By all means - and in which party's interest will you be standing?" Her terminal date of 1910 is chosen as it marks the entry of Labour party agents with a very different perception of the agent's role.

Another consequence of the delineation of constituencies was the development of constituency party organisation. It is difficult to appreciate how recent are parties as we know them today. Constituency party organisation was developed from the late 1860s by Joseph Chamberlain in Birmingham, and executed by his brilliant organiser, Francis Schnadhorst. Before this, local parties were largely separate entities, loosely federated at the national level. Each party's Chief Whip was the key figure in placing and financing parliamentary candidates. Now there was the beginning of mass membership and local democratic structures. When Gladstone announced his espousal of Irish Home Rule in 1885 he caused a huge and lethal split in the Liberal party. The Liberal Unionists, following Chamberlain, who opposed Home Rule, were defeated at the 1886 conference of the National Liberal Federation and went off to form a separate party. Initially it formed an electoral pact with the Conservatives and was assimilated into the Conservative party by 1912.

Crucially, Schnadhorst stayed with the Gladstonians. He was promised a high salary and, it is said, had been badly treated by Chamberlain. It was a great, if expensive, coup by the "official" party but my view is that he was past his peak by 1886 and, hampered by his increasing deafness, was a waning asset. Nevertheless he was a seminal figure in the development of agency and Rix acknowledges this at length.

For the purposes of her book, Rix makes a distinction between paid and unpaid agents. In some respects this is an artificial definition. For instance, in Leeds there was John Shackleton Mathers who was a remarkable agent for the city party. He was a building society agent and appears to have earned enough to enable him to devote the majority of his time to running the party in Leeds. Described by Sir Wemyss Reid, editor of the Leeds Mercury as "the best wire-puller I ever knew" his tactics of seduction and co-option into the Liberal party of all the leading Labour personalities as Councillors and magistrates kept Labour at bay in the city for a decade beyond Bradford and other cities. However, because he was unpaid he does not figure in Kathryn Rix' book.

Kathryn Rix examines the different aspects of the agent's duties, extending beyond the narrow election period. She is very interesting on the topic of social activities of the parties. She points out that many Liberal agents were greatly hampered in organising social activities by the party's, or the candidate's, pro-temperance stance.

Kathryn Rix has trawled through an astonishing array of theses, books and articles as a basis for her book and occasionally it descends into being a catalogue of quotations from these sources but its authenticity cannot be doubted. In the light of her diligence it is rather churlish to point out an undiscovered but important source. In Leeds we have the oldest subscription library ion Britain being established in 1768. It possesses a remarkable scrapbook from the 1892 parliamentary election in East Leeds kept by the Conservative agent, Charles Wilson, Leader of Leeds City Council for twenty years and one-term MP for Central Leeds. Wilson kept everything - invoices, receipts orders etc - so that it is a goldmine for researchers. Martin Wainwright used the scrapbook as a major source for his MA degree at Merton College, Oxford, later written up in 1971 as Ireland not Socialism - A Leeds Election.

Kathryn Rix' study takes us up to 1910. I hope that she can be persuaded to continue it in a second volume.

Parties, Agents and Electoral Culture 1880-1910 by Kathryn Rix, published by Royal Historical Society - Boydell Press, 2016, ISBN 978-0-86193-340-2, 278pp, £50

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