After seventy years of Party activity it is worthwhile drawing attention to the early moves toward contesting parliamentary elections. In November 1906, two years after the formation of the Party, the Battersea Branch issued the first Election Manifesto, in connection with the local Borough Council elections. Twelve members stood as candidates for the various wards.
The Socialist Standard for December 1906 commented: — “All the candidates fought on the Election Manifesto published in our October issue, a few were distributed in each ward. They had no programme of ear tickling, side tracking, vote-catching ‘palliatives’ and did no canvassing. The candidates were practically unknown and had not climbed into popularity on the backs of the working class, by posing as ‘leaders’ of unemployed deputations, ‘right to live’ councils, and similar confusionist conglomerations”.
1906 was a general election year. The Executive Committee issued a leaflet Why Vote? The opening paragraph is all space permits quoting.
"Fellow members of the working class! at the present moment you, or those of you possessed of votes, are being urgently reminded of a fact you may be pardoned for having forgotten — you are of consequence; then you, who but yesterday were ‘hands’, dependent, hirelings, articles of merchandise are today dictators, history-makers, you are the power, the power in the state. You hold the destiny of the Empire in the hollow of your hand. Yesterday, those of you who were unemployed were whining wastrels, scum, unemployable, treated as children on the one hand and dogs on the other. Today if you have votes—you are the bone and sinew of England’s greatness. ‘You count’.
It is a fact you may have forgotten. It is some time since you were so generally and emphatically reminded of it. It may be some time before you are so reminded of it again."
The leaflet dealt with the political parties and their programmes, and gave the Socialist alternative.
At the end of 1906, the Battersea Branch proposed to contest the London County Council (now the Greater London Council) elections. Although Comrades J. Fitzgerald and M. Newman were chosen as candidates, there is no record of them having gone to the polls. The September 1908 Socialist Standard carried a fine article on a by-election at Haggerston, a fine example of political writing of the period. It had humour and sarcasm and is a joy to read, even today, long after the event it is dealing with has been forgotten.
The same year Burnley Branch contested two wards in their district. The December Socialist Standard comment was: “We do not claim to have won either a numerical or a moral victory, although our poll was minute we claim to have done some good, and are not dissatisfied with the results.” About the same period, Tooting Branch put up two candidates for the Tooting ward.
1910 was a good year for Party activity. January saw the distribution of 50,000 General Election manifestos. Like all leaflets of this type it dealt with the political parties of the period and gave the Socialist answer to their claims. Tottenham Branch was active in the field of municipal elections that year. A by-election at Walthamstow was the occasion for the local Branch to issue a leaflet (and for the Liberal candidate to threaten to horse-whip a Party speaker). Watford Branch issued leaflets for the municipal elections of 1913. The war of 1914-18 prevented any electoral activity. For the general election of 1918, the front page of the Socialist Standard stated the Party position.
An important decision was made at a meeting of Party members on the 25th of February 1928 in the Friars Hall: “That this meeting of Party members declares itself in favour of running Socialist candidates at Parliamentary elections at the first opportunity and therefore endorses the action of the E.C. in inaugurating a fund for that purpose.” This meeting is probably one of the most important the Party has held, as from this can be traced the later electoral activity.
At the General Election of 1929, a prospective candidate was appointed for North Battersea. With only £21 12s. in the parliamentary fund the position was hopeless, but Battersea Branch made use of the occasion and inaugurated the type of meeting which has become known as the “challenge” meeting.
In the years 1937-1939 Party members were active in East Ham, preparing for the next general election. A prospective candidate was appointed. Comrades formed teams for door-to-door canvassing, selling the Socialist Standard, and explaining the Party case. Posters were designed and displayed, meetings held, committee rooms obtained, and all preparations were made. This activity was cancelled by the outbreak of war in 1939.
(Metropolitan Theatre Meeting, 1945)
The 1945 General Election provided the opportunity members had been working towards. It was decided to contest Paddington North, with our late Comrade Clifford Groves as candidate. Committee rooms consisted of an old shop which had obviously been vacant for a long time. Members converted it into a centre for distributing literature, arranging meetings and all the work involved in preparing thousands of the candidate’s address for despatch. For some it meant late nights after work; still it was an enjoyable and exciting event.
Members who were active looked forward to two events. First the actual nomination of Comrade Groves, the first Socialist candidate ever to be nominated, an event that at some time will be recognized as an important historical event. Then came the meeting, a challenge meeting held in the old Metropolitan Theatre (now demolished). Some members were doubtful about the venture as being too ambitious. In the event, although the opponents failed to appear, the team of Party speakers put the Socialist message to a packed hall of two thousand.
Many lessons were learnt from the 1945 venture which have proved useful. That which is probably the most useful is to remember that, although the task of spreading Socialist understanding is sometimes difficult, wherever the opportunity arises the Party must take it and never be timid in its efforts.