The local and the national: professional agents, party organisation and elections, 1880-1910

The local and the national: professional agents, party organisation and elections, 1880-1910

This week, Dr Kathryn Rix (History of Parliament) discusses her new book looking at professional political party organisers in the late 19th and early 20th century.

Last year I published my first book with Boydell and Brewer in the Royal Historical Society’s Studies in History series. Entitled Parties, agents and electoral culture in England, 1880-1910, it provides the first major study of the new breed of professional party organisers who emerged during this period. Working for Liberal or Conservative associations in the constituencies, they handled registration, electioneering and the day-to-day political, social and educational activities of their local party. Significantly, however, unlike the local solicitors who had previously undertaken registration and electioneering, they reached out beyond their constituencies, performing a vital role as intermediaries between politics at Westminster and at grass-roots level. Their position, bridging the gap between ‘high’ and ‘low’ politics, means that the professional agents can be used to shed valuable light on some of the key debates about the electoral system during this crucial period. These include how effectively the Liberal and Conservative parties adapted to the challenges of mass politics after 1885, and how far this period saw the nationalisation of electoral politics.

Bookcover

Cover of Parties, agents and electoral culture in England, 1880-1910 by Dr Kathryn Rix

The original starting point for my research was a largely untapped source: the records of the organisations established on a national basis by the Liberal agents in 1882 and by the Conservative agents in 1891 to further their professional aspirations. These included not only their minute books, but also their professional journals: The Tory, the Conservative Agents’ Journal and the Liberal Agent. However, the National Society of Conservative Agents (NSCA) and the National Association of Liberal Secretaries and Agents (NALSA) – which later merged with another organisation to become the Society of Certificated and Associated Liberal Agents (SCALA) – were national bodies in name only. Their membership, organised on a regional basis, was predominantly English; as my book draws heavily on their records, this was a key factor in my decision to use England rather than Britain in my title, even though many of my conclusions apply to the British political system as a whole.

The agents’ records make it clear that the spread of professional agency was not an even process across the four nations. Scotland’s differing registration procedure, with greater activity by public officials reducing the need for party intervention in the process, was a key reason why paid political agency developed more slowly there. In 1894 the Scottish Conservative Organising Secretaries’ Association decided not to affiliate to the NSCA, instead concentrating on building up its own strength. Much of the technical content of the NSCA’s professional journals would have been irrelevant to agents in Scotland. Yet the fact that the Scottish agents’ body could muster 29 members in 1893 (for Scotland’s 71 constituencies) indicates the growth of professional political activity there, and in 1905 the Conservative party appointed its principal Scottish organiser, Arthur Balfour Haig, as the Chief Conservative Agent at party headquarters in London.

Encouraged by the NSCA, a Conservative agents’ body was founded in South Wales in 1892, but it had a rather intermittent existence until more concerted efforts were made to revitalise it in 1911. There is no evidence of efforts by the NSCA to secure the adhesion of Irish agents. There was a similar picture on the Liberal side, with Irish and Scottish agents absent from the NALSA and its successor the SCALA, which were also organised on a regional basis. Some Welsh agents initially joined the Western (Bristol) region in order to become members of the national body. Among them was Henry Allgood, Liberal agent for Cardiff, who in 1903 noted that efforts were being made to remedy the lack of trained Liberal agents in Wales. A Welsh district of the SCALA was formed later that year, and although only six individuals attended its meeting at Cardiff in June 1903, it gradually built up its membership.

One of the key themes underpinning my book was to explore the complex and shifting interactions between the constituencies and the centre, between politics at Westminster and at grass-roots level. Rather than trying to delineate a straightforward transition from the local sphere to the national sphere as the principal focus of electoral politics, my work follows that of Jon Lawrence, Duncan Tanner, Alex Windscheffel and others in analysing how the connections between the local, regional and national dimensions of politics shaped electoral culture. It has often been assumed that the professionalisation of party organisation was part and parcel of the modernisation and nationalisation of electoral politics, but my research demonstrates that this was not necessarily the case.

On the one hand, it is possible to trace the ways in which the spread of professional agency contributed to greater uniformity across the country in certain aspects of electoral culture, such as the techniques of canvassing. However, this was not necessarily due to a ‘top-down’ process of direction from party headquarters: the agents’ professional networks were an important factor in transmitting new organisational methods between constituencies, as were the high levels of geographical mobility among the professional agents. Yet at the same time, the agents’ organisations served as a valuable channel for communication between the centre and the localities, and these constituency activists increasingly looked to party headquarters for guidance, resources and support for their own professional aspirations.

On the other hand, what emerges very strongly from my research is the persistence of local diversity. The professional agents may have been forging closer links with party headquarters, but when it came to the work of registration, electioneering and party organisation, they realised the importance of responding to the needs of their particular constituencies, taking account of local concerns and priorities. Agents were also well aware that it was, by and large, the constituencies rather than the central parties who wielded power over the agents, not least because they provided the funds to pay them. While headquarters officials voiced sympathy with the agents’ persistent concerns about pay and employment conditions, their lack of intervention to improve them was indicative of the limitations of central party influence over the localities. 

When it came to elections, it is clear that this period saw the growth of a more nationally focused election campaign, as epitomised by the speaking tours of major party figures such as Gladstone, Chamberlain or Churchill. Yet, even by 1910, these remained relatively limited in their impact on voters. While party headquarters offered an increasing array of resources such as political literature to the constituencies, these complemented rather than superseded local electioneering effort. Moreover, local activists such as the agents played a critical role in mediating this central provision before it reached voters, integrating it within the local election campaign.

Reflecting on my research from a ‘four nations’ perspective, it is this emphasis on understanding the complexities and nuances of the relationship between the centre and the localities which strikes me as most important. There is certainly great scope for further research on the connections between the central party organisations in London and organisations in England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales, and for investigating the differences in electoral culture between the four nations.

Dr. Kathryn Rix is Assistant Editor of the History of Parliament’s ‘House of Commons, 1832-1945’ project, and is currently working on biographies of MPs and constituency studies for the 1832-68 period. Her own research interests are party organisation, electoral corruption and political culture.

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