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The Merthyr Election of 1906

Kenneth Owen Fox, National Library of Wales journal. 1965, Winter Volume XIV/2.

Extracted onto the pages of GENUKI with the kind permission of the National Library of Wales

This is a complete extract of this article by Gareth Hicks  (Feb 2003)


The Merthyr Election of 1906   1

THE election of 1906 was a significant watershed in the political history of Britain; the polls reflected the popular waning of the chauvinism which had attended the now-terminated Boer War, wrecking the eleven-year administration of the Unionists at this first election in a time of peace, whilst the Labour Representation Committee signified its precocious electoral maturity by adopting the name Labour Party. In South Wales those constituencies which had been lost to the Unionists in 1895 returned to their historic Liberal context and the South Wales Miners' Federation, contesting its first general election since the formation in 1901 of its Parliamentary Scheme, joined the Liberals in promoting the further success of the established principle of Liberal-Labour representation in the working class constituencies. In the constituency of Merthyr Boroughs the result of this election vindicated the peculiar alliance of the Central Liberal Office and the Labour Representation Committee and sustained the apparently fortuitous return of Keir Hardie at the 'Khaki' election of 1900.

At first it had seemed that there would be no opposition to the sitting members of Parliament, D. A. Thomas and Keir Hardie: the Conservatives had made no effort to select a candidate and Dan Davies, a Cardiff merchant who had hoped to stand as an unofficial Tariff Reform candidate, had been forced to withdraw before the election contest because of a lack of support for his unpopular programme. 2  The belated appearance of Henry Radcliffe, a Cardiff shipowner and a member of the South Glamorgan Liberal Association as a candidate, however, introduced the element of rivalry into the contest and tested the durability of Hardie's triumph in 1900.

Certainly, Radcliffe had every reason for confidence. As his broadsides pointed out to the Merthyr electors, Hardie's nomination at the Abernant conference of trades union delegates which had been convened by the trades councils of Merthyr and Aberdare in September 1900 had been secured by a small socialist pressure group only after the hostile delegates of 12,000 miners had left the conference. Nor could it be forgotten that the chance antagonism of the sitting members, D. A. Thomas and W. Pritchard Morgan, had conditioned the climate of opinion during this election contest and that Thomas' support of Hardie against Morgan had won a large number of votes for the architect of the Independent Labour Party.

Radcliffe concentrated his campaign against Hardie in a determined effort to woo the labour voters away from the political heresy which they had endorsed at the previous election, and he encouraged the...............

....................... support of the miners by including in his election programme the policies of the Miners' Federation. In addition, his organizers began a smear campaign against Hardie and broadsides were circulated which attacked socialism and questioned Hardie's sincerity. J. Havelock Wilson, the president of the National Seamen's Union, who had failed to secure re-election at Middlesborough in 1900 partly owing to the opposition of Hardie and whose candidature for the same seat was being contested at this time by George Lansbury, a candidate of the Labour Representation Committee, gave his backing to Radcliffe's campaign and urged the labour voters to evict Hardie. One broadside even quoted Lloyd-George's dismay at Hardie's Opposition to Wilson, a genuine Labour representative, and William Abraham, the member of Parliament for the Rhondda, and Tom Richards, the member of Parliament for West Monmouth, were cited as Radcliffe's supporters, but both men denied any connection with Radcliffe.

The Labour organizers responded with equal vigour to these attacks: walls were decorated with anti-Radcliffe slogans and pamphlets were issued in which a number of officials of the National Seamen's Union denounced Radcliffe as the employer of cheap foreign labour. The Labour committee rooms were a centre of attraction for passers-by who gathered in the street to read the Labour manifestos and to view the cartoon which depicted a battered Radcliffe being kicked out of Merthyr by three feet. Broadsides proclaimed gleefully that Radcliffe held shares in the Western Mail, a newspaper which was regarded by the politically-conscious workmen as a heinous Tory conspiracy against labour. In order to add authenticity to the verbal attacks on Radcliffe's record as a labour exploiter groups of seamen were brought from Cardiff and Newport and these attended Radcliffe's meetings, noisily voicing their protests and preventing his speaking. Radcliffe's supporters retaliated by breaking up Hardie's meetings similarly, and this heckling soon developed into pitched battles between the opposing factions. For Miss Kenny, a suffragette and a member of the Independent Labour Party who was participating in Hardie's campaign, this was 'the meanest, dirtiest election ever fought.' 3

Radcliffe's attempt to capture the labour electorate, however, had little success. Hardie's position was far stronger than a casual knowledge of the events which led to his return in  1900 might indicate. Although the membership figures of the Independent Labour Party in South Wales had ebbed after the 1898 miners' strike which had accelerated the growth of this party to astonishing proportions, in the Merthyr-Aberdare area the party retained a considerable influence. Both the Merthyr and the Aberdare trades councils were controlled by the socialists, and, although the political ambitions of the South Wales...........

.................... Miners' Federation were contained within the framework of the old political traditions of Liberal-Labour, the small trades unions of Merthyr Boroughs tended to possess a left-wing character. If the socialists lacked experience in electoral organization they balanced this easily with their whole-hearted participation in the 1900 campaign and Hardie's return owed much to their energetic efforts.

Hardie's surprising victory in  1900 stimulated the expansion of the Independent Labour Party in South Wales from the relative nadir of geographical contraction which had been reached by this year. In Merthyr Boroughs the party expanded steadily and a local Labour Representation Committee was formed in 1903   4 which secured the return of a number of Labour candidates to the local government boards in the following years. When the Merthyr Borough Council was created in 1905 it had a majority of Labour members including the socialist, Enoch Morrell, the first mayor of Merthyr. 5  Even more important for the local development of the Independent Labour Party was the abandonment of the hostility of the miners' leaders and their absorption into the party. 6  In 1904 and again in 1905 the miners' associations in the constituency pledged their support for Hardie 7  and hundreds of miners and their families volunteered to take part in his election campaign long before the date of the election. 8 The Aberdare branch of the South Wales Miners' Federation expressed publicly its disapproval of Radcliffe's candidature and the Federation Executive, although it had refused several applications to run Hardie as a Federation candidate for this election, 9 gave Hardie its tacit support by not contesting his seat with its own selected candidate.

Far more effective than Radcliffe's appeal to the labour voters was his attempt to become the focus on Liberal-nonconformist discontent. Although Hardie and the Independent Labour Party had alienated a number of Liberal electors by their socialist policies, it was D. A. Thomas who faced the more serious challenge from Radcliffe. Since the 1900 election Thomas had been experiencing a political metamorphosis that drew him further to the left away from the Welsh Liberalism he had formerly championed. As early as 1903 Thomas resigned his directorship of the Cambrian Colliery Company in order to retain the support of the workmen in his own constituency who were beginning to view with suspicion the paradox of a capitalist claiming to represent their particular interests. 10  During the 1906 election contest Thomas stressed his cordial relationship with Hardie and revealed that he had rejected several applications for support from prospective Liberal candidates for Hardie's seat. Moreover, he pledged that the interests of the workmen would receive priority on his programme and advocated the formation of another and more durable Liberal-Labour Association in the constituency than the ephemeral organization sponsored by Pritchard Morgan in 1892.

To the dismay of many Liberal electors Thomas, who had become disillusioned with the Welsh Parliamentary Party, abandoned this party and withdrew into political isolation in parliament.

Radcliffe, who attracted local sentiment by his childhood connection with Merthyr and by his membership of a local Calvinistic Methodist chapel, cohered the grievances of the Liberal-nonconformists around his platform. His campaign, which favoured the twin causes of disestablishment and separatism, was applauded by the officials of the chapels, and his promise to re-build the Liberal caucus of Merthyr Boroughs which, after its failure to block Pritchard Morgan's return in 1888, had languished for eighteen years in the shade of Thomas' personal domination of local Liberalism, gained for him the support of the right-wing Liberals of the ineffective caucus. Thomas, who was irritated by this unexpected prospect of a contest, was forced to intensify his campaign, and the popular disapproval of his retirement from the Welsh Parliamentary Party evident at Radcliffe's public meetings spurred Thomas to supervene to his election programme the assurance that, if returned, he would re-join this party and aid its development as an influential element in parliamentary politics.

As during the previous election the contest was three-cornered and the issues, with the exception of the war controversy, revolved around similar themes. For Hardie the main issue was the need to maintain the strength of the principle of independent Labour representation against the powerful counter-attack of the Liberal-nonconformists, whilst Thomas relied on his record as the senior member for Merthyr and promised a continuation of his known policies. Radcliffe, who had the advantage over Pritchard Morgan, whom Hardie had beaten in 1900, that he could not be judged, as Morgan had been, on his experience in office, represented both the hostility towards the socialists and the disappointment with Thomas.

The polls returned the sitting members. Hardie, whose candidature had been supported by a number of prominent Labour leaders including Michael Davitt, the Irish Home Ruler, probably won the majority of the labour electorate with his total poll of 10,187 votes which almost doubled his poll of 5,745 votes in  1900. Thomas received a record poll of 13,971 votes, but it is notable that only 651 'plumpers' were recorded for him in contrast to the impressive 2,304 votes cast for Hardie and the 1,438 votes cast for Radcliffe. The distribution of the split votes shows that the majority of the electors voted for the return of the sitting members who, together, polled 7,409 votes. Nevertheless, Radcliffe, who had not been given the official sanction of the Central Liberal Office, polled a significant 7,776 votes, and the 5,878 votes which were cast for Thomas and Radcliffe together illustrate the numerical extent of ................

....................... that section of the electorate which hoped that, with Radcliffe's encouragement, Thomas would be induced to re-enter into a more vigorous prosecution of Welsh particularism.

The 1906 election re-affirmed Hardie's representation of Merthyr Boroughs. Yet this event was robbed of much of its importance by the electoral pact of  the Central Liberal Office and the Labour Representation Committee which had been concluded in 1903. Merthyr Boroughs was one of a number of working class constituencies in which the Labour Representation Committee candidate was guaranteed no official Liberal opposition in return for the support of the Committee for other Liberal candidates where the Committee had any influence. 11  Herbert Gladstone, the Liberal Chief Whip, had written to Thomas a few months before the election to assure both Thomas and Hardie of his support and to wish them a safe and unopposed return. Hardie and Thomas, themselves, in addition to this Liberal-Labour Representation Committee understanding, had their own personal arrangement which involved a mutual support of each other's candidatures. Although the election seemed to reflect the extension and solidity of the Labour Movement in the area, this Labour victory was stultified by its dependence on Liberal goodwill and the ideal of independent Labour representation remained a chimera for the workmen of Merthyr Boroughs.

 

KENNETH OWEN FOX

Borth


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