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Tory Trades Unionism: 19th Century Style

Updated Thursday, 1 October 2015
The Conservatives have announced plans for their own Trades Union movement, hoping to steal support from a traditionally left-leaning grouping. It has echoes of the late 19th Century...

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A candidate standing in a Sheffield council ward on a "Tory Trades Unionist" ticket was - according to the Sheffield & Rotherham Independent, of November 2nd, 1893 - a ruse that voters saw through:

The Tory dodge in Nether Hallam has, notwithstanding all the help of Alderman Bramley and his friends, ended as it deserved to do. A "Tory Trades Unionist" may receive the support of the Tory caucus, Primrose dames, and others: but for the rank and file it is a false trade mark, and so he is placed where he ought to be - at the bottom of the poll. His only chance of success - and the Tories calculated on that - was that the Liberals would treat him with too much indifference and not vote for their good friends Messrs Wood and Nicholson. The lesson taught by this last despicable trick of the Tories will not be forgotten another November.

In 1895, however, the combination of a belief in co-operation, trades unionism, Toryism and socialism proved a successful mix at the ballot box. So successful, in fact, that it managed to cost the then Chancellor of the Exchequer, Sir William Vernon Harcourt, his seat in Parliament. The Northern Echo of July 16th, 1895, reports:

Geoffrey Drage, MP Geoffrey Drage in the year he entered parliament The loss of Sir William Harcourt at Derby will not be an unmixed joy to the Conservatives all round. The result has a special interest in Bishop Auckland and the North from the fact that on the 23rd March last Mr Geoffrey Drage, one of the victorious Tory candidates addressed a meeting of delegates of the "Number 6 District" of the Co-operative Union in Bishop Auckland Temperance Hall.

In the light of last Saturday's event it is interesting to hear that Mr Drage (late secretary of the Labour Commission) had for his subject at the Auckland convention "The Relation of Co-operation of Socialism".

The speaker - a Tory, by the way - said that "co-operation and trades unionism had done more for labour than State effort had been able to accomplish, and he showed the aims and character of Socialism, and pointed out the chief features of social questions, so far as they were helpful, promised help, or otherwise."

The defeat of Sir William by a Tory trades unionist and co-operator gives a new and perplexing turn to a problem which, in the North at any rates, has done much to strain old relations between middle-class and labour Liberalism. Co-operators will be justified in claiming a triumph for their principles in the return even of one of the Tory candidates for Derby.

Though the election would not turn on co-operation the fact that Mr Drage is a co-operator will give a new and disquieting view of one of the great social questions of the day. The loyal support of the Derby Tories to a distinguished co-operator, at any rate, will be read about with mixed interest by many new "Unionists" in the North. It is an interesting object lesson in Conservative politics at any rate.

Drage attributed his 1895 victory to a tireless campaign addressing working men on the need to improve working conditions, although the election was something of a rout for Liberal MPs nationwide and so he was at least helped in part by that rising tide. He would only serve for one term, losing at the 1900 poll. He fought two by-elections during that parliament, and stood for Blackburn in 1905, but his blend of Toryism and Trades Unionism would never reignite the ballot box in his favour.


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