Party politics and the people : continuity and change in the political history of Wolverhampton, 1815-1914
This dissertation adopts the case-study approach to undertake a detailed analysis of English popular politics in the century between the end of the Napoleonic wars and 1914. The first two chapters analyse popular Radicalism in Wolverhampton between 1815 and 1880 and argue that historians have greatly underestimated the continuity between supposedly 'class conscious' Chartism and 'reformist' mid-Victorian Radicalism. Contrary to much speculation, popular Liberalism developed in spite of, rather than because of the, activities of local Liberal elites. Indeed plebeian/patrician conflict was a constant feature of Radical-Liberal politics throughout the nineteenth century and played an important part in the labour movement's break with Liberalism after 1890. Chapter three looks in details at the popular Tory revival of the 1880s and '90s, arguing that it should be seen in the context of widespread disillusionment with the Liberal penchant for Caucus politics and moral evangelism. In short, popular Toryism is treated as a serious political movement which established strong roots in many working class communities, rather than as a form of political deviance to be dismissed as an aberration. Chapters four and five present a new interpretation of early Labour politics by rejecting the orthodox assumption that the shift from Liberalism to 'Labourism' can be seen as the product of more fundamental structural changes affecting the working class as a whole. Labour politics cannot be seen in any unproblematic way as class politics, or even as distinctively 'working class'. On the one hand, a large proportion of Labour activists sprang from the middle classes (especially the petty bourgeoisie), while on the other, Labour consciously appealed to all workers, 'by hand and by brain', in its campaign against the 'idle classes' who dominated political and social life. Here, as elsewhere, Labour politics stood in a direct line of descent from Paine, the Chartists and the mid-Victorian Radicals. The final section focusses on the problematic relationship between pre-war Labour politicians and the people they sought to represent. Labour's systematic marginalisation of women, and its misrepresentation of the urban poor is shown to have seriously undermined its attempt to construct a broad political coalition in pre-war Wolverhampton. This section also discusses the organisational shortcomings of Edwardian Labour politics and concludes that reliance on a narrow trade union base, though necessary, undermined Labour's claim to be a popular, all-encompassing mass movement.