Radicalism to socialism : the Leicester working class, 1860-1906
This study surveys the social, economic and political development of the Leicester working class between 1860 and 1906. Special attention is given to hosiery and footwear workers who collectively represented over 60% of the industrial workforce in 1891. It is argued that as these two trades were still based on an outwork system well into the last quarter of the century, working practices and cultural activities of the workforce still manifested many aspects of an artisanal milieu. Furthermore, the inefficiency of capitalist control endemic to the outwork system assisted in retaining a strong element of independence in working class political activity. Thus Leicester working class Liberalism was always staunchly radical. Centralisation and mechanisation in hosiery and footwear challenged existing working practices and led to widespread discontent. This unrest also had fundamental political implications. It is argued that Liberalism began to weaken in Leicester when it became identified with a group of employers active in imposing factory production. It is further argued that the process of political change amongst the working class was also partly the product of Leicester's indigenous popular radical tradition. The eventual victory of the factory system brought further political change. Local Socialism abandoned its early interest in cooperative production as the developments in the world of work rendered the ending of artisanal methods. Problems of poverty caused largely by displaced footwear workers became the prime concern of the infant Labour Party. It is argued that Labour consolidated its position in local politics and Liberalism ceased to be an effective force in working class areas because the new party was able to harness the problem of unemployment to its cause. Yet ambiguities remained. Old radicalism, Socialism and reformism were the major elements in working class politics in the years prior to the 1906 general election. These-apparently contradictory aspects were ideally suited to the personality and political philosophy. of J. Ramsay MacDonald, who skillfully utilised them in his successful parliamentary campaign.