The development of the Labour Party in the Black Country (1918-39)
AbstractThis thesis shows that for much of the inter-war period the Labour Party in the Black Country developed in a pattern, which was distinct within the West Midlands. Whilst Birmingham could claim to remain as the stronghold of Unionism during this period, the Black Country came close at times to becoming a `Labour Heartland'. This makes it impossible to generalise about the strength of Unionism in the West Midlands during the inter-war years. Even before 1914 Joseph Chamberlain's Unionism with its call for protective tariffs, coupled with social reforms, had had less of an impact on the working-class vote in the Black Country than in Birmingham. Nevertheless, the Labour Party had been slow to grow in the Black Country in pre-war years, suffering from similar constraints on its development as in other working-class regions. These were, in particular, the limited expansion of the trade union movement and the restrictive nature of the pre-war franchise. The situation altered rapidly in the post-war years with the Labour Party returning four MPs from the ten Black Country constituencies in the 1918 General Election. This was a relatively greater success than in most similar working-class regions across the country. During the early 1920s the party built steadily on this initial success, winning more parliamentary seats, although relatively fewer on municipal councils. This was mainly because these elections were still fought on a restricted franchise. Expansion was even swifter in the second half of the decade, culminating in Labour's success in the 1929 General Election, when the Black Country returned nine Labour MPs. This achievement proved short-lived, however, as the region's nine Labour MPs were defeated in the 1931 General Election. The party's share of the total vote, however, dropped less here than nationally, despite the added problem of the defection of three of the region's Labour MPs. Nevertheless the party recovered only modestly during the 1930s, which ended with the Black Country having fewer MPs than in 1918. In this respect at least Labour reflected the position in Birmingham at this time, where, apart from the 1929 General Election, the city almost continually returned Unionist candidates. Labour's initial success in the Black Country came with the removal of the constraints on its development. This came with the reform of the parliamentary franchise in 1918, but more especially with the growth of trade unionism in the region during the war. This further weakened the bonds between employers and their workforce, which had traditionally characterised the workshop economy of Birmingham and extended into parts of the Black Country. The fact that Labour was slow to build on this initial post-war success was mainly a consequence of the industrial depression, which affected the Black Country particularly badly in the early 1920s. Falling union membership and funds affected local parties, which were very dependent on the trade union levy. This situation was made much worse by the 1927 Trade Union Act, which further hit trade union subscriptions to the Labour Party. Where the evidence is available it also seems that internal feuds and disputes frequently affected local parties. Labour's success in 1929 was influenced by such local factors as an improving economy and better party organisation with many constituencies showing an increase in activities and in the number of individual members. The impact of personalities such as the recently elected Oswald Mosley should not be exaggerated. Support for Labour mirrored the parochial character of many parts of the region, where most of the electorate still lived in close-knit working-class communities. This may account for the low swing against the party in the 1931 General Election, which followed soon after the fall of the Labour Government. Labour's modest performances during the 1930s were only partly a consequence of the events of 1931, which, nevertheless, had a significant impact on local party morale and organisation. The region was also experiencing an economic recovery, which characterised much of the West Midlands during this decade. Credit for this though went to the National Government, which also offered populist policies on tariffs and social reform. It meant that although support for Labour remained fairly solid throughout the period, the region could return only three MPs in 1935. This meant that by the end of this decade it would not be possible to describe the Black Country as a 'Labour heartland'.
PublisherUniversity of Wolverhampton
TypeThesis or dissertation
DescriptionA thesis submitted in partial fulfilment of the requirements of the University of Wolverhampton for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy
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