Radical ambition: Ramsay MacDonald and the 1895 general election

David Hanson reflects on the political trajectory of a firebrand would-be Labour MP whose early radical ambitions were set out during his first foray into electoral politics in 1895

MacDonald’s election address: see larger image below.

James Ramsay MacDonald fought his first parliamentary election in 1895. The Independent Labour Party had been founded just two years earlier, and though not a founder member, MacDonald had joined early on after gaining political experience as a Liberal. The election leaflet shown here was produced for his attempt to gain the Southampton seat on behalf of the ILP.

Born in Scotland to a farm labourer and housemaid out of wedlock, MacDonald had worked on a farm, as a journalist, and in politics for a Liberal MP before joining the ILP in 1894. That political link had led him earlier that year to visit Southampton, where he was one of three working men vying for the Liberal nomination – unsuccessfully, as it turned out.

Encouraged by other working men in the city, however, MacDonald returned to Southampton and at the 1895 general election stood on behalf of the ILP – one of 28 candidates fielded by the fledgling party under its leader, Keir Hardie.

Lord Salisbury and the Conservative Party were in the ascendant and destined to win, with the Liberals led by Earl Roseberry, the outgoing prime minister, losing seats. When the votes were counted, Macdonald had just 4% of the vote, 867 votes, and came fifth – in last place. And after three years as MP for West Ham, Keir Hardie had lost his seat. None of the 28 Labour candidates were elected.

MacDonald had, however, put forward a series of key pledges in his election leaflet, including adult suffrage, the abolition of the House of Lords. Self-government for Scotland, Wales, Ireland and England as part of a federation, the payment of MPs, and the reform of electoral registration. The text of the leaflet makes a strong case for socialism.

By the end of 1895, the ILP appeared to be dead. Yet just five years later Hardie’s charisma and MacDonald’s organising skills won it a foothold in Parliament. Elected secretary of the Labour Representation Committee, MacDonald played a key role in the critically important deal with the Liberals that allowed Labour candidates to contest a number of seats without Liberal opposition.

By 1906, there were 29 Labour MPs, including MacDonald, now representing Leicester. The new Labour Group was able to make good on MacDonald’s earlier electoral pledges, voting for payment of MPs in 1906, and tabling a Bill in 1912 to give all adult men and women the vote.

Hardie left office as Labour leader in 1908; three years later, in 1911 MacDonald succeeded to the post. Although he would resign as leader in August 1914, his pacifist beliefs preventing him from supporting the proposed war budget and other measures, he remained politically active, founding the anti-war Union of Democratic Control that same year.

After the war he returned to Labour leadership, and in 1924 would lead his party into government to become Labour’s first prime minister. The pledges he made in Southampton on devolution and Lords reform would have to wait for another Labour government in 1997, but MacDonald’s administration would start the social progress that continued throughout the 20th century under Labour. That first minority government expanded social housing, gave powers to increase the school leaving age and supported measures to improve farm wages and pensions.

MacDonald’s organisational skills and his role in forging a Labour Party that changed UK politics and helped improve the lives of millions is now forgotten thanks to his second period as prime minister after 1931, during which he split the Parliamentary Labour Party and formed a National Government sustained in power by the Conservative Party for years to come. That betrayal has not been forgotten by his party. But this leaflet is from a moment in time when the future was his and Labour’s.

Sir David Hanson has been a Labour Party member since 1976. He served as MP for Delyn from 1992-2019 and as a minister in the governments of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. Follow him on Instagram (https://www.instagram.com/inthecabinet/) to see more of his collection of Labour memorabilia.

James Ramsay MacDonald’s election leaflet. Source: author’s collection. Click for a larger images.