‘The beginning of a flowing tide for Labour’? Labour’s Wakefield by-election victory

James Parker tells the story of Labour’s by-election victory in the Wakefield by-election of 1932.

A by-election victory at Wakefield ninety years ago marked the start of the Labour Party’s slow recovery from electoral disaster in 1931. In opposition after the unhappy experience of minority government from 1929-31 and the loss of some of its key leaders to the National Government in August 1931, Labour was soundly beaten in the October 1931 general election, with all but one of its former Cabinet ministers losing their seats, and with just 46 official Labour MPs returned. Improving the party’s parliamentary strength was a priority. The Wakefield by-election of 1932 was one of the first opportunities to do so; it also illustrates the importance of the relationship between national and local politics, particularly around the selection of parliamentary candidates, as well aspects of Labour’s relationship with affiliated unions in the interwar years.

Arthur Greenwood, photographed by Walter Stoneman in 1930. Click for larger image. © National Portrait Gallery.

Wakefield was a marginal constituency, changing hands at each of the five general elections held since 1922. Labour had won the seat for the first time in 1923, and then again in 1929. There was a substantial industrial working class presence amongst the electorate of just over 32,000 – contemporary estimates suggest a mining vote of around 5,000, with railway and engineering workers and their families accounting for another 4,500 voters. As the administrative centre of the West Riding County Council, there was also a significant white-collar electorate. Labour had been steadily improving its position in municipal elections through the 1920s, briefly winning control of the borough council in 1929 before losing it again in 1930. In the National Government landslide of October 1931, Dr George Hillman, a Conservative, had won the parliamentary seat by a majority of 4,100, but died suddenly in March 1932, prompting a by-election to be held on 21 April 1932.

The likeliest choice for Labour’s candidate was George Sherwood, who had been Wakefield’s MP in 1923-1924 and 1929-1931 and was keen to fight again. Sherwood had deep roots in the constituency and in the Wakefield labour movement; he had been secretary of the Wakefield No. 2 branch of the National Union of Railwaymen (NUR) since the turn of the century and was a former president of the local trades council; he had also served as a borough councillor and then alderman since 1906, leading the Labour group during the 1920s. Since 1924, he had been a sponsored parliamentary candidate of the NUR as a member of the parliamentary panel elected by the union’s national membership. This entitled him to financial support for election campaigns and constituency work, although following his defeat in 1931 Sherwood’s sponsorship had lapsed pending the next ballot for the NUR panel due in spring 1932. Despite this, following the announcement of Hillman’s death, the NUR’s political sub-committee acted quickly to reassure Sherwood that the union would continue to support his candidature; endorsement from the Wakefield Labour Party was likely to follow.

However, desperate to strengthen Labour’s position in the House of Commons, the party’s National Executive Committee saw an opportunity to secure the return of a more heavyweight ‘Front Bench Man’ to better promote the party’s interests nationally. The assistant national agent, Dick Windle, was dispatched to Wakefield to meet the local executive committee, which then voted by 10-6 not to proceed with Sherwood’s candidature; Windle then suggested three alternatives – the ex-Cabinet ministers Arthur Greenwood, A. V. Alexander, and Hastings Lees-Smith. The executive plumped unanimously for Greenwood, the former Minister for Health; his Yorkshire credentials and links to the trade union movement may have been the deciding factors, although there was some resistance – whether from sympathy for Sherwood’s position or hostility to NEC interference – from the wider Wakefield party, which voted by 30-18 to adopt Greenwood. The NUR executive sent an ‘emphatic protest’ to the NEC, arguing that the union had been ‘responsible’ for the constituency for some years, and action of this kind ‘will tend not to produce the solidarity and goodwill necessary for the building up of constituencies for Labour or for the return of Labour Party Headquarters’ nominees to Parliament’, whilst also instructing NUR members to give ‘every possible support’ to Greenwood.

This was a bumpy start to Greenwood’s campaign, although the kind of party-union clash that would mark Arthur Henderson’s selection at Clay Cross the following year had been avoided. The decision of the Liberals not to contest the seat was also inauspicious – both of Labour’s previous Wakefield victories had come in three-cornered contests. Instead, it would be a straight fight between Greenwood and the Conservative Alfred Greaves, a well-known Wakefield solicitor, who fought under the National banner. Greaves’ election address emphasised the National Government’s record on balancing the budget, arguing that it would be folly to undermine the government’s authority ahead of the Ottawa economic conference. Greenwood’s own address criticised the government’s import tariffs policy, perhaps aiming to draw support from Liberal supporters of free trade, and emphasized his record as Minister of Health.

The iniquity of the household Means Test for unemployment benefit was a key campaigning issue for Labour in this period, but, as the Times’ by-election correspondent noted, it was one Greenwood seemed to avoid. Critics suggested that Greenwood had been the originator of the policy in a Ministry of Health memorandum from 1930 – the communist Daily Worker referred to him as ‘baby-starver ex-Minister…the notorious father of the means test’. More problematically, the NUR’s weekly Railway Review carried an article by a member from West Ham the week before the by-election making a similar contention, if in more measured terms. While it would perhaps be too cynical to suggest there was a connection between this and the NUR’s disappointment over the candidature, Greaves was able to produce a copy of the Railway Review on the platform to silence Greenwood’s supporters (Yorkshire Post, 16 April 1932). It is unclear if this controversy had much impact on the result; other aspects of Greenwood’s record, such as the 1930 Housing Act may have been more significant – as the Manchester Guardian’s correspondent pointed out, while Greenwood’s authorship of the means test was disputed, he was ‘the acknowledged ‘father’ of houses on the East Moor Estate in the city he seeks to represent’.

Front page of the Daily Herald, Friday 22 April 1932. Click for larger image

The Labour Party threw significant resources into Greenwood’s campaign; several head office staff were seconded to assist full-time with the campaign, as were four officers of Greenwood’s union, the Transport and General Workers Union. One of these, Mary Carlin, noted that although the Wakefield electors seemed ‘dour and unresponsive’ at the start of the campaign, by polling day she had seen ‘real Yorkshire enthusiasm’. Greenwood was sent a message of support from the Parliamentary Labour Party, and leading Labour figures including George Lansbury, Herbert Morrison and Stafford Cripps visited the constituency as platform speakers, There was particular success in mobilising women activists from nearby constituencies to canvass, with charabanc parties arriving from Sheffield and Greenwood’s former constituency of Nelson and Colne; the party estimated some 300 women election workers took part on polling day. Carlin claimed she had never taken part in an election before ‘where the women so nobly answered the call’. Greaves’ campaign was rather more muted, although he was able to make use of a letter of support from Ramsay MacDonald and a visit from MacDonald’s son Malcolm as a speaker. Neville Chamberlain’s budget two days before the poll seems to have provide Greenwood with a boost; while he could argue that taxation measures were ‘bludgeoning the poor’, Greaves was resigned to describing the budget as ‘not a thing anyone could be enthusiastic about’.

The result was close; following a recount Greenwood emerged with 13,586 votes to Greaves’ 13,242, a majority of 344. Greenwood had likely picked up much of the anti-tariff Liberal vote top record Labour’s highest total vote in the constituency at that point, and its first win in a straight fight. The assessment he gave the Yorkshire Post’s correspondent, that ‘the result at Wakefield is the beginning of a flowing tide for Labour’ was perhaps overly optimistic; Labour still had a long and difficult road back to power ahead. However, it was still significant, as the first National Government loss at a by-election. It returned an experienced figure to the Labour front bench: Greenwood would go on to serve as deputy leader under Attlee, and in several government posts. For Wakefield, it marked the start of a period of Labour parliamentary representation that would last until 2019, before being reclaimed by Labour ninety years on from Greenwood’s success.

Further reading
Labour Party NEC papers, Labour History Archive & Study Centre, People’s History Museum Manchester.
NUR executive committee records and Railway Review, Modern Records Centre, University of Warwick.
Sam Davies & Bob Morley, ‘The Reactions of Municipal Voters in West Yorkshire to the Second Labour Government, 1929-32’ in Matthew Worley (ed.), Labour’s Grass Roots. Essays on the Activities of Local Labour Parties and Members, 1918-45 (Aldershot, 2005).
Jack Reynolds & Keith Laybourn, Labour Heartland. A history of the Labour Party in West Yorkshire during the interwar years (Bradford, 1987).
Andrew Thorpe, The British General Election of 1931 (Oxford, 1991).
Richard Whiting, ‘Arthur Greenwood’ in Dictionary of Labour Biography volume XI, ed. By Keith Gildart, David Howell and Neville Kirk (Basingstoke, 2003).

James Parker is Graduate Tutor in History at the University of York and Associate Tutor in History at the University of Sheffield. Follow him on Twitter at @jamesmtparker. His PhD thesis ‘Trade unions and the political culture of the British Labour Party, 1931-1940’ is available open access here.