With the final decline of the Chartist movement in the late 1850’s, and the dream of electoral reform in favour of working people seemingly as far away as ever, Trade Union and former chartist activists still clung to a central doctrine of reforming the political system.
In 1864 The International Workingmen’s Association (IWA) was founded in London with the aim of uniting a variety of different left wing Socialist, Communist, Anarchist and Trade Union groups from both Britain and Europe. A London silk weaver named Thomas Mottershead, and close ally of Karl Marx, was elected to the General Council of the IWA in 1869 and in the same year was instrumental in the founding of the Labour Representation League (LRL), which was an early forerunner of the modern Labour Party. The original purpose of the LRL was to register the working class to vote and to hopefully succeed in getting working class people elected to Parliament.
In the lead up to the 1874 general election the LRL decided to field 12 candidates nationally under the banner of “Working Men’s Candidates” and In November 1873, Preston Trades Council agreed to promote and nominate Thomas Mottershead as the preferred choice for the working class vote in Preston. (PC Nov’ 29th 1873)
The news of Thomas Mottershead’s candidature for Preston in the 1874 election caused quite a stir. An editorial published in the Preston Chronicle newspaper revealed the hostility felt by many traditionalists towards this development, which read,
“Who is Mottershead, what does he want here ? Now we have nothing against the individual character of Mr Mottershead but we object entirely to his mission among us. We have no faith politically speaking in the “Working Men’s Candidate idea. We believe it is the outcome of a selfish delusion and we are of opinion that just in the ratio of its development, there will be brawling, discord, pettifogging and chaos.
It does not involve greater prosperity and happiness for the working classes, but the consolidation of their order into one great mass envy of superiors, disaffected towards the middle and upper classes, filled with delusive ideas of their actual position in the arena of life.”
In a final mocking reference to the whole idea of working class folk entering Parliament, the editorial finished with,
“The only tangible argument we have in favour of sending Working Men’s Candidates to Parliament is this. That if they got there they would soon find out what foolish dreams they have been dreaming, how useless and helpless they are, and generally what a large and asinine bubble they have been blowing. ( PC Jan 31st 1874)
A further blow to the election hopes of Mr Mottershead occurred in the final week of the campaign. Spurious rumours initiated by persons unknown began circulating Preston, suggesting Thomas Banks, the Secretary of the Preston Operative Cotton Spinners Association, had funnelled off the huge sum of £500 from the spinners funds, to finance the election campaign of Thomas Mottershead.
An emergency meeting of the Preston spinners membership was hastily called at which Banks proved the rumours were completely false. The following resolution was unanimously adopted,
“That this meeting is of opinion that the scandalous and libellous reports circulating against the Secretary of the Preston OperativeSpinners Association, of having appropriated the Society’s funds to aid the return of the Working Man’s Candidate are false, vindictive and have no foundation whatsoever. Furthermore this meeting of operative cotton spinners in general meeting assembled, tender to the Secretary the most entire and the fullest vote of confidence that it is possible to pass upon an individual”.(PC Feb 7th 1874)
Any potential damage done to the electoral hopes of Mottershead with the circulation of these false rumours is difficult to ascertain, however the Working Man’s Candidate for Preston was to face even more hostility from his opponents.
At his last public election meeting held in front of a packed audience at the Public Hall, Mottershead delivered a rousing speech. He outlined the current absurdity of the British Parliamentary system in which the 600 plus Members of Parliament elected to represent the people were comprised of several different factions. Of these factions said Mottershead,
“ There was a group who represented the interests of the aristocracy. Another group represented the landowning class, while another represent the manufacturing and business class. A further group represents the church, while nobody in the House of Commons represents the interests of working class people. We are determined to create a third party in the state, neither Conservative or Liberal, but a party that will truly represent the voice of the ordinary people of Britain”(PG January 31st 1874)
As Thomas Mottershead left the Public Hall after the rally, he was to be escorted back to his lodgings in the Avenham area by friends. As they made their way towards Fishergate through the crowds of people, he found himself separated from colleagues. A large group of men and youths, Tory supporters, began to follow him while becoming increasingly abusive and hostile
Fortunately he was spotted by a supporter who grabbed hold of him and tried to protect him, but as they hurried along Fishergate they were confronted by an even larger mob. Fearing for their lives both men were forced to flee into Winkley Square, where they found refuge in a house. As the mob gathered outside the house. Mottershead and his companion found their way to the cellar, climbed through a rear window into the yard then scaled a series of walls to safety.
The result of the election was,
Edward Hermon (Con) 6,512
John Holker (Con) 5,211
T Mottershead (Wor’ Man’s C) 3,756
The local Liberal Associations had a policy in 1874 of standing aside in seats contested by Working Men’s Candidates, who were financially maintained by Trade Unions. At his victory speech at the Corn Exchange the jubilant Tory John Holker ridiculed the politics of Mottershead and his kind saying,
“Now gentlemen, there is one great gratification that I have at this moment. That is, that proud Preston has not had to suffer the humiliation of having a working man representative in Parliament. I don’t know that I have anything to say against Mr Mottershead, in fact, I am quite sure I have not. But I don’t like Working Men’s Candidates. I do not consider him such a grand specimen of a working man. I don’t know whether he works very hard with his hands, and he certainly does not seem to work very hard with his brains, if we may judge from the specimens of speeches he delivered to the electors of Preston.
But in regards to Working Men’s Candidates, you know that the idea of them is to exalt one particular class. They provide, instead of trust and goodwill, instead of activity and loving affection between employers and employed, nothing but dissatisfaction, strife and ill will. Under these circumstances I may say I shall regret exceedingly if ever a Working Men’sCandidate gets returned for Preston. (PC Feb 7th 1874)
The defeat of Thomas Mottershead was a great disappointment to many Preston Trade Unionists and of the 12 Working Men’s Candidates who contested the 1874 general election, only two were elected to Parliament.
Nevertheless it was the beginnings of a breakthrough in political awareness among working class people across the country. 19 years after the failure of Mottershead in Preston, the Independent Labour Party (ILP) was formed in 1893. Another major step forward was achieved in the town in 1906 when J T Macpherson, a working class man and former steelworker was elected as the first ever Labour party MP for Preston.