Why no ILP in Burnley Q&A

Message Details:

Subject: ILP Burnley?

Message: Dear Peter Why was there no Independent Labour Party in Burnley but one in Nelson and a Social Democratic Federation in Burnley but not in Nelson? Shirley


The answer to this question lies in two or three separate but interlinked parts.

Firstly, both socialist parties did actually exist in both towns simultaneously, it

was just a matter of local and particular circumstances that made the ILP the

dominant socialist grouping in Nelson and the SDF the main ‘Left’ political force

in Burnley. The early nineteenth century saw the rapid development of both

towns and with this development the cotton industry boomed and the towns

underwent a large influx of newly arrived immigrants (Cornwall and the West

Riding providing the majority of new faces) and a significant rise in population.

Nelson, to a much greater extent than Burnley, had a very influential Methodist

community with 23 of the town’s 35 churches being of Methodist persuasion.

This influence was best exemplified at Salem Chapel on Colne Road, just

outside Brierfield, where research informs us that several male young members

of the chapel became increasingly frustrated with the conditions of life and

eventually, in the aftermath of a Keir Hardie visit, established a branch of the

ILP. In contrast Burnley socialism had its roots in several cooperative members

and the employment of the indomitable Dan Irving as a SDF activist from 1890


Second, the nature of these two socialist political organisations poignantly and

most importantly reveals and reflects the nature of the Lancashire working-

class at the turn of the last century and why the ILP were much more

electorally successful than the SDF. The majority of ILP members were, unlike

the SDF, weavers and by 1906 the Mayor of Nelson was a ILP man and the

Chairman of Nelson ILP could boast of a flourishing membership and that the

party was deemed by opponents and supporters alike as having become

‘respectable’. In sharp contrast SDF members in Nelson and Burnley were

notorious for drastic measures and behaviour. The Nelson SDF leader was

arrested for public speaking in 1906 and had lead a march of the unemployed

to demonstrate outside several cotton mill owners houses and Irving had been

involved in a violent town chamber sit in and a libel case. What the SDF had

failed to comprehend was that their vigorous and extreme undertakings on

behalf of the workers were seen by the workers themselves as too radical and

not decent or respectable. As Annie Kenney once said ‘the workers really don’t

like it if we are too miltant’.

Finally, this query proves much of what I have argued in my PhD. National and

general histories, though useful and necessitous to some extent, overlook

some of the key elements of historical understanding and compress political

comprehension into neat labels and generalisations. Naturally, this kind of

broad sweep history as a role to play, but, if one really wishes to understand

what political parties did in the early twentieth century and why some were

more successful than others, then the answer will often lie in the local.

Put kettle on Shirley!

Peter John Fyles

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