Why no ILP in Burnley Q&A
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