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Undisputed heroes of the Labour Party

Arthur Henderson is one of the undisputed heroes of the Labour Party. He was Labour's first Cabinet Minister, their first Home Secretary, and perhaps their most revered Foreign Secretary.

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He was instrumental to the foundation and establishment of the Labour Party, and behind his famed organisational and administrative skills lay a powerful intellect and a profound commitment to social justice.

His most celebrated achievement was winning the 1934 Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to bring about universal and enduring peace on the backdrop of growing German and Japanese militarism, but his contribution to the Labour Party, the trade union movement, and the British working class far exceed one single honour.

As a highly skilled and diligent Party Secretary, Chairman, and Party Leader on no fewer than three occasions , Henderson was one of the key figures in the development of the Labour Party as a national independent political organisation. His place in Labour folklore was confirmed when he (reluctantly) became Leader for a third time in the aftermath of the formation of a National Government in April 1931.

While Henderson retained a central position in the Labour Party for the first three decades of it's development, (after the death of Keir Hardie in 1915, his ascendancy was challenged only by Ramsey Macdonald, with whom he had a notoriously prickly relationship), his position as an MP was far more precarious.

Indeed, following his election in Barnard Castle in 1903, Henderson lost his seat on four occasions (1918, 1922, 1923 and 1931) and represented five different constituencies (Widnes, Newcastle-upon-Tyne East, Burnley, Clay Cross).

This nomadic existence meant that Henderson built up strong support in a number of different locations, but it was Barnard Castle that was his spiritual home.

Henderson won the Barnard Castle seat in a famous by-election in 1903, thereby becoming the first Labour candidate to win a by-election against the Liberals and Conservatives.

Henderson's intimate knowledge of the constituency (honed while working as an agent for his predecessor as the MP for Barnard Castle, Joseph Pease), coupled with his instinctive sympathy for the plight of the working class in the Durham coalfields, and his ability to establish a rapport with voters from all walks of life , made him a popular local MP, and it was only in the 'Coupon Election' of 1918 that Henderson lost his seat amid the wave of nationalist hysteria that swept Lloyd George' National Government to power.

Henderson was MP for Barnard Castle for 15 years, and by 1918 had done much to improve the local economy and living conditions in South Durham.

Having served in the wartime coalition Government (initally as President of the Board of Education, latterly as Minster Without Portfolio) and thereby becoming Labour's first Cabinet Minister,Henderson was also central to ensuring that Labour emerged from World War I as an independent, national political party.

Indeed, through his efforts as Party Secretary to create and establish the administrative framework of the Labour Party, by his resignation from the wartime cabinet in 1917 and, most famously, through his refusal to support Ramsey MacDonald's social security cuts in 1931, Henderson is often championed as the authentic voice of independent Labour.

But Henderson is perhaps an unlikely Labour hero.

His upbringing was impeccably working class: born in Glasgow in 1863, Henderson was the illegitimate son of a textile worker and found his first job as a nine-year old errand boy in a photographer's shop.

His father died when Arthur was just ten, and with his mother remarrying, his family moved to Newcastle two years later, where he found work in the Robert Stephenson locomotive factory and later as an iron founder.

Although working a ten hour day, Henderson also dedicated considerable efforts to improving his education (he had received little formal education), and it was while working as an iron founder that Henderson first joined the Trade Union movement: an affiliation that endured throughout his political career and would determine his course during the crisis of 1931 .

But despite his unflinching commitment to the trade union movement and his humble up-bringing, Henderson's political beliefs remained Liberal rather than socialist until, at the very earliest, the end of the First World War.

Henderson's liberal roots can be clearly seen in his comfortable relationship with the Liberal MP for Barnard Castle, Joseph Pease, for whom Henderson worked as an agent from 1896-1903. Indeed, such was Henderson's political proximity to Pease that it was widely believed he would be selected as the Liberal candidate for Barnard Castle following Pease's retirement in 1903.

Ultimately, Henderson's decision to run on the Labour ticket in 1903 owed more to the recent affiliation of his trade union (the Iron Founders Union, of whom he became President in 1910) to the Labour Representation Committee than any particular commitment to socialism.

Henderson's socialist credentials we're famously ridiculed by Lenin but, while never losing the broad support of the Party and it's trade union base, Henderson was also the subject of occasional and fierce criticism from within his own ranks, as shown in Ben Tillett's withering and highly personal attack in Is the Parliamentary Labour Party a Failure ?

Henderson's willingness to work with the Liberals and his preference for parliamentary cooperation was often the cause of this hostility.

But this is not to say that Henderson was anything other than a fully committed Labour MP or profoundly sympathetic to the plight of the working class. Henderson was perhaps Labour's most loyal and hard working foot-solider in it's formative years, but, despite his central role in drafting the 1918 Party Constitution and his occasional rhetorical allusion to 'replac[ing] the system of production for profit by a system of production for the use of the community', his socialism remained a fusion of late-Victorian artisan radicalism, a profound commitment to Methodism, and an unshakable belief in the omniscience of theTUC.

His intellectual rigour was forever underrated, but his speeches, articles and even his major text Aims of Labour show an instinctive social conservatism and a clear rejection of revolutionary socialism.

While Henderson lacked the socialist zeal of some of the movement's founding fathers, one area where he made a clear and lasting contribution to intellectual and political discourse was Foreign Affairs.

Henderson was (despite MacDonald's misgivings) appointed Foreign Secretary in 1929 and became a commanding figure on the international stage. Since his resignation from the wartime cabinet in 1917, Henderson had championed a profoundly consensual, international approach to foreign policy.

He cautioned against imposing a harsh peace settlement on defeated Germany in 1918, passionately supported the League of Nations as the instrument of Labour's foreign policy, and championed the Geneva Protocol and the Locarno Settlement in 1924 and 1925 respectively.

In foreign policy, if not in socialist conviction, Henderson was an unashamed internationalist. 'Labour's foreign policy', Henderson wrote in Labour's Way to Peace , 'is based upon the needs and convictions of the mass of ordinary men and women: it is a policy of cooperation with all other nations and in every sphere of the common lives of the peoples of the world'.

Henderson was no pacifist he had (unlike MacDonald) broadly supported British involvement inWWI- but he was a passionate advocate of international disarmament and worked to this end both as Foreign Secretary and as Chair of the Geneva Disarmament Conference in 1932.

Events in Germany, Italy and Japan rendered Henderson's efforts ultimately futile, but his wholehearted commitment to peace and internationalism won him widespread admiration and the 1934 Nobel Peace Prize.


Henderson died shortly after receiving this honour in 1935. His dream of a united Europe bound by a common commitment to peace and prosperity seemed further off than ever, and the Labour Party remained in opposition, trailing the Conservatives by more than two-hundred seats.

But Henderson's achievements remain substantial. The institutions of the Labour Party that he had done so much to establish had proved sufficiently durable to withstand the disaster of 1931 and, under the new leadership of Clement Attlee and assisted by the economic expertise of Bishop AucklandMPHugh Dalton, the Party showed signs of intellectual and political resurgence.

Indeed, the landslide of 1945 was built on the foundations laid by Henderson in the first three decades of the twentieth century, and todaythe Labour Party still has much to learn from Henderson.

His commitment to cultivating the grass roots of the Party and creating a network of enthusiastic local activists offers a powerful template for party renewal.

Similarly, his ability to cultivate the dynamism of the trade union movement while retaining the independence of the Party, points to a comfortable balance between trade union aspirations and Labour Party policy.

And in the field of international relations, Henderson's passionate belief that peace and prosperity could only stem from international cooperation and disarmament continue to resonate in a period of international instability, growing unilateralism and widespread conflict.

Almost seven decades after his death, Henderson therefore remains a hugely important figure in Labour's history, and through his commitment to disarmament, internationalism and his vision of a Labour Party sensitive to the needs and aspirations of the working class yet coupled with a strong, professional core, he remains profoundly relevant to the Party's future.

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Posted in Law Post Date 11/16/2017






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