Victor Grayson—his life, his speeches, his inspiration, and his apparent disappearance—are the stuff of Labour movement legends. Almost 120 years after the Colne Valley by-election, the stirrings and importance of that campaign are still alive in the Labour movement’s rich lexicon of great achievements.
Grayson, born into poverty in Liverpool, worked in factories and later enrolled into Church missionary work. Despite an early speech impediment, he learned to speak and hold a crowd for street Christianity, and later for socialism. In Grayson’s eyes he saw them as part of the same story.
His life passage saw so many similarities to that of Keir Hardie, who was a Church and temperance orator and later a trade union and Labour organiser. Victor Grayson and Hardie were never close and had a tense and difficult relationship, but their lives were so similar: both born into wrenching poverty, then embracing religion, temperance, trade unionism, the Labour movement, and eventually Parliament.
Grayson based his life in Manchester where he was studying theology for a religious career but was increasingly in demand as a socialist speaker. His travels all around the North of England gave him a unique basis of support in Colne Valley. When a long-predicted by-election took place in 1907, Grayson should have been the Labour candidate, but a bureaucratic and very typical Labour argument over rules and interference from the Independent Labour Party national office resulted in him not being the official candidate but supported by Labour. Keir Hardie lent his support, but was always critical. The argument between local selection of candidates and national interference by the Party machine is not new.
Grayson’s dashing style, endless arguments with trade union leaders—who preferred to deal with the Liberals—and ability to excite popular support won him a place in the hearts of the people of Colne Valley and the eternal jealousy of the then leading lights of the movement. His famous campaign embraced the cause of women’s suffrage and a clear and straightforward socialist message. He used methods of community organising that made the official Labour machinery nervous – his appeal was in the street meeting, with the enthusiasm of music and presence. Massive meetings of people, many of whom were disenfranchised by being women or lacking the qualification to vote, meant that he won, very narrowly, in July 1907.
His first foray after the historic election was to go not to London, but to Belfast with Jim Larkin to support the dock strike and then raise the cause in Parliament. Parliamentary life had its ups and downs. The Parliamentary Labour Party never accepted him, and his disruption of Parliament in support of the unemployed did not bring him friendship or support in the Tea Room or in the House. But it did make him a big name in the Labour movement, and his amazing capacity for popular writing gave him a unique advantage over the dour establishment-leaning Labour figures.
As with many a famous and sought-after figure, his cheery façade hid a lonely person. His stupendous energy sent him on a never-ending round of trains and meetings and urgently written articles, but he never had the time or support to develop any kind of theoretical basis for his socialism.
Human frailties increasingly affected him as he became a prolific whisky drinker. This and the refusal of the Labour Party to fully embrace him meant he fought a less effective defence of Colne Valley in 1910 and lost.
Only three years in Parliament still made him a legend. Children, including the later TUC General Secretary Vic Feather, were named after him. There was genuine and huge love for him, the dashing young orator whose lips could bring such messages of joy to grotesquely exploited people in mills and factories. Grayson had made a huge impact but always seemed, somehow, to miss the boat in creating the kind of socialist movement of which he dreamt. The arguments during 1907 in Colne Valley undoubtedly robbed Labour of a future leader, while his refusal to challenge the Independent Labour Party leaders in 1909 left him an outsider.
At a distance of over a century, the intensity of debate about the Labour Party and its very existence in the period up to the First World War seems odd. Grayson helped form the British Socialist Party (which a decade later was the basis of the Communist Party), but played no part in it as he was outmanoeuvred. He was still a much sought-after speaker, essentially without a party, but always preaching socialism and political trade unionism.
The First World War changed everything. Hardie was against war and was destroyed by it. Grayson, then an outcast, became a different figure in the eyes of the movement, and the previously very hostile media. He supported the war and became a recruiting sergeant. His use of a clever mixture of class rhetoric and demand for better working conditions after the war helped to gain working-class support for the war. His old adversary, Churchill, saw the value of his oratory and sent him to Australia and New Zealand. He joined the New Zealand forces in response to a challenge at a public meeting to his pro-war credentials. He duly served and was badly injured in Passchendaele. Despite the sight of death and destruction he became a useful tool of the establishment alongside former suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst.
How, one asks, could a man born into poverty, who was such a brilliant and revolutionary speaker, who could challenge the very structures of society, become seduced into the very heart of the British War Machine? At his last public meeting, in Hull, in the intense industrial activity of 1918, he attacked those who were taking strike action for wages and rights.
Harry Taylor has written a wonderful book, building on previous books by Reg Groves and David Clark in bringing Grayson’s story to life. His research is painstaking and extensive. But a degree of mystery remains. Grayson disappeared, and various sightings right up to the 1940s never really told the whole story.
The ever-secretive British state knows the answer, somewhere in some files from Scotland Yard or the Home Office. Why it remains a secret is at one level strange, but at another, very obvious. His power of oratory frightened the establishment, and the fear of socialist unity and industrial success meant its best voices needed to be silenced. If they could not be silenced, they had to be used, and at the end of his known life he had become a tool of the establishment he so hated.
However, his voice and energy gave thousands a vision of how their lives could be changed by their empowerment, and the way socialism could be built. That vision he gave people never went away, and although he was only three years in Parliament, Grayson will always be remembered and revered for giving that precious message of hope. In his memory, we should fight to mould the Labour movement into one of hope, that shapes the lives of generations to follow.