Your support keeps us publishing. Follow this link to subscribe to our print magazine.

In Search of Victor Grayson

A new book explores the legend surrounding the disappearance of one-time socialist MP Victor Grayson – and offers a stark lesson in the political trajectories of those who leave the Left.

Victor Grayson addresses an election rally in 1906. Credit: Topical Press Agency / Hulton Archive / Getty Images

The Labour Party has had more than its share of dramas over its 120-year history—indeed, you could be forgiven for thinking that the party itself was just one big melodrama—but few of them have been murkier (or more convoluted) than that of Victor Grayson. In 1907, Grayson shook the British establishment by winning a celebrated by-election in Colne Valley; his sudden disappearance 13 years later was mourned for generations. A engaging and evocative biography by Harry Taylor subjects the Grayson legend to a critical evaluation.

Born and raised in late Victorian Liverpool, Victor Grayson was tongue-tied at birth and overcame a childhood stammer to become the most renowned socialist orator of his day. Liverpool then was a bustling and growing port, but while its local business class grew rich off the proceeds of empire, its working class was condemned to horrific poverty. Originally destined for the ministry, Grayson was drawn into Liverpool’s socialist and trade union movement—joining the Independent Labour Party and mixing with soon-to-be legendary figures including Jim Larkin—and exchanged his religious calling for a political one. 

His stature growing, Grayson relocated to Manchester—where the socialist movement was stronger—taking up residence in Ancoats. He was a regular speaker at nearby Stevenson Square, then Manchester’s equivalent of Hyde Park Corner, and his popularity as an orator and agitator grew across the North. Confronted by the harrowing hardship all around him, Grayson became a leader of the local unemployment movement and was soon set on a trajectory that would see his star burn briefly, but brightly in the socialist firmament.

The Rising Star of British Socialism

By the time of the 1907 by-election in Colne Valley, near Huddersfield, Grayson’s reputation was on the rise. The constituency had been a Liberal stronghold, but its liberalism was of a more radical hue than most—something that chimed well with Grayson’s somewhat utopian, ethical socialism. But the local Liberal Party was dominated by employers and took little interest in the mounting grievances of workers. A network of working-class institutions—among them ‘Labour clubs, lending libraries, reading rooms and discussion groups’—sprung up as the labour movement put down firm roots in Colne Valley.

Grayson himself was already known to local socialists as a powerful and fiery orator; he had spent a decent amount of time in the area, building up his profile and ingratiating himself, pulling in big audiences as a speaker. He had hoped to stand as a Labour candidate at the by-election, but ran into opposition from trade union leaders—who still cleaved closely to Liberalism at this time—and the ILP leadership, which suspected his radicalism and resented his rapid rise through the ranks, threatening as it did to displace time-served stalwarts.

It’s possible also, as Taylor suggests, that the party leadership had picked up on rumours about Grayson’s sexuality. It suited Grayson for people to think he was a womaniser and he did nothing to dissuade them from this belief—he was indeed very popular among women—but he was in fact bisexual. In the end, he was denied the official Labour endorsement, and ran instead as an independent ‘labour and socialist’ candidate in a three-cornered contest against the Tories and Liberals. He won by a margin of only 153 votes.

Grayson’s victory was greeted ecstatically by his comrades in Colne Valley, and he became a rallying point for socialists and radicals disgruntled with the cautious approach of the Labour leadership and its reliance on conservative trade union leaders. (Suffragists, in particular, had played a prominent role in the Colne Valley campaign; Grayson had grown close to the Pankhursts while in Manchester.) Terror was momentarily struck both into the British ruling class and the upper echelons of the ILP, which had never wanted Grayson as a candidate in the first place.

Isolation in Parliament

For his part, Grayson appears to have been a reluctant standard-bearer. He cut an isolated figure in Parliament, and was greeted with a frosty reception by its Labour contingent. His flair for the theatrical and his occasionally unguarded, even violent rhetoric earned him the opprobrium of the press and his House of Commons ‘colleagues’, but delighted and enthralled his admirers outside Westminster. He also threw himself into London social life, finding that the capital’s intellectual socialist circles were more tolerant of his sexuality. But his taste for the good life made him the subject of even more suspicion from trade unionists.

Though an accomplished stump speaker well used to batting away hecklers with a witty quip, Grayson’s oratorical skills didn’t necessarily prepare him from the arcane procedures of Parliament, about which he was always ambivalent. His abrasive approach marked him out for ostracism, and he was vocally critical of his Labour counterparts as well as Tories and Liberals. He could no longer get away with the inflammatory statements he’d routinely made before, and the strain he was under took a toll on his physical and mental health; he became increasingly dependent on whisky, to which he had been introduced by Robert Blatchford.

As Taylor puts it, Grayson was prone to being ‘led by his emotions’, but it’s little wonder he felt them so intensely. Not only was he confronted with the casual venality and cruelty of the Tories and Liberals—the latter elected by a landslide in 1906 on a platform of radical social reform, only to fall short of expectations—but he also found himself lumbered with a largely cowardly and opportunistic Parliamentary Labour Party, too timid to fight for the class that had sent it there. Socialists of a more recent vintage will recognise the general pattern.

Grayson spent less and less time at Westminster and more time tramping the country to speak to audiences, to the chagrin of his Colne Valley comrades. His re-election campaign in 1910 lacked the crusading vigour of the first; the Liberals regained the seat (with a candidate who had once been in the ILP) with Grayson coming in third behind the Tory. He ran again in the London seat of Kennington in that year’s second general election, and though he lost, he helped to lay the foundation for future socialist and labour movement advances in the area.

Dismayed with the ILP, Grayson left it in 1911 and turned his attentions to building the British Socialist Party—now best known as a component of the later Communist Party of Great Britain. His admirers hoped he could be the one to lead a new revolutionary party to success, but despite his charisma, Grayson could offer little by way of concrete vision or strategy for what that party should be. His involvement with the BSP, ‘riven by sectarianism’, was unsurprisingly brief: he was pointedly absent from its very first conference in 1912.

Decline and Fall

The following year, Grayson married but suffered a mental breakdown soon afterwards. His comrades and friends raised money for his recovery, and Grayson and his wife Ruth headed off to the United States. While there, Grayson expressed sympathy with the Industrial Workers of the World and flirted with syndicalism for a time, but the funds which had been raised for his recovery went largely on drink. The impecunious Grayson was reduced to begging benefactors to keep him afloat, but these appeals fell increasingly on deaf ears.

He would find a new niche recruiting for the First World War effort, working as a war correspondent. It was a sad and precipitous decline; the man who had struck such fear into the British ruling class just a few years before now dutifully lined up alongside it as it fed its working-class youth into the meat grinder in pursuit of its imperial squabbles. Grayson wrote fawning articles about Winston Churchill in Australia, where Ruth—an actress—was touring with a Shakespearean theatre company. He was, however, well rewarded for it, living comfortably for the first time in years.

Enlisting with the New Zealand Army in 1916, Grayson was seriously wounded at Passchendaele the following year and was left with shellshock. But this didn’t dent his ardour for the war, and upon his return to Britain he embarked on a government-backed patriotic speaking tour of his former Northern stomping ground, in an attempt to defuse worsening industrial unrest in the region. Grayson even engaged in scurrilous—and, with hindsight, absurd—red-baiting of his old ILP adversaries, Ramsay MacDonald and Philip Snowden, who had, for all their myriad other faults, at least opposed the war.

But Grayson’s public standing was restored, and a political comeback seemed to be on the cards at the war’s end. This was not the Victor Grayson of old: as Taylor points out, his sympathies lay ‘on the other side of the political divide’ to the socialist left by this point. Worse still, Taylor suggests that Grayson was a likely informant at this time, telling tales on his former comrades. This would explain why he was living so well—and it complicates the long-held legend about his subsequent, sudden disappearance from public life.

The Strange Case of Victor Grayson

In September 1920, Victor Grayson disappeared, in what became perhaps British Labour’s most enduring mystery. For years, it was believed that Grayson had been spied on by Maundy Gregory as a potential subversive, that he had discovered this—uncovering in the process that Gregory was selling peerages on behalf of David Lloyd George, and threatening to expose them both—and that he had been murdered to silence him for good. But as Taylor points out, the problem with this story is that it seems to have been created more or less out of thin air half a century later.

For Taylor, it is unlikely that the British government would have any longer regarded Grayson as a subversive threat, given that he had so loyally served it—speaking and writing at Downing Street’s own behest—during the war. Grayson had become involved in the National Democratic and Labour Party, a pro-war ‘patriotic labour’ grouping clandestinely backed by the Liberal Party with a view to splitting the Labour vote, and may have intended to run as a candidate for the organisation prior to his disappearance.

Though Grayson had been listed on a 1921 roll call of the deceased at his former Unitarian college in Manchester, sightings of him were reported for years afterwards, some of them seemingly credible. There were suggestions too that Grayson, having renounced his former socialist politics, had sought work as a Tory Party propagandist. During the Second World War, Scotland Yard—apparently at the instigation of a government minister—investigated Grayson’s disappearance, then denied it had done so for decades after.

The files relating to that investigation have since vanished, but Reg Groves—a left-wing journalist and author of the 1975 book The Strange Case of Victor Graysonappears to have learned from a former chief inspector at Scotland Yard that Grayson had in fact survived well beyond 1920, giving up both alcohol and socialism, remarrying after the death of his first wife in childbirth and settling down to a quiet life in Kent. Despite this bombshell revelation, Groves apparently chose not to reveal the information in his own book.

So what prompted Victor Grayson to vanish from public life in 1920, if he wasn’t forcibly disappeared? The answer lies, Taylor argues, in Grayson’s private correspondence. Compromising letters between Grayson and Harry Dawson, an ILP comrade and longtime lover, fell into the hands of J. H. Thomas—a Labour frontbencher who would later depart with MacDonald in 1931—and may have been used to blackmail him. The threat of their revelation, and the renewed public disgrace that would have come with it at that time, would likely have been sufficient to deter Grayson from any attempt at a political comeback.

A Warning from History?

The Grayson legend took on a life of its own in the years that followed, earning him the common sobriquet of ‘Labour’s lost leader’. Donald McCormick—a reactionary Tory journalist with a flair for writing cock-and-bull popular histories—seems to have largely invented the Maundy Gregory story in his 1970 book Murder by Perfection. Only in more recent decades has McCormick come to be widely regarded as a fraud, casting his account of Victor Grayson’s disappearance into serious doubt.

But the mythology that grew up around Victor Grayson served its purposes for the left as well. It allowed Grayson’s admirers to buff up his tarnished reputation, recasting him as the wronged if flawed hero silenced by the establishment just as he was about to expose corruption at the highest levels of British politics. His pro-war apologetics and alleged, grubby tittle-tattling to the state about his one-time comrades in the labour movement—an appalling betrayal if it happened—could be all but excised from the record.

Harry Taylor also intends Grayson’s story to be something of a warning from history, namely that ‘in Britain, with its first-past-the-post electoral system, it is… the Labour Party or nothing’. (Jeremy Corbyn himself contributes the book’s foreword.) Many socialists today find themselves in a comparable position to Victor Grayson in 1911, ostracised and driven out of the Labour Party and wondering whether the grass might be greener elsewhere. Various fledgling left-wing parties have popped up since the demise of Corbynism, none of them attracting any major support, whether among activists or more broadly.

Certainly, it is hard to see any new left-wing party making a political breakthrough so long as first-past-the-post remains in place—or without the support of left-led trade unions. But the Corbyn experience has again exposed Labour’s age-old fault lines, not so much between reformists and revolutionaries as between reformists and economic liberals, who retain a stranglehold on the parliamentary party. Corbynism’s fairly modest attempt to turn Labour into a left-reformist social-democratic party met with the undying enmity of most of its MPs.

There is also the question of how we now do the things we know are necessary—building socialist consciousness, political self-confidence and working-class counterpower—but which the Labour Party, particularly under its current leadership, shows no interest at all in doing. Victor Grayson’s story, told in accomplished style by Taylor, reminds us how rapidly political disorientation can curdle into reaction and even treachery. The wider questions about how we move forward today after our own shattering defeat, we can only answer for ourselves.