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Did the Labour Party support votes for women?

Taken as a whole the Labour Party were more supportive of women’s suffrage than either the Liberals or the Conservatives.

From the start the strongest support for women’s suffrage came from the Independent Labour Party (ILP). Several Labour MPs including Keir Hardie, George Lansbury and Philip Snowden consistently spoke up on the issue.

However there were divisions within the Party.

The non-socialist trade unionists were the most hostile to the idea of women gaining the vote.

Many socialists viewed the class inequality within the existing franchise as a more pressing concern. They were also reluctant to support a campaign of votes for women ‘on the same terms as men’ as it was based on a property qualification.

While Hardie and Lansbury may have supported the militant tactics of Emmeline Pankhurst’s Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), they were in the minority. Most of the Labour Party objected to their methods and to their eventual shift to a right wing, middle class organisation.

In 1912 Labour entered into an electoral alliance with Millicent Fawcett’s National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS).

In 1913 the Labour Party pledged to vote against any reform Bill that did not included women.

Most socialists in the Labour Party were committed to adult or universal suffrage. They wanted to extend the vote to the millions of workers currently excluded from the franchise.

It was the class inequality rather than the gender inequality in the franchise which was the most important issue. While supporting women’s suffrage they did not believe it should be given priority over the enfranchisement of all the working classes.

The Labour Party were also opposed to the idea of women gaining the vote ‘on the same terms as men’. This would mean the enfranchisement of propertied, mainly middle and upper class women, and leave millions of working class women still without a vote.

Furthermore, women given the vote based on the existing property qualifications were unlikely to be Labour voters.

Despite this, Labour MPs were still willing to show their Party’s support for women’s suffrage by voting for the 1912 Conciliation Bill, even though it only offered women a limited form of enfranchisement.

Keir Hardie was a committed advocate of women’s suffrage and had close ties with the Pankhursts. However many in the Labour Party were growing increasingly frustrated with Hardie’s leadership, particularly over his devotion to the women’s suffrage cause and his support for the WSPU.

At Labour’s Annual Conference in Belfast in 1907, Hardie spoke in support of the Women’s Enfranchisement Bill introduced by the Liberal MP, W. H. Dickinson.

This Bill would extend the franchise to a limited number of women.

Instead the Conference voted in favour of an amendment, put forward by Harry Quelch of the Social Democratic Federation (SDF), that only the immediate enfranchisement of all women should be supported.

Hardie threatened to resign. He believed that the Conference was trying to ‘limit the action’ of the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) in the Commons and dictate its policies.

In the end the PLP decided that its Members would be given a free vote on the issue of women’s suffrage.

Emmeline Pankhurst had been a member of the ILP since the 1890’s and had served on its executive body, the National Administrative Council (NAC).

Founded in 1903 the WSPU had however, always been independent of any political party.

At the Cockermouth by-election in 1906, the WSPU instigated its policy of voting against the Liberal Government. Their lack of support for the Labour candidate Robert Smillie angered many in the Labour Party.

Increasingly frustrated that the ILP would not dedicate itself to women’s suffrage, Emmeline and her daughter Christabel resigned their membership in 1907.

The WSPU did have its supporters including George Lansbury and the Pankhurst’s long standing friend Keir Hardie.

They spoke out in Parliament against the harsh sentences and treatment the Suffragettes received. However many within the Labour Party disagreed with their tactics. Ramsay MacDonald who was in favour of women’s suffrage believed their militancy would do more harm than good.

The WSPU became an increasingly middle class, right wing organisation and even Hardie began to distance himself from it.

By 1912 the WSPU actively opposed the Labour Party for supporting the Liberal Government and not doing enough for women’s suffrage. Keir Hardie was heckled as a man of ‘words not deeds’.

George Lansbury supported the campaign for women’s suffrage, including the more militant tactics used by the WSPU.

He spoke out in the Commons against the force feeding of imprisoned Suffragettes, telling the Prime Minister Herbert Asquith that he would ‘go down in history as the man who tortured innocent women’.

Lansbury criticised the Labour Party for not doing more to force the Liberal Government into passing a women’s suffrage Bill. In October 1912 he issued a memorandum urging Labour MPs to vote against the Government until women had the vote.

In November 1912 Lansbury resigned his seat at Bow and Bromley so that he could fight the subsequent by-election on the issue of votes for women. The Labour Party did not officially support his candidature.

However Keir Hardie and Phillip Snowden did campaign for Lansbury in the by-election. He also received support from the WSPU and the NUWSS.

Lansbury lost the election to the anti-suffragist Tory candidate Reginald Blair.

The failure of the Conciliation Bill in March 1912 had left the NUWSS disillusioned with the Liberal Government over their continued lack of support for women’s suffrage. In response the NUWSS looked to form an electoral alliance with the Labour Party.

Labour were the only party to have women’s suffrage as part of their official policy. At their Annual Conference in January 1912 they passed a resolution that any future reform Bill which excluded women would be deemed ‘inacceptable’.

Furthermore, all of the Labour MPs present during the debate had voted for the Conciliation Bill.

In May 1912 the NUWSS established the Election Fighting Fund Committee. The EFF would support Labour candidates standing against anti-suffragist Liberal MPs.

Of the four by-elections the EFF participated in that year, the Liberals were defeated in two seats. At Holmfirth, a safe Liberal seat, the Labour vote almost doubled.

Although Labour won no seats, both the NUWSS and the Labour Party considered it a success.

Despite internal disagreements within the NUWSS, it strengthened its electoral alliance with the Labour Party which continued until the outbreak of war in 1914.

The Labour Party also strengthened its commitment to women’s suffrage when at its Annual Conference in January 1913 it pledged to vote against any franchise Bill ‘in which women are not included’.