Thursday, September 27, 2012

The London Cables

Labour leaders and US imperialism

                                           By Neil Harris

BRADLEY MANNING, in solitary confinement since his arng, in solitary confinementrest, is facing a court-martial in the spring of 2013.  If he is lucky enough to escape the death penalty he will be serving a long prison sentence, under the same kind of harsh conditions he has faced up till now. If the allegations are true; that he leaked some 250,000 US State Department “cables”, then his sacrifice means we owe him a great debt. It is our duty to make full use of this remarkable and unique resource: essentially a series of confidential reports sent back to Washington by US Embassy staff from around the world. At the time of the original disclosure, the bourgeois press published a small selection of these without criticism, effectively repeating the official State Department worldview, as if it was true.

Now we need to start taking a closer look at the “cables”, starting with some 3,000 reports sent back from the American embassy in London. Unexpectedly this has provided us with a unique insight into the craven and often grovelling relationship between some Labour and trades union figures and the London representatives of US imperialism. None of this is new; “The Special Relationship” which acknowledged that British imperialism was to be subordinate to America’s has been endorsed by old style Labour leaders like Atlee and Gaitskell all the way to Blair and Brown in our era. It didn’t take long for aspiring young Labour politicians to realise that the path to power involved regular trips to the US Embassy in Grosvenor Square or, if you were really going places, a meal at a fashionable restaurant, on expenses.

So for example, there is an unclassified report dated 10/12/09 from the Ambassador himself, detailing a discussion with Brendan Barber, the general secretary of the TUC. This was in the lead up to the 2010 election and not surprisingly the American was interested whether this would be in March rather than May as everyone assumed; “highly unlikely” replied Barber who then explained how Brown needed positive news from the budget and was hoping for some early signs of economic recovery. He went on to say rather naively, how he didn’t regard Cameron as anti-union as Thatcher had been, saying: “The Tories have actually been courting the unions, because they need union support in any effort to reduce public sector employment as a deficit fighting measure”. Barber actually seemed to welcome a hung parliament in the vain hope that the unions might be able to exert some kind of influence.

The influence of Barber and others behind the scenes is far more tangible in a 2006 report on the Brighton Trades Union Congress or, as it is rather quaintly put, the “British Trades Union Movement’s annual convention”. The embassy observer’s main worry seems to have been that, “On the international front the members were at their most leftist, supporting perennial resolutions in favour of Cuba and Venezuela and more narrowly denouncing MOD plans to replace the Trident nuclear deterrent.”

At this point the embassy man felt he needed help, and turned to a fellow countryman for advice: “An observer from the AFL-CIO (protect), explained that Barber tends to allow the left-wing to dominate the international agenda, because it is of little consequence to the unions”. He noted with some satisfaction that, “despite the anti-American flavour of many of the motions, the AFL-CIO retains its honoured position as the only union invited to address the congress every year”.

The year 2009 was busy for everyone: in August Lord Mandelson, always a welcome guest at the embassy himself, must have still been on his holidays as he sent his special advisor Patrick Loughran to give the Americans a briefing on the forthcoming Labour Conference. Acting Political Minister, Counsellor (PolMinCouns) Robin Quinville reported on the meeting in a cable dated 1st September and headed “confidential/NOFORN”, meaning no access to foreigners.

Loughran set out in great detail everything that would happen at  conference due on the 27th September, including  how Labour’s “core campaign message and its three major themes” would be launched and in the process laying out in full detail the Labour strategy for the election campaign itself. This he summarised as: “Labour invests, Conservatives cut”. To make it clear he said: “The key electoral message is all about the economy.”

He complained that, “Labour does not have the money to compete aggressively in a close election, including to hire the necessary staff and it does not have the energy to attract the necessary volunteers.” He regretted: “This is the first election since 1997 that Labour is fighting on the back foot.”

The expenses scandal was obviously a worry, not for moral reasons but mainly because of the large number of enforced retirements and the new candidates needed to replace them. Times had changed: “Previously the central party was able to vet these candidates thoroughly and even parachute in senior party leaders who had not previously held a seat.” Now due to its weakened position the Labour leadership had lost control.

On Mandelson, clearly still of great interest to the Americans, he said: “He’s loving being in government” and predicted that he would stay in the Cabinet if Labour won the next election. “He’s no longer a toxic asset, he’s more mature…Mandelson did what he needed to do to, modernise the Labour Party with Gordon Brown and Tony Blair. He had however the role of leading the revolution internally in the party and championing the change and that created a lot of enemies within the Labour party who were opposed to change. That dust has now settled.”

Asked about the timing of the election he revealed: “A May election, timed with the next local elections makes sense,” but said “elections just are not in focus yet”.

What is remarkable is not that conversations like this went on (New Labour would have been briefing friendly journalists with some background information anyway) but that these social democrats imagined that crucial and confidential information like the date of the election and their campaign strategy were secrets that would be safe in American hands.

Back in May 2009, in a recurring theme, Prime Minister Brown was in trouble – his Cabinet colleagues were plotting against him.  PolMinCouns Gregory Berry sent a “confidential/NOFORN” report on the 6th May, detailing discussions that had taken place at the House of Lords with the Deputy leader of the Lords, Brian Davis and Lord Grocott, the special advisor to the leader of the house “with whom Poloffs (political officers) met along with other Labour lords”, entitled: “A resilient Gordon Brown is down but not out” and which begins rather excitedly: “Westminster seethed with rumours over the May bank holiday weekend…”. Unfortunately the report doesn’t quite live up to its billing, although it did set out a detailed and accurate briefing on the threats to Brown’s leadership, the likely outcomes and broadly dismissing the chance of any change.

The lords admitted that Labour would be in difficulties in the forthcoming local and European elections but shared with the Poloffs their hopes for a Labour victory. Lord Charles Falconer, described as a “leading Labour advisor to former PM Tony Blair”, accepted that after the 2010 election large cuts to public expenditure were coming but set out his hopes that “voters can be convinced those cuts should be made by a progressive, left of center government, rather than by a pro-business, Tory government”.   

The lords were asked their views about the British National Party, then seen as a threat. Falconer disagreed with the view that disaffected Labour voters would defect to them, stating that he saw the Conservatives as the likely focus of opposition. This was reported in contrast to the concerns expressed that the BNP would “steal Labour votes” as “leading Labour MP Jon Cruddas told us”, on 1st May during a detailed briefing on the threat from the BNP and the Greens.

The close embassy interest in Labour Party affairs is always surprising; one unfortunate Poloff had to attend the Labour Party spring conference in Birmingham in 2008. He reported that delegates had complained that this had clashed with Welsh celebrations of St David’s day on the Saturday and with Mother’s Day on the Sunday. The officer commented wryly:  “This put many prospective attendees in the position of choosing between the Labour Party and their Mums – judging by the turnout, Mum won in many cases”. Given that the report was headed: “To Secretary of State in Washington, the European political collective priority, Dept. of Commerce WashDC Priority”, it is hard to imagine how this was received at the other end. But it must have been considered important as the cable was classified “Confidential/NOFORN”, by Ambassador Tuttle himself.

Apart from reporting Brown’s speech and talking to delegates to evaluate its reception, the political officer also attended the workshop on “reaching out to the Muslim voter”, complaining that, “Ten people including the Poloff showed up an event aimed at improving outreach to Muslim communities (embassy comment – given Labour’s loss of Muslim support following the Iraq war, the low turnout by party activists at this event was inexplicable. End comment).”

This thoroughness is also present in June of that year when the same official sent a most detailed assessment of the disastrous European elections: “Labour loses election in Wales for first time in 91 years – end of an era?” What follows is an intelligent and fairly rapid analysis of Labour’s position in its old stronghold and the effect this would have on the next general election, although it is fair to say it did lack the kind of class analysis we would have chosen to give it. In the course of researching this he spoke to Daran Hill, who he describes as “a political consultant with centrist leanings”, Graham Benfield “the chief executive officer of an umbrella organisation funnelling Welsh government funds to 30,000 voluntary associations” and “MP Hywel Francis, chair of the Welsh affairs committee”.

Berry’s interest in Welsh affairs didn’t stop there; he reported on Carwyn Jones’ victory as Labour leader in December 2009 and his resulting appointment as First Minister in the Welsh Assembly. The balance of power, Jones’ biography and those of his unsuccessful rivals are there in full detail. Something clearly irritated his superior who added a sour paragraph to the end of the cable: “The Welsh Assembly has no power over foreign affairs, so Jones’ views will not have a great impact on UK policy. He opposed Britain’s participation in the Iraq war and has criticised UK Labour’s handling of the Afghanistan war. His greatest influence on foreign policy will be through further devolution which could shake up Westminster policy-making. That, however, is far off.” That didn’t stop Ambassador Louis B Susman, who had also signed the cable and may well have authored the paragraph, from attending a large lunch held in his honour in Wales on the 9th March 2011, and where he posed for photos with Carwyn Jones the first minister.

Scotland also makes a number of appearances, notably when Labour lost Glasgow East to the SNP in July 2008 because it “fuelled speculation that Brown could face a leadership challenge this fall”.  Headed: “A political body blow to Gordon Brown as Labour loses Scottish by-election”, this went beyond the usual “confidential/NOFORN”, with a “Sensitive” classification added by Political Counsellor Rick Mills.

This was probably justified because the main source for the report was “Nick Brown MP, a close advisor to Brown and his Deputy Labour Whip in the Commons”, and close enough to the US Embassy that he “told Poloff the morning after the vote” that “there are no quirks we can use to explain this defeat away”. He accepted that the party has to see the vote as “a referendum on Labour – that we lost”.

Nick Brown went on to detail the likely threats to Brown’s premiership, including a letter going the rounds of the back benches but that he was confident the PM and his allies would be able to “slap down” the effort “if it got off the ground at all”. He then set out Brown’s strategy to deal with these challenges; to “hunker down” over the summer holidays and return with new policies in the autumn.
The Political Officer saw both the SNP and the Tories as victors and even took the time to speak to “Michael Fabricant, a Tory MP” who gave him the priceless information: “The third place finish is important to the Tories because it indicates that Cameron’s appeal and message is making inroads even in traditionally Tory-hostile Scotland.”

In all these cables the role of the political officer is central. Unlike our diplomatic service, which still cherishes its gentlemanly amateurs, hierarchy and class divisions, the Americans are organised with business-like efficiency and professionalism. Candidates for the “Foreign Service Officer (FSO) test”, first register for one of the five “cones” or career tracks; Consular, Economic, Management, Public Diplomacy or Political. In a system where ambassadors are often political appointees without experience, these professionals are crucial advisors and managers. Once chosen, the track is generally for life and of these, political officers clearly regard themselves as an elite.

The careers advice for prospective FSO’s describes the Poloff’s role as follows: “A political officer makes and maintains contacts in the national and local government and keeps in close touch with political parties, think tanks, non-governmental organisations, activists and journalists”. While some of the cables reveal a lazy re-writing of open access press reports, others are well researched assessments, based on confidential briefings from those who should know better.

Part journalist, part talent scout and spy: “Political officers will use the insight gained from local contacts and experiences to report on a variety of issues that may be of interest to Washington. Good political officers do not just report on what they see. Their job is to analyse, advise and influence…They are patient knowing that the results of their work may not be evident for years.” 

In the second part of this article we will examine just how this patience works out in practice and how the influence of the US Embassy extends from the top of the British political establishment down to activists in our local communities.


Saturday, September 22, 2012

Revolutionary Democracy

Revolutionary Democracy Vol XVII No 2, September 2011.
£4 inc postage from NCP Lit PO Box 73 London SW11 2PQ.

By Ray Jones

Its been a long break but Revolutionary Democracy is back with its usual broad range of articles from India and around the world.
Near the beginning there is an in depth study of the Maruti Suzuki strike from the Workers' Unity Trade Union which sees it as opening up the possibility of a working class offensive against the anti-working class regime of capital.
Peoples' China gets several mentions including a document of a reception of a delegation from the Chinese Communist Party in Moscow in 1949 and details of China's foreign investment from the Information Office of the State Council of China.
Articles on Denmark's election results and the Breivik massacre in Norway give an insight into the politics of northern Europe.
The issue ends with culture in the form of poetry by the Cesar Vallejo from Peru.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Winner take all?


by Daphne Liddle
Winner Take All – China’s race for resources and what it means for us: By Dambisa Moyo Allen Lane; hardback £20 (£12 from Amazon) 272pp including index and notes. ISBN 978-1-846-14503-2

Dambisa Moyo is a young African economist, born and raised in Lusaka, Zambia. She has studied classical capitalist economics at Oxford and Harvard and worked for the World Bank and Goldman Sachs. But she sees the world of international capitalism very much through the eyes of an African and understands the impact of capitalism on Africa and what we call the Third World.
 She has already written a few books, including Dead Aid – a parody of Live Aid, explaining how western aid to African countries is destructive to those countries’ attempts to achieve economic independence and keeps them poor and dependent.
 Her book Winner Takes All is aimed at western capitalists as a warning that our planet’s resources are limited but the demands on them are steadily rising as living standards in places like China and Brazil rise, and that China is the only world player that is acting in a planned and organised way to secure for itself the supplies it is going to need in the future.
 But it is a very useful book for those comrades who are struggling to work out whether modern China’s relations with global capitalism are a good thing or a bad thing. Has China sold out to the West? Or is China freeing the Third World from the shackles of imperialism and perpetual poverty and allowing it to progress and develop; for living standards in the poorest places on earth to rise – and in the process to develop a potentially powerful proletariat?
 Moyo begins with a summary of the basic resources that are going to be in serious short supply soon: land, water, oil, food and minerals.
 She also discusses the growing world population, at seven billion now and set to rise another two billion within a generation. World demographers expect that rise to level off later this century as education living standards rise throughout the world and women chose to have fewer babies. But in the meantime the increasing demand on resources comes not only from the increasing numbers but from the rising living standards and expectations of people in Africa, Asia and Latin America who justifiably want the same living standards that we have.
 Then Moyo explains how China behaves differently to other major economic powers; how is can plan strategically because capitalism in China is tightly controlled by the state. The Chinese state has a major stake in all the major capitalist enterprises and its five-year plans coordinate the whole country’s economic activities, giving it an ability to plan for the future that western governments can only dream of.
Chinese companies do not compete with each other but work together with the support of the state. Western capitalists howl that this is unfair practice.
 This is what has enabled China’s rapid and sustained growth while the western economies have been rocked by banking collapses and recession.
 She writes: “China is now the main trading partner of many of the most influential economies in both the developed and developing world. In just a few short decades it has become the most sought-after source of capital infusions. Indeed, rich countries and poor alike do not wait for China to come calling; they actively court and seek out Chinese investments.
 “China now funds foreign governments (providing loans and buying their bonds), underwrites schools and hospitals, and pays for infrastructure projects such as roads and railways (particularly across the poorest parts of the world) catering to the needs of the host nations and making China an altogether more attractive investor than international bodies such as the World Bank, which often tie loans to harsh policy restrictions.”
 Moyo points out that in international markets China does not play by the capitalist rules. It pays above market prices for resources that it knows will later be in short supply in order to establish friendly relations with developing countries that are rich in resources but poor in terms of living standards.
 Western powers have accused China of developing a new colonialism – ignoring their own record on this. But China’s deals with Third World countries do not come with strings. They allow these countries to develop economically and wherever they invest living standards begin to rise; education and health improve giving these countries more, not less, control over their own destiny.
 Moyo also deals with accusations that China is shipping in its own workforce to other countries. She says that allegations that China is using its own prison population as slave labour in Africa have no evidence to back them up. Chinese companies do bring in skilled and technical workers but in virtually every project more local labour is used than imported Chinese labour – creating hundreds of thousands of jobs.
 Her final chapters are a call to western governments to come to their senses, get together and start planning for the control and conservation of resources in the same way that China is doing. If not, she foresees serious conflict in the future over resources. She berates western capitalism for being unable to see or plan beyond the short-term.
 Throughout the book she writes very clearly and explains economic terms like monopsony (the mirror image on monopoly, where there are many suppliers but only one buyer) and uses plenty of well-sourced statistics.
 She assumes all governments, including those in the West, are seeking to improve the general fortunes of their populations. But she does not see that the very nature of capitalism – competitive and driven by the need to maximise profit at every turn – makes the long-term strategic planning that she calls for impossible.
 Some readers will be relieved to learn that there is at least one rising economic power that is taking seriously the future of this planet and its resources and is, because of its political structure, capable of doing something about it.

Saturday, September 08, 2012

The Labour Right on the offensive


                                       By Neil Harris

THE GROWING concerns of the trade union movement about “Progress”, the wealthy Blairite faction operating inside the Labour Party, are well founded but this is not the only threat to working class representation in Parliament. At the 17th May 2011 National Executive Committee meeting, it was agreed to accept funding from the Lionel Cooke Memorial Fund , “ to train and support up to 75 people interested in standing as parliamentary candidates”. Not surprisingly, concern was expressed when it was indicated that this would be open to non-party members.
Had trade unionists on the NEC been aware of the background and ideology behind the trust, the concerns would have been greater. The fund was established in 1956, following the death of Lionel Cooke, a prosperous Brighton businessman and an admirer and ally of Hugh Gaitskell the right wing Labour leader.
Gaitskell had always been an enemy of the working class, establishing the “XYZ club” just before the Second World War and of which he was to remain the secretary until his death. The purpose of the “club” was to offer wealthy City businessmen the chance to wine and dine with Gaitskell and others on the Labour right and as a result get an opportunity to “explain” to them the concerns of the City.
In reality this was a secret conduit funnelling money and support to Gaitskell and his cronies, outside Labour Party democracy.  Cooke’s fund is firmly in this tradition, over the years it has gone out of its way to avoid publicity where most trust funds try to encourage applications from as wide a field as possible.
From 1956 until 1981 the trustees were all drawn from the traditional Labour right and the proceeds went to their pet projects.  In 1978 for example, the money was divided between summer school scholarships for their protégés, Socialist Commentary (the house journal of the pro-European, Atlanticist right) and the Campaign for a Labour Victory, a Cold War organisation aimed at fighting communists and trotskyites in the labour and trade union movement.
In 1981 it all changed when directors Lord Sainsbury (senior), Bill Rodgers, and David Owen defected to the breakaway Social Democratic Party (SDP), although they remained on the board of the trust. From that point on the money went to the SDP and the right wing Social Market Foundation, until 1996 and 1997 when the fund paid out £15,000 each year to Tony Blair’s personal office in the run up to the election.
In the 1990’s Peter Mandelson had been tramping up and down the length and breadth of the country, attending countless selection meetings to ensure that candidates of the left were not chosen. Today, the parliamentary Labour party reflects his hard work.
Now that the fund has reverted to the Labour right (with directors like Margaret Jay, daughter of former premier James Callaghan), they are actively using it in the same way; to select and promote a new generation of candidates acceptable to Labour’s right wing and  ready to be parachuted into the constituencies in good time for the next election.
While the “Future Candidates Programme”, with its snappy slogan “Champions to win”, aims “to build and support a diverse pool of talented individuals from which local Labour Party members can select their candidates for the next general election”, it should be no surprise that there has been virtually no open publicity amongst the trade union and co-operative movement, except perhaps by word of mouth amongst the right wing.
            Among the listed requirements are that candidates should “have campaigning experience with the Labour Party although this is preferable rather than essential”, but nowhere is there any mention of union membership or experience. To make sure that candidates get the point, the information pack sets it out: “To apply for the Future Candidates Programme you do not need to be a Labour Party member but should be willing to join should you be selected to take part”.
For the completely clueless there is a strong hint in the guidelines for candidates: “You may wish to visit the following web pages for further information about the Labour Party – What is the Labour Party/ History of the Labour Party”.
The first round was completed in July 2011, when 125 were chosen from over 1000 applications and it was considered so successful that a second application process was started and runs until 12th October 2012. There is now a very real danger that selection onto the programme will become a requirement for selection as a candidate for election both to Parliament and local councils. On the other hand, participation on the programme may also give activists a better idea of the real politics (or lack of politics) of potential candidates.

Monday, September 03, 2012

A history of Burston -- a history of struggle

By Robert Laurie

THIS WEEKEND saw the Norfolk village of Burston celebrate the establishment of the famous Strike School on the village green. In 1914 two popular teachers, the husband and wife team of Tom and Kitty Higdon, were dismissed from their posts at Burston on trumped up charges of assaulting a pupil and “discourtesy to the Managers”. They did not go quietly.
On the day of their departure (1st April) the vast majority of their pupils (66 out of 72) refused to attend school in protest and held a lively procession around the village lanes. What the local Rector airily dismissed as an “April Fool’s day joke” was no flash in the pan. Instead it led to most of the pupils leaving the County Council run school permanently and the establishment of the Burston Strike School, which was to endure for the next quarter of a century.
 At first the two teachers taught their pupils on the village green, moving into a disused carpenter’s shop as winter approached. Repeated fines for non attendance at the official school were levied on the parents, who were mostly farm labourers. These punishments, which were of doubtful legality as the parents were actually sending children to a school of their choice, proved no deterrence. Attempts by farmers to sack and evict their rebellious workers were halted by wartime labour shortages.
 Press publicity brought nationwide support from trade unionists, first to pay the fines and later to build a new school on the village green,  which was opened on the 13th May 1917. George Lansbury, chair of the national appeal for the school and future Labour Party leader, unveiled the foundation stone while the militant Suffragette Sylvia Pankhurst also spoke. Contributions came from many branches of the Independent Labour Party, the National Union of Railwaymen and particularly the coal mining unions, who contributed a quarter of the cost.
The school continued throughout the twenties and thirties. In 1920 the Rector who had been the main opponents of the Higdons left and was replaced by a more agreeable clergyman. Relations with the county school improved after his arrival. By 1930 both schools had equal numbers and had friendly contests on sports days. In addition to local pupils, two members of the Soviet Trade Delegation in London sent their children to be educated at Burston. During the 1926 General Strike children of Nottinghamshire miners were educated and boarded free of charge. The school finally closed in 1939, when it had only 11 pupils, after the death of Tom Higdon. His widow, then aged 75, was unable to continue.  The school survives today as a museum.
The real reason for the sacking of the Higdons was not the false allegations of assault. Instead it was their work on behalf of the agricultural labourers’ trade union that incurred the wrath of the farmers and gentry who ruled the roost on the parish and county councils.
By the early 20th century Norfolk had been for long an almost exclusively agricultural county. In the middle ages the county had a large and prosperous textile industry which did not survive the industrial revolution. The county’s flat landscape ruled out water power and the lack of local coal meant a factory-based industry was uncompetitive. The lack of alternative employment meant that agricultural wages in Norfolk were the lowest in England and Wales; only the northernmost part of Scotland was worse. In 1902 the average wage in the county was only 15 shillings and three pence (76 pence or less than £100-a-year today).
 The “Great Depression” of 1873-96 hit agriculture particularly hard. Grain imports from the United States and Canada were especially damaging to an arable area such as Norfolk. Low grain prices benefited livestock and dairy farmers. Farmers in the county, many of whom were teetotal Methodists, made ends meet by selling grain to local and London brewers.
Norfolk was a comparative stronghold of agricultural trade unionism. Joseph Arch founded the Warwickshire Agricultural Labourers’ Union in March 1872, in May of that year a conference of this and other county unions formed the National Agricultural Labourers’ Union with other local unions joining in the coming months. A London Central Aid Committee had been established by London trade unionists in April specifically to assist the agricultural labourers. This did much to encourage the isolated labourers. The next two years saw a great deal of conflict between farmers and the labourers until the labourers were defeated, setting back trade unionism in the fields for decades.
 At first the mere existence of trade unions persuaded some farmers to increase wages. Highly localised strikes, particularly at harvest time brought wage increases. Older forms of protest such as rick burning and letting sheep into the cornfields of stubborn farmers took place. Needless to say the farmers fought back. In addition to reducing “slack period” wages after the harvest, troublesome workers could be sacked. Given that farm labourers lived in tied cottages, dismissal equalled homelessness and being forced to leave their village.
Needless to say the law was on the side of the bosses. The Master and Servant Act, which made breaches of contract by employees a criminal offence, while breaches by the employer were merely a civil matter, was much employed to prosecute strikers. Repeal of this Act, was a major goal of the NALU. In one well publicised case an old woman had her parish relief withdrawn for the crime of having a son in the union. The farmers themselves, especially the large owner occupiers formed county-wide Farmers’ Defence Associations binding farmers not to employ trade unionists or concede wage rises. By a combination of lock-outs, mechanisation and selective pay rises for non-unionists in 1874 the farmers were able to claim victory.
 In one respect the NALU shot itself in the foot: like many contemporary unions it supported emigration schemes on the grounds that this would raise wages for the remaining workers. This may well have benefited the departing workers who could set up as farmers in Canada or New Zealand but removing trade unionists from the scene does not help building class solidarity. Internal squabbles did not enhance the appeal of the union to the demoralised labourers. Although the NALU did not finally give up the ghost until 1896 membership fell from 86,000 members in 1874 to 20,000 in 1880. 
                One remaining stronghold was Norfolk. In 1885 Joseph Arch was elected as MP for the county’s North-West seat, the first agricultural labourer to do so. Elected on the “Liberal and labouring class interest” he was defeated the next year by only 20 votes by the Tory son of a local landlord. He was returned at the 1892 election, retaining it in 1895 and retired to hand over to another Radical in 1900. In the 1900 Khaki election, which was won by the Tories, the six rural Norfolk seats returned five Radical MPs and only one Tory.
The term “Radical” was perhaps a misnomer for Arch. Not only did he oppose land nationalisation he was proud of being the MP of the Prince of Wales, whose Sandringham estates were in his constituency. His 1898 autobiography even had a preface by the Countess of Warwick, mistress to the Prince. After the defeats of 1874 farm workers’ hopes focused on extending the franchise. In 1877 the NALU established a Norfolk County Franchise Association which not only played a part in winning the vote but also strengthened the labourers’ links with the Liberal Party.
 Once the vote was won, the rural working class vote had to be wooed. The Liberal Party had to come up with policies that appealed to both farmers and their employees. They found one in Joseph Chamberlain’s “Three Acres and a Cow” policy that would allow local authorities to purchase land to provide cheap allotments for farm labourers.
This helped gain the 1885 Liberal victory at little cost: any allotments would be purchased from landowners. Keeping both employers and employed happy was a difficult balancing act. Farmers were staunch Liberals as well and indeed were so long before their workers gained the vote. Nonconformist farmers disliked paying tithes to support the Anglican Church. Tenant farmers often had conflicts with their landlords over rents and they also could be evicted from their farms if they did not vote the right way.
Shortly after the 1906 Liberal landslide The Eastern Counties Agricultural Labourers’ and Small Holders’ Union was formed. While the founding meeting was attended by working men, a Liberal MP was elected treasurer. It might seem odd for a bourgeois political party to actually support the formation of a trade union but they were anxious to consolidate their working class support and worried about the losing it to Labour, which had gained 29 MPs.
A long unsuccessful strike involving about 80 farm labourers demonstrated that the Liberals wound up the strike on the grounds that strike funds were running low, rather than broaden it, as the Norwich branch of the Independent Labour Party argued would bring victory. Such a move would have alienated other Liberal voting and funding farmers. At the annual general meeting after the strike the Liberal leadership was replaced by ILP supporters. This comparatively small dispute was one of many where workers became disillusioned by the Liberal Party.
Labour and agricultural trade unionism did not have an easy ride in the countryside after World War One. Of the 203 rural Parliamentary Constituencies only 45 had a District Labour party in 1921. In a by-election at Ludlow in Shropshire caused by the incumbent being promoted to the House of Lords, local activists, against the wishes of party HQ contested the election. Despite an energetic campaign Labour not only lost their deposit, but were pelted with dung by farm labourers who either had never heard of Labour or thought they would nationalise women.
In Norfolk a NALU stalwart, George Edwards, was twice elected for Norfolk South (which included Burston) in 1920 and 1923, but his tenuous hold on the seat demonstrates how weak rural Labour was. In Norfolk North the Noel Buxton who was the Liberal MP 1910-18 regained it in 1922 in the Labour interest. Even those few rural seats held by Labour tended to have a mining population.
“Remember the Ballot is Secret” was a necessary warning on Labour Party cards until the 1930s. Urban Labour supporters canvassing in the countryside were shocked to discover villages listening to loudspeaker messages from behind their curtains rather than risk being seen attending a Labour meeting. Hiring halls, which were owned by farmers, was out of the question. On election day polling stations were often decorated with the Union Flag, the same symbol used by the Tories. When in 1934 the TUC sought to commemorate the centenary of the farmer labourers of the Dorset village of Tolpuddle, who were transported to Australia to organising a trade union, they found it impossible to find any local unionised firms with whom to provide the transport and catering.
It was not until the 1945 landslide did Labour make any inroads into the countryside. Today mechanisation of agriculture has greatly reduced the number of farm workers and rows of cottages have been converted into expensive houses for commuters or second homes.