Today our parliamentary democracy looks like it has failed. We feel that the elite leaderships do not represent people like “us” this is sadly not a new phenomenon and was abroad a hundred and twenty years ago when delegates came together in Bradford to form a new party to seek parliamentary representation for workers.
Amongst their number where some of the giants of the early labour movement, Ben Tillet, Robert Blatchford, Bernard Shaw, Pete Curran and Keir Hardie then MP for West Ham who was elected chair. Once born the Independent Labour Party with its strong ethical concerns set about in William Morris’s famous phrase to ‘make socialists’.
It saw creating a new political culture as the first stage in building a new society. To do this it had to open up some political space in which to operate. Like other young movements for emancipation this space was not to be found in the narrow way ‘politics’ was usually defined.To create a socialist political culture they had to create spaces in which people could be “socialists”. As well as publishing newspapers and taking to the streets, they established premises where they could meet, hear speakers, debate, share literature and learn. There was a great deal of self education but it was not just worthy activity they also set out to have a good time.
Good fellowship was the foundation of their politics. Many ILP branches set up their own venues and developed vibrant communities around them.
Often these activities where complimented by the Clarion movement. Founded by Robert Blachford in 1891, the Clarion reached a circulation of between 30 and 40,000 a month with its popular journalism. With all sorts of Clarion activities, including cycling and rambling, choirs and drama groups, whilst Blatchfords personal politics was an odd mixture his editorship of the Clarion bought a lot of joy into working class lives, introducing a sense of fun and freedom whilst in the process creating ten of thousands of socialists.
One example of this type of venue was formed by the Nelson Branch of the ILP. Founded in 1893for many years the focal point of their activities was the Labour Party Institute and Socialist Sunday School in Vernon Street, Nelson. There where attempts to make fresh air and the countryside accessible to their members and a practice of acquiring Clarion houses in rural areas as retreats from the mills and factories developed.
Like Ewan MacColl’s Manchester Rambler, the workers of Nelson “may have been wage slaves on Monday but they where free men on Sunday”. They first established a Clarion House in 1899 and when this become too small they obtained another in 1903.
The current, yes current, Clarion House was inaugurated in 1912. It is located in Jinney Lane, Newchurch-in-Pendle, deep in Pendle Witch country, the historic towns of Colne, Clitheroe and Whalley are all within walking distance.
Nelson Clarion House celebrated its centenary last year safely in the ownership of the Nelson Independent Labour Party Land Society. Broadly committed to the principles of their ILP predecessors they describe their politics as “somewhat to the left of Old Labour”.
Their objective is to preserve for public benefit the Clarion House with one and half acres of land, tea rooms, wildlife corridor, pond and adventure playground. It is maintained as a co-operative with any surplus to be used for the spreading of socialism.
It is great that Nelson Clarion House is still carrying out the function that it was first opened over a century ago. It is also a lesson to us that socialism is about much more than shorter hours or higher pay. Tackling the alienation that is intrinsic to capitalism is a vital part of any socialist future.
One of the inspirations of the early socialists was the American poet Walt Whitman who greatly influenced people like Edward Carpenter and Robert Blachford as well as Irish co-operator Horace Plunkett.
In his essay Democratic Vistas written in 1871, he said, “Did you, too, O friend, suppose democracy was only for elections, for politics, and for a party name? I say democracy is only of use there that it may pass on and come to its flower and fruit in manners, in the highest forms of interaction between [people], and their beliefs -- in religion, literature, colleges and schools -- democracy in all public and private life....”
Today democracy has only scratched the surface of our lives and as a consequence has been easily subverted by capital. We need a deeper democracy based on equality and mutual respect. Those early ILPers and Clarion Socialists are still pointing the way to the future setting us the task of making our relationships one with another and our relationship with the environment truly democratic unmediated by the market. Showing us a land in which we can live, work and even play together in peace.
You too can still visit Nelson Clarion House see: www.clarionhouse.org.uk