ILP@120: Fred Jowett – ‘A great man of a new kind’

“He was a great man of a new kind, which the history books have not caught up with yet,” wrote JB Priestley of Fred Jowett. IAN BULLOCK profiles the ILPer who campaigned tirelessly for democratic reform.

FW – or Fred – Jowett (1864-1944), known widely during his lifetime as ‘Jowett of Bradford’, was a prominent member of the ILP from the party’s foundation in Bradford in 1893, through all its trials, tribulations, vicissitudes and disaffiliation from Labour until his death towards the end of the Second World War.Jowett young

Before the ILP was formed in 1893 he had been an activist in the Bradford Labour Union, one of the local movements that preceded the national party. And before that he had joined the Socialist League: “There were less than a dozen members in the Bradford Branch, and I became one of them. Although weak in numbers, we were strong in the faith,” he wrote in his mid-1920s pamphlet What Made Me a Socialist.

His family worked in the West Riding wool industry and – as his mother had done long before – he began work as a ‘half-timer’ in a Bradford weaving shed, “the week following my eighth birthday”. The other half of the day was devoted to what then passed for an education for working class children. This didn’t stop Jowett from developing a literacy and an intellect far beyond anything that could have been expected from such a limited schooling.

Influenced – like so many late 19th century British socialists – by Ruskin, Morris and, a little later, Edward Carpenter and Robert Blatchford, he was already advocating independent Labour politics by the late 1880s, and was a strong supporter of the famous Manningham Mills strike in 1891. The following year he was elected as a Labour representative to Bradford council on which he worked effectively, particularly on health and education issues, for 15 years.

That same year, 1892, Ben Tillett became a Labour candidate in one of the Bradford constituencies independent of the Liberal party which held the seat. Tillett was famous for his role in the London Dock Strike of a few years earlier. Jowett’s role in moving an amendment supporting Tillett at a meeting called to mobilise “the Nonconformist vote” against him was an important turning point in his life, and in the politics of the area and beyond – so much so that whoever wrote the foreword to Jowett’s pamphlet more than 30 years later quoted a three-paragraph account by Katharine Bruce Glasier, an eyewitness at the meeting who was still very active as an ILP propagandist when What Made Me a Socialist came out.

Jowett’s period in local government remained a crucial influence on his thinking about parliamentary reform for the rest of his life. He was elected as Labour MP for Bradford West in 1906, retained the seat in the elections of 1910, but lost it – as did other prominent members of the ILP who had opposed the first world war, notably Ramsay MacDonald and Philip Snowden – at the ‘Khaki election’ in December 1918.

In the years preceding the war Jowett had been a major critic of secret diplomacy and campaigned against it with ED Morel and the Union of Democratic Control during the conflict. He chaired the ILP during the difficult years between 1914 and 1917, as he had done in 1909/10, and was chair of the Labour Party in 1921/22.Jowett pin badge

Re-elected as an MP in 1922, this time for Bradford East, he served in the minority Labour government of January to November 1924 as First Commissioner of Works. Defeated at the October 1924 election, he was elected again for Bradford East in 1929 (see campaign badge, left), but lost the seat again in the Labour debacle of 1931.

The following year the ILP disaffiliated from Labour and, although not always entirely happy with the subsequent (allegedly) ‘revolutionary policy’ the party adopted, he remained active in it and continued to serve on the NAC. His last, unsuccessful, election campaign was in East Bradford in 1935 when – as in 1931 – his election leaflets urged people to vote for ‘genuine Jowett’.

In November 1935 ‘Jowett’s election special’ said that:

“In spite of parliamentary and governmental experience, Jowett has never acquired the ‘Parliamentary manner’. His keenest wish is to change the House of Commons from the ‘talking shop’ and ‘gentleman’s club’ it frequently resembles at present to a genuine working body, actually controlling the government of the country and carrying out the will of the people.”

Egalitarian spirit

Jowett’s decades-long campaign for radical parliamentary reform was his most distinctive contribution to the ILP and the politics of his time. Also very noteworthy was his short period as a minister. In spite of his opposition to ‘cabinet government’ he accepted MacDonald’s offer of a place in his cabinet. Judging by subsequent events, and the fact that no similar offer was made in 1929 when the second minority Labour government was formed, it seems to have been something MacDonald regretted.

Like John Wheatley, the Minister of Health – also not invited back in 1929 – he refused to wear the customary morning dress and top hat to receive his seal of office at Buckingham Palace. In the same egalitarian spirit Jowett insisted, rather like Robin Cook many decades later, on including the less elevated members of the ministry staff in his inaugural reception.

He was only in office for such a short period but he managed to leave a permanent mark of his tenure, notably in getting Edith Cavell’s words “Patriotism is not enough. I must have no hatred or bitterness for anyone”, inscribed on her statue outside the National Portrait Gallery. He also supported the then-controversial Jacob Epstein sculpture of Rima (below) for the WH Hudson Memorial in Hyde Park.

Jowett RimaJowett’s distinctive take on democracy needs to be put in the context of other left-wing ideas. At the time of his emergence as an active political figure, no one with the slightest pretension to being radical, let alone socialist, regarded the existing state of affairs as acceptable. Little wonder. It was not until 1928 that all adult citizens had a parliamentary vote, the very minimum requirement for a system to be regarded as democratic, and even then anomalies remained. Universal suffrage and the abolition of the House of Lords were demanded by the more radical Liberals as well as by all those to their left.

Among socialists, demands for greater democracy than merely a reformed parliamentary system were commonplace. In the 1880s, 1890s, and early years of the 20th century, they were focussed predominantly on direct democracy, Swiss style, via the referendum and initiative. As early as 1884, the Social Democratic Federation’s (SDF) programme demanded: “Legislation by the people in such wise as no project of law should become binding till accepted by the majority of the people.”

In the following decade, during the early days of the ILP, Blatchford’s Clarion newspaper became an advocate of direct democracy. His editorial colleague, AM Thompson (or ‘Dangle’, as he was known to ‘Clarionettes’) published three pamphlets advocating the referendum and initiative.

After the first decade of the new century, under the influence of syndicalism and guild socialism, the emphasis of left-wing dissatisfaction with the parliamentary system shifted decisively towards the idea of workplace democracy. For many on the left this was reinforced after 1917 by belief in the virtues of ‘soviet democracy’, based on industry and occupation, and seen as more ‘real’ than the ‘geographical’ representative systems – even the most democratic ones – found under capitalism.

Jowett’s distinctive contribution to the socialist debate was to advocate radical reform of parliament rather than its replacement, either by direct democracy or by occupation-based guilds or soviets.

His formative political experience had been his years on Bradford council. At that time, and until relatively recently, local government in Britain operated in a quite different way from its national equivalent. Local authorities, essentially administrative bodies set up, defined and regulated by statute, had departments staffed by council employees and controlled by a committee whose membership – at least when best practice prevailed – reflected as accurately as possible the proportion of each party on the full council. Jowett wished to see many changes in the parliamentary system, but his central idea was to extend such a committee system to the House of Commons as a substitute for cabinet government.

He first put forward these ideas in his regular Clarion column in the early years of the last century, and in a pamphlet published by that paper in 1909, entitled What is the Use of Parliament?. The same year he contributed an article on ‘The Reform of Parliamentary Procedure’ to the Reformers’ Year Book.

A little later he was the author of the ‘Bradford Resolution’ which tried to commit Labour to supporting or opposing measures proposed by the Liberal government on their ‘merits’ alone without any consideration of the likely effects on the government’s survival.

This was bitterly opposed, especially by Ramsay MacDonald – “strings of meaningless words,” he said – but it was adopted by a vote of 233 to 78 at the ILP conference of 1914. It was re-confirmed in subsequent ILP votes many times after the war and – with the associated call for committees to replace cabinet government – was something Jowett tirelessly pursued for the rest of his life, in every medium available including a 1925 ILP pamphlet called Parliament or Pallaver? Answers to objections to Proposal [sic] for Reform of Parliament.

His insistence of the responsibility of MPs to keep the commitments made to their electors also underlay his objection to the famous – or notorious – Parliamentary Labour Party standing orders that played such a large part in the ILP’s disaffiliation in 1932.

There was never much chance of Jowett’s proposals being adopted by Labour, let alone being put into practice. But surely the question was correct even if Jowett’s answer had its defects?

The underlying thrust of his proposals remain very relevant in the 21st century. The consistent theme in Jowett’s life, as part of his struggle for the ‘Socialist Commonwealth’, was his determination to make parliamentary democracy work in a way that brought the executive under the control of the elected representatives and make the elected fully accountable to their constituents. Who can argue against either goal today?

‘No – No – Never’

At the height of the standing orders conflict with Labour, Jowett’s pamphlet The ILP Says No! insisted that the “discipline” now being imposed on the parliamentary party was an innovation that would not have been tolerated in the early years, particularly by the ILP. “Without full liberty of its MPs in the House of Commons to give effect to its propaganda, within the limits of Labour Party conference decisions, the ILP, as a socialist organisation, could not have become affiliated to the Labour Party.”

For Jowett the issue was no more nor less than democratic accountability. Of the ILP he concluded:

“The answer to those who demand that it must surrender the freedom of its MPs to fulfil their pledges honestly made in accordance with the principles and policy advocated officially by the Labour Party for election purposes is – ‘No – No – Never’.”

Jowett, then, was a very distinctive and important figure in the early history of both the ILP and the Labour Party – as an activist, a local councillor, an MP in the House of Commons, and briefly as a cabinet minister. It is still worth reading the biography written by his long-term ILP colleague Fenner Brockway, Socialism Over Sixty Years: The Life of Jowett of Bradford, published in 1946, as well as Jowett’s own writings.

The preface to the biography is written by another well-known Bradfordian, the famous novelist, dramatist and broadcaster, JB Priestley, who maintained that while Jowett may have been wrong sometimes he was never “stupidly or ignobly wrong”. Priestley concluded with the observation, quoted at the beginning, that Jowett was, “a great man of a new kind”.

Always at odds with the Labour establishment, and the wider British one, he was not a charismatic rebel like Jimmy Maxton. But, as Priestley put it: “If he was not a ‘spectacular figure’ then so much the worse for spectacular figures and the foolish crowds who applaud their antics.”

They may have moved a lot closer since the 1940s, but the ‘history books’ have still not quite caught up with the likes of Fred Jowett. One day let’s hope they will.


Romancing the Rev cover

Ian Bullock writes about the relationship between socialism and democracy.

He is the author of Romancing the Revolution: The Myth of Soviet Democracy and the British Left, and co-author, with Logie Barrow, of Democratic Ideas and the British Labour Movement, 1880-1914.

The pin badge of Fred Jowett pictured above dates from his 1929 election campaign and is reproduced here thanks to his great great nephew Damon Fairclough and the website Noise Heat Power.

More articles on the ILP’s 120th anniversary can be found here.

More on the ILP’s history is here.

Buy ILP 120th anniversary calendars here.


  1. Lori Beckett
    2 June 2016

    This is a reply to David P Marston to say it is a delight to read that you are the Great grandson of Fred Jowett and in possession of family photos and news items, and to ask if we would meet please? I am working on a research project, which includes archival research on Jowett’s work in Bradford, to be presented at the British Educational Research Association (BERA) History Special Interest group (SIG) conference in London in July.

  2. David P Marston
    9 April 2016

    My Great Grandfather was The Right Hon.Frederick William Jowett, P.C., J.P.. I have in my possession many family photos of him and my Grandmother [his daughter] and family, and various news items.

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