John Robert Clynes, Labour’s first Deputy Leader

John Robert (J.R.) Clynes, born in Oldham on the 27th of March 1869, committed his life to trade unionism and politics, leading the Labour party during the breakthrough election of 1922, then becoming the Labour’s first Deputy Leader, and later Home Secretary. 

John Robert (J.R.) Clynes, born in Oldham on the 27th of March 1869, committed his life to trade unionism and politics, leading the Labour party during the breakthrough election of 1922, then becoming the Labour’s first Deputy Leader, and later Home Secretary. Clynes was a committed social democrat and devoted internationalist who deplored fascism and opposed communism

Clynes began working as a piecer at the Dowry Mill in Oldham when he was ten, and as a teenager co-founded the Piecers’ Union. His skill as an orator and understanding of industrial relations led to a job as a trade union organiser, and his old boss Will Thorne said Clynes was the first organiser to settle an industrial dispute by citing Shakespeare. He was a political moderate, committed to ensuring the working classes were represented in parliament, and was one of the founding members of the Independent Labour Party. He was also present at the formation of the Labour Representation Committee (LRC) that created the Labour party, and was first elected as the Labour MP for Manchester North East in 1906.

Despite originally opposing Labour entering a wartime coalition with the Liberals during the First World War, he was briefly Minister for Food Control, and in 1920 was instrumental in Labour and the Trade Union Congress threatening a general strike to stop a further war with Russia. The strike threat worked, with Prime Minister David Lloyd George describing it as “the most formidable challenge ever made to democracy.”

Clynes became Leader of the Labour party in 1920, championing legislation to nationalise railways and mines and impose rent restrictions. At the general election of 1922, Labour fielded over 400 candidates, winning 142 seats, and becoming the official opposition in the House of Commons. When Clynes entered parliament in 1906, Labour won around 300,000 votes, compared to 4,300,000 in 1922. In the immediate aftermath of the election, Clynes lost a leadership contest to Ramsay MacDonald, and was made Labour’s first Deputy Leader.

In January 1924, Clynes moved a no-confidence motion against the conservative government, leading to its collapse and replacement by a Labour minority. Ramsay MacDonald became Labour’s first Prime Minister, and made Clynes Deputy Leader of the House and Lord Privy Seal. The minority government lasted less than a year, and Labour returned to opposition until the 1929 election, when Ramsay MacDonald once again became Prime Minister.

Clynes was made Home Secretary in 1929, and championed prison reform, supported removal of the death penalty, and refused a request for asylum from Leon Trotsky. After Ramsay MacDonald split from Labour in 1931 over an impending financial crisis, and formed a national government with the conservatives and liberals, Clynes accused him of “deplorable obscureness” and being “less a leader than a medium for collective opinions.” Clynes was asked to become Leader of the party for the second time, but declined the offer.

Labour suffered a crushing blow in the 1931 election, losing 235 seats, including the Manchester North East seat held by Clynes. Despite this defeat, Clynes was happy to rededicate himself to trade union activism, helping his own union reach close to half a million members, although he returned to the House of Commons following the 1935 election. Once more offered the chance to lead the Labour party, he again declined, and retired in 1945. Clynes died in 1949 at the age of 80, having dedicated his life to public service and the labour movement.

Alex Bjarnason is the Young Fabians skills officer. This is the first blog for a Young Fabians project on the Deputy Leaders of the Labour party. 

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