What is political?

I have recently been looking at press coverage of the first election of the London County Council in 1889. I have been struck by the way that commentators from across the political spectrum insisted on treating the elections as non-political, even going out of their way to recommend candidates with whom they disagreed on most matters. The constant refrain seems to have been that these were administrative posts and that to take account of the candidates’ political positions would be ‘to act as insanely as to choose the captain of your ship by his politics instead of by his knowledge of navigation’ (Spectator, 12 Jan 1889).

Often, this was a response to the corruption of the late Metropolitan Board of Works, so that, in the words of the Pall Mall Gazette (5 Jan 1889), ‘Other things being equal, it would be desirable, no doubt, to have nobody but good all-round Radicals upon the Council; but to insist as a sine quá non upon a candidate being right upon ground rents is really no more to the purpose than it would be to insist upon his being a vegetarian or a Primitive Methodist. […] An upright Tory will make a far better County Councillor than a shady Radical; and to this extent at any rate the ratepayer will do well to prefer men to measures.’

Yet, there was also a powerful sense that most of the matters with which the new London County Council would have to deal were not political at all. One letter to the Radical paper, The Star, spelled this out very plainly:

Equalisation of rates, the bearing by rich London an equal share in the heavy burden of poor London in the East and elsewhere; open spaces as playgrounds for the pallid children of the overworked who crowd the unsanitary dwellings of the artisan and laborer [sic]; a reformed higher educated, and more efficient police; cheaper water, better light, fewer drinking shops, and lower rates – these are subjects altogether apart from politics, and Liberals, Radicals, Unionists, and Tories will do well to sink their political feelings and unitedly support those who have proved themselves the people’s friends. (6 Nov 1888)

This is so striking because of the difficulty of imagining questions of taxation and redistribution being conceived as ‘subjects altogether apart from politics’. It brings to mind the old Electoral Commission adverts in which a non-voter who grumbles about various matters of state and municipal provision is reprimanded with the words ‘If you don’t do politics, what do you do?’

The most likely explanation seems to be that by ‘politics’, the various commentators mean ‘national politics’ and the key dividing lines that had grown up within them, the most potent being between Unionists and supporters of Home Rule for Ireland. The Spectator recommended Lord Thring to its readers, despite his support for Home Rule, on the grounds that ‘He has too much belief in Local Government. That is no reason why he should not be supported when Local Government is what we want’ (12 Jan 1889). This is a salutary reminder that our current political divisions and frames of reference are contingent and temporary, not primordial and inevitable.

Another letter to the Star (9 Nov 1888) complained that its editors were falling into a trap: ‘It is all very well for Tories and drones to preach no politics’ and to encourage voters to judge on experience and good character because this was likely to benefit the same class interests it always had. Instead, the writer urged working-class voters ‘to avail yourselves of the opportunity now afforded you and elect one of your own class to the County Council.’ Yet, while the direct representation of the working class remained paltry, constituency after constituency went against its parliamentary voting record and returned members with radical liberal or socialist views. A seemingly non-partisan election resulted in a radically interventionist and redistributive Council.

Unsurprisingly, claims of apoliticality did not last long. The Council members soon formed themselves into parties: a Progressive majority and Moderate opposition and within a fortnight of the election the Spectator was complaining of “party bias” and political intrigue (2 Feb 1889). What is more surprising is the ubiquity such claims achieved during the first election campaign.

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