The New Party and the 1931 general election
The 1929 Crash
Within months of taking office in June 1929 Britain's second Labour government found itself engulfed by crisis. In October the American stock market crashed, and overnight a decade of economic misery began. In Britain unemployment soared from one million to close on three million in the three years after the crash. Even in the relatively comfortable south east, industrial areas suffered. The impact of the economic disaster was particularly felt in the Medway Towns, which were already reeling under the impact of large-scale job losses at Chatham Dockyard during the 1920s. The number registered as unemployed at Chatham's Employment Exchange rocketed from 3,634 in October 1929 to 6,531 in October 1931.
Labour Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald stuck disastrously to traditional economic policies, keeping the overvalued pound on the Gold Standard, making cuts to balance the budget, and upholding free trade.
The Mosley Memorandum / Manifesto
Amongst MacDonald's Labour critics was Sir Oswald Mosley, an aristocratic defector from the Tories. In the "Mosley Memorandum" he proposed an expansion of credit, increased public spending, and protectionism to revive the economy. When his ideas were rejected Mosley resigned from the Cabinet and wrote his Memorandum up into the "Mosley Manifesto", adding a proposal for government by a pared-down Cabinet of "five dictators". The Member of Parliament for Chatham, S Frank Markham, was one of seventeen Labour MPs who signed the Manifesto in December 1930.
Mosley at Rochester - January 1931
On Saturday 31st January 1931 Mosley and Markham addressed a meeting at the New Corn Exchange in Rochester, held under the auspices of Chatham Labour Party. In his contribution Markham said little beyond defending the government's record on job creation, and claiming that the Tory policy of running down the Dockyard was being reversed. He said nothing in support of Mosley's proposals, other than to remark that they had also received support from Chatham's previous MP Lt. Col. Moore-Brabazon, a Tory. (Moore-Brabazon had written: "Along the lines of the Mosley Memorandum lies the escape for the moment from make-believe into reality".)
Mosley, however, whilst agreeing that the Labour government had done more than the Tories to address the issue of unemployment, thought it inappropriate to judge a Labour government solely by comparison with its Tory predecessor. He regarded the 200,000 jobs created by the government as inadequate, given that over one million had lost their jobs since 1929. Dismissing Socialism as a solution that was unlikely to come for several generations he advocated a comprehensive system of import controls as an immediate means to save jobs.
The New Party
On 28th February 1931, barely a month after the Corn Exchange meeting, Mosley turned his back on the Labour Party and declared the formation of the "New Party", taking five Labour MPs with him. It was soon clear in which direction he was headed when he began to talk about the need for a disciplined body of young men to resist the threat of Communism, and despatched envoys to study the methods of Hitler's Nazi Party.
The National Government
In July 1931 the government's May Committee recommended further cuts, including drastic reductions in unemployment benefit and public sector pay (including that of the armed forces). Amidst uproar in the Labour Party, the Cabinet split and the government disintegrated.
Ramsay MacDonald and other supporters of the cuts deserted to join the "National Government" (effectively a Tory government decorated with the few Labour turncoats). Despite his earlier support of the Mosley Manifesto, Markham too joined the National Government. In so doing he invited the wrath of the Chatham Labour Party, which promptly disowned him.
In September 1931 the cuts in naval pay led to a mutiny of the Atlantic Fleet at Invergordon, in which many Chatham-based ratings were involved. The mutiny led to a run on the pound, and a reluctant devaluation as the Gold Standard was abandoned.
Ramsay MacDonald called a general election for 27th October 1931. Frank Markham was not rewarded for his loyalty to MacDonald: the National Government candidate at Chatham was a Tory, Sir Park Goff. Against him the Labour Party stood Oliver Baldwin, the son of the Tory leader Stanley Baldwin. Baldwin junior has been described by Mosley's biographer as "spoilt, unstable, homosexual, naive". He was also, as the Labour MP for Dudley, a signatory of the Mosley Manifesto, and a founder member of the New Party. He had left the Party in disgust at its increasingly Fascist direction, sat as an Independent MP, and rejoined the Labour Party in time to be selected to stand at Chatham.
The New Party election campaign
Chatham was also one of the 24 constituencies contested by the New Party in an expensively high-profile campaign. (The Party's funds had been considerably augmented by contributions from Sir William Morris, the owner of Morris Motors who was later to become Lord Nuffield.) The candidate at Chatham was 20 year-old Martin Francis Woodroffe, a radio engineer from Wimbledon. He was the son of a stained-glass artist from Chipping Campden in Gloucestershire, Oxford-educated, and a well-known rugby player. He had previously been a member of newspaper magnate Lord Beaverbrook's "Empire Crusade" and of the Conservative Party. He was also the head of the New Party youth movement ("NUPA"), nicknamed Mosley's "Biff Boys" (after Mosley's comment that his followers would "rely on the good old English fist").
At the start of Woodroffe's campaign, on Saturday 3rd October, the famous east London boxer Ted "Kid" Lewis spoke at a New Party open air meeting in Batchelor Street, Chatham. Lewis (a former welterweight boxing champion of the world who was busy training Mosley's "Biff Boys" in the use of their fists) was also a New Party candidate in the election (at Whitechapel, where he managed to get the derisory total of 154 votes). Ironically (in view of the New Party's increasingly Fascist direction) Lewis was Jewish, having previously gone by the name of Gershom Mendeloff.
Whilst there does not appear to have been much "biffing" during the election campaign there was a good deal of verbal fisticuffs between Woodroffe and his opponents. Both Labour and Conservative parties complained to the Returning Officer that Woodroffe, being under 21, was not old enough to stand for election. Addressing a New Party meeting at the New Corn Exchange Woodroffe accused his opponents of "petty quibbling". He noted that Baldwin "was proud at one time to admit to his old constituency that he was a member of the New Party ... Since then his moral courage has failed him. He was afraid to go back to his old constituency and face the music ... "
Mosley spoke alongside Woodroffe at Chatham Town Hall on Sunday 11th October 1931 at a meeting chaired by Peter Howard, a well-known rugby international who became captain of the England team. So well-attended was the meeting that the speakers also had to address an overflow meeting outside. Mosley emphasised the New Party's opposition to cuts in public spending and, once again, demanded protection for British industry from foreign competition. He denied that the New Party was "proposing to set up a dictatorship", arguing that they only wanted to streamline Parliament.
The election result was as follows:
Sir Park Goff (Nat. Con.) 19,991(62.5%)
Oliver Baldwin (Lab.) 10,837 (33.9%)
Martin Woodroffe (NP) 1,135 (3.6%)
Majority 9,154 (28.6%)
(At Gillingham the Tory candidate, Sir Robert Gower, also won, with 20,277 votes against 9,103 for the Labour Party.)
The election was a bitter disappointment to the New Party in Chatham (as it was everywhere else they stood). However, the campaign did lead to the establishment of an active branch in the Medway Towns. On 1st December 1931 the Rochester and Chatham Branch of the Party held its annual general meeting at the City Cafe, Rochester Bridge. It was reported that membership stood at 40 (11 women and 29 men), including a NUPA group. A visiting national dignitary of the Party called for a "Corporate State" (the name chosen by Mussolini for his dictatorship) and Martin Woodroffe railed against the "menace of Communism". Among the officers elected was Brian Niall, a prominent local doctor, who became the branch's chair.
On 6th January 1932 the (evidently thriving) Branch held a "carnival ball" at the Rochester Casino (attended by Rochester's Mayor, Mayoress, and Town Clerk), at which a dancing trophy donated by Oswald Mosley was awarded. The proceeds of the evening were reportedly donated to local charities (half to St Bartholomew's Hospital).
The New Party becomes overtly Fascist
In March 1932 the New Party's Kent and District Secretary, G Victor Smith of Hailing, resigned from the Party. In May 1932 it became clear why such resignations were occurring: the New Party held an open air meeting in Batchelor Street, Chatham, at which the "Fascist Hymn" was played through loudspeakers and members of NUPA gave the Fascist salute, attracting boos and jeers from the crowd which had gathered.
A few months earlier Mosley had travelled to Italy and met Mussolini: the effect of this visit on the political direction of his organisation was becoming increasingly evident. In April 1932 he had formally closed down the New Party, but kept in existence NUPA, which rapidly became overtly Fascist (as the Batchelor Street meeting illustrates).
These developments were too much for the New Party's former parliamentary candidate at Chatham. In August 1932 the Chatham News carried a letter from Martin Woodroffe in which he dissociated himself from the remains of the New Party on the grounds of its adoption of "Italo-German Facism" (sic), the wearing of uniforms (which was "not only childish but unreasonable"), the adoption of the Corporate State policy, and "the use of the 'Nazi' salute". For Oswald Mosley, however, such things were the music of the future.