Banner of the Welsh Committee of the Communist Party of Great Britain, via the People's Collection Wales.
Banner of the Welsh Committee of the Communist Party of Great Britain, via the People’s Collection Wales.

On 5 July, 1921, Alfred Onions, one of the old guard of the South Wales Miners’ Federation (SWMF) died. Just three years earlier he had been elected as MP for Caerphilly, the first in an almost unbroken line of Labour MPs for the town that continues today – the exception is Ednyfed Davies, elected as a Labour candidate in 1979 but who defected to the Social Democratic Party in 1981 and stood down from the seat in 1983. Onions’s death prompted a by-election which has gone largely un-noticed in the annals of British politics but unjustly so. For this was not only the first parliamentary election won by a Conscientious Objector, it was also the first time that the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) ever contested a parliamentary seat.

In 1918, only two candidates contested the new constituency: William Rees Edmunds, Merthyr solicitor and former president of the Merthyr Liberal Federation, and the Labour-SWMF candidate, Alfred Onions the miners’ agent for Tredegar, SWMF treasurer since 1898, and current chair of Monmouthshire County Council. Onions won with a majority of over 2,000. Earlier in the year, the SWMF had run ballots to select parliamentary candidates for the nine constituencies it intended to fight: Merthyr, Aberdare, Rhondda East, Rhondda West, Abertillery, Caerphilly, Ebbw Vale, Gower, Ogmore, and Bedwellty. Many of the names that came forward in that process were either emerging figures – such as AJ Cook and WH Mainwaring who stood in the Rhondda East selection ballot – or members of the old guard of the miners’ federation such as Enoch Morrell, James Winstone, and Alfred Onions. In 1918, the most striking selection was probably that of T.E. Nicholas, the radical pacifist minister from Glais near Swansea, chosen to fight the Aberdare constituency in an attempt to win back the seat for Labour from the movement’s black sheep, CB Stanton.

By the end of July, Onions had been confirmed as the miners’ federation and Labour Party candidate for Caerphilly. The Liberal Association, on the other hand, did not come to a decision on its parliamentary candidate until the General Election had been called in November 1918. Meeting at Ystrad Mynach at the end of that month, the Association resolved ‘definitely’ to oppose Onions. Their shortlist of three – consisting of the Rev. D. Leyshon Evans of Bargoed, Cllr E. Richards of Ystrad Mynach (the Association’s Vice President), and Alderman J. E. Evans of Newport County Borough. They each withdrew when faced with the prospect of fielding their own election expenses. In the scamble that followed, a new list was drawn up consisting of (amongst others) W. R. Edmunds of Merthyr, J. E. Evans (once more), and the Pontypridd bakery owner Hopkin Morgan (who quickly withdrew). As part of the post-war coalition agreement, the Conservative Association in Caerphilly agreed to support the Liberal candidate provided that they agreed ‘upon some points which would be submitted to him after the selection’. In the final ballot, J. E. Evans emerged victorious with 98 votes to Edmunds’s 48. There was, though, a snag. The Liberal Party had already agreed to adopt Onions as the official Liberal candidate, forcing both the local Liberal and Conservative associations to stand down their nomination of Evans. Evans agreed to the instructions issued by Liberal HQ, but the local associations did not – Edmunds, the solicitor from Merthyr, ran instead.

In a major speech at Bargoed in early December, Onions, supported by his wife and by Elizabeth Andrews, who made a direct appeal to newly enfranchised women voters (who formed one voter in ever three), used humour and a direct appeal to carry on the struggle for a better life. His, he declared, was the voice of ‘someone who knew of all the difficulties of the Welsh miners’. All across the borough, coal drams were chalked with the slogan VOTE FOR ONIONS. Like many in the labour movement, Onions had suffered losses during the war. His eldest son Wilfred had died in April 1915 aged just 26 whilst serving with the Monmouthshire Regiment in France. He is commemorated on the Menin Gate in Ypres. His daughter, too, was serving as a nurse in France, and a second son was serving in the Royal Navy. It was this which earned Onions the support of the Tredegar branch of the Discharged and Demobilised Soldiers and Sailors. He also successfully courted the support of the Irish community of Bargoed and Aberbargoed, a key constituency for the development of the Labour Party in the South Wales Coalfield. Put together, these areas of support helped Onions triumph over his Liberal-Conservative opponent.

During the nearly three years he was in parliament, Alfred Onions never spoke on the floor of the House of Commons. His was a relatively undistinguished parliamentary career which ended with months of illness before his passing in July 1921, just a matter of weeks before the passing of the South Wales Miners’ Federation president James Winstone. Much of Onions’s time was spent, otherwise, in local government business – he joined the aldermanic bench of Monmouthshire County Council – and in the affairs of the SWMF. Even before his death, he had signalled that he would stand down at the next election.

The by-election that followed Onions’s death was held on 24 August 1921. The nominations stood as follows: Morgan Jones (ILP), W. R. Edmunds (Liberal), and R. Stewart (CPGB). The campaign was short but vigorous and attracted considerable attention to the town – so much so that on polling day extra police were drafted in to deal with the gathering crowds of as many as 10,000 people. According to one newspaper, a number of those who heading into Caerphilly town centre that night were Communists from other districts. To pass away the time before the results were announced at 3.35 in the morning, the crowds sang hymns and popular songs in Welsh and English. The returning officer declared as follows:

Morgan Jones – 13, 699

W. Rees Edmunds – 8,858

Robert Stewart – 2,592

Labour had increased its majority to nearly 5,000 on a turnout of 77%.

Morgan Jones, the ILP candidate, was a remarkable individual. He had been the ILP’s nomination for the constituency in 1918, too, but withdrew so as to not cause a split in the Labour vote. The fact he was able to win the Caerphilly constituency in 1921, however, was a testament to the shifting basis of politics in the South Wales Coalfield. Jones was a teacher – although born to a mining family – and grew up in Gelligaer. He undertook teacher training at Reading and came back to teach in his native area. By 1909 he was secretary of the Bargoed Branch of the ILP, in 1911 was elected to represent the Bargoed Ward of Gelligaer Urban District Council, and by 1913 was president of the Glamorgan Federation of Teachers. One of his keenest tasks on the UDC was as part of the housing committee, pressuring the council to act where private enterprise had failed. In parts of the district there were as many as 500 applications for every house available. The outbreak of war in August 1914, however, overshadowed Jones’s principled campaigns for housing reform. Like many in the ILP, he held against the war and maintained this stance throughout 1914 and 1915. In February 1915, he was elected chairman of the Welsh Divisional Council of the ILP and thrust into the forefront of the party’s opposition to the conflict. In his address to the division’s annual meeting he declared:

The ILP preached peace in peace, and they also preached peace in war; they believed in the unity of the workers and preferred the clasp of the hand to the clip of the trigger.

Jones was nearing his 30th birthday and was fully aware that he was of military service age. In the autumn of 1915, councillors on Gelligaer UDC looked to form a military service tribunal (even though these had yet to be sanctioned by Parliament) and Jones was one of those who raised the alarm. ‘To me’, he declared in the council chamber in Bargoed, ‘entering the army was a matter of conscience […] Even if it were granted by Parliament, I would object to them sitting in judgement upon my conscience’. Although the vote went in favour of the establishment of the tribunal 9 votes to 4, Jones remained adamant that it was an incursion into an individual’s liberty. The four who voted against were Jones, and Sam Carter, H. Brown, and J. Jones, of the Fochriw Ward. The Military Service Bill, which passed through parliament in early 1916, was strongly opposed by the Trades and Labour Council in Bargoed. As the Merthyr Pioneer recorded, ‘delegates one and all were of the opinion that the bill, if passed, would be detrimental to the worker; that it was unnecessary for military purposes and aimed chiefly at the crushing of trades unionism’. One noted that a form of coercion was already evident in Bargoed where young men were being dismissed from their jobs because they had refused to enlist. Jones, in his capacity as Chairman of the South Wales Council Against Conscription, addressed anti-conscription meetings across the district in the months leading up to the bill’s royal assent. There were angry letters published from serving soldiers denouncing Jones’s stance and declaring that ‘we’ll keep a warm corner in a trench for you M. J.’.

He came before the Bargoed Tribunal in March 1916. In a crowded courtroom, Jones declared that he was a socialist and an internationalist and was resolutely opposed to all warfare. Jones was an absolutist, refusing even non-combatant work. ‘I would with pleasure help a wounded solider’, he said, ‘but could not join the RAMC because that is a part of the war machine’. He was, nevertheless, recommended for non-combatant status by the Tribunal – a decision which Jones appealed, but which was upheld. A few months later, he was arrested at Caerphilly having failed to report for duty and handed over to the military authorities. He spent much of the summer of 1916 in solitary confinement in Cardiff Barracks before being transferred to Rhyl and eventually to Wormwood Scrubs.

By 1917, he had accepted alternative work under the Home Office scheme. The state’s treatment of Jones – like that of Emrys Hughes – was unduly harsh and prompted a number of protests across South Wales. These were strong enough that in the summer of 1917, there were efforts to convince Jones to stand against William Brace, the Lib-Lab MP for South Glamorgan, were he to stand for one of the new constituencies in his native Monmouthshire – in the event Brace stood in Abertillery in 1918. Eventually, the protests galvanised around Glamorgan Education Committee’s decision to refuse to reinstate Jones to his position as a school teacher in the county (he eventually found work underground at Abertysswg Colliery). A resolution passed by the Rhymney Valley District of the SWMF in February 1918 was ironically moved and seconded by two of those who had refused to stand alongside Jones in his protest against the establishment of a tribunal in Gelligaer in 1915 – fellow Bargoed councillors Edmund Jones and Walter Lewis. It was against this background of protest that the ILP in Bargoed adopted Morgan Jones as its parliamentary nominee in March 1918.

And yet, in 1918 Jones was a controversial figure in Gelligaer. In June, the UDC received a letter from the National Federation of Discharged and Demobilised Sailors and Soldiers (who would later support Alfred Onions in his parliamentary campaign) demanding Jones’s resignation from the War Pensions Committee. Although the council refused to take action on the matter, Jones – in almost defeated tone – that he had been persecuted to the point of losing his prospects, his wages, his job, and almost his health.

Nor was the end of the war, the end of Jones’s persecution by the state. Having taken a job at Aberysswg Colliery to support himself, and therefore able to maintain his political activities in the district, he was deemed to have been ‘in breach’ of the terms of his release and recalled to Dartmoor Prison in early 1919. He refused to do so and in April of that year was arrested and brought before Bargoed magistrates. By early May, he was once again in the hands of the authorities. As he was taken from the court, Jones shouted at the bench ‘the whole thing is prejudiced against me, you scoundrels!’. According to one press report, a woman in the public gallery then burst into tears and had to be escorted from the courtroom. In many ways, the action of the state in continuing to persecute Morgan Jones in the months after the war made his victory at the 1921 parliamentary by-election possible. One by one branches of the miners’ federation and the National Union of Railwaymen passed resolutions of protest and the normally carefully worded ILP press turned to terms such as travesty and even, as the Merthyr Pioneer had it, to the sentiments of ‘justice has been again raped in South Wales’.

Jones’s Communist opponent in the 1921 by-election was Robert “Bob” Stewart. Born in Eassie, Angus, on 16 February 1877, Stewart’s route into the Communist Party began in Dundee – the town he grew up in – when he was elected a member of the town council in 1908. The following year, he took part in the formation of the socialist Prohibition and Reform Party, becoming its full-time organiser in 1911. Like Jones, Stewart was a member of the No Conscription Fellowship and was imprisoned in Wormwood Scrubs for much of the war. He almost certainly knew Morgan Jones either through the NCF or through their shared time at Wormwood Scrubs. In 1920, Stewart was one of the Scottish delegates at the conferences that led to the formation of the Communist Party of Great Britain. The choice of Stewart, rather than one of the Welsh Communists is an interesting one – James Klugmann, in his history of the Communist Party, notes that at this time Stewart was in prison in Cardiff for his part in a demonstration during the 1921 Miners’ Lockout. He was released just prior to polling day, leaving much of the campaigning to be done by local activists and party members who travelled into the constituency from elsewhere.

Caerphilly was one of the first places in South Wales – indeed in the whole of Wales – to have a branch of the Communist Party. The branch secretary, a Mr E. Pitt, lived in Morgan Street near the town’s gas works. The main focus of Communist activity was, of course, elsewhere, notably in the Rhondda and in Cardiff, but they recognised that the Rhymney Valley was a potentially fruitful area to campaign in. It was on this basis that, in October 1920, David Ramsay, later the CPGB’s Scottish organiser, travelled to South Wales to address a number of different meetings particularly in the Rhymney Valley. A well-attended meeting was held at the local cinema in Bedwas and open-air meetings were held at Caerphilly and at Llanbradach, where the audiences were chiefly miners. ‘The miners are great’, Ramsay wrote later, ‘and are bound to count when our day comes’. Ramsay continued his tour in the Cynon Valley and eventually made it to Glynneath and Merthyr. Clearly, then, the Rhymney Valley was of some interest to the party.

It came as no surprise to anyone, therefore, that when Alfred Onions died and a by-election was announced for Caerphilly, that the CPGB would stand a candidate there. Throughout the campaign, the CP insisted that Morgan Jones was a ‘non miner’ and pointed to his decade long career on the local urban district council as symptomatic of his establishment status. They reiterated this in two special editions of the party newspaper The Communist which were issued in August 1921. And they iterated in on the streets using a campaign force mostly comprising unemployed men who had struggled to find work after the miners’ lockout a few months earlier, but also the entire branch of Bedlinog ILP which resigned from to campaign for the CP. They were all led on the ground by a local man, Dai Davies of Bargoed, and the Party’s election agent E. H. Brown, a left-winger who defected from the ILP and later the CP’s representative in Moscow. Given the intense interest in the election generated by the entry of the CP, it is no surprise that it was closely watched by the security services. For almost the first time, a parliamentary election was reported to the Home Office’s committee on revolutionary activities. The security services had informants on the ground in Caerphilly itself and within the party executive. This gave them first-hand knowledge of the CP’s own view of its position:

As regards the general position in South Wales there seems to be for the first time a movement being built up that will consolidate the revolutionary forces in South Wales in a manner which has never hitherto been equalled.

There were complaints of victimisation and it was noted that as many as 25% of know CP activists had failed to get their jobs back after the lockout. Nevertheless, the security services noted, the CP campaign speeches ‘avoid anything approaching incitement to revolution by means of violence’. One tactic that was considered was to point to the support that the miners had received during the lockout from Russia. We may wonder just where the 2 million roubles of ‘Red Gold’ sent to the Miners’ Federation of Great Britain actually went. What is clear, however, is that the by-election cost the CP £968 for the sake of less than 3,000 votes.

The Caerphilly by-election tends to be forgotten in favour of the much more spectacular by-election interventions in the Rhondda in the 1930s. It would be unfair to portray it, however, as a ‘dress rehearsal’ of those later campaigns in the same way that it is distinctly unfair to describe the 1921 lockout as a dress rehearsal for 1926 (as K. O. Morgan does). This is to mistake the events of 1921 for something less significant than they actually are. For in the aftermath of the Caerphilly by-election, and the 1921 lockout, the CPGB began to gain a presence across the South Wales Coalfield. From an initial fourteen branches, mostly concentrated in the mid Glamorgan valleys, there were soon branches in Ammanford and Clydach in the west and Tredegar and Pontypool in the east. And there’s the other side, too, for this election offered a choice of two men who had been conscientious objectors, who had been locked up for refusing to fight in the First World War. Three years earlier that would have been unthinkable – indeed, the CO candidate in Aberdare in 1918, T. E. Nicholas, lost badly. But politics changed quickly in those days and the 1921 miners’ lockout was the fulcrum, not the dress rehearsal. But that, as they say, is a story for another day.