The Clay Cross Parliamentary Constituency operated from 1918 until the time of the 1950 General Election. It covered much of what are currently the southern areas of both the North East Derbyshire and Bolsover Constituencies. In those days it was an area in which coal mining abounded.
Yet although the Constituency was dominated by the miners’ vote and the Derbyshire Miners' Association (DMA) was a powerful influence in the area, out of the six different Labour candidates it ran for parliament at various elections, only two of these were miners. The absence of miners as Labour candidates in parliamentary contests in 1922, 1923, 1924, 1929, 1931, 1933. 1935 and 1936 (when four different Labour candidates ran) showed an independence of mind amongst local miners from the pressures of the leadership of the DMA. This was aided by the influences of a socialist-inclined local Methodism and by left-wing activists in the Independent Labour Party (ILP) in areas such as Bolsover. The ILP, however, went on to disaffiliate from the Labour Party in 1932. A further factor leading to the period in which miners' were not run as candidates, is that Clay Cross became one of the safest Labour seats in the country. It, therefore, attracted the interest of leading figures at national level in the Labour Party.
The first election in the Clay Cross Constituency in 1918 followed a conventional pattern for an area dominated by the DMA. . Fred Hall, the Labour candidate was a leading official of the DMA, who eventually served for 29 years on the national executive committee of its parent body, the Miners' Federation of Great Britain. He was, however, the only Labour candidate for the Clay Cross Constituency who ever failed to win the seat. He lost by 1,221 to a Liberal who had Conservative backing. For the Conservatives and Liberals who had been the larger elements of the 1915-18 War-time Coalition had joined into a deal aimed at not running candidates against each other.
When Fred Hall dropped out of standing for the seat just prior to the 1922 General Election, Charlie Duncan was selected in his place. He had helped to found the Workers’ Union who had been involved in the birth of the Labour Party and represented unskilled workers. He had been the Labour MP for Barrow-in-Furness from 1906 to 1918 and had spells as both Whip and Secretary for the Parliamentary Labour Party. He won the elections in Clay Cross in 1922, 1923, 1924, 1929 and 1931. His final success revealed how Labour had built up the seat. The 1931 election was held following the collapse of the minority Labour Government in the middle of a major financial crisis, with Ramsay MacDonald its leader defecting to run a National Government. Labour’s position at the subsequent General Election collapsed from 288 to 52 seats, yet Labour held Clay Cross by almost 10,000 votes. A massive Labour majority in the adverse circumstances of the time.
When Charlie Duncan died in 1933, Clay Cross adopted Arthur Henderson as their candidate. Known as “Uncle Arthur” he was a huge figure in the early history of the Labour Party. He was leader of the Labour Party from 1908 to 1910 (with another spell at the start of the First World War). He served as Labour’s first Cabinet Minister in the First World War Coalition Government from 1915 to 1917, resigning when his idea for an international conference on the war was voted down by the rest of the cabinet. He helped shape the pre-Blairite structure of the Labour Party as its General Secretary, a post he held from 1912 to 1935. He was Home Secretary in the first Minority Labour Government of 1924 and Foreign Secretary from 1929-31. When MacDonald defected Henderson took over as Labour's temporary leader until 1932, but gave up the position because he had by then lost his parliamentary seat. Clay Cross provided his avenue back into Labour’s parliamentary politics. In the by-election one of his opponents was Harry Pollitt the General Secretary of the Communist Party who lost his deposit with 10.8% of the votes to Henderson’s 69.3%. So there was a total left vote of over 80%. Whilst he was MP for Clay Cross, Henderson went on to receive the Nobel Peace Prize and was held in high regard it being claimed that “no-one ever sought his help in vain"*. He died in 1935.
At the subsequent General election, Clay Cross ran the 35 year old Alfred Holland who was a local Methodist. But within 10 months he was stricken with spinal meningitis and died shortly afterwards.
A by-election in 1936 led to the Clay Cross Labour Party running its fourth candidate in five years. George Ridley had been on the Executive of the Railway Clerk’s Association since 1909. He was seen as “becoming the Labour Party’s leading pamphleteer*”. In 1944 he also died whilst still an MP.
After 26 years, Clay Cross once more adopted a Derbyshire Miners’ Candidate in Harold Neal the area’s Vice President, who went on to become Secretary of the Miners’ group of MPs in parliament. There was a war-time pact amongst Churchill’s Coalition partners at the time, which covered the Labour Party. This was not to run candidates against coalition partners in by-elections. So only two independent candidates stood against Neal. One ran as a “Workers Anti-Fascist” and the other as an “Independent Progressive”. Neal got 76.3% of the votes. When the war ended, he improved his position by taking 82.1% of the votes in opposition to a Conservative.
When the boundaries were redrawn and the Clay Cross seat was absorbed into other areas, Harold Neal became the Labour MP for Bolsover. He had a period as Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Fuel and Power in 1951 and retired as MP in 1970 to be replaced by Dennis Skinner who was the Chair of NE Derbyshire Labour Party, President of the DMA and also an active member of the Clay Cross Labour Party.
A souvenir brochure published by the Clay Cross Divisional Labour Party in 1948 pointed out Labour’s dominance in the area, stating that there were “46 Local Government Seats (exclusive of Parish Councils) within the Constituency : of these 40 are held by Labour members. In addition, there are 16 Parish Councils : in the majority of cases we have 100 per cent representation”*. ( * = The two earlier quotations are also taken from this souvenir brochure.)
Those were the days.