Studying Twentieth Century British Party Political Activism


Although much of the literature has assumed that detailed historical studies of grassroots political party activism are very difficult or impossible to accomplish, more recently some historians have begun to produce these studies by examining a range of sources including traditional archival materials, oral testimony, local papers and biography / autobiography using in some new and innovative methodologies. The records of national and local parties provide much valuable evidence of the activities, patterns and context in which activists operated while oral and biographical materials offer the individual accounts which give depth and lived experience essential to prosopographical and other collective biographical accounts.

For anyone wishing to produce similar studies, the first step is to locate the appropriate national and local records. When seeking information on primary source material to study activism in British political parties and other related organisations there are two useful websites containing information on how and where to find material. The Society for the Study of Labour History’s website provides resource and archive guides for Labour history, industrial relations and co-operative history ( The Political Parties and Parliamentary Archives Group ( offers guidance on where to find the main collections of all the major political parties.

The major collections of the political parties and other related organisations are located as follows:

Although important and useful material for studying party political activism can be found in the national records of political parties and other institutions, most researchers are likely to want to also consult the records of local political parties in order to better study grass-roots activism. These collections which variously include some or all of the following: minute books, annual reports and other publications, financial records, correspondence and electoral records, are all helpful in attempting to understand patterns of local, grassroots political activity.

Although the preservation and collection of the records of local Labour parties, trades councils and trade union branches in archival repositories around the country is by no means comprehensive, there are a large number of collections for different periods over the last century. Similar, though in general neither as extensive nor as numerous, collections relating to local Conservative Associations and Liberal Parties have also been preserved in local repositories.

There are a number of on-line tools for locating these materials. The National Register of Archives (NRA) can be searched for local party records using the corporate name search facility. A simple search for ‘Labour’ returns over 700 entries describing local collections of Labour parties, ILP branches, Labour Women’s sections; a search for ‘Conservative’ returns over 400 local Associations and the like; while Liberal finds over 250 local collections. The NRA entries simply refer to the repository and the scope of the collection, fuller details of what is contained within the collections, including on occasion full catalogues, may sometimes be found on the various on-line catalogues such as:

In the case of local Labour parties, a number of local collections have been microfilmed and published by Microfilm Academic Publishers as part of the ‘Origins & development of the Labour Party at local level’ series 1 and 2. The list of the parties available on microfilm can be found at and these microfilms are available at a number of national and local libraries or available for purchase. Researchers interested in particular parties or localities who fail to locate archival sources via these tools, should also try the local organisations (or their successor bodies) as some branches or branch officials retain their own records.

The records of local political organisations will be invaluable in uncovering details of local political activity but biographical details of the lives, activities and motivations of individual activists are likely to remain hard to describe in detail even when using these sources. Anyone attempting individual or collective biographies of political activists will need to supplement the organisational records (minutes, annual reports etc) with other more personalised materials. Some leading local activists (councillors, mayors etc) deposit their papers with local libraries or archives. Other valuable material (especially obituaries and other brief biographies (for those standing in elections for instance) can be gleaned from the local party papers or the local commercial press. Many of these papers will be found in local libraries and archives but the British Library’s Newspaper Collection (
at Colindale has many hard to find publications and the Labour Archive and Study Centre in Manchester, the Marx Memorial Library in London and the Working Movement Library in Salford also hold a wide range of local Labour movement publications.

Another important source for grass-roots political activism is oral history testimony. Many local museums, libraries and archives hold collections of tapes resulting from local oral history projects which may or may not contain material of value relating to local and individual political activity but there are also collections specifically relating to different political organisations. The British Library Sound Archive ( holds tapes from the Labour Oral History project, the Conservative Party Oral History project, Communist Party Oral History project, the Communist Party of Great Britain Biographical project, and National Co-operative Society Oral History project amongst others.

Andrew Flinn, Gidon Cohen 2006.