David Clark charts the career of Victor Grayson, an idealist ill-suited to tolerating others, writes Dianne Hayter

At just 25, Victor Grayson was elected in 1907, a socialist, firebrand, handsome, bisexual, often drunk, always charismatic. Yet he disappeared – literally – 13 years later, never to be seen again.

He had such promise, his byelection triumph based on oratory, enthusiasm and sheer hard work. But such local popularity was not shared across the parliamentary Labour party, one Bradford member of parliament noting that a ‘man who can make a crowd shout is not necessarily an organiser of men’. After an initial impressive performance he fell out with the PLP hierarchy being unwilling to accept its discipline. However, admiration from ‘young, more middle class militants’ led to a dangerous cleavage in the Labour movement, partly thanks to his antagonism to trade unions for being insufficiently socialist and his closeness to Clarion’s Robert Blatchford who was detested by Keir Hardie.

From a working-class background, the college-educated Grayson was on the left of the fledgling Labour party but was unable to accommodate different views, Snowden judging he had never seen anything ‘as sad as the tragedy of Victor Grayson’. One suffragette labelled him ‘brilliant and ill-fated’ while the Social Democratic Federation leader concluded ‘a very promising young leader has lost the chance of his life’, with Vladimir Lenin describing him as ‘a fiery socialist, without any principles and given to mere phrases’.

His life had twists and turns, not all of his own making. His beautiful suffragette actress, who had produced a daughter at a time of abject poverty following the loss of his seat in 1910, died in childbirth in 1918. The war (which Grayson passionately supported, becoming anti-German) restored his fortunes, first as a journalist in France then in Australia campaigning for conscription, in New Zealand where he enlisted, and later in the United Kingdom.

His time in parliament and when badly wounded in the trenches is deftly told in this aptly titled ‘The Man and the Mystery’. David Clark’s original biography – 30 years ago – was intriguing but this new, vivid version, adds colour and detail, including from family research, documenting the personal and the political. It visits the various conspiracy theories around Grayson’s post-war inexplicable luxurious life style and then sudden disappearance, including that his homosexuality or knowledge of the infamous ‘honours scandal’ led to some ‘pay-offs’ or a new identity for silence, and even that he had been fathered by Winston Churchill’s uncle.

So was this cult-like figure Labour’s lost leader, or an ephemeral shooting star weakened by alcohol, an ‘unstable personality’ (in Sylvia Pankhurst’s words) and, at base, the absence of solid political foundations?

Clark, who held Grayson’s former parliamentary seat, writes of Grayson’s ‘inability to understand the nature of leftwing politics which has been bedevilled with sectarianism and fragmentation in every country while placing him alongside Oswald Mosely and Tony Benn as handsome, charismatic orators attracting disciples but unable to tackle the demands of engineering lasting political change. The book’s strength is in telling the story of an idealist during a period of social and political upheaval, in an adolescent party in flux, but with a personality ill-suited to tolerating others, or winning the confidence of ordinary working-class men and women faced with the realities of daily life.

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Dianne Hayter is a member of the House of Lords and a former chief executive of the European parliamentary Labour party. She tweets @HayterAtLords

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Victor Grayson: The Man and the Mystery written by David Clark

Quartet Books | 336pp | £20