Percy Harris was regarded as a radical Liberal with a strong social conscience, which grew from representing a working-class area of the East End of London. He was particularly interested in the issue of social housing, a major responsibility of the London County Council. Harris sided with H. H. Asquith against David Lloyd George in 1918–23. Thereafter, he sought unity within the Liberal Party. When the Liberal Party split in 1931 over the issue of free trade, he sided with Sir Herbert Samuel and against the Liberal National breakaway led by Sir John Simon. Under the leadership of Sir Archie Sinclair, he rose to prominence in the party. Harris was a strong supporter of the social policies advocated by Sir William Beveridge and was key to getting Beveridge to run for the Liberals.
Harris first stood for election at the 1906 general election when he was the Liberal candidate for the Ashford Division of Kent. Ashford was a safe Conservative seat that they had won at every election since the seat was created in 1885. He was not expected to win and in an election that saw the Liberals sweep the country Harris came within 400 votes of toppling his Conservative opponent.
In 1910, Harris contested the January 1910 general election as Liberal candidate for the Harrow division of Middlesex. Harrow was a safe Conservative seat that had been unexpectedly won by the Liberal James Gibb in 1906. Gibb had decided to retire and Harris was given the hard task of defending the seat. Harris had attended school in Harrow so knew the area a little. In a tougher year for the Liberals, Harrow was re-taken by the Conservatives.
In 1914, Harris was adopted as prospective Liberal candidate for the Harborough division of Leicestershire for the general election expected to take place either in 1914 or 1915. Harborough was a Liberal seat where the elderly sitting member had decided to retire at the next election. However, the outbreak of war postponed the general election. In 1915, Harris was elected Deputy Chairman of the London County Council. In the meantime, the health of the Liberal MP for Harborough deteriorated and he resigned from parliament causing the 1916 Harborough by-election. Harris was re-adopted by the local Liberals and his candidacy was also officially endorsed by both the Unionist and Labour parties, due to the wartime electoral truce. However, Harris faced a strong opponent in the by-election who received much Unionist support as well as strong support from prominent newspaper barons. Despite this, Harris was elected to Parliament. In May 1918, when H. H. Asquith challenged Prime Minister David Lloyd George in the Maurice Debate, Harris sided with Asquith and went into the division lobby against the Coalition Government. As a result, he lost his seat at the 1918 general election when his Unionist opponent was endorsed by the Coalition Government. In 1919, Harris was engaged in correspondence with John Wycliffe Black, Chairman of the Harborough Divisional Liberal Association, about the amount of money Harris was expected to contribute if he wished to remain as Parliamentary candidate. In the end Harris was not able to meet the requirements of the divisional Liberal association and sought another constituency. Black was then adopted by Harborough Liberals as their candidate.
The split with the Harborough Liberals gave Harris the freedom to pursue a parliamentary career in Bethnal Green South West, the seat he represented on the LCC. The parliamentary seat had a chequered history; the Liberals had won the seat on eight occasions but had lost it three times. At the last election in 1918, the Liberal candidate had finished third with just 24%, behind a socialist candidate supported by the National Federation of Discharged and Demobilized Sailors and Soldiers. At the 1922 general election, Harris faced the Unionist MP who had taken the seat from the Liberals in 1914 and a Communist who had Labour Party support. The sitting Unionist member finished third and Harris re-gained the seat polling over 40% of the vote. Harris repeated his victory in 1923 when his Communist opponent ran as an official Labour Party candidate and in 1924 when that opponent once more ran as a Communist. The 1924 election was a very bad election for the Liberals nationwide but Harris's support had held up very well. During the 1924–29 parliament which was dominated by a Unionist majority, Harris worked closely with a group of radical Liberal MPs that included William Wedgwood Benn, Frank Briant, Joseph Kenworthy and Horace Crawfurd to provide opposition to the government. Harris avoided getting involved in the Liberal Party in-fighting of the time and supported the radical policy platforms of the party presented under Lloyd George's leadership. At the 1929 general election he was easily returned, thanks in part to both the Communist and Labour parties running candidates.
When the Liberal Party split in 1931 over the National Government, Harris supported Sir Herbert Samuel who wanted the party to stay in the National Government and fight strongly for Free Trade. At the 1931 general election, the Conservatives, who had come fourth in 1929, did not bother to run a candidate against him. Harris was re-elected with nearly 60% of the vote against an opposition split between Labour and Communist. On 14 January 1932, Harris was created a Baronet, as Sir Percy Harris of London. When the Liberal Party left the National Government following the defeat on Free Trade, Harris followed into opposition. At the 1935 general election, he faced just one opponent, a Labour Party candidate who was also opposed to the National Government. Harris held his seat with a reduced majority in a tough election for the Liberals which saw their Leader, Sir Herbert Samuel, lose his seat.
In 1935, the new Liberal Leader Sir Archie Sinclair appointed Sir Percy Liberal Chief Whip in succession to Walter Rea, who had also lost his seat at the recent general election.
In 1940, when Liberal Leader Sir Archie Sinclair took up a cabinet position in the Churchill Coalition Government he appointed Harris as Deputy Leader of the Liberal Parliamentary Party in addition to being Chief Whip. The deputy position had been vacant since Sinclair had become leader in 1935. At the same time Harris was appointed a Privy Counsellor. On his shoulders fell much of the responsibility of leading the party in the Commons and in organising the party in the country. The Liberal Party was invigorated by the recruitment to its ranks of Sir William Beveridge, author of the Beveridge Report and optimistically met the electorate at the 1945 general election. However, the election was a disappointment for the party and particularly for Harris who lost his seat in the Labour Party tide.
In 1946, Harris published his autobiography, Forty Years In and Out of Parliament, Fleet Street Press.
After the loss of his parliamentary seat, he remained politically active and won his old London County Council seat back from the Labour Party in 1946. Harris played a key role in the formation of Liberal International in 1947 and was President of the British Council of LI. He was re-elected in the 1949 London County Council Elections, but found himself to be the only Liberal on the Council and briefly holding the balance of power between Labour and Conservative. In 1950, Harris sought a similar return to parliament for the new merged seat of Bethnal Green, but in a bad year for the Liberals, finished a distant second.
^ abcMalcolm Baines (1998) "Sir Percy Harris" in Brack et al. (eds.) Dictionary of Liberal Biography; Politico's
^ abc'HARRIS, Rt Hon. Sir Percy Alfred', Who Was Who, A & C Black, an imprint of Bloomsbury Publishing plc, 1920–2016; online edn, Oxford University Press, 2014 ; online edn, April 2014 accessed 26 April 2016[permanent dead link]