McElwee joined the Clydebank branch of the Amalgamated Society of Woodworkers in 1907. He subsequently transferred to a union branch in Brixton, London. He was elected to the union's general council and was chairman from 1924 to 1926.
He was nominated as the Labour Party candidate for the Manchester constituency of Hulme with the support of the woodworkers' union, but failed to win the seat at the 1924 general election. In 1925 he was chairman of the Dumbarton and Clydebank Labour Party, and gave evidence to an enquiry into the Clydebank Rents Strike.
McElwee again stood at Hulme at the 1929 general election, and was elected. However, he became involved in a dispute with his sponsoring union, who refused to support him at the ensuing election in 1931. The Divisional Labour Party asked him to stand down as candidate, but he refused to do, and after a search for a replacement candidate he received the Labour nomination. He was defeated, with the Conservative Party regaining the constituency.
In February 1932 the executive council and a number of officials of the Amalgamated Society of Woodworkers issued summonses alleging criminal libel against the former MP. The allegations centred on statements made in four letters written by McElwee about the union. The letters accused identifiable officials of corruption and of misappropriation of expenses. In May 1932 he entered a plea of guilty to the charges and was bound over to keep the peace on his personal recognisance of £100.
- Leigh Rayment's Historical List of MPs – Constituencies beginning with "H" (part 4)[self-published source][better source needed]
- Criminal Libel Charge, Ex MP and Trade Union officials, The Times, February 26, 1932, p.4
- The General Election - Nominations, The Times, October 20, 1924, p.24
- Clydebank Rents Enquiry, The Times, February 27, 1925, p.9
- Manchester and Salford, The Times, October 14, 1931, p.6
- Charges of Criminal Libel - Ex Labour MP bound over, May 3, 1932, p.7
- Hansard 1803–2005: contributions in Parliament by Andrew McElwee
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Sir Joseph Nall
|Member of Parliament for Manchester Hulme
Sir Joseph Nall
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