[Book] In the Cause of Labour - A History of British Trade Unionism

There are many narrative histories of the struggles of British workers. However, Rob Sewell’s book is different. This book is aimed especially at class-conscious workers who are seeking to escape from the ills of the capitalist system, that has embroiled the world in a quagmire of wars, poverty and suffering. This history of trade unions is particularly relevant at the present time. After a long period of stagnation, the fresh winds of the class struggle are beginning to blow.

Rob Sewell’s book was written precisely with these new forces in mind.

The British labour movement is the oldest in the world. More than two hundred years ago, the pioneers of the movement created illegal revolutionary trade unions in the face of the most terrible violence and repression.

In the Cause of Labour - A History of British Trade Unionism
Available from Wellred here
In the course of the nineteenth century they built trade unions of the downtrodden unskilled workers – those with “blistered hands and the unshorn chins,” as Feargus O’Connor called them. Finally, they established a mass party of Labour based on the trade unions, breaking the monopoly of the Tories and Liberals. In the stormy years following the Russian Revolution they engaged in ferocious class battles, culminating in the General Strike of 1926.

Nor did the achievements of the British trade union movement cease with the Depression and the Second World War. The post-war upswing served to strengthen the working class and heal the scars of the inter-war period. By the time of the industrial tidal wave of the early 1970s, they drove a Tory government from power, after turning Edward Heath’s anti-trade union laws into a dead letter. Later, the miners, the traditional vanguard of the British working class, waged an epic year-long struggle in 1984-85 against the juggernaut of Thatcherism. They could have succeeded, had the rightwing Labour and trade union leaders not abandoned them and left them isolated.

The book contains vital lessons and is essential reading for today’s worker militants. The foreword is written by Jeremy Dear, general secretary of the National Union of Journalists and member of the General Council of the TUC (personal capacity).

Table of Contents

  1. The Birth Pains
    The Class Divide
    Child Labour
  2. Into the Abyss of Capitalism
    Anti-union Terror
    Unsung Herdes
    Peterloo Massacre
  3. Schools of War
    “Captain Swing”
    The Grand National
  4. Breaking the yoke
    The Newport Rising
    The “Plug Plot”
    The Demise
  5. The “Pompous Trades”
    New Model Unions
    Marx and the First International
    Impact in Britain
    The Trade Union Congress
    Vicious circle
  6. From a Spark to a Blaze
    From a Spark
    New Unionism Under Attack
  7. “The First Giant Step”
    Mass Movements
    Independent Representation
    The Breakthrough
    Victory Grayson
  8. The Great Unrest
    Strikes Spread
    “Rank and Fileism”
  9. War and Revolution
    Voices Stifled
    Revolutionary Objectives
    Electrifying effect
    General Election
  10. On the Brink of Revolution
    The Triple Alliance
    Soviet Support
  11. “Black Friday”
    Lenin on Britain
    Employers’ Offensive
    The Political front
  12. “Bayonets don’t cut coal”
    The Minority Movement
    Royal Comission
  13. “Nine Days That Shook The World”
    Scarcely a wheel turns
    Unstoppable wave
    Stand firm!
    The Betrayal
    Next time
  14. “Never Again”
    Coal Crisis Report
  15. “Road to Wigan Pier”
    American Labour
    Consequences of 1931
    Popular Frontism
  16. “Labour in the War”
    Integral Part
    June 1941
  17. Post War Dreams
    Gradual Approach
    National Debts
    The Cold War
    Cold War
  18. Business (Unionism) as usual
    The Blue Union
    ETU Trial
    Clause Four
  19. In Place of Strife
    Wage Restraint
    Economic Difficulties
    In Place of Strife
    Discontent grows
  20. “Close the Gates!”
    State of emergency
    1972 Miners’ Strike
    Saltley Gate
  21. The Road to Pentonville
    Pentonville Five
    Shrewsbury trial
  22. The Turning Point
    Ulster workers council
    Paramilitary solutions
    Wage Restraint
    Winter of Discontent
  23. Preparing the Class War
    Premature confrontation
    Flexible rostering
    The Falklands War
    Warrington dispute
  24. “The Enemy Within”
    The Ballot
    The Orgreave
    Dock strikes
    Propaganda offensive
    Action not words
  25. Aftermath of Defeat
    The Defeats
    1987 General election
    Driven out
  26. “Ignorance is Strength”
    Fruits of “New Realism”
  27. Blairism and the Unions
    General Ebb
    The “project”
    Coalition Government
    Almighty row
  28. The Class Divide Grows
    Privatisation Disaster
  29. Militancy is back!
    The pendulum
    Jackson’s defeat
    General Council
  30. Should the unions disaffiliate?
    Keynesianism Abandoned
    National Government
    Justifiably angry
    Mass organisations
    Words into deeds
  31. Future of the Unions
    Explosive situation
  32. The New View of Society


Jeremy Dear

As the press talks of a rebirth of militant trade unionism there could not be a more important time for this major work to be published. Trade union reps spend hours every day sorting out individual problems – from questions of wages to cases of discrimination, from redundancies to unfair dismissals and health and safety problems. 

Poor management, under-investment, ageing technology, a lack of training and skills development all contribute to problems at work.

Yet those who study the history of our movement know that it is not bad bosses or the nature of individual industries or workplaces which are really at the root of the problems we face but the economic system itself that demands ever increasing levels of profit. Additional profit can be achieved by selling more or by reducing the costs of production. Since the market is finite more and more companies and nations seek to compete on the basis of the lowest possible cost of production – so wages are squeezed, jobs are lost, factories are closed, whole industries decimated and ultimately production is moved at the whim of international capital from country to country in search of the cheapest labour to exploit.

My own industry has seen remarkable changes in the past twenty years as ever more avaricious companies go in search of more and more profit. The length of the working week has increased, newspapers are bigger and more programmes are produced for broadcast yet the numbers working on them have decreased. Wages have fallen in relation to many other professions and ownership of the media is concentrated in fewer and fewer hands.

Unions themselves have been under attack. When dozens of pieces of anti-trade union legislation were introduced under Thatcher newspaper employers in particular began ripping up agreements and removing unions rights to bargain. As a result casualisation swept the industry and terms and conditions suffered. Today there are trained, qualified journalists in London earning £14,000 a year in companies which make millions of pounds profit every year. Individuals doing the same job were earning more 20 years ago.

My industry is not unique. In manufacturing, in the service sector, in traditional and new industries there is a drive to get more work – and hence more profit – out of every worker. Speed-ups, new production methods and often just plain bullying are used to extract every last crumb.

In these circumstances is it is no surprise that virtually every union is reporting record levels of stress.

For those who seek to maximise profit there has always been an obstacle – trade union organisation. That’s why in the drive to increase profit at the expense of working people union organisation itself had to be attacked. Unions were seen a s a burden on business. 

That’s why Thatcher brought in the new anti-trade union laws – to undermine the effectiveness of unions to be able to represent their members.

Yet as a society we have never been richer – but the wealth is increasingly being concentrated in fewer and fewer hands.

As a result of the onslaught on trade unionism – and the failure of the union leaderships to respond – many trade unions suffered falling membership and declining influence. But in the past few years we’ve seen a resurgence in the idea of collective action and in the belief in trade unions as organisations created to fight for workers interests.

These changes have begun to be reflected in many ways – more industrial action, more battles for trade union rights, the election of a succession of left wing trade union leaders and on the political front the election in 1997 of a Labour government.

Unions hoped that would signal a change in working lives. And whilst there have been some gains unions have welcomed the fundamental balance of power in the workplace has not shifted. The Labour government has been beholden to the interests of big business. Working people have become increasingly disillusioned with a continuation of Tory policies on privatisation, public services, pay and in particular the failure of Labour to remove the anti-trade union laws. 

This timely book sets about identifying the processes that underpin the problems we face on a daily basis. It exposes the economic system that gave birth to trade unionism and the key episodes that shaped the British and international economic landscape. It does so through the history of the development of the trade union movement from its birth to the Tolpuddle Martyrs, New Unionism, Chartism to the bankrupt policies of partnership and the struggles of today.

It does not view episodes as isolated events shaped by great individuals but as part of a process of increasing exploitation. It provides the path from the battle against immediate problems to the tasks confronting trade unions today.

The rebirth of militant trade unionism – reflected in the election of series of new, more radical general secretaries, dubbed the awkward squad by the media – shows that more and more workers are drawing conclusions that they need to seek other means to protect their conditions. But recent events also show more than that. Developments on both the industrial and increasingly on the political front show workers are drawing broader conclusions and asking broader questions.

They are drawing the conclusion that fighting wage cuts or redundancies in just one company or just one industry or even in just one country is no longer enough. In order to secure lasting change they have to win political change. In order to win political change they have to have a political voice.

Unions in Britain formed the Labour Party as their political voice. Today’s Labour government is failing to speak up for the people who elected them. Unions are now beginning to demand more in return for their money and support and organising to reclaim Labour for policies which advance the cause of labour.

If we are to avoid the mistakes of the past we must learn the lessons of our history. Through that process we can arm ourselves with the policies and programme necessary to achieve change on both the industrial and political front. Without a fundamental understanding that our problems flow from the existence of an economic system that puts the needs of shareholders above those of the workers, the drive for profit above the satisfaction of need then our movement is doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past.

Rob Sewell’s book is not just another history of the trade union movement. It is a history rooted in a Marxist analysis of the struggles of working people in Britain. The struggle for better conditions at work, the struggle against exploitation and ultimately the struggle to transform the trade unions and labour movement in to a fighting force capable of changing society.

For all who are active in the movement today it is a vital weapon in our battle for a better world.


“Were history what it ought to be, an accurate literary reflex of the times with which it professes to deal”, wrote James Connolly, the great Irish trade union leader and Marxist, “the pages of history would be almost entirely engrossed with a recital of the wrongs and struggles of the labouring people, constituting, as they have ever done, the vast mass of mankind.”[1] But standard history treats the working class with contempt, derision, hatred and misrepresentation whenever it “dares to throw off the yoke of political or social servitude.”

The purpose of this history of British trade unionism is not only to recite the wrongs inflicted on working people, Shelley’s “heroes of unwritten story”, or simply to describe their heroic struggles. It is an attempt to draw out the lessons of the events that helped shape the Labour movement, and made it what it is. I do not lay claim to a spurious impartiality, something that has never existed in the writing of history, and least of all the history of the class struggle. This is a book that sets out from the proposition that the interests of capital and labour are incompatible, and takes sides in the war between the classes.

However, taking sides in a struggle does not necessarily mean adopting an unscientific or subjective approach to history. Anyone who is interested in fighting for socialism and a fundamental transformation of society should also be interested in arriving at the most scientific and objective understanding of history, so that the present generation can learn the lessons from it and apply them to the present and future struggles of the working class. 

This book is aimed especially at class-conscious workers who are seeking to escape from the ills of a capitalist system, which has embroiled the world in a quagmire of wars, poverty and suffering. A study of the history of trade unions is therefore particularly relevant at the present time. After a long period of stagnation, the fresh winds of the class struggle are beginning to blow. We see growing industrial militancy in many countries, heralding a fundamental change in the situation. In Britain there is ferment in the trade unions, characterised by a sharp turn to the left in one union after another. New forces are emerging in the trade union and Labour movement, which are beginning to challenge the dead hand of the old right-wing leaderships. 

This book was written precisely with these new forces in mind. We hope it will serve to provide the new generation with a firm grasp of our real history – a history that was for so long buried beneath a mountain of lies and deceit. It is essential that we study our past, to prepare for the future. Serious battles lie ahead. In the class struggle, as in war, tactics and strategy are necessary. In order to work out the most likely march of events and prepare for the future battles, we must take the trouble to study the past. 

Oldest in the world

The British organised Labour movement is the oldest in the world. More than two hundred years ago, the pioneers of the movement created illegal revolutionary trade unions in the face of the most terrible violence and repression. A little later they established the first workers’ party in history, the Chartist Association. Afterwards they participated in the founding of the First International, the International Working Mens’ Association, in which Karl Marx played a leading role. 

In the course of the nineteenth century they built trade unions of the downtrodden unskilled workers – those with “blistered hands and the unshorn chins,” as the Chartist Feargus O’Connor called them. Finally, they established a mass party of Labour based on the trade unions, breaking the monopoly of the Tories and Liberals. In the stormy years following the Russian Revolution they engaged in ferocious class battles, culminating in the General Strike of 1926. 

Nor did the achievements of the British trade union movement cease with the Depression and the Second World War. The post-war upswing served to strengthen the working class and heal the scars of the inter-war period. By the time of the industrial tidal wave of the early 1970s, they drove a Tory government from power, after turning Edward Heath’s anti-trade union laws into a dead letter. Those years saw the massive demonstrations against the Industrial Relations Act – the biggest workers’ protests since the days of the Chartists. Later, the miners, the traditional vanguard of the British working class, waged an epic year-long struggle in 1984-85 against the juggernaut of Thatcherism. They could have succeeded, had the right-wing Labour and trade union leaders not abandoned them and left them isolated. But though it was defeated, the miners’ strike, which at times had the hallmarks of a semi-insurrection, showed the world the colossal potential that exists in the British working class. It would require a whole book to deal with the lessons of this strike alone. 

The working class sometimes needs the whip of counter-revolution to push it into action, stated Marx. The period after “Black Friday” in March 1921, for instance, right through to the 1926 General Strike constituted a series of defensive rearguard battles, which were of an extremely militant and even revolutionary character. On the other hand, the defeat in 1984-5 had a profound impact, set against the context of a boom and the lamentable role of the union leaders. The defeat of the miners, and later the dockers and print workers in the late 1980s, struck a serious blow against the trade unions. 

Defeats must be paid for. It took a long time to recover from these setbacks. However, the low level of struggle in the subsequent period did not mean the end of class struggle, any more than the collapse of the Soviet Union meant the end of history. The working class needs to catch its breath and digest the lessons of the past before again being forced into struggle by the crisis of capitalism. But now the situation is changing for the better. There has been an upturn on the industrial front in Britain and internationally. There is also a reawakening in the ranks of the unions, heralding a dramatic swing to the Left.

Even this sketchy outline of the history of British Labour indicates the tremendously rich and varied experiences through which it has passed in the course of the last 200 years. Here we have every conceivable form of struggle: from the underground struggle against Pitt’s Combination Acts, through strikes and general strikes, beginning with William Benbow’s proposal for the “Grand National Holiday”, the mass petition of the Chartists, the struggle for democratic demands (the right to vote), and even armed insurrection (the Newport Rising). 

Unfortunately, many of these lessons of the past are unknown to the new generation, or known only in an incomplete and unsatisfactory form. The first aim of this book is to make the facts known. The second is to try to draw the necessary conclusions from them.

Two traditions 

“The British proletariat, the oldest, with the most traditions, is, in its thinking methods, most empirical, carries in its chest two souls, and turns, as it were, with two faces to historical events,” commented Trotsky.[2] On the one side, the British Labour and trade union movement has a revolutionary tradition, as can be seen already. But side by side with this there was another tendency. This was the conservative “respectable” tradition, by which the ruling class sought to indoctrinate the working class with a servile spirit of deference and subservience to its “betters”. They had some success in this, at least for a time, and with a certain layer of the working class. This reflected the dominant position of British imperialism, which allowed the ruling class to develop an “aristocracy of labour” by granting concessions and privileges to the upper crust of the skilled working class. This was what produced the narrow, selfish, cautious outlook of craft unionism. “…The most repulsive thing here,” stated Engels, writing from London on 7 December 1889, “is the bourgeois ‘respectability’ which has grown deep into the bones of the workers.” 

The working class of different countries has different traditions, reflecting the peculiarities of the historical development of each nation. When compared with the workers of southern Europe, who have a tradition of spontaneous uprisings, the British workers tend to be generally slower to move. But once they are on the move, they are unstoppable. This caused Frederick Engels to comment: “The English working men are second to none in courage; they are quite restless as the French, but they fight differently… There is no power in the world which could for a day resist the British working class.” 

Trotsky recognised the revolutionary potential of the British working class in his book, Where is Britain Going? written in 1925, one year prior to the General Strike. This extremely relevant and modern book is required reading for every thinking worker. Trotsky explains the evolution and special traditions of the British working class as well as exposing the shallow outlook of its Fabian leaders, strikingly similar to that of Tony Blair and the right-wing Labour and trade union leaders of today. 

The right wing represents all that is most negative in the traditions of British Labour – all which is servile, cowardly and ignorant. They constantly undermine the struggle for advancement under capitalism, never mind the fight to change society. The Blair government, with the enthusiastic endorsement of the right-wing trade union leaders, is carrying out a policy of counter-reforms that would do credit to any Tory administration. 

Prime Minister Tony Blair proudly boasts that Britain has the least regulated economy with the lowest corporation tax and the most flexible (i.e. insecure and stressful) workplaces of any advanced capitalist country. Yet at this moment in time, British workers work longer hours than workers in Europe and the US. They have the least holidays. They have the least rights at work. Stress levels and job insecurity have gone through the roof. An estimated 6.7 million working days a year are being lost due to ill health caused by stress alone. One in four British workers does regular or occasional night work, the highest in Europe. Two-thirds of British manufacturing workers do shift-work – another European record. Only Britain and Italy have no statutory paid holidays. Despite two Labour governments, the majority are realising things are not getting better, but worse.

Before the war, Joe Cubbin started work on Liverpool docks as a casual labourer. “I was 18 when I started work on the docks in 1936, as a casual dock worker. I had to go on the stand for work in the morning and the afternoon. The ship might be in for a week or a fortnight but I still had to go to be hired twice a day and I’d get left if the boss wanted a job for one of his ‘blue eyes’ who’d just finished a ship. There was no continuity. A lot of young lads like me got treated like shit.”[3] 

Today, since the abolition of the Dock Labour Scheme, more than 85 per cent of UK ports employ casual labour in one form or other. The sacking of some 500 dockworkers in Liverpool in 1995 highlighted this throwback to the brutal conditions more than 60 years ago. To boost their profits and cut labour costs, bosses have got rid of permanent jobs and taken on casual labour in a return to “the Good Old Days”. 

Even at the most elementary level, democratic rights that were won over a hundred years ago have been eroded or abolished. The Tory anti-trade union laws, in the main shamefully retained by Blair, place so many restrictions on the right to strike that they are in breach of the International Labour Organisation conventions. Workers continue to be systematically victimised and blacklisted for their activities. Those militant trade union leaders and rank and file who dare to fight are threatened with legal action and slandered as “the enemy within”, to quote the infamous phrase of Margaret Thatcher, or “wreckers”, to quote Tony Blair.

At the beginning of the nineteenth century, the trade unions were outlawed. Government spies and agent provocateurs attempted to infiltrate and betray the movement. Today, two hundred years later, the British trade unions are still subjected to stringent anti-union laws. Government spies and agents – in the form of the security service MI5 – continue in their conspiracy to undermine “subversive” militancy within our organisations, aided and abetted by right-wing trade union leaders. 

What does all this show? That unless there is a fundamental change in society, all the gains made by the movement can only have a temporary, partial and incomplete character. The struggle of the working class to improve its lot under capitalism is like the labours of Sisyphus, described in ancient Greek mythology, who was condemned for all eternity to push a heavy boulder uphill, only to see it roll back again. 

Need to change society

The trade unions are the basic organisations of the working class. But they are much more than that. They are the embryo of the future society within the old. Of course, since the workers’ organisations exist in capitalist society, they are subjected to alien class pressures. These pressures weigh heavily on the upper stratum and this often leads to degeneration. We are not dealing with an ideal norm, but with the mass organisations as they really exist in class society. The distortions that occur, especially in periods when the working class is not on the move, can produce a feeling that the unions cannot be changed. This is a serious mistake that is contradicted by the whole historical experience of the movement. Time and again the workers have moved to transform their organisations into organs and schools of solidarity, struggle and socialism, to use the phrase of Frederick Engels. 

The history of the British trade unions does not constitute a straight line. On the contrary, it unfolds in an uneven fashion with various contradictory shifts in one direction or another. It is constantly characterised by the struggle between two traditions and two tendencies. A revolutionary one, reflecting the unconscious will of the working class to change society, and a subservient one, reflecting the pressures of the ruling class on the upper stratum, that then attempts to block the movement to change society and lead it instead like a lamb into “safe” channels. 

In “normal” periods, the consciousness of the workers is affected by the dead weight of tradition and routine. In such times, most people are prepared to accept the leadership of the “professionals” – bourgeois and reformist politicians, Members of Parliament, councillors and trade union leaders. But there are periods of crises and upheavals, when the working class is shaken out of the old apathy and begins to take action, demanding solutions, asking questions. Being close to the class, the unions reflect this changed mood very early on. We see this process in Britain at the present time. And what happens in the unions today will be expressed in the Labour Party tomorrow.

The nameless pioneers of Labour were inspired by a vision. They believed that the trade union and Labour movement would become a powerful weapon of social emancipation. This revolutionary aspiration was, and in many cases remains, enshrined in trade union rules and constitutions. We should cite a few examples:

One of the declared objects of the train drivers’ union, ASLEF, is “to assist in the furtherance of the labour movement generally towards a socialist society.” The rulebook of the rail union RMT likewise pledges “to work for the supercession of the capitalist system by a socialist order of society”. The constitution of the Fire Brigades Union states: “To this end the FBU is part of the working class movement and, linking itself with the international trade union and labour movement, has as its ultimate aim the bringing about of the socialist system of society.” 

The introduction to the rules of the old Gas Workers Union, (now the GMB) contained the statement,

“… the interests of all workers are one, and a wrong done to any kind of Labour is wrong done to the whole of the working class and the Victory or defeat of any portion of the Army of Labour is a gain or loss to the whole of that Army, which by its organisation and union is marching steadily and irresistibly forward to its ultimate goal – the Emancipation of the working class. That Emancipation can only be brought about by the strenuous and united efforts of the working class itself. 


This section was deleted from the rulebook in 1947 by right-wing bureaucrats, arguing that it was out of date, as they later argued in relation to Clause Four, which embodied the Labour Party’s socialist aims. In fact, what is out of date is not socialism, but the decrepit old line of class collaboration that has led the movement from one defeat to another. This fact is being grasped by ever-increasing numbers of trade unionists and Labour Party supporters. They have rejected the false policies of so-called “New Realism” and “New Labour”, which are neither new nor realistic, but reflect a very old tendency – the tendency of the right-wing leaders to capitulate to the pressures of big business and cease to represent the interests of the working class. 

Fight to reclaim the movement

In Where is Britain Going? Trotsky explained that when the British workers were disappointed on the political front, they tended to swing onto the industrial front, and vice versa. This has been an important trait right up to the present-day. In Britain, where there is a single unified trade union organisation in the form of the TUC, and a single political workers’ party, the Labour Party, there has always been an inseparable organic link, an umbilical cord, between the industrial and political organisations of the working class. In fact, while on the continent the workers’ parties in most cases created the unions, uniquely in Britain, the trade unions created the Labour Party as their political voice. This fact has had a profound bearing on political and industrial developments for the last 100 years. And still continues to do so.

Recently, in a reaction against the intolerable policies of the Blair government, there has been a tendency in some unions to call for disaffiliation from the Labour Party. This is a serious mistake. What is required is not to leave the Labour Party – a move that would only assist Blair and the right wing – but on the contrary, to get the unions to move into the Labour Party and purge it of the right-wing careerists and replace them with men and women who are committed to fight for the interests of the working class.

The discredited policies of the right wing are now being challenged and defeated all along the line. The rank and file are fighting to transform the unions into genuine instruments for changing society, and they are beginning to reclaim the Labour Party. They will restore the socialist traditions of Clause Four in the period that opens up before us. Through their own experience millions of men and women will come to understand the need to overthrow capitalism and bring about a classless society, as the only way to achieve a decent life and prosperous future. 

“The working class is instinctively, spontaneously Social Democratic…” Lenin wrote. “At every step the workers come face to face with their main enemy – the capitalist class. In combat with this enemy, the worker becomes a socialist…” These are words of great wisdom. Despite everything, the working class has a deep instinctive desire to change society, though they may not always be aware of it. It arises out of the conditions of life and collective, social production. The methods of struggle of the proletariat reflect this reality – they are collective, democratic methods of struggle – the mass meeting, the strike, the picket line, mass demonstrations and general strikes. 

Through the experience of collective struggle, the working class gradually raises itself to an understanding of the need to change society. It develops a sense of its own power and ability. One can see this in every strike. Marxists base themselves on this fact and strive to develop this tendency and bring it to the fullest expression. The role of Marxists in the trade unions is to make conscious the unconscious will of the working class to change society.

The working class has within its ranks a tremendous strength and resilience. Even when it suffers a terrible and crushing defeat, it recovers and again reasserts itself. It is like the Greek god Antaeus of ancient mythology, who when thrown to the ground, drew strength from his mother the earth. Whatever obstacles lay in its path, the objective conditions of life force it to continually struggle against the system of capitalist exploitation. Those who argue that the class struggle is out of date are obviously out of touch with the reality of Britain in the first decade of the twenty-first century. 

The employers’ offensive – a veritable counter-revolution on the shop floor – has gone on uninterrupted for some twenty years, with no serious opposition from the self-styled “New Realist” union leaders. The conditions in work at the beginning of the new Millennium have been compared to the dark days when trade unions first came into existence. “… Analysis of the last Workplace Industrial Relations Survey concluded that the conditions today resemble those which led to the growth of trade unionism in the last century,” stated the former general secretary of the TUC, John Monks.[4] In many ways, how little has changed in Britain.

But now it has provoked a reaction in the working class. After years of privatisation, temporary contracts, outsourcing, deskilling, multi-skilling, part-time work, “zero-hour” contracts, casual work and other forms of lean production and labour flexibility, workers are saying loud and clear: enough is enough. The election of a string of left-wing general secretaries and officials in the British trade unions is symptomatic of a deep-seated frustration and anger within the union rank and file and the working class generally. 

Isaac Newton explained long ago that every action has an equal and opposite reaction. What is true in mechanics is true also in politics. Over the last twenty years, the pendulum had swung far to the right. Now it is swinging back to the left. There maybe this or that delay, but the period of right-wing domination has run its course. The factors that gave rise to Blairism, and its mirror image in the trade unions, are now turning into their opposite.

The local government strike in July 2002, involving one million workers from three unions, was the first national strike of its kind in twenty years, involving manual and non-manual workers. It was the biggest ever strike by women workers in British history, and, according to Dave Prentis, the general secretary of Unison, “this is the biggest stoppage in the country since the General Strike. It involves everyone from manual workers to senior professionals.”[5] Firefighters, railway workers, postal workers and many others, have been engaged in a bitter struggle with the Blair government, which has once again thrust the issue of militancy to the fore. Without doubt, these events are a slap in the face for those middle-class sceptics like professor Eric Hobsbawn, who argued not so long ago that the working class was finished.

Marxism and the Labour Movement 

Gradually, the mood in society is beginning to change. Opinion polls show that a growing number of people now regard themselves as “working class”. In 1994, 51 per cent of those interviewed considered themselves working class. In 1997 the figure rose to 58 per cent, while in 2002 a staggering 68 per cent declared themselves “working class and proud of it.” The new generation of workers and trade unionists will find themselves in very different conditions to the past. 

On a world scale, the erratic rhythm of present-day developments with its episodic wars and crises is more akin to the epoch of decline in the inter-war period than to the upswing that followed 1945. The bourgeois are increasingly terrified that the present global slowdown will end in a deflationary spiral on the lines of 1929-39. “Prices have been falling in Japan since 1995; in America and Germany the risk of deflation is greater that at any time since the 1930s”, states The Economist.[6] 

The world crisis means that corporate profits are falling or stagnant. The bosses are therefore demanding wage restraint and deep cuts in the “social wage” in order to bring about tax cuts for the rich. Millions of workers are faced with lay-offs, wage freezes, and attacks on their pensions. At the same time the bosses are awarding themselves huge salary increases and other lavish handouts. There is no money for houses, hospitals, schools and pensions, but there is always money for wars to seize Iraqi oil. In the present climate of economic crisis, every gain will have to be fought for. Every strike will be hard-fought and bitter. The mood of the class will harden and a new situation will open up inside the unions.

The working class needs powerful militant and democratic trade unions. But above all, we need to forge a leadership that will measure up to the tasks posed by history. The mighty revolutionary events across the globe will provide the working class with many opportunities. We have a responsibility on our shoulders to finish the job that generations before us began. In order to live up to that responsibility it is necessary to go beyond the limits of narrow trade unionism and pose the question of changing society. And in order to conduct a serious and consistent struggle to change society a scientific world outlook is necessary. Marxism provides such an outlook. 

Marxism has always had a place in the history of the British working class. When the Labour Party in 1948 published a centenary edition of the Communist Manifesto, the foreword stated that the party “acknowledges its indebtedness to Marx and Engels as two of the men who have been the inspiration of the whole working class movement.”[7] 

Marx and Engels wrote for workers. Will Thorne, who became the leader of the National Union of Gasworkers and General Labourers (the forerunner of today’s GMB) had begun work at the age of six and had no formal education. He was won to Marxism and learned to read Marx’s Capital and Engels’ Socialism: Utopian and Scientific, as well as other books by Marx, Engels, Hyndman, Blatchford and Robert Owen. “They helped me to understand the problems I was faced with”, states Thorne.[8] The same was true of James Larkin, the Irish trade union leader, who, when asked his education, replied he was brought up in the “school of adversity.” He, as well as countless others too many to mention, was drawn to the classics of Marxism and the education and insight they gave him.

The advantage that Marxism has over all other trends in the Labour movement is its scientific method that allows men and women to penetrate the apparent surface calm of society and comprehend the underlying processes developing within its foundations, which at a certain point, burst through resulting in sudden changes. Armed with such a method, the class-conscious worker can distinguish more clearly the way forward.

I hope that the present book will stimulate those who read it to study not only the history of the workers’ movement in Britain and internationally, but also the great treasure-house of Marxist theory, which is the best and most comprehensive guide to action. As the young Marx wrote: “Philosophers have interpreted the world in different ways. The point however is to change it.” A study of history is essential, but it is making history that counts. 

The final words of this introduction I leave to the heroic Chartists, who were the first of our class to raise the banner of working class independence, and to whom we owe so much:

Never give up! It is wiser and better
Always to hope than once to despair;
Fling off the load of Doubt’s cankering fetter,
And break the dark spell of tyrannical care;
Never give up! Or the burden may sink you – 
Providence kindly has mingled the cup,
And, in all trials or troubles, bethink you,
The watchword of life must be, Never Give up!

Northern Star, 22 February 1845


[1] James Connolly, Labour in Irish History, p.1, Dublin, 1971

[2] Leon Trotsky, Writings on Britain, p.61, London, 1974

[3] Quoted in Bill Hunter, They Knew Why They Fought, p.6, London, 1994

[4] Robert Taylor, The Future of the Trade Unions, p.xii, London, 1994

[5] Evening Standard, 17 July 2002

[6] The Economist, 17 May 2003

[7] The Communist Manifesto, p.6, London, 1948

[8] Will Thorn, My Life’s Battles, p.47, London, 1989

The Birth Pains

“We make a nation of helots, and have no free citizens”, wrote Adam Ferguson in his description of England in 1765. The Industrial Revolution was the furnace in which this class of modern wage-slaves was forged. First to enter the road of capitalist development, Britain was thrust into the privileged position of the leading world power. For the next century and a half, the ruling class of these small islands maintained its world hegemony through its domination of the world market and its Empire. Thanks to this, the British bourgeoisie became the richest, strongest and most far-sighted ruling class in the world. From this position they exuded colossal confidence in their future mission, which they mapped out not in years, but in decades and centuries. “Not for nothing”, noted Leon Trotsky, “has it been said of the British imperialists that they do their thinking in terms of centuries and continents.”[1] 

The British proletariat was created under the hammer blow of events. As this new oppressed class emerged from the womb of capitalism, it was accompanied by violent birth-pains that scarred its consciousness. 

Before the Industrial Revolution, the rise of capitalist economic relations caused the wholesale destruction of the English peasantry and the break-up of the old guild system that had previously assured a certain degree of social stability. The overwhelming mass of peasantry was ruined by the Enclosure Acts introduced by the powerful landowners, and disappeared in a social revolution that created a proletariat ready for the service of the owners of capital, in agriculture and the new industries. 

In the decade following 1717 there were only fifteen Acts of Enclosure, whilst in the two decades from 1797 to 1820, the period of the Napoleonic Wars, there were 1,727 of such Acts. These enclosures threw hundreds of thousands off the land, and created a wretched swarm of landless and propertyless men, women and children – a reserve army of wage-earners “freed” completely from any connection with the soil – made ready for industrial exploitation. 

The mass exodus from the villages into the towns, an essential ingredient in the development of capitalism, provided a plentiful supply of cheap labour-power for the new class of profit-seeking entrepreneurs. Under the incessant blows of capitalist development, the traditional relationship between masters and journeymen began to break down, as artisans lost their independence and were absorbed into the new class of proletarians. 

As the contemporary Sir John Clapham wrote, this proletarianisation was “a kind of hell into which peasants may fall if things are not bettered.” And, of course, nothing was bettered, as everything became worse. The coming of modern capitalism, accompanied by machine production, uprooted the old basis of rural life and ushered in a new shocking world of “nature, red in tooth and claw”. For the toiling masses, it was an alien world, brutalised, and turned upside down, a world bled dry of all compassion.

The radical newspaper Black Dwarf described the awful plight of the new working class: 

“Locked up in factories eight stories high, he has no relaxation till the ponderous engine stops and then he goes home to get refreshed for the next day; no time for sweet association with his family; they are all alike fatigued and exhausted.”[2] 

Marx wrote that capitalism came into being “dripping from head to foot, from every pore, with blood and dirt.”[3] Crushed between hammer and anvil, the infant proletariat, only recently torn from its roots in the countryside, was hurled into the inhuman conditions of the factory system. Their original peasant outlook was ruthlessly burned out by their radically different collective experience at the point of production. From the very beginning, in a battle for survival, the working class was transformed from a passive exploited mass, into a class increasingly conscious of itself. In the words of Marx, the new proletariat was being changed from a “class in-itself” into a “class for-itself”. Collective consciousness, the hallmark of the proletariat as a class, was being shaped under the hammer blows of everyday life, in the factories, workshops and deep in the bowels of the earth. 

The British working class was forced to organise for its own self-defence and self-preservation. Capital is a concentrated social power, while the workers own nothing but their individual labour power. Therefore, the agreement between worker and employer – Labour and Capital – can never be based on equal terms. Under the capitalist system the workers’ strength is continually undermined by competition among themselves. The capitalists deliberately promoted this competition between workers as a means of depressing wage levels and to tilt the balance of forces more in their favour. The only real power the proletariat possesses is its collective strength, and this can only be effectively expressed through combination and organisation. In that sense, the creation of trade unions was the first conscious step of collective organisation, and represented the birth of the organised labour movement. In the cotton districts, factory hands formed the nucleus of the Labour movement. With their newly found collective identity, they formed the vanguard of early trade unionism.

From the very beginning, the working class bore all the marks and scars of a slave class. However, compared to the old slavery, the worker seems to be free because he is not sold once and for all, but piecemeal by the hour, day or week. But he is still forced to sell himself, “being the slave of no particular person, but of the whole property-holding class”, to quote Engels. Yet, deep in the very being of the working class, deep in its collective soul, was also being born the instinctive will to fight for its own social emancipation. The working class, given its social position in collective labour, is a revolutionary class. It is propelled by the very conditions of life to strive to put itself at the head of society, not to secure a privileged position for itself, but to carry through the abolition of all classes.

The Class Divide

The Industrial Revolution saw an explosion of the urban population, as landless peasants and Irish immigrants sought to escape their wretched existence by flooding into the towns and urban areas of England. Industrial centres such as Bristol, Hull, Manchester, Leeds, Bradford and Liverpool, expanded beyond all recognition, creating horrific over-crowding and insanitary conditions. The sixty years prior to the Reform Act of 1832 saw the population of England almost double in size. If you take the census figures for the years 1801, 1831, and 1851, for some towns of Lancashire and the West Riding of Yorkshire, the pattern and pace of expansion is graphically illustrated:

  1801 1831 1851
Manchester and Salford 90,000 237,000 400,000
Leeds 53,000 123,000 172,000
Sheffield 46,000 92,000 135,000
Bradford 13,000 44,000 104,000
Oldham 22,000 51,000 72,000
Bolton 18,000 42,000 61,000
Blackburn 12,000 27,000 65,000
Halifax 12,000 22,000 34,000

The remorseless speed of change shocked contemporary observers. The towns now had large populations of men and women who had passed within a single generation from the life of the village to the life of the slum – from the occupations of the peasant to those of the urban worker. In scenes that beggar belief, overcrowded slums sprung up like mushrooms overnight, lacking sanitation, clean water and ventilation. Filthy open cesspits, the standard form of primitive sanitation, became a breeding ground for all kinds of diseases such as cholera and typhoid, resulting in periodic epidemics. The polluted rivers, coloured with chemicals and dyes, that ran through these industrial towns were used for both drinking water and sewage. Under these conditions, infant mortality was very high, although reaching adulthood was also a risky business. The average age at death for a labourer in Bolton was 18, in Manchester 17 and in Liverpool 15. 

The seething cauldron of factory life sucked in labour from all quarters, above all from across the Irish Sea. In 1827, for four or five pennies, the Irish could cross the waters to Liverpool. Geographically close to Lancashire, a prime centre of the Industrial Revolution, Ireland was described by Engels as “the mainspring of all the workers’ movements.” By 1841, the Irish population of Lancashire was around 133,000. Within a decade the county had swollen to 200,000 Irish. According to Sir George Cornewall Lewis, “the Irish emigration into Britain is an example of a less civilised population spreading themselves as a kind of substratum beneath a more civilised community.”[4] 

In 1841 this “substratum” composed a tenth of the population of Manchester, and a seventh of Liverpool. After the failure of the Irish potato crop in the Forties, this great flood of humanity became a deluge. 

“During the last two or three months,” wrote the registrar of a Manchester district, “large numbers of the poor from Ireland have crowded themselves in this district, droves of them rambling about the streets seeking lodgings and no doubt being exposed to the severe and inclement weather. Many of the poor creatures have died from cold producing fevers and diseases.” In Liverpool there were “thousands of hungry and naked Irish perishing in our streets,” and in South Wales they were described as “bringing pestilence on their backs, famine in their stomachs.”[5] 

The hungry Irish, desperate for food and work, were cynically used by employers to undermine wages and blackleg on strikes. However, as the Hammonds noted, the same employers regarded the Irish with trepidation, speaking of them in much the same manner as a Roman master spoke of the slaves from turbulent Sardinia. “The Irish,” stated an employer, “are more disposed to turn out, to make unreasonable demands, to take offence at slight cause and to enforce their demands by strikes or bad language.” A Catholic priest noted that Irish workers were much keener to be involved in trade unions. In fact, many union and radical leaders came from Irish stock, most notably John Doherty and Feargus O’Connor. Marx once commentated to the effect that the red blood of revolution flowed through Celtic veins.

Rapid changes in production forced large numbers of workers out of domestic industry into the newly constructed factories and mills. Cottage industry soon gave way to the factory system of large-scale production. 

“The great mass of people collected in Lancashire, Cheshire, and the western borders of Yorkshire were working in 1830, not for a multitude of small masters, but for a comparatively small number of large masters,” noted the Hammonds. “The Industrial Revolution produced a new powerful rich class, the class of the capitalist manufacturer.”[6] 

This new bourgeoisie strove to assert its domination and concentrate all economic and political power into its hands. Great fortunes made from foreign trade were ploughed back into industry. In their search for greater profits, the British bourgeois rapidly developed the new productive forces of industry and technique. The real history of the period between 1688 and the middle of the eighteenth century was dominated by the capitalist accumulation of capital. In the 70 years up to 1840, the power of production in Britain increased by a remarkable twenty-seven times over. 

“Commerce which has enriched the citizens of England has helped to make them free…” observed Voltaire. Of course, this only referred to the upper classes. The working class lost any independence they might have once held, as old customs, traditions and family ties were shattered by capitalist industrialisation. In place of traditional customs, which even included a rest-day on Mondays (St Monday, as it was called), came the new brutal rigours, discipline and regime of factory exploitation. From the age of seven children in factories were forced to work twelve to fifteen hours a day, six days a week, at best in monotonous toil, at worst in a hell of human cruelty.

“The workman was summoned by the factory bell; his daily life was arranged by factory hours; he worked under an overseer imposing a method and precision for which the overseer had in turn to answer to some higher authority; if he broke one of a long series of minute regulations he was fined, and behind all this scheme of supervision and control there loomed the great impersonal system,” wrote the Hammonds.[7] 

The intensification of labour that accompanied the introduction of large-scale machinery strained the nerves and sinews of the working class to breaking point. They existed solely to work for the masters and the production of surplus value. They had no other purpose in life, but to become an appendage of the machine. “The animal machine – breakable in the best case, subject to a thousand sources of suffering – is chained fast to the iron machine, which knows no suffering and no weariness”, stated James Kay in 1832.[8] 

Work had lost all meaning compared to the past. The workers were alienated from the labour they were forced to perform, as well as from society. “In England,” said Heinrich Heine, “the machines are like men and men like machines.” With this strange “new world”, bitter class hatred developed for the masters who mercilessly exploited them and their families.

This class antagonism was reflected in the tracts that circulated widely in radical circles. In one article we read the following dialogue:

People: What labour do you perform in the society?
Privileged Class: None: we are not made to labour.
People: How then have you acquired your wealth?
Privileged Class: By taking the pains to govern you.
People: To govern us! ... We toil, and you enjoy; we produce and you dissipate; wealth flows from us, and you absorb it. Privileged men, class distinct from the people, form a nation apart and govern yourselves.[9]

The bourgeoisie regarded the workers as little more than pack animals. At the mercy of the owners, they were reduced to so many “hands” for the production of commodities. In the North East of England, in the coalmines of Lord Londonderry and Lord Durham, the miners laboured under conditions of virtual slavery. At the Felling coalmine near Gateshead in the North East of England, boys’ hours were from eighteen to twenty hours a day. They worked in inhuman conditions deep underground, in sweltering heat, from the age of seven until they were physically incapable of work, if they managed to survive at all. For the capitalists, labour power was plentiful and life was exceedingly cheap. The English working class became like the wretched refugees in Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables who lived in the sewers of Paris. 

“It is too high wages that many of the criminal habits, so often ascribed to the character of a collier, may in part be ascribed...” states the haughty Rev. Thomas Gisborne. “To economy, he is, in general, an utter stranger.” When he receives his wages, the collier and his family may be seen “indulging themselves in the use of animal food three times a day.”[10] 

The inventions of Stephenson, Arkwright, Crompton, and Hargreaves revolutionised the methods of work, and transformed the factory system. “The age is running mad after inventions”, noted Dr. Johnson. “All the business of the world is to be done in a new way: men are to be hanged in a new way…” 

In contrast to handlooms, the power-looms were massed together in huge buildings, and worked incessantly around the clock. This change was made possible by the introduction of gas lighting into the factories from 1805 onwards. Men, women and children were forced to adapt to the new rhythm of these machines. As stated, conditions in these factories – William Blake’s infamous Dark Satanic Mills – were abominable. The first volume of Capital by Karl Marx graphically describes these hellish establishments. In work, there were very few or meaningful legal restrictions on the exploitation of millions of workingmen, women and children. Nightshift, double-shifts, weekend work, and 24-hour working, seven days a week, which increased absolute surplus value to the absolute limit, were introduced with a vengeance. The thirst for profits by the masters was insatiable. In winter, very few workers saw the light of day. Women workers frequently gave birth on the workplace floor and returned to their job within days. Hungry families, like beasts of burden, were forced to endure excessive hours simply to survive. Human material was used up rapidly. Workmen were called old at forty years.

“Talk of vassals! Talk of villains! Talk of serfs!” complained William Cobbett. “Are there any of these, or did feudal times ever see any of them, so debased, so absolutely slaves, as the poor creatures who, in the ‘enlightened’ north, are compelled to work fourteen hours a day, in a heat of eighty-four degrees, and who are liable to punishment for looking out at a window of the factory!”[11] 

Exploited at work and robbed in the “tommy” shops, workers were also under constant fear of being evicted from factory housing. The tommy shops, or truck system, were stores established by employers where workers were forced to buy their goods at extortionate prices and inferior quality – hence the phrase “tommy-rot”. As a condition of employment men were compelled to spend much of their wages in these shops. Another variation was the employer-owned beer shops, where, on payday, wages were handed out on the stipulation that workers would spend a certain proportion on drink. In South Staffs, the practice of paying a set amount of wages in beer was known as “buildas”. These were deliberate measures not only to swindle workers, but also to increase the domination of the owners over the lives of their hands. Many workers were in debt to these tommy shops, and in the words of the American mining song, “owed their soul to the company store.” The colliers of the North East composed a special prayer: 

“Unto thy care and protection, O most unmerciful master, I commit myself this day. Preserve me from all fines, cheatery, deductions, either by weight or measure, or from anything contrary to the justice of my labour, by they grace assistants, enable me to receive my pay without any subtraction, division or reduction from its true and rightful amount…”[12] 

These were the harsh methods employed to extract relative and absolute surplus value from the unpaid labour of the working class. 

“Machinery, considered alone, shortens the hours of labour,” stated Marx, “but, in the service of capital, lengthens them; in itself it lightens labour, but, when employed by capital, heightens the intensity of labour; in itself it is a victory of man over the forces of nature, but in the hands of capital, makes men the slave of those forces; in itself it increases the wealth of producers, but, in the hands of capital, it makes them paupers.” 

Once the capitalist purchases the labour power of the worker, he puts it to use, squeezing as much surplus labour-time as possible from him. But the length of the working day has certain physical limits. The total daily rotation of the earth takes twenty-four hours. The worker has to rest and eat to replenish his energies, which places a limit both physical and social on the working day. In the course of the Industrial Revolution anything up to eighteen hours a day was not uncommon, ruining the health of men and women, youths and infants alike. As Ferrand, a Member of Parliament, remarked in 1863: “It (the cotton trade) has existed for three generations of the English race, and… during that period it has destroyed nine generations of factory operatives.” The prolongation of the workers’ exploitation served to shorten his life as a whole. “Capital is dead labour, which, like a vampire, lives only by sucking living labour, and lives the more, the more labour it sucks up,” wrote Marx.

The struggle between capital and labour over the length of the working day has existed since the beginning of capitalism. Eventually, as the resistance of the working class developed, restrictions were gradually introduced to regulate the hours of labour. The battles over the working day were the most heroic struggles of the workers’ movement, in Britain and internationally. Most notable were the ten and nine-hour day campaigns, followed in 1856 by the demand for the eight-hour day, championed later by the First and Second Internationals.

Child Labour

Child labour was a key aspect of nineteenth century British capitalism, as was slavery of the blacks in the southern states of America, and remains so today in India, Pakistan and many other Third World countries. In 1797 the wages of a Bolton handloom weaver were 30 shillings and sixpence a week; by 1830 they had dropped to five shillings and sixpence. According to the Chartist Richard Oastler, as the wages of handloom weavers declined, families were reduced to living on the labour of their children. It was not uncommon for those seeking Poor Law relief to be forced, as a precondition for help, to send their children to work in the textile mills. Paupers’ children from London and other cities were apprenticed in the workhouses and later transported in thousands to the cotton mills of Lancashire, Derby, and Nottinghamshire. They were valued for their nimble fingers, capable of keeping up with the fast operations of the power looms.

Prior to the Act of 1833, young persons and children were worked all night, all day, or both, until they dropped. However, even when restrictions were introduced on child labour, they were ineffective due to the lack of government enforcement. The 1833 Act only allowed for the appointment of a mere four Factory Inspectors to inspect the nation’s factories and mills! Also the legal work restrictions only applied to children in textile mills – and even then, it excluded children in the silk and lace-making factories. With impunity to employers, children continued to have their fingers severed and their limbs crushed in unguarded machinery.

Nonconformist mill-owners, with their Methodist over-lookers, would drive their child-labourers till five minutes before midnight on Saturday and then enforce their attendance at Sunday school on the Sabbath. This was part of the Protestant work ethic, which epitomised the penny-pinching Scrooge-like class morality of the British bourgeois.

Young children were not only employed deep underground, but also in the pitch-black suffocating chimneys of industrial Britain. Some chimney flues in which children were forced to work were only seven inches (18 centimetres) square. Their terror of the dark and narrow confines was overcome by the threat of greater terror from below. Chimney sweeps were beaten, stabbed by needles, or deliberately burned as a means of “encouraging” them to carry out their duties. It was reported that in 1848 a child of ten had been sold to different employers five times over. He was a clever worker, and although crippled by his injuries, had cleaned no less than twelve chimneys in a day. At Nottingham in 1850, another boy of ten, Samuel Whitt, was jammed in a chimney, below which a fire was still smouldering. He was eventually torn down by two people standing one upon another, and died in agony. In 1851, near Leeds, George Wilson, aged ten, after cleaning nine chimneys, died in the tenth.

When there were attempts to end this barbarism, the propertied classes howled in protest at the thought. 

“Some boys’ flesh”, said one employer, “is far worse than others, and it takes more time to harden them.” He estimated it would take six months for parts of the body to grow sufficiently “cartilaginous”.[13] “I had myself formerly boys of as young as five-and-a-half years, but I did not like them; they were too weak”, stated a master. 

Six years’ old was described as “a nice training age.” Many were later afflicted by stunted growth, deformities and even cancer. Quite a number were burned or asphyxiated to death. These were children nobody wanted or could ill afford to keep. Some were simply sold to employers and according to the laws of supply and demand, the smaller the children, the higher the price. It was not until 1875 that a Bill introduced by Lord Shaftesbury brought this scandal finally to a close.

In the silk industry, little children would stand for ten hours upon stools to perform their work. Crowded into suffocating spaces, with no ventilation, these work dens became the prison house of infants. The same was equally true of the textile mills where children as young as four and five, and incredibly even toddlers of three, were put to work. In abominable conditions, hundreds of thousands of children, half-ragged and half-washed, were literally worked to death in the shadow of the overseer.

“The punishments for arriving late in the morning had to be made cruel enough to overcome the temptation to tired children to take more than three or four hours in bed”, the Hammonds explained. “One witness before Sadler’s Committee had known a child, who had reached home at eleven o’clock one night, got up at two o’clock the next morning in panic and limped to the mill gate. In some mills scarcely an hour passed in the long day without the sound of beating and cries of pain. Fathers beat their own children to save them from a worse beating by the overseers. In the afternoon the strain grew so severe that the heavy iron stick known as the billy-roller was in constant use, and, even then, it happened not infrequently that a small child, as he dozed, tumbled into the machine beside him to be mangled for life…

“In one mill, indeed, where the owner, a Mr. Gott, had forbidden the use of anything but a ferrule (a metal ring), some of the slubbers (weavers) tried to keep the children awake, when they worked from five in the morning to nine at night, by encouraging them to sing hymns. As the evening wore on, the pain and fatigue and tension on the mind became insupportable. Children would implore anyone who came near to tell them how many hours there were still before them. A witness told Sadler’s Committee that his child, a boy of six, would say to him, ‘Father, what o’clock is it?’ I said perhaps it is seven o’clock. ‘Oh, it is two hours to nine o’clock? I cannot bear it.’”[14] 

The report of the Commission on the Employment of Children and Young Persons, set up by Lord Shaftesbury in 1840, described the horrendous nightmare conditions in the coalmines. 

“A girdle is put round the naked waist to which a chain from the carriage is hooked and passed through the legs and the boys crawl on their hands and knees drawing the carriage after them”, stated the report. Describing girls working in the mines, it continued: “Chained, belted, harnessed like dogs in a go-cart, saturated with wet and more than half naked, crawling upon their hands and feet dragging their heavy loads behind them, they present an appearance indescribably disgusting and unnatural.”[15] 

This was to lead to the introduction of the Mines Act of 1842 and the reduction of hours for women and children in 1844. At the time, the good seventh Earl of Shaftesbury spoke in the House about the appalling slave-like conditions of children in the collieries:

“Labour very hard, nine hours a day regularly, sometimes twelve, sometimes above thirteen hours; stop two or three minutes to eat; some days nothing at all to eat, sometimes work and eat together; have worked a whole day together without stopping to eat; a good many children in the mines, some under six years of age; sometimes can’t eat, owing to the dust, and damp, and badness of the air; sometimes it is as hot as an oven, sometimes so hot as to melt a candle. A vast many girls in the pits go down just the same as the boys, by ladders or baskets; the girls wear breeches; beaten the same as the boys; many bastards produced in the pits; a good deal of fighting amongst them; much crookedness caused by the labour; work by candlelight; exposed to terrible accidents; work in very contracted spaces; children are plagued with sore feet and gatherings. ‘I cannot but think, (says one witness), that many nights they do not sleep with a whole skin, for their backs get cut and bruised with knocking against the mine, it is so low. It is wet under foot; the water oftentimes runs down from the roof; many lives lost in various ways; and many severely injured by burning; workers knocked up after fifty.’ I cannot much err, (says Mr. Commissioner Tuffnell), in coming to the conclusion, both from what I say, and the evidence of witnesses given on oath above, that it must appear to every impartial judge of the two occupations, that the hardest labour, in the worst room, in the worst conducted factory, is less hard, less cruel, and less demoralising, then the labour of the best of coal mines.”[16] 

As today with the recent arguments over the introduction of the minimum wage, attempts at that time to limit the use of child labour were met with howls of protest from the employing class. When Sir Robert Peel introduced a Bill as early as 1802 to reduce children’s working hours and prohibit night work for smaller children, strong protests were sent by mill-owners from Manchester, Glasgow, Leeds, Preston, Keighley and elsewhere. Such actions, they said, would be “prejudicial to the cotton trade” and “would amount to a surrender of all the profits of the establishment.” This refrain was to be heard from the ruling class in response to every measure to regulate working conditions within their factories – right up to the present day with their screams against modern “regulations” and red tape.

The long hours in work endured by children prevented any real formal education. This suited the employing class who regarded education as deeply subversive. Education would only be “prejudicial to their morals and happiness”, and teach them to despise their lot in life. For Mr. D. Giddy, President of the Royal Society, “instead of teaching them subordination, it would render them factious and refractory, as was evident in the manufacturing counties; it would enable them to read seditious pamphlets, vicious books, and publications against Christianity”, and lastly, “it would render them insolent to their superiors.”[17] 

Following the 1833 Act, the government decided to spend £20,000 a year on schooling. However, in the same year it spent £50,000 on the rebuilding of stables at Windsor Castle. It was evident that working class children were valued much less than horses.

These were the social conditions that gave rise to “go-slows” and “turn-outs” (the word “strike” was not used until the early nineteenth century) against the starvation wages, excessive hours and insufferable conditions. By the end of the eighteenth century, under the impact of a developing class war, trade unionism began to take root in the form of trade clubs, established primarily by skilled handicraftsmen: joiners, carpenters, shipwrights, coopers, printers, and others. By the 1790s new layers of factory workers became organised, especially among cotton spinners. 

Without being aware of it, the trade unions became the focal points for the organisation of the working class as a class. Their illegal character had its origins in shadowy societies such as the United Irishmen. Even prior to 1799, more than forty pieces of anti-union legislation were placed on the statute books. As early as 1718 a Royal Proclamation was issued against the weavers’ unlawful clubs and combinations, which were alleged to have evolved into elaborate organisations strong enough to dictate terms to the employers. The men of property could not tolerate such rebellious behaviour, as the following tract revealed:

But lo!
CONSPIRACY and TREASON are abroad!
Those imps of darkness, gender’d in the wombs
Of spinning-jennies, winding-wheels, and looms,
In Lunashire -

O Lord!
My L-ds and G-tl-n, we’ve much to fear!
Reform, Reform, the swinish rabble cry -
Meaning of course rebellion, blood, and riot -
Audacious rascals! you, my Lords, and I,
Know ‘tis their duty to be starved in quiet…[18]

The new Combination Acts were savagely administered in the new industrial districts, rendering trade unions criminal organisations. Under such tyranny, the working class had no alternative but to fight for survival. In self-defence, trade unions were forced to operate in underground secrecy, camouflaging their activities, fighting fire with fire wherever they could. Yet, in this cruel environment of persecution and oath taking was formed the initial cadres from which modern trade unionism emerged. “The working class made itself as much as it was made”, noted the historian E.P. Thompson.[19] The British working class, our forefathers, not only constituted in Marx’s words, the “first-born sons of modern history”[20], but an oppressed class that could never reconcile its gravedigger.


[1] Leon Trotsky, op. cit, vol. one, p.39

[2] Quoted in E.P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class, p.220, London 1968

[3] Marx, Capital, volume 1, page 712, Progress Publishers, 1977

[4] Quoted in Hammonds, The Bleak Age, p.37, London, 1947

[5] Ibid, p.37

[6] Hamonds, The Town Labourer 1760-1832, p.7, London 1995

[7] Ibid, p.19

[8] Ibid, p.21

[9] Volney’s Ruins of Empire, Quoted in Thompson, op. cit, p.108

[10] Quoted in The Skilled Labourer, p.20, London 1995

[11] Quoted in David Thomson, England in the Nineteenth Century, p.12, London 1970

[12] Quoted in Challinor and Ripley, The Miners’ Association, p.58, London 1968

[13] Quoted in The Town Labourer, p. 179

[14] Ibid, pp. 159-60

[15] Quoted in Magnificent Journey by Francis Williams, p.24, London 1954

[16] Quoted in The English Reform Tradition, edited by Sidney Jackman, p.87, New Jersey, 1965

[17] Quoted in The Town Labourer, p. 57

[18] Quoted in Thompson, op. cit.

[19] Ibid, p.213

[20] Marx and Engels, Selected Works, vol. 1, pp. 359-60

Into the Abyss of Capitalism

Who is it speaks of defeat?
I tell you a Cause like ours
Is greater than defeat can know;
It is the power of powers!
Songs of the Army of the Night

Francis Adams

The Great French bourgeois Revolution of 1789-94 set Europe ablaze. Its stated ideals of liberty, fraternity and equality, the battle-cry of a new social order, became a beacon to the oppressed and downtrodden everywhere. Following the American War of Independence, which had won widespread sympathy in England, the French Revolution struck terror into the hearts of the British ruling class. While revolution in certain quarters is regarded today as very un-British, at this time the spectre of revolution was of profound concern to the British Establishment. They were petrified that the flames of revolution would spread across the narrow straits of the English Channel and provoke rebellion in England. Their reaction was similar to the ruling class outrage at the Bolshevik Revolution more than one hundred years later. Within a month of the execution of Louis XVI in January 1793, Britain was at war with revolutionary France. This war would last another twenty-two years until the defeat of Napoleon at the battle of Waterloo.

“The awakening of the labouring classes, after the first shocks of the French Revolution, made the upper classes tremble”, Frances Shelley noted in her diary.[1] This fear was reinforced by widespread bread riots and the naval mutiny at Newhaven in the spring of 1795.[2] In the aftermath of its suppression, the ringleaders were either flogged with a lash to the point of death or hanged.

While the masses gave wholehearted support to the liberating ideals that were sweeping France, the British ruling class regarded all home-grown Radicals as no better than foreign agents, bent on treason. A worried Mayor of Leicester wrote to the Home Office: “a fourth of the population would join the French Standard if they had an opportunity.”[3] Mr. Yates, a friend of Sir Robert Peel, also wrote, “the Country is ripe for rebellion and in the most dangerous situation... a Revolution will be the consequence...”[4] An anonymous letter to Benjamin Hobhouse, MP for Hindon states, “I am informed by many that there will be a Revolution and that there is in Yorkshire about thirty thousand in a Corresponding Society.”[5]

These Corresponding Societies were popular radical societies founded in 1792-3 and composed overwhelmingly of working class artisans. They disseminated democratic, radical and Jacobin ideas and literature, some of which even tilted in the direction of socialist views.

“The SWINISH MULTITUDE”, declared a committee of the London Corresponding Society in 1795, “are well aware that it matters very little who are the HOG DRIVERS, while the present wretched system of corruption is in existence.”

Consequently such subversive societies were subjected to government repression and terrorised by reactionary forces in the form of frenzied “Church and King” mobs.

The growth of early trade unionism, inspired by events shaking the Continent, was very much linked in the minds of the ruling class to “subversive” Jacobinism. The ruling class, determined at all costs to prevent revolution in England, were thrown into panic by this new-found menace. The roots of social unrest, however, did not arise from radical agitators, but from the enormous gulf between those at the bottom and the affluent minority of money-grubbers at the top. To finance the war with France, labourers were forced to pay about half their income in indirect taxation. Nevertheless, all threats to the propertied classes, imaginary or otherwise, were silenced by the severest punishments. The government was determined that there would be no repeat of the “Wilkes and Liberty” popular democratic protest movement of twenty years earlier. The Wilkite movement stood for popular control by the Commons and for the assertion of popular liberties against both Commons and Crown. Such seditious ideas had to be eliminated. So the workers’ organisations, which emerged in a whole range of trades, had likewise to be crushed.

Under a series of corrupt Whig and Tory governments representing the English oligarchy, the rebellious lower classes were kept in their place by a callous system of martial law, underpinned by imprisonment, public floggings, transportation and capital punishment. In 1794 William Pitt the younger suspended Habeas Corpus (the right to a fair trial) for the following eight years, resulting in widespread arrests. Thomas Paine, the revolutionary democrat and author of the Rights of Man (1791), was forced to flee to France to avoid imprisonment. Paine can be described as an implacable enemy of tyranny and a citizen of the world. His ideas had scandalised the ruling class, but his attack on the conservative Edmund Burke and his defence of the French Revolution gave him widespread influence in the working class. To the oppressed masses the Rights of Man furnished a telling criticism of the British Constitution, from which they were excluded, as well as the corrupt ruling oligarchy. A frightened British Establishment tried Thomas Paine in his absence, found him guilty and outlawed him. He was never to step foot in England again. Despite all the repression, although men were sent to prison for selling it, some 200,000 copies of the Rights of Man were distributed and sold.

An anonymous 24-point pamphlet, issued in 1794, and typical of the popular propaganda of the time, demanded that “Workmen might no longer be punished with imprisonment for uniting to obtain an increase of wages, whilst their masters are allowed to conspire against them with impunity”, and ended with an attack on the rotten corrupt Parliament: “TRAITORS! TRAITORS! TRAITORS!” To root out this dangerous radicalism, the government came down hard on printers, publishers and sellers of seditious literature. Later they introduced a stamp duty to tax newspapers to price them out of reach of the masses, thus sparking the revolt and defiance of the great “unstamped” press.

Ireland too was a source of great instability and grave concern. It was considered, with much justification, that Ireland would be the base for a French invasion of Britain. The United Irishmen, led by Wolfe Tone, a revolutionary democrat of Protestant origin, based itself on the plebeian “men of no property” in its revolutionary struggle for national independence. Tone looked to revolutionary France for support, and in 1798 the United Irish mobilised and led oppressed Catholic and Protestant in an uprising against Anglo-Irish rule. Although this failed, the event served to add to the general panic in government circles.

In the same year, naval mutinies at Spithead and Nore shook the British Establishment to its very foundations.

“Shall we who have endured the toils of a tedious, disgraceful war, be the victims of tyranny and oppression which vile, gilded, pampered knaves, wallowing in the lap of luxury, choose to load us with”, stated the Manifesto of the Nore delegates to their fellow countrymen. “Shall we, who amid the rage of the tempest and the war of jarring elements, undaunted climb the unsteady cordage and totter on the topmast’s dreadful height, suffer ourselves to be treated worse than the dogs of London Streets?…

“You cannot, countrymen, form the most distant idea of the slavery under which we have for many years laboured. Rome had her Neros and Caligulas but how many characters of their description might we not mention in the British Fleet – men without the least tincture of humanity, without the faintest spark of virtue, education or abilities, exercising the most wanton acts of cruelty over those whom dire misfortune or patriotic zeal may have placed in their power – basking in the sunshine of prosperity, whilst we (need we repeat who we are?) labour under every distress which the breast of humanity can suggest.”[6]

It was out of such atrocious conditions that the mutinies gathered support. As far as the ruling classes were concerned, they would show no mercy. After the mutinies were put down, in a display of cold cruelty, the mutineers were flogged, deported or hanged. One of the Nore sailors was sentenced to be flogged with the cat-o’-nine-tails 380 times, a punishment that no human being could endure.

As part of the general repression, the London Corresponding Society was outlawed, its members arrested and its leaders charged with high treason. However, they steadfastly refused to incriminate themselves, and one of the leaders, named Sharp, an engraver, was particularly obstinate. “Well! We can do without his evidence”, bellowed Pitt. “Let him be sent to prison and hanged with the rest of them in the Tower.”[7] By these savage acts, the Society was driven underground and turned into a conspiratorial body. Oath-taking became common as a consequence.

To counter this phenomenon, and crush the growing social unrest, an act against illegal oaths was introduced in 1797. This was swiftly followed by the introduction of the draconian Combination Acts of 1799 and 1800 aimed at completely eradicating the early trade unions.

“Nothing in my opinion,” writes the factory owner Mr. Gray, “is more unwise in any case than to allow the lower orders to feel their strength, and to extend their communications with each other without restraint. Allow them to go on uninterrupted and they become daily more licentious...”[8]

The Pitt government introduced the Combination Acts following a petition – one of many – from the Master Millwrights of London, demanding action against the newly established trade unions. At the instigation of the pious William Wilberforce, so concerned about the slave trade, but regarding trade unions as “a general disease”, Parliament passed a general Act “to prevent unlawful combinations of workmen”. This Act was tightened up the following year, forbidding strikes, union meetings, and the collection of union monies. The anti-union legislation made liable to three months imprisonment, or two months’ hard labour, “any worker who combined with another to increase wages or decrease hours, or conduct any such trade union activity.”

Nominally, the law of the land also prohibited employers’ combinations, but this, of course, was never enforced. In any case the magistrates who administered the laws were either landowners or industrialists. There was no trial by jury. A magistrate would preside over court cases, although this was later amended to two magistrates in a second Act. Under the law, workers (but not employers) were forced to give evidence against themselves or their associates. According to the Hammonds, the new laws “gave the masters unlimited power to reduce wages and make conditions more severe. They established the new industry on a basis of… serf labour and low wages.”[9]

The class interests of the British Establishment were paramount. The full force of the capitalist state was employed to crush the spirit of revolt within the working class and eradicate this “evil” of trade unionism, to use the words of William Pitt. At this time, troops were used frequently to put down local disturbances. “The whole country”, wrote A.L. Morton, “was covered with a network of barracks built so as to prevent contact between the people and the soldiers who had formally been billeted in houses and inns.”[10] A system of government spies, agents and informers were used to infiltrate and terrorise the workers’ groups and radical societies. Informants’ so-called evidence was then used to frame, imprison and prosecute their organisers and leaders. Indeed, prosecution was a lucrative business, a kind of piece-work, as a price was placed on the head of every “conspirator” found guilty.

“Two or more Justices meet daily at one or other of the Manufacturing Towns,” a Home Office emissary wrote from the west of England in 1802, “and as the Combination Act affords a very convenient pretext for summoning and examining upon Oath any suspected Persons I have continually come before them.”[11]

Anti-union Terror

Penalties for defying the Combination Acts not only included imprisonment and hard labour, but also public floggings and even deportation. The compositors on The Times newspaper for instance, were prosecuted for organising a trade union in 1810. In this case, they were arrested and sentenced to imprisonment, with terms varying from nine months to two years. Sir John Sylvester – “Bloody Black Jack” – in sentencing the compositors denounced them for “a most wicked conspiracy” to injure “the very employers who gave you bread”! No doubt, Rupert Murdoch, today’s owner of The Times, who sacked 6,000 trade unionists, would agree whole-heartedly with these early sentiments.

The employers boasted of the success of the Combination Acts in keeping the working class in submission. On 14 August 1818, Henry Hobhouse wrote a note to Major-General Sir John Byng:

“…Matters have certainly been better managed at Stockport than at Manchester. The masters have been more firm, and the convictions under the Combination Act have done great service. The doctrine I have inculcated is that the first object is to show to the workmen that the law is strong enough, if it be but properly enforced, but this principle has not been acted upon in Manchester where the manufacturer seems to rely more on your sword than on any other weapon…”[12]

This reign of state terror unleashed by the ruling class proved to be the midwife of revolutionary trade unionism. Driven underground, these trade unions became conspiratorial bodies that tightly bound their members together through secret oaths and initiation ceremonies. The Society of Ironfounders, established in 1810, met under the cover of darkness on the moors in the Midlands area. Iron discipline was enforced within the organisation in order to keep spies and agent provocateurs out of its ranks. The London tailors had all but a military system. “Their orders come from the Executive and are always obeyed,” stated a contemporary.

The Luddite unrest of 1811 and 1812 – named after the mythical “General Ned Ludd”, in whose name workers desperately turned to machine-breaking – arose from starvation wages and intolerable conditions. The Luddites are portrayed today by historians in the most unsympathetic light as “reactionary forces” desperate to turn back the tide of progress. But under conditions of rampant industrialisation, forcing the workers and their families deeper into destitution, the Luddite struggle was a heroic rearguard battle against those forces that threatened their very existence. The Luddites were fearless class fighters, prepared to risk the hangman’s rope, as they fought with their masters. They hit them where it hurt most – by destroying their machines and property. Their methods were simple and direct, and reflected the primitive stage of the class struggle. But they could not win, as it was not a question of the destruction of the means of production, but of their ownership and control. Today the working class does not seek to destroy machines or capital, but seeks to expropriate them in the interests of all. In fact, it is the capitalists who are the modern-day Luddites, as it is they who close down factories at the drop of a hat, throwing millions onto the scrap heap.

In Yorkshire, the Luddite “croppers” issued a bloodcurdling public appeal urging revolutionary action as on the Continent:

“Generous countrymen. You are requested to come forward with arms and help the Redressers to redress their Wrongs and shake off the hateful Yoke of a Silly Old Man George III, and his Son more silly and their Rogueish Ministers, all Nobles and Tyrants must be brought down. Come let us follow the Noble Example of the brave Citizens of Paris who in sight of 30,000 Tyrant Redcoats brought a Tyrant to the Ground…”[13]

Such language sent shivers down the spines of the ruling oligarchy. A frightened Parliament rushed through a law making frame-breaking (already punishable by fourteen years’ transportation) a capital offence. The inevitable result was a further spate of oath taking by workers determined to maintain their organisations in face of merciless repression. According to one Barnsley Luddite, Thomas Broughton, who turned traitor, their oaths included an undertaking:

“I do swear that I will punish by death any traitor or traitors should there any arise up amongst us I will pursue with unceasing vengeance, should he fly to the verge of Statude. I will be gust true sober and faithful in all my dealings with all my Brothers So help GOD to keep this my Oath Invoilated Amen.”[14]

The harsh methods employed by union activists simply reflected the dangerous world in which they operated. In Cheshire, the Commission sentenced fourteen men to death for Luddism. In Yorkshire, six men were given seven years’ transportation for administering illegal oaths. On another occasion seventeen others were hanged and one of their number transported for life. In Lancashire, four persons (including a fifty-four year old woman) were sentenced to death for forcing dealers to lower their prices. Again, fifteen men and boys were sentenced to seven years transportation for accepting or administering oaths. Three men and a boy of sixteen were sentenced to death for burning a mill. The boy, Abraham Charlson, who appeared young for his age, when brought to the scaffold “called on his mother for help, thinking she had the power to save him.”[15] The list of these early heroes and martyrs is indeed a long one.

The consequences of being discovered by the state were so severe, that the early trade unionists were forced to resort to exceptional methods. Secrecy was essential, and in certain unions only the secretary or treasurer knew the names of its members. Thus, if one part of the organisation was discovered or betrayed, other parts remained intact. Oath taking was widespread in such circles. Their morality was a class morality based upon solidarity and self-defence. In Coventry, the Weavers’ Aggregate Committee punished those who broke rules or opposed the union by tying the offender to an ass, face to tail, and parading him publicly through the streets, so that they were “exposed to the ridicule and violence of the mob.” The coal miners of the North-East of England employed the method of “bothering”, which was “so named because the members of the union bound themselves by a most solemn oath to obey the orders of the brotherhood, under the penalty of being stabbed through the heart or of having their bowels ripped up.”[16]

In the early nineteenth century, with the spread of initiation ceremonies and secret oaths, “inside” and “outside” tylers, or doorkeepers, would stand guard at the entrance of illegal trade union meetings often held in inns, peering through a spy-hole, usually with a pistol at the ready. The Wool Combers’ Union described the function of tyler as the person “who keeps guard on the outside of the room”, with another tyler guarding the inside. Once the outside tyler knocks the door, he is asked, “Who comes here to disturb the peace and harmony of this our most worthy and honourable order?”[17] He then informs the union meeting and asks the President for permission to allow the admittance of the new member. The position of “tyler” still exists today in a number of unions and Labour organisations, a relic from their illegal past. Union branches were also known as Lodges, owing something to freemasonry and old guild traditions. Even today, branches of the National Union of Mineworkers are called lodges. In the case of printers and journalists, the local branch organisation is called a Chapel, with local officials known as the Father or Mother of the Chapel, again a relic of illegal organisation.

Colliers and building workers were seen entering inns where “they make a noise as if they were at a military drill, and … forty or fifty pistol shots are commonly fired off in one night. A pistol is fired over every man’s head immediately on his taking the oath…”[18]

Unsung Herdes

The pioneers of trade unionism faced terrible penalties for their activities and made superhuman sacrifices in order to sustain their organisations. Despite these terrible odds, these unsung heroes led a whole series of strikes and battles in the new industries; outstanding amongst them were those of the Scottish weavers (1812), the Lancashire spinners (1818, 1826, 1830), the miners on the North East coast (1810, 1831-2), Scotland (1818) and in South Wales (1816, 1831). The latter also included a successful strike of ironworkers against the imposition of wage cuts.

Under the whip of the employers, the workers groped their way towards wider organisation. In Manchester in 1818, under the shadow of the Combination Acts, representatives of fourteen trades came together to form a General Union of Trades. It was alternatively referred to as the Philanthropic Society or Philanthropic Hercules, both names intended to camouflage and protect the union’s legality. In these precarious times, despite these precautions, its existence proved fleeting.

Despite the dangers of underground activities, communication between several unions and between different districts was further enhanced. Trade union activists from different parts of the country corresponded with each other concerning their activities, plans and needs. In the boot makers’ strikes of 1802 and 1804, links were opened up between unions in London, Wakefield, York, Bath, Portsmouth and Liverpool. In one of these documents intercepted by the authorities was contained the definition of a blackleg or scab:

“And what is a Scab? – He is to his trade what a traitor is to his country: though both may be useful to one party in troublesome times, when peace returns they are detested alike by all. When help is wanted he is the last to contribute assistance and the first to grasp a benefit he never laboured to produce. He cares but for himself, but he sees not beyond the extent of a day, and for a momentary and worthless approbation would betray friends, family and country. In short he is a traitor on a small scale.”[19]

At this time, party politics began to take a more recognisable and modern form with the establishment of the Tories and Liberals, two parties based on different sections of the ruling class. During the eighteenth century the Whigs, the forerunner of the Liberal Party, had rested on commercial and aristocratic interests. By the time of the nineteenth century, they had increasingly become a party of the industrial capitalists and the urban middle classes. On the other hand, the Tories came to represent the interests of the landed aristocracy. But as time went on, the class basis of these parties would change dramatically. The Tory party was transformed from the party of landowners into the political representatives of the industrial bourgeoisie. Under Benjamin Disraeli the Tory Party became the most consistent champion of British imperialism and the rule of Capital.

These political representatives of the bourgeoisie and aristocracy, like the rest of their kind, had nothing but contempt for the working class. They faithfully followed the biding of their masters. As a consequence, all the Elizabethan legislation fixing the wages and conditions of apprentices was swiftly repealed in 1813, and the following year the apprenticeship clauses were also abrogated. In 1808, the proposed Minimum Wage Bill was thrown out. Laissez-faire economics became the new orthodoxy. The position of the artisan and journeyman weaver was systematically driven down to the destitute levels of the handloom weaver, as their wages were repeatedly cut to the bone. The employing class justified the workers’ slide into absolute poverty with such sobering arguments as “destitution was an essential route to all-round prosperity”!

“It is a fact well known…” stated the author of Memoirs of Wool, “that scarcity, to a certain degree, promotes industry, and that the manufacturer who can subsist on three days work will idle and drunken the remainder of the week… The poor in the manufacturing counties will never work any more time in general than is necessary just to live and support their weekly debauches… We can fairly aver that a reduction of wages in the woollen manufacture would be a national blessing and advantage, and no real injury to the poor. By this means we might keep our trade, uphold our rents, and reform the people into the bargain.”[20]

However, reality was very different. Francis Place, the radical reformer with strong laissez-faire convictions, relates that

“the suffering of persons employed in the cotton manufacture were beyond credibility; they were drawn into combinations, betrayed, prosecuted, convicted, sentenced, and monstrously severe punishments inflicted on them; they were reduced to and kept in the most wretched state of existence.”

The working class would not tolerate this inhuman treatment without a struggle. Despite the threat of imprisonment, deportation or death on the gallows, they had no choice but to resist these attempts to grind them down. Bitterness and anger exploded in periodic rioting, machine breaking and violence against landlords and owners alike. This came to a head particularly in the years 1812-1814 in the Luddite riots centred round the Nottingham hosiery area. Here the introduction of stocking frames had dramatically cut prices, forcing workers into destitution. Machine wrecking became also widespread in the West Riding of Yorkshire and other districts. The introduction of the Corn Laws, which kept bread prices artificially high, added to the bitterness that was sweeping the country. After Waterloo, the transition from war to peace brought with it a period of increased unemployment, misery and starvation. “… the use of the potato… did, in fact, enable the workers to survive on the lowest possible wage… but what was the alternative, surely nothing but bloody revolution,” wrote Jacques Halévy.

The period 1800 to 1815 represented a period of intensified government repression against the working class. There were some 220 offences for which the death penalty could be imposed, including housebreaking, sheep stealing and forgery. Poachers who were caught could be transported for seven years. Machine-breakers were hanged or deported. It was a capital offence to “preach reform to a soldier or to smash a frame.” Although “Luddism ended on the scaffold”, to quote E.P. Thompson, the social and economic conditions that produced Luddism remained, producing social unrest of equal measure.[21]

Following the death of William Pitt in 1806, the government fell under the domination of a group of reactionary upstarts: Sidmouth, Castlereagh, Eldon and Liverpool. Their policy was based upon repression and the mailed fist. Habeas Corpus was again suspended, followed by a whole series of arbitrary arrests and imprisonments. Class war was very much on the order of the day. The aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars from 1815 onwards was characterised by a series of riots and social unrest on a much higher scale than ever before. Tens of thousands of demobbed soldiers and sailors who returned home from the war faced terrible unemployment and profound distress. As a consequence, as the Corn Laws were being introduced through Parliament, troops with fixed bayonets were forced to defend the Commons from enraged London crowds.

In May 1816 agricultural Luddism broke out in the Eastern Counties and then spread rapidly to neighbouring counties. In December the Spencean Riots in the Spa Fields, London, turned into a desperate attempt to seize the reigns of government. This danger of revolution, so prevalent in these years, gave rise to an orgy of state repression. Finally, under the hammer blows of the government, the Reform movement collapsed. William Cobbett, the writer who had played the greatest single part in organising a revolt against the aristocracy, was forced to follow in the footsteps of Thomas Paine and flee to America.

In March 1817, a mass march from Manchester to London of “Blanketeers” – named after the blankets they carried – was undertaken to present a petition appealing for relief to the Prince Regent. But frightened by the growing unrest, the marchers were arrested before they got anywhere near London. In June of that year, the Derbyshire Insurrection, provoked by government agent provocateurs, was put down by a score of dragoons. On 7 November, their leaders, Brandreth, Turner, Ludlam, “were drawn on hurdles to the place of execution, and were hanged and decapitated in the presence of an excited and horror-stricken crowd.”[22] Talk of insurrection was widespread in every industrial town of Britain. At this time the activities of many illegal trade union centred round mass drilling with pikes and staves in preparation, according to the authorities, for rebellion and revolution.

Peterloo Massacre

In 1819, a giant working class rally assembled at St Peter’s Fields in Manchester. The crowds numbered between 50,000 and 60,000 strong, carrying huge banners inscribed with the slogans “Suffrage Universal”, “Annual Parliaments” and “Liberty and Fraternity”. The radical orator Henry Hunt addressed the excited throng. Fearing trouble, the authorities ordered the arrest of Hunt and a company of the 15th Hussars was sent into the crowd to take him. In the melée, the demonstrators were brutally attacked by sabre-wealding cavalry, resulting in the cold-blooded murder of eleven unarmed demonstrators and a further 400 being badly wounded. News of the massacre spread like wild fire across the country. The immediate reaction of the government to the “Peterloo Massacre” was to rush new repressive legislation onto the statute books. Six Acts were pushed through Parliament to strengthen the swathe of laws already in the hands of the government. But the events at Peterloo, which lived on in the minds of workers, served to fuel the growing revolutionary resentment within the working class. A popular toast of the time proclaimed: “May the Tree of Liberty be planted in Hell, and may the bloody Butchers of Manchester be the Fruit of it!”

The revolutionary poet, Percy Shelley wrote The Masque of Anarchy in protest against the massacre soon afterwards, although it was not published until 1832, some ten years after his death, for fear of government repression:

I met Murder on the way –
He had a mask like Castlereagh –
Very smooth he looked, yet grim;
Seven bloodhounds followed him:

All were fat; and well they might
Be in admirable plight,
For one by one, and two by two,
He tossed them human hearts to chew,
Which from his wide cloak he drew.

Next came Fraud, and he had on,
Like Eldon, an ermine gown;
His big tears, for he wept well,
Turned to millstones as they fell;

And the little children, who
Round his feet played to and fro,
Thinking every tear a gem,
Had their brains knocked out by them.

Clothed with the bible as with light,
And the shadow of the night,
Like Sidmouth next, Hypocrisy,
On a crocodile came by.

Between 1815 and 1820, given the violence and social unrest sweeping the country, many contemporaries believed that Britain was on the verge of a revolutionary explosion. Agent provocateurs were at work everywhere. In 1820 a conspiracy was hatched to murder ministers and overthrow the government. Betrayed by agent provocateurs that had infiltrated their ranks, the leading conspirators were arrested at Cato Street, off the Edgware Road in London. They were subsequently charged with treason and hanged for their part in the “Cato Street conspiracy”. Similarly, government spies and agents were used to urge Scottish miners in Bonnymuir to take up arms against the authorities, only to betray them. Once again their leaders were executed, including a certain Andrew Hardie, a relative of Keir Hardie, the future leader of the Labour Party.

Despite these bitter years of state repression, astonishing advances were made in the formation of national trade unions – the Calico-printers, the Ironfounders, the Steam Engine Makers and the Papermakers – as well as the drawing together of different local organisations. Against all the odds, trade union activists continued to organise clandestinely, recruiting workers in small groups to their cause. This was the only way they could hope to survive, let alone succeed. They risked everything, but as the Communist Manifesto later stated, they had nothing to lose but their chains, and much to gain. They began to realise that held the future in their blistered hands. It was through this baptism of fire that untold numbers of nameless heroes established the deep roots of British trade unionism. We should never forget, and that applies more so to the leaders of the movement, that it is thanks to their sacrifices that we have the powerful organisations we have today.

This underground struggle ran parallel with widespread public agitation for the repeal the anti-union laws, under the direction of the energetic John Gast (general secretary of the Shipwrights’ union). Combined with the work of radicals like William Cobbett, Francis Place, and George White, this mass agitation was to eventually culminate in the repeal of the hated Combination Acts in 1824. It was a tremendous victory for the working class. But the repeal was granted by the ruling class for varied reasons, not least the hope of destroying trade unionism!

Despite his hallowed place in Labour history, the pragmatic Francis Place, a London tailor, who manoeuvred the repeal through Parliament, was no friend of the trade unions. He believed the Combination Acts made relations between the classes even worse than if there were no such laws. For him, the Acts simply aggravated the ill feeling between labour and capital and encouraged the growth of trade unions. “If the cause were removed,” argued Place in front of the Parliamentary Committee,

“the effect would cease… Men have been kept together for long periods only by the oppression of these laws; these being repealed, combinations will lose the matter which cements them into masses, and they will fall to pieces. All will be as orderly as even a Quaker could desire.”[23]

The Committee accepted the reasoned arguments of Francis Place, and the Combination Acts were repealed. The ruling class was seemingly unaware of the powerful forces it was unwittingly about to unleash.

The repeal precipitated a flood of strikes, which terrified the employers. They immediately demanded action to stop this deluge. Consequently, new legislation was rushed onto the statute books that modified the previous Act. The Act of 1825 was born and placed severe restrictions on picketing and the activities of unions. “Molesting” or “obstructing” persons at work was outlawed, and the definition of “legal” trade union activities was limited strictly to questions concerning wages and hours. In spite of this, the law continued to uphold the rights of combination against common law prosecutions for conspiracy.

The trade unions were finally legal. That made all the difference. The ruling class had been at last forced to concede new rights to the working class. Despite the intentions of the likes of Place and his colleagues, the underground trade unions, rather than withering away, had burst out onto the scene. Hundreds of new unions and associations were formed and brand new sections of workers became organised. Others simply emerged overnight, like mushrooms, from their underground world, and even changed their forms. Nothing could stop them now. A stormy strike wave swept through the industrial areas of Britain as workers, with their newly found freedoms, began to flex their muscles and pursue their demands. A new chapter opened up for trade unionism, characterised by class battles on an unprecedented scale. The history of these times, wrote the Hammonds, “reads like a history of civil war.”[24]


[1] Quoted in Thompson, op. cit, p.60

[2] See Dudley Edwards, The Soldiers’ Revolt, Spokesman pamphlet no.62

[3] Quoted in Hammonds, The Town Labourer, p.80

[4] Hammonds, The Skilled Labourer, p.66

[5] Ibid, p.173

[6] Selected Documents, Revolution, from 1789 to 1906, edited by R. W. Postgate, 7- New York, 1962, p.73-74

[7] John Hostettler, The Criminal Jury Old and New: Jury Power from Early Times to the Present Day, p.93, Waterside Press 2004

[8] Quoted in Cole & Postgate, The Common People, p.157

[9] Hammonds, The Skilled Labourer, p.101

[10] Hammonds, The Town Labourer, p.141

[11] A.L. Morton, A People’s History of England, London 1938

[12] Quoted by Hammonds, The Skilled Labourer, p.176, London 1995

[13] British Working Class Movements, Selected Documents 1789-1875, ed. Cole and Filson, London 1967, p.103

[14] Quoted by Morton & Tate, The British Labour Movement, London 1979, p.37

[15] Quoted in Thompson, op. cit, p. 633

[16] Cole & Postgate, op. cit, p.184, London 1938

[17] Webbs, History of Trade Unionism, p. 90

[18] Cole and Filson, op. cit, p.277

[19] Quoted in Thompson, op. cit, p.558

[20] Quoted in The Town Labourer, pp.264-5

[21] Quoted in Thompson, op. cit, p.306

[22] Ibid, p.540

[23] Dowden’s Life, quoted in Shelly’s Socialism by Edward Aveling and Eleanor Marx, p.35, London 1975

[24] Quoted in Class and Conflict in Nineteenth Century England 1815-1850, edited by Patricia Hollis, London, 1973

Schools of War

The labour is theirs, the produce ought to be theirs, and they alone ought to decide how much each deserves of the produce of all. 

Thomas Hodgskin, Labour Defended, 1825.

The repeal of the infamous Combination Acts led to an explosive growth of trade union organisation. It opened up a stormy and, one can say, revolutionary period for the infant labour movement. Many “Friendly Societies”, which acted as a cover for illegal activities since the Friendly Society Act of 1793, came out into the open for the first time as fully-fledged trade unions. District union organisations came into being, first of one trade, then of several trades. Then, with the new climate, unions were formed in great numbers across the trades.

This spread of organisation and growing confidence within the working class inevitably led to a strike wave in the mid and late-1820s, which developed into a series of ferocious battles against wage cuts. For instance, the carpet makers of Kidderminster in the Midlands struck for six months against a 17 per cent wage cut, but eventually went down to defeat. In Lancashire, miners and textile workers brought their industries to a complete standstill. After a prolonged strike in Yorkshire, the Bradford Woolcombers and Weavers faced cuts in pay, and in Stockport the spinners fought a rearguard battle against wage cuts. These struggles were followed by the strikes of fine spinners in April 1829, and in July the rest of Manchester’s’ spinners took action, but were eventually forced back to work. “The history of these unions”, noted Engels, “is a long series of defeats of the working men, interrupted by a few isolated victories.”[1] Yet, these battles provided the working class with a vital education in the class struggle, which was to lay the basis for the establishment of large-scale national trade unions, such as the Spinners’ union in 1829, followed by the Potters’ union in 1831, and the Builders’ in 1831-2.

Under the brutal conditions of open class warfare, where the government acted as the naked instrument of the employers, many strikes took on an extremely violent character. In 1831-32, the cavalry was used to break strikes in the Durham coalfield, led by the legendary Tommy Hepburn. This involved the union in pitched battles with soldiers and blacklegs. Again government troops were used to assist the Welsh Ironmasters in 1831 against the Union Club led by Dick Penderyn. This famous leader of the Welsh miners and ironworkers was an insurrectionary fighter, who led the workers of Merthyr and Dowlais with arms in hand against the yeomanry called in by Crawshay, Guest and the ironmasters. Penderyn was subsequently captured by the authorities and executed in 1831. The Union Club was forced underground by the ironmasters and took the form of a ruthless clandestine organisation, known as the “Scotch Cattle”. This used the bull’s head and horns as a symbol to hunt down and deal with “traitors, turn-coats and others” throughout the industrial valleys of South Wales. The “Cattle” were organised into “herds” and, disguised in animal skins, confronted all those who dared opposed them. In their struggle with blacklegs, they did not mince their words or deeds:

“We hereby warn you the second and last time. We are determined to draw the hearts out of all the men above-named, and fix two hearts upon the horns of the Bull; so that everyone may see what is the fate of every traitor – and we know them all. So we testify with our blood.”

Similar bodies sprung up elsewhere, such as the secret Glasgow cotton-spinners’ union that organised the “disposal” of scabs, known at the time as “knobsticks”. Thomas Hunter and his comrades replied to the tyranny of the masters with counter-terror, setting fire to the mills of hated owners and killing blacklegs. In 1838, the leaders of the organisation were caught and Hunter and four fellow leaders were tried for conspiracy. According to the Webbs, “the whole body of working class opinion was on their side, and the sentence of seven years’ transportation was received with as much indignation as that upon the Dorchester labourers.”

“Hatred.... of the general oppression by the dominant classes blazes out in the trade union records of the time”, noted the Webbs in their classic History of Trade Unionism. This was the hatred of a working class becoming conscious of its position in capitalist society. For those who lacked formal schooling, the class struggle was the greatest teacher of all. According to a trade unionist at the time, quoted in the Poor Man’s Guardian:

“The great advantage of a strike is that it increases the enmity between labourer and capitalists, and compels workmen to reflect and investigate the causes of their suffering… The fruit of such reflections would be a violent hostility against the capitalist class; and the new converts would be prepared to second the efforts of emancipation made by labourers in other quarters of England.”

Frederick Engels expressed a similar view about the development of class-consciousness. Strikes, wrote Engels, “are the military school of the workingmen, in which they prepare themselves for the great struggle which cannot be avoided... As schools of war, the unions are unexcelled. In them is developed the peculiar courage of the English.”[2] It was this experience of the struggle that served to transform the working class into a “class for-itself”. The main lesson derived from this “school of war” was the need to organise not simply on a local scale, but on an industry-wide basis. The working class required maximum unity to face the united front of the employers; from trade unions, workers moved towards trades unions. These movements, continued Engels, were regarded as “the first attempt of the workers to abolish competition”, and exert control over their lives.[3]

“Captain Swing”

This “great leap forward” in organisation occurred in the late 1820s, when, after long and bitter strikes in the Manchester area, the Grand General Union of Operative Spinners of Great Britain and Ireland was formed under the leadership of John Doherty. Doherty, a militant young Irishman, went even further in 1830 with the establishment of the National Association for the Protection of Labour (NAPL). This Association alone enrolled 150 local unions in Lancashire, Cheshire, Derbyshire, Nottingham and Leicester, and established a weekly journal to cover these trades. Very rapidly the NAPL reached an affiliated membership of over 100,000 members, and quickly spread its influence to the West Midlands and Wales. However, the attacks on organised labour led to the weakening of the NAPL. Different sections became preoccupied with their own bitter conflicts and had little energy to help build the wider movement. Finally, with the defeat and demise of the Spinner’s Union in March 1831, which provided the backbone of the NAPL, the organisation broke up and disappeared the following year.

Following the disillusionment with the Reform Act (1832) workers turned away from political struggle and concentrated their efforts on trade unionism and the establishment of co-operatives. Independently of the NAPL, a new general union grew up in the building trade, emerging from the General Union of Carpenters and Joiners. This 40,000-strong Operative Builders Union was governed by a “Builders Parliament” and was deeply influenced by the co-operative ideas of the great utopian socialist Robert Owen. This held major delegate meetings in London and Manchester to debate and decide upon union policy. The union fought a whole series of strikes “to advance and equalise the price of labour”. As expected, it met the ferocious resistance of the industrialists who reacted with lockouts and the notorious “Document”, requiring workers to renounce the union or lose their jobs.

The Poor Man’s Guardian, of 19 October 1833, reported that the delegates at the London Parliament

“show that an entire change in society – a change amounting to a complete subversion of the existing ‘order of the world’ – is contemplated by the working classes. They aspire to be at the top instead of at the bottom of society – or rather that there should be no bottom or top at all!”

The trade union movement experienced a growth that was more rapid and comprehensive than any before or since. An army of trade unionists seemed to rise up from nowhere, as the spirit of rebellion swept through the working classes and intoxicated them with hope in the future and in themselves.

At this time, as a mirror image of the misery in the urban areas, there was profound distress in the countryside. This centred round the brutal administration of the Poor Laws, which in theory were supposed to supply some relief to the most destitute sections of society. In 1797 the pauper population was around 200,000, by 1834 it had increased to 1,200,000. The Enclosures robbed the peasantry of their economic independence, and with it the means of life. The starvation that threatened the labouring poor served to provoke fears of revolution in the upper classes. Wages fell so low, that the Berkshire justices, meeting at Speenhamland in 1795, authorised the supplement of starvation wages out of parish rates. While this subsidised the money-grabbing landowners handsomely, it served to kept destitute farm labourers and their families in a state of perpetual dependency. But as the Speenhamland system spread, the relief it offered gradually diminished. By 1820, many areas recorded that free labour had almost disappeared as employers chose only to hire paupers from the parishes. The situation resulted in an explosive situation in rural parts.

In 1830-31 agricultural uprisings developed on a scale far wider that ever before, and in East Anglia, Kent, Surry, Sussex, Hampshire, Wiltshire, and other counties, a general revolt developed. Threshing machines were destroyed and hayricks burned. The revolt spread from village to village across the Southern counties into the South West, Eastern region and the Midlands, often under the name of the mythical “Captain Swing”. At this time, the ruling classes were again petrified by the effects of the revolutions unfolding in France and Belgium, where the European proletariat independently taken to the streets under its own banner. The English oligarchy was not far wrong in its gloomy assessment. “Never since 1688 had Great Britain been so near actual revolution as in 1831”, stated historians Cole and Postgate, “never in all the troubles of the next two decades was she to come so near to it again.”[4] The government came down hard and dispatched troops to crush the unarmed labourers. In the period that followed, the prisons were bursting with some 1,900 rioters awaiting trial in 90 courts sitting in 34 counties. In the end, 19 men were hanged, 481 transported 12,000 miles to Australia, 644 imprisoned and one publicly flogged in the wake of this “last labourers’ revolt”. “From no other protest movement of the kind – from neither Luddites nor Chartists, nor trade unionists – was such a bitter price exacted”, state the historians Hobsbawn and Rudé.[5]

Whether on the continent or at home, reforms were a by-product of revolution. The bourgeoisie never volunteered anything free of charge! The 1830 revolutions in Europe forced the terrified British Establishment to adopt a policy of repression and concession. State repression was dispatched when needed, but when faced with a mass movement, concessions were usually granted to gain a breathing space.

The agitation for political reform and the extension of the franchise had long captured the popular imagination. This agitation, woven into the deteriorating social conditions of the masses, soon provoked violent outbreaks in many towns and cities. In June 1831, in Merthyr Tydfil, the red flag was raised in Britain for the first time as a symbol of working class revolt. A crowd of 10,000 confronted 80 soldiers of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders and 20 were shot dead. Following arrests, two men were condemned to death, Lewis Lewis, whose sentence was commuted to exile for life, and Richard Lewis (alias Dic Penderyn), who was executed.

At this time only a privileged few had the right to vote based upon a propertied franchise. Out of a population of 14 million in 1831 a mere 400,000 privileged men possessed the vote. Large towns such as Sheffield, Leeds, Birmingham and Manchester had not a single political representative in the House of Commons. On the other hand, the “rotten” borough of Gatton in rural Wiltshire returned two Members of Parliament, but only had one voter! The same was true of Old Sarum, also in Wiltshire.

In 1832, fearing revolution from below, the government of Lord John Russell was forced to introduce political reform from above. After mass public protests, the Whig government brought in the long-awaited Reform Act. However, it was a franchise limited once again to those fortunate to own property. The propertyless working class remained without a political voice. “A government in every country should be just like a corporation”, stated Lord Baxfield, “and in this country it is made up of the landed interest who alone have the right to be represented.” For the government after this concession no more reform was needed. Russell, who became known in radical circles as “Finality Jack”, made that abundantly clear.

The bourgeoisie had gained enormously. The Reform Act handed effective political power from the landed aristocracy to the rising bourgeoisie, consolidating their dominant position in society. At first, they ruled in alliance with the old oligarchy, but in reality they had a commanding influence on the main aspects of government. Their final domination, however, was not fully completed until 1846 and the repeal of the Corn Laws. The working class, who were mobilised under the leadership of the mealy-mouthed middle-class radicals, saw their efforts deliberately betrayed. The workers had been used and manipulated by these petty-bourgeois upstarts. The Moor had done his duty and was dismissed. Five out of six male adults, the overwhelming bulk of the working class, remained disenfranchised. “… we cannot read without considerable indignation, the history of the struggle for the Reform Bill in the early 1830s,” remarked Trotsky in Where is Britain Going?[6] While the workers were betrayed, the Whigs, on the other hand, won a landslide victory in the newly reformed Parliament, taking 500 out of the 658 seats, and inflicting a devastating defeat on the Tories.

Nevertheless, even before the 1932 Reform Act, the working class was looking to fresh ideas and movements. While William Cobbett and Henry Hunt were outstanding spokesmen of working class radicalism, who despised “the lords of the loom and the spinning-jenny” and sought to restore the “Golden Age” of the past, it was a self-made man and manufacturer, Robert Owen, who established a profound influence in the young trade union movement. He was an intellectual giant of a man, and was later paid due respect for his contribution by Marx and Engels. He was in the same mould as Henri de Saint-Simon and Jean Baptiste Fourier, great men and socialists who saw developments far more clearly than any of their contemporaries. It can be said that the inspiration for this new, semi-revolutionary phase of trade unionism came largely from Owen.

Sickened by the oppression around him, Robert Owen came to despise “man’s inhumanity to man” and the brutality of the Industrial Revolution. He was deeply influenced by the French philosophers, and came to believe that a person’s character was not eternally fixed but shaped by their social environment. He wrote a fascinating book entitled A New View of Society, published in 1813, on the principle of the formation of the human character. For Owen, good working and living conditions, together with decent education, could eliminate the terrible ills of capitalist society. He experimented with this revolutionary outlook in his factory in New Lanark in Scotland (which still stands today), and later in other “Villages of Co-operation”, where for once, workers were treated as human beings in their own right. Each community, Owen presumed, should be based upon the principle of collective work, common property, equal rights and duties of all its members. He was determined to abolish all class differences. By his actions, Owen transformed the lives of the workers he employed and advocated that his methods should be universally adopted by society at large. “Let society be now based on the same principle, and all evil will soon disappear”, he wrote.

Inevitably, given the times, Owen appealed not to the working class for assistance, but to the rich and powerful classes of the land. For a while, the enlightened bourgeoisie even toyed with these strange and exotic ideas. Owen, although a far-sighted man, was a utopian socialist who believed a socialist reorganisation of society was not rooted in the struggle of classes, or in the material conditions of society, but simply based upon moral argument and persuasion. Soon, the upper classes lost interest in, and became hostile to his radical fanciful schemes. This reaction served to eventually push Owen towards the developing workers’ movement, and he became increasingly critical and outspoken in his attacks on capitalism.

“The rapid accumulation of wealth, from the rapid increase in mechanical and chemical power, created capitalists who were among the most ignorant and injurious of the population”, wrote Owen to devastating effect. “The wealth created by the industry of the people, now made abject slaves to these new artificial powers, accumulated in the hands of what are called the moneyed class, who created none of it, and who misused all they had acquired.”

While this alienated the liberal philanthropists, it attracted huge support from the radicalised working class. Owenism became a rallying-cry for those who rebelled against the factory system, which, in turn, served to transform his outlook into an influential tendency within the labour movement. Moreover, other socialist thinkers increasingly influenced Owen, pushing him further in the direction of the working class. In 1825 socialist books and pamphlets appeared, such as John Gray’s Lecture on Human Happiness and Thomas Hodgskin’s Labour Defended. Then appeared William Thompson’s Labour Rewarded (1827) and later J.F. Bray’s Labour’s Wrongs and Labour’s Remedy (1838-9), all of which made an important contribution to English socialist thought. In 1830, Hetherington and Bronterre O’Brien launched The Poor Man’s Guardian, which expressed for the first time in simple language socialist concepts and ideas. “Those large profits are the sole cause why wages are low… The profit is that which is retained and never paid back… There is no common interest between workingmen and profit makers,” stated The Poor Man’s Guardian in 14 April 1832. “It is but common justice that the people who make the goods should have the sole privilege of making the laws,” stated the same newspaper on 26 November 1831. These home-grown “communist” ideas of British thinkers, however underdeveloped, were very advanced for their time, and indicated the ideological ferment within the labour movement at the time. It was another 10 to 15 years before the revolutionary ideas of Marx and Engels were to appear on the scene.

One of the most influential radical leaders of the London working class was William Benbow. He was very active in 1831 in the National Union of the Working Classes, and in January 1832 issued a pamphlet entitled the Grand National Holiday and Congress of the Productive Classes, which, among other things, argued for a general strike, or “sacred month”:

“We are oppressed, in the fullest sense of the word; we have been deprived of everything; we have no property, no wealth, and our labour is of no use to us, since what it produces goes into the hands of others…

“One scoundrel, one sacrilegious blasphemous scoundrel, says ‘that over-production is the cause of our wretchedness.’ Over-production, indeed! When we half-starving producers cannot, with all our toil, obtain any thing like a sufficiency of produce. It is the first time that in any age or country, save our own, abundance was adduced as a cause of want. Good God! Where is this abundance? Abundance of food! Ask the labourer and mechanic where they find it. Their emaciated frame is the best answer. Abundance of clothing! The nakedness, the shivering, the asthmas, the colds, and rheumatisms of the people, are proofs of the abundance of clothing! Our Lords and Masters tell us, we produce too much; very well then, we shall cease from producing for one month, and thus put into practice the theory of our Lords and Masters.”[7]

The Grand National

In 1824, frustrated at the lack of interest by the ruling class, Robert Owen emigrated to America to establish the first of his unsuccessful experiments in communist “villages of cooperation”. The failure of these communities stemmed from an attempt to establish isolated islands of “socialism” – although the term was not used until the end of the decade – amid a sea of capitalism. It was in reality, to use Marx’s phrase, an experiment in Utopian socialism, an attempt to eradicate the laws of the “market” economy, without eradicating the system as a whole. In Owen’s defence, the working class at this time was only just emerging as a class. The forces for socialism were undeveloped. Nevertheless, his ideas remained utopian. Yet Robert Owen stands out as a genius of his day and a giant of the early workers’ movement. After his return from America (and the failure of his “New Harmony” community), he turned all his attention to the trade union movement where many of his ideas had taken root. After Owen realised that his own class would have nothing to do with him, “he turned directly to the working class and worked amongst them for another thirty years”, stated Engels, with a large degree of admiration.

In the autumn of 1833 Owen addressed two major trade union congresses in Manchester and London. By October his work resulted in a huge break-through, and the creation of new national union – the Grand National Consolidated Trades Union (GNCTU). This new initiative is correctly regarded as an historic step forward in the development of British trade unionism. The union completely overshadowed all other formations up until this time in shear size and influence. Its stated aim was not simply the fight for day-to-day “bread and butter” demands, but astonishingly, the abolition of capitalist rule and the revolutionary transformation of society.

“The great and ultimate object of it (the union) must be to establish the paramount rights of Industry and Humanity, by… bringing about A DIFFERENT ORDER OF THINGS, in which the really useful and intelligent part of society only shall have the direction of its affairs.” (Rule XLV1).

The Grand National experienced an explosive growth reaching a phenomenal 500,000 members across the different trades. Unorganised workers were quickly drawn into its ranks, including women workers, who were organised specifically into Lodges of Industrious Females. Other women’s groups, such as the Lodge of Female Gardeners and even the Lodge of Ancient Virgins, also seem to have been affiliated to the GNCTU. In Hull, two organisers recruited some 1,000 members in one evening to the union. In the countryside agricultural workers joined the union en masse – the first organised movement since the defeat of the “Last Labourers’ Revolt” of 1831. For the first time, organised labour began to flex its muscles on a national scale, with the rank and file pressing for immediate action to redress their plight. The threatening potential power of the mighty GNCTU was expressed in a contemporary trade union paper as follows:

“Every trade has its internal government in every town; a certain number of towns comprise a district and delegates from the trades in each town form a quarterly district government; delegates from the districts form the Annual Parliament; and the King of England becomes President of the Trades Union!”[8]

From its inception the Grand National became drawn into a series of strikes over wages and recognition. Bitter strikes took place amongst the hosiers of Leicester, cabinet-makers in Glasgow and tailors in London. Union-organised cotton spinners also led an uprising in Oldham over demands for the eight-hour day. In Derby, in the autumn of 1833, the refusal of workers to leave the GNCTU led to a lockout (the Derby Turn-out) involving 1,500 men, women and children. This used up all the available funds of the union and served to expose its weaknesses.

As expected, such scenes of trade union “Jacobinism” led to widespread panic in the ruling class. The state once again confronted the growth of trade unionism with intensified repression. In the Dorset village of Tolpuddle, two brothers, George and James Loveless, had contacted the Grand National to help establish an agricultural workers’ union, the Friendly Society of Agricultural Labourers, with its Grand Lodge at Tolpuddle. The magistrates, hearing of what had been done through a spy, posted up notices threatening those who joined the Society with transportation, and proceeded to arrest George Loveless, his brother and four others on the charge of taking an illegal oath of allegiance to the union. For this crime, they were brought before the Court of Assizes and were sentenced under the Act of 1797 to transportation to Botany Bay for seven years. The sentences were carried out with immediate effect.

The Tolpuddle Martyrs became a cause celebre in the working class movement, and remains so to the present-day. However, while the right-wing TUC leaders pretend to pay homage to these martyrs each year at a Tolpuddle celebration, they are a million miles removed from the spirit of self-sacrifice of the Dorchester labourers. While these workers risked their necks and defied the laws of the land to remain loyal to their union, today’s right wing cringe before the Tory anti-union laws. They have become the “labour lieutenants of capital”, to quote De Leon, who, with their inflated salaries and flash life-styles, live at the expense of the working-class movement. In comparison, the simple trade unionists of Tolpuddle were men of courage, on whose shoulders the Labour and trade union movement was built. The monstrous sentences handed out to George Loveless and his comrades, defended by the Whig Home Secretary, Lord Melbourne, aroused furious protests throughout the country. At the time, the unions instigated a mass campaign to free the Dorchester labourers, which culminated in a London demonstration of up to 200,000. Within two years, under pressure from the campaign, the sentences were quashed and the last of the men were finally brought home in 1839. They subsequently took part in the great Chartist movement, but later emigrated (with the exception of James Hammett) to a new life in Canada.

The attack in Tolpuddle signalled a general employers’ offensive. The subsequent prosecution and transportation for seven years of five Glasgow cotton-spinners in 1837 also provoked nationwide protests against the Whig government. A campaign was organised in support of the convicted men, not less memorable than that of the Tolpuddle martyrs. The infamous “Document” – sign or be sacked – was used to smash trade union organisation and institute a series of major lockouts. By the summer, the funds of the Grand National were practically exhausted as numerous strikes went down to defeat. By the end of the year, with its fragile federal structure and emerging differences within the leadership, the Grand National Consolidated Trades Union finally broke apart. By this time, Owen, who had served to let the working class genie out of the bottle, had become increasingly despondent at the class-war tone of many of the union’s pronouncements. Consequently he closed down its newspaper, The Crisis, and declared the organisation formally dissolved in August 1834. Owen’s work then took a different direction with the formation instead of a new association for co-operative and socialist propaganda. The demise of the Grand National proved an inglorious end for such a powerful beginning. Nevertheless, its experience left its indelible mark on the consciousness of the working class.

Throughout the “Hungry Thirties” conditions in the working class were abominable. Hunger and destitution stalked the land. Many families were reduced to a diet of boiled nettles. Factory life was a hell on earth. It was not until 1833 that the first real Factory legislation was enacted. Yet this was limited only to children, preventing them from legally working more than 12 hours a day. Enforcement, however, proved almost impossible. Women and children as young as six continued to be employed in the coalmines, hauling trucks and even working at the coalface. Tens of thousands were also forced to work under inhumane conditions in the textile mills. The wretched handloom weavers were gradually ground down, hopelessly struggling to match the output and speed of the power looms. Accordingly, thousands of handloom workers died from malnutrition and physical exhaustion. They literally worked themselves to death. These conditions were ably described by Engels in his memorable book, The Condition of the Working Class in England, written in 1844-5, which paints a graphic picture of the period and is required reading for every trade union activist.

With the shattering of the unions, the handloom weavers, alongside the agricultural labourers, were again forced well below the subsistence level. The suffering of the working class was further intensified with the introduction of the New Poor Law in 1834. The Whig government abolished the Speenhamland system, replacing it with an Act based upon the philosophical principles of Bentham and Malthus, designed to make the lot of the pauper even more ghastly than that of the poorest labourer. It was aimed primarily against the agricultural labourers and handloom workers who refused to accept factory discipline. The New Poor Law served to tear out the last roots that united the workers with their parish and their old lifestyle, placing their fate into the hands of the notorious Boards of Guardians. The main principle of Poor Law relief was that assistance should be made more unpleasant than the most unpleasant means of earning a living outside the workhouse. At one such institution in Andover, brought to light by a national scandal, starving inmates fought for survival over the rotten disease-ridden horse-bones sent there for crushing. These hellish institutions were immortalised and exposed in the famous novels of Charles Dickens, such as Oliver Twist. Outdoor relief was stopped for the able-bodied and their families. Desperate men and women were forced to enter the workhouses, where the sexes were kept strictly apart to prevent them breeding.

Deeply despised Poor Law Commissioners, who appeared to revel in their absolute powers to dispense either life or death, administered outdoor relief. Edwin Chadwick, the stone-faced reformer who drafted the Poor Law Act and was for many years its administrator, graphically outlines the philosophy behind the law:

“By the workhouse system is meant having all relief through the workhouse, making this workhouse an uninviting place of wholesome restraint, preventing its inmates from going out or receiving visitors, without a written order to that effect from one of the Overseers; disallowing beer and tobacco, and finding them work according to their ability; thus making the parish fund the last resource of a pauper, and rendering the person who administers relief the hardest taskmaster, and the worst paymaster, that idle and dissolute can apply to.”[9]

On the back of working class agitation against the workhouse, or “Bastilles” as they were called, came a crescendo of opposition. Angry crowds frequently stormed these hell-holes, as resentment boiled over into violence.

The betrayal of 1832, which taught the workers not to put their trust in the middle class radicals, drove them towards the trade unions. But the collapse of Owen’s Grand National Consolidated Trade Union meant the end of revolutionary trade unionism. Faced with these experiences, the working class increasingly turned once more towards the political front to resolve its problems, but on a far higher level than ever before. Trade unionists, blooded in the class struggle, entered the revolutionary and heroic ranks of Chartism (1837-48). It is no accident that militant textile factory workers and mineworkers provided the shock troops of the Chartist movement. Although Char tism falls outside the direct history of trade unionism, its fate was certainly. For the first time, the British workers entered the stage of history as an independent political force, as a “class for-itself”. Chartism constituted the first working class political party in history, the first in the world. The struggle for the Charter involved a complete spectrum of action: mass petitions, mass demonstrations, lobbies, general strikes, and even armed insurrection. It was the most militant and class-conscious movement in British history. In the words of the great Chartist George Julian Harney: “Let the one universal rallying cry, from the Firth of Forth to the Land’s End, be EQUALITY OR DEATH.”

After 1832 the British ruling class, which dominated world trade and world production, exuded great confidence in its future. It was their hay-day and the pinnacle of the British Century. However, this ringing of bells, to quote Horace Walpole, would soon turn into a wringing of hands at the spectre of revolutionary Chartism. The shift towards independent working class politics served to transform the political landscape. For the first time in history the British working class stood defiantly on its own two feet.


[1] Marx & Engels, op.cit, p.252

[2] Ibid, p.260

[3] Ibid, p.254

[4] Cole & Postgate, op. cit, p.248

[5] Eric Hobsbawn and George Rudé, Captain Swing, p.225, London 1973

[6] Trotsky, On Britain, p.121, New York 1973

[7] Quoted in Cole and Filson, p.231

[8] True Sun, 30th December 1833

[9] Quoted in Hammond, The Bleak Age, p.114, London 1947

Breaking the yoke

Rise from your slumber!
O! Rise from your sleep!
Millions in number,
Why crouch ye and weep?
England is waiting ye; tyranny flies;
Hark! Hark! To the summons, awake and arise!

The Northern Star, June 1843

The “Great Betrayal” of 1832, with the connivance of the middle-class radicals, created a widespread revulsion within the disenfranchised working class. Four years later, after the death of William Cobbett and Henry Hunt, new men came forward in the vital struggle for working-class political rights, above all for adult male suffrage. Henry Hetherington, John Gast, William Lovett, Julian Harney and other skilled craftsmen founded the London Working Men’s Association in June 1836. Along with the bourgeois reformer Francis Place and other Radicals, they drew up a “People’s Charter” for a new reform movement that was to change the course of history.

This was followed by another meeting, this time a mass meeting in the Strand, London, in February 1837, attended by some 4,000 supporters, which proceeded to draw up a petition based on the Charter. Similar associations sprung up throughout the country and became the foundation stones upon which the epic Chartist movement was built. This was to prove another watershed in the history of the British labour movement, the beginning of independent working class action. “Men of the East and West, men of the North and South, your success lies with yourselves, depends upon yourselves alone…” stated The London Democrat, the paper of Henry Hetherington, and organ of the Chartist Association.

The Charter contained six essential points, outlined below from a handbill issued in June 1837. While today such demands seem far from revolutionary, at the time they sent palpitations through the ruling class:

1. A vote for every man twenty-one years of age, of sound mind, and not undergoing punishment for crime.
2. THE BALLOT – To protect the elector in the exercise of his vote.
3. NO PROPERTY QUALIFICATION for members of Parliament – thus enabling the constituencies to return the man of their choice, be he rich or poor.
4. PAYMENT OF MEMBERS, thus enabling an honest tradesman, working man, or other person, to serve a constituency, when taken from his business to attend to the interests of the country.
5. EQUAL CONSTITUENCIES, securing the same amount of representation for the same number of electors, – instead of allowing small constituencies to swamp the votes of larger ones.
6. ANNUAL PARLIAMENTS, thus presenting the most effectual check to bribery and intimidation, since though a constituency might be bought once in seven years (even with the ballot), no purse could buy a constituency (under a system of universal suffrage) in each ensuing twelvemonth; and since members, when elected for a year only, would not be able to defy and betray their constituents as now.[1]

The membership of the movement was originally made up in large measure of skilled artisans, who were by no means free from the influence of middle-class ideology. In its formative stages, middle-class radicals, who regarded Chartism as little more than a pressure group, dominated its higher levels. Despite this, the Charter constituted a programme of fundamental political change that would open a new future of working-class hope. It became a catalyst for the mass discontent that existed in society. Within a few years, the class composition had radically changed. Given the hostility of Tories and Whigs alike, the Chartist movement quickly attracted wide-scale support amongst working people. The “Cause” blazed a trail across the country as the word spread and took root in the hearts and minds of the most oppressed layers. With the break-up of the national trade unions a whole layer of activists were attracted to Chartism. Men like Thomas Hepburn, the miners’ leader, took their talents into the Chartist movement. Others, like the powerful orator, Feargus O’Connor, who became its most popular mass leader, were also drawn to its cause.

Already in the North of England, a huge movement was swelling up against the new Poor Law, against child labour and in support of new factory legislation. Giant meetings were held everywhere. For instance, a meeting in the West Riding in May 1837 was attended by 250,000 people to hear the leaders, Richard Oastler and the fiery Reverend Stephens. These figures had courageously broken from their upper-class Tory background and had come over to the standpoint of the proletariat. As such they were hated by the bourgeoisie, but worshipped by the workers. Oastler was affectionately known as “the king of the factory children”. While the Reverend Stephens proclaimed that the ownership deeds of every mill were “written in letters of blood on every brick and stone in the factory.”

The London Working Men’s Association, together with the Birmingham Political Union, the Northern Union and the London Democratic Association joined forces to rally support for a Chartist Petition. This was to be presented to Parliament by a delegate Convention, due to meet in London in early 1839. It was to bring together the seething discontent that was rife in all the industrial areas of Britain. The adoption of the term “Convention” was deliberately taken from the French Revolution and was regarded by many as a legitimate alternative parliament to the corrupt House of Commons.

“How can we emancipate ourselves from this state political bondage? Not by pandering to the fears of that timid and irresolute class of politicians who have lately appeared among the Radical ranks, not by relying on the dastardly Whigs, not by placing faith in the tyrannical Tories, but by full reliance on our own strength, upon the inherent justice of our claims”, stated a rank-and-file Chartist.

However, before the Chartist Convention took place, sharp differences emerged over how the aims of the Charter would be achieved. These divisions, essentially between the old leadership and its new-found mass base, were between the supporters of “moral force” and those of “physical force”. The former insisted that the Convention was no more than a constitutional body with the task of presenting the Charter to the Whig government by moral persuasion, whereas the “physical force” school regarded it as a rival form of government, and a dire threat to the Old Order. The Northern Chartists, based upon the downtrodden proletariat, were especially enthusiastic supporters of “physical force” Chartism.

The supporters of “moral force” tended to be more respectable, middle class and artisan in composition. They tended to regard the Chartist movement in terms of the workers and middle class against the ruling Oligarchy. In contrast, the “physical force” supporters tended to be drawn from working-class factory areas, especially in Yorkshire and Lancashire, and were prepared to overthrow the government with arms if need be. What on the surface appeared as a personal struggle between the Chartist leaders William Lovett and Feargus O’Connor was at bottom a class issue.

“If peace gives law, then I am for order; but if peace giveth not law, then I am for war to the knife”, stated O’Connor. The movement was in fact divided between a right wing (Lovett and the leaders of the London Association), a centrist wing (O’Connor), and a left wing (Julian Harney and Ernest Jones). The unity of the movement, however, was centred on the compromise formula, “peacefully if we may, forcibly if we must.”

A Convention was to be elected to present a petition to Parliament, which, if it should this fail, would be met with a general strike, lasting a month (the “sacred month”), to bring the government to its knees.

Throughout 1838 huge meetings were held throughout the country, often by torchlight, which selected delegates for the Convention. It looked as if the whole country had lined up behind the Charter. Intermingled with Chartist agitation was mass heightened opposition to the wretched New Poor Law.

The Convention eventually assembled in London in February 1839 amid wild enthusiasm, and adopted, among other things, a resolution establishing “the right of the people of this country to possess arms”, and to turn their back on “the hypocritical Whigs and the tyrannical Tories”. The Chartist Petition was launched with a series of demonstrations and rallies before the Convention moved to Birmingham. On 21 May, more than 200,000 persons took part in a monster demonstration in Glasgow, followed by mass meetings in Newcastle (80,000), Birmingham (200,000), Manchester (300,000), Bradford (100,000), Sheffield, Bristol and London. Every political union or club and all trade organisations, with their banners, took part in these huge demonstrations.

In July, an enormous national Petition containing 1,280,000 signatures was presented to Parliament. During the debate, Lord John Russell warned that the adoption of the Charter would mean the confiscation of all private property. As expected, a hostile House of Commons overwhelmingly rejected the Petition by 46 votes to 235 votes. On receiving the news, opinion within the Chartist Convention quickly shifted towards the supporters of “physical force”. The delegates then set a date of 12 August for a general strike to secure their demands. Consequently, an appeal was launched calling on trade unions to “co-operate as united bodies with their more distressed brethren in making a grand moral demonstration on the 12th.” However, there were major difficulties in achieving these aims. The Convention itself recognised that “desertion, absence, and arbitrary arrests” had depleted their ranks, and there were divisions over the practicality of the strike given the growing unemployment and distress at the time. In the end, these deficiencies proved insurmountable and the Convention decided unanimously to temporarily “abandon the project of a sacred month”. This retreat served to embolden the government, which swiftly stepped in and arrested 130 Chartist leaders.

The Newport Rising

Despite the repression, agitation rapidly took hold within the Chartist rank and file for the organisation not of a general strike, but of an insurrection centred in Wales and Yorkshire, the strongholds of “physical force” Chartism. Arms were acquired and secret meetings of those who had survived the Convention were held to prepare the rebellion. A Bolton magistrate reported, “…a large number of pikes was in the course of being manufactured in the towns.” From the Liverpool Assizes a witness reported:

“… they formed themselves into squads… there were three squads and about thirty or forty in a squad… the men went through what [the] witness who has been a soldier calls facings… they formed sections and marched in line across the field and wheeled to the right and marched forward and wheeled again both right and left.”[2]

The Chartist leader Peter Bussey from Bradford urged, that

“every man before him should be in possession of a musket, which was a necessary article that ought to provide part of the furniture of every man’s house. And every man ought to know well the use of it, that he may use it effectively when the time arrives that requires him to put it into operation. . .”[3]

A certain Ben Wilson obtained a gun and joined the “physical force” Chartists, while his friend, also a “physical force” man, was busy moulding bullets in his cellar.[4] Insurrection was on the order of the day. However, insurrection is an art, to quote Marx. A serious business, that should not to be trifled with. “Never play with insurrection”, wrote Lenin in 1917, some months before the successful Bolshevik insurrection.

The industrial valleys of South Wales were a hotbed of Chartism. In May 1839, the first “Rebecca Riots” broke out, where mobs of workers, with blackened faces and dressed in women’s clothes, destroyed the hated road tollgates. “Rebecca” and her daughters probably originate from a reference in Genesis 24:60, a verse which states that the seeds of Rebecca will inherit the gates of those that hate her. The destruction of tollgates, which lasted until the end of 1844, symbolised a more general revolt against the heavy burden of rents, rates and tithes that bore down on the already oppressed population. “The South Wales coalfield”, said Home Secretary Viscount Melbourne, “is the most terrifying part of the kingdom.” The feeling of revolt was everywhere. The arrest of Henry Vincent, a leading Chartist, served to galvanise the movement of discontent. Amongst the Chartists, military preparations reached a fever pitch, with drilling and the rehearsal of tactics taking place by night. Following the rejection of the Charter by Parliament, the South Wales Chartist leader John Frost, who was in contact with the “physical force” leaders, Julian Harney, Peter Bussey, and Dr. John Taylor, decided to take the initiative into his hands.

On 3 November 1839, Frost commanded three divisions, which planned to march on Newport, rescue Henry Vincent from Newport prison and seize the town. Frost organised his men, spear-headed by some 20,000 colliers, into brigades, companies and units. Armed with guns, muskets, pistols, coal mandrills and clubs, they marched on Newport. What was planned was a large-scale insurrection that was to spread throughout the land. Zephania Williams planned to set up a British Republic, while others believed in a Chartist Executive Government of England, with Frost as president. However, the insurrectionists found themselves isolated when the “physical force” Chartists in the north of the country – due to a lack of serious preparation – failed to respond. Revolts later broke out in Sheffield and Bradford, but remained isolated. The inevitable bloody encounter with government troops in the Westgate Hotel in Newport ended in a bloodbath, with 30 dead, and the arrest of the South Wales leadership. Among them, John Frost, Zephaniah Williams and William Jones were tried and sentenced to death by hanging. Courageous men, they did not flinch. They were all prepared to die for the Charter. George Shell, a 19-year old who was shot dead at Westgate, wrote a note to his parents before he joined the insurrection:

“I shall this night be engaged in a struggle for freedom, and should it please God to spare my life I shall see you soon; but if not, grieve not for me, I shall fall in a noble cause. My tools are at Mr Cecil’s, and likewise my clothes.”

After mass protests, involving a petition signed by two million people, their sentences were commuted to transportation for life to Van Diemen’s Land. Nevertheless, wholesale arrests followed which served to decapitate the Chartist movement. By the end of June 1840, at least 500 Chartists were incarcerated in prison in the most terrible conditions imaginable. Had the revolt succeeded, it is likely that it would have sparked other uprisings, as can be judged from the abortive risings in Sheffield and Bradford the following month. The unsuccessful heroic uprising in Newport served to mark the end of the first phase of Chartism.

With the eventual release from prison of Feargus O’Connor and other leaders, the agitation for the Charter was revived once more. Both Lovett and O’Brien now favoured an alliance with middle-class Free Traders who also desired a broader franchise. But O’Connor, who spoke for the mass of Chartists, forcefully opposed them and their proposed alliance. After the bitter lesson of 1832, the majority refused all co-operation with the middle-class radicals who had cheated them out of the vote.

“Our movement is a labour movement, originated in first instance by the fustian jackets, the blistered hands and the unshorn chins,” stated Feargus O’Connor. The proletarian character of the Chartists was further reinforced in 1840 with the formation of National Charter Association (NCA). At this point, the Chartist movement established itself as a working class political party – the first of its kind in history – with national rules and constitution. Prior to the formation of the National Association, Chartist bodies had been of a purely localised character. Now a national body, the NCA reached a total of 40,000 members, paying two pence a quarter, and organised in hundreds of branches all over the country.

“The agitation of Chartism,” wrote the Newcastle Journal, clearly displaying its upper class hatred for the movement, “brought to the surface of society a great deal of scum that usually putrefies in obscurity below.”[5]

Chartism, primarily a conscious class movement, drew towards itself all the separate progressive movements within the working class. According to the historian Max Beer, “the expressions Chartist, Socialist, trade unionist and working man were synonymous terms.” Chartism became closely related to the mass struggles against the New Poor Law, the Ten-Hour Bill movement, as well as to the trade unions. In contrast, the Chartists were very hostile to the Anti-Corn Law League, regarding it correctly as a false friend of the workers.

“Chartism is essentially social in nature, a class movement”, wrote Engels. “The “Six Points’ which for the radical bourgeois are the beginning and end of the matter… are for the proletarian a mere means to further ends. “Political power our means, social happiness our end,’ is now the clearly formulated war-cry of the Chartists.”

The working class certainly did not regard the Charter as an end in itself, but rather as a means to an end. Although it did not contain any distinct working-class social or economic demands, it was perfectly clear what they wanted. This was ably expressed in the words of the Rev. J.R. Stephens, who was greatly admired by the workers for his caustic attacks on the factory system:

“Chartism, my friends, is no political movement where the main point is your getting the ballot. Chartism is a knife and fork question: the Charter means a good house, good food and drink, prosperity, and short working hours.”

The working class Chartists believed that the six points would give them not only political equality, but economic and social equality. Without doubt, they saw it as a key to a new egalitarian society.

“These six points, which are all limited to the reconstitution of the House of Commons, harmless as they seem, are sufficient to overthrow the whole English Constitution, Queen and Lords included”, stated Engels.[6]

Marx also emphasised that at that time:

“universal suffrage is the equivalent for political power for the working class of England, where the proletariat form the large majority of the population, where, in a long, though underground civil war, it has gained a clear consciousness of its position as a class… The carrying of universal suffrage in England would, therefore, be a far more socialistic measure than anything which has been honoured with that name on the Continent. Its inevitable result here is the political supremacy of the working class.”[7]

In 1842, a new Convention met and launched a further Petition, gaining over three million signatures. When laid out end to end the Petition was said to be three miles long. This time its rejection by Parliament (by 287 votes to 49) sparked off a new movement that spilled over onto the industrial front. The specific economic demands adopted by the second Petition served to draw the trade unions closer to the cause of the Charter. Meeting after meeting resolved that “all labour should cease until the People’s Charter became the law of the land.” A storm of unrest broke out in the summer of 1842, which started among the Lancashire cotton spinners, spread to the Midlands and even to Wales and northwards into Scotland. It was called the “Plug Plot”, because in the factory areas the strikers marched from factory to factory, removing the boiler plugs in order to bring the steam engines to a standstill. The ironworkers and coal miners of Lancashire, the Potteries and Staffordshire took action. Huge demonstrations of the unemployed were organised in Glasgow. Strikes then spread to the textile workers of Lancashire and Yorkshire. The movement snowballed into a general strike – the first modern general strike in history – where the economic demands were entwined with support for the Charter.

The “Plug Plot”

For over 50 miles around Manchester, the second largest city after London, everything came to a complete standstill. The real initiative for linking the strikes to the Charter was largely the work of local activists. On 7 August a huge workers’ Assembly decided not to resume work until the People’s Charter was realised. A delegate meeting of Manchester trades put out the call:

“we most solemnly pledge ourselves to persevere in our exertions until we achieve the complete emancipation of our brethren of the working classes from the thraldom of monopoly and class legislation by the legal establishment of the People’s Charter. The trades of Great Britain carried the Reform Bill. The trades of Great Britain shall carry the Charter.”

Typically, the middle class Chartists were distinctly hostile to the trade unions, fearing such organisations would repel their middle and upper-class allies.

In effect, the leadership of the struggle for the Charter had fallen to the trade unions. The Chartist political leadership were completely taken by surprise by this turn of events. When the time came, they were found lacking. Even its left wing, in the person of Harney, opposed turning the 1842 general strike into an insurrection. In the end, they had no alternative but to support the strike:

“Whilst the Chartist body did not originate the present cessation from labour, the conference of delegates from various parts of England express their deep sympathy with their constituents, the working men now on strike, and that we strongly approve of the extension and continuance of the present struggle till the People’s Charter becomes a legislative enactment...”[8]

Women workers, who constituted a significant part of the workforce at this time, also played a prominent part in the movement. They turned out from the mills in their thousands to rally to the Chartist cause. The first female Charter Association was established in Birmingham in 1838, with a membership reaching 1,300. More than 100 women’s associations were established in the early years of the Chartist movement, and played their full role, along side their men folk, in drilling and military affairs. “Women can no longer remain in her domestic sphere, for her home has been made cheerless, her hearth comfortless, and her position degrading”, stated a resolution from the women Chartists of Bethnal Green.

“Women’s circle has been invaded by hired bands of police ruffians – her husband dragged from her side to the gloom of a dungeon – and her children trampled under foot – and this, for no other crime than that Labour cried for its rights, and Justice for its due.”[9]

A further call was issued to turn the “Plug Plot” general strike into a general uprising. But without clear and effective leadership the general strike, let alone an uprising, was doomed from the start. This was again a reflection of its political immaturity. The Chartist leadership proved unable to direct the spontaneous movement of the working class into conscious revolutionary channels. Trade was very bad, and with depleted resources and government repression, the hungry strikers drifted back to work. “So deep was the distress, so universal the hunger, that they had to eat the dead carcasses of cows dug up after they were buried”, stated William Beesley.[10] Then, as support for the strike began to wane, the government stepped in to crush the movement – arresting practically the entire Chartist leadership. In all, fifteen hundred arrests took place, of whom, 200 were transported to Australia and Tasmania.

The ruling class regarded the situation in the gravest terms possible. Some years later, Sir James Graham, the Home Secretary, remarked:

“We had the painful and lamentable experience of 1842 – a year of the greatest distress, and now that it is passed, I may say, of the utmost danger . . . We had in this metropolis, at midnight, Chartist meetings assembled in Lincoln’s Inn Fields. Immense masses of people, greatly discontented and acting in a spirit dangerous to the public peace. . . . What was the condition of Lancashire ? . . . All the machinery was stopped. . . For some time troops were continually called on, in different parts of the manufacturing districts, to maintain public tranquillity. . . For three months the anxiety which I and my colleagues experienced was greater than we ever felt before with reference to public affairs.”[11]

The defeat of the general strike – and with it the insurrection – dealt the Chartist movement a heavy blow. The failure was primarily due to the lack of clearly defined objectives. There was considerable confusion, which again reflected the immaturity of the movement as well as its leadership. According to Engels,

“The thing had begun without the working men having any distinct end in view, for which reason they were all united in the determination not to be shot at for the benefit of the Corn Law repealing bourgeoisie. For the rest, some wanted to carry the Charter, others who thought this premature wished merely to secure the wages rate of 1840. On this point the whole insurrection was wrecked. If it had been from the beginning an intentional, determined workingmen’s insurrection, it would surely have carried its point.”

Many activists, disappointed by the Charter’s failure, turned once more from politics to trade unionism. In 1842, the Miners Association of Great Britain and Ireland was founded, in which the Chartist leaders – O’Connor and Duncombe – played a prominent role. Chartism provided, through its own activities, a training-ground where most of those who were later to become miners’ leaders gained their first knowledge and experience. As a result, it became difficult to find any prominent union member who did not have, at some time or other, Chartist connections.

New union organisations sprang up in the 1840s – the Potters’ Union (1843), the Cotton Spinners Association (1843) and the National Typographical Association (1845). Also in that year a new general organisation was founded, for the first time in a decade – the National Association of United Trades (NAUT) – that became a focal point for the smaller and less well organised trades. Unfortunately, as soon as it came into existence, a deep slump provoked a series of lockouts, which depleted its funds and brought the union near to collapse. Interestingly, these difficulties faced by the union raised the need for political action. The NAUT deserves to be remembered as the first trade union body to suggest the creation of a working-class party based upon the trade unions. But it would take a further fifty years before this idea was brought fully to fruition.

A further attempt was made to revive the Chartist cause with a fresh Convention in 1845, but the movement had effectively run out of steam. A new recruit, Ernest Jones, became O’Connor’s right-hand man, and attempted to keep the organisation going. But other causes, such as the Anti-Corn Law League and the Ten Hours Committees, sapped the movement’s strength.

The Demise

The last great struggle of Chartism took place in 1848, the year of the revolutionary movements across Europe, from which it took tremendous inspiration. “We are sleeping on a volcano”, stated the French thinker Alexis de Tocqueville. Within a matter of weeks the French monarchy was overthrown by insurrection and the Republic declared. One by one the monarchies of Europe were overthrown by popular insurrections and the proletarian “mob”. A revolutionary wave was sweeping throughout Europe, casting an ice-cold chill down the spine of the British bourgeoisie. It can be said that 1848 was the most revolutionary year of the nineteenth century.

Feeling revolutionary change in the air, Julian Harney wrote in his Red Republican: “Every proletarian who does not see and feel that he belongs to an enslaved and degraded class is a fool.” Ernest Jones, Chartist leader, orator and writer, wrote,

“an amalgamation of classes is impossible… these two portions of the community must be separated distinctly, decidedly and openly from each other, CLASS AGAINST CLASS. All other mode of procedure is mere moonshine.”

O’Connor even went so far as to draft a constitution of the British Republic, with himself as President! Mass Chartist meetings were being organised in Macclesfield, Leeds, Oldham, Sheffield and elsewhere. A Chartist Convention was called in April, and nearly two million signatures were collected for another petition, although a number proved bogus. Despite inadequate preparation from the Chartist leadership and government decisiveness, some 150,000 or so turned out for a demonstration in London. But the capital itself had been turned into an armed encampment. Mass arrests quickly followed, including that of Ernest Jones. A number of those arrested were to perish in the hellish conditions of prison. From that moment, the great Chartist movement entered into a terminal decline, from which it never recovered. It was, however, a truly heroic movement that changed the course of working-class history.

With the demise of Chartism and the defeat of the revolutions in Europe, capitalism began a long period of ascent. The productive forces developed at break-neck speed as markets were opened up and new areas of exploitation were discovered. Capitalism had brought into being a world market, the hallmark of “globalisation”. This development produced a prolonged period of relative social stability, where the relations between the classes were softened. Marx and Engels, who had originally hoped the German bourgeois revolution of 1848 would become a prelude to a proletarian revolution, had miscalculated the tempo of events. In hindsight, they had underestimated the future possibilities latent in capitalism, which at this time were far from exhausted. They had also overestimated the revolutionary maturity of the working class. In essence, Marx and Engels had mistaken the birth-pains of capitalism for the death-agony of capitalism. While they made a mistake, this was an error of timing and not of method.

Their whole revolutionary outlook, summed up in their Communist Manifesto, written in early 1848, was the most far-sighted of documents. Despite the sneering of their bourgeois critics, Marx and Engels saw into the future far further than any of their contemporaries. The Manifesto remains a profound piece of writing, in an amazingly small amount of words, which provides a brilliant analysis of capitalism and the historic role of the working class. “A spectre is haunting Europe – the spectre of Communism. All the Powers of old Europe have entered into a holy alliance to exorcise this spectre: Pope and Tsar, Metternich and Guizot, French Radicals and German police spies”, thunders the opening words of the Manifesto. It continues in its profound analysis: “The history of all hitherto existing societies is the history of class struggle.” It would be true to say that the Communist Manifesto is even more relevant today than when it first appeared in 1848. It is not an abstract commentary, but a call to action, not a textbook but a programme for the launching of a revolutionary party of the working class. “Let the ruling classes tremble at a communist revolution. The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win.”

The bourgeoisie was forced to grant concessions to the working class in response to the revolutionary wave in Europe. They had little choice: either grant reforms from above or be faced with possible revolutionary overthrow from below. As a consequence, the Corn Laws were repealed, the Ten Hour Bill was passed, and new factory legislation enacted. These measures were a by-product of the revolutionary struggles of the European masses, from which the British working class benefited. However, it would be wrong to reduce such events simply to foreign influence. The revolutionary fires of Chartism had also had their effect on the psychology of the ruling class.

“The working class of Great Britain for years fought ardently and even violently for the People’s Charter…” stated Engels, “it was defeated but the struggle had made such an impression upon the victorious middle class that this class, since then, was only too glad to buy prolonged armistice at the price of ever-repeated concessions to the working people.”

The British ruling class, unlike its European counterpart, managed to the escape the upheaval of revolution. The support for Chartism gradually waned. The economic revival and the greater prosperity that accompanied the boom put the last nail, at least temporarily, in the coffin of this great proletarian movement – the first in history, but certainly not the last.

“The era of Chartism is immortal in that over the course of a decade it gives us in condensed and diagrammatic form the whole gamut of proletarian struggle – from petitions in parliament to armed insurrection”, remarked Trotsky in 1925.

“All the fundamental problems of the class movement of the proletariat – the inter-relation between parliamentary and extra-parliamentary activity, the role of universal suffrage, trade unions and co-operation, the significance of the general strike and its relation to armed insurrection, even the inter-relation between the proletariat and the peasantry – were not only crystallised out of the progress of the Chartist mass movement but found in it their principled answer. Theoretically this answer was far from always irreproachable in its basis, the conclusions were not always fully drawn and in all the movement as a whole and its theoretical expression there was much that was immature and unfinished. Nonetheless the revolutionary slogans and methods of Chartism are even today, if critically dissected, infinitely higher than the sickly sweet eclecticism of the MacDonalds and the economic obtuseness of the Webbs. To use a hazardous comparison then, it can be said that the Chartist movement resembles a prelude which contains in an undeveloped form the musical theme of the whole opera. In this sense the British working class can and must see in Chartism not only its past but also its future. As the Chartists tossed the sentimental preachers of “moral force’ aside and gathered the masses behind the banner of revolution so the British proletariat is faced with ejecting reformists, democrats and pacifists from its midst and rallying to the banner of a revolutionary overturn. Chartism did not win a victory not because its methods were incorrect but because it appeared too soon. It was only an historical anticipation… Chartism is not at all liquidated. History is liquidating Liberalism and prepares to liquidate the pseudo-Labour pacifism precisely so as to give a second birth to Chartism on new, immeasurably broader historical foundations. That is where you have the real national tradition of the British labour movement!”[12]

The defeat of Chartism, however, marked the opening up of a new “Golden Age” of British capitalism, epitomised by the Great Exhibition of 1851. The repeal of the Corn Laws ushered in the period of free trade, where laissez-faire became the dominant outlook of the British bourgeois.

“The manufacturing industry of England may be fairly computed as four times greater than that of all the other continents taken collectively, and sixteen such continents as Europe could manufacture so much cotton as England does…” stated a Conservative publicist.[13]

At this time, the enormous development of British industry was bringing about a division in outlook between the skilled and unskilled workers, and systematically cultivated by the ruling class. Whereas Chartism represented a movement of the whole class, the developments after 1850 epitomised the struggle of sectional interests – primarily the skilled workers. The objective of the trade union movement became, as Engels explained, “not to alter the system, but rather to perpetuate it by rendering it more tolerable. Rather than continue the glorious traditions of the Chartists, the “labour leaders’ preferred to deal with their aristocratic friends and be “respectable”.”


[1] Quoted in Cole and Filson, op. cit, p.352

[2] Quoted in Mark O’Brien, Perish the Privileged Orders, p.30-31, London, 1995

[3] The Early Chartists, edited by Dorothy Thompson, London, 1971, p.19

[4] Ibid, p.4

[5] Newcastle Journal, August 20, 1842

[6] Marx and Engels, op. cit, p.264

[7] New York Tribune, 25 August 1852

[8] The Northern Star, August 20, 1842

[9] Quoted by O’Brien, op. cit, p.47

[10] Quoted in Challinor and Ripley, op. cit, p.27, London 1968

[11] Quoted in Alan Hutt, This Final Crisis, p.53, London 1936

[12] Trotsky, Writings on Britain, vol.2, pp.93-94

[13] Ibid, p.7

The “Pompous Trades”

Lads unite to better your
When eggs are scarce,
eggs are dear;
When men are scarce,
men are dear.


The collapse of Chartism opened up new problems for the British working class. For more than a decade, a significant layer of workers had broken with the parties of property and privilege, the Tories and Whigs, and had taken the revolutionary step in creating the first independent workers’ party in history. The demise of the Chartist movement marked a decisive break in this development. For the next twenty-five years, the labour movement was dominated by a radically different outlook, that of the “pompous trades and proud mechanics”, to use the words of Feargus O’Connor. “Defence not Defiance” became the motto of the skilled craft unions that now sprung up. But a defence, not of the workers as a whole, but of vested sectional interests, combined with a conscious policy of working within the parameters of the capitalist system. This was in stark contrast to the Owenite unions of the 1830s.

This abandonment of revolutionary trade unionism was no mere aberration or accident. The basis for this profound change was rooted in the spectacular development and growth of British capitalism and its all-embracing domination of the world market. The nineteenth century was the British Century, in the same way as the twentieth was the American. By the end of the Forties, the triumph of free trade pursued by the British ruling class permitted an unlimited expansion of its commerce, wealth and power. With its world-class navy, Britain ruled the waves unhindered and unchallenged. The rate of profit of British industry in these years was not of the level of five or ten per cent, but thousands of percent. During the 1850s and 1860s, Britain constructed the vast majority of the world’s railways, which served to create an ever-expanding market for its heavy industry. The governments of Peel and Gladstone championed a vigorous imperialist foreign and trade policy, where “trade followed the flag”. As a consequence, British exports went to every corner of the globe. It was the “Golden Age” of British capitalism. It was her epoch of wealth, glory and Empire. The poet Byron aptly described Britain’s aggressive imperialism with the words:

How all the nations deem her their worst foe,
That worse than worst of foes, the once adored
False friend, who held out freedom to mankind,
And now would chain them, to the very mind.

Ever since the introduction of the Corn Laws in 1815, repeal had long been the hue and cry of the manufacturers. Of course, this had nothing to do with the plight of the working class, and everything to do with the size of their wallets. They wanted to cut the price of corn, so as to cut the price of bread, and thus reduce wage costs.

“Well, we admit”, stated a Free Trader, “that competition among the workers, which will certainly not have diminished under free trade, will very soon bring wages into harmony with the low price of commodities”.[1]

The Anti-Corn Law League, led by William Cobden and John Bright, was launched for this purpose, but suitably cloaked, as always, in the phraseology of the “national interest”. But the working class, as Marx explained, had interest in neither free trade nor protectionism, which were head and tail of the same coin. In fact, Marx described the Anti-Corn Law League’s leaders as the “worst enemies” of the working class. The Liberal Cobden related on one occasion that he would sooner live under the dictatorial rule of the Bey of Algiers than under the rule of the trade unions. However, the worker has no such choice. The working class has a perpetual “Bey of Algiers” hanging over them in the form of the money-grabbing employer. This tyranny cannot be undermined or alleviated other than by trade union organisation and defence.

“If the landlords were to sell our bones,” said a worker at a Free Trade meeting, “you manufacturers would be the first to buy them in order to put them through a steam-mill and make flour of them.”

The Great Exhibition of 1851 epitomised Britain’s colossal industrial superiority. The ruling class exuded confidence in itself and in its system. From the middle of the century onwards, Britain had became the classical “workshop of the world”. The urban population had swollen beyond all recognition, with only about 18 per cent of the population still engaged in agriculture. Britain’s advanced technique made her the industrial school for Europe and America. However, the laws of uneven and combined development would give great advantage to both American and Europe, which were rapidly catching up. Britain’s competitors did not have to go through the exact same steps of capitalist development. They could simply assimilate the best that she could offer, then refine and develop it still further. Nevertheless, being at the height of her economic, political and military power, in the language of coal, pig iron, steel, railways and steam power, British capitalism towered like a colossus over her contemporary rivals.

Britain’s industrial monopoly, together with her Empire, produced super profits for the ruling class, which were then used, like crumbs off the rich man’s table, to grant concessions to the upper layers of the working class. This encouraged a tactic of “divide and rule”, which had been perfected by British imperialism abroad, and was now used to sow divisions at home within the working class. These concessions were to include the introduction of the Ten Hour Act in 1847 – “the first great victory of the political economy of labour over the political economy of capital”, wrote Marx – which enormously benefited the workers, especially the skilled artisans. However, this policy in turn served to cultivate an “aristocracy of labour”, standing apart from the great mass of unskilled workers. This privileged layer, which earned reasonably good wages compared to the general population, developed a more conservative disposition that fitted well with its newfound social position. In the realm of politics, these privileged workers tended to support alliances with the liberal bourgeoisie and spurned suggestions of class struggle or class independence. This “aristocracy of labour” was cosseted in narrow, newly established craft unions, very different from the radical trade unions of the earlier period.

Both Marx and Engels, who lived in England, recognised this conservative characteristic of these “aristocratic” layers. In a letter to Marx in 1858, Engels observed:

“The English proletariat is actually becoming more and more bourgeois, so that this most bourgeois of all nations is apparently aiming ultimately at the possession of a bourgeois aristocracy and a bourgeois proletariat alongside the bourgeoisie. For a nation which exploits the whole world this is of course to a certain extent justified.” He also noted in parentheses, “With the break-down of that [England’s industrial] monopoly, the English working class will lose that privileged position…”

New Model Unions

These upper echelons of the working class saw their interests reflected in the “new model unions”, to use the phrase of Sidney and Beatrice Webb. These unions were epitomised by the Amalgamated Society of Engineers (ASE), an amalgamation of a number of local craft societies, established in January 1851. The ASE was founded by William Newton and William Allan, and became the prototype of new model unionism, setting a new standard of stability with its high contributions and benefits, centralisation of control, and class collaborationist policy. In effect, they adopted a combination of trade union and Friendly Society functions, mostly the latter, which marked a clear break from the earlier “schools of war”.

With this new-found stability and resources came a professional apparatus and functionaries. Their high union dues allowed them to pay for a firm centralised organisation run by full-time officials. While this constituted a colossal advance in terms of organisation, these officials tended to be of a very moderate disposition. Unlike the working-class giants, such as Owen, Penderryn or Docherty, a different type of individual rose to prominence in the union movement. They had a different character that reflected, and was more suited, to the changed times. A layer of conservative-minded officials and opportunist negotiators, concerned increasingly with day-to-day issues and piecemeal reforms, took charge of the new unions. In contrast to the all-embracing unions of the 1830s, their outlook and policies were fundamentally different, the forerunners of present-day “New Realism” and class collaboration.

“We believe”, stated William Allan to a Royal Commission, “all strikes are a complete waste of money, not only in relation to the workers, but also to the employers.” How little the right wing philosophy has changed! Such language could easily have come from the lips of Sir Ken Jackson or Eric Hammond. Ever keen to condemn militant action and industrial confrontation, these new model union leaders sought close co-operation with the employers. They were content to simply ask for no more than a “fair share” from the bosses’ expanding profits. As opposed to strikes and the class struggle, they favoured arbitration and consensus. They increasingly handled a series of “friendly benefits”, such as unemployment, sickness, accident and death allowances. On the trade union front, to protect their sectional membership, they attempted to restrict the supply of labour into the trades. Meanwhile, the mass of unskilled workers was simply left to the mercy of the employers, as they were regarded with typical craft snobbery as “beyond the pale” of trade unionism and organisation.

The respectable Amalgamated Society of Carpenters and Joiners, eager to promote arbitration and conciliation, urged its members to “become respectful and respected.” The Flint Glass-Makers’ Magazine told its readers to “get intelligence instead of alcohol – it is sweeter and more lasting.” The virtues that the unions now extolled were prudence, temperance, enlightenment and respectability. Other publications put the same arguments, but more crudely. As a verse in Songs For English Workmen To Sing, published in 1867 illustrates:

Work, boys, work and be contented
So long as you’ve enough to buy a meal;
The man, you may rely,
Will be wealthy by and by
If he’ll only put his shoulders to the wheel.

The respectable leadership of these “model” unions was known as “the Junta”. These included a number of general secretaries such as William Allan (Engineers), Robert Applegrath (Carpenters and Joiners), Daniel Guile (Ironfounders), Edwin Coulson (Bricklayers) and George Odger (Ladies’ Shoemakers). They regarded themselves as administrators rather than trade union agitators, and, for the first time, took on the social character of a trade union bureaucracy. In this light, the employers used a different, subtler approach to ensnare them in a “common bond” between labour and capital. They were cultivated and groomed by the capitalist Establishment and made to feel very important and respectable. Of course, these trade union leaders were willing partners in this charade. “The chairmen and secretaries of trade unions and political workingmen’s societies, as well as other well-known labour spokesmen who might be expected to be influential in their class, had overnight become important people”, noted Engels. “They were visited by Members of Parliament, by Lords and other well-born rabble, and sympathetic enquiry was suddenly made into the wishes and needs of the working class.”[2]

Despite the efforts and intentions of their “moderate” leaders, the new model unions could not abolish the class struggle or prevent the growth of strikes. After all, strikes are caused not by agitators, but by social conditions. Within a year of the founding of the ASE, the union was faced by a series of lockouts in its chief strongholds of London and Lancashire over the introduction of shorter working hours (part of the Nine Hours Movement). The employers accused the Society of attempting to “interfere with management” by placing a ban on overtime and changing the forms of piecework prevalent in the engineering industry. However, union resistance to the lockout was defeated and the engineers were forced back to work. In the process, many had to sign the notorious “Document” renouncing trade union membership.

Although the employers succeeded in defeating the ASE in this struggle for shorter hours, the union was soon able to recover its strength. Under the impact of the employers’ attacks, membership had fallen from 11,000 to 9,000, and its funds had sunk to £5,000. Yet within three years, the ASE was able to turn the situation around and its membership emerged much stronger, growing to 12,500, while its funds grew to a considerable £35,000. The success of the union stemmed largely from greater resources and more permanent structure, which allowed it to sink deeper roots into sections of skilled workers. During the 1850s, the AES won a number of recognition deals and developed a formidable national presence and organisation.

By far the biggest industrial struggle since the “Plug Riots” of 1842 was the Preston lockout. It affected both spinners and weavers and was part of a general struggle that extended over a considerable part of the cotton industry. The unions had been seeking a restoration in wages cut in the depression of 1847. The employers retorted to a general lockout, refusing to re-employ workers unless they agreed to sign the “Document”. They also used the full weight of the law against the union leaders, which, although subsequently dropped, did considerable damage in undermining and eventually breaking the strike.

By 1859-60, agitation for a shorter working week was becoming widespread. After a successful London building workers’ strike that won shorter hours, the struggle began to spread. The Nine Hours movement, as it was called, affected engineering works, cotton mills and coalmines, where the working week was sixty hours on a normal ten-and-a-half hour day. Despite their weak leadership, events were to demonstrate the organisational strength of these new model unions, bolstered by the financial muscle of a relatively stable affluent membership. Beginning in the North-East, a series of battles in engineering in the early 1870s, managed to secure a nine-hour day, which intensified the movement for shorter working hours elsewhere.

Working class confidence was on the rise. In the mid-Sixties, there was growing pressure for the extension of the electoral franchise. In scores of industrial towns huge demonstrations were held demanding the vote. In London there were massive gatherings at Trafalgar Square and Hyde Park. Working class pressure began to build up on the government from different quarters – from heightened Reform agitation and the revival of trade unionism to the spectre of the First International – all of which served to convince the Tories that they were on the verge of some revolutionary upheaval. It was to avoid such rebellious trouble that the Tory Prime Minister Disraeli pushed through the 1867 Reform Act, giving the vote to urban male workers who paid rates, thus doubling the size of the electorate. As a matter of course, women were excluded. Yet the property qualification still excluded the vast majority of the working class. These concessions, however, did not sit well with the bourgeoisie and aroused the gloomiest forebodings in sections of the ruling class. For instance, Walter Bagehot, the famous nineteenth century constitutionalist, argued that the “ignorant masses” did not understand politics and could never be relied upon to exercise the vote in the correct manner. “What I fear,” wrote Bagehot in his English Constitution, “is that both our political parties will bid for the support of the working man; that both of them will promise to do as he likes…” He predicted that this measure would all end in tears or far worse.

In 1867 Parliament had established a Royal Commission on trade unions, using some incidents of “rattening” (terrorising blacklegs) in Sheffield as a pretext for the inquiry. At this time, there was no legal protection for trade union funds and strikers could still be imprisoned under the law for “conspiracy” and “intimidation”. Eager to force through some concessions from the government, the “Junta” established a Conference of Amalgamated Trades to influence the Royal Commission. This pressure had some partial success as Whigs and Tories now began to vie for working class electoral support. After the publication of the Commission’s findings, new legislation was introduced that gave unions some minor concessions. However, even under these “enlightened” laws, a worker was still liable to imprisonment for “aggravated” breach of contract. In such cases, discretion was left to the courts, while the employers, if found guilty, only faced limited damages. Picketing was still subject to severe restrictions and if transgressed met with tough penalties. It was, as always, class legislation, completely bias towards the employing class.

In the spring of 1871, to the horror of the European ruling classes, revolution had broken out in Paris, this time under the leadership of the working class. The revolutionary masses of the French capital seized control and proclaimed “La Commune”, and what was to become the first workers’ state in history. The old French capitalist state apparatus had collapsed and a new revolutionary state founded in its place. This revolutionary democracy was based upon the election of all deputies, with the immediate right of recall, where the functions of executive and legislative were combined. In order to eliminate careerism and privilege, these deputies received only workers’ wages. Marx immediately rallied to the defence of the Commune, hailing the heroic Parisian masses who “stormed heaven” in search of their own emancipation. “History has no such example of a like greatness”, stated Marx.

The French ruling class, which fled Paris, immediately sought refuge and help from the German general staff, who were besieging the capital. There they established a common cause – French and German rulers – to drown the revolutionary Commune in cold blood. In the end, after the fall of Paris, the armies of counter-revolution murdered 20,000 Communards in the streets and a further 3,000 perished in the dungeons of Paris. The military tribunals lasted until January 1875, and had carried out 13,700 sentences, condemning men, women and children to prison and exile.

“The laws of war! They are mild and Christian compared with the inhuman laws of revenge under which the Versailles troops have been shooting, bayoneting, ripping up prisoners, women, and children during the last six days”, stated the London Times on 29 May. “So far as we can recollect there has been nothing like it in history…”[3]

However, despite the savagery of defeat, these titanic events proved an inspiration to all workers who sought to keep the flames of revolution alive. “Working men’s Paris, with its Commune”, predicted Marx in his Civil War in France, “will be for ever celebrated as the glorious harbinger of a new society. Its martyrs are enshrined in the great heart of the working class.”

Following the Paris Commune, the astute Benjamin Disraeli granted reforms, despite divisions in the ruling class, to avoid any such social explosion in Britain. While Paris was ablaze, it was again a question of timely reforms from above to prevent revolution from below. With the extension of the franchise in 1867, further government concessions were made towards the trade unions in 1871, this time improving their financial status – an act that greatly impressed the upwardly mobile trade union leaders of the day. But as always, the concessions were limited and the legal restrictions on the right to strike were still retained. It took a further five years of intense working-class pressure to force the government to grudgingly eradicate these impositions.

Marx and the First International

Although the Chartist movement disappeared in the 1850s, many of its leaders and activists joined new movements associated with the cause of the working class. For instance, Ernest Jones and Julian Harney entered into close collaboration with Marx, who had come to live in exile in London after the defeat of the 1848 Revolution. Ernest Jones became an open advocate of the class war and came very close to the ideas of scientific socialism. At a special Chartist Convention in 1852 he secured an overt policy of independent working-class struggle and sought to reorganise the National Chartist Association on the lines of a Marxist workers’ party. In this endeavour, he was anxious to rally the trade unions, but unfortunately his “Labour Parliament”, called during the period of union solidarity after the great Preston strike of 1853, was spurned by the conservative union leaders and the initiative fell on stony ground.

Marx and Engels had followed the development of the Chartist movement with keen interest. Engels was in fact a regular contributor to the Chartist paper Northern Star. Under their influence, Julian Harney had launched a new left-wing paper, the Red Republican, which published the first English edition of the Communist Manifesto in 1850. Again, both Jones and Harney played a leading role in establishing the Fraternal Democrats, an international association that promoted the ideas of working class internationalism. These progressive trends were later to merge into the International Working Men’s Association (IWMA), founded by Marx and Engels in September 1864. This organisation, which became known later as the First International, drew into its ranks the leaders of the British trade unions, such as the moderate general secretary of the Amalgamated Society of Carpenters and Joiners, Robert Applegarth. Despite the narrow outlook of these trade union leaders, Marx regarded this development with the utmost importance. The task of the International was to establish fraternal relations between working class organisations in different countries, and sought to co-ordinate their activities as widely as possible. On the basis of experience, Marx and Engels believed the labour movement would ultimately move in the direction of, and embrace, scientific socialism.

Trade unions, “without being aware of it”, stated Marx, “became the focal points for the organisation of the working class, just as the medieval municipalities and communities became such for the bourgeoisie.” But for Marx they were much more than this. They were not simply “focal points” for workers’ struggles, important as this was, but – drawing parallels with the struggle of the bourgeoisie against feudalism – potentially an “organised means to promote the abolition of the very system of wage labour.”

Marx, who had been dogged by illness, studiously avoided time-wasting, and was deeply engrossed in writing Capital, nevertheless threw himself into the work of the First International with relish. “Although for years I have systematically refused to take part in any ‘organisations’ I have accepted this time because here there is a possibility of doing some real good”, wrote Marx. “There is now evidently a revival of the working classes taking place.” As de facto leader of the International, Marx was given the responsibility of drafting its founding Rules and Address. In this, he showed enormous skill in knitting together the divergent opinions of British trade unionists, French Proudhonists, German Lassalleans, supporters of Bakunin and other trends. The International, wrote Engels in the preface to the Communist Manifesto German edition of 1890, “was bound to have a programme which would not shut the door on the English trades unions, the French, Belgian, Italian and Spanish Proudhonists and German Lassalleans.” Before the movement could run, it had to learn to walk. It was the first time in more than twenty years that an overtly political organisation had established such close working relations with the trade unions.

“Had we from 1864 to 1873 insisted on working together only with those who openly adopted our platform,” Engels explained in a letter of 27 January 1887, “where should we be today?” Again Marx wrote about the need to avoid sectarianism and to connect with the real movement of the working class:

“It is very difficult to present the matter in such a way that our view might appear in a form acceptable to the present position taken by the labour movement… Time must elapse before the re-awakened movement will permit of the former boldness of language.”

For them, in an attempt not to crudely put off their new collaborators at this key moment, it was a matter of presenting their ideas “mild in manner and bold in content.” They understood that the work of the First International represented an historic step forward in the evolution of the movement. One real step forward for the workers’ movement was worth a thousand correct programmes, noted Marx. On the basis of experience, the conscious sections of the working class would inevitably move in the direction of scientific socialism. For the moment, in this early stage in its development, the task was of consistent and patient work, and taking things one step at a time.

Impact in Britain

Marx and Engels succeeded not only in holding the International together, but through their consistent work, the International managed to sink roots in a whole number of countries. Despite the inevitable ups and downs of the movement, their work in these years laid the basis for the future growth of socialist ideas in the mass ranks of the Socialist (Second) International founded in 1889. In the meantime, the First International made a considerable impact on a wide layer of workers in Britain during its brief lifespan, as the minutes of the General Council of the IWMA bear witness.

On 21 February 1865, a letter from the bricklayers’ union was read to the General Council in which they expressed the desire to join the International. On 28 March 1865, a deputation of the General Council reported on its visit to the shoemakers’ union conference, which passed a resolution agreeing with the principles of the International Working Men’s Association and pledged to “endeavour to spread its liberal and glorious ideas among our constituents.” On 1 April 1865, the Carpenters’ Union of Chelsea asked that deputies be sent to explain the principles of the International Association. John Weston, a member of the General Council, also reported on their delegation to the Miners’ Union. On 3 April 1866, the Executive Committee of the British Tailors’ Union “expressed kind feelings toward the Association and a promise to join it.” At that time the General Council also heard a communication that the Ribbon and Small Wares Weavers of Coventry wished to join the IWMA.

On 10 April 1866, “the President reported that the West End Bootmakers’ Society had granted one pound for the use of the Council and that they had proposed Citizen Odger as a delegate to the Congress.” On 17 April the Tailors’ Association was accepted as a branch of the International Working Men’s Association. Also it was reported that Weston and Jung had been delegated to attend the meeting of the Plasterers’ Committee. On May Day 1866, Hermann Jung, the Swiss representative, reported on his and Paul Lafargue’s visit to the local branch of the Operative Bricklayers. They had been most enthusiastically received and were given promises of support. On 15 May the Darlington section of the Amalgamated Tailors’ Union was admitted to the International. On 17 July a communication was read saying that the Hand-in-Hand Society of Coopers, who had agreed to join the International, levied each member one shilling for the expenses of the Congress in Geneva. At this same meeting, it was reported that a deputation had visited a meeting of cabinet-makers from the International. It had been agreed that they would also levy one pound for Congress expenses. On 17 August, a report was made that the London Society of Compositors had elected their secretary to the Geneva Congress of the IWMA. On the other hand, the Amalgamated Engineers’ Society declined the proposal to send a delegate to the Congress and refused to give permission for a deputation to visit its branches.[4]

On studying the minutes of the IWMA one can see that Marx played a leading day-to-day role in the General Council, outlining the class issues that faced the International at each stage. Despite its mixed composition, Marx also skilfully explained the ideas of socialism at every suitable occasion, without in any way artificially imposing his ideas. At one point, however, a formal debate was held at a General Council meeting in June 1865 around the economic arguments put forward by John Weston, a supporter of Owenite socialism. He maintained that higher wages were illusory and that the trade unions activity was pointless, even harmful! Marx countered Weston’s economic views, and explained in a simple form his labour theory of value. At the same time, Marx took up the arguments of Proudhon and Lassalle, who played down the importance of economic struggle of the working class. Marx resolutely defended the role and significance of the trade unions but stressed the importance of linking their economic struggles to the ultimate aim of the proletariat – abolition of wage slavery itself. In these discussions Marx attempted to demonstrate through facts, figures and arguments the superiority of his method and analysis, which served to raise the political level of the members of the General Council, and through them the most advanced sections of the working class movement. Marx’s two lectures were later transcribed and produced as the classic pamphlet Wages, Price and Profit.

The majority of British trade unions represented on the General Council did not, however, concern themselves too much with such “highbrow” arguments. The union leaders, Cremer, Applegrath, Weston, Lucroft, and Odger, tended to look upon the First International as a body that could serve practical aims, namely solidarity – especially against the threat of international strike-breaking. Despite these limits, the British trade union leaders did play an active role in the General Council, with George Odger becoming its first President. At the Trades Union Congress held in Birmingham in 1869, Cremer even moved a successful resolution urging British unions to affiliate to the International.

“As the International Working Men’s Association endeavours to consolidate and extend the interests of the toiling masses, which are everywhere identical,” stated the resolution, “this Congress heartily recommends the Association to the support of the workingmen of the United Kingdom, especially of all organised bodies, and strongly urges them to become affiliated to that body believing that the realisation of its principles would also conclude lasting peace between the nations of the earth.”

While the efforts of the British trade unionists certainly strengthened the First International, their narrow craft outlook would later bring them into conflict with those wanting to broaden the movement. Marx was always pushing at the boundaries, seeking to raise the consciousness of those involved. In a resolution to the Geneva conference, he outlined the fundamental role of the trade unions in linking up the day-to-day tasks with the need to transform society:

“In addition to their original tasks, the trade unions must now learn how to act consciously as focal points for organising the working class in the greater interests of its complete emancipation. They must support every social and political movement directed towards this aim. By considering themselves champions and representatives of the whole working class, and acting accordingly, the trade unions must succeed in rallying round themselves all workers still outside their ranks. They must carefully safeguard the interests of the workers in the poorest-paid trades, as, for example, the farm labourers, who due to especially unfavourable circumstances have been deprived of their power of resistance. They must convince the whole world that their efforts are far from narrow and egotistic, but on the contrary, are directed towards the emancipation of the down-trodden masses.”[5]

Throughout its brief history, the bourgeoisie internationally regarded the IWMA with complete horror. Lord Aberdare, the Home Secretary, was constantly pressed to ban the International and arrest Marx as “menaces to life and property”. Under the influence of the International, the British trade unions demonstrated their solid support for the North in the American Civil War, despite the cotton famine resulting from the Northern blockade. The struggles of Poland and Italy for self-determination were also heartily supported. The revolutionary events of the Paris Commune, and Marx’s robust defence of the heroic Communards, however, proved a bit too much for the British trade union leaders to swallow. After the defeat of the Commune in the summer of 1871, the trade union leaders separated themselves from the International. These leaders were prepared to collaborate on basic trade union issues, but recoiled at the very thought of defending the revolutionaries of Paris! They were more concerned with protecting their new respectable image, and not offending the British Establishment, than lending their support to foreign revolutionaries. On such a fundamental question Marx was not prepared to bend. Marx resolutely stood by the Communards and showed nothing but contempt towards those who turned their backs on those most in need.

The Trade Union Congress

During the early 1860s, a new form of trade union organisation emerged, namely the Trades Councils. These bodies attempted to draw trade unions in a certain locality under the umbrella of a single representative council. Promoted by the need for solidarity in the building workers’ dispute of 1859-60, the London Trades Council was formed. Other cities and towns then followed this example. Periodically, Trades Council conferences were called in an attempt to further unify this movement. In 1864, for example, Alexander Campbell of the Glasgow Trades Council called a national trade union conference to oppose the anti-working class Master and Servant Act, which had become a burning issue. Under this legislation, strike action deemed in breach of contract remained a criminal offence, while a lockout by masters was not. Over the previous twelve months prior to the conference, there were no fewer than 10,393 prosecutions for taking part in strikes; thousands of trade unionists were jailed for being in breach of the Act.

Such was the success of the conference that it was followed by a second in 1866 (Sheffield) and a third in 1867 (London). In April 1868, the threat of further anti-union legislation spurred on the Manchester and Salford Trades Council – probably the most important Trades Council in the country – to propose a regular congress of trade unions. This became the starting-point for an annual event, which went down in labour history as the first official Trade Union Congress (TUC). At the gathering, a Parliamentary Committee was established to act as its co-ordinating leadership. In 1920, the Parliamentary Committee changed its name to General Council of the TUC. While this congress was received with great enthusiasm in the areas, the conservative “Junta” was extremely wary, fearing too much rank-and-file interference over their own union affairs. However, the government’s anti-union actions soon forced them to lend their authority to the newly established TUC – the better to keep it under control, than risk it falling into the hands of dangerous agitators.

Gladstone’s Acts of 1871 were a classical case of giving with the left hand and taking away with the right. While they served to protect trade union funds, they also served to hamstring the effective operation of the unions in other areas. While employers were free to do as they pleased, any peaceful attempt by workers to persuade others to strike was deemed “coercion” and deemed a criminal offence. Judges simply made it a criminal conspiracy to interfere with an employer’s “freedom of action” and conspiracy in restraint of trade.

The law was simply interpreted by judges to ensure that unions were constantly in breach. Under these conditions, which threatened their ability to operate, the trade unions had no alternative but to launch a determined fight to repeal the laws, and ensure “immunities” for damage. After all, business interests received their “immunities” – in the form of limited liability – in the 1856 Companies Act. So why not the trade unions?

On Whit Monday, 1873, a mass trade union demonstration was called. It was the opening shot of an astonishing campaign that was to force the Liberal government out of office and secure the repeal of both the Criminal Law Amendment Act and the hated Master and Servant Act. Under working-class pressure came new legislation in 1875 whereby “peaceful picketing” was made legal, and the old words of “coerce” and “molest” disappeared from British law altogether. Breaches of contract also become a civil matter, with no imprisonment or fines. All appeared wonderful! But it would not last.

While old offences were abolished by Parliament, judges responded by creating the civil law offence of conspiracy, for which employers could claim damages. The limited legal right to picket was virtually removed by judicial “interpretation” by which picketing became illegal “watching and besetting”. In South Wales seven women were imprisoned for saying “Bah!” to a blackleg! In Perthshire six shoemakers were imprisoned for simply “watching” a scab working during a dispute. In London, a strike of gas-stokers led to the prosecution of 500 men for breach of contract and their leaders for criminal conspiracy.

The trade unions are now in a similar legal position more than 100 years later. The “immunities” from liability for damage forced from the ruling class by the pressure of the labour movement were always under threat. Everything depended on the class balance of forces at a given time. With the attacks initiated by the Tories in the early 1980s, these immunities were largely removed by the employment acts of 1980 and 1982, and by the trade union act of 1984. These left trade unions prey to employers willing to use the one-sided advantages offered them by the Tory laws. To defend their rights, history has shown that trade unions have always had to break unjust class laws. As we will see, class action and the balance of forces always affect the way the law operates in practice.

Vicious circle

In the countryside during the early 1870s, agricultural labourers began to stir into action around the inspirational figure of Joseph Arch, a Warwickshire farm labourer. The atrocious conditions of these workers made them ripe for unionisation. When the call was put out, thousands rallied to the union cause and the Warwickshire Agricultural Labourers’ Union was formed at Leamington. Almost immediately a strike for better wages and conditions broke out, which received substantial solidarity support from the rest of the union movement. In May 1872 the National Agricultural Labourers’ Union was formed with branches throughout the country. By the end of the year membership had climbed to 35,000. New unions sprung up elsewhere, resulting in some 150,000 agricultural workers joining the trade union movement.

It did not take long before the capitalist gentry and landlords, backed by the Church of England and the magistrates, reacted with fury. A whole series of lockouts took place, and the full force of the law was brought to bear against the unions. The bourgeoisie showed no mercy. In Ascot 17 women were charged with the crime of “mobbing”, and were all condemned to Oxford prison, several with their breast-fed babies. By 1874, amongst scenes of near civil war, the workers were starved back to work on the employers’ terms. Under the hammer blows of the state, the agricultural workers’ union was beaten down to 4,000 members and soon disintegrated.

A trade recession in the mid-1870s resulted in a series of bitterly fought strikes, notably the South Wales miners (1875), the stonemasons (1877), the Clyde shipwrights and the Lancashire cotton workers (1878). However, under the pressure of events, the inadequacies of the conservative leadership of the amalgamated unions led to growing discontent within their ranks. In 1872, the pattern makers broke away from the ASE in disgust. They would not be the last.

The difficulties of the narrow and parochial outlook of the new model unions were to surface in the next period. They proved a decisive barrier to the development of the trade union movement and the organisation of the unskilled mass. Frederick Engels wrote at the time, “the British Labour movement is today, and for many years has been, working in a narrow circle of strikes for higher wages and shorter hours without finding a solution”, since they “are looked upon not as an expedient and not as a means of propaganda but as an ultimate aim.”[6]

On 20 August 1883, in a letter to August Bebel, a leader of the German social democracy, Engels outlined how he thought the British workers were likely to break out of this “narrow circle”. He wrote:

“But a real working class movement will develop here – unless something unexpected happens – only when the workers will begin to feel that the British world monopoly has been broken. Participation in the domination of the world market was and is the economic basis of the political nullity of the British workers. Dragging along at the tail-end of the bourgeoisie in the economic exploitation of this monopoly, but always sharing in its profits, they naturally, from the political point of view, drag at the tail-end of the ‘great Liberal Party’ which has thrown them some small sops, recognises trade unions and the right to strike, gave up the struggle for the unlimited working day and gave the bulk of the higher-paid workers the right to vote. But if America and the joint competition of the other industrial countries make a breech in this monopoly (as far as iron is concerned, the time is not far off, but unfortunately in cotton this is not yet the case), you will see things moving here.”[7]

Fredrick Engels remarkable estimation was born out by events. Britain’s relative decline signalled the breach in her industrial monopoly and ushered in a new crisis for British capitalism. From this time onwards, competition especially from Germany and the USA began to weaken and undermine Britain’s dominant position. These new powerful competitors entered the world market with devastating consequences for British industry in the years that followed. These radically different circumstances, as Engels had foreseen, brought about a new social realignment. The mass of unskilled workers ignored and isolated for so long were about to explode onto the stage of history. The days of the conservative “Junta” and “pompous trades” were rapidly coming to an end.


[1] Quoted in Lenin On Britain, p.20, Progress Publishers 1973

[2] Marx and Engels, op. cit, pp.505-6

[3] Quoted in Alistair Horne, The Fall of Paris, p.417, London 1990

[4] See ‘Documents of the First International, 1864-66’, London, 1974

[5] Resolution of the IWA on trade unions, Geneva, 1866

[6] Engels to Bernstein, 17 June 1879, On Britain, p.555

[7] Engels to Bebel, 30 August, 1883, On Britain, p.562

From a Spark to a Blaze

O ye rich men hear and tremble; for with words the sound is rife,
Once for you and death we laboured; changed henceforward is strife,
We are men and we shall battle for the world of men and life
And our host is marching on …

William Morris, The Song of the Workers

The decade of the 1880s proved to be a further watershed in the history of British trade unionism. As explained, the new situation in which the working class found itself arose from the changed international position of British capitalism. From having a monopoly on the world market, due to her early industrialisation and maritime supremacy, she now faced intense competition from Germany and the USA, which were now industrialising their economies at an unprecedented rate. Taking the example of steel production, a key index of industrial power, German steel output rose from about 300,000 tons a year in the early 1870s to over six million tons in 1900. On the other hand, Britain’s output of steel at the turn of the century was less than five million tons. With the close of the Victorian Age, the “British Century” of unbridled power was unceremoniously coming to an end.

Britain, nevertheless, still retained an important global position. It still possessed its Empire, which by 1900 consisted of some 370 million people, covering an area of over 13 million square miles. In Africa, one territory after another had been annexed or placed under British “protection”. The British colonialists described their mission patronisingly as, to use Kipling’s expression, “the white man’s burden”. Cynically, they marched into Africa with the Christian Bible under their arms, and marched away with the land and its resources. In 1875 less than one tenth of Africa had been turned into European colonies; by 1895, only one tenth remained unappropriated. In the decade between 1883 and 1893, Britain’s foreign and colonial investments increased at an annual rate of 74 per cent. By the turn of the century, British capitalists had around £1.7 billion invested overseas, which drew an annual tribute of at least £100 million, a colossal figure at the time. This world supremacy had granted the British capitalists tremendous advantages. It was able to soften social tensions at home by granting timely concessions where necessary and fostered an “aristocracy” of labour upon which to lean.

This was regarded as the British “genius for compromise”, on which the ruling class and right-wing trade union leaders prided themselves as an exclusive Anglo-Saxon invention. However, this situation was now becoming increasingly untenable. The periodic crises of capitalism, with its accompanying mass unemployment and wage cuts, plunged the majority of the working class into terrible insecurity and destitution.

“The crash of 1866 was, indeed, followed by a slight and short revival about 1873; but that did not last”, noted Engels in 1885. “We did not, indeed, pass through the full crisis at the time it was due, in 1877 or 1878; but we have had, ever since 1876, a chronic state of stagnation in all dominant branches of industry. Neither will the full crash come; nor will the period of longed-for prosperity to which we used to be entitled before and after it. A dull depression, a chronic glut of all markets for all trades, that is what we have been living in for nearly ten years.”

Although real wages grew throughout the century after 1815, according to some estimates, by 1880 real wages were only on a par with the fifteenth century![1] In the face of economic crisis and the prolonged stagnation of the “Great Depression”, the old amalgamated unions had become, in the words of the Webbs, “nothing more than a somewhat stagnant department of the Friendly Society movement.” Reason had become unreason. The old unions had become increasingly incompatible with the new situation. It was time for a fundamental change in the shape and form of trade unionism.

The dominant trade union leaders – the “Old Gang” as they came to be known – abdicated all the responsibilities of leadership they once had. Applegarth and Co. had been replaced by similar types of men, such as Henry Broadhurst (secretary of the TUC), John Burnett (Engineers), J.D. Prior (Carpenters), and George Shipton (London Trades Council). Their whole policy could be summed up as “contemptuous inactivity”, again to quote the Webbs.

However, the 1880s, which heralded an epoch of social upheaval, experienced a new revival of socialist ideas not seen in Britain since Chartist times. Although the franchise was partially extended under pressure in 1867, the smattering of “Labour” or working class candidates were always tied to the coat-tails of the Liberal Party. By 1886, following Gladstone’s Reform Acts, which ensured a majority of urban and rural workers the right to vote, there were ten trade unionists elected to the House of Commons, none of whom had the slightest idea of class politics. Far from it! Henry Broadhurst, secretary of the Parliamentary Committee of the TUC marched at their head. He was feted by Gladstone, made Under-Secretary of State, was invited by Royalty to stay at the Palace, and even boasted once that the Prince of Wales poked his bedroom fire! Broadhurst epitomised the political ambitions of the “Junta”, whose aspirations didn’t quite stretch to the emancipation of the working class as a whole – only themselves.

In June 1881, a new party was formed called the Democratic Federation led by a certain Henry M. Hyndman. Three years later it changed its name to the Social Democratic Federation, and proclaimed itself a Marxist party. Hyndman knew Marx personally, and based his party on the ideas of class struggle and scientific socialism. It was the first openly socialist political party to exist in Britain and was closely modelled on the German social democracy. In the same year, as a counter to Hyndman’s Marxism, the Fabian Society was set up by middle-class intellectuals to promote the ideas of gradual social reform and enlightenment. Ironically, they both had something in common: neither of them was interested in the trade unions. The SDF concentrated on abstract socialist propaganda and work amongst the unemployed, whilst the Fabians moved in rarefied petty bourgeois circles.

“The Fabians here in London are a band of careerists who have understanding enough to realise the inevitability of the social revolution,” noted Engels, “but who could not possibly entrust this gigantic task to the raw proletariat alone and are therefore kind enough to settle themselves at the head. Fear of the revolution is their fundamental principle. They are the ‘eddicated’ par excellence... Hence, their fanatical hatred of Marx and all of us – because of the class struggle. “[2]

Despite the sectarian and aloof stance of the SDF, it was from the ranks of the socialists, and primarily this organisation, that individuals emerged that sought to challenge the “Old Gang” and came out for a new form of militant trade unionism.

Even within the ranks of the SDF there was a marked difference of opinion and approach to the unions. Hyndman took a very sectarian and haughty approach to the unions (”... in fact, the trade unions... stand in the way of a genuine organisation of the proletariat”, he announced), which predictably antagonised and alienated ordinary trade unionists. This narrow barren sectarianism led Engels to break off political relations with Hyndman and the SDF. Lenin subsequently explained how a prevailing opportunism produces its polar opposite – sectarianism, dogmatism and adventurism. The movement often pays for the opportunism of its leaders by the emergence of ultra-left tendencies, which are head and tail of the same coin. In contrast, the SDF trade unionists took an entirely different approach, recognising the need to transform the unions and win the workers to their ideas. These were people like Tom Mann, John Burns and Will Thorne, who all subsequently left the SDF and launched into a campaign for “New Unionism”. As there was no question of setting up a rival trade union movement, the only practical alternative was to reform the old one. If the workers were expected to transform society, then surely they would be able to transform their existing organisations. It was simply common sense to fight from within.

“To Trade Unionists, I desire to make a special appeal”, wrote Tom Mann in a pamphlet called What a Compulsory Eight-Hour Working Day Means to the Workers (1886). “How long, how long will you be content with the present half-hearted policy of your unions? Readily grant that good work has been done in the past by the unions, but, in heaven’s name, what good purpose are they serving now?” This appeal found a ready audience in the rank and file.

The following year, the conflict between the militants and the “Old Guard” burst onto the floor of the TUC conference, when a young miners’ delegate from Ayrshire, Keir Hardie, launched an all-out attack on Broadhurst and the rest of the leadership. As expected, in response, he countenanced the full wrath of the trade union hierarchy. Broadhurst ripped into Hardie: “those who spread dissension in the unions and seek to destroy unionism by vehemently attacking its prominent representatives... Their emissaries enter our camp in the guise of friends; in order that they may the better sow the seeds of disruption. Let the workers beware of them!” and concluded with the comradely refrain, “hound these creatures from our midst.”

Engels from his days in the First International had kept in touch with a number of prominent trade union activists. His move from Manchester to London, to work alongside Marx, placed him far more in the centre of developments. He was now able to observe the leaders of the movement at close quarter and participate in events more fully. These valuable links gave Engels the opportunity and platform later to put forward his views when the London Trades Council launched a newspaper in early 1881, called the Labour Standard. Engels was asked to write a series of articles for the paper. These brilliant articles, which should be read by all activists today, represent a penetrating analysis of the economic situation of the time, the problems of trade unionism and the need for independent working class political organisation.

“The fact cannot be any longer shirked that England’s industrial monopoly is fast on the wane”, he wrote in June 1881, “... It will do one great thing; it will break the last link which binds the English working class to the English middle class… That monopoly once destroyed, the British working class will be compelled to take in hand its own interests, its own salvation, and to make an end of the wages system.”

And again another article published in the Labour Standard:

“More than this, there are plenty of symptoms that the working class of this country is awakening to the consciousness that it has for some time been moving in the wrong groove; that the present movements for higher wages and shorter hours exclusively, keep it in a vicious circle out of which there is no issue; that it is not the lowness of wages which forms the fundamental evil, but the wage system itself. This knowledge once generally spread amongst the working class, the position of trades unions must change considerably. They will no longer enjoy the privilege of being the only organisations of the working class. At the side of, or above, the unions of special trades there must spring up a general union, a political organisation of the working class as a whole.

“Thus there are two points which the organised trade union would do well to consider, firstly, that the time is rapidly approaching when the working class of this country will claim, with a voice not to be mistaken, its full share of representation in Parliament. Secondly, that the time also is rapidly approaching when the working class will have understood that the struggle for high wages and short hours, and the whole action of trades unions as now carried on, is not an end in itself, but a means, a very necessary and effective means, but only one of several means towards a higher end: the abolition of the wages system altogether.”[3]

By the end of the decade, the working class had begun to break out if its “groove” and new militant young forces were stirring in the East End of London. In July 1888, after the exposure in the socialist press of the harsh conditions endured by women workers employed at the large Bryant & May match factory at Poplar, a strike broke out led by two socialists, Annie Besant and Herbert Burrows. After less than a fortnight, the girls won a number of concessions, including the abolition of fines and deductions from wages, a wage rise and a certain job security. The historic victory of these seven hundred women, who formed a union out of the strike, the Matchmakers’ Union, was a harbinger of what was to come. It was the largest union composed entirely of women and girls in England. It “turned a new leaf in trade union annals”, commented the Webbs.

From a Spark

The Bryant and May strike was described by Engels as the “light jostle needed for the entire avalanche to move”. The lessons of the strike were not lost on workers. It certainly provided the spark; the blaze was to follow in the magnificent struggle of the gasworkers and dockworkers, and was to culminate in the explosion of New Unionism.

In early 1889, the young SDF branch secretary and gasworker, Will Thorne, began to organise a union at the Beckton Gas Works near East Ham.

“The news of the meeting spread like wildfire,” Thorne wrote later, “in the public houses, factories and works in Canning Town, Barking, West Ham, everyone was talking about the union… Sunday after Sunday we would start off from 144 Barking Road, our headquarters, to encourage the men at other gasworks. As many as twenty brake loads of workers would go out on these Sunday morning crusades. The idea caught on; enthusiasm was at a high pitch, and within two weeks we had over 3,000 men in the union. Never before had men responded like they did. For months London was ablaze. The newspapers throughout the country were giving good reports of our activities. They were curious to know what we wanted and what we were going to do. I knew what we were going to do. I kept in mind all the time my pledge to the men at the first meeting. To work and fight for the Eight-Hour Day – that was my first objective, soon to be won.”[4]

Marx’s youngest daughter Eleanor, her husband Edward Aveling, and other SDF members Tom Mann, John Burns and Ben Tillett closely assisted Thorne. The union spread rapidly given the unrest amongst the workforce, and within four months 20,000 had joined up. Strike notices were handed in demanding an eight-hour shift, a twelve day fortnight, and pay of a shilling (five pence) an hour. The Company, fearing a strike, conceded all the demands, except that the wages were less than they demanded, two-and-a-half new pence an hour instead of five pence. This was the victory, stated Tom Mann, which “put older and larger trade unions to shame.”

Will Thorne, a committed Marxist who was personally acquainted with Engels, became the first general secretary of the 60,000 strong National Union of Gasworkers & General Workers (today’s GMB) and Eleanor Marx was unanimously elected to its executive committee, drew up its rules, and became secretary of the first women’s branch of the union.

“Eleanor Marx-Aveling took a leading part in the strike”, recalls Thorne. “An eloquent speaker, fluent in several languages she did good service both among the men and women, and formed a women’s branch of the union at Silvertown, of which she became the secretary. She sat as delegate from this branch at all our delegate meetings, and was elected to the committee of the union when the rules were altered to permit women to be seated on the committee.”[5]

In fact she also helped Thorne with his reading and writing, which he says “was very bad at the time.”

Under these stormy conditions, the first May Day in Britain in 1890, proved to be a massive affair, exceeding even the most ambitious expectations. There were nearly 200,000 people in London’s Hyde Park.

“At last the English proletariat seems to be coming into the movement in its masses”, wrote Engels proudly. “I consider this the grandest and most important part of the whole May Day Festival, that on 4 May 1890, the English proletariat, newly awakened from its forty years’ winter sleep, again entered the movement of its class... And that is an epoch-making fact… The grandchildren of the old Chartists are entering the line of battle.”[6]

The links between the gasworkers and dockers were always very strong. Within a short space of time, the dockers, overwhelmingly a pool of casual workers at the lower levels of the proletariat and ruthlessly exploited by the owners, were now also rising up off their knees. Crowds of men, desperate for work, would line up everyday in all weathers at the dock gates hoping to be hired for a day’s labour. Now, dockers demanding action against their inhuman conditions besieged the young Ben Tillett. He drew in Tom Man, John Burns, Tom McCartney of the Stevedores, and of course, Eleanor Marx (who became the secretary of the strike committee), to help organise the men. Dockers, when they managed to get work, were earning five and half old pennies an hour – the same wages as in 1802! Now, in 1889, they launched a massive union drive and a strike for a wage rise to sixpence an hour (the dockers’ tanner), with meetings and processions throughout east London. Faced with blackleg labour, on Mann’s initiative, they decided to call for a general strike of all London trades.

In a fine display of working class solidarity and internationalism, London dockers received massive assistance from dockers as far away as Australia. They collected and sent over aid amounting to a gigantic £30,000, which served to strengthen the strike and eventually helped to bring the employers to their knees. Once the workers’ main demands were conceded, the union was established on a permanent basis, with Ben Tillett as the secretary and Tom Mann as its president. By the end of November 1889 it claimed 30,000 members, and became the forerunner of today’s giant Transport and General Workers’ Union. It was during this strike that John Connell composed the working class anthem the Red Flag, with the stirring words “though cowards flinch and traitors sneer, we’ll keep the Red Flag flying here!”

A new militant spirit of trade unionism was abroad. The dockers’ success resulted in the biggest upsurge in trade union organisation since the pioneering days of Robert Owen’s Grand National Consolidated Trade Union. The Dockers’ Union covering London spread to other provincial ports. The gasworkers union also organised general labourers throughout the provinces. New unions were then formed on the railways. The General Railway Workers’ Union (later the NUR, then the RMT), in a clear rejection of the “model” unions of the past, passed a resolution at its first conference, stating, “that the union shall remain a fighting one, and shall not be encumbered with any sick or accident fund”. The Miners’ Federation, formed in 1888 with 36,000 members, had mushroomed by 1893 to over 200,000. In the printing industry, the workers formed their own union that became NATSOPA (the forerunner of today’s GPMU). Given the eruption of trade union organisation, between 1889 and 1891 over 60 new Trades Councils were established throughout the country, drawing the various unions together on a town and city-wide basis.

Despite all claims to the contrary, this example clearly shows the important influence that Marxism played in the development of the modern Labour movement. Marxist activists were to make a vital and lasting contribution to the building of the British trade unions. This role grew out of the changed objective situation that had arisen from Britain’s decline as a world power. With little room for manoeuvre, the working class was forced to struggle in this new environment. At the time, the Marxists not only recognised the change, but strived to put themselves at its head, to organise and generalise the struggle. Mann, Burns, Tillett were the catalyst for the new movement, nothing more. But without such determined leaders, the movement could have been dissipated or at least remained still shackled to the old set-up. The experience showed once again the importance of the subjective factor, the importance of leadership, in the class struggle.

This movement, born out of the “stagnant pool” of London’s East End, was

“far more important... even than the actual progress socialism has made in England generally”, wrote Engels, for “the new unions were founded at a time when the faith in the eternity of the wages system was severely shaken; their founders and promoters were socialists, either consciously or by feeling; the masses, whose adhesion gave them strength, were rough, neglected, looked down upon by the working class aristocracy; but they had this immense advantage, that their minds were virgin soil, entirely free from the inherited respectable bourgeois prejudices which hampered the brains of the better situated ‘old’ unionists. And thus we see now these unions taking the lead of the working class movement generally, and more and more taking in tow the rich and proud ‘old’ unions... And for all the faults committed in past, present and future, the revival of the East End of London remains one of the greatest and most fruitful facts of this fin de siécle [end of the century], and glad and proud I am to have lived to see it.”

New Unionism Under Attack

But the “Old Gang”, who correctly saw it as a threat to their authority, refused to give up without a fight. On every occasion they denounced New Unionism. George Shipton, secretary of the London Trades Council and member of the “Junta”, wrote extensively about this struggle in the June 1890 edition of Murray’s Magazine. In the most hysterical terms, Shipton attacked the attempts by the new unions to organise the closed shop, their refusal to work with non-unionists, their fomenting of strikes, their demands for increased pay for less hours, and lastly, the fact that they were being run by “outsiders”! Shipton displayed contempt for the docks’ strike, and in utter desperation denounced the new unions as “mushroom growths”, doomed to an early end! As for unskilled general workers, he considered them beyond the pale and incapable of unionisation. But, as events were to demonstrate, it was the “Junta” that was doomed.

In a bitter exchange, both Ben Tillett and Tom Mann struck out at Shipton’s petty-bourgeois life-style:

“East End labourers are not in George Shipton’s line. Picnics to the Channel Tunnel, Sandringham, and deputations in connection with various semi-politic and patriotic and demi-semi-trade unionist and pseudo-philanthropic movements... are much more agreeable.”

The 1890 TUC Congress became a battleground between the forces of the old and the new. Feeling cornered, the “Old Gang” attempted to defend themselves by shouting down opposition delegates. Yet the resolution from Burns and Mann for the eight-hour day was passed 193 votes to 155, which prompted Broadhurst’s resignation as TUC secretary. The old timers attempted to cling on, but their grip was eventually broken. The following two TUC Congresses confirmed once and for all the socialists’ victory and the defeat of the old regime.

As was to be expected, the employers were not simply going to sit back and accept this new militancy. The birth of New Unionism was soon tested by a series of counter blows. But it was in the militant coalfields that it was put to the greatest test as troops were sent against two big miners’ strikes in the Federated area and in South Wales. The 1893 miners’ lockout lasted five months but the 25 per cent wage-cut demanded by the owners was successfully resisted. It was regarded as one of the most bitter struggles in the history of the miners’ union. As a result, the miners’ victory was greeted with jubilation everywhere. In Lancashire, “men, women and children of the working classes in the districts affected”, wrote the secretary of the Lancashire Miners’ Federation, “joined the miners in their rejoicing, with singing, dancing, shouting, laughing and crying for joy, and in several districts the church bells were set ringing to celebrate the event.” The 1898 strike stirred up feelings of class solidarity across the coalfields and resulted in a historic break-through in the South Wales with the formation of the South Wales Miners’ Federation.

The working class had awoken from its long “winter slumber” and once again flexed its muscles. Not only were new unions of the unskilled created, but also many of the craft unions became infected with the new mood. This served to break down the old prejudices and opened up their ranks, including those of the old ASE, to the mass of unorganised workers. In fact, not only was the ASE transformed out of all recognition, but it even went to the length of electing Tom Mann as its general secretary. This demonstrated once again that the traditional organisations of the class, even when they are firmly in the grip of the right wing, as events unfold, could be transformed and retransformed into organisations of struggle.

The end of the century had witnessed the triumph and the consolidation of New Unionism. Nevertheless, the process was not complete. New Unionism now opened up new possibilities on the political front. New defeats and new problems served to propel the trade union movement into a political direction. Great events, as always, arose to force the issue to the foreground. This was eventually to lay the basis for the next giant leap forward and the formation of the Labour Representation Committee at the turn of the century. The working class was coming of age.


[1] Glyn & Sutcliffe, British Capitalism and the Profits Squeeze, p.18, London 1972

[2] Marx & Engels, Correspondence, p.453-4, Progress Publishers 1965

[3] Marx & Engels, On Britain, p.516, Progress Publishers 1962

[4] Thorne, My Life’s Battles, p.70-71, London 1989

[5] Thorne, Ibid, p.96, London 1989

[6] Labour Standard, 4 May, 1890, Marx & Engels, On Britain, pp. 517 & 527, emphasis in original

“The First Giant Step”

The victory of New Unionism in the 1890s proved an historic breakthrough in the evolution of the British labour movement. Not since the heyday of Chartism was there such an earth-shattering development. It represented the uprising of the most downtrodden and oppressed sections of the proletariat, which constituted its great majority. In one year alone, from 1889 to 1890, the numbers joining the trade unions more than doubled. In 1890, Britain – with eight per cent of its industrial workers in unions – had by far the most organised labour force of any capitalist country in the world. The organisation of the mass of unskilled workers, this great sea of proletarians, served to revive a thirst for socialist ideas and eventually laid the foundation for a new party of organised labour. The stormy developments of the late nineteenth century had begun to dramatically transform the outlook and consciousness, from which no section of the working class was exempt.

As explained, Marxian socialists had played a key role in the formation of New Unionism. Tom Mann, John Burns, Ben Tillett, Will Thorne, Eleanor Marx and others pioneered trade unionism amongst the labourers and unskilled on the docks, gas works, transport and other industries. These leading figures had rejected the sterile dogmatism of the Social Democratic Federation, which, in the words of Engels, “renders itself incapable of ever becoming anything else but a sect.”[1] Marx and Engels were strenuously opposed to pompously lecturing the workers from the sidelines, forcing ideas as articles of faith “down the throats of the workers”, instead of making the workers “raise themselves to its level by dint of their own class instinct.”(Engels)

Marx and Engels were also deeply contemptuous of sectarians, especially those self-styled Marxists who acted in their name and turned their ideas into a sterile dogma. The main point was to take the movement as it was, and not as one might like it to be. They offered sound advice. “The first great step, of importance for every country newly entering into the movement, is always the constitution of the workers as an independent political party, no matter how, so long as it is a distinct workers’ party…” stated Engels. While they argued for British workers to break from the tailcoat of Liberalism and establish an independent party of labour, they understood it would not necessarily be on “theoretically perfectly correct lines.” The weak theoretical basis of the movement, despite its confusion and deficiencies, would be rectified by experience itself.

“The masses must have the time and opportunity to develop, and they can have the opportunity only when they have a movement of their own – no matter in what form so long as it is their own movement – in which they are driven further by their own mistakes and learn to profit by them.”[2]

“The great thing is to get the working class to move as a class; that once obtained, they will soon find the right direction…”, continued Engels. All those who failed to understand this “will be left out in the cold with small sects of their own.”

He went on to urge not to

“make the inevitable confusion of the first start worse, confounded by forcing down people’s throats things which, at present, they cannot properly understand, but which they will soon learn. A million or two of working men’s votes next November for a bona fide working men’s party is worth infinitely more at present than a hundred thousand votes for a doctrinally perfect platform.”[3]

The path of setting up a mass party of labour in Britain would not be an easy one, with many pitfalls and disappointments. Nevertheless, four years after the founding of the SDF in 1888, the Scottish Labour Party was formed under the leadership of Keir Hardie. At the following general election, Hardie, together with Havelock Wilson and John Burns won election to the House of Commons on independent Labour tickets. Ten other workers were elected, but as Liberal candidates. Whereas Wilson and Burns succumbed to the parliamentary pressures, and made their peace with Liberalism, Hardie continued to fight hard for his dream of a mass party of labour.

At the 1892 Trades Union Congress, he carried a resolution instructing the Parliamentary Committee to draw up a plan for a Labour Representation fund. Although the decision was reaffirmed in 1893, together with a resolution urging unions to support only candidates pledged to “the collective ownership and control of the means of production, distribution, and exchange”, the leadership dragged its feet and delayed the implementation of the resolution. But the pressures for independent political action were growing.

In the same year, the Independent Labour Party was founded in Bradford. This was again an important milestone in the process of establishing a genuine party of the working class. Of course, the SDF – embroiled in its own sectarian world – remained typically aloof from this new development. ILP trade union activists, however, headed by Keir Hardie of the Ayrshire miners, targeted union branches and Trades Councils in their agitation for a political voice for the working class. Given the growing political ferment, the prospects of creating a mass workers’ party appeared promising. For this reason, Engels gave the founding of the ILP an enthusiastic welcome. Although the SDF remained on the sidelines, Marxists like Edward Aveling, and militant trade unionists like Tom Mann (shortly to become ILP secretary for a time), joined the ILP and played a leading role on its executive committee, hoping to give it a more correct political and theoretical direction.

At this time independent Labour politics began to get an echo in the working class, as witnessed by Keir Hardie’s election to Parliament. Robert Blatchford, the famous socialist propagandist and editor of The Clarion, explained:

“If an employer’s interests are opposed to yours in business, what reason have you for supposing that his interests and yours are not opposed in politics? If you oppose a man as an employer, why do you vote for him as a Member of Parliament? His calling himself a Liberal or Tory does not alter the fact that he is an employer. To be a trade unionist and fight for your class during a strike, and to be a Tory or a Liberal and fight against your class at an election is folly… Do you elect your employers as officials of your trade unions? Do you send employers as delegates to your Trade Union Congress? You would laugh at the suggestion…”

But the ILP proved unable to unify all socialist forces into a single party. The chief weakness was its lack of a mass base in the trade unions as well as its rejection of the class struggle. From a promising beginning, the party veered towards opportunism in an attempt to widen its appeal, which served to attract into its leading bodies former Liberal-types, like Ramsey MacDonald and Philip Snowden. “The ILP is extremely uncertain in its tactics, and its leader Keir Hardie is a more than crafty Scot”, noted Engels. In the general election of 1895, as a display of strength, the ILP fielded 28 candidates, and the SDF 5. But all were defeated, including Keir Hardie who stood in the West Ham constituency of East London, which he had won three years earlier. It was a setback, which gave glee to the conservatives in the TUC. Yet despite this, an unstoppable tide continued to move in the direction of independent political representation.

Mass Movements

As Marx and Engels had foreseen, the ending of Britain’s industrial monopoly had enormous ramifications and ushered in a new convulsive period for the working class. But, while on the Continent mass Marxist social democratic parties had taken hold, the existence of a mass workers’ party in Britain remained allusive. The potential certainly existed. However, what was lacking, according to Engels, were the forces capable of welding this potential together: “The mass instinct that the workers must form a party of their own,” he wrote just over a year before his death, “against the two official parties is getting stronger and stronger: again showed itself more than ever in the municipal elections of 1 November. But the old traditional memories of various kinds, and the lack of people able to turn this instinct into conscious action and to rally it together all over the country [was the key issue]...” If it were possible to gather together “a kernel of people who have good theoretical understanding, much will be gained for a genuine mass movement.”

Although there was a small nucleus of capable people around Engels, after his death in 1895, this circle proved too weak to influence events. Tragically, within three years, the wreckage of Eleanor Marx’s personal life led to her suicide. Edward Aveling did not survive long after. This calamity eliminated the key personnel of the original Marxist circle in Britain. The working class, nevertheless, was pushed by events towards the creation of a mass party of labour, but unfortunately not with a leadership based upon class struggle and socialism, but based upon the worst kind of opportunism. The revolutionary socialists around the SDF, who could have provided revolutionary yeast to the workers’ party, tragically remained in splendid isolation from the real movement.

In these years, a series of lockouts and battles characterised the British industrial climate. Within a year of the formation of the Gasworkers’ union in London, the employers, at a cost of £100,000, smashed the union and abolished the eight-hour day. The ship owners also staged a series of lockouts in London, Cardiff and Hull. There was a general lockout of the Miners’ Federation over wage cuts in 1893. Three years later, the Employers’ Federation of Engineering Associations was formed “to protect and defend the interests of the employers against combinations of workmen.”

Yet even these harsh attacks were overshadowed by the employers’ determined use of legal means to cripple the trade unions. Despite the various legal guarantees for unions contained in the 1871 and 1875 Acts, new judgments were made by the capitalist courts throughout the 1890s that sought to challenge the right of peaceful picketing and the union’s protection from liability for damages. The formation of the new general employers’ organisation, the Employers Parliamentary Council, which agitated for legal action against the unions, served to push the reluctant TUC further down the road of political involvement. Out of these apparently accidental developments was expressed an inner necessity for independent working class political representation. It was a natural evolution, despite all the twists and turns of the class struggle.

Independent Representation

A head of steam was now building up in the Labour movement for a political voice. Then, at the 1899 Plymouth TUC Congress an historic resolution was submitted from the moderate Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants – the union that was soon to be sued by the rail company at Taff Vale – calling on the Parliamentary Committee to join with the socialist and co-operative societies in summoning a special conference to discuss independent Labour representation. After a heated debate, the card vote in favour of the resolution was narrowly won by 546,000 to 434,000, with the miners and cotton unions abstaining. It marked a decisive change, which served to bring the idea of an independent party of Labour into fruition.

Within a matter of a few months, on 27 February 1900, 129 delegates assembled at the Memorial Hall in Farringdon from 69 organisations, representing 568,177 members of the Parliamentary Committee, to found a Labour Party. The organisations in attendance were made up of the trade unions, ILP, SDF and Fabians, with the aim of promoting labour’s interests in Parliament. This historic conference, in a giant step forward for the working class, resolved to establish the Labour Representation Committee, later known simply as the Labour Party:

“That this Conference is in favour of establishing a distinct Labour group in Parliament, who shall have their own whips, and agree upon their policy, which must embrace a readiness to co-operate with any party which for the time being may be engaged in promoting legislation in the direct interests of labour, and be equally ready to associate themselves with any party in opposing measures having an opposite tendency.”

Three tendencies were represented at this founding conference of the Labour Representation Committee. Firstly, that represented by John Burns, who would end up in the Liberal Cabinet, and which defended class collaboration with the Liberal/Radicals. “I am getting tired”, he said, “of working class boots, working class brains, working class houses and working class margarine.” He continued, “I believe the time has arrived when we should not be prisoners to class prejudice.” This essentially was the middle class Fabian viewpoint, epitomised by the Lib-Lab politics of later years.

Secondly, the tendency epitomised by Keir Hardie and others, who expressed the views of the ILP. They opposed an alliance with the Liberals, and advocated a formal trade union–socialist federation, where, in effect, the unions put up the money and the socialists would promote the cause. But, in a typical opportunist gesture, to placate the right wing of the trade unions, the party would not officially be committed to socialism in any public form.

The third tendency was represented by Harry Quelch and the SDF, who opposed these options and argued for the establishment of a fully class conscious Socialist Party, with no truck of any kind with Liberalism or capitalism. Such a party would not only recognise the class struggle, but would also preach and practise it.

In the end, the ILP’s centrist viewpoint prevailed, and the SDF, having failed to get its socialist resolution on common ownership adopted, withdrew the following year, leaving the field clear for the opportunist ILP and especially the middle-class Fabians. If the SDF had remained and fought for its socialist position, in time, they would have been successful. But given their sectarian nature, they decided to split away – only nobody noticed this gesture. James Ramsey MacDonald, who had exchanged his Liberal clothes for those of the ILP, was appointed national secretary of the Committee. Interestingly, a resolution was passed which obliged the LRC to make annual reports to the TUC, demonstrating the need for democratic accountability over its parliamentary representatives. Yet in practice, the resolution was shelved, granting the Labour MPs a free hand in its parliamentary dealings. The gulf between the Parliamentary Labour Party, which tail-ended the Liberals, and its working-class base was soon to become an established fact. However, the essential point was that the party of Labour, despite all its inadequacies, was finally born. The British working class had at last, however hesitantly, however half-heartedly, broken with the two party system of big business.

In the prophetic words of the socialist weekly, The Clarion, it was “a little cloud, no bigger than a man’s hand, which may grow into a United Labour Party.” Lenin, who was well acquainted with the British Labour movement, writing a few years later, believed the formation of the Labour Party represented “the first step on the part of the really proletarian organisations of Britain towards a conscious class policy and towards a socialist workers’ party.”[4]

Referring to Engels’ letters on Britain, Lenin again stated,

“These lessons of Engels’ have been corroborated by the subsequent development of events, when the British trade unions, insular, aristocratic, philistinely selfish, and hostile to socialism, which have produced a number of outright traitors to the working class who have sold themselves to the bourgeoisie for ministerial posts (like the scoundrel John Burns), have nevertheless begun to move towards socialism, awkwardly, inconsistently, in zigzag fashion, but are still moving towards socialism.”[5]

In the period following the founding of the LRC, many trade unions remained reluctant to affiliate to the new party. They were not totally convinced by this radical initiative and preferred to bide their time. At the general election of 1900, the LRC fielded just 15 candidates, two of whom were successful: Keir Hardie (Merthyr) and Richard Bell (Derby).

After his victory, Keir Hardie was famous for arriving to Parliament in his working clothes and cloth cap, accompanied by a brass band from his constituency. Soon afterwards, to the horror of the other parties, he submitted the following resolution to the Commons:

“That considering the increasing burden of which the private ownership of land and capital is imposing upon the industrious and useful classes of the community, the poverty and destitution and general moral and physical deterioration resulting from a competitive system of wealth production which aims primarily at profit-making, the alarming growth of trusts and syndicates, able by reason of their great wealth to influence governments and plunge peaceful nations into war to serve their own interests, this House is of the opinion that such a state of matters is a menace to the well-being of the Realm and calls for legislation designed to remedy the same by inaugurating a Socialist Commonwealth founded upon the common ownership of land and capital, production for use and not for profit, and equality of opportunity for every citizen.”

In the election, the Tories managed to secure a large majority at the expense of the Liberals and the “Lib-Labs” candidates. However, a dramatic change in the situation, unforeseen by anyone, was to occur that was to prove decisive for Labour’s fortunes.

In August 1900, some five months after the formation of the LRC, an unofficial strike broke out over victimisation on the Taff Vale railway in South Wales, which later secured the official backing of the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants. Richard Bell, ASRS general secretary, travelled to Cardiff to organise the picketing against scab labour. In the course of the struggle, tracks were greased, trucks uncoupled and locomotive engines put out of action. Furious employers plotted with the strikebreaking National Free Labour Association and the Employers Parliamentary Council to smash the strike with an injunction, which was duly granted. Although the strike was settled by mediation after only eleven days, the employers carried their legal case for compensation to the Lords and successfully sued for damages against the union to the tune of £23,000, with additional costs of £27,000 – a formidable sum at the time.

This infamous Taff Vale judgement of July 1901 represented a “judicial coup d’état” on behalf of the ruling class. In effect, the decision cut the ground from underneath the entire legal basis for trade union rights as established by the Acts of 1871 and 1876, and made strikes to all intents and purposes illegal. This attack on the unions was no accident. The capitalists needed to respond to the growing strength of the Labour movement. Dissatisfaction among the working class with the fall of real wages posed a serious threat to big business. To counter this threat, the courts were used to hamstring the unions. Yet this legal challenge caused consternation throughout the Labour movement. At the Swansea TUC Congress in August, John Hodge, secretary of the Steel Smelters, announced that he had “made over his little possessions to his wife by deed of gift” to avoid any financial penalties from changes to the law.

The result of the Taff Vale judgement resounded like an earthquake throughout the movement. As a direct consequence, affiliations to the LRC rocketed by 100,000 members within a single year, and were to more or less double again in 1902-3. The unions were determined now to make a success of the party. “We shall no longer allow the tail to wag the dog,” a carpenters’ delegate warned the TUC Congress in 1902, “we shall wag our own tails.” Ironically, this was the moment chosen by the SDF sectarians to leave the LRC! They were like the Russian fool who sang wedding songs at funerals, and funeral dirges at weddings – and got a sound thrashing at both occasions. In turning its back on the mass of organised workers in order to preserve an abstract doctrinal purity, the SDF gave a clear run to the opportunists, Labour aristocrats and muddlers of the ILP. Having lost a golden opportunity to influence events, the SDF went through a series of splits and, to all intent and purposes, disappeared from the scene.

The Breakthrough

In the following few years, the LRC scored a number of spectacular victories at by-elections. However, at the general election of 1906, to the horror of the ruling class, Labour fielded a record number of fifty candidates, of which 29 were returned to the Commons. This block of Labour MPs was later boosted to a total of 40 by an order of the Miners’ Federation, which had instructed its “Lib-Lab” MPs to join the ranks of the Labour group. The ruling class became increasingly alarmed by these developments. The Daily Mail noted how

“… these working men by the simple device of collecting one penny per month per man from their trade unions, had place themselves on so firm a financial basis that they are able to meet the representatives of capital on even grounds at the polls… Their present success will be found to prove the beginning of a movement that will require much watching by capitalists of all conditions.”

Despite these threats, the breakthrough on the electoral front had finally been made and the Labour Party was now firmly established.

One of the key reasons for this development was, once again, the effect of overseas events. The edifice of Russian Tsarism had been profoundly shaken by revolution in early January 1905. A mass peaceful demonstration, led by a priest, was presenting a petition to the Russian Tsar, when it was attacked by government troops. The massacre was the catalyst for a movement of the young Russian proletariat and the beginning of the 1905 Revolution. The movement spontaneously threw up new organisations called Soviets. They were extended strike committees that involved broad layers of the working class and became the focal point of the Revolution. Lenin, who was in exile, considered the Revolution as a “dress rehearsal” for the later socialist revolution. This struggle against the autocracy, which was considered the most reactionary power in Europe, became a rallying cause for the social democracy everywhere. As news spread internationally of the events in St Petersburg, there was great jubilation in the Labour movement.

The example of Russia set the British workers thinking once again in terms of revolution:

On with the blood red flag, no thrall
Beneath its ensign needs to crawl;
We’ll drive our tyrants to the wall,
Hurrah for revolution!

On 25 January, the pre-conference rally held by the ILP prior to the opening of the LRC conference, began with a resolution of support for the Russian Revolution and the struggle of the Russian masses against Tsarist tyranny. “The hour has struck at last”, stated Theodore Rothstein in Justice. “After centuries of bondage and misery the people of Russia has risen, and the throne of the Tsar is shaking to its foundations.” Massive rallies were held throughout the country, jointly organised by the SDF, ILP, Fabians and trade unions. Keir Hardie even raised support for the Russian Revolution in Parliament.

Under these conditions, it is no accident that the effects of the Russian Revolution found their expression in a shift to the left within the LRC. At its annual conference in 1905, the party finally adopted an overtly socialist resolution:

“The Annual Conference of the LRC hereby declares that its ultimate object shall be the obtaining for the workers the full results of their labour by the overthrowing of the present competitive system of capitalism and the institution of a system of public ownership of all the means of production, distribution and exchange.”

Although this resolution was not binding on the party, as the foundation conference had agreed, it was a clear indication of the militant mood that affected the mass organisations. It was early recognition of the direction in which the Labour Party would shift under conditions of social crisis. The impact of another Russian Revolution, some twelve years later, would result in the party adopting a socialist constitution, and the famous Clause Four. These changes illustrate the impact of great events on the mass organisations, which some, falsely claim “can never be changed!” No bureaucratic regime, however ossified, can withstand the winds of change and the class struggle. History proves that events eventually change everything, including the consciousness of the working class, as well as the organisations they have constructed. It is a social law.

The general election of 1906 brought to power a new Liberal government, which, in an attempt to placate the militant mood of the working class, redressed the legal position of trade unions with the passage of the Trades Dispute Act (1906). In the words of Sir William Harcourt, a Liberal politician of the period: “We are all socialists now.” This was a recognition that electoral success depended upon certain concessions to the working class. The new legislation absolved the unions of any legal responsibility for civil damages in strikes, and ensured the legality of picketing. The turncoat John Burns now joined the Liberal government and became President of the Local Government Board. The Taff Vale judgement was dead and buried, but its gravedigger was the political action of the working class.

Under pressure from the Labour Party, Lloyd George enacted a number of reforms on pensions, unemployment and health insurance. A minimum wage was introduced for the sweated trades and an eight-hour day for mineworkers. These reforms served to sow illusions in the Liberal government, especially in the eyes of the leadership of the Parliamentary Labour Party. The latter moved ever closer to the Liberal bosom, which served to deepen their Lib-Lab convictions. This was not at all surprising as these Labour MPs were in reality more far more Liberal than socialist, and were content to hang onto the Liberal coat-tail.

Victory Grayson

But while Labour was mired in Lib-Lab politics, revolutionary socialism hit the headlines at a sensational by-election in Colne Valley, Yorkshire in 1908. A young Victor Grayson took the seat, without the backing of the Labour Party, on an uncompromisingly bold socialist programme, an episode long forgotten or dismissed as an “aberration” by official Labour histories. Grayson was the first man elected to Parliament as an uncompromising socialist. His time in Parliament was stormy, as he refused to knuckle down to the upper class formalities and etiquette of the House of Commons. He intervened in debates with passion, constantly refusing to sit down and accusing the Labour benches of treachery to their own class. Due to his actions, he was repeatedly suspended from the House. When Grayson was called to “order”, he refused to be silenced, saying: “I will not give order in a chamber that starves the people wholesale.” Suspended once more, Grayson turned to the Speaker. “I leave this House feeling that I gain in dignity by doing so…”[6] But this outstanding figure of socialist principle stood alone. At Westminster, Labour MPs, bound up in their Lib-Lab politics, regarded Grayson as a pariah, to be avoided at all costs.

Despite its policy of Lib-Labism, the Labour Party applied for, and was approved as an affiliated section of the Socialist International at the Stuttgart Conference (1908), on a resolution moved by the veteran, Karl Kautsky. The motion read as follows:

“Whereas by previous resolutions of the International Congresses, all organisations adopting the standpoint of the proletarian class struggle and recognising the necessity for political action, have been accepted for membership, the International Bureau declares that the British Labour Party is admitted to International Socialist Congresses, because, while not expressly accepting the proletarian class struggle, in practice the Labour Party conducts this struggle, and adopts its standpoint, inasmuch as the Party is organised independently of the bourgeois parties.”

Both the ILP and the SDF were present as sub-sections and participated in the debate over affiliation. In the discussion, Lenin moved an amendment to Kautsky’s resolution correcting the assertion that the Labour Party was independent of the Liberals, which was clearly not the case, but was defeated. While the ILP were very keen for the Labour Party to affiliate, the SDF voted against the proposal, stating the Party should remain outside until such time as it recognised the class struggle. When Kautsky’s motion was accepted, Lenin wrote a brief commentary justifying his amendment and, at the same time, welcoming the Labour Party’s affiliation as the political representative of the British trade unions:

“That by separating in Parliament (not during the elections! Not in its whole policy! Not in its propaganda and agitation!) from the bourgeois parties, the Labour Party in Britain is taking the first step towards socialism and towards a class policy of the proletarian mass organisations is indisputable. This is not an ‘expectation’ but a fact, the very fact which compels us to admit the Labour Party into the International, since we have already accepted the trade unions. Finally, it is precisely such a formulation that would make hundreds of thousands of British workers, who undoubtedly respect the decisions of the International but have not yet become full socialists, ponder once again over the question of why they are regarded as having taken only the first step, and of what should be the next steps along this road.”[7]

Great events were to dictate the “next steps”. The attempt to financially break the Labour Party, the “Great Unrest” of organised labour, and the march towards World War, all served to transform the outlook of the trade unions and Labour Party. The turmoil in the years, between 1910-14, was propelling the working class further to the left. The contradictions of British capitalism were clearly coming to a head, which, in turn, served to feed into the intense militancy of the British workers. It appeared to the activists that everything was set for the further growth and strengthening of the workers’ movement and that the victory of the working class was now assured.


[1] Marx & Engels, On Britain, p.574

[2] Marx & Engels, Correspondence, p.396

[3] Ibid, p.398-411

[4] Lenin, op. cit, p 112, emphasis in original

[5] Ibid, p.114

[6] Reg Groves, The Strange Case of Victor Grayson, p.68-69, London 1975

[7] Lenin, op. cit, pp.111 and 113

The Great Unrest

The imperialist epoch, the highest stage of capitalism, ushered in a period of intense rivalry, economically, politically and militarily. The key capitalist powers, especially Germany and the United States, were increasingly driven to extreme rivalry, between themselves and Britain, for the control of world markets, colonies and spheres of influence. In the thirty years prior to 1913 the political map of the world had radically changed; the total colonial area conquered by the imperialists had increased by 50 per cent. But some 86 per cent of this area was in the hands of just six Great Powers; actually the concentration was far higher than even these figure show since three powers alone possessed 81 per cent of the total colonial area. From these colonies vast amounts of tribute, minerals and raw materials were extracted by the imperialist powers. With their export of capital the imperialists also benefited from cheap labour on a vast scale. As one employer eloquently put it, “there are no Factory Acts east of Suez.”

International relations soon reached fever pitch in the global battle for markets and spheres of influence. Within a short time, these rivalries would reach boiling point and culminate in the bloody devastation of the First World War. This violent upheaval marked the age of imperialism and the re-division of the world by the leading capitalist powers. It was also to mark the beginning of the general decline and death agony of capitalism, epitomised by war, slump, revolution and the rise of fascism.

In Britain, despite the reforms of the Liberal government, the social gulf between the classes continued to widen dramatically. In a study by Chiozza Money entitled Riches and Poverty (1905), out of a population of 43 million no less than 38 million were categorised as poor. Money-wages between 1900 and 1908 had increased by only one per cent, while the cost of living rose steadily, causing real wages to decline. According to G. H. Wood’s calculations, quoted by Cole and Postgate[1], average real wage-rates were 4 per cent lower by 1910 than they had been in 1896. According to another source, average real wages probably fell by 10 per cent between 1900 and 1912. In contrast, profits and interest rose by 55 per cent between 1899 and 1913. Under such conditions of class polarisation, and a massive build up of grievances in the working class, strikes began to develop. “The fall in real wages was one of the causes of labour militancy”, noted Glyn and Sutcliffe.[2] In February 1907, following the introduction of the Trades Disputes Act, a strike of music hall workers won union recognition and improved conditions, when 2,500 pickets brought performances to a halt. This was followed by a seven-month strike of engineers, and major strikes by shipwrights and joiners, which lasted nearly five months.

In 1907, a Belfast strike over wages by dockworkers, carters and coal labourers, led by the great socialist Jim Larkin, hit the headlines. The strike united both Catholics and Protestants and almost culminated in civil war when 10,000 troops were drafted in to break the strike. The labour unrest that paralysed Belfast drew support from the Belfast Labour Party, the Independent Orange Order, and the Ancient Order of Hibernians. The struggle had split the Protestant Orange Order on class lines, and drew support from across the religious divide. The movement had driven back religious sectarianism, which was deliberately fostered by the bosses in order to split the workers. “Not as Catholics or Protestants, as Nationalists or Unionists, but as Belfast men and workers stand together and don’t be misled by the employers’ game of dividing Catholic and Protestant,” read posters along the Falls Road. The situation deteriorated as a mutiny broke out within the ranks of the Belfast police force. This was eventually suppressed and practically the entire force was transferred to country districts in an attempt to isolate the troublemakers. The dockers went down to defeat, but despite this, industrial strife continued to reign on the docks. “There had not been such an upheaval in a hundred years, and there has not been one since”, states historian Emmet Larkin.[3]

In the rest of Britain, while the government leaned over backwards to appear democratic, the ruling class was engaged in an all-out, anti-union offensive against organised labour. The ruling class was alarmed at the growing strength and confidence of the Labour movement, and in particular its political wing. In 1909, a Liberal trade unionist and member of the Trade Union Political Freedom League, Mr W. V. Osborne, with the full backing of the employers, took legal action against the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants for using its funds for political purposes. After success in the Appeal Court, the matter was taken to the House of Lords. The Law Lords upheld the appeal, and declared in the Osborne Judgment that it was illegal for trade unions to finance Labour candidates or indeed any political objective. At this time, there was no individual membership of the Labour Party, which relied overwhelmingly on affiliated union fees. Given that finance is the sinews of war, the judgement therefore served to paralyse the Party’s activities.

Immediately following the Osborne affair, injunctions were issued against no fewer than twenty-two trade unions forbidding them to continue their political affiliations. Through the scraping together of financial donations, the Labour Party managed with extreme difficulty to fight two general elections in 1910. It was not until 1913 that the Liberal government, under intense working-class pressure, finally acceded to new legislation to redress the balance, but not without stinging qualifications. The Trade Union (Amendment) Act, while allowing trade union affiliation to the Labour Party, placed grave restrictions on this funding. The law now prevented general union funds being spent on political activities. Such finances could only come from a special political fund, which could only be set up after a successful ballot of union members. Anybody who objected to the political fund was allowed to “contract out”. Of course, none of these legal restrictions applied to the Liberal and Conservative Parties, which received their cash from big business, or any other organisation for that matter. It constituted a blatant class onslaught on the organised Labour movement, and despite several Labour governments since then, still remains the situation up to the present-day.

Despite these attacks and difficulties, trade union membership had grown to two-and-a-half million by 1910. The Lib-Lab approach of the parliamentary leadership, however, together with the class collaboration of the trade union leaders, led to growing discontent and frustration amongst the rank and file. This was to result in a growth of syndicalist and semi-syndicalist tendencies in many unions, a rejection of political parties, and the belief that trade union action alone was sufficient to resolve workers’ problems. While this was an erroneous view, this syndicalist ferment in the unions proved to be the precursor to a massive revolutionary upsurge of the British working class, known in Labour history as the “Great Unrest”.

By 1910, the prolonged upswing of world capitalism, ushered in after the defeat of the Commune, was drawing to a close. This period represented the peak of British imperialism’s power, which was now being relentlessly challenged by German and American capital. The loss of Britain’s privileged position forced the ruling class to rationalise its industrial base and cut back on the concessions that had underpinned the position of the “aristocracy of labour”. The birth of New Unionism in the late 1880s and early 1890s was a direct response to the new conditions that were being imposed. The mighty class movement of 1910-14, which reached a revolutionary fever pitch, constituted a qualitative deepening of this process. “It was not only the aristocratic status of British industry in the world, but also the privileged position of the ‘aristocracy of labour’ within Britain that was shaken”, wrote Leon Trotsky. “1911 to 1913 were years of unparalleled class battles by miners, railwaymen and other transport workers… In those days a dim spectre of revolution hung over Britain.”[4]

From 1910 until the outbreak of war, the number of working days lost in strikes rose to an annual total of more than 10 million or more, while membership of trade unions shot up from two-and-a-half million workers in 1910 to 4 million by 1914. In the same period, TUC affiliations rose from one-and-a-half million to nearly two-and-a-quarter million.

The “Great Unrest” began with the stormy South Wales Cambrian strike that raged from November 1910 to August 1911. It proved to be the first break in the dam, which would result in a deluge. The Cambrian Combine, headed by the coal baron Lord Rhondda, typified the reorganisation introduced by the coal owners. Their aim was to boost profits by means of driving down wages, speed-ups, and intensifying the exploitation of labour. For the coal owners, in an industry where labour costs represented 70 per cent of the total, this was a vital step in boosting profit margins. However, while the owners planned their attacks, discontented younger miners were pressing for militant action to secure a guaranteed minimum wage. A battle royal was being prepared throughout the coalfield. As expected, the Cambrian miners refused to accept the new rates offered to them by the so-called Conciliation Board and a strike took place. The following 10-months saw 10,000 Rhondda miners involved in a ferocious battles against state forces. In Tonypandy on 9 November, a miner was shot dead by troops of the Hussars and Lancashire Infantry dispatched to South Wales to crush the miners by the Home Secretary, a man who would become an infamous enemy of the working class in years to come – Winston S. Churchill. With considerable casualties on both sides, a touch of the unreality was lent to the proceedings by the King’s message regarding the “safety of pit ponies.” Although the strike was defeated, the struggle established the demand for a minimum wage as a central issue throughout the British coalfield, which was to culminate in the national stoppage of 1912.

By November 1910, the dockworkers’ and transport unions joined forces to form the new militant Transport Workers Federation, with left-winger Robert Williams as its secretary. In June 1911 a wave of strikes broke out over pay and conditions on the docks in Southampton, Cardiff and Hull. They were quickly joined by workers in Manchester and London. The London dockers were faced by an alliance of ruthless Port employers and the Liberal government, which refused point-blank to negotiate with the strikers. Once again, Churchill threatened to dispatch 25,000 troops to the docks to break the strike. The dockers’ leaders warned of armed conflict in the streets if troops were used to strike-break. Daily mass demonstrations were held throughout East London in support of the strikers, some numbering over 100,000 strong. The government, taken aback by the workers’ militancy and alarmed by the explosive situation, hastily persuaded the employers, headed by Lord Davenport, to concede a number of the strikers’ demands and avert an impending debacle.

In the city of Liverpool, the strike movement reached civil war proportions. A 70,000-strong transport strike, led by Tom Mann, assumed the character of a regional general strike, and crippled the city. The government rushed two war ships to the Mersey, their guns trained on the centre of Liverpool. 7,000 troops and special police were drafted in to deal with the strikers and break their resolve. The government had turned the city overnight into an armed camp. The aim of the government was to intimidate the strikers with a massive show of force. This failure led the government to bring matters to a head. On 13 August, a monster demonstration at St George’s Hall Plateau in central Liverpool was brutally attacked by the police and pitched battles spilled over into the streets. During the fighting two strikers were shot dead. The Manchester Guardian reported that it was “a display of violence that horrified those that saw it.” The following day the Riot Act was read, as virtual martial law was imposed on the city. “Let Churchill do his utmost, let him order ten times more military to Liverpool and let every street be paraded by them; not all the king’s horses with all the king’s men can take the vessels out of the docks to sea”, stated Tom Mann defiantly. By the end of the month, after Mann threatened national sympathy action from other sections, the employers gave in and sued for peace on the union’s terms. It was a proud victory against brutal employers and the Liberal government. As a result of the dispute, the membership of the Dockers’ Union rose from 8,000 to 32,000, as thousands rallied to its ranks.

In the same month of August, the leadership of the rail unions were forced to call a national all-out strike over the failure of the bosses to honour their 1907 agreement. In an attempt to defuse the situation, the government offered a Royal Commission, but the union swiftly rejected the ploy. The strike-call was answered by 200,000 rail workers, which brought the railway system to a complete standstill. This was a challenge the government could not ignore. “Then blood be on your own head,” retorted Prime Minister Asquith. Churchill this time mobilised 50,000 troops to key industrial centres. According to the Webbs, “a policy of repression had been decided on, and bloodshed was near at hand.” Amongst numerous disturbances, the troops opened fire on strikers in Liverpool and in Llanelli, South Wales, killing two strikers. “Strikes are assuming a mass character,” noted Lenin in the Russian paper Pravda.[5] Churchill with gritted teeth decided that it was “… a new force in trade unionism… The general strike that must be dealt with.”

Strikes Spread

But a general strike was something the government as a whole wished to avoid. Fearing that the strikes would spread and coalesce into such a strike, the Liberal government was forced to change tack and urged the employers to enter into negotiations. Eventually, after a further threat of strike action, both sides agreed to a compromise and a reform of the Conciliation Boards with joint trade union management representation. This move consolidated union recognition on the railways, and, more importantly, gave an impetus to trade union amalgamation in the industry. By 1913, a number of small rail unions, including the ASRS, took the bold step in forming the National Union of Railwaymen. Unfortunately, the craft union ASLEF remained aloof from the amalgamation, resulting a bitter inter-union feud, played on by the employers, that was to last until recent times.

As the rail strike came to an end, strikes again flared up in the coal industry over the minimum wage. The bitter strikes of the Cambrian miners continued into 1911 and served to highlight the guaranteed wages issue. This formed the background to a delegate conference of the Miners’ Federation of Great Britain called to decide on action. The delegates sanctioned a strike ballot, requiring a two-thirds majority, based on a resolution declaring “a general stoppage” throughout the Federation “for the purpose of securing for all colliery workmen a definite guaranteed wage.”[6] The miners voted to strike on 1 March 1912 by a majority of four to one, a clear indication of the militancy sweeping the coalfields. It was to constitute the first genuine national miners’ strike involving almost one million workers. As Lenin graphically remarked at the time,

“If the railway strike of 1911 displayed the ‘new spirit’ of the British workers, the miners’ strike certainly marks a new epoch… In Britain a change has taken place in the relation of social forces, a change which cannot be expressed in figures, but which everyone feels.”[7]

The ruling class was certainly not blind to the processes unfolding, and this time the central government had learned its lesson. To deflect the crisis, it immediately proposed a National Minimum Wage Bill for the coal industry, which it preceded to rush onto the statute books. Although it did not fully concede everything the Miners’ Federation had demanded, it did establish the machinery for determining district minimums. But, to the consternation of the government, the majority of miners rejected the deal in a national ballot and continued their action.

“The most outstanding event in the past year has been the miners’ strike…”, wrote Lenin. “Those who know the British labour movement, however, declare that since the strike the British proletariat is no longer the same. The workers have learned to fight. They have discovered the path that will lead them to victory. They have become aware of their power.”[8]

Within a year, the membership of the Miners Federation had leapt by almost 160,000 to over 900,000, at this time the biggest and potentially the most powerful union in the entire world.

Throughout this period, the capitalists waged a constant rear-guard struggle against the unions. In May 1912, they managed to turn the tide when a new battle flared up on the docks over the attempted use of non-union labour. The Transport Workers’ Federation threatened a general strike on the docks over the twin issues of recognition and the fulfilment of the 1911 agreements. 80,000 London dockers answered the call, but the response from provincial ports was not as solid, mainly due to the gains of the previous strike. There was no common set of grievances that could bind the men together, and was regarded by many as dominated by sectional issues. There were insufficient preparations for national action, which proved a disastrous failing. The employers, led by Lord Devonport, sensing weakness, chose to dig in their heels. On Tower Hill, Ben Tillett led his workers in solemn prayer: “God strike Lord Devonport dead.” But Davenport remained alive and kicking, and continued to use blackleg labour to break the strike. The men were forced to return to work empty handed. As was to be expected, the employers used their temporary victory to victimise the main trade union activists and reassert their control over the industry.

Almost a year after the defeat of the dockers, in the summer of 1913, an industrial storm broke out in Dublin. The Irish Transport and General Workers Union led by the two great revolutionary giants, James Connolly and Jim Larkin, took on the might of the Dublin employers. Connolly was the greatest Marxist ever produced by these Isles, and provided a complementary figure to the fiery James Larkin. The Employers’ Federation had thrown down the gauntlet when workers on the Irish Independent were told to leave the union or face the sack. “The issue involved in the Dublin strike is a serious one,” argued the secretary of the engineering bosses. “A victory for the syndicalist leaders there would be disastrous for the employers not only in Dublin, but throughout the United Kingdom.” For the ruling class, Larkinism had become synonymous with militancy in the same way as Scargillism would become some 70 years later.

The printers chose to back the union and were therefore locked-out. This signalled a general employers’ offensive that led to a massive 25,000 workers being locked-out by September. The employers had no qualms about using the full might of the state to crush the Dublin workers; meetings were banned and workers arrested, including Larkin and Connolly.

“In Dublin, the capital of Ireland – a city of a not highly industrial type, with a population of half a million – the class struggle, which permeates the whole life of capitalist society everywhere, has become accentuated to the point of class war”, wrote Lenin in Severnaya Pravda. “The police have positively gone wild; drunken policemen assault peaceful workers, break into houses, torment the aged, women and children. Hundreds of workers (over 400) have been injured and two killed – such are the casualties of this war. All prominent workers’ leaders have been arrested. People are thrown into prison for making the most peaceful speeches. The city is like an armed camp.”[9]

From the ranks of the transport union’s pickets was organised a workers’ defence organisation, the Irish Citizen Army. This force sought to counter the terror of police violence that had resulted in the murder of two workers and the wounding of 400 in the course of the lockout. The Citizen Army was open to all militant workers, determined to defend the strikers and their organisations. In reality, this body constituted the world’s first Red Army, and conducted its military operations under the flag of the “Plough and the Stars”. Connolly had set up a rifle club to which his men contributed sixpence a week, from which guns were bought illegally from British soldiers in Dublin. Women helped to stitch and sew the Army’s dark green uniforms, and ex-regular army NCOs and reservists assisted in shaping the Citizen Army into an efficient fighting force.

“An armed organisation of the Irish working class is a phenomenon of Ireland”, stated Connolly. “Hitherto the workers of Ireland have fought as part of the armies led by their masters, never as a member of any army officered, trained and inspired by men of their own class. Now, with arms in their hands, they propose to steer their own course, to carve their own future.”[10]

The Citizen Army grew out of, and was organically linked to, the Irish Transport and General Workers Union. Its headquarters were in the union’s Liberty Hall. It was in reality a weapon of the trade union movement fashioned to defend workers from the violence of both employers and state. It was an extension of the picket line. The workers are not pacifists. They will fight with arms in hand if necessary to protect their rights and organisations. In a similar fashion in Britain during the 1926 General Strike, Councils of Actions established Defence Corps in certain areas to defend strikers. Such a development was in no way regarded as foreign or alien to our traditions, as can be seen from the history of Chartism, but grew out of the needs of the situation. Likewise, Connolly and the other leaders of the Transport Union were not prepared to stand aside in face of violence from the employers and their state. They had a duty to fight back and defend themselves in an organised fashion, and that is precisely what they did.

The effects of the Dublin lockout shook the British Labour movement.

“If revolution is going to be forced onto my people”, stated Robert Smillie, president of the Miners’ Federation, “by such action as has been taken in Dublin and elsewhere, I say it is our duty, legal or illegal, to train our people to defend themselves… It is the duty of the greater trade union movement, when a question of this gravity arises to discuss seriously a strike of all the workers.”

The Co-operative movement, which had grown into a large-scale trading company, sent shiploads of food to Dublin to feed the strikers and their families. The TUC voted a £5,000 donation to the Irish TGWU. Sympathy strikes, involving some 7,000 British railworkers, were the tip of an iceberg. The mood of workers across Britain was disposed to fight alongside their Irish brothers and sisters. Unfortunately, the TUC failed to translate this widespread sympathy into the blacking and boycott of Irish trade, as many of its leaders were opposed to Larkinism. A special TUC in December overwhelmingly rejected James Larkin’s call for sympathetic strike action. Nevertheless, mass meetings were called to hear Larkin in Manchester, Sheffield, Glasgow and elsewhere.

“A great many of the trade union leaders seemed to think they existed to apologise for capitalism, to try and stop strikes and smooth difficulties over, to put a healing salve in the wounds and bandages with a salve”, stated Larkin. “It is a root remedy that you must apply. The poison is the employers’ power over labour. The power to exploit your flesh and bone and brain.”

The failure of the TUC to widen the dispute led to the undermining of the strikers’ resolve. The struggle was to last until February 1914, when the workers were eventually starved back to work. The Irish Transport and General Workers Union, however, remained intact. Soon afterwards, the Irish Trade Union Congress, reflecting the class struggles in Dublin, adopted the view that “labour unrest can only be ended by the abolition of the capitalist system.”

The spirit of the times was heartily captured in the slogan of the Daily Herald, “Strike and strike hard.” After a short run as a strike sheet in 1911, the Herald appeared as a daily in April 1912 devoted to the revolutionary cause of labour.

The depth of the strike movement at this time can be gauged from the strike figures:

1908 – averaged 30 disputes a month
1911 – averaged 75 disputes a month
1913-14 – averaged 150 disputes a month

Yet even these figures do not do justice to the real conflict between capital and labour. The explosive struggle was on an even higher level than in the late 1880s and early 1890s. It had a higher degree of aggressive militancy, sometimes violent and often unofficial in character. The fears of the ruling class were expressed openly in the capitalist press: “Perhaps the most salient feature of this turmoil at the moment is the general spirit of revolt, not only against employers of all kinds, but also against leaders and majorities, and Parliamentary or any kind of constitutional and orderly action.”[11] This refers not only to the growth of militancy, but a new creed within the ranks of the unions, namely syndicalism.

The philosophy of syndicalism had a powerful influence in these years. From 1900 to 1912, the social conditions produced by the impasse of British capitalism had pushed a whole layer of workers towards direct action and industrial unionism. The positive side of syndicalism was in its rejection of class collaboration and the crass opportunism emanating from the Labour and trade union leaders. “The most charitable thing that can be said about political action is that it is slow, so slow that it breaks men’s hearts”, said a member of the ASE. Syndicalism showed absolute distain for the antics of the Labour group in the Commons, which became a mere adjunct of the Liberal Party. This disgust with Lib-Labism, viewed as embodying the worse kind of reformism, led to a rejection of party politics, and a concentration on industrial unionism and rank-and-file movements.

Another key plank of syndicalism was the rejection of “official” leadership. This was most ably articulated in The Miners’ Next Step (1911), platform of the Unofficial Reform Committee in the South Wales Miners Federation. This platform, originally drafted by Noah Ablett, a Maerdy checkweighter, was born out of the miners’ bitter struggles of 1910-11. “Leadership implies power held by the leader”, stated The Next Step.

“Without power the leader is inept. The possession of power inevitably leads to corruption. All leaders become corrupt, in spite of their own good intentions. No man was ever good enough, brave enough or strong enough to have such power at his disposal as real leadership implies.”[12]

This view arose out of the experience in particular of the South Wales Miners’ Federation, led by right-wingers like Mabon (president), William Brace (vice-president), and Tom Richards (general secretary), all of whom were MPs. These leaders had signed a five-year wage agreement with no real provision for abnormal places or small coal and gave into the demands of the owners for changes in working practices.

The aim of the Unofficial Reform Committee as a “no-leader movement”, laid heavy stress upon the need for unofficial action apart from the official movement. The proposals contained in The Miners’ Next Step created a furore in the South Wales coalfield, which soon spread to other areas. The old officials of the SWMF held up their hands in holy horror at these suggestions! Labour leaders of all shades attacked it. No such pamphlet had ever caused such a stir throughout the British trade unions as this. Despite its political weaknesses, the Next Step did serve to place industrial democracy at the centre of British working-class politics.

While the syndicalist school pointed to the need for unofficial action, it tended to regard such action as a principle, rather than an as alternative when the official movement acts as a barrier to struggle. The syndicalists tended to bend the stick too far in one direction as a reaction to the conservative role of the trade union bureaucracy. These ideas nevertheless found fertile soil amongst militant trade unionists, particularly the young fighters, and in such bodies as the Socialist Labour Party, the Syndicalist Education League and the Plebs League.

British syndicalism tended to be a mix of French anarcho-syndicalism and the ideas of industrial unionism promoted by the American socialist, Daniel De Leon. In Britain, the supporters of De Leon founded the Socialist Labour Party (SLP), which was a split-off from the old SDF. The syndicalists embraced militant struggle and direct action as the way forward for the class struggle. For them, militant trade unionism should strive towards a general strike of all workers, leading to the overthrow of capitalism and the reorganisation of society on the lines of industrial unionism.

As James Connolly, who worked as an organiser for the syndicalist IWW in America, and was also a member of the SLP, explained:

“The light of this principle of Industrial Unionism, every fresh shop or factory organised under its banner, is a fort wrenched from the capitalist class and manned with the soldiers of the revolution to be held by them for the workers. On the day that the political and economic forces of labour finally break with capitalist society and proclaim the Workers’ Republic these shops and factories so manned by Industrial Unionists will be taken charge of by the workers there employed and force and effectiveness given to that proclamation …”[13]

This was a revolutionary outlook that correctly stressed the essential role of the class struggle in the transformation of society and the need for the working class to take direct control of the factories. If there is a weakness in syndicalism, it is in its lack of clear understanding of the essential role played by leadership and the party in the overthrow of capitalism. In their eyes, the role of the party was reduced to that of an educator and propagandist, rather than a leader of the working class. But the struggle for power is the most difficult and irreconcilable struggle in history. The old ruling class will do all in its power to sabotage and stymie the will of the majority. It will not give up its privileged position without a fight. “You can peel an onion leaf by leaf”, stated R.H. Tawney, “but you can’t skin a live tiger claw by claw.” And the capitalist class resembles a live tiger. Given the difficulties in the path of the working class, a dedicated and theoretically-tested leadership and party is required to draw all the threads together and channel the energies of the masses towards the conquest of political power. The working class is not completely homogeneous and is made up of different layers, which, having varying experiences, draws different conclusions at different times. The role of the party is to overcome these divisions and consciously draw together the different struggles of the working class. Essentially, its task is to make conscious the unconscious will of the workers to transform society. While Connolly, Luxemburg, and Trotsky were brilliant Marxists, it was Lenin, above all else, who grasped the importance of the party in these years. It was this understanding that allowed the Bolsheviks to lead the Russian Revolution to success in October 1917.

“Rank and Fileism”

Syndicalism’s rejection of leadership and concentration on “rank and fileism”, in reality, simply played into the hands of the right-wing leaders. Their fixation with the general strike as a weapon for changing society – which was a widespread view on the left – tended to ignore or down-grade the nature of the capitalist state. They imagined that such a display of force during the general strike would result by itself in the collapse of capitalism. Such was the classic view of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) in the United States. This was a profound mistake. While the general strike can be an important weapon, it serves to raise the question of power, but does not resolve it. In such cases, the solution lies in the conquest of political power by a party of the working class, based upon the movement of the masses themselves. The 1926 General Strike in Britain would demonstrate in practise the need not only for militant trade unions, but also a revolutionary leadership and party that would carry the struggle through to a successful conclusion.

The theories of syndicalism, in its different varieties, reflected at this time a certain political immaturity of the working class. It would take the experience of the Russian Revolution of October 1917, which attracted the enthusiastic support of the syndicalists worldwide, to clarify the way forward.

“The opportunist conduct of the MPs belonging to the latter party [the ILP] is giving rise, as is always the case, to syndicalist tendencies among the workers,” observed Lenin. “Happily these are not strong. The British trade unions are slowly but surely turning towards socialism…”[14]

Nevertheless, syndicalism did provide the revolutionary focal point for the struggle of rank-and-file militants, especially in the rail, mining and engineering unions. In 1911, Tom Mann founded the Industrial Syndicalist Education League. A year later, the Amalgamation Committee Movement was established in the engineering industry to work for industrial unionism, reform of the ASE, and to promote workers’ control. Rank-and-file Vigilance Committees were also established on the railways. Amongst the miners, the Unofficial Reform Movement was established. These movements helped to forge a number of amalgamations in the trade union field, especially on the railways and in transport. They also played a crucial role in the rise of the shop stewards movement during the war years and the left-wing Minority Movement during the 1920s.

Just prior to the First World War, splits in the SDF and discontent within ILP, left-wing Clarion groups, and others, led to realignment and the creation of the British Socialist Party (BSP). In early 1914, the BSP took the decision to affiliate to the Labour Party and seek a road to the politically organised workers. Militants in both the BSP and the Socialist Labour Party (SLP) – people like William Gallacher (BSP), Arthur MacManus (SLP) and David Kirkwood (ILP), who led the famous Clyde Workers’ Committee – played an important role in promoting industrial unionism throughout these years. These experiences were of fundamental importance in shaping the outlook of the shop stewards’ movement right up to the formation of the British Communist Party in 1920.

In the years leading up to the First World War, the militant mood in industry was far from exhausted. A whole series of new demands were being made by miners, transport, and engineering workers. In July 1914, all of London’s building workers were out on strike. New political demands now came to the fore, such as nationalisation under workers’ control of the railways and the coalmines. Under the pressures of the rank and file, a new industrial body came into being, embracing some 1,500,000 workers: the famous Triple Alliance, made up of miners, railworkers and transport unions. Such a potentially powerful organisation posed a deadly threat to the ruling class. For the workers it represented a qualitatively higher level of struggle than ever before.

The growing crises in economy, in politics, and in international relations, were all symptoms of a general crisis of world capitalism. All were a manifestation of the fact that the system was reaching its limits, that the contradictions were intensifying, and that there was no peaceful way out of the impasse. As well as this international crisis, Britain was also consumed in a full-blown political crisis at home. The Liberal government was faced with an army mutiny in Ulster led by Sir Edward Carson (“the Curragh Incident”) over its proposals for Irish Home Rule. Carson was in turn, backed by a Tory-Ulster rebellion in Britain. The Tory leader Bonar Law, cast off his “democratic” mask, and was threatening civil war over the issue. This revolt caused Prime Minister Lloyd George to become increasingly alarmed at the unfolding crisis. At a meeting in the City of London on 17 July 1914, he stated that with intertwining of the Labour “insurrection” and the Irish “insurrection”, “the situation will be the gravest with which any government has had to deal for centuries.”

For the government, the threats of immanent civil war and revolution were extremely serious. Britain, by all indications, was heading for a social explosion. According to the Webbs, “British trade unionism was in fact in the summer of 1914 working up for an almost revolutionary outburst of gigantic industrial disputes.” However, within a matter of weeks, the situation had been cut across by events for which the working class was totally unprepared. The outbreak of warfare on a greater scale than ever seen before, was the clearest expression that the limits of the capitalist system were being breached. In an attempt to escape the increasing contradictions of capitalism, the major powers were taking to the road of military aggression and the imperialist re-division of the world. The insoluble contradiction of private ownership and the nation state, which placed the productive forces in a straightjacket, was coming to a head at a feverish pace. This world crisis would have a devastating impact upon all classes in society, but especially on the working class.


[1] Cole and Postgate, op. cit, p.485

[2] Glyn and Sutcliffe, British Capitalism, Workers and the Profits Squeeze, p.18, London 1972

[3] Emmet Larkin, James Larkin, p.35, London 1965

[4] Trotsky, op. cit, p.8

[5] Lenin, op. cit, p.119

[6] Quoted in Edwards, History of the South Wales Miners’ Federation, p.54, London 1938

[7] Lenin, op. cit, pp.151-2

[8] Ibid, p. 151 and 154

[9] Lenin, Collected Works, vol.19, p.332, Progress Publishers 1975

[10] Quoted in James Connolly Selected Writings, p.23, London 1973

[11] Quoted by Alan Hutt in British Trade Unionism, London 1941

[12] The Miners’ Next Step, p.19, London 1973

[13] Connolly, ‘Socialism Made Easy’

[14] Lenin, op. cit, p. 54

War and Revolution

By the early days of August 1914, the world picture had changed out of all recognition. The Great Powers had unleashed the dogs of war. Kaiser Wilhelm’s armies had marched into Belgium. Britain and its allies soon followed suit, as if in some giant macabre game of chess. “The lamps are going out all over Europe”, stated Edward Grey, the British Foreign Secretary. “We shall not see them lit again in our lifetime.” The Socialist International, to which the British Labour Party was now affiliated, had promised to oppose the coming imperialist war by all revolutionary means necessary. But when the test came, the International collapsed. Rosa Luxemburg went so far as to describe the International as a “stinking corpse” that had betrayed the proletariat, delivering it bound, hand and foot, to the capitalists’ military machine. Once war was declared, in a burst of jingoism, all the Labour and trade union leaders, with only a handful of courageous exceptions internationally, quickly lined up behind their respective ruling classes in what was to be the bloodiest carnage in human history, with ten million dead and millions more disabled, mutilated and poisoned.

“War is the natural condition of Europe,” wrote the anarchist Kropotkin. The First World War, however, was qualitatively different. Not only was it a world war, it was altogether on a vaster, more ghastly scale than anything previously experienced. New fiendish weapons of mass destruction were devised, including poison gas: chlorine, phosgene, and then the horrors of mustard gas, which burned away the flesh of body and lungs. Millions of men faced each other along seemingly infinite lines of trenches and fortifications known as the “Western Front”. The failed German offensive at Verdun in 1916 was to end with one million casualties (collateral damage, to use the modern dehumanised parlance). The British offensive on the Somme cost 420,000 lives, 60,000 of whom perished on the first day. The front did not shift significantly for the next two-and-a-half years. It was the most terrible and traumatic experience in living memory. Siegfried Sassoon captured the mood at the front:

Lines of grey muttering faces, masked with fear,
They leave their trenches, going over the top,
While time ticks blank and busy on their wrists,
And hope, with furtive eyes and grappling fists,
Flounders in mud. O Jesus, make it stop!

But it would not stop for four long years. The roots of war went deep. The war itself was no mere accident or caused by the death of a Crown Prince, but resulted from the build up of imperialist contradictions and tensions prior to 1914. Britain had lost her industrial monopoly, and was being challenged in particular by American and German capitalism, which had overtaken her in terms of total production. In 1870 Britain had produced as much as one third of the world’s industrial goods; by 1913 it produced only 14 per cent. By 1913 the USA had already become the largest economy in the world, producing over one third of its industrial output – just under the combined total for Germany, Britain and France. This gave rise to continual clashes between rival imperialist powers both in Africa and the Far East, especially between Germany, Belgium, Portugal and Britain. The main powers each established their own “spheres of influence” as well as secret inter-locking alliances to safeguard their national interests. Economic protectionism now held sway in America, France and Germany as a means of keeping British exports out of their markets, while the Dominions of the British Empire, gave preferential treatment to Britain. It was a period of shifting alliances and explosive international economic, diplomatic and military rivalry.

In July 1911, in an affront to France, the German government had seized the Moroccan port of Agadir. In the coupling of military alliances, Italy declared war on Turkey, which led directly to the Balkan Wars of 1912-13, and in turn to the Austro-Serbian conflict. On 28 June 1914 the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary provided the final pretext for world war. The assassination was accident born out of necessity. Austria-Hungary then declared war on Serbia; Russia moved to support Serbia, which provoked Germany’s war with Russia and France; Germany’s refusal to respect the neutrality of “gallant little Belgium” served as the excuse for Britain to enter the war. The re-division of the world by the major imperialist powers had begun, which would culminate in the carnage of 1914-18. This convulsion signalled the impasse of world capitalism, and above all reflected, as Lenin and Trotsky explained, the rebellion of the productive forces against the straightjacket of private property and the nation state. Such contradictions provoked the frenzied struggle by the Great Powers for new markets, sources of raw materials and new fields of exploitation.

“We see, therefore, that war is not merely a political act,” stated the great military historian Clausewitz, “but also a real political instrument, a continuation of political commerce, a carrying out of the same by other means. All beyond this which is strictly peculiar to war relates merely to the peculiar nature of the means which it uses.”[1] Stripped of all its subterfuge and cant, war was simply the continuation of imperialist rivalry (“politics”) but by “other means”. War merely carries the horrors of capitalism to their extremes.

On 24 August, the joint board of the TUC, the General Federation of Trade Unions, and Labour Party, met and passed a resolution: “That an immediate effort be made to terminate all existing disputes, whether strikes or lockouts, and wherever new points of difficulty arise during the war a serious attempt should be made by all concerned to reach an amicable settlement before resorting to strikes or lockouts.” The mighty industrial wave of the previous four years had ground to an abrupt halt. The revolutionary mood sweeping industry was completely silenced. In its place came wild patriotic enthusiasm for the war effort. A war that many believed would be over by Christmas.

The General Federation of Trade Unions, caught up in the chauvinist whirlwind, pledged whole-hearted support for the imperialist war against Germany and its allies. The TUC, through its Parliamentary Committee, unanimously fell into line. Over the first weekend in August 1914, 6,000 took the colours at army recruitment offices, and many were turned away. Such was the support for war whipped up by the government propaganda that by the end of the month, the Labour Party Executive Committee agreed to support the government’s “all-Party” recruiting drive. Mrs Pankhurst’s suffragette supporters, who had abandoned their own campaign for women’s rights, were now fierce advocates of conscription. Ramsay MacDonald, who resigned from the Labour leadership on pacifist grounds and was replaced by Henderson, nevertheless wrote to his constituency advising young men to answer the call up. Most of the other pacifist ILP leaders, including Keir Hardie, who tried to oppose the war, soon bent their heads. “The lads who have gone forth… must not be disheartened by any discordant note at home”, said the pitiful Hardie. Shortly afterwards he was to die a broken man. Even Hyndman for a short time committed the British Socialist Party to the imperialist war, before being expelled by the anti-war majority.

On the international front, the socialist parties affiliated to the Socialist International had originally set out to oppose the war, as outlined by the resolutions of the Stuttgart (1907) and Copenhagen (1910) conferences. The French socialist leader Jean Jaurés, who was later assassinated, drafted the anti-war resolutions:

“If war threatens to break out it is the duty of the working class in the countries concerned and of their parliamentary representatives, with the help of the International Socialist Bureau as a means of co-ordinating their action, to use every effort to prevent war by all means which seem to them most appropriate, having regard to the sharpness of the class war and to the general political situation.

“Should war nevertheless break out, their duty is to intervene to bring it promptly to an end, and with all their energies to use the political and economic crisis created by the war to rouse the populace from its slumbers, and to hasten the fall of capitalist domination.”

This revolutionary attitude to war was a principled one. It recognised that the World War was a reactionary war between various imperialist powers for the re-division of the world. The working class has nothing to gain from capitalism and its policies in peacetime or war. The prime task was to unmask the class interests of the powers involved, and raise the standard of opposition and socialism.

Shamefully, instead of carrying out these decisions, the leaders of each national section rushed to support their own ruling classes. This collapse of the Socialist International constituted an historic betrayal of internationalism. While it would have been almost impossible to mobilise mass opposition at the start of the war given the patriotic fervour, if they had simply registered their opposition it would have kept the socialist banner clean and laid the basis for future large-scale resistance. But they staged an ignominious capitulation. On 3 August in the Reichstag, when the Kaiser asked for large war credits, saying, “I know only Germans”, the vote in favour was unanimous. Even the courageous Karl Liebknecht, who later went to prison for his anti-war activities, submitted to party discipline on this occasion. It must be said the betrayal came as an enormous shock to everyone. Even Lenin refused to believe the news, saying that the declaration of support for the war in the German Social Democratic Party newspaper must have been a forgery!

In the decades of upswing before the war, the leadership of the Labour movement internationally began, in effect, to accommodate itself to capitalism. The struggle for reforms became an over-riding aim, while the idea of the socialist revolution became a distant goal. “The movement is everything”, said the revisionist Eduard Bernstein, “the goal is nothing.” This outlook summed up the views of the social democratic leaders. For them, opportunist policies, the watering down of ideas and principles for illusory gains, became a way of life. As Lenin explained,

“The relatively ‘peaceful’ character of the period between 1871 and 1914 served to foster opportunism first as a mood, then as a trend, until finally it formed a group or stratum among the labour bureaucracy and petty-bourgeois fellow-travellers. These elements were able to gain control of the labour movement only by paying lip-service to revolutionary aims and revolutionary tactics.”

While the German socialist leaders announced a crusade against Tsarist reaction, the French and British socialist leaders launched one against German militarism. The only parties of the International to oppose the imperialist war on class lines were the Social Democracy of Russia (Mensheviks and Bolsheviks) and Serbia. In addition, the British ILP came out in opposition for pacifist reasons. The Second (Socialist) International, built on parties formally committed to revolutionary Marxism, when put to the test, simply collapsed like a house of cards.

“What then becomes of all our resolutions; all our protests of fraternisation; all our threats of general strikes; all our carefully built machinery of internationalism; all our hopes for the future?” asked James Connolly a few days into the war.[2]

Eighteen months later, Connolly led his Citizen Army, in alliance with the Irish nationalists, into an Easter Uprising against the British government. He had hoped that such an act of self-sacrifice would serve to light the flames of revolt throughout Europe against the imperialist war. However, the rising was put down in cold blood by the British government, and its leaders, including Connolly, were executed. It was the Bolshevik Party in October 1917 that carried out Connolly’s revolutionary hopes, shaking the capitalist order to its very foundations.

In Britain, there was very little organised opposition to the war, which reflected the initial enthusiasm of the population. World war was a totally new experience, and the masses were oblivious to the horror that was about to befall them. Once the Labour leadership had swung into support of the war, the rank and file were completely disorientated. The activists at local level were totally stunned and isolated, unable to offer much resistance. According to a young shop steward at the time: “Probably nothing reveals the political infancy of the revolutionary socialists and syndicalists at this time more than their utter helplessness at the outbreak of war.”[3]

Many had looked to the trade unions for a lead, but none was forthcoming. As late as 2 August 1914, a few days before the outbreak of war, demonstrations in Trafalgar Square addressed by Lansbury, Hardie, Henderson and Will Thorne, declared their total opposition to the coming conflagration. But the actual declaration of war transformed the situation. When the time for action came, nothing happened. With heads bowed, they all surrendered to the pro-war mood. They could have stood their ground and kept the flames of internationalism alive. But they were not personally up to it. It was left to a handful of courageous individuals, like John MacLean in Scotland and James Connolly in Ireland, to keep the Red Flag of international socialism flying.

Consequently, as soon as the war was declared, the railway workers withdrew their strike notices. The London building workers returned to work, and the engineers dropped their demand for a 48-hour week. The class struggle had ground to a halt. By January 1915, 12 per cent of all engineering workers nationally had already enlisted in the armed forces. This rose to 19.5 per cent before serious attempts were made to keep young people at home to service the war industries.

“What terrible attraction a war can have! Thousands went flocking to the colours in the first days, not because of any ‘love of country’, not because of any high feeling of ‘patriotism’”, recalls Willie Gallacher of the Clyde shop stewards, “but because of the new, strange and thrilling life that lay before them. Later the reality of the fearsome slaughterhouse, with all its long agony of filth and horror, turned them from buoyant youth to despair or madness.”[4]

The Labour leaders agreed to set aside all trade union conditions of labour for the duration of the war. An “industrial peace”, where strikes were suspended, was unilaterally declared by the workers’ organisations. Their capitulation was essential to the war effort. “Had labour been hostile,” Lloyd George later admitted, “the war could not have been carried on effectively.”

Voices Stifled

The only union to oppose the war was the newly established Building Workers Industrial Union, but its voice was quickly stifled. Disenchanted militants who led a breakaway from existing unions had set up the union. This splitting tactic, which was tragically repeated in future years by impatient sections, simply played into the hands of the right-wing trade union leaders.

“It had by its foundation”, Cole and Postage correctly explained, “merely drained off out of every union the rebel members, leaving the reactionary officials in complete control... The tactic of dual unionism, of founding a rival true-red union, had led to utter disaster, and the lesson was remembered in later years.”[5]

When a pacifist told Lenin, who was in exile in Switzerland, that war was “terrible”, he replied, “Yes, terribly profitable.” The British Daily Telegraph agreed: “This war provides our businessmen with such an opportunity as has never come their way before…”[6] Lord Buckmaster noted that the war had produced “the most amazing profits that this country has ever witnessed.” He estimated that they were making more than £4 billion in profits compared to the pre-war period. As expected, unscrupulous capitalists took advantage of the war restrictions on labour to boost their excessive profits. A “munitions levy” imposed in 1916 to check excess profits was abolished within a year.

As the battlefields were marked out and the blood of young soldiers soaked the soil, an incredible scene took place on the morning of Christmas Day 1914. The fighting stopped and the singing of carols could be heard on both sides of the divide. As far as the eye could see, soldiers left their trenches and entered “no man’s land”; they then greeted one another, exchanging tobacco and addresses. One young soldier relates in the television documentary series, The Great War, how they began to call each other “comrade” and discuss the war. He was soon astonished to find that the German soldiers, as well as they, were fighting for “freedom” with God at their side. The whole episode had a profound impact on him and the tens of thousands of soldiers who fraternised with one another.

As the war wore on, opposition to it grew amongst the British troops. In particular, there was a growing resentment against the general staff and their increasing incompetence. Songs were composed by anonymous soldiers that served to capture the popular anti-war imagination:

I want ter go home,
I want ter go home,
I won’t go back ter the trenches no more,
Where the Jack Johnson Browns an’ the cannons they roar,
Take us over the sea,
Where Gerry he can’t get at me,
Oh, Ma, I’m too young ter die,
I want ter go home.

On the home front, those bosses involved on war contracts pressed the unions hard for the relaxation of trade practices and restrictions. The government pushed for big increases in production in the engineering and shipbuilding industries, supplying armaments and munitions. In March 1915, the “Shells and Fuses Agreement” was made between employers and unions that allowed “dilution” of labour, the replacement of skilled labour by unskilled labour. In the words of the Daily Herald, “the trade union lamb has lain down with the capitalist lion”. Unfortunately, the lion does not lie down with the lamb, but consumes it. Whereas the union leaders signed away these rights “in the national interest” without a second thought, the workers on the shop floor increasingly took a different view in defence of their class interests.

Wartime conditions brought in their wake substantial increases in the cost of living and a steep jump in unemployment. In February 1915, rising discontent produced an explosion in the class struggle on Clydeside. Some 10,000 engineering workers, against the instructions of the union officialdom, struck for a pay rise to compensate for rising food prices and increased rents. The leadership of the Clyde strike fell to the Central Labour Withholding Committee, later renamed the Clyde Workers’ Committee (CWC), under the leadership of Willie Gallacher. Despite opposition from government and employers, the strikers secured their demands. The Daily Herald, which had swung against the war, reported on 20 March: “Despite insults and threats, despite official pressure, the Clyde men have kept the flag of revolutionary trade unionism flying and that in itself is something.” In parallel, a rent strike led by women in Glasgow also ended in a victory and a reduction in rents.

The determined fight against the war, together with his repeated imprisonment, made John MacLean a world-renowned figure for the first time. Along with James Connolly, MacLean was the finest Marxist propagandist ever produced by the British workers’ movement. He sacrificed everything for the Cause, including his health. Leon Trotsky, in the Russian journal Nashe slovo wrote “in Scotland itself coalminers are rallying round the red banner raised by John MacLean and his comrades.”

Lenin wrote often about MacLean, always linking his name with Karl Liebknecht. His most important assessment was made just prior to the October Revolution:

“The world working-class revolution was first begun with engagements by isolated combatants representing with unequalled courage all the honest elements of official ‘socialism’ – a socialism rotten to the core, which is in reality nothing but social chauvinism. Liebknecht in Germany, Adler in Austria, MacLean in England; such are the best known of these isolated heroes who assumed the heavy task of precursors of the revolution.”

After the Revolution, MacLean was appointed Bolshevik Consul in Britain. His heroic role was in marked contrast to that of the Labour and trade union leaders.

In an article written just before his death, entitled Trade Unions in the Epoch of Imperialist Decay, Trotsky wrote that in the period of capitalist decline there is an organic tendency for the trade union apparatus to fuse with the state machine. This tendency would periodically break down under the pressure of the masses, but it was always present. However, in the First World War, with the working class disorientated and bewildered, this phenomenon reached new heights. Trade union leaders and officials not only supported the war but also sat on innumerable government and joint industrial councils to promote the war effort. Ernest Bevin, the dockers’ leader, was a member of dozens of such government committees. The trade union apparatus became totally embroiled in the social machinery of the state. The Clydeside strike revealed this collusion in practice when the strikers were faced with the combined opposition of employers, government and the union bureaucracy. All the unions, except for the mineworkers, signed a new agreement – the Treasury Agreement – that effectively introduced for the first time industrial conscription into Britain.

By May 1915, Asquith established a Coalition government, which drew into office the Labour leader Arthur Henderson and two other Labour MPs. This was important in fostering the idea of national unity. New draconian laws were then introduced, granting enormous powers to the government over the munitions industry, authorising compulsory arbitration of disputes and the suspension of trade practices. Munitions workers were not allowed to leave their jobs without a “Leaving Certificate”. Such measures introduced the virtual militarisation of labour, allowing the complete subordination of the working class to the war machine.

However, whilst the tops of the Labour movement were prepared to carry out the dictates of the ruling class, it proved another matter altogether for the workers on the shop floor. Within a few days of the introduction of the Munitions Act, miners in South Wales rejected the wage offer made by the government’s arbitration committee. In response, Lloyd George on behalf of the government declared that all strikes were now illegal. Within two days of this announcement, 200,000 miners had struck work, forcing the government to beat a hasty retreat and to concede to most of their demands.

In December 1915, further industrial turmoil on Clydeside forced the fox-like Lloyd George and the ever-pliable Arthur Henderson to intervene personally and meet the shop stewards of the Clyde Workers’ Committee (CWC). However, their presence served simply to antagonise the workers and, to their astonishment, they were repeatedly shouted down at meetings. As sweet-talk proved ineffective, the government turned to more repressive measures against the workers. In early 1916, the CWC newspaper was banned, and a number of unofficial strike leaders arrested and imprisoned. Six leading shop stewards were later arrested and deported from Glasgow, on pain of imprisonment if they returned. Among those detained by the authorities was John MacLean, who was subsequently sentenced to three years imprisonment for sedition. As a result of this repression, the industrial storm centre shifted from the Clyde to the engineering factories of Sheffield and South Yorkshire. Astonishingly, by July 1916, over 1,000 workers nationally had been placed under arrest for illegal strike activities under the Munitions Act. Even all the government’s war measures could not suppress the class struggle.

Revolutionary Objectives

Given the class collaboration of the trade union leaders, rank-and-file organisation in the form of shop steward committees spread throughout the country, and linked up to form the National Shop Stewards’ and Workers’ Committee Movement. Many of its leaders were committed members of the socialist groups, the Socialist Labour Party and the British Socialist Party, which attempted to give the industrial movement a revolutionary direction.

In December 1916, a new Coalition government was formed with Lloyd George as Prime Minister. An astute representative of the British ruling class, he rested increasingly on the Labour and trade union leaders to police the workers. In doing so, Lloyd George systematically drew these leaders into government posts explicitly responsible for the war effort. Henderson now entered the War Cabinet, John Hodge, secretary of the Steel Smelters, became Minister of Labour, and George Barnes of the Engineers became Minister of Pensions. Their authority as Labour and trade union leaders was then systematically exploited by the bourgeoisie to hold back the growing discontent in the working class, compounded by attacks at home and the needless loss of life abroad.

The year 1917 was to mark a turning point not only in the world war but also world history. On the home front, there was a major change in the industrial climate. In the engineering industry, 1917 was the peak year for strikes, with over 300,000 workers involved in action and two-and-a-half million working days lost. The new rank-and-file National Shop Stewards Committee was to the fore in strikes at Barrow and on the Tyne in March 1917, and in Coventry in November. In May, a rash of strikes broke out at munitions centres on the Clyde, Sheffield and London, against the extension of dilution and the use of the Munitions Act. Despite coercion and arrests under the Act, the strike movement did not decline, but on the contrary, it increased in intensity and scope. The class struggle, originally subdued by the pro-war mood, had once again re-ignited with a bang.

In the international arena, revolutionary events in Russia turned the world on its head. The first Russian Revolution of February 1917 (March in the new calendar) swept away the 1,000-year old Tsarist despotism, and placed power into the hands of the working class. As in 1905, the masses spontaneously created their own organs of self-rule, the soviets of workers’ and soldiers’ deputies. Unfortunately, the masses were not conscious of their power and handed it to the socialist leaders (the Social Revolutionaries and Mensheviks), who, in turn, handed it over to the bourgeoisie in the form of the Provisional government. Nevertheless, the Revolution had an enormous impact on the Labour movement internationally. In Britain, a Convention was called in Leeds, in June, to celebrate the event. The Convention, called by the leaders of the Independent Labour Party, attracted 1,150 delegates, 371 of whom were from the trade unions. It was an occasion for high spirits and great “revolutionary” speeches. So much so, that Ramsay MacDonald spoke in favour of establishing Soviets in Britain! He moved the following successful resolution:

“This Conference of Labour and Socialist and Democratic organisations of Britain, hails the Russian Revolution. With gratitude and admiration it congratulates the Russian people upon the Revolution which has overthrown a tyranny that resisted the intellectual and social development of Russia, which has removed the standing menace to aggressive imperialism in Eastern Europe, and which has liberated the people of Russia for the great work of establishing political and economic freedom on a firm foundation and of taking the foremost part in the international movement for working class emancipation from all forms of political, economic and imperialist oppression and exploitation.”

Phillip Snowden, who would later became a Lord and abandon the Labour Party to join MacDonald’s National Government, also addressed the Leeds Convention. Here he displayed great “revolutionary” passion by reiterating the words of a telegram sent in response to one sent by the Russian Soviets:

“The largest and greatest Convention of Labour, socialist and democratic bodies held in Great Britain during this generation has today approved Russia’s declaration of foreign policy and war aims, and has pledged itself to work through its newly constituted workmen’s and soldiers’ council for an immediate democratic peace. The Convention received your telegram of congratulation with gratitude and enthusiasm.”

But the February Revolution failed to solve the problems of the Russian masses. The socialist leaders, both Menshevik and Social Revolutionaries, pledged their loyalty to the Kerensky government, which, in turn, pledged its loyalty to the capitalists and landlords. As a result, the situation of the Russian masses grew steadily worse in face of demands for increased sacrifices for the imperialist war. In the space of nine months, the Bolshevik Party under Lenin and Trotsky worked steadfastly to turn the revolution into a socialist revolution, as a stepping-stone to a world socialist revolution. With the slogans “peace”, “bread”, and “land”, they won over the masses represented in the soviets and took power peacefully in October 1917. The Bolshevik Revolution – ten days that shook the world – had dramatic international ramifications. The Revolution proved to be the greatest event in human history. Capitalism and landlordism were thrown into the dustbin of history. For the first time ever, the working class and poor peasants came to power and established a democratic government based upon soviets of workers, soldiers and peasants. While the heroic Paris Commune proved a short episode, the Bolshevik Revolution managed to hold out in the face of an orchestrated attempt internationally by the bourgeois to overthrow the government.

Electrifying effect

“Socialists – genuine and not make-believe Socialists – have seized the reins of power. . .” stated the British socialist paper, The Call on 29 November 1917.

“For the first time we have the dictatorship of the proletariat established under our eyes… The Bolshevik success has been carried out with the sympathy and support of the town workers and the common soldiers… Peace and bread, the suppression of the war-profiteer and the greedy landlord – this is what Lenin and his friends are trying to obtain for their own countrymen and for the distressed world at large. Are we going to help them?”

The paper revealed the deep internationalist spirit of the British working class who rallied to the side of the Russian masses.

Lenin and Trotsky, the leaders of the Revolution, immediately issued an appeal to the workers of the world to put an end to the bloody war, publish all the secret treaties of the imperialists and follow their revolutionary example in the fight for a world revolution. It had an electrifying effect in Britain and throughout war-torn Europe.

The Russian Revolution roused the Labour movement and lifted the sights of workers everywhere. This created a revolutionary ferment in the ranks of the movement, which began to exert tremendous pressure on the leadership. Revolution was in the air – literally. As a result the Labour Party and the TUC moved towards semi-opposition to the war policies of the British government. Things began to turn into their opposite. A by-product of this pressure was the resignation of Henderson from the Cabinet, although Barnes and Hodge chose to remain. In early 1918, under the impact of the Bolshevik agitation at Brest-Litovsk under the skilful direction of Trotsky, the idea of peace negotiations – the “Memorandum on War Aims” – was endorsed by a conference of Allied labour leaders.

In the last year of the war, the Shop Stewards’ Movement in Britain had assumed an immensely powerful position. TUC membership had also jumped from less than two-and-a-quarter million in 1913 to over four and a half million in 1918. There were extensive moves towards further trade union amalgamation and federation, such as with the Iron and Steel Trades Confederation. This process was extended further with the formal ratification of the Triple Alliance of miners, railway and transport workers, which was originally planned in 1914, but was postponed due to the outbreak of war. At the Labour Party’s Nottingham Conference in January 1918, there were unprecedented scenes of jubilation. The Bolshevik Litvinov, the representative of the Soviet government, received a standing ovation, amid cheers for Lenin and Trotsky. Later, at a special Labour Party conference at Central Hall, Westminster, amid the flames of revolutionary Russia, the party decided to adopt a new Socialist Constitution, the famous Clause Four, pledging to secure for the workers the “common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange”, based upon workers’ control and management.

The tidal wave of unrest during the war swelled to new heights in 1918. This was reflected in the monster May Day demonstrations on the Clyde, an unprecedented police strike in August and mutinies at a number of South Coast naval bases. A new rash of unofficial rail strikes broke out in September, with further unrest in the South Wales coalfield and in the Lancashire cotton industry. The crisis of British capitalism was also affecting the state itself. The police, who formed their own union, the National Union of Police and Prison Officers, in October 1913, had struck at the end of August over recognition, employing flying pickets to bring out police stations. Amazingly, this was still during the war. One should still be aware that while the government was forced to grant wage rises, and reinstate those dismissed, it failed to bring about the recognition of the NUPPO, with the government only prepared to concede a Police Representation Board. Consequently, thousands of police joined the union as a result of this militant stand.

Internationally, war was giving birth to revolution. Within a few short months, the November 1918 German Revolution brought the World War to an abrupt end. Sailors had mutinied and workers’ and soldiers’ councils, following the example of the Russian Revolution, were established all over Germany. The Hapsburg and Hohenzollern empires followed the dynasty of the Romanovs into oblivion. The German Revolution was a further beacon to the working class everywhere, which increasingly looked to revolution to solve its problems. Unfortunately, at the head of the German workers stood not a Bolshevik party as in Russia, but the right-wing social democrats Ebert, Scheidemann and Noske, who set about opposing the Revolution.

It was the German Revolution and not the plans of the politicians or generals that had brought the First World War to an abrupt end. The armistice to end war was signed on 11 November, a week after the outbreak of the Revolution. Like wild fire, revolution spread throughout Europe as workers and soldiers decided to take their fate into their own hands. The masses poured onto the stage of history in a torrent, filled with the desire to put an end to the Old Order and build a new world for themselves. In Bavaria, a soviet republic was proclaimed, but was quickly overthrown by counter-revolutionary forces. In Hungary a similar regime held power for months but was eventually drowned in blood by Western powers. A series of revolutions and counter-revolutions, which developed in rapid succession, terrified the capitalist class internationally. They were literally shaking in their boots.

“The whole of Europe is filled with the spirit of revolution”, noted the cunning Lloyd George. “There is a deep sense not only of discontent, but of anger and revolt amongst the workmen against pre-war conditions. The whole existing order in its political, social and economic aspects is questioned by the masses of the population from one end of Europe to another.”

With workers looking at the example of Soviet Russia, the capitalist system appeared on the brink of being overthrown.

The British government, together with the bourgeoisie internationally, regarded the Soviet government as a mortal threat to their system, to be eradicated as quickly as possible. In their struggle with the Bolsheviks, the imperialist powers gave whole-hearted support to the counter-revolutionary White armies. In July 1918 the British dispatched an expeditionary force to Archangel and Murmansk to overthrow the Bolsheviks. In all, twenty-one imperialist armies of foreign intervention were dispatched against revolutionary Russia. As soon as news of this became apparent, a protest movement mushroomed in one country after another. In Britain, the ILP issued a manifesto against the counter-revolutionary intervention of the British government. Later, a national “Hands off Russia” Committee led by Harry Pollitt and others was established and garnered support from all sections of the Labour movement. The British working class, demonstrating its internationalist instincts, rallied unequivocally to the cause of the Russian Revolution – the first break in the chain of world capitalism.

General Election

Within three days of the armistice, an emergency Labour Party conference withdrew the Labour ministers from the Coalition and proclaimed its “protest against any patching up of the old economic order.” In the ensuing general election, Labour fought with a very radical manifesto, Labour and the New Social Order, specifically demanding

“The immediate nationalisation and democratic control of vital public services such as mines, railways, shipping, armaments, and electric power; fullest recognition and utmost extension of trade unionism... the abolition of the menace of unemployment... the universal right to work or maintenance, legal limitation of the hours of labour and the drastic amendment of the Acts dealing with factory conditions, safety and workmen’s compensation.”

It contained the appeal for a new society:

“The view of the Labour Party is that what has to be reconstructed after the war is not this or that government department, or this or that piece of social machinery; but, so far as Britain is concerned, society itself… We of the Labour Party… recognise, in the present world catastrophe, if not the death, in Europe, of civilisation itself, at any rate the culmination and collapse of a distinctive industrial civilisation, which the workers will not seek to reconstruct… The individualist system of capitalist production… with the monstrous inequality of circumstances which it produces, and the degradation and brutalisation, both moral and spiritual, resulting there from, may, we hope, indeed have received a death-blow. With it must go the political system and ideas in which it naturally found expression. We of the Labour Party, whether in opposition or in due time called upon to form an Administration, will certainly lend no hand to its revival. On the contrary, we shall do our utmost to see that it is buried with the millions whom it has done to death.”

The poll was deliberately called as a snap election. Although Lloyd George’s National Coalition was returned with a thumping majority in this “Khaki” election, giving the Coalition Tories 359 seats and the Coalition Liberals 127 seats, this was certainly not an accurate reflection of the mood in society or the growing support for the Labour Party. Many soldiers were still to be demobbed and the voting registers were hopelessly out of date. The revolutionary feeling of the soldiers returning from the front had not been translated into parliamentary arithmetic, which dramatically lagged behind the real situation in Britain. Despite this, Labour had become the effective opposition, with two-and-a-half million votes (up dramatically from half a million in 1910) and a record 57 seats in the Commons.

The opening days of 1919 were preparing another explosion in the class struggle. The working class had been promised a “home fit for heroes”, and now many were determined to fight for it. A new revolutionary chapter in the history of the British working class was about to open. It represented the retying of a knot of struggle that had been broken by the war, but on a much higher level than ever before.


[1] Clausewitz, On War, p.119, London 1968

[2] Forward, 15 August 1914

[3] J.T. Murphy, Preparing for Power, London 1972

[4] Gallacher, Revolt on the Clyde, pp.18-19, London 1949

[5] Cole and Postage, op. cit, p.495

[6] Daily Telegraph, 19 August 1914

On the Brink of Revolution

With the end of the war, discipline in the allied armies broke down very quickly. Mutinies had broken out at a number of army camps, where military police had been shot and soldiers’ committees formed on the lines of the Russian and German soviets. On the home front industrial militancy flared up, with the Clydeside once again at the epicentre of workers’ struggles. The ruling class was increasingly terrified at the developing pre-revolutionary situation in Britain throughout 1919. “This country was nearer to Bolshevism that day than at any time since”, stated the wily old fox, Lloyd George.

In January, a successful army mutiny in Calais was quickly followed by another at Folkestone, with the refusal of 3,000 war-weary troops to board trains for France. Instead the troops decided to march on Whitehall and then on Parliament, demanding to be immediately demobbed. They were only stopped when they were surrounded and forced to surrender by a regiment of Household Guards and Grenadiers, bayonets at the ready. Incredibly, over the following two weeks almost fifty mutinies took place in the British armed forces. Britain was on the brink of revolution.

This revolutionary groundswell affecting the armed forces placed in jeopardy the use of troops against industrial disputes on the home front. To determine which troops could be used for strike-breaking, the War Office sent out a secret circular to Commanding Officers (later leaked to the Daily Herald) demanding weekly reports on key matters including:

“Will troops in various areas respond for assistance to preserve the public peace? Will they assist in strike breaking? Will they parade for draft overseas, especially to Russia? Have any soldiers’ councils been formed?”

Results of the circular were directly reported to Winston Churchill and demonstrated the real mood in the armed forces:

“Troops… deprecate being used in strike-breaking and the general feeling is that it would not be fair to ask troops to do what they would themselves consider blacklegging work… Troops will parade for draft overseas with the exception of Russia.”

The British Cabinet was forced to repeatedly discuss this serious situation. Following these deliberations, the Cabinet Secretary noted in his diary: “Red Revolution and blood and war at home.” Churchill then informed the Cabinet: “By going gently at first we should get the support we wanted from the nation and then the troops could be used more effectively.” Bonar Law was keen on the idea and urged the enrolment of volunteers, particularly stockbrokers, to supplement the armed forces! The Cabinet then discussed recalling troops from abroad to deal with the situation at home, in which the War Secretary intervened to report, “We need 18 battalions to hold London.” During the discussions, the Foreign Secretary baulked at the thought of bringing troops home from Silesia, but he drew a strong rebuke from Chamberlain: “I am for holding the British coalfields rather than the Silesian ones!”[1]

The real tragedy of this revolutionary movement in the armed forces was the abject failure of the leaders of the labour movement to give it any support and political direction. At the same time as the workers in uniform were forming soldiers’ councils and challenging the authority of the officer caste, industrial workers in Britain were engaged in titanic battles with their employers. Industrial strife was unfolding with particular bitterness among the shipyard and engineering workers in Belfast and on revolutionary Clydeside. Unfortunately, there was no attempt to link up these struggles or direct them to a common purpose.

John MacLean in Glasgow, suffering stretches in prison, tried his best to rally the workers on the lines of Revolutionary Russia.

“We witness today what all Marxists naturally expected,” stated John MacLean, “the capitalist class of the world and their governments joined together in a most vigorously active attempt to crush Bolshevism in Russia and Spartacism in Germany. Bolshevism, by the way, is socialism triumphant, and Spartacism is socialism in the process of achieving triumph. This is the class war on an international scale, a class war that must and will be fought out to the logical conclusion – the extinction of capitalism everywhere.”[2]

At the end of January 1919, a strike movement on the Clyde reached general strike proportions. Under the leadership of the Clyde Workers’ Committee, engineering workers, shipyard workers and other sections struck for a 40-hour week. This was no ordinary strike however. Under existing conditions, with Britain in pre-revolutionary turmoil, it posed a serious threat to the country’s social fabric. As indicated in the Cabinet papers, there was an open fear of revolution in government circles. Accordingly, the government dispatched 10,000 troops to Glasgow from different parts of the country, while local troops were confined to barracks to prevent fraternisation. Menacingly, armoured tanks were stationed in George Square, Glasgow, after a battle between strikers and police.

Unfortunately the strike, with its overt revolutionary overtones, was isolated by national trade union officials, who went to great lengths to discipline local officials for their involvement (the Amalgamated Society of Engineers, for example, suspended its district officials on the Clyde), and the strike came to an end within a fortnight. The militants who led the Clyde Workers’ Committee, as well as the national shop stewards body, were deeply influenced by the Bolshevik Revolution, but had no clear understanding of how to take the movement forward. This led Willie Gallacher, the chairman of the CWC, to comment much later, “we were carrying on a strike when we ought to have been making a revolution.” He continued, our “failure to realise the need of continuous and consistent leadership embracing all phases of activity represented a fatal weakness that was to lead to our complete eclipse.” Their experience of revolutionary syndicalism, nevertheless, increasingly pushed them in a revolutionary direction, and the politics embodied by the newly established Communist International.

“Many of the principal figures in the Communist Party, which emerged in 1920 and 1921, were men whose experiences and ideas had been formed on Clydeside”, noted the historian L.J. Macfarlane. “MacManus, Bell and Gallacher all played leading parts in opposing the war and shared with the Bolsheviks a bitter contempt for the British trade union and Labour Party leaders who had betrayed the cause of international working class solidarity.”[3]

During the Clyde events, the 800,000-strong Miners’ Federation of Great Britain (MFGB) had resolved to press home their demands for a 30 per cent wage increase, a six-hour working day, and the nationalisation of the mines under workers’ control. When, as was to be expected, the government – which had taken over control of the coal industry in 1916 – rejected these demands, a strike ballot was issued resulting in a big majority for industrial action. With coal stocks at famine levels (London had only three days supply), and the other members of the Triple Alliance simultaneously pushing their own demands, Lloyd George found himself in extreme difficulties, with a general strike implicit in the whole situation.

In these precarious circumstances, the main objective of the government was to avoid provoking a general strike at all costs. Lloyd George attempted to defuse the industrial situation by playing for time. He was a very astute and crafty bourgeois politician, and knew how to manipulate a situation to his advantage. He realised fully that British industry needed to reduce costs, particularly wage costs, and that organised labour needed to be defeated to achieve this aim. But given the revolutionary mood in the working class, they had to tread carefully and act with due caution. It was not a question of the interests of this or that capitalist, but the interests of the capitalist class as a whole. After all, “the executive of the modern state is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie”, to quote Marx. Lloyd George knew exactly what was at stake. The government was forced to undertake – having sized up the attitude of the trade union leadership – a gigantic manoeuvre. It was a typical stick and carrot approach. Firstly, they attempted to intimidate the union leaders by threatening the use of force against strikes. Secondly, out of the goodness of their hearts they agreed to set up a Royal Commission, a ploy used to dupe workers on many occasions, to investigate the mining industry, and whose findings would be binding on the government (or so they claimed).

Within seventeen days, the Commission, under the chairmanship of Sir John Sankey, rushed out an interim report on 20 March 1919, recommending higher wages, the seven-hour day, and a prospect of a six-hour day to follow. It stated that

“the present system of ownership and working in the coal industry stands condemned and that some other system must be substituted for it, either nationalisation or a method of unification by national purchase and/or by joint control.”

The question of ownership of the industry was however left until a later report. This was an astute move, which suitably impressed the union leaders. Fearing pithead violence and an open clash with the state, both Robert Smillie, the Federation’s president and Frank Hodges, the secretary, persuaded a special miners’ conference – despite the colossal advantage in their hands – to accept the government’s offer. The government gave out an audible sigh of relief. It was clear that a miners’ strike could have rapidly escalated into a general strike, which the trade union leaders – both right and left – were not prepared to contemplate. “We had no right to force conditions on the nation because of our strength…” remarked Smillie. In the event, this only served to postpone the battle.

The Triple Alliance

The Webbs, as good Fabians, acted as go-betweens for Lloyd George and the leaders of the Miners’ Federation. “If the government, confident of their power to beat the miners, go into battle – theirs is the responsibility…” stated Beatrice Webb in her Diaries. “‘Blockading the miners will be a difficult and dangerous task: the railwaymen and transport workers might be drawn in, the army might refuse to act. And then?” she asked. It was this scenario that alarmed the trade union leaders, including the Webbs, even more than the ruling class.

The final Sankey Commission Reports favoured nationalisation and granted the miners a share in control of the industry. But Lloyd George reneged on his promise to accept Sankey and rejected nationalisation of the coal industry. The miners had been tricked. The union had by now lost the initiative, and the government’s subterfuge had paid off.

Emboldened by this success, Lloyd George now attempted to go another step further. On the broader front, the government used a similar tactic in establishing the National Industrial Conference, where trade unions and employers’ organisations were both invited to work out, in true class collaborationist fashion, a “common goal”. Once again, the lion and the lamb were being asked to cooperate in their joint welfare! Although the engineers, together with the Triple Alliance unions boycotted the Conference, it served to tie the hands of those leaders prepared to participate and helped to defuse the increasingly heated industrial climate. In the words of labour historian, G.D.H. Cole,

“the entry of Labour into the Industrial Conference and Coal Commission – the latter acclaimed as a great Labour triumph – was the determining factor in tiding over the critical industrial situation of the first half of 1919…”

This was acknowledged by T.E. Naylor, of the London Compositors, who later reminded the government that it was the role of the trade unions that had prevented “the revolution which would undoubtedly have broken out.”[4]

In June 1919 a successful strike by 300,000 Lancashire cotton operatives won a 48-hour week and a 30 per cent wage rise. The following month the National Union of Police and Prison Officers was provoked into calling a second strike. This time the government was well prepared and the response to the strike was very patchy. Unfortunately, the promised support from other sections did not materialise. “Many trade union branches, many trade union executives, pledged themselves to support the police in maintaining their position. And yet, with the exception of a sectional strike or so, nowhere has any real backing been given to the police, save from Liverpool”, stated the Daily Herald.[5] The strike was broken and all the strikers were dismissed. The government, which was determined never again to countenance a similar situation, introduced improvements in pay and conditions in an attempt to divide the police from other workers. They also took measures to stamp out trade unionism in the force, which ended in the NUPPO itself being outlawed.

Soon after the war railworkers had won the eight-hour day. Negotiations were then carried out to secure the “standardisation” of wage rates, which in workers’ eyes meant a levelling up of wages. The government deliberately dragged out negotiations until after the coal crisis had been resolved. Then the government, true to form, demanded wage cuts. Taken completely by surprise, the National Union of Railwaymen called an immediate strike, which was denounced by Lloyd George as an “anarchist conspiracy”. But the strike went ahead, with dramatic results. The Times thundered that this, “like the war with Germany, must be a fight to the finish.” The government arbitrarily withheld pay owing to the strikers, and plans were made to starve the strikers back to work. Troops were called out and instructions were given for local authorities to enrol a strike-breaking “Citizen’s Guard”. Once again, the scene was set for an almighty showdown with organised labour.

Within a week, the rail strike had caused 400,000 miners and others to stop work; another week and millions would be out of work. Paralysis was sweeping the country as transport ground to a halt. The strikers remained solid as support poured in from other unions as well as the Co-operative movement. Lloyd George, recognising the unfavourable balance of forces, once again, beat a hasty retreat. Existing wage rates were maintained and there was no victimisation. It was a significant victory, and the employers’ offensive was stopped in its tracks, for the time being at least. Although the railworkers were successful, in the course of the dispute they had not appealed for assistance from their Triple Alliance partners. Similarly, when the miners were on the brink of action, they made no appeal to the Alliance. In other words, the Triple Alliance had not been tested in action. That test had to wait for another year.

In the meantime, the right-wing trade union leaders did everything they could to undermine the workers’ militancy. “It may infuriate those who are in favour of Direct Action if I say I am opposed to it because it will accomplish nothing. It would, of course, involve us in disorder and pull things down…” stated J. R. Clynes, Labour MP and President of the National Union of General Workers in a newspaper article entitled The Criminal Folly of ‘Direct Action’.

“All the advocates of Direct Action tell us that they do not want violence, but that is the first thing they would get. We cannot bring out hundreds of thousands or perhaps millions of men on strike without producing in a very short time all those elements, which conduce to a state of disorder, misconduct and riot.

“The workers have justly condemned others for their wrongdoing in relation to the Law. Let not the workers advocate a policy which would make them or their spokesmen the leaders of crime and the fomenters of behaviour which would find expression in terms of looting and perhaps murder.”[6]

The dilemma faced by the trade union leaders, both left and right, was summed up in a conversation between Robert Smillie and Aneurin Bevan in 1919:

“Lloyd George sent for the Labour leaders, and they went, so Robert told me, ‘truculently determined they would not be talked over by the seductive and eloquent Welshman.’ At this, Bob’s eyes twinkled in his grave, strong face. ‘He was quite frank with us from the outset,’ Bob went on. ‘He said to us: “Gentlemen, you have fashioned, in the Triple Alliance of the unions represented by you, a most powerful instrument. I feel bound to tell you that in our opinion we are at your mercy. The Army is disaffected and cannot be relied upon. Trouble has occurred already in a number of camps… In these circumstances, if you carry out your threat and strike, then you will defeat us. But if you do so,” went on Lloyd George, “have you weighed the consequences? The strike will be in defiance of the government of the country and by its very success will precipitate a constitutional crisis of the first importance. For, if a force arises in the state, which is stronger than the state itself, then it must be ready to take on the functions of the state, or withdraw and accept the authority of the state. Gentlemen,” asked the Prime Minister quietly, “have you considered, and if you have, are you ready?” ‘From that moment on,’ said Robert Smillie, ‘we were beaten and we knew we were’.”[7]

In this episode is encapsulated the fatal weakness of those who have no confidence in the workers to change society. When put to the test, they draw back and are incapable of carrying through their threats to a conclusion. Throughout the period, the capitalist class was learning how to perfect class war, while the workers’ leaders seem to be learning how to avoid it. Lloyd George was absolutely right. He admitted that capitalism could not have survived without the compliance of the Labour and trade union leaders. Lenin also once said that, “capitalism could not last six weeks without support of the Labour and trade union leaders.” Unfortunately, they had no faith in changing society. At critical times, as in 1919 and 1926, when power was posed, they capitulated to the government, and shied away from anything that would put the survival of capitalism at risk.

In December 1919, a special TUC Congress launched a “Mines for the Nation” campaign. In March 1920, a recalled Congress considered further action to force the government to honour its pledge. Yet the proposal for a general strike was defeated by 3,870 votes to 1,015. At the gathering, the “moderate” Mr Clynes was once again shaking in his boots at the thought of a general strike. Typically, the right-wing rail union leader, J. H. Thomas, admitted he was forced to lead the 1919 rail strike, not to win, but to maintain control over the rank and file and avert the danger of revolution! This graphically summed up the outlook of the trade union right wing.

However, by mid-August 1920, the complete deadlock over miners’ wages boiled over into a vote for strike action. The following month, the miners’ leaders for the first time called upon the Triple Alliance for active support. It was a decisive moment. However, the transport and rail union leaders, particularly J. H. Thomas, sabotaged the solidarity appeal, forcing the MFGB to come to a temporary agreement. This was the so-called “datum line” agreement, a breathing space, which was to expire in March 1921. It is no accident that the government used this partial retreat to broaden its powers. In addition to its wartime Defence of the Realm Act, it introduced an Emergency Powers Act that gave the government arbitrary powers to maintain “essential services”, whenever deemed necessary. This legislation constituted a growing arsenal for use against a radicalised Labour movement. In effect, the ruling class, unlike the union leaders, were seriously preparing for possible civil war in Britain. The actions of the right wing within the Triple Alliance were a foretaste of their future roles.

Soviet Support

Since its inception, the young Soviet state had been subject to attack by the imperialist powers, either through their own direct military intervention or support for the counter-revolutionary White armies within Russia. Throughout 1919 and 1920, the British Labour movement energetically took up the celebrated defence of the Soviet Republic. Millions rallied to the cause of Revolutionary Russia and the young Communist Parties that were being established in all countries. On 18 January 1919, a 350-strong “Hands Off Russia” delegate conference had been organised in the Memorial Hall, London, sponsored by the London Workers’ Committee, the British Socialist Party, the Socialist Labour Party and the IWW. Arthur McManus and Sylvia Pankhurst, who had actively campaigned for the Bolshevik cause, were among the revolutionary activists also taking part. The meeting passed the following resolution:

“This rank and file conference of delegates from British and Irish Labour and socialist organisations hereby resolves to carry on an active agitation upon every field of activity to solidify the Labour movement in Great Britain for the purpose of declaring at a further conference, to be convened for that purpose, a general strike, unless before the date of that conference the unconditional cessation of allied intervention in Russia – either directly, by force or arms or indirectly by an economic blockade, by supplying arms or money to the internal opponents of the Bolsheviks, or by any other sinister means endeavouring to crush the Bolshevik administration – shall have been officially announced, and will continue the strike and agitation until the desired announcement shall have been made, until we are satisfied as to the truth of the announcement, and until the allied attack on the Workers’ and Soldiers’ Councils in Germany are stopped, the blockade of Germany raised and the Allied troops withdrawn.”[8]

The Labour Party conference in June 1919 went as far as to threaten direct action to prevent British military involvement. None other than right-winger Herbert Morrison told the conference:

“They had got to realise that the present war against Russia on the part of this country, France and the other imperialist powers, was not war against Bolshevism or against Lenin, but against the international organisation of socialism. It was a war against the organisation of the trade union movement itself, and as such should be resisted with the full political and industrial power of the whole trade union movement.”

By 1,893,000 votes to 935,000, a motion was decisively carried demanding an immediate end to the intervention, prescribing Labour and TUC co-operation, “with the view to effective action being taken to enforce these demands by the unreserved use of their political and industrial power.” The groundswell of feeling from below had forced the hands of the trade union and Labour leaders to such a degree that they were threatening a general strike!

Meanwhile, in an attempt to rally support for the Soviet State, Lenin had issued his Appeal to the Toiling Masses, which was being widely circulated in Britain. For months the “Hands Off Russia” Committee had conducted agitation on the London docks. In May 1920, the agitation bore fruit when dockers engaged in loading the freighter Jolly George with munitions for Poland decided to strike, and coal-heavers refused to fuel the ship. This act of international class solidarity electrified the whole British Labour movement. A week later, the Dockers’ Union decided to prevent the loading of all munitions for use against Russia. Workers everywhere triumphantly received the news. The Russian workers were thrown a lifeline that acted as a respite to this “besieged fortress” of world revolution.

Totally misreading the situation on the ground, the British government threatened war with Russia. The Soviet government had waged a successful counter-offensive against Polish aggression, which had taken the Red Army to the gates of Warsaw. Mass demonstrations called by the Labour Party took place across the country against the interventionist threats of the British government. The Parliamentary Committee of the TUC, the Labour Party Executive and the Parliamentary Party met in the House of Commons on the 9 August 1920 and issued a statement to all secretaries of local Trades Councils and Labour Parties: “the whole industrial power of the organised workers will be used to defeat this war,” and notified the Executives of all affiliated organisations “to hold themselves ready to proceed immediately to London for a national conference,” advised them “to instruct their members to ‘down tools’ on instructions from that national conference,” and constituted a representative ‘Council of Action’ with full powers to implement these decisions.

“The workers of this country have nothing to gain by the contemplated attack on Russia”, stated a circular issued by the TUC leaders on 10 August.

“If war is declared we should soon be involved in unlimited sacrifice of blood and treasure, and should be used as tools of capitalist oppression. The national leaders have acted promptly; all sections are united in denouncing the present policy of the government. On this question there is no division or hesitation. A national body has been elected responsible for effective resistance if war is declared. The Council of Action, appointed by a Special conference at the House of Commons on Monday, is already at work. Plans have been prepared for mobilising the full resources of our movement. United industrial action, even to the extent of a general strike, may be necessary. We must, however, act in strict accordance with a well-thought-out policy and plan. The Council of Action will sit in constant session to watch developments and issue advice to the affiliated organisations. In the meantime, the action taken nationally must be followed immediately by similar action in various districts, and we make the following suggestions:

“1. Secretaries of local Trades Councils and Labour Parties should immediately convene a special conference for the purpose of electing a local Council of Action.

“2. The local Councils should form sub-committees to deal with the following questions: (1) Supply and transport;(2) Strike arrangements;(3) Publicity and information.

“3. The name and address of secretaries appointed to act as secretaries of local Councils, should be forwarded to the joint secretaries of the National Council immediately after the conference.

“The local organisations are urged to act speedily in connection with this important crisis in the history of our movement. Ordinary methods of procedure should be suspended and special efforts made to get the local conferences working in a few days…”

The national conference took place at the Central Hall, Westminster on Friday 13 August. On behalf of the national Council of Action, it put out a directive: “Form Your Councils of Action!” Within days, 350 Councils of Action sprang up in every town and city throughout the length and breadth of the British Isles.

This was an incredible show of solidarity and reflected the groundswell of support for the Soviet Republic. It showed the enormous strength of the organised working class once it decided to act. Despite the revulsion of the rightwing for direct action, the pressures from below for action had reached volcanic proportions. They had no alternative but to put themselves at the head of this movement, or be brushed aside. They were carried along on the crest of the wave that placed them on collision course with the Lloyd George government. When British organised labour said “No”, the government had no alternative but to back down.

“The British Labour Party had developed a violent agitation against any British assistance being given to Poland,” stated Winston Churchill. “Councils of Action were being formed in many parts of Britain.”[9]

The country was in the grip of a pre-revolutionary crisis. “The whole of the English bourgeois press,” noted Lenin, “wrote that the Councils of Action were soviets. And it was right. They were not called soviets but in actual fact they were such.”

Faced with this combined power of the Labour movement, the government was forced to withdraw its threats, and abandon its plans for military intervention. The British working class had decided there was to be no war with revolutionary Russia. To go ahead would have meant a general strike, and given the dangerous industrial situation, there was no guarantee what would be the outcome. The bourgeoisie were not prepared to gamble with their fate at this time. The Labour movement had won a stunning victory.


[1] Quoted by Paul Johnson, ‘The Cabinet Prepares for Revolution’, The Sunday Times colour supplement, 7 May 1972

[2] In the Rapids of Revolution, p.148, London 1978

[3] Macfarlane, The British Communist Party, its origin and development until 1929, p.40, London, 1966

[4] Quoted in Cole & Postgate, op. cit, p.538

[5] Quoted in Sellwood, Police Strike 1919, p.203, London, 1978

[6] Sunday Pictorial, 10 August 1919

[7] Aneurin Bevan, In Place of Fear, p.40-41, London 1978

[8] Quoted by Pollitt, Serving My Time, p.94, London, 1940

[9] Churchill, The World Crisis, ‘The Aftermath’, p.269, London 1923

“Black Friday”

These revolutionary years, deeply influenced by the Russian Revolution, led to many profound changes in the British Labour movement. Following the war, the Labour Party had adopted a new Constitution for the first time and introduced individual party membership. The Party also adopted socialism as its objective, inscribed in Clause Four, part four, of the new Constitution: “To secure for the producers by hand or by brain the full fruits of their industry, and the most equitable distribution thereof that may be possible, upon the basis of the common ownership of the means of production and the best obtainable system of popular administration and control of each industry or service.” Drafted by Sidney and Beatrice Webb, the wording was not the clearest or the most direct, however, it sufficiently encapsulated the need to overthrow capitalism through the public ownership of the decisive levers of the economy under workers’ control and management. The Party’s new radical programme, Labour and the New Social Order, reinforced this immediate aim of eradicating the capitalist system once and for all.

In 1920, the TUC Parliamentary Committee was transformed into a Trades Union General Council as “a central co-ordinating body representative of the whole trade union movement”. The following year saw the establishment of the National Council of Labour, comprising members of the General Council and Labour’s Executive Committee. There was also an increase in union amalgamations, headed by the groups associated with the Transport Workers’ Federation to form the Transport and General Workers’ Union, under the leadership of Ernest Bevin. But there were even more profound developments shaking the Labour movement. The betrayal of August 1914, the carnage of the World War, and the earth-shattering events in Russia, all served to create a tremendous ferment within the mass workers’ organisations, reinforcing a shift to the left.

Following the birth of the Third (Communist) International in March 1919, Lenin and Trotsky had appealed for the formation of mass Communist Parties as a means of rallying the revolutionary workers on a world-wide basis. As a consequence, in 1920 the Independent Labour Party voted at its annual conference to disaffiliate from the discredited Second International, and open negotiations with the Third International. In the same year, a similar initiative was raised at the Labour Party conference. However, this time the right wing managed to scuttle the proposal by 1,010,000 votes to 519,000. Even then, a significant minority within the Labour Party had still voted for the pro-Communist resolution and displayed great sympathy for the Russian Revolution.

Despite this setback in the Labour Party, a number of socialist groupings in Britain did answer the call to form a new united Communist Party. Members and groups of the British Socialist Party, the SLP, ILP, and others undertook a series of negotiations, which concluded with a Unity Conference at the end of July 1920. Some 159 delegates, representing 2,000 to 3,000 members, proceeded to vote to found the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) and affiliate to the Third International. Although small in number, the party attracted the most militant sections of the working class, including many leaders from the Shop Stewards’ Movement. It was, however, far from being a fully-fledged Communist Party in its methods, organisation and approach. For some time it remained an amalgamation of the pre-war propagandist groups, still influenced by syndicalism and sectarianism. These class fighters knew what they wanted, but had great difficulty in agreeing how to achieve these objectives. The Communist International sought to help them root out this sectarianism, which arose from their political immaturity. The Third International under Lenin and Trotsky above all succeeded in persuading the young British party to face towards the factories and the organised Labour movement.

Lenin on Britain

Following the experience of the Bolsheviks, the attempt to win the working class to the side of the CPGB required consistent work in the workplaces and the mass organisations, especially the trade unions. Lenin, who took a great interest in Britain, conducted a struggle against the ultra-left and sectarian tendencies within the party, represented among others by Sylvia Pankhurst and Willie Gallacher. These young comrades, fresh to the revolutionary movement, were sickened by the opportunism of the official organisations, and so refused point-blank to participate in the Labour Party, or in elections of any sort. This “infantile” ultra-leftism also manifested itself elsewhere in the International as a refusal on principle to carry out work within right-dominated trade unions. Lenin skilfully took up these arguments in his excellent pamphlet, Left-Wing Communism: an Infantile Disorder, which again is a work that is highly relevant today. Here, Lenin compares ultra-leftism to a childhood malady, corresponding to the infant stage of the international communist movement. He explains the erroneousness of this approach by drawing upon the rich experience of Bolshevism, especially its flexible tactics and methods in relation to the working class and its organisations. He argues that it is the duty of revolutionaries to participate in the trade unions, even reactionary ones, in order to change things from within. Lenin explained that the Bolsheviks went so far as to reach workers in the unions set up by the Tsarist police!

In the chapter “Left-wing” Communism in Britain, Lenin took up in more detail the ultra-left arguments of Pankhurst and Gallacher. Gallacher had written a letter about the Clyde Workers’ Committee’s political views, stating they were against participation in Parliament, or standing in elections, but were in favour of creating soviets; they were against the reactionary Labour leaders, wanted nothing to do with the Labour Party, but desired to build a “clear, well-defined, scientific” Communist Party. Lenin patiently replied:

“In my opinion, this letter to the editor expresses excellently the temper and point of view of the young Communists, or of rank-and-file workers who are only just beginning to accept communism. This temper is highly gratifying and valuable; we must learn to appreciate and support it for, in its absence, it would be hopeless to expect the victory of the proletarian revolution in Great Britain, or in any other country for that matter. People who can give expression to this temper of the masses, and are able to evoke such a temper (which is very often dormant, unconscious and latent) among the masses, should be appreciated and given every assistance. At the same time, we must tell them openly and frankly that a state of mind is by itself insufficient for leadership of the masses in a great revolutionary struggle and that the cause of the revolution may well be harmed by certain errors that people who are most devoted to the cause of the revolution are about to commit, or are committing. Comrade Gallacher’s letter undoubtedly reveals the rudiments of all the mistakes that are being made by the German ‘Left’ Communists and were made by the Russian ‘Left’ Bolsheviks in 1908 and 1918.”

In a chapter entitled ‘Should Revolutionaries work in Reactionary Trade Unions?’ Lenin argued:

“We are waging the struggle against the opportunist and social-chauvinist leaders in order to win the working class over to our side. It would be absurd to forget this most elementary and most self-evident truth. Yet it is this very absurdity that the German ‘Left’ Communists perpetrate when, because of the reactionary and counter-revolutionary character of the trade union top leadership, they jump to the conclusion that… we must withdraw from the trade unions, refuse to work in them, and create new and artificial forms of labour organisation! This is so unpardonable a blunder that it is tantamount to the greatest service Communists could render the bourgeoisie… To refuse to work in the reactionary trade unions means leaving the insufficiently developed or backward masses of workers under the influence of the reactionary leaders…

“This ridiculous ‘theory’ that Communists should not work in reactionary trade unions reveals with the utmost clarity the frivolous attitude of the ‘Left’ Communists towards the question of influencing the ‘masses’, and their misuse of clamour about the ‘masses’. If you want to help the ‘masses’ and win the sympathy and support of the ‘masses’, you should not fear difficulties, or pinpricks, chicanery, insults and persecution from the ‘leaders’ (who, being opportunists and social-chauvinists, are in most cases directly or indirectly connected with the bourgeoisie and the police), but must absolutely work wherever the masses are to be found. You must be capable of any sacrifice, of overcoming the greatest obstacles, in order to carry on agitation and propaganda systematically, perseveringly, persistently and patiently in those institutions, societies and associations – even the most reactionary – in which proletarian or semi-proletarian masses are to be found.”[1]

In other words, in order to change things, you must take the situation as it is, and not as you would like it to be. While a small minority favoured soviets and socialist revolution, the majority did not, and the task was to win over the majority to these ideas. That, in turn, meant working shoulder to shoulder with these layers, in order to show them in practice the correctness of your methods and ideas. Lenin had no time for the sectarian that simply stood on the sidelines. At this time, and as a vital antidote to this approach, Lenin also advised the British Communist Party to affiliate to the Labour Party in order to get closer to the political life of the advanced workers. Again, it was necessary to take the workers as they are, with their misconceptions and prejudices, and work with them, as Marx had urged in the Communist Manifesto, and not impose sectarian principles on the movement.

On 8 July, Lenin wrote to the BSP paper The Call stating:

“Personally I am in favour of participation in Parliament and of affiliation to the Labour Party, given wholly free and independent communist activities. I shall defend these tactics at the Second Congress of the Third International on July 15, 1920 in Moscow.”[2]

Not surprisingly, this suggestion that the CP should join the Labour Party led to an absolute uproar amongst the British Communists, who had already broken from reformist politics and were determined not to join a party with MacDonald at its head! The controversy over the Labour Party question gave rise to a very heated debate at the Second Congress. Despite strong resistance within the British delegation, the Congress came out overwhelmingly in favour of the British CP affiliating to the Labour Party. Back in Britain, the leaders of the Communist Party very reluctantly agreed to carry out this decision, after taking a vote of 100 to 85 in favour of affiliation.

Their application for affiliation was worded however in such a manner as to deliberately invite rejection. When this came to pass, the British CP leaders simply greeted the news with joyful contempt. Their haughty reply (“So be it. It is their funeral, not ours.”) was published in their newspaper, The Communist of 16 September 1920. As soon as the leaders of the International heard of this, they sent an urgent message urging the British leadership to reconsider their approach. A week later, realising their blunder, the line of the paper changed: “it is the duty of the communists to work where the masses are. That may mean going into reactionary organisations, but that is better and easier than creating brand new organisations in the hope that the masses will leave the old ones and come to the new.”[3] But the short-term damage had been done. This ammunition was used by the right wing to the maximum effect in rejecting all future applications.

Employers’ Offensive

After a period of sustained assistance from the leaders of the International, the British Communist Party was eventually weaned away from its sectarian stance. In the process, the party also agreed – in contrast to the pre-war propagandist groups – to conduct serious and systematic work in the trade unions as well as in the Labour Party as individuals. However, Communists faced a witch-hunt and expulsion from the reformist International Federation of Trade Unions (IFTU) or the “Amsterdam International”, as it was commonly known, under the slogan: “Revolutionaries and Communists out of the unions!” This forced those expelled to set up the Red International of Labour Unions (RILU), which gathered together the forces driven out of the old federation.

“This offensive tactic of the partisans of Amsterdam”, stated the RILU, “must be fought with firm and decisive resistance in the local branches, with the slogan ‘Down with the splitters, long live the unity of the trade union movement!’ In no case should we favour the aspirations of Amsterdam by willingly abandoning the trade unions: that would be too easy for the supporters of Amsterdam and too damaging for the left wing of the labour movement.” It continued: “The workers who are expelled from the trade unions must not be dispersed, but should remain organised within the same structures they belonged to before being expelled, and continue to act as legitimate members of the trade union which has expelled them.”

British trade union leaders, Robert Williams and Alfred Purcell, together with representatives from 47 other unions including the Russians, went to Moscow to initiate the new federation. The RILU refused to turn its back on the old federation but instead offered the IFTU a united front bloc against the employers’ offensive. “In formulating our tactics towards the old trade unions, we have to take into full account that fact that they bring together many millions of workers”, stated the resolution of the First Congress of the RILU.

“The task of the revolutionary elements within the trade union movement is therefore not to break away from the unions the best and most conscious workers and use them to form small organisations, but to instil in them the revolutionary spirit and remain within them, taking up on a day-to-day basis the revolutionary aspirations of the working class, and thereby strive to transform them into instruments of the social revolution.”

Further on in the resolution, there is a particular reference to Britain. The tactics suggested to the British Communists were quite clear:

“In Britain, in spite of the existence of a powerful trade union movement which is undergoing a deep crisis, there are attempts to create new organisations along the lines of the IWW, such as the One Big Union, etc. These attempts are to be categorically and firmly condemned. The task of the revolutionary workers of Britain is to remain inside those huge mass trade unions and to struggle within them for the victory of the ideas of the Red International of Labour Unions. Separating a few tens of thousands of revolutionary workers from the trade unions and isolating them in separate small organisations would be a crime against the British and world working class. Therefore, all those organisations that adhere to the point of view of the Red International of Labour Unions must concentrate all their activities inside the trade unions, and work within them, winning one branch after another, with the aim of uniting the wider masses, and not just the selected few who find themselves outside of the masses.”[4]

The following year, in December 1922, the Fourth Congress of the Comintern chose to examine trade union work in some detail and adopted the Theses on Communist Work in the Trade Unions. This dealt with a series of problems ranging from the role of the Amsterdam International to the activities of anarcho-syndicalism. It also discussed at great length the question of the expulsions of militants from the reformist unions and the paramount need for trade union unity. The Theses stated:

“Despite the fierce anti-Communist witch-hunts being stirred up everywhere by the reformists, we must continue to fight for the slogan of the Communist International – against the splitting of the trade unions – with the same militancy with which we have fought for it up till now. The reformists are trying to use expulsions to provoke a split. Their aim in systematically driving the best elements out of the unions is to make the Communists lose their patience and nerve, so that instead of completing their carefully thought-out plan to win the trade unions from within, the Communists will leave the unions and come out in favour of a split. The reformists, however, will not succeed…

“The preservation as well as the restoration of trade-union unity is possible only if the Communists have a practical action programme that can be applied in each individual country and in every branch of production. By using the practical experience of everyday struggle, the disparate elements of the workers’ movement can be gathered together and united and, where the trade unions are split, the necessary preconditions for organizational unification can be created. Every Communist must remember that a split in the trade-union movement is not only a distinct threat to the gains of the working class but also an immense danger to the social revolution. The reformists’ efforts to split the trade unions must be crushed at the outset, but this can be achieved only by serious organisational and political work among the working masses…

“The more obvious the splitting tactics of our opponents become, the more sharply must we emphasise the need for unity in the trade union movement. Every factory and enterprise, every worker’s meeting must speak out in protest against the tactics of the Amsterdam reformists. The danger of a split in the trade union movement must be forcefully raised; this should be done not just when a split is imminent, but when it becomes clear that a split is being prepared. The attempts to remove Communists from the trade unions must be put before the whole trade-union movement for discussion. The Communists are strong enough not to allow themselves to be stilled without a murmur. The working class must know who is for a split and who is for unity.”[5]

In the summer of 1921, a number of militant trade unionists, particularly miners from Scotland and South Wales, came together to form the British section of the RILU. By the end of 1922, the bureau of the RILU had gained the affiliation of 130,000 miners, 100,000 engineering workers, and 70,000 workers from other sectors. This growth reflected the increasing influence of the British Communist Party within the trade unions. However, Lozovsky, head of the RILU, later noted that the British Bureau was totally unsuited to British conditions, not least because it allowed the trade union right wing to accuse the CP of splitting the unions by encouraging disaffiliation from the TUC.

Nevertheless, patient, consistent, energetic work, as Lenin had advocated, was paying dividends. In 1921, the party launched the “Back to the Unions” campaign, to counteract the drift away from the unions after the slump and the employers’ offensive. This initiative was later taken up officially by the TUC, again reflecting the growing influence of the party.

On 15 February 1921, the government, which had worked hand in glove with the coal owners, agreed to bring forward the termination of their wartime control over the coalmining industry. Soon after, the owners announced drastic wage cuts to make the mines economically viable. As the Mines Decontrol Bill became law, lockout notices were posted at the pitheads. On 31 March, nearly one million miners were locked out, having rejected wage cuts and a return to old district agreements. As a result, the MFGB called on their Triple Alliance partners for support to meet, in the words of the Daily Herald, “a frontal attack on the whole working class by the capitalists and their government.”

In response, Prime Minister Lloyd George used the new Emergency Powers Act to invoke a state of emergency. Military preparations were stepped up in face of the growing crisis, as reservists were called up and volunteers enlisted. In the process, troops were drafted into industrial areas and machine guns were posted at pitheads. Again, a showdown between the government and the working class seemed inevitable.

In solidarity the unions called a general railway and transport strike on 12 April. Support in the rank and file was solid. Unfortunately, the same was not true of the Triple Alliance leadership. At first the strike was postponed to the 15 April. Then, in an impromptu speech to a meeting of MPs at the House of Commons, the MFGB secretary Hodges made a personal offer of a temporary “settlement”. As soon as the miners’ executive heard of this proposal, it immediately disowned the suggestion, and Hodges was reprimanded. But using this as a pretext (“the miners had rejected a possible settlement”), the Triple Alliance leaders withdrew their support until the compromise “offer” was given due consideration. This split the movement down the middle at the crucial point. The Triple Alliance broke apart when it was needed most. The right wing, as always, had managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. The miners, not for the first time, were left to fight on alone.

This terrible day in April 1921 went down in Labour history as “Black Friday”, a bitter page in the struggle of the working class. The Triple Alliance was soon dubbed the “Cripple Alliance”. It was a humiliating climb-down. As expected, “Black Friday” signalled a general onslaught by the employers on wages and conditions. The miners continued to struggle on, but isolated and disheartened, they went down to defeat by June. Profound disillusionment swept through the mining communities and valleys, breeding feelings of hatred and desperation. The defeat coincided with the slump of 1920-21, which saw industrial production collapse by more than a quarter in a single year; unemployment rose from two per cent to 18 per cent of the workforce; mining, railways, metals, vehicles and cotton were the worst hit. In the offensive that followed, wage cuts were imposed on six million workers by the end of 1921. The following year, from March to June, a national lockout in the engineering industry, involving hundreds of thousands of workers, served to drain the funds of the AEU. This lockout signalled the break-up of the once-powerful Shop Stewards’ Movement, and drastically weakened workplace organisation. The growth of trade union membership to six-and-half million quickly went into reverse. Between 1921 and 1923 affiliations to the TUC dropped by over two million, as workers tore up their union cards or lapsed, disillusioned, into inactivity.

The Political front

Under these conditions, the attention of the working class turned towards the political front. In the general election of November 1922, the Labour Party received 4,236,733 votes and won 142 seats, an impressive increase of 85 seats since the previous election. Two Communist members were also elected to the Commons on a Labour ticket. This sudden advance by the Labour Party precipitated a crisis within both Liberal and Tory parties. Unemployment was rising. It was clear there would be no lasting stability and the scene was set for a further general election within the following 12 months. Under these circumstances, speculation was rife about a possible Labour victory and what it would mean for the working class. Philip Snowden, described by Lenin as “one of the most outstanding opportunists”, was quick to dampen down these expectations. He fell over himself to reassure the capitalist Establishment that in the event of a Labour victory, the government would be in safe hands and would not do anything rash. On the contrary, he stressed a Labour government would be very responsible and statesman-like indeed.

“No Labour government would ever be the government merely of the manual labour class”, stated Snowden. “The present constitution of the Parliamentary Labour Party is the answer to that fear. A considerable proportion of the party members belong to the middle classes. It contains lawyers, doctors, university professors, teachers, ministers of religion, consulting engineers, manufacturers, journalists, and even landed proprietors. A Labour government would certainly contain many men of this type.

“A Labour government would undoubtedly disappoint its critics in one very important and vital respect. It would not be a class government. I know there will be strong pressure from certain quarters to use a Labour government to serve the interests and meet the claims of certain sections of Labour. That, and not even the opposition of capitalist and financial interests, will be its greatest difficulty…”[6]

In December 1923, faced with nearly one-and-a-half million unemployed, Stanley Baldwin went to the country seeking a mandate for protectionism. Following the election, Labour increased its representation to 191 seats, but still fell far short of an overall majority. The Tories had however lost seats, leaving the Liberal leader Asquith holding the balance of power. In the end, they graciously stepped aside and handed Labour the opportunity, like some poisoned chalice, to form an administration.

“There could be no safer conditions under which to make the experiment,” Asquith said, while the Tory, Neville Chamberlain, observed that a Labour government dependent entirely upon Liberal support “would be too weak to do much harm, but not too weak to get discredited.”[7]

Consequently, in early 1924, the first ever minority Labour government took office under Ramsey MacDonald. “We have taken over a bankrupt machine and we have got to try and make that rickety machine work”, Cabinet Minister Margaret Bondfield stated, in complete contrast to the 1918 Manifesto commitment. “I want to gain the confidence of the country and shall suit my policy accordingly”, confirmed the Labour Prime Minister. The Labour leaders used the excuse “in office but not in power” as their biggest alibi for carrying through orthodox capitalist policies. But despite their best efforts to cool expectations, the election of this first Labour government gave rise to great hopes amongst the working class. After all, it was their government in office! Yet hope, which springs eternal in the human breast, soon turned to disappointment as MacDonald carried on as before. The government, in the view of one historian, “had been anything but revolutionary.” In the words of Asquith, it was a government “with its claws cut”, adding reassuringly that “we still sleep more or less comfortably in our beds.”

Instead of championing the cause of the working class, the MacDonald government bent the knee to big business and the City of London. It publicly deplored strikes, which had risen markedly in recent months, as Lloyd George had done. At the end of March, the Labour government went so far as to invoke the hated Emergency Powers Act to deal with the London traffic dispute, declaring in MacDonald’s words that, “the major services must be maintained!” Despite the timidity of this first Labour government, the combined Opposition wasted no effort when the time came to ignominiously cast it aside, like some soiled dishcloth.

The pretext for the Labour government’s removal was MacDonald’s handling of the Campbell Case. This legal case was brought by the Attorney General against the acting editor of the Communist Workers’ Weekly, J. R. Campbell, for publishing a “don’t shoot” appeal to British troops. Under pressure from the labour movement and the fact that Campbell was a decorated ex-serviceman, the case collapsed. Four days before polling day, the newspapers published the so-called Zinoviev Letter, allegedly a letter containing subversive instructions from the president of the Communist International to the British Communist Party. The forgery was passed to Conservative Central Office by an MI5 officer named Joseph Ball, and then leaked to the Daily Mail. Ball later became director of the Conservative research department, where he used his former talents to the full. As intended, the forgery sparked off a “red scare” campaign aimed at panicking the electorate. Under conditions of hysteria and alarm amongst the middle classes, the Tory Party led by Baldwin, won a massive majority in the general election. On the other hand, although defeated, Labour support had actually increased by more than a million votes, demonstrating the deep-seated loyalty of the working class towards the Labour Party. The Liberal Party was annihilated in the process, losing 119 out of its 158 seats. It would never again recover, doomed by the class polarisation of society and the relentless rise of the Labour Party. As a personal consolation to the unsuccessful Labour leader, King George V told Ramsey MacDonald, “he would always regard him as a friend.” While MacDonald’s eyes turned to leading the Labour Opposition, those of the working class turned once more to the industrial front.

Despite the demoralising effects of “Black Friday” and the engineering lockout, there had been a certain recovery in the working class movement. The advanced sections of the trade unions, increasingly under the influence of the CP, began to look for a way to fight back. By August 1924, a new left-wing rank-and-file organisation called the National Minority Movement had come into being. This initiative flowed from the success of the Miners’ Minority Movement, which had secured the election of the left-winger A. J. Cook as national secretary of the MFGB. A new mood was beginning to develop in the British trade unions. Despite a temporary fillip to the coal industry by the French occupation of the Ruhr, the economic situation became so serious that it was described as “heading for irretrievable disaster.” The scene was being set for the biggest showdown in British history: the General Strike of 1926.


[1] Lenin, Collected Works, vol.31, pp.52-53

[2] Lenin, On Britain, p.427

[3] Quoted in Brian Pearce, Early History of the Communist Party of Great Britain, p.29, London 1966

[4] From the Speeches, Statutes and Appeals of the First Congress of the Red International of Labour Unions (RILU), July 3-19, 1921, Rome 1922, translated from Italian.

[5] Theses, Resolutions & Manifestos of the First Four Congresses of the Third International, London 1980, pp.433-5

[6] Quoted by Murphy, op. cit, p.221

[7] Jim Allen, Days of Hope, p.168, London 1975

“Bayonets don’t cut coal”

In early 1923, a crisis-ridden Germany had defaulted on her reparation payments stipulated by the humiliating Versailles Treaty. As a result, France sent 60,000 troops to occupy the industrial area of the Ruhr and seize coal, steel and other important resources. With German coal production disrupted, this led to an unexpected reprieve, followed by a brief period of artificial prosperity in the British coal industry. But with the withdrawal of French troops the following year, the short-lived revival of British coal exports soon collapsed. Exports fell from 42 million tons in early 1924 to just 35 million in 1925. The coal owners, to protect their profit margins, demanded that all previous concessions be rescinded and that wage cuts, ranging from 10 per cent to 25 per cent, be immediately imposed across the board.

“Britain today stands at a point of crisis – perhaps more so than any other capitalist country”, wrote Leon Trotsky. “The conclusion which I reach in my study is that Britain is approaching, at full speed, an era of great revolutionary upheavals.” This “crisis point” was clearly evident in the coal industry, a decisive part of the economy, which epitomised the general crisis of British capitalism.

An editorial in The Times thundered that general sacrifices had to be made to restore the situation. Matters were made worse in early 1925 when the newly-appointed Chancellor of the Exchequer, Winston Churchill, announced that Britain would return to the Gold Standard at pre-war rates (to restore the “dignity of the pound”). The decision was taken in light of the fact that the value of the pound had fallen to 90 per cent of its pre-war value and the City of London was anxious to maintain London as the world’s financial centre. The problem was that even at the old 1924 rate, British business found it increasingly difficult to compete on the world market. The revaluation of sterling would render exports profoundly uncompetitive unless costs of production were slashed. So the return to the Gold Standard started a clamour to cut costs – and this meant wage cuts.

“On the grounds of social justice no case can be made out for reducing the wages of the miners”, wrote John Maynard Keynes. However, this attack on the miners was about something more important than “social justice” – namely the owners’ private profit. “They are the victims of the economic juggernaut,” continued our learned economist, as if it were some invisible hand at work. With the 12-month mining agreement coming to an end, the battle lines were drawn.

The post-war years had seen a shift to the left in the trade union movement. Reciprocal relations had been established between the British TUC and the Russian trade unions. Alfred Purcell, a left-winger from the furnishing trades, was elected president of the TUC, and was joined on the General Council by fellow lefts George Hicks from the Bricklayers’ Union and Alfonso Swales of the AEU. The departure of Frank Hodges as secretary of the Miners’ Federation to become a minister in MacDonald’s government resulted in A. J. Cook, the miners’ agent for Central Rhondda, being nominated for the miners’ leadership. “Cook was a mountain torrent, a man governed almost wholly by emotion”, wrote his contemporary Francis Williams. “He was an agitator on the grand scale; the propagandist incarnate containing within himself all the passionate sense of injustice that had bitten deep into the hearts of miners for generations.” Cook had the backing of the newly established left-wing Miners’ Minority Movement. Although he had resigned from the Communist Party in 1921, he described himself as “a disciple of Karl Marx and a humble follower of Lenin,” and still gave support to the CP as he agreed “with nine-tenths of its policy.”

To great jubilation, Cook was elected Miners’ Federation secretary. Cook was an honest and sincere class fighter, and held in great esteem by the miners, but was deeply influenced by syndicalist ideas from his days in the Unofficial Reform Movement. Like many on the left, he believed that a British miners’ strike would lead, almost automatically, to the downfall of capitalism. Given the strategic position of coal in the British economy at the time, such a strike could have devastating consequences, and even act as a starting point for revolution in Britain – but only on one condition. That is, only if a bold far-sighted leadership was at the head of the working class, prepared to go to the very end, could such a movement succeed. The energy of the masses is colossally powerful, but like steam, can be easily dissipated. Directed through a piston-box, however, this steam can be concentrated to tremendous effect. The party acts in the same way as the piston-box, serving to galvanise and direct the energy of the working class towards its final aim: the socialist transformation of society. Without this prerequisite, even a general strike can become simply a protest with folded arms, which, in any event, cannot last indefinitely.

At this time, a number of initiatives were undertaken by the Communist Party to pursue a United Front policy, drawing on the support of other lefts for a common purpose. This policy was encapsulated in the adage: “march separately, and strike together”. The application of the United Front to the trade unions resulted in the creation of the National Minority Movement. This important initiative came after the British Communist Party leadership attended a conference on British affairs in Moscow in July 1923. From this meeting sprang the Industrial Committee of the Communist Party, which decided to draw together the existing rank-and-file movements, starting with the miners, into one unified “Minority” Movement. The aim of the “Minority” was to eventually become the “Majority”. The general ferment already taking place in the trade unions helped to guarantee the success of this initiative.

Prior to this time, no socialist group had undertaken systematic work in the trade unions with a view to winning them to a revolutionary policy. Some work had been done by the SLP and the BSP, but it was limited in scope, and was mainly conducted by small isolated groups of individuals. The CP was to take a qualitatively different approach. “Every factory, a fortress of the Revolution”, stated Lenin. Work in the trade unions and the factories was now seen as a priority in building up the party’s base amongst the industrial working class. Before the party could conquer majority support in the working class, it would first have to win over its advanced layers in the trade unions and Labour Party. In the words of Gallagher, the aim of the Minority Movement was “not to organise independent revolutionary trade unions, or to split revolutionary elements away from existing organisations affiliated to the TUC… but to convert the revolutionary minority within each industry into a revolutionary majority.”

The Minority Movement

The National Minority Movement was officially launched in August 1924 at a conference attended by 270 delegates, representing some 200,000 trade unionists. Tom Mann was elected its president; Harry Pollitt became its national secretary, and George Hardie its organising secretary. The aims of the new organisation were

“to organise the working masses of Great Britain for the overthrow of capitalism, the emancipation of the workers from oppressors and exploiters, and the establishment of a Socialist Commonwealth; to carry on a wide agitation and propaganda for the principles of the revolutionary class struggle, and work within existing organisations for the National Minority Movement programme and against the present tendency towards social peace and class collaboration and the delusion of the peaceful transition from capitalism to socialism; to unite the workers in their everyday struggles against the exploiters; to maintain the closest relations with the RILU.”

The Minority Movement, in the bitter industrial climate of the time, rapidly built up fractions amongst the engineers, transport workers and railway workers. Its main forces, however, were still concentrated in the powerful Miners’ Federation, the largest union in Britain. The growth of the left went hand in hand with calls by the CP for increased powers for the TUC General Council, to transform it into a genuine General Staff of the trade union movement. “A real General Council must be established”, wrote Pollitt in the Labour Monthly, “with power to direct the whole movement, and not only with power, but under responsibility to Congress to use that power and direct the movement on the lines laid down each year by Congress.” Despite the important advances made by the left however, the TUC General Council was still dominated by the right wing.

At the same time, the lefts on the TUC General Council unfortunately had a mixed track record in defence of left principles. An ominous sign of their future role was the stony silence of Hicks and Purcell at the 1925 Liverpool Labour Party Conference when the decision was made to exclude Communists from Labour membership. “The Lefts in the conference”, noted J. T. Murphy, “fearful of being classified as communists, rendered them no support.”[1] On international issues, however, the left-wingers were exceedingly revolutionary in their speeches.

Meanwhile, the Communist Party, through the pages of the Workers’ Weekly and its leadership of the Minority Movement, built up great hopes in the left union leaders, largely due to their radical stance on the Soviet Union. Alfred Purcell (president), Fred Bromley (secretary), Hicks and Swales had led an official TUC delegation to the sixth All-Russian Trade Union Congress in December 1924. The following April, the General Council reinforced its left credentials when the Anglo-Russian Joint Advisory Council was established to promote unity between the Russian trade unions and the Amsterdam Bureau. The Communist Party became the most enthusiastic supporters of Anglo-Russian unity, and the campaign to unite the Amsterdam International with the RILU. This position began to reflect a new line emanating from Moscow, with the emergence after Lenin’s death of the triumvirate of Stalin, Zinoviev and Kamenev.

Already at the Fifth Congress of the Comintern in 1924, Zinoviev had put a question mark over the future role of the British Communist Party: “In Britain we are now going through the beginnings of a new chapter in the Labour movement. We do not know exactly whence the Communist mass party of Britain will come, whether only through the Stewart-MacManus door [Bob Stewart and Arthur MacManus were prominent British Communists] or through some other door. And it is entirely possible that the communist mass party may appear through still another door – and we cannot lose sight of that fact.”[2]

It was in reply to these doubts and confusions that Trotsky wrote his book Where is Britain Going? in 1925. In a preface to the second German edition, written during the British General Strike, Trotsky graphically analysed the situation facing the British workers and the revolutionary implications of the unfolding crisis:

“Capitalism has been portrayed as a system of continual progress and consistent improvement in the lot of the working masses. This used to be the case, at least in some countries during the nineteenth century. In Britain the religion of capitalist progress was more potent than anywhere else. And it was just this that formed the foundation of the conservative tendencies in the Labour movement itself, and especially in the trade unions. Britain’s wartime illusions (1914-18) were, more than anywhere else, the illusions of capitalist might and social ‘progress’. In the victory over Germany these hopes were supposed to find their highest fulfilment. Yet now bourgeois society says to the miners: ‘If you want to ensure for yourselves at least the kind of existence you had before the war, you will reconcile yourselves to a worsening of all your conditions of life over an indefinite period.’ Instead of the perspective of an uninterrupted social progress recently held out to them, the miners are invited to move down one step today so as to avoid tumbling down three or more steps tomorrow. This is a declaration of bankruptcy on the part of British capitalism. The General Strike is the answer of the proletariat, which will not and cannot allow the bankruptcy of British capitalism to signify the bankruptcy of the British nation and of British culture.”[3]

In the meantime, on 30 June 1925, the coal owners gave a month’s notice to terminate the existing contracts, substituting drastic wage cuts, the abolition of the principle of a guaranteed wage and national agreements. The Miners’ Federation rejected these attacks outright and referred their case to the TUC General Council, which had promised the miners their full support. The struggle that was to be unleashed was no ordinary struggle concerning the coal industry, but one that affected all workers.

The Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin, in his negotiations with the miners’ leaders made the situation crystal clear: “Yes,” he said. “All the workers in the country have got to face a reduction in wages.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean all the workers of this country have got to take reductions in wages to help put industry on its feet.”[4]

The Home Secretary Sir William Joynson-Hicks underlined the point the following day when he told an audience at Althorp Park that “we have got to find a remedy [for the industrial depression] and if need be, however disagreeable it may be, I am going to say straight out what the Prime Minister is alleged to have said in conference yesterday – namely, it may be that in order to compete with the world the conditions of labour, hours and wages will have to be altered in this country.”

The ruling class had declared all-out war on the working class. They were being told unequivocally it was their lot to shoulder the entire burden of the capitalist crisis. However this unprovoked attack by the coal owners and government served to rally the whole trade union movement behind the miners. The TUC met the executives of the railway and transport unions, who indicated, in the event of a miners’ lockout, they would stop all movements of coal. This position was endorsed by a conference of trade union executives, who also pledged their full support. This was the night the General Strike was conceived.

Stanley Baldwin, who treated the class war very seriously indeed, convened an emergency Cabinet meeting to assess the situation. Having weighed up the balance of forces, Baldwin decided to play for time to enable adequate preparations before taking on the miners, and through them, the whole labour movement. The strategists of capital were not confident at this stage of defeating the movement and imposing the reductions across the board. In making this tactical retreat, the government announced a nine-month subsidy to the coal industry as well as a Royal Commission to investigate the industry’s problems. The views of the Cabinet were summed up by Maurice Hankey, the Permanent Secretary to the Cabinet, in his report to the King: “The majority of the Cabinet regard the present moment as badly chosen for the fight, though the conditions would be more favourable nine months hence.” The nine-month subsidy was introduced to maintain wages while the Commission investigated the industry. After the pregnant pause of nine months, the General Strike was born.

Nevertheless, the trade unions met this government retreat with wild jubilation, and the Daily Herald displayed billboards with the immortal words: “RED FRIDAY!” What a contrast to the setback of “Black Friday”. Everything seemed as it should have been. However, the Miners’ President Herbert Smith warned about rejoicing too soon. “We have no need to glorify about a victory. It is only an armistice, and it will depend largely on how we stand between now and 1 May next year…” Cook also expressed himself forcefully:

“Next May we shall be faced with the greatest crisis and greatest struggle we have ever known, and we are preparing for it… I don’t care a hang for any government, or army, or navy. They can come along with their bayonets. Bayonets don’t cut coal.”

However, the Home Secretary, Sir William Joynson-Hicks, asked sneeringly: “Is England to be governed by the Cabinet or by a handful of trade union leaders?” Ramsay MacDonald, Snowden and the other right-wing Labour leaders seem to share the same cynical outlook. “The government has simply handed over the appearance, at any rate, of victory to the very forces that sane, well-considered, thoroughly well-examined socialism feels to be probably its greatest enemy”, stated MacDonald.

The capitalist press reacted to the government’s retreat with a howl of protest. The contemptuous editorial in the Daily Express was simply headed “Danegeld”. This was a reference to the blackmail tax used to bribe the Vikings to desist from raids on England. The coal-owners too were itching for a fight. For instance, the chairman of the South Wales Coal-owners’ Association described the settlement as a terrible disaster. There had clearly been a split in the Cabinet over the issue. The more hot-headed and bellicose representatives of the bourgeois believed the showdown should have immediately taken place. The more sober-minded representatives understood the need to stage a partial retreat, better to deal with the working class later. This view was summed up by Neville Chamberlain in his diary: “a stoppage of such magnitude and accompanied by such bitterness would inflict incalculable and irreparable damage upon the country”, and that the subsidy was therefore justified. Although there were divisions, it was not about the principle of attacking the working class, but simply a tactical dispute over timing. “So, thank God,” the King wrote in his diary, “there will be no strike now.”

The September 1925 TUC Congress, still rejoicing at Red Friday, echoed to the rafters with “revolutionary” speeches. The new president, Alonzo Swales, brought the Congress to its feet with the words, “We are entering upon a new phase of development in the upward struggle of our class. All around are signs of an awakening consciousness in the peoples of all countries that the present system of society is condemned.” Tomsky, head of the Russian trade unions, attended the Congress as a fraternal delegate. Minority Movement-inspired resolutions were carried by large majorities, especially on international questions. The resolution asking for greater powers for the General Council was, however, remitted for further consideration. The right wing had argued that the General Council had already sufficient powers. This was true and the left’s arguments were somewhat of a diversion. The key problem was the calibre of leadership. As always, J. R. Clynes summed up the real unspoken feelings of the right wing: “I am not in fear of the capitalist class. The only class I fear is our own.” The grovelling Mr J. H. Thomas, the railway union leader, rejoined the General Council after two years absence (he had originally left to join the MacDonald government), together with Ernest Bevin of the transport union.

While the union leaders huffed and puffed a great deal in public, the Baldwin government moved swiftly in its preparations for the approaching showdown. “We were confronted last week”, said the Prime Minister, “by a great alliance of trade unions. If we are again confronted by a challenge of that nature let me say that no minority in a free country has ever yet coerced the whole community.” The fact that the trade union movement, together with their families, represented a majority of “the community” never entered his head.

As part of the plans, the government proceeded to divide England and Wales into eleven divisions, each under an appointed Civil Commissioner armed with the Emergency Powers Act. They were in turn under the direct control of Sir W. Mitchell-Thomson, Baronet, Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire, M.P., and Chief Civil Commissioner. Serving under the distinguished Mitchell-Thomson were such important personages as Major Sir Phillip Sassoon, Earl Winterton, the Earl of Clarendon, Earl Stanhope, Sir Kingsley Wood and Lieutenant-Colonel J. T. C. Moore-Brabazon. Scotland had its own organisation directed by the Lord Advocate. These government forces were to take charge of emergency administration and ensure the maintenance of essential supplies and law and order. As an auxiliary, a volunteer strike-breaking organisation was established at the end of September, the Organisation for the Maintenance of Supplies (OMS). Generals and Lords, such as Lord Jellicoe and Sir Francis Lloyd, who had direct links with the government, led the paramilitary OMS. It had the complete support of the ruling class both in terms of finance and facilities. Leading fascists also joined its ranks as the most “effective assistance to the state”.

As a further precaution, on 14 October, the Home Secretary ordered the arrest of twelve leaders of the Communist Party. They were charged with seditious libel and incitement to mutiny, under the Act of 1797 and received sentences ranging from six to twelve months imprisonment. This was long enough to keep most of them out of the way in the run up to May 1926, although plans had already been made within the party to create a second-line leadership.

Royal Comission

As a foretaste of the violence that was to come, 50 miners were arrested during a fierce strike in the anthracite belt of West Wales. While the government was taking serious measures, the trade union leaders were lulling the movement to sleep, and placing their hopes in the Royal Commission headed by Sir Herbert Samuel. The TUC had established, it is true, an Industrial Committee made up of five right-wingers and three lefts, but they did nothing in the way of making real preparations. For them, the best way to avoid a conflict was not to prepare for it!

The Samuel Commission reported on 10 March 1926. The Report was framed in such a way as to cause the maximum division and confusion on the eve of battle: recommending a reorganisation of the industry through wage reductions and longer hours. The miners’ leader Hartshorn declared the Report “impossible”, while Ramsay MacDonald described the Report as a “landmark”. The Industrial Committee, eager to avoid confrontation, urged using the Report as a basis for negotiations between both sides. The Miners’ Federation conference however stuck to its demands: “Not a penny off the pay, not a second on the day!” The miners were in no mood to capitulate or compromise and were determined to take action on their own if necessary. On 20 March, a further national conference of the National Minority Movement was held to discuss the impending conflict and render whole-hearted assistance to the miners. The attendance was massive, and reflected the groundswell of support for the miners, with 883 union delegates representing almost one million organised workers – or nearly a quarter of total trade union membership.

After a series of negotiations between TUC representatives and the government, positions became deadlocked. Incredibly, the General Council called a meeting for the first time on 27 April, three days before the end of the nine-month subsidy, to decide plans in the event of a breakdown in negotiations! Ernest Bevin only admitted this astonishing fact at the inquest of the General Strike in January 1927, some eight months after the event:

“With regard to preparations for the strike there were no preparations until 27 April and I do not want anyone to go away from this conference under the impression that the General Council had any particular plan to run this movement. In fact, the General Council did not sit down to draft the plans until they were called together on 27 April …”

At the end of April, the executives of the trade unions were called to London’s Memorial Hall to hear the General Council’s report. The General Council had chosen a “negotiating committee” of three right-wingers – Thomas, Citrine and Pugh – to conduct negotiations with the government, which would refer back to the full Council. After discussion, the three from the union side decided to accept the Samuel report as a basis for agreement, but the miners refused to countenance the idea and the government refused to budge. After hearing the report, the conference of trade union executives voted “to place their powers in the hands of the General Council”, and to conduct a general stoppage, by 3,653,527 votes to 49,911. The General Council had simply stumbled by accident into a General Strike that the majority did not want nor believe in.

The General Council was given the sole authority for running the proposed strike, including the terms of its termination. The Miners’ Federation would be consulted, but the General Council would decide. In the opening shot of the battle, Bevin announced that those unions deemed in the “first line” of the General Strike, would cease work from midnight on Monday 3 May.

“We look upon your ‘yes’ as meaning that you have placed your all upon the altar of this great Movement, and having placed it there, even if every penny goes, if every asset goes, history will ultimately write up that it was a magnificent generation that was prepared to do it rather than see the miners driven down like slaves.” Bevin’s oration ended: “I rely, in the name of the General Council, on every man and every woman in that grade to fight for the soul of Labour and the salvation of the miners.”

The TUC leaders, fearful of the mandate placed in their hands, reluctantly picked up the gauntlet thrown down by the Baldwin government. “It [the movement] was the first of its kind in this country: there had been no preparation for it at all: it was an improvised organisation”, stated Bevin later. Despite all the bold speeches, TUC leaders were entering into the struggle blindfolded and with one hand tied behind their back. If it had been left up to them, the fight would have ended before it had started. It was the magnificent response from below that stunned the government, and above all, shocked the leaders of the TUC.


[1] Murphy, op.cit, p.233

[2] Quoted in Communism in Britain, Woodhouse & Pearce, p.139, London 1975

[3] Trotsky, op. cit, pp.143-4, London 1974

[4] Daily Herald, 31 July 1925

“Nine Days That Shook The World”

It was a wonderful achievement, a wonderful accomplishment that proved conclusively that the Labour movement has the men and women that are capable in an emergency of providing the means of carrying on the country. Who can forget the effect of the motor conveyances with posters saying: ‘By permission of the TUC’. The government with its OMS was absolutely demoralised. Confidence, calm and order prevailed everywhere, despite the irritation caused by the volunteers, blacklegs and special constables. The workers acted as one. Splendid discipline! Splendid loyalty! 

A. J. Cook, The Nine Days

The General Strike in May 1926 was a struggle of epic proportions. It is not possible to do justice, within the space of a single chapter, to the momentous struggle of the British working class during the course of these nine days. The working class “fought the legions of hell”, to use Cook’s words. They were not prepared to be cowed. On the one hand, we see the fighting spirit of the British working class displayed during the strike, which remains an inspiration. On the other, the betrayal of the General Strike constituted the greatest tragedy in working class history, a deep-seated stain, which had profound long-term consequences.

The events leading up to the General Strike followed swiftly one upon another. The TUC General Council had notified Baldwin that they were now acting on behalf of the miners. As expected, the negotiations were largely a dialogue with the deaf, despite the pleadings of the negotiating committee. Jimmy Thomas was especially obsequious.

“I suppose my usual critics will say that Thomas was almost grovelling, and it is true. In all my long experience – and I have conducted many negotiations – I have never begged and pleaded like I begged and pleaded all day today, and I pleaded not alone because I believed in the case of the miners, but I believed in my bones that my duty to the country involved it.

“For ten days we negotiated, for ten days we said to the government ‘you force the coal owners to give us some terms, never mind what they are and however bad they are. Let us have something to go on’. They said, ‘No, it cannot be done’.”

The leaders of the Parliamentary Labour Party behaved no better and rushed to distance themselves from the strike. “I don’t like general strikes”, stated Ramsay MacDonald. “I haven’t changed my opinion. I have said so in the House of Commons. I don’t like it: honestly I don’t like it: but honestly, what can be done?”

For their part, the TUC leaders regarded the General Strike as a negotiating threat, which would never need to be used. But their bluff was called and they were forced to call the strike against their will. While the workers’ leaders preached caution, the ruling class screamed class war. Just before the print workers brought the newspapers to a halt, the threat of “civil war” was splashed all over the capitalist press. To mobilise public opinion in its favour, the government used blackleg labour to bring out their own propaganda news-sheet, the British Gazette, edited personally by Winston Churchill. Unconcerned by its supposed impartiality, the government also commandeered the BBC as a propaganda weapon. Everything was being put in place to break the General Strike and defeat the working class.

In response, the TUC was forced to issue its own publication, the British Worker, edited by the mild-mannered Hamilton Fyfe. While countering the government’s propaganda, the British Worker sought on all occasions to behave “responsibly”, so much so that The Times actually commended the paper for being a “moderating influence” during the strike! In his diary, Hamilton Fyfe wrote:

“None but a few crazy idealists have ever wanted a General Strike. Now the very people who have always been most strongly opposed to it are forced to admit that there is no other way for the trade unions to carry out their pledge of support to the miners.”[1] He was forced to add, “But there was no hint of any desire for conflict. Rather was there an earnest hope that this might be avoided.”

MacDonald and Thomas were hoping some deal could be found to call off the threatened general strike. The right-wing trade union leaders accepted the Samuel report as a basis for agreement, but the Miners’ Executive, given the wage cuts involved, repudiated the suggestion. The negotiations with the government were still continuing when everything was brought to a complete standstill by news of the spontaneous action by workers at the Daily Mail. The print workers had gone on unofficial strike to prevent the publication of a provocative anti-union editorial entitled “For King and Country.” The Baldwin Cabinet received the news with real or feigned outrage. According to Hamilton Fyfe: “Now for the first time, it seems, Churchill came to the front. He said that now it must be war.” When the TUC leaders returned cap in hand at midnight to Downing Street, they were turned away with a blunt ultimatum by Baldwin to repudiate the unofficial strike action at the Daily Mail and “withdraw the instructions for a general strike”.

Without any hesitation, the TUC leaders repudiated the strike at the Mail and dispatched Pugh and Walter Citrine, the acting general secretary, back to Downing Street with the necessary assurances. When they got there, they were informed that the Prime Minister had gone to bed and could not be disturbed. The General Council, totally humiliated, were still dithering till the eleventh hour, but matters were already moving out of their control. When Thomas left Downing Street knowing that a strike was inevitable, he broke down saying: “I gave way to tears. It was like seeing the fabric you loved smashed to fragments.”

Just before the strike was to begin, at midnight Monday 3 May, the timorous Mr Thomas again beseeched the government:

“It will be with no light heart that this fight will be entered into. Because I feel in my bones that a last effort ought to be made, I still plead. The dye may be cast. The fight may come … Do not let us have bitterness, whatever the immediate future may bring.”

The TUC leaders were more terrified of the consequences of the General Strike than Stanley Baldwin. Thomas complained that the strike was not a challenge to the Constitution, as the government maintained. If that was the case, then, “God help us unless the government won…” he said. This summed up the whole outlook of the trade union leaders.

Scarcely a wheel turns

On the morning of 4 May 1926, the first day of the General Strike, the ruling class got more than they had bargained for. The working class response was tremendous, exceeding by far the expectations of the trade union leaders. The industrial heartlands were brought to a complete halt. “Trades Union Congress officials were astonished by the completeness of labour’s response to its call,” wrote the London correspondent of the New York World. “All its calculations were too pessimistic.” They were astonished at the power of the working class, which acted as one. Never before, not even in Chartist times, had such a display of working class solidarity and determination been seen in Britain.

The pitheads were silent as one million miners were locked-out. The railways and public services were at a complete standstill. A few buses operated in London, but only nine tramcars out of 2,000-odd were on the road. There were no passenger trains. Hamilton Fyfe recorded a graphic picture in his diary on the first day of the general strike:

“On the railways scarcely a wheel turns… Docks everywhere are empty and silent. The roads, outside of the cities, have little traffic on them. Building has almost entirely stopped, except on housing schemes and hospital extensions. Iron and steel works are closed; so are the heavy chemical factories. There are none of the ordinary newspapers. Nothing like a strike on this scale has been seen before – anywhere.”

Even the unorganised workers were drawn into the struggle. It was truly a breath-taking scene of working class power.

“Organised Labour now acts as one unit…” Hamilton Fyfe continued. “That is an immense advance. The odd thing is that this should have come to pass under a General Council which includes no ‘extremists,’ and is composed almost entirely of men and women who are steady-going, moderate, unemotional, the last people in the world whom one would think of as likely to put themselves at the head of a movement of this kind.”[2]

The only trade union that openly scabbed on the strike was the National Sailors’ and Firemen’s Union, led by Havelock Wilson. A number of branches of the union went on strike without the permission of their executive, and Wilson scandalously took them to court and managed to get a High Court injunction restraining them from supporting the strike. But this was of no consequence in the scale of things.

The motley army of scabs mobilised by the OMS, made up mostly of students and middle class professionals, was completely ineffective given the situation. They lacked the necessary skills needed to keep services going. The whole country was in a state of paralysis and the government was suspended in mid-air. The spontaneous initiative and resourcefulness of several million workers was making up for the lack of direction at the top of the trade unions.

From its first day, the working class showed tremendous qualities and improvisation. As in 1920, the Trades Councils sprang into action. Councils of Action based on Trades Councils and local Labour Parties acted as district command headquarters and organised the strike on the ground. These organisations were completely transformed by the struggle. They had suddenly come to life! They displayed energy and initiative to an extent that astonished all who had participated in them:

“Councils which had never had any real existence, councils which were considered moribund, as well as normally active councils – all seemed to get a sudden inspiration, developed new forms of organisation and activity drew in numbers of new helpers and for the first time in their history… became the real expression of the local movement.”[3]

Nothing could move without the workers’ permission. The Councils organised picketing, communications, permits, and even workers’ defence corps in certain areas. At Methil, in Fife, for instance, in response to police attacks, the Council of Action organised a defence corps, which swelled to 700 volunteers and was organised into companies under the command of former NCOs. The corps was armed with pick shafts, which served to keep the forces of the state at bay. The ordinary functions of the capitalist state were paralysed. These Councils of Action were, in reality, embryos of workers’ power. As the strike turned into a struggle with the government, the working class spontaneously developed its own organs of self-government.

The General Strike was showing in practice which class was the real power in society. Nothing could operate without the permission of the TUC. How things had changed! Rather than the workers taking orders from the bosses, the opposite was now the case: “Employers of labour were coming, cap in hand, begging for permission to do certain things, or, to be more correct, to allow their workers to return to perform certain customary operations…” stated an Ashton sheet-metal worker, a member of his local Permit Committee. “Most of them turned empty away after a most humiliating experience, for one and all were put through a stern questioning, just to make them realise that we and not they were the salt of the earth. I thought of the many occasions when I had been turned empty away from the door of some workshop in a weary struggle to get the means to purchase the essentials of life for self and dependants.”

The ruling class was losing control of society. It was something they never expected. Here was a glimpse of revolution, which terrified them. In certain areas, such as Northumberland and Durham, the Councils of Action were so strong that the government’s representatives were compelled to plead for permits.

“When trade unionists working under permit refused to work with blackleg labour introduced at the docks, the government Commissioner, Sir Kingsley Wood, approached the Joint Strike Committee with a view to establishing some form of dual control. After two meetings between Wood and representatives of the Joint Strike Committee, the latter refused to make any arrangement involving work alongside blacklegs, and all permits were withdrawn”,

stated the Report from the Northumberland and Durham General Council and Joint Strike Committee.

Fortunately for the ruling class, the trade union leaders were even more terrified by these developments. Things were getting out of control. The trade union leaders never considered that it was the business of the working class to run society, but this became increasingly the case. Thomas later told the House of Commons,

“What I dreaded about this strike more than anything else was this: if by chance it should have got out of the hands of those who would be able to exercise some control, every sane man knows what would have happened. I thank God it never did… that fear, was always in our minds…”[4]

Unstoppable wave

Inspired at the power of organised labour, unorganised workers joined the unions in droves; in some cases non-unionists even preceded the union workers in coming out on strike. There were militant demonstrations and processions in the main towns and cities. The working class became more and more confident as the strike went on. There were continual clashes between strikers and police. Thousands of workers were arrested, charged with incitement, and jailed for terms of six weeks to two months. But these measures failed to intimidate the workers, and each day more sections were coming out on strike in an unstoppable wave.

Initially taken aback by the scale and thrust of the movement, the government recovered its nerve and began to show its teeth. Battleships were anchored in the Mersey, the Clyde, and off the coast at Swansea and Cardiff. The OMS was incorporated into the government forces under Churchill. All army and naval leave was cancelled, and two battalions were dispatched to Liverpool. Hyde Park in London was turned into an armed camp. To the dismay of the General Council, the government continually denounced the strike, as a revolutionary challenge to the Constitution. “The General Strike is a challenge to Parliament and is the road to anarchy and ruin”, stated Baldwin. Hamilton Fyfe saw the irony in this when he wrote in his diary: “This is to be the line, then. The General Council is to be held up to detestation as an assembly of Guy Fawkeses, bent upon blowing up Parliament and property, the Constitution, everything.”

Despite a deliberate attempt by Churchill to suppress it, the TUC issued its first issue of the British Worker on the 5 May, the second day of the strike. “The workers are growing more determined as the days pass. They are not ‘drifting back to work.’ On the contrary, the trouble everywhere is to keep those men at work who have not yet been ordered to strike”, stated the British Worker.

“And as to getting the ‘trains and things’ running with ‘volunteers,’ the first day’s boasts have quite failed to materialise. The train service remains a skeleton – and an even bonier skeleton than yesterday.

“A few London buses are being run by ‘volunteer’ drivers, each guarded by a policeman. Here and there in the provinces the same thing. But what does it all amount to? In all Manchester, for example, three tram drivers!

“A few buses, a few passenger trains. But the mines are still, the goods traffic has ceased, the docks are closed, the factories are closing.

“Not all the OMS in the world can get them going again. Only the organised workers can do that.

“And the organised workers, solid, disciplined, calm, are refusing to do it until justice is done to their fellows.

“The third day. And still everywhere complete calm, complete order.”

The General Strike immediately demonstrated the enormous power of the working class. Nothing moved without its permission. The government was, in effect, completely paralysed. Clearly, this was no ordinary strike. Whether the TUC leaders liked it or not, the General Strike posed the question of power. Whatever the immediate issue, once set in motion such a strike has logic of it own. It raises the question point-blank: Who governs the country? This question demands an answer. No evasions or middle way is possible. Either the strike leads to the workers taking power or a severe defeat can ensue and the capitalists will impose their will. No other outcome is possible.

Two days into the strike, on 6 May, Trotsky wrote a brilliant appraisal of the unfolding events:

“A general strike is the sharpest form of class war. It is only one step from the general strike to armed insurrection. This is precisely why the general strike, more than any other form of class struggle, requires clear, distinct, resolute and therefore revolutionary leadership. In the current strike of the British proletariat there is not a ghost of such a leadership, and it is not to be expected that it can be conjured up out of the ground. The General Council of the Trades Union Congress set out with the ridiculous statement that the present general strike did not represent a political struggle, and in any event did not constitute an assault upon the state power of the bankers, industrialists and landowners, or upon the sanctity of British parliamentarism. This most loyal and submissive declaration of war does not, however, appear the least bit convincing to the government, which feels the real instruments of rule slipping out of its hands under the effect of the strike. State power is not an ‘idea’ but a material apparatus. When the apparatus of government and suppression is paralysed, the state power is thereby paralysed. In modern society no-one can hold power without controlling the railways, shipping, posts and telegraphs, power stations, coal, and so on. The fact that MacDonald and Thomas have sworn to renounce any political objectives may typify them personally but it in no way typifies the nature of the general strike which if carried through to the end sets the revolutionary class the task of organising a new state power. Fighting against this with all their might, however, are those very people who by the course of events have been placed ‘at the head’ of the general strike. And in this the main danger lies. Men who did not want the general strike, who deny the political nature of the general strike, and fear above all the consequences of a victorious strike, must inevitably direct all their efforts towards keeping it within the bounds of a semi-political semi-strike, that is to say, towards emasculating it…

“Now is not the time to predict the duration, the course and still less the outcome of the struggle. Everything must be done on an international scale to aid the fighters and improve their chances of success. But it must be clearly recognised that success is possible only to the extent that the British working class, in the process of the development and sharpening of the general strike, realises the need to change its leadership, and measures up to the task. There is an American proverb which says that you cannot change horses in mid-stream. But this practical wisdom is true only within certain limits. The stream of revolution has never been crossed on the horse of reformism, and the class, which has entered the struggle under opportunist leadership, will be compelled to change it under enemy fire. The conduct of the really revolutionary elements in the British proletariat and above all the communists is pre-determined by this. They will uphold the unity of mass action by every means; but they will not permit even the semblance of unity with the opportunist leaders of the Labour Party and the trade unions. An implacable struggle against every act of treachery or attempted treachery and the ruthless exposure of the reformists’ illusions are the main elements in the work of the genuinely revolutionary participants in the general strike. In this they will not only aid the fundamental and protracted task of developing new cadres, without which the victory of the British proletariat is wholly impossible, but they will directly assist the success of this strike by deepening it, uncovering its revolutionary tendencies, thrusting the opportunists aside and strengthening the position of the revolutionaries…

“The present collision of the classes will be a tremendous lesson and have immeasurable consequences, quite apart from its immediate results. It will become plain to every proletarian in Britain that parliament is powerless to solve the basic and most vital tasks of the country. The question of the economic salvation of Britain will henceforth confront the proletariat as the question of the conquest of power. All intervening, mediating, compromising, pseudo-pacifist elements will be dealt a mortal blow. The Liberal Party, however much its leaders may twist and turn, will emerge from such an ordeal even more insignificant than it entered it. Within the Conservative Party, the most die-hard elements will obtain preponderance. Within the Labour Party the revolutionary wing will gain in organisation and influence. The Communists will advance decisively. The revolutionary development of Britain will take a gigantic stride towards its dénouement.”[5]

As explained, the General Council attempted to reassure the ruling class that the strike posed no threat to King or Country, and was simply called to help the miners. But the ruling class would hear none of it. They correctly saw the General Strike as a direct challenge to the Constitution, the Baldwin government and the capitalist system. However, instead of providing the necessary leadership, the TUC leaders acted as a gigantic millstone around the neck of the movement. In the pages of the British Worker, workers could read their Message to All Workers. It stated: “The General Council of the Trades Union Congress wishes to emphasise the fact that this is an industrial dispute.” But a general strike by its very nature goes far beyond the boundaries of an ordinary industrial dispute. It necessarily has a political character because it brings out sharply the fundamental class division in society and challenges the bosses’ right to rule. Baldwin and Churchill were therefore quite right to present it as a declaration of war. The difference was that, whereas they showed great determination to lead their armies into battle, the officers of the Labour movement were desperate to surrender without firing a shot.

Stand firm!

The General Council in fact became the greatest asset of the Baldwin government. Three days into the strike, Sir Herbert Samuel returned from a pleasant holiday in Italy and immediately opened up unofficial (that is, secret and underhand) negotiations with Jimmy Thomas, followed by the Industrial Committee, to find an “honourable settlement”. The TUC made it clear that it saw Samuel’s proposals as a basis for calling off the strike. They became increasingly desperate for a way out – even if it meant sacrificing the miners. The growing mood of capitulation within the ranks of the TUC General Council reflected itself in the refusal to call out its “second line”, mainly composed of shipping workers, until the 10 May. It never once considered using its most powerful weapons, namely the withdrawal of those sections responsible for electricity and power.

“The order has gone out that the engineering shops and shipyards are to stop to-night,” noted Hamilton Fyfe. “This applies to all unions in the engineering and shipbuilding trades affiliated to the TUC. It does not apply to men engaged at the government dockyards, Admiralty establishments, or government engineering works.

“The men, so the General Council reports, have awaited the instructions impatiently, and all over the country they have received their ‘marching orders’ with enthusiasm and a sense of relief.”[6]

“All’s Well”, was the message from the TUC on Monday 10 May. “The General Council’s message at the opening of the second week is ‘Stand firm.’ Be loyal to instructions and Trust Your Leaders,” stated the British Worker. On the very day before the general strike was called off, the British Worker ran a bold front page: “NO SLACKENING – The number of strikers has not diminished: it is increasing. There are more workers out today than there have been at any moment since the strike began”. Behind the scenes, however, the General Council was busy plotting to end the strike and leave the miners to face the consequences of defeat. Everything was to be sacrificed to bring the strike to an end and thus prevent the union leaders from losing control. But in order to do this, it was necessary to put the maximum pressure on the miners. A.J. Cook vividly describes what happened next in his pamphlet, The Nine Days:

“In a long speech, Mr. Pugh solemnly and seriously declared that the General Council had decided that these proposals [the Samuel Memorandum] must be accepted by the miners’ representatives as a basis for negotiations and that they would call off the strike. They had guarantees that satisfied them that the government would accept these proposals and that on the strike being withdrawn, the lockout notices would also be withdrawn and the miners should return to work on the status quo (with, of course, a reduction in wages to come after resumption of work). We were told these proposals were unalterable, could not be amended, that we had to accept them en bloc as this was the unanimous decision of the TUC. Mr. Pugh was continually pressed and questioned by Mr. Herbert Smith, myself and my colleagues as to what the guarantees mentioned were, and who had given them. We got no answer. But J. H. Thomas said to me personally when I asked him whether the government would accept the Samuel proposals and what were the guarantees: ‘You may not trust my word, but will you not accept the word of a British gentleman who has been Governor of Palestine?’

“Our President, myself, and my colleagues put several other questions; asking what was the position of other workers in regard to the unanimous decision arrived at that we should all return to work together, to protect one another from victimisation, and to secure a return by all workers on the same conditions as when they left. We were informed that ‘that was alright’.”

Cook writes about “an abyss” opening up before him and the rest of the Federation leaders. There was a sudden realisation that they were about to be sold down the river. The TUC leaders had made up their minds to end the strike. For them, there was no alternative but to accept the Samuel Memorandum. But the miners rejected the proposals and Cook issued a press statement on the afternoon of 12 May stating that the Miners’ Federation were “no party in any shape or form” to the calling off of the General Strike. Of course, this statement, deliberately suppressed by the General Council, was never printed in the British Worker and the mass of workers remained totally ignorant of the miners’ position until well after the strike had ended.

While the General Strike was gaining momentum, the General Council was at Downing Street to present its surrender proposals. Arthur Pugh announced, after a somewhat rambling preamble, that the “General Strike is to be terminated forthwith in order that negotiations may proceed.” Baldwin accepted the TUC’s unconditional surrender and asked them to leave. “Now, Mr. Pugh”, said the Prime Minister in a tone of utter contempt, “as I said before, we have both of us got a great deal to do and a great deal of anxious and difficult work, and I think the sooner you get to your work and the sooner I get to mine the better.”

The miners were left completely stunned and isolated. They had been deliberately betrayed. Despite suggestions of guarantees against victimisation, there were none. The TUC General Council had simply capitulated without even a whimper. The General Council’s final letter to Sir Herbert Samuel, dated 12 May, informed him that,

“they are taking the necessary measures to terminate the general strike, relying upon the public assurances of the Prime Minister as to the steps that would follow. They assume that during the resumed negotiations the subsidy will be renewed and that the lockout notices to the miners will be immediately withdrawn.”

Baldwin made it abundantly clear that these assurances had no basis whatsoever in fact. Like beaten dogs, the members of the TUC negotiating committee were unceremoniously shown the door. Even Ernest Bevin was forced to admit, “We have committed suicide. Thousands of members will be victimised as a result of this day’s work.”

It was a humiliating capitulation. Far from crumbling, the General Strike was getting stronger on the day of the surrender. In fact, twenty-four hours after the strike had been officially called off, the number of strikers had actually increased by 100,000. The strike had been reaching out to new layers. The Councils of Action were only just getting into their stride, drawing in greater control into their hands.

“No sign of weakening whatsoever; stronger if anything; few drifted back, but more came out”, reported the Aldershot Council. “The mood of the men and women here who were on strike was splendid, and it was a big shock when we heard the strike was off. But we expect it was for the best, although we cannot understand it yet, as we all thought we had won.”

The same was true of Bermondsey, Bethnal Green, Aberdeen, Birkenhead, Lincoln, Northampton, Macclesfied, Pontypridd, Sheffield, and dozens more.

From Erith the Council of Action stated:

“Position on 12 May – No sign of weakening; but disappointed at the way the strike terminated; the majority of the workers never returned until 24 May, owing to the employers’ attitude in not taking all the men back together.”

In Bolton it was reported:

“2,280 pickets mobilised in two days. Every picket did four hours on and twenty hours off. All were badged with a white silk ribbon. 29 push bikes and 57 motorbikes mobilised for picket and messenger work. Two local cinemas granted free use of cinemas for morning and afternoon meetings of strikers. Contact originated and maintained with practically every town in Lancashire each day. From Lancaster to Todmorden and from Macclesfield to Liverpool.”

This clearly showed how the Councils of Action were already linking up on a district and regional basis. If the strike had continued, they could well have crystallised into a national organisation, which, to all intents and purposes, would be the same as the Russian soviets in 1917. The elements of dual power already existed in Britain in 1926, and the Councils of Action were really embryonic soviets. All that was lacking was a determined party or tendency with a correct programme and policy and a leadership, like the Bolshevik Party of Lenin and Trotsky. If this had been present, the General Strike could undoubtedly have been the starting-point for the coming to power of the working class and the establishment of a workers’ democracy in Britain.

It is fashionable now to pour scorn over the idea that the General Strike contained a revolutionary potential, but such assertions show a poor understanding of history. It should not be forgotten that the soviets in Russia were initially under the leadership of the Mensheviks and SRs who, like the General Council, were determined to hand power to the bourgeoisie. Without the presence of the Bolshevik Party, this would undoubtedly have occurred. In that case, a hundred years later, the history books would be writing about the impossibility of socialist revolution in Russia, as they now do when they refer to the British general strike of 1926.

Further reports confirmed the strength of the strike. The Kettering Trades Council reported:

“General meetings were held mornings at 11 o’clock, evenings at 6.30; the evening meeting was followed always by a concert; women’s meeting in the afternoon; and mass meetings on the Sunday were also good. A further hall was taken with the object of keeping together all who had to cease work as a result of the strike, each hall coming under separate committees. Arrangements were in hand to link up the committee at each hall under the Trades Council, who had this in hand.”

As far as the Wakefield general strike Committee was concerned, “Position on 12 May – No sign of weakening. On the contrary, the spirit was magnificent, and consternation and dismay prevailed when the news that the strike was called off had been confirmed.” From Dartford, the following report summed up the mood everywhere:

“The instructions of the TUC were accepted without question and the faith and confidence of the men in that body was a religion. I should have said the men came out solidly here and they remained so until the end. It was a great beginning, but a pitiable ending. The men returned to work humiliated, and they felt they had been deceived.”[7]

The Betrayal

Such accounts could be repeated many times. The working class, having exerted itself to the maximum during the nine days, was stunned by the capitulation of the leadership. They felt betrayed and disoriented. What had gone wrong? Why was the strike called off, just when it was gathering momentum?

The British Worker’s last strike edition on the Wednesday evening ran the headline – “Strike Terminated Today – Trades Union Congress General Council Satisfied That Miners Will Now Get a Fair Deal.” Of course, there was no “fair deal” on offer. On Saturday 15 May, the TUC newspaper attacked its critics, claiming that the “General Council acted with courage in ending the stoppage”! But they were now forced to admit publicly that there were no official assurances or undertakings given by the government. Churchill’s British Gazette was much less evasive. “Unconditional Withdrawal of Notices by TUC,” it proclaimed on Thursday morning. “Men to Return Forthwith. Surrender Received by Premier in Downing Street.” The Daily Mail went further, and announced the “Surrender of the Revolutionaries”.

The leaders of the TUC – not just the right wing but also the so-called Left – had no confidence in the working class, and no confidence in themselves. They had blundered into the strike and were terrified by the implications of the whole affair. The TUC had surrendered completely. Once again, they had snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. This view was summed up by Charles Dukes of the General and Municipal Workers:

“Every day that the strike proceeded the control and the authority of that dispute was passing out of the hands of responsible executives into the hands of men who had no authority, no control, and was wrecking the movement from one end to the other.”

Nothing could be clearer. Unfortunately, the Lefts on the General Council acted no differently from the right wing. Purcell was chair of the TUC’s Organisation Committee and was involved in the negotiations to end the strike. Hicks was foremost in rejecting the magnificent £100,000 donation raised by Russian workers for the strike, referring to it as “damned Moscow Gold.” The Lefts on the General Council offered no opposition to the capitulation of the right wing. In the words of the Daily Herald, “the TUC packed up and went home.” They feared the consequences of complete victory more than those of a negotiated defeat.

Many advanced workers could understand the actions of Thomas and Co., but were shocked by the role of the Left. In reality, there was no fundamental difference between them. The two tendencies they represented are what Marxists would describe as left and right reformism. Both tendencies accept the capitalist system. The left reformists would like the capitalists to behave in a more humane manner and give concessions to the workers. This is like trying to teach a man-eating tiger to become a vegetarian. Sometimes, in a period of economic upswing, the capitalists are prepared to make concessions. But in a period of economic crisis they are implacable. Reforms in such periods can only be achieved as the by-product of an all-out revolutionary struggle.

In the last analysis the “Lefts” will unite with the right wing because they have no perspective of a fundamental change in society, and fear the independent movement of the workers. We have seen this many times in the history of the movement. Therefore, while it is necessary to support the Left trade union leaders against the right wing, it is necessary to keep them under firm control, to support them only when they defend correct policies and to consistently criticise their vacillations and mistakes. One must also distinguish between words and deeds. “Fine words butter no parsnips”, the proverb states, and “left” speeches are no use unless they lead to action. Therefore, our support for the left reformists must be of a highly critical nature, and never unconditional. This was the big mistake made by the young and inexperienced Communist Party of Britain in 1926.

The Communist Party, which many militant workers looked towards, was largely responsibility for fostering illusions in the Lefts on the TUC:

“Although we knew of what treachery the right wing leaders were capable, we did not clearly understand the part played by the so-called ‘left’ in the union leadership”, stated the Communist leader, George Hardie. “In the main they turned out to be windbags and capitulated to the right wing. We were taught a major lesson; that while developing a move to the left officially, the main point in preparing for the action must always be to develop a class conscious leadership among the rank and file.”[8]

But it was too late. Their uncritical policy towards the “Lefts”, encouraged by the Stalin-Bukharin faction in Moscow, had given a spurious “revolutionary” aura to Purcell, Hicks, Swales and the others. Even the most genuine left leader, Arthur Cook, proved unable to maintain an independent position, displayed great confusion and played a negative role, especially after the defeat, when his actions served to disorientate hundreds of thousands of activists.

Could the General Strike have led to revolution in Britain? The answer to this question has already been given. Objectively, there was no reason why the powerful British working class could not have taken power in 1926. The workers’ organisations were already beginning to take the running of society into their hands. But in order to carry the movement forward, a genuine revolutionary leadership was necessary. The Communist Party, having adopted the flexible line and tactics that Lenin had urged upon it, had built up considerable support in the Minority Movement. It was not yet strong enough to take the leadership of the unions into its hands, but by pursuing an energetic and independent policy it could have emerged from the general strike – even in the event of a defeat – enormously strengthened. By following the opportunist line dictated by Moscow, they threw the chance away.

Although the Communist Party’s membership increased during the strike from 6,000 to 10,800, the new recruits quickly fell by the wayside in disappointment. Trotsky earlier predicted a “decisive advance” of the British CP, but this was based upon correct policy, tactics and strategy – all of which was lacking. Unfortunately, by playing second fiddle to the “Lefts” on the TUC, the Communists lost the opportunity to build a mass base in the British trade union movement. When the “Lefts” capitulated to the right wing, the CPGB could not escape their share of he blame. This whole experience, and the deep demoralisation that accompanied it, served to undermine the Minority Movement that had clung to the coat tails of the “Lefts”.

The workers felt totally let down by their own leaders. It was left up to the rank and file and local leadership to save the situation from developing into a rout. When they heard of the conditions being offered by the employers, railworkers, dockers, engineering workers and other sections actually renewed the strike, which continued unofficially for several more days. But the back of the General Strike was broken, and many workers were forced to fight a rearguard struggle against victimisation.

The ruling class, for its part, was delighted with the outcome.

“Having got through the strike, and having once and for all laid the bogey of the General Strike, it would be easier for future governments to deal with the threatened strikes”, said Joynson-Hicks in a speech to the Primrose League on 20 May. “All they would have to do would be to say, ‘Look at 1926. We burst your bogey. We have shown the impossibility of holding the country to ransom at the hands of any organised body of opinion’.”[9]

Next time

The General Strike of 1926 was a show of unity never experienced in the history of the British working class. Close on four million organised workers took action, out of a total membership of five-and-a-half million trade unionists. And not all members were asked to strike, but kept in a second and third-line “reserve”. It was an incredible display of class solidarity in the face of the attacks of the government and capitalist class.

Despite the crowing of the ruling class, the General Strike was an experience that transformed the outlook of many worker activists. The General Strike showed the enormous potential of the working class: its innate capacity for solidarity, initiative, creativity and self-sacrifice. In the caption of a national Labour Party women’s organ, Labour Women (June 1926), were displayed the defiant words:

“There SHALL be a Next Time!” And the editorial stated: “the most important thing is that the people themselves now know and feel their own power. Genuine class consciousness was born in the ten days of the strike and which followed its cessation… The General Strike has made a united working class.”

The lessons of the 1926 General Strike are some of the most important in the history of the British working class and need to be digested by the new generation of worker activists and youth. In the titanic class battles that lie ahead, the general strike will once again be on the order of the day. Those who have no confidence in the working class will scoff at such a thought. However, the development of a general strike is not determined by the subjective will of individuals, as 1926 proved, but is born out of the class contradictions and dynamics of society. There have been many general strikes in the history of post-war Europe – in Greece, Spain, Italy and Portugal. Above all, the marvellous general strike in May 1968 in France shows what can happen in the next period in Britain and other countries. Let us not forget that most people thought that a general strike was not possible in France – before it happened. But then, it is always the fate of sceptics to be wise after the event.

Let us leave the last word on the subject to one of the participants in the titanic events of 1926. At the TUC Special Conference in January 1927, a young miners’ delegate, Peter Chambers, while addressing Congress turned to the platform and said: “We will have another general strike without you, and we will win next time.”


[1] Hamilton Fyfe, Behind the Scenes of the Great Strike, p.7, London, 1926

[2] Ibid, pp.80-81

[3] Burns, Trades Councils in Action, p.11, London 1975

[4] Quoted by Allen Hutt, Post War History of the British Working Class, p.135, London 1937

[5] Trotsky, op. cit, pp.144-47

[6] Hamilton Fyfe, op. cit, p.71

[7] All reports are from The General Strike, May 1926: Trades Councils in Action, London, 1926

[8] Quoted in Woodhouse & Pearce, op. cit, p.99

[9] Quoted in F.A. Florey, The General Strike of 1926, p.164, London 1980

“Never Again”

The defeat of the 1926 General Strike left the miners totally isolated. They were forced to fight on alone for a further seven months before being literally starved back to work on the owners’ terms. The betrayal of 1926 also dealt a terrible blow to the morale of the British working class generally. As the reports from Yorkshire strikers explained: “The spirit was magnificent, and consternation and dismay prevailed when the news that the strike was called off had been confirmed… Alarm – fear – despair – a victorious army disarmed and handed over to its enemies.”

The TUC General Council originally attempted to deflect the anger of the rank and file by claiming they had obtained “reassurances”, which was completely untrue. A national circular to all branches of the Railway Clerks’ Association insisted that “part of the understanding on which the General Strike was concluded [was] that there should be no victimisation on either side.” It was signed “Yours in Victory”. The telegram from C. T. Cramp to NUR members claimed that not only had lockout notices been withdrawn, but also that “there are to be no wage cuts whatever for the miners”! The right wing even went so far as to blame the intransigence of the miners’ leaders for the whole rotten business.

This deception, which was used to confuse and disorientate the rank and file, was not long lasting. Churchill’s British Gazette demolished all remaining doubts and illusions with its claims of “Unconditional Surrender”. The appeals of Baldwin for the employers to show compassion in their time of victory (“Let us get the workers calm as soon as we can…”) fell on deaf ears. The capitulation of the TUC signalled an all-out offensive by big business against wages and conditions generally. Trade union activists paid a heavy price through victimisation at the hands of vindictive Shylock employers determined to extract their pound of flesh. While the trade union leaders stood aside, the rank and file were forced to conduct a rearguard struggle against the bosses’ onslaught.

The moderate Hamilton Fyfe recorded the situation:

“May 15 – I am afraid that Thomas has lost again the popularity he won back by his speeches just before the strike began. The feeling against the General Council is bitter, and, because of the general belief that he was more desirous than the rest of the General Council of ending the strike, against him in particular.

“But I find many are inclined to think that most of the blame for what has happened should be laid at the door of the miners’ representatives who wouldn’t agree to anything, so members of the General Council are saying. But this has no bearing on the pitiful plight of the many strikers who are losing their jobs, or the harsh terms employers are imposing on those who return to work.

“The transport workers have had to accept much the same conditions as the railway unions agreed to. The newspaper-producing trades undertake that ‘there shall be no interference with the contents of newspapers.’ However, there are not to be reductions of wages and the unions have repelled the attempt to knock them out.

“In fact, the counter-attack by employers has failed, but has, nevertheless, caused casualties. There is a lot of victimisation going on, I am afraid.”[1]

London newspaper owners banned trade union chapel meetings, while their counterparts in Glasgow forced workers to renounce their union altogether. Union restrictions were imposed on the docks, but bus and tram workers were faced with wholesale dismissals, attacks on conditions and demands on them to renounce their union. Despite Cramp’s claim of “complete reinstatement without penalties”, the rail companies only agreed to take workers back when work became available. This was used to weed out militants and trade union activists. Despite this, Thomas paid tribute to the bosses’ magnanimity: “I say to every employer: Follow the example of the railway companies. Do the big thing.” Five months later, Thomas told the Labour Party Conference that 200,000 were working a three-day week and 45,000 victimised workers were still waiting for re-employment.

While the miners continued to fight on until November, the General Council and the rail leaders rejected their appeal for a coal embargo and a compulsory strike levy. The right wing believed privately that a defeat for the miners would justify their decision to abandon the General Strike. Through hunger and isolation the miners were eventually forced back to work on humiliating terms. The defeat also resulted in the emergence of a split-away scab union in the Midlands and elsewhere led by the Nottinghamshire miners’ leader, Spencer.

The defeat of the miners meant the imposition of wage cuts and the return to district agreements within the coalfields. Within weeks the government repealed the Seven-Hour Act of 1919, forcing the miners to work longer hours. For many, the employers’ offensive marked the beginning of years of victimisation and long-term unemployment in the mining areas. It produced a deep scar of ingrained bitterness within the mining communities that would last literally for generations. Even during the strikes of 1972, 1974 and 1984-85, miners recalled the defeat and humiliation of 1926. The whole experience was etched into the collective memory of the miners and their families.

The General Council’s conclusion from the events of May 1926 was summed up by C. T. Cramp’s immortal words: “NEVER AGAIN!” They had stumbled into the strike against their better judgement, and they were terrified by its consequences. They were forced to do the “sensible thing” and put an end to it, even if it meant sacrificing the miners. These “leaders”, both left and right, had no belief in fighting to change society. Believing as they did, they were left with no other choice but to capitulate to the Baldwin government and the ruling class.

For the previous two years, the Communist Party had systematically cultivated the image of these “left-wingers” on the General Council, which suited the needs of Stalin’s opportunist policy towards Britain. With the betrayal of the General Strike, despite calls from Trotsky and the Left Opposition for the Russian trade unions to break off relations with the General Council strike-breakers on the Anglo-Soviet Trade Union Committee, they refused. Instead, they continued to shamefully cling to the coat-tails of the right wing of the British TUC. In fact, when relations were eventually broken, it was at the instigation of the leaders of the TUC, which accused the Russians of interfering in their internal affairs!

The defeat inevitably led to a profound questioning amongst the trade union rank and file. The TUC, however, refused point blank to give an accounting of its actions. Finally, under intense pressure from its affiliates, a conference was called for June 1926. But, three days before it was due to open, the General Council announced that it had reached an agreement with the miners to postpone the conference until the miners’ lockout was over. Astonishingly, it was also agreed that mutual criticism between the General Council and the Miners’ Federation would cease, which became known as the “June Pact”. Cook, who was in a state of demoralisation, went so far as to suspend publication of his pamphlet The Nine Days, which was very critical of the General Council. Such a rotten compromise allowed the TUC leaders to get off the hook and avoid an exposure of their strike-breaking role. This action of Cook clearly took everyone by surprise. Although a sincere class fighter, and undoubtedly the most courageous leader on the left, he was isolated in trade union circles and disorientated by the defeat. His compromises with the right wing on the TUC led him to make a series of tragic mistakes. As an individual, he was faced with enormous personal pressures and responsibilities that served to sway his previous judgements. The isolation of the miners, fighting against hopeless odds, finally broke his fighting spirit, and sadly, led him to capitulate to the right wing of the General Council.

Coal Crisis Report

Although the miners’ leaders honoured their side of the bargain and refused to openly criticise the TUC General Council, this did not prevent General Council member, John Bromley, reneging on the deal and publishing extracts of the TUC report attacking the miners. As was to be expected, these attacks were then carried widely in the capitalist press. Despite this severe breach of confidence, it was none other than Bromley, in a clear provocation to the miners, who was chosen to give the General Council’s Report on the Coal Crisis to the TUC Congress in Bournemouth. The uproar amongst the delegations was such that the proceedings of the Congress were held up for more than an hour as the miners’ delegation protested and eventually stormed out of the hall singing the Red Flag. To avoid further disruption, the chairman – in a blatant manoeuvre – ruled out of order any discussion of the General Strike at the Congress, which was now to be left to a future conference of trade union executives. Although the ruling was challenged – and could have been successfully overturned – the opposition was headed off by the surprise intervention of Arthur Cook himself, who urged that there should be no washing of dirty linen in public while the miners were still on strike.

When an inquest was finally held into the General Strike in January 1927, the report of the General Council absolved itself of any blame and instead sharply criticised the intransigence of the miners’ leaders. It concluded, “the Council have no excuses to offer and no apologies to make for the conduct of the strike or for its termination.” This report was then endorsed by 2,840,000 votes to 1,095,000. For the TUC leadership, militancy had failed and a new sensible and “moderate” way forward was now required by the trade union movement. It was a crass ending from a crass leadership.

Of course, the Baldwin government also learned some key lessons from the events of May 1926. These political representatives of capitalism had correctly weighed up the role and limits of the TUC leaders. Now the initiative was in their hands. As always, weakness invites aggression. The Tories acted swiftly to cripple the trade unions by introducing draconian anti-union legislation in the form of the Trade Dispute and Trade Union Act of 1927. The Act, consisting of eight clauses, created a new class of “illegal” strikes:

1) All sympathetic strikes were to be made illegal, confining the right to strike solely to the trade or industry concerned. A general strike was deemed illegal.

2) All strike-breakers would be protected under the law.

3) The right to picket was severely curtailed.

4) Political funds were attacked. Those paying the political levy had now to substitute “contracting in” for “contracting out”.

5) All civil servants were banned from joining or remaining in a union that had political objectives or was linked to other unions (i.e. the Labour Party and TUC).

6) All local and public authorities had to abandon all employment closed shops.

7) The Attorney General had the right to restrain a union from using its funds in an illegal strike.

8) It was an offence for any worker to refuse employment “under a common understanding”, when offered during an illegal strike.

The reader cannot fail to see the striking similarities between this anti-union legislation and the measures introduced by the Tories after the defeat of the miners in 1984-85. The Trade Dispute Act was accurately described as “the most reactionary sample of British labour legislation placed on the statute book since the evil Combination Laws of 1799-1800.” In reality, it was a return to the old “Master and Servant” laws abolished in 1875. With the end of the General Strike, the government was determined to extract its just reward. After all, concluded Lord Birkenhead, there was no point in “losing about £30 million in this insensate struggle without coming away with some trophy.” The Baldwin government contemptuously rubbed the noses of the trade union leaders into the dirt. “Call all your meetings,” jeered Birkenhead about the TUC’s threat to campaign against the anti-union legislation. “Blow all your trumpets, make all your speeches, unfurl all your red flags – and when you have done it all, the Bill is going through Parliament.” This summed up the callous attitude of the ruling class, who knew very well that the TUC leaders were not about to seriously mobilise their members. Put up, or shut up, was their approach. After a few noises, the TUC fell silent.

The 1926 defeat was a watershed for industrial struggle. The confidence of the workers had been seriously weakened by the defeat. There was widespread demoralisation. The number of strikes simply collapsed. In the four years prior to the General Strike, between 400,000 and 600,000 workers were involved in strikes each year. In 1927 and 1928 the figures were little over 100,000. Parallel with this was the sharp fall in trade union membership, which dropped below the five million mark for the first time since 1916. The TUC also suffered a decline in affiliations by half a million between 1926-8.

“The violent post-war crisis of the early twenties”, writes Professor N. Barou, “was very serious for the trade unions – far more severe than anything in the 1914-18 period. But in the inter-war years the most remarkable feature of all was the steady decrease in trade union membership during the ensuing economic revival (1927-29). No doubt the defeat in the General Strike of 1926 was probably the greatest obstacle to trade union growth in the late twenties.”[2]

As far as the Labour Party was concerned, the effect of the 1927 Trade Dispute Act, where workers were now forced to “contract in”, was considerable. Labour’s affiliated trade union membership fell from 3,388,000 in 1926, to 2,077,000 two years later. Between 1927 and 1929 the Labour Party lost over a quarter of its total income.

As explained, the trade union leaders regarded the ignominious defeat of the General Strike as the defeat of militancy. Militant action was described contemptuously by Beatrice Webb as “a proletarian distemper that had to run its course.” This “enlightened” Fabian also wrote in her Diaries: “the failure of the General Strike shows what a SANE people the British are.” This smug individual even had doubts about giving money to the Relief Fund for the Miners to help the hungry families of those locked-out. It was no accident that it was Beatrice and Sidney Webb who had a profound hatred for the Bolshevik Revolution under Lenin and Trotsky, but who saw in the Stalin Constitution of the 1930s the “most democratic Constitution in the world.” In effect, the Webbs summed up all the bankrupt traditions of English bourgeois pragmatism and the reformist intelligentsia.

“I hope the time will come when, instead of looking at whether the miners were right,” stated the TUC general secretary, Mr Walter Citrine, at the Special TUC Congress, “we shall sit down and look at the thing objectively and see what are the defects. Until we do that, neither getting rid of your leaders nor delivering the head of Jimmy Thomas on a charger, will be of any avail… Could, in the circumstances, any other set of men have acted differently?”

At least Citrine’s question went to the very heart of the matter. As 1926 showed, the trade union leaders, both right and left, were theoretically unprepared for the implications involved. They led a potentially revolutionary force without having any intension of using it. The union leaders, because they also had no perspective of overthrowing capitalism, simply attempted to act as mediators between the classes. But, as the Bible says, you cannot serve both God and Mammon. In the last analysis, despite his earlier courage, this was also Cook’s fatal weakness. While he sincerely wanted to change society, he was all at sea as to how it could be brought about.

Unfortunately, the young Communist Party also proved incapable of filling the vacuum that had opened up during the General Strike. A few days before the strike, J. T. Murphy, the CP’s industrial organiser, declared in their press, “Our party does not hold the leading positions in the trade unions. It can only advise and place its press and forces at the service of the workers – led by others… To entertain any exaggerated views as to the revolutionary possibilities of this crisis… is fantastic.” This erroneous view was backed up by Moscow, when Karl Radek endorsing the position of the right wing General Council, stated: “make no mistake, this is not a revolutionary movement. It is simply a wage dispute.”

Two months after the strike, the CP leader, Palme Dutt offered a correct, if belated analysis:

“The experience of the General Strike has shown that the question of leadership is a life and death question for the workers and to neglect it or treat it lightly is fatal … The enemy within, in fact, is most dangerous … the old reformist myth that it is only the backwardness of the workers which is the obstacle to the progressive intentions of the leaders is smashed. Only a couple of weeks before the General Strike, Brailsford [the leader of the ILP] in his answer to Trotsky, was expressing polite incredulity at Trotsky’s statement that the workers in Britain were already in practice far in advance of the ILP leaders, and holding it up as a glaring example of Russian ‘ignorance’ of British conditions. After the General Strike, the statement appears as the merest commonplace.”

Dealing with the right wing leaders, he further commented:

“…having ensured its defeat, they come forward to proclaim the final failure of the general strike weapon, and even that they knew its folly all along. That is the typical role of social democracy… On the other hand, it was conspicuously obvious that the left wing which had developed as an opposition tendency in the trade unions during the past two years around the personalities of certain leaders on the General Council such as Hicks, Bromley, Tillett, Purcell and others, completely failed to provide any alternative leadership during the crisis and in practice fell behind the right wing. This is an extremely significant fact and it is all important.”[3]

The Minority Movement entered into decline after the defeat. The trade union leaders soon took measures against it. Beginning at the 1926 Bournemouth TUC Congress, the General Council instructed Trades Councils to discontinue all their affiliations to the Minority Movement. The General and Municipal Workers’ Union took the decision to exclude Communists and Minority Movement members from holding union office. The National Union of Railwaymen, the Transport Workers, USDAW, NATSOPA, the Bakers, Painters, Boilermakers, Electrical Trades, and Boot and Shoe Operatives all shamefully followed suit.

“So died the Minority Movement, much as the General Strike had died. Ernest Bevin and his colleagues had called off the General Strike to avoid open warfare with the government; Harry Pollitt called off the Minority Movement to avoid open warfare with the TUC and many executives of trade unions”, commented the former CP leader J. T. Murphy.[4]

From the formation of the CPGB in 1920 until the Labour Party Liverpool Conference in 1925, Communists could be individual members of the Labour Party. Many of those who held dual membership came from the BSP, originally an affiliated Labour Party organisation. A number of these Communists had even helped to set up local Labour Parties, such as in Maesteg in South Wales where Idris Cox played a key role and became the vice-chairman of the party. The ban on Communist membership endorsed at Liverpool was the final blow by the right wing to eradicate Communist influence from the Labour Party. A significant number of local Labour Parties rejected this witch-hunt and refused to carry out the decision, including incidentally Maesteg. In December 1925, a National Left-Wing Conference was held to muster opposition to the ban. Almost 100 divisional and borough Labour Parties refused to comply with the conference decision. The reaction of Labour’s national headquarters was to start disaffiliating local parties. The betrayal of the General Strike gave a further impetus to this attack. However, even as late as September 1927, fifty-four local Labour Parties and other groups, representing about 150,000 members, attended the second conference of the Left-Wing Movement.

Despite the disaffiliations, the Left-Wing Movement had been making steady progress. Yet this was brought to an abrupt halt, not by the right wing, but by the CP leadership! Following the course pursued by Moscow, by 1929 the Communists had adopted an ultra-left policy, and began to denounce the Labour Party as a capitalist party. In the process, they called on its members and supporters to abandon the Left Wing, which served to pull the rug from under its feet and the movement collapsed. “The Labour Party is… a machine of reformism… The decisive fight of the revolutionary workers is and can only be outside that machine and against it… the conception of a socialist transformation of the Labour Party needs to be denounced”, wrote R. Palme Dutt, the new leader of the ultra-left course. This was followed up by a statement from J. T. Murphy: “… we can no longer do a single thing to strengthen the Labour Party – neither affiliate to it nor pay [the political levy] to it, neither work for it nor vote for it.”[5] This extremely sectarian view served to isolate the CP even further, and drastically undermined its support within the wider Labour movement. Today, some 70 years later, certain splinter groups on the fringes of the Labour movement are taking the exact same line towards the “bourgeois” Labour Party. Some people never learn. As Marx explained, history repeats itself first as tragedy, secondly as farce.

This sharp change of policy by the CP, in complete contrast to the years since its foundation, reflected a new policy emanating from the Soviet Union. Ever since Lenin’s death in 1924, the group around Stalin in the leadership of the Russian Communist Party had attempted to revise the Leninist policy. This reflected a bureaucratic reaction against the October Revolution, which, in turn had arisen from the material isolation of the Revolution in a backward peasant country, surrounded by imperialism. Given Russia’s backwardness, mass illiteracy, and the devastation of the civil war, the tiny working class were elbowed aside by a growing bureaucracy. Increasingly, the Stalin group reflected this growing bureaucratic elite within the state and party. In Lenin’s last struggle before he was completely paralysed, he organised a political bloc with Trotsky against Stalin and the bureaucratisation of the party. However, after 1923, Lenin’s paralysis and eventual death was unscrupulously used to isolate Trotsky and strengthen Stalin’s grip on power. With every defeat and retreat of the working class, including Germany (1923) and Britain (1926), the Soviet bureaucracy became stronger. This eventually led to the consolidation of the Stalin regime, and the abandonment of world revolution in favour of “socialism in one country”. In 1927 the defeat of Trotsky’s Left Opposition was at bottom due to the unfavourable relationship of forces within the Soviet Union and internationally.

Eventually, the Stalin regime eliminated all opposition groups and created a totalitarian state, albeit based upon nationalised property forms, the only gains left over from the October Revolution. In the struggle with the Left Opposition, gangster methods were taken into the ranks of the Communist International, which were purged and transformed, in effect, into border guards for the Soviet bureaucracy. Abandoning Leninism, the Stalin regime swung from an opportunist policy, which led to a debacle both in Britain and China to ultra-leftism and the adoption of the “third period”.[6] This “third period” – as opposed to the “first” and “second” periods of revolution and stability – was supposed to be the final crisis of capitalism, whereby the socialists now became social-fascists, the radicals became radical-fascists, and the Trotskyists, Trotsky-fascists, even worse than the real fascists!

From now on, the British Labour and trade union leaders were denounced as “social fascists” at every step and turn. The CP also adopted a policy – totally contrary to Lenin’s position – of splitting the trade unions where they had any influence. Fortunately in Britain, due to their dwindling size and influence, they only managed to carry through this sectarian policy in two unions: the United Mineworkers of Scotland (based in Fife) and the United Clothing Workers (based in the East End of London). But these initiatives were stillborn. By 1935, the National Minority Movement was officially dissolved and the two independent unions were wound up.

After 1926, the British trade union leaders looked to open class collaboration with the bosses as a way forward. In October 1926, at the Labour Party Conference, Robert Williams, the ex-communist transport workers’ leader, who had now moved sharply to the right, expressed the new line clearly: “Let us seek industrial peace through methods of conciliation. We cannot subvert or overthrow capitalism. We must supersede capitalism.” Another ex-left, George Hicks, raised similar ideas at the Edinburgh TUC, and then invited the co-operation of the employers “in a common endeavour to improve the efficiency of industry and to raise the workers’ standard of life.” This invitation was warmly taken up by a group of twenty industrialists, led by Sir Alfred Mond (then later Lord Melchett) of the giant ICI conglomerate, to discuss “industrial reorganisation and industrial relations.” It was the equivalent of the spider, the fly and the parlour, but with the ever-so-eager TUC as the bait.

Under the circumstances, all the defeatist and pusillanimous elements in the leadership of the British trade unions came to the fore. In January 1928, the first meeting between the industrialists and the General Council – the Mond-Turner talks, with Turner being the chairman of the TUC – took place in the prestigious Burlington House and gave rise to the National Industrial Council, on which both employers and workers were represented. Despite opposition from Arthur Cook, the proposal was enthusiastically endorsed. Prostrate in defeat, the right wing got the Trades Union Congress to adopt a resolution of the Geneva World Economic Conference of 1927, which whole-heartedly embraced the concept of the capitalist rationalisation of industry. Sixty years later, after the defeat of the 1984-85 miners’ strike, the labour movement would be embroiled in a similar venture, this time christened “New Realism” by the TUC leaders.

However, while class collaboration remained the dominant philosophy of the TUC, the Industrial Council was in practice subsequently abandoned in the turbulent hurly-burly of events. In reality, their services were not required. The capitalist class was no longer interested in collaboration. They had the whip hand, and were prepared to use it. They were not interested in horse-deals or compromises, but in the merciless subjection of the working class to the rule of capital.

The next few years witnessed an economic and social catastrophe, beginning with the Wall Street Crash of late 1929, followed by the Great Depression, and mass unemployment throughout the capitalist world. Between 1929 and 1932 industrial production in the United States fell by 54 per cent; in Germany it fell by 42 per cent; in Britain the fall was 17 per cent. This resulted in unemployment reaching 14 million in the USA, six million in Germany and nearly three million in Britain.

In this situation, after the worst kind of defeat on the industrial plane, the working class, exhausted and despondent, moved again over to the political front and the election of the second Labour government. The ensuing trade war, competitive devaluations and the collapse of world trade as a consequence, ushered in a period of tremendous instability worldwide. It opened a new stage in the death agony of capitalism. The mighty events that followed were to have a profound effect on the workers in Britain. The trade union and Labour leaders, by their feeble capitulation, had brought the movement to the edge of an abyss. The historic defeat of the General Strike in Britain, combined with other defeats of the working class throughout the 1930s, served to pave the way for the rise of fascism and eventually the horrors of the Second World War.


[1] Hamilton Fyfe, op. cit, p.86

[2] Barou, op. cit, London 1937

[3] Labour Monthly, July 1926, p.393, quoted in Trotsky, op. cit, pp.264-280

[4] J.T. Murphy, Labour’s Big Three, London, 1948, p.137

[5] Woodhouse & Pearce, Communism in Britain, p.186-7, London 1975

[6] See Ted Grant, Russia, from revolution to counterrevolution, London, 1997

“Road to Wigan Pier”

It is often said, “To the victors go the spoils.” The defeat of the 1926 General Strike certainly saw the spoils go to the ruling class. The event served to draw a line in the sand, and marked a decisive change in the development of British trade unionism. The demoralisation following 1926 served to entrench the position of the trade union bureaucracy, as the activity in the unions subsided and the leadership became further divorced from its working class base. The betrayal helped to change the course not only of the unions but the whole balance of British industrial relations. The defeat of militant trade unionism and the victory of Mondism placed an indelible stamp on the development of the Labour movement throughout the 1930s.

According to the right-wing Labour historian Francis Williams, 1926 “marked the climax in the struggle of philosophies.” In an earlier biography of Ernest Bevin, published in 1952, Williams suggested that for Bevin and the other trade union leaders, the General Strike was “the dividing line between the belief in force as the ultimate authority in industrial relations… and the slow acceptance of a new system of relationships in which the trade unions could at last take their rightful constitutional place in modern society.” In place of “force”, one should read “militant struggle”. In place of “rightful constitutional place”, read “an arm of the state”. For the trade union leadership, the events of 1926 confirmed their function as “arbitrators” and “mediators” in the struggle between labour and capital.

Following the defeat of the General Strike, industrial struggle was at a low ebb. Although strikes were often very bitter, their numbers fell dramatically. While it is true that strike statistics alone do not tell the whole picture, they do serve to give a rough guide to the industrial climate, especially after such a heavy defeat. From the end of the First World War to the General Strike more than 40 million working days on average were lost every year as a result of strikes and lockouts. In 1926, there were 162,233,000 days lost. These figures represented an upward curve in the class struggle, culminating in the ferocious rear-guard battle of the General Strike. But in the seven years following 1926, the number of days lost in strikes fell drastically to, on average, four million a year – one tenth of what it was previously. In the period up to the Second World War the strike figures fell even further to less than two million a year. Most of these strikes and lockouts were settled relatively quickly. According to Professor N. Barou in his British Trade Unions, the average duration of strikes was only ten days.

These figures reflected not only a lack of confidence but also, more importantly, the dead-hand of the trade union bureaucracy, which after 1926 fought tooth and nail against strikes. For them, retreat and “moderation” were on the order of the day. Industrial militancy was further dampened by the world slump, which began in late 1929, putting three million on the dole by January 1933 – a quarter of all insured workers. Following the Wall Street Crash, workers were stunned by this unparalleled collapse of production and the chronic mass unemployment that ensued. Coming after such a crushing defeat, this served to undermine the combativity of organised labour that had been seen in the early 1920s. Mass unemployment also served to push down trade union membership to 3,300,000 by 1934 – little more than half of what it had been in 1920-21. Although trade union membership recovered slowly from this trough, the number of strikes remained historically low. Such was the trough in the movement, it was not until the mid-1950s that national action was sanctioned by any major trade union.

From 1920 onwards prices fell in the post-war deflation. However, due to the increase in the cost of living during the war years, real wages still trailed behind the levels of August 1914. From the mid-twenties changes in nominal wages were relatively small. Yet by the end of 1933, wage cuts had seen wage-rates fall by six per cent. For those in regular work, things were not as bad due to the deflation, with real wages continuing to rise gradually throughout the 1930s.

Nevertheless, chronic unemployment blighted many industrial areas. According to official figures unemployment rose to 22 per cent of insured workers in 1933; even with the “boom” in 1937, it was still over 10 per cent. Workers spent literally years on the dole, with little prospect of work in the Depression. Hunger marches became a regular feature, epitomised in Labour history by the famous Jarrow Hunger March of 1936 and the struggles of the National Unemployed Workers’ Movement.

Despite the revival of the economy in 1935-37, this did not have a major effect on the plight of the working class. Instead of a revival of strikes and workplace organisation during the recovery, as one might expect, strike figures actually fell to around 1,500,000 days lost. This was largely due to the dead hand of the trade union bureaucracy, which proved decisive in keeping the lid on the movement. Whereas strikes over recognition had accounted for more than 30 per cent prior to late 1923, this figure fell to less than 3 per cent in the seven years immediately following the General Strike.

This grave situation in Britain was somewhat in sharp contrast to the events unfolding in the United States. America had also experienced a massive collapse of industrial production between 1929 and 1932. By 1933, as the economy began to pick up, the United States was to experience its biggest ever strike wave in American history, mainly centring on unorganised industries, especially the giant auto plants. In contrast to Britain, the United States epitomised the “Roaring Twenties”, where the boom had created increased employment and rising prosperity. The working class had not suffered from a defeat like the General Strike in Britain, and quickly recovered from the shock of the Great Crash. In these years, millions of workers were caught up in this unionisation drive. As expected, the big employers like Henry Ford, who detested unions, resisted tooth and nail the advance of the labour movement. As a consequence, between 1933 and 1938, hundreds of workers were killed, thousands wounded, and tens of thousands arrested or victimised on the picket lines.

American Labour

However, three big strikes in 1934 were to alter the course of American labour history: the Toledo Electric Auto Lite, Minneapolis truck drivers, and the San Francisco General Strikes. These battles set alight the trade union explosion of the 1930s.

Typically, the old-time craft union leaders of the American Federation of Labour (AFL) repeatedly worked to undermine these strike movements. By late 1935, militants within the AFL established a new caucus known as the Congress of Industrial Organisations (CIO) to fight for industrial unionism under the leadership of the miners’ leader, John L. Lewis. The bureaucrats of the AFL, who ruthlessly opposed all militant action, eventually expelled the CIO from its ranks. Despite this, the CIO took on the role of organising the unorganised mass production industries. The new unions grew enormously in the battles that opened up, which also coincided with the economic revival from June 1935 onwards. In its first 22 months of existence, the CIO grew in strength to embrace a massive 3,700,000 workers, and in terms of members overtook the old AFL.

The strike wave reached new heights in the form of militant sit-ins and occupations. Between September 1936 and June 1937, an unprecedented 484,711 factory occupations took place. Out of the 1,000 reported in the press, the police and state militias only succeeded in breaking 25 sit-in strikes, which revealed the iron determination of the working class. It also demonstrated the colossal sweep of the industrial movement in the United States, drawing in its wake millions of formerly unorganised workers.

This unionisation and strike wave in the United States had important repercussions in the consciousness of the American working class. For instance, workers began to challenge the capitalist parties of Democrat and Republican, and gave rise to the idea of a mass labour party.

“The unprecedented wave of sit-down strikes and the amazingly rapid growth of industrial unionism in the United States (the CIO)”, noted Trotsky in 1938, “is the most indisputable expression of the instinctive striving of the American workers to raise themselves to the level of the tasks imposed upon them by history… Every sit-down strike poses in a practical manner the question of who is boss of the factory, the capitalist or the worker.”

By comparison, the industrial situation in Britain remained at rock bottom. While there was a partial revival after 1934, it was certainly not to the same degree, or to reach the same heights, as in the United States. However, one of the important consequences of the 1926 defeat in Britain was a turn of the working class towards the political front. The general election of 1929 saw a sharp rise in the Labour vote to 8,362,394 and the election of 289 Labour Members of Parliament. This success resulted in the coming to power of the second Labour government in May of that year. It was, however, once again a minority government, led by Ramsay MacDonald, and relied on the votes of the Liberal Party, as in 1924, for its working majority in the Commons. Given this situation, where Labour was again in hock to the Liberals, a heated debate took place within the ranks of the Labour movement over what should be done. Opposition to a bloc with the Liberals came, in particular, from the leftward-moving ILP. Oswald Mosley, who at this time was on the left of the party, articulated the old ILP strategy of no Lib-Lab deals. He advocated that the Labour government throw down the gauntlet to the Opposition parties by putting forward its full socialist programme, and inviting them to vote against. “If it must die let it be, not like an old woman in a bed, but like a man in the field”, was the common refrain. Indeed, the ensuing political crisis should not be regarded as a menace to the Labour movement; on the contrary, it should be the supreme opportunity to go to the country and win an outright majority. Instead MacDonald rejected this “impractical” alternative as a fool’s paradise and eagerly climbed into bed with the Liberals.

After the initial “honeymoon period”, the Labour administration was caught up in the world economic collapse after October 1929, which was to have dramatic consequences for its future. This deep crisis of capitalism shook the Labour government to its very foundations. The ruling class, determined to place the burden of the crisis on the shoulders of the working class, began to exert enormous pressure on the MacDonald government to abandon its reforms and carry out measures to balance the budget. In the words of Cole and Postgate: “The British capitalists wanted a government in which they could feel full confidence – confidence that it would put first and foremost the interests of capitalism, which they of course identified in their own minds with the interests of the country.”[1] Of course, MacDonald, being a faithful servant, tried his best to loyally accommodate this request.

With the world slump, mass unemployment in Britain rose to record levels. In December 1930, the unemployment figures had risen to 2,500,000. By June 1931, unemployment had reached 2,700,000; a month later it was up another 100,000. The capitalist press, led by the main capitalist mouthpiece, The Times, began to orchestrate a campaign for the replacement of the Labour government with an all-party National government. The crisis, they said, was a time to drop party differences and for the “best brains” of all parties to come together for the good of the country and the “national interest”.

To balance the worsening budget, Phillip Snowden, the right-wing Labour chancellor, demanded orthodox deflationary policies embracing deep cuts (“economies”) in public expenditure. In February, the May Committee, under Sir George May, was established to look at savings and recommend a package of cuts to the government. Arising from this, “consultations” took place both with the TUC, the industrialists and the bankers. The TUC opposed the “economies”, but put forward no alternative. Big business demanded even greater cuts in public spending as a solution. As expected, the May Committee backed the City and recommended stringent attacks, including tax increases, cuts in unemployment benefits and the imposition of a Means Test. These draconian measures resulted in large-scale opposition within the trade unions and the ranks of the Labour Party. As expected, Beatrice Webb wrote in her Diary: “The General Council are pigs, they won’t agree to any cuts of Unemployment Insurance Benefits or salaries or wages.”

Under the pressure of big business, MacDonald and a majority of the Labour Cabinet capitulated to the bankers and the City of London and agreed to the “economies”. In August, the Cabinet reluctantly accepted a package of cuts worth £56 million to balance the budget, but baulked at cutting the dole for the unemployed. Not satisfied, an additional £25-30 million was demanded by the bankers to “restore confidence”. This included measures to reduce unemployment benefit by 10 per cent, as well as cuts in the wages of the armed services, teachers and the police, together with other miscellaneous economies.

This extra measure stuck in their throats like a fish bone. The Labour Party had long adopted the slogan “work or full maintenance”, but all that was now to be sacrificed for the sake of saving capitalism. The TUC finally stuck in its heels against the cuts. “Nothing gives me greater regret than to disagree with old industrial friends”, MacDonald told the General Council, “but I really personally find it absolutely impossible to overlook dread realities, as I am afraid you are doing.”[2] Under intense pressure from the Labour movement, a minority in the Cabinet came out against MacDonald and these extra “economies”. They had swallowed a camel, but were straining at a gnat!

This opposition caused complete paralysis in the Labour Cabinet. Soon after this fateful meeting, MacDonald wrote of those who had opposed the extra cuts, accusing them of taking “the easy path of irresponsibility”. It was uncannily echoed some 70 years later by Tony Blair’s denunciation of all those in the Parliamentary Labour Party who opposed his public sector “reforms”.

The Cabinet split caused a constitutional crisis and on 23 August 1931 matters came to a head. It was the end of the road for the Labour government. Without warning, MacDonald set off for Buckingham Palace to inform the King of the situation and offer his resignation. At the Palace, he urged the King to send for the leaders of the official opposition parties to discuss measures in the “national interest”. As had been repeatedly made clear in the editorials of the “quality” press, the ruling class wanted a strong government to carry through the necessary attacks on the working class. The Labour government had introduced cuts, but given the pressure from below, had stalled and as a consequence was now unreliable from the point of view of big business. Sir Herbert Samuel, a far-sighted and astute bourgeois representative, met the King and outlined the case for a National government:

“in view of the fact that the necessary economies would prove most unpalatable to the working classes, it would be to the general interest if they could be imposed by a Labour government. The best solution would be if Mr Ramsay MacDonald, either with his present, or with a reconstituted Labour Cabinet, could propose the economies required. If he failed to secure the support of a sufficient number of his colleagues, then the best alternative would be a National government composed of members of the three parties. It would be preferable that Mr MacDonald should remain Prime Minister in such a National government.”[3]

How cynical these bourgeois strategists can be! Yet at least they did not mince their words and were absolutely clear in their intentions. They knew exactly where their class loyalties lay. The same could not be said of the so-called Labour leaders, who had one foot in the camp of the working class and one foot in the camp of the bourgeoisie.

After consultations, Samuel had his way. MacDonald decided to openly break with the Labour movement. He resigned as Labour prime minister and accepted an offer by the King to set up a National government with Tory and Liberal support. This new government would include those who had crossed the floor with MacDonald, the Labour renegades Snowden, Jimmy Thomas, and Lord Sankey. Stanley Baldwin, the Tory leader, was given the role of vice-premier in the National Government. As expected, this open betrayal by MacDonald, which completely disorientated the labour movement, resulted in a massive defeat for the Labour Party in the ensuing 1931 General Election. The combined bloc of “National” Labour, Tory and National Liberal parties gave them a total vote of 14,500,000 compared to Labour’s 6,648,000 – which under the circumstances, still represented a respectable hard core support. The Parliamentary Labour Party was consequently reduced to a rump of 52 MPs. The crisis had also split the Liberal Party, with the cunning Lloyd George remaining outside of the National Government hoping to capitalise on any future disillusionment.

Consequences of 1931

The whole episode shocked the Labour movement. Consequently, the 1931 betrayal pushed the rank and file of the Labour Party far to the left, determined more than ever to break with all efforts to patch up capitalism at the expense of the working class. This was the very danger referred to in The Times.

“Broadly speaking, the whole of the Socialist Party will be reconsolidated in Opposition – with this enormous difference, that they will have lost the guidance of leaders few indeed in numbers but the ripest of all in practical experience of affairs... The Labour Party ... will now be definitely controlled by its more prejudiced and ignorant elements”, stated The Times.[4]

Outspoken left-wing figures such as George Lansbury, Stafford Cripps and Clement Attlee emerged as Labour’s political leaders. They were responsible until 1934 for the production of some of the most radical policies that the Labour Party had ever known. This was no accident and reflected the sharp swing to the left in the rank and file. The party programme For Socialism and Peace adopted in 1934 proclaimed “that what the nation now requires is not merely social reform, but Socialism”, and pledged a future Labour government to “establish public ownership and control of the primary industries and services as a foundation step” with workers having “an effective share in direction and control.” Cripps and Attlee both raised the question of emergency powers, an enabling act, to allow a future Labour government to push through this revolutionary legislation against the sabotage of parliamentary procedures and the House of Lords. Stafford Cripps even went as far as to threaten measures against the monarchy, but quickly retreated.

Remarkably, very few leading right-wingers went over to MacDonald’s National Government. Despite the fact that they had no political differences with MacDonald, they preferred to stay within the Labour Party to ensure that the party remained in “safe hands”. For example, Arthur Henderson did not differ with MacDonald in the least. He actually declared he “would have preferred that the idea of a National government had been seriously considered and approached in a proper way, and that the Labour movement should have been consulted, preferably at a specially convened Labour conference.” His decision to remain within the Labour Party, as an agent of MacDonaldism, was simply a tactical one.

The renegade Jimmy Thomas, however, basked in his newfound glory as a minister in the National Government. He waxed lyrical in his praise of bourgeois traditions and institutions, especially his beloved monarchy.

“The relationship between the reigning monarch and a Cabinet Minister representing the Privy Council,” stated Thomas in his Memoirs, “has always been a phase of British political life that appeals strongly to the imagination of the people. Conjecturing is a mental exercise that seems to stimulate every grade of society. Fallacies are encouraged and developed; and, often, if the truth is prosaic when shorn of all exaggerations, it yet leaves in the mind of the commoner a purifying sweetness. To find, as I did, that there may be no unbridgeable gulf between the Throne and the masses, induces a feeling of utter exhilaration.”[5]

Despite the “purifying sweetness” of their relationship, the dramatic shift to the left in the Labour movement was reflected in a profound radicalisation within the Independent Labour Party, which drew around itself 100,000 leftward moving workers. The party had broken with reformism and was moving rapidly in the direction of Marxism. To use Marxist terminology, it had become a centrist party, halfway between reformism and revolution. In Easter 1932, the ILP tragically split from the Labour Party, over the issue of the parliamentary discipline of its four MPs. Unfortunately, the ILP split at the wrong time and over the wrong issue. They had no clear perspective of where they were going. Due to its wrong orientation and its lack of clear ideas, it was reduced within a few years to a rump of a few thousand members. This is a salutary lesson for those sects who try to set themselves up in competition with the mass organisations of the working class. The ILP had considerable forces, yet this did not prevent it from ending up as a small sect in the end. The masses do not break easily from their traditional organisations. It was a wasted opportunity, whose important lessons need to be leaned, especially by today’s trade union and Labour activists. “Those who do not learn from history”, wrote George Santayana, “will be doomed to repeat it.”

The National government had taken Britain off the gold standard and embarked on a series of savage cuts, especially in unemployment benefits. The attacks of the National government were met with spontaneous localised struggles against the “economies”. The unemployed, who were mainly organised around the National Unemployed Workers’ Movement (NUWM), waged a series of bitter struggles, including demonstrations and marches, against cuts in benefits and the hated Means Test. The TUC, which had originally established links with the NUWM, immediately severed them following the General Strike. Typically, Citrine declared the NUWM “a subsidiary of the Communist Party” and therefore beyond the pale. It was, nevertheless, instrumental in these years in championing the cause of the unemployed. In 1932, to the horror of the authorities, the proposed wage cuts provoked mutiny in the Naval Fleet at Invergordon, the first since 1797, which forced the government into a hasty retreat.

The storm against the wage cuts, the means test and the cuts in the dole continued to intensify throughout 1932. Huge demonstrations were organised and, in Keighley and Glasgow, fights took place with the police. Many unemployed, including the unemployed leader Harry McShane, were arrested. Arthur Horner, the miners’ leader, had been arrested in Mardy, trying to prevent an eviction. Hunger marches were organised and there was growing hatred and resentment expressed against the National government. In September 1932, pitched battles broke out on Merseyside, particularly in Birkenhead. Police, who used their batons on men, women and children, attacked demonstrators demanding relief and winter coal. This set the whole of Birkenhead alight in an attempt to stop the police terror, which lasted for some four days. In Belfast too, the unemployed fought hand-to-hand with police. Barricades were thrown up and troops were sent in to quell the workers, a number of whom were shot dead. It was a display of courage and unity by the working class, which crossed the religious divide, with support pouring in from all parts, irrespective of whether they were Catholic or Protestant. In the end, the authorities were forced to grant considerable concessions to put an end to the movement.

By 1933-4, when the worst effects of the slump began to pass, trade union membership slowly began to rise once more. Since the early 1920s, the bosses had imposed their own brutal regime in the factories. Casual employment ruled supreme on the docks and other labour-intensive industries. Workers were often hired and sacked within a day. However, the period 1933-34 saw a growth in the number of small strikes, particularly in the new, largely unorganised, industries that had grown up. For instance, in the East end of London, the workers at the Venesta Plywood Factory struck against speed-ups and 8,000 workers at Ford’s new Dagenham plant took action over wage cuts. Two of the most important strikes of the period took place at the Firestone Tyre Factory at Brentford in July 1933 and at the Pressed Steel Works in Oxford in July 1934. These mainly unofficial strikes, led by local militants, had an important impact and served to attract workers into the unions.

As expected, the right-wing union hierarchy viewed this increase in unofficial strikes with great suspicion and even outright opposition. After an unofficial strike on the docks, affecting some 2,000 workers, Ernest Bevin, leader of the Transport and General, warned against such strikes and their “unofficial” leaders, whom he denounced as “very often agent provocateurs for somebody.” The trade union leaders, wedded to their “New Realism”, totally failed to give any expression to these movements. In fact after 1934, there was no national official strike in any industry for some twenty years.

At this time, there was widespread discontent in the British coalfields. Successful strikes and stay-down strikes against the scab Spencer union took place at the Bedwas, Nine Mile Point, and Taff Merthyr collieries. As a result of these actions, the Spencer scab union’s influence was largely confined to Nottinghamshire. By 1937, after a prolonged strike at Harworth colliery and the threat of national action, agreement was reached to dissolve the Spencer union into the national Miners’ Federation. It represented a very important victory for the Fed, which helped to consolidate its position throughout the coalfields.

In the early 1930s, the rise of fascism in Europe and the eventual coming to power of Hitler in January 1933 provoked consternation throughout the British Labour movement. This debacle resulted from the tragic split in the German working class, brought about by the ultra-left policies of the Communist Party and the timidity of the social democratic leaders. With this paralysis and capitulation, Hitler boasted that he was able to come to power without breaking a window pane! The spines of the German workers were crushed by the juggernaut of fascism, despite the feeble attempts by the union leaders to reach an accommodation with Hitler. The mighty German Labour movement, the strongest in the world, was completely smashed, right down to the workers’ chess clubs. At the British TUC Congress in September 1933, when all the German union leaders were languishing in Hitler’s concentration camps, Citrine summed up the General Council’s attitude with the exclamation: “I hope to God we are never put into a similar position.” They had learned nothing from the German debacle. All they wanted to do was bury their heads in the sand and pray the British fascists would not come to power.

At this time, the leftward moving Labour Party passed a resolution pledging the Party “to take no part in war and to resist it with the whole force of the Labour movement… including a general strike.” However, the ranks of the TUC were cautioned against any such over hasty-action, with Walter Citrine, its general secretary, reminding everyone that a general strike against war was in fact against the law!

Popular Frontism

By the end of the 1920s, the party’s industrial base had been practically destroyed, with the bulk of its members now unemployed. The policies of the “third period” from 1928 onwards, had drastically reduced the numbers and influence of the Communist Party in the labour movement. However by 1935, a new “right turn” was adopted by the Comintern, which put forward a policy known as the Popular Front. The policy was based upon the alliance of workers and “progressive” capitalist parties to fight against fascism. This was the very opposite to the workers’ United Front originally put forward by the Communist International under Lenin, which was based upon the alliance of workers’ organisations. While the United Front could be summed up as “march separately, and strike together”, the Popular Front policy was “march together, but get cut down separately!” From then on, the leaders of the Communist Parties turned 180 degrees, and sought Popular Front pacts on every occasion.

On the Continent, such electoral agreements brought to power Popular Front governments in France and Spain during 1936. However, whenever the workers took independent action, the Popular Front governments acted as a gigantic break on the movement. For example, when French workers carried out a series of sit-in strikes, they were denounced by the Blum government in the name of “law and order”. The same was true in relation to Spain.

In Britain, a campaign for such a Popular Front government was launched by the Communist Party, and attracted a layer of Labour Lefts around the Socialist League. Whereas the “third period” policies had drastically reduced the Communist Party’s influence, particularly in the trade unions, their turn towards Popular Frontism and the fight against fascism, saw a revival in their support. The abandonment of sectarianism allowed them to connect with the workers, albeit on an opportunist basis. The effects of the Depression, the rise of Hitler and the successes of the Soviet Union’s Five Year Plans, pushed a section of workers and intellectuals towards the CP, and began to restore their flagging fortunes.

The growth in Communist Party influence, however, provoked the trade union bureaucracy into taking a number of witch-hunting measures against them. As early as March 1934, the TUC General Council attempted to undermine the CP by issuing its infamous “Black Circular”, which ordered Trades Councils to ban delegates who were Communists and called on unions to modify their rules to exclude them from office. Even so, after protests from the rail unions, Transport Workers, Woodworkers, Engineers, Distributive Workers, Painters, Electrical Trades and others, the TUC Congress only narrowly endorsed this witch-hunt by 1,869,000 votes to 1,274,000. With Ernest Bevin as the chairman of the TUC and Hugh Dalton as chairman of the Labour Party, both organisations drew ever closer together. Subsequently, using the union bloc vote, the left policy of the Labour Party was brought into line with the right-wing policy of the TUC, which now firmly supported the National government’s rearmament programme.

In February, there was a mass demonstration against cuts in unemployment benefit, which forced the government to backtrack and restore benefits to their original levels. The Times editorials even wrote of “the spirit of 1926” being abroad again. In the same year, Baldwin took over the premiership from MacDonald, although he still remained in the Cabinet as Lord President of the Council. MacDonald’s last action as prime minister was to offer knighthoods to both Arthur Pugh and Walter Citrine – which they gratefully accepted – in recognition of services rendered to the ruling class.

By the time of the 1935 local elections, Labour had recovered its lost ground and its vote had risen to 1929 levels. By the time of the 1935 general election, the Labour vote climbed to 8,326,000 (as against 6,648,000 in 1931 and 8,380,000 in 1929) and the party gained 154 seats. The Conservatives and National Liberals still commanded the majority with 420 seats, while the Liberals trailed far behind with only 21 seats. At the behest of the unions, Clement Attlee replaced George Lansbury as leader of the Labour Party.

In July 1936, the British Labour movement was again rocked by the attempted coup of General Franco against the Spanish Republican government. This provoked uprisings of the working class throughout the length and breadth of Spain and sparked off a ferocious three-year civil war. In Catalonia, the workers seized the factories, and this could have been the beginning of an all-Spanish revolution, had it not been for the actions of the reformist, anarchist and Stalinist leaders. The beleaguered Spanish Republic appealed for assistance against the fascists, but the European powers, including the French Popular Front government, adopted a policy of “non-intervention”. At the same time, the fascist powers, despite paying lip service to “non-intervention”, were busy supplying weapons to Franco’s fascist armies.

In Britain, the National Council of Labour “regrettably”, but pitifully, took a similar line, supporting the “non-intervention” as agreed by Her Majesty’s Government and the other powers. By such folding of arms in the face of Franco, it was hoped that international tensions would somehow be reduced, if not avoided altogether! The TUC Congress overwhelmingly endorsed this position in September 1936 by 3,029,000 votes to 51,000. Despite this, the CP and the ILP, in particular, organised support for the Spanish Republic in the form of the International Brigades made up from anti-fascist volunteers from several countries. Hundreds of class-conscious workers were enrolled from all parts of Britain to fight fascism in Spain. Many of those brave fighters who went did not return. During the Civil War, out of the 2,762 British volunteers, 1,762 were wounded and 543 killed. One of the best eyewitness accounts of the Brigades in Spain is George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia, originally published in 1938, which gives a graphic account of the revolution and its plight.


In Britain, the union leaders continued to keep the Labour Party firmly under control. At the 1936 Labour conference in October, the leadership once again defeated an application submitted by the Communist Party for affiliation by 1,728,000 votes to 592,000. At the following conference the executive committee pushed through a motion banning the left-wing Socialist League, after it proposed a popular front alliance with the CP. Further measures were taken against the left within the party. The Labour League of Youth, which was always to the left of the adult party, had also energetically campaigned for the popular front. This led the right-wing NEC in 1939 to disband the League’s National Advisory Committee and cancel its annual conference.

In 1937, the Transport and General Workers’ Union overtook the Miners’ Federation in terms of numbers, with a membership of 654,510, to become not only the biggest union in Britain, but also the largest in the world. Under the tight control of Ernest Bevin, who had moved steadily to the right since taking office, the TGWU was in the forefront of attacks on the left. The largest trade group within the TGWU was the Road Transport Group, which contained an influential rank-and-file organisation led by CP members, called the London Busman’s Rank and File Movement. This rank-and-file body had consistently opposed Bevin’s right-wing leadership of the union. The group had managed to win control of the union’s Central London Bus Committee and began a militant policy of strike action to reduce hours. However, the failure of a London bus strike at this time gave Bevin the opportunity to move against the unofficial body. Bill Jones, one of the leaders of the rank-and-file movement, later wrote that Bevin

“knew that we were going to be beaten and he worked that way… he wasn’t averse to the timing of the strike because he thought that the popular feeling against us – being on strike while the Coronation was on – plus the fact that sewing up all the other sections would sink us.”[6]

Scandalously, their leaders were expelled from the union, and the left group disbanded. This was followed by similar actions by the GMWU bureaucracy, which changed its rules to ban Communists from standing for union office.

On the international arena, the 1930s was a time of intensified rivalry between the capitalist powers. Throughout this period, the power of British imperialism had been overshadowed and surpassed by the United States. The crisis of European capitalism forced the ruling classes to seek a totalitarian solution to their problems through the destruction of the workers’ organisations as in Germany and Italy. It was the failure of the workers’ organisations to offer a revolutionary way out of the crisis, which eventually drove the frenzied ranks of ruined middle class into the hands of the fascists in Germany, Italy, Austria and Spain. The inter-war period was a classic epoch of revolution and counter-revolution. The failure of socialist revolution and the rise of fascism – “the distilled essence of imperialism” – prepared the way for the Second World War.

In “democratic” Britain, the ruling class also contemplated a more authoritarian solution to its problems. The British Royal Family had established warm relations with the fascist powers, and the German Nazi regime in particular – especially through King Edward VIII, later the Duke of Windsor. At a meeting in Leipzig in the autumn of 1937, he told his audience:

“I have travelled the world and my upbringing has made me familiar with the great achievements of mankind, but that which I have seen in Germany, I had hitherto believed to be impossible. It cannot be grasped, and is a miracle; one can only begin to understand it when one realises that behind it all is one man and one will, Adolf Hitler.”[7]

Hitler actually expressed his personal gratitude for the Daily Mail’s “great assistance”, which was read by almost two million people in Britain.

The Labour and trade union leaders’ misguided support for rearmament “in the interests of self-defence”, simply played into the hands of the capitalist Establishment. These measures were in reality not only preparations for world war, but also civil war in Britain. The growth in the number of small strikes was symptomatic of a new revival in the working class. A wave of apprentices’ strikes spread to engineering factories in Lancashire, Yorkshire, the West Midlands and London. The Times editorials thundered against the trade union leaders to deal with their members otherwise a serious “solution” would be found. However, war clouds over Europe soon cut across this scenario. In the spring of 1937, Baldwin retired and handed over the premiership to Neville Chamberlain. In endorsing Chamberlain, Churchill stated: “We have to combat socialism, and we can do it more effectively as a pack of hounds than as a flock of sheep.”[8] The dogs of war were soon to be unleashed and the workers’ movement needed to be brought to heel in the process.

In times of grave difficulty, Sir Walter Citrine had already recognised the importance of a tame trade union movement to the ruling class. “I do not believe any government could wage war of any kind without the backing of the Labour movement”, he said. “Rearmament cannot await the advent of a Labour government.” By the time of the German invasion of Poland and the outbreak of war, the TUC, with only two votes against, had lined up squarely behind the war aims of the Chamberlain government. Ernest Bevin declared that the TUC had “now virtually become an integral part of the state.” During the World War, this role was to become a way of life for the British trade union leaders. As in 1914-18, they had hitched their fate to the war chariot of British imperialism.


[1] Cole & Postgate, op. cit, p. 575

[2] Quoted in Ralph Milliband, Parliamentary Socialism, p174, London 1972

[3] Ibid, pp. 176-7

[4] The Times, 26th August 1931

[5] Thomas, My Story, p.153, London 1937

[6] Quoted in K. Fuller, Radical Aristocrats, 1985

[7] Quoted in J & S Pool, Who Financed Hitler, p.318, London 1980

[8] Quoted by Michael Foot, Aneurin Bevan, 1897-1945, pp.258-9, London 1979

“Labour in the War”

“Peace seldom reigns over all Europe, and never in all quarters of the world”, stated the military strategist Clausewitz.[1] In February 1939, following the bloody suppression of the Spanish Republic, the “democratic” government of Britain recognised the fascist regime of General Franco. In August, Hitler’s Germany signed a Non-Aggression Pact with Stalin’s Russia, resulting in the invasion and partition of Poland. Hitler was determined to conquer Europe, and this posed a direct threat to British interests. Within a matter of days of the invasion and carve up of Poland, Britain declared war on Germany. It was a recognition that the past policy of appeasement and containment heralded by the Chamberlain government had failed, and the “phoney war” was finally over.

In order to mobilise public opinion for the war against Germany, the British Establishment was forced to cover up its past pro-fascist sympathies. Before the War, Churchill and sections of the ruling class openly admired Hitler and Mussolini as a bulwark against socialist revolution. Montagu Norman, the head of the Bank of England, helped to finance Hitler. Lord Beaverbrook, the owner of the Daily Express, the Sunday Express, and the London Evening Standard, actively backed the Nazis. Viscount Rothermere, the owner of the Daily Mail, also gave them support. On 8 January 1934, our “patriotic” Viscount went so far as to publish “Hurrah for the Blackshirts!” on the front page of the Mail. However, as soon as German imperialism came into direct conflict with British interests, they soon changed their tune and dressed themselves up in anti-fascist clothes. The war against Germany conveniently became a patriotic “war against fascism”.

As soon as war was declared, without any hesitation, the Labour and trade union leaders immediately offered their assistance to the Conservative prime minister Neville Chamberlain, but stopped short, for the time being, of entering the National government. This, however, would change within a matter of months. In any case, from the very beginning, TUC representatives were stationed in a whole range of wartime governmental committees and inspectorates. Strikes, at least for the duration of the war, were to be prevented at all costs. From this moment onwards, the integration of the trade union apparatus with the state was to become complete.

The paraphernalia of the war economy had to be rapidly constructed and all restrictions on war production swept aside. Parallel with the trade union bureaucracy’s incorporation into the state, went their reinforced collaboration with big business. In October 1939, the Joint Advisory Council was established for this purpose, with equal representation from the Employers’ Confederation and the TUC. Already the Schedule of Reserve Occupations had been put into place, and in the strategically decisive engineering industry, agreement had been reached for the “relaxation of customs” between the Amalgamated Engineering Union and the Engineering Employers.

From September 1939 onwards, the adult population was mobilised for the war effort and conscription had been extended to all males between the ages of 18 and 41 years. As in the First World War, this gave rise to an immediate shortage of skilled labour, forcing the introduction of measures to “dilute” the workforce. Such measures involved a massive change in working practises and the rapid introduction of new machinery. The Essential Work Order Regulation 58A (1941) required the registration of all skilled workers for direction into “essential” categories. This militarisation of labour enabled the bosses to transfer workers at the drop of a hat to “essential” war jobs on lower rates of pay. Compulsory arbitration was introduced to prevent strikes, while Order in Council no. 1305 made strikes and lockouts illegal. The inclusion of “lockouts” in the legislation was mere window dressing to camouflage the attack on organised labour. Despite this law, during the first few months of the war there were 900 strikes, all of which were illegal. Not surprisingly, few workers were prosecuted.

The rapid shift to war production resulted in a dramatic expansion of the engineering industry. As a consequence, the membership of the AEU rose to 825,000 by 1943, to become the second largest union in the country. From December 1941, women were progressively conscripted into industry or the services. By 1942, reflecting the influx of female labour into industry, the AEU attracted some 139,000 women recruits. The involvement of women in work was very progressive, as it drew them into the class struggle in increasing numbers. While this shortage of labour strengthened the bargaining position of the working class, the trade union leaders ensured that this advantage would not be put into effect.

But one thing did not change during the war, namely the bosses’ continuous drive to maximise their profits. Above all, they sought to take full advantage of the “dilution” of labour and the compliance of the trade union tops. The coal owners’ mouthpiece argued for a national wages policy “imitating the Nazi system”. They attempted to carry on as they had done in the past, but given the shortage of skilled labour, workers refused to take things lying down. As the war went on, this situation gave rise to discontent on the shop floor. According to Jack Jones, a young trade union activist at the time, “Management continued to give no quarter, trade unions were still regarded as an ‘alien force’. What we were doing was challenging the divine right of management, and they didn’t like it. Shop stewards used their training to challenge unreasonable decisions, to question bad conditions. The ‘divine right of management’ we countered with the ‘divine right of discontent’.”[2]

The trade union leaders pleaded with Chamberlain to consider the repeal of the Trade Dispute Act, but without any success. Churchill insisted repeal would be too “controversial”, and the matter was quickly dropped. The union leaders did not want to cause offence, let alone upset the government. By May 1940, the Chamberlain government collapsed following the successful German offensive in Scandinavia. When Churchill was asked to form a new Coalition government, he used the occasion to draw into the government representatives of organised labour. The beast of 1926 had now become their “friend”. Clement Attlee and Arthur Greenwood, Leader and Deputy Leader of the Labour Party, joined the War Cabinet. Several other Ministers were drawn from the tops of the trade unions. In particular, Churchill brought in Ernest Bevin, general secretary of the powerful T&GWU, as Minister of Labour. This display of inter-class unity in the “national interest” was essential for the government in the pursuit of its war aims. The need to secure the “Home Front” was vital. “The effectiveness of trade union leadership must be preserved least dissatisfied members follow upstart leaders who ride on the crest of grievances”, stated The Times.[3] While Churchill ran the military side of things, Labour Ministers were charged with responsibility for mobilising manpower and supplies – and dealing with any labour unrest. Although it was an important division of labour, it was the capitalist oligarchy that ran Britain which called all the shots.

Integral Part

The trade union leaders now became important public figures, and an integral part of the war machine. They were aspiring statesmen, who yearned for Establishment recognition. They constituted “the rise of the ancient lowly to authority and power”, to use the words of John Burns. This fact was acknowledged by Ernest Bevin: “We represent probably the most vital factor in the state: without our people this war cannot be won, nor can the life of the country be carried on,” he noted. Within fifteen days of taking office, Bevin had called a meeting of 2,000 leading trade union officials from the largest 150 trade unions in Central Hall, London. It was the biggest gathering of union officials since the General Strike, but their purpose was entirely different. Class war had been substituted by world war. Nevertheless, in a distorted way, this meeting also showed the potential power of organised labour, which was now harnessed, care of the union leaders, to Churchill’s war machine. “Thereafter there was complete co-operation between government, employers and trade unions at every level”, stated historian Francis Williams.

Under these new conditions, the Shop Stewards’ Movement, which had been in decline, quickly re-established itself in the larger engineering factories and combines. However, fearing this new development, least it become a focus of opposition, the union leadership strove to integrate the “semi-official” Shop Stewards’ Movement into the newly-established Joint Production Committees, representing both workers and employers. Given the perception that the war was against fascism, the workers were prepared to toil long hours for the war effort. Nevertheless, they constantly came up against the demands and interests of the employers who were eager to boost profits at their expense.

At the beginning, the only organised forces that opposed the war were the Independent Labour Party, the Communist Party, and the small groups of Trotskyists, primarily the Workers International League. Although the war was regarded as a continuation of the imperialist war of 1914-18, the British ruling class hid its real intentions and aims under the cover of a “war against fascism”.

The leadership of the British Communists during the Thirties had slavishly followed every twist and turn of the Kremlin on all questions. Originally, in the first few days of the war, the Communist Party supported it as a “just war” against fascism. This appeared as a logical continuation of their Popular Front line. However, they had failed to appreciate one thing: Stalin’s accommodation with Hitler in the Soviet-German Pact signed a few days before the outbreak of world war. So to support Stalin’s new friendship with Hitler, the CP was forced to change its pro-war policy within days, and come out in opposition to Britain’s war with Germany. For the next two years, the CP leaders effectively campaigned for a policy of “peace on Hitler’s terms”. The Daily Worker, for instance, justified Stalin’s military conquest of Eastern Poland with the headline: “Red Army Takes Bread to Starving Peasants”, whilst ignoring Hitler’s seizure of the remainder of the country.

The ILP’s anti-war opposition was based primarily on pacifist lines as in 1914-18, and a revulsion against war in general. Pacifism was a long-standing tradition within the British Labour movement. In the First World War, it expressed itself in the protest of those refusing to serve in the armed forces, namely the Conscientious Objectors. Courageously, they preferred to go to prison rather than answer the call-up. However, this action served to effectively cut them off from the growing anti-war feelings at the front. This was the line supported by the leaders of the ILP at the time. Even Ramsay MacDonald and Philip Snowden took this pacifist position. But pacifism, in face of the menace of fascism, could not answer the problem of how to defeat Hitler and defend the democratic rights of the working class, and so had little influence on the broad mass of workers.

The Trotskyist opposition to the war, on the other hand, was based upon revolutionary opposition to imperialism and its aims. The Second World War was regarded as a continuation of the First World War, as a struggle between imperialist blocs for world domination. However, the workers were not pacifist. The working class correctly recognised the need to fight Hitler fascism and to defend their democratic rights and organisations. This “defencist” feeling was particularly prominent after the fall of France in the summer of 1940. As a result, the Workers International League (WIL) advocated a revolutionary military policy, attempting to link up the “defencist” outlook of workers with the need to fight for workers’ interests. Although small in number, the WIL began to make its mark as the war dragged on, and in particular, as the CP leaders became, after 1941, the most enthusiastic cheerleaders for the Churchill government.

The programme of the WIL not only included day-to-day demands relevant to workers, but a whole series relating to the war. They advocated clearing out the reactionary, pro-fascist, and anti-Labour officer caste in the armed forces and Home Guard; the election of officers by the ranks; the establishment of military schools by the trade unions at the expense of the state for the training of worker-officers; the arming of the workers under the control of workers’ committees elected in the factories, unions and in the local communities; for the defence of the democratic rights of the workers from reactionary attacks by the enemies of the working class at home and abroad. It also declared total opposition to the Churchill government, for Labour to break the Coalition, and a general election to put Labour in power on a socialist programme with the aim of pursuing a “revolutionary war” against Hitler. This revolutionary programme found an echo amongst a growing layer of advanced workers that was disillusioned with the war effort and the erosion of living standards, and who in the past had looked to the Communist Party as an alternative.

June 1941

This became especially the case after June 1941 when Hitler attacked the Soviet Union. This caused the Communist Party leaders to change their position, and come out fervently in support of the war under Churchill’s leadership. Harry Pollitt, the new general secretary of the CP (who had been ousted in 1939 when the line changed), affirmed, that “in supporting the Churchill government we do it wholeheartedly and without reservations”. Yesterday’s arch-enemy became today’s bosom friend. Pollitt continued, “A fight for a united national front means support for Churchill’s government and all measures for a common victory”.

From then on the Communist Party became ultra-patriotic and demanded increased production, rigorous labour discipline, further dilution of labour, full support for Bevin’s militarisation of labour, increased overtime, and opposition to all strikes. They became the most vociferous supporters of the war, even producing pamphlets in red, white and blue. The Daily Worker, which was previously banned, now became legal and described D-Day as “a People’s Invasion”. In place of class solidarity and internationalism, the CP leaders held the German people as a whole responsible for the war crimes of Hitler, and gave credence to the reactionary chauvinist slogan, “the only good German is a dead German”.

Together with the rest of the trade union leadership, Arthur Horner, the leader of the South Wales Miners’ Federation, lambasted miners for absenteeism. The Communist Party leaders urged the full weight of the law to be used against strikes in the coalfields. They also called upon the Coalition government to rigorously implement the Emergency Powers Act, which they had described earlier as “powers of the most unlimited and dictatorial character.”

Despite this stance, industrial unrest grew considerably as workers became increasingly disillusioned with the war effort. “Stakhanovism did not export well to the British shop floor”, noted Richard Croucher.[4] In April 1942, when the Ministry of Labour attempted to transfer 400 skilled men to private companies at reduced rates of pay from the Royal Ordnance Factory in Nottingham, the workforce occupied the factory. Young militants led this movement, members of the WIL, which managed to secure the backing of the AEU executive committee.

Five months later a bitter strike broke out in the Tyneside shipyards over management attempts to implement changes in working practices without consultation. Despite attempts to undermine the strike by the trade union leaders, the Tyneside strikers remained solid. After 18 days the bosses were forced to sue for the strikers’ terms.

The battles in the coalfield were even more vociferous. Given the terrible working conditions in the pits and the pressure of the coal-owners for greater productivity, the miners traditionally took a more militant stand. By 1944, strikes across industry had reached their highest level since 1932 – and two thirds of these were in the coal industry. In 1943, half the days lost through strikes were in the pits. In fact there were more individual strikes in the mining industry – all of them unofficial – than in any year since the beginning of the century. This was a striking testimony to the stark working conditions in the coalfields and the discontent they engendered.

In a House of Commons debate in October 1943, MPs from the coalfield districts tried to explain the dire situation in their areas. One of them, Seymour Cocks, MP for Broxtowe, summed up the mood: “The state of feeling among the miners at the moment is not placid,” he said, “it is developing into a raging maelstrom, a foaming Niagara of discontent… Unless the causes of discontent are removed grave events are possible; unless they are removed I think it is the duty of Labour Ministers to leave the government.”[5]

The government’s attempt to overcome coal shortages was to employ the use of compulsory labour in the mines. The Emergency Powers (Defence) Act and the Essential Work Order of 1940 were used to reinforce this compulsion. The government used these powers against the miners at the Betteshanger pit in Kent, where three of the branch officials were jailed and over 1,000 workers were fined, the first large-scale prosecutions under Order 1305. “Miners at Valleyfield in Fife, and Cortonwood and Hatfield Main near Doncaster were fined for illegal strikes, and at the Tareni colliery in South Wales strikers were imprisoned for a month. By March 1945 no less than 18,436 had been punished under the Essential Works Order for lateness or absenteeism, and 1,323 of them had been jailed. Miners accounted for a horrifying number of these. Yet not a single one of the 127 employers prosecuted for infractions of the labour laws in the whole of industry up to February 1944 had ever seen the inside of a prison”, wrote Bornstein and Richardson.[6]

Nevertheless, the workers were not going to face the brunt of the employers’ attacks lying down. Between 1942 and 1943, a whole rash of strikes affected the Yorkshire coalfield. At Cortonwood, 1,500 miners struck against wage cuts. Again, wage cuts were met with mass strikes in South Wales and South Yorkshire. In July 1943 Bevin announced a law to force young workers into the mines, at lower rates of pay (the so-called “Bevin boys”). Again, this was deeply unpopular amongst the miners and met with stiff resistance. The apprentices, with support from the Trotskyists of the WIL (which had just changed its name to the Revolutionary Communist Party), led a strike in March 1944. 5,000 apprentices stopped work on Tyneside, which soon spread to the Wear and the Tees. 20,000, in turn, joined them on the Clyde and 1,000 in Huddersfield.

“Bevin naturally watched the strike movement with growing alarm”, noted Michael Foot. “Some other smaller unofficial strikes were taking place in other industries, among engineering apprentices and gasworkers. Newspapers reported that bands of Trotskyists, who rejected the Communist line of full support for the war effort, were among the instigators. Bevin said later that the nation was wavering on the edge of a volcano which might affect three million workers.”

On 5 April he attended a meeting of the General Council of the TUC. He told them that as a result of the strikes, “which in his judgement were being incited by persons outside the industry concerned”, a paralysis was developing in some of the country’s major industries. Under the existing law he had no effective power to deal with incitement to strike, but he informed the General Council, this situation had to be rectified immediately!

The Daily Mail and the capitalist press were not alone in embroidering these “reds under the bed” stories. William Lawther, president of the miners’ union, had also suggested that the Trotskyites were the reason for the growing industrial discontent. But they were ignoring the real mood in the working class on the ground. “Mr Ernest Bevin and the rest of the government are obviously looking for scapegoats for the mess they have made of the mining industry”, stated Aneurin Bevan. But Ernest Bevin, rather than deal with the real causes of discontent, chose to act against the Trotskyist “menace”. The government intervened and arrested four Revolutionary Communist leaders, Jock Haston, Heaton Lee, Ann Keen and Roy Tearse. They were imprisoned under the anti-union Trade Dispute Act of 1927. However, their sentences were soon quashed on a technicality after their case was taken up by a mass campaign headed by James Maxton and Nye Bevan.

In 1942 the number of working days lost through strikes increased to 1,530,000, in 1943 to 1,810,000, and in 1944 to 3,710,000. Strikes gripped the coalfields despite the pleas from the union leaders, which culminated in a strike of 100,000 South Wales miners in March 1944. The exact number of men involved was not published at the time. In fact, more men were out on strike than at any period since 1926.

Bevin had demanded tougher legislation to deal with unofficial strikes and the General Council eventually agreed unanimously to back legal penalties against those responsible. Defence Regulation 1AA, which made incitement to strike unlawful, stated:

“No person shall declare, instigate, or make any other person to take part in, or shall otherwise act in furtherance of, any strike among persons engaged in the performance of essential services, or any lockout of persons so engaged.”

The penalty for breaking this law was five years’ penal servitude, or a £500 fine, or both. The new regulation was issued on 17 April – as it happened, six days after a mass Yorkshire coal strike had ended. It could be considered the most powerful legal weapon of any government since the Combination Acts.

On the international front, the World War was turning out very differently than expected by the British politicians or Uncle Sam. With Germany’s attack on the Soviet Union, the imperialist powers, especially Britain and America, had hoped that Stalin and Hitler would slug it out until they were mutually exhausted. This would allow the imperialist allies to step in and mop up. As Truman bluntly stated in 1941: “If we see that Germany is winning the war we ought to help Russia, and if Russia is winning we ought to help Germany and in that way let them kill as many as possible.”[7] But they completely miscalculated. The war in Europe had reduced itself to a bloody conflict between the Soviet Union and Hitler. But the incredible counter-offensive by the Russians, backed up by the superiority of a nationalised planned economy, stopped the German advance in its tracks at Stalingrad. As the Red Army pushed back Hitler’s armies, the imperialists delayed launching the Second Front for as long as possible. But fearful of the Russians sweeping through the whole of Europe and ending up on the Channel, they finally relented in an attempt to hold back the advance of the Red Army.

In 1944 and 1945, Churchill, Roosevelt, and Stalin finally met at different conferences of Teheran, Moscow, Yalta and Potsdam to agree on the division of Europe into spheres of influence. In his Memoirs, Churchill describes a meeting with Stalin in Moscow: “The moment was apt for business, so I said, ‘Let us settle about our affairs in the Balkans. Your armies are in Rumania and Bulgaria. We have interests, missions, and agents there. Don’t let us get at cross-purposes in small ways. So far as Britain and Russia are concerned, how would it do for you to have ninety per cent predominance in Rumania, for us to have ninety per cent of the say in Greece, and go fifty-fifty about Yugoslavia?’.... At length I said, ‘might it not be thought rather cynical if it seemed we had disposed of these issues, so fateful to millions of the people, in such an off-hand manner? Let us burn the paper.’ ‘No, you keep it’ said Stalin.”[8]

At the end of the war a revolutionary wave swept throughout Europe. “The collapse of that New Order imparted a great revolutionary momentum in Europe”, stated The Economist.[9] “It stimulated all the vague and confused but nevertheless radical and socialist impulses of the masses.” In Britain, certainly the end of the war signalled a massive radicalisation of the working class. The bulk of workers turned towards their traditional organisations, bringing the Labour Party to power in the biggest electoral landslide in Labour history. The “great War leader” Churchill, who opposed the Labour Party at the polls, was left with his mouth open. Labour swept to power on a revolutionary wave of hope and optimism. Millions of workers in industry and those returning from the front were sick of the conditions of the 1930s and demanded fundamental change. In the general election of July 1945, the Tories under Churchill were wiped out as Labour swept the board, securing an unprecedented 393 seats in the Commons.

Throughout the war the trade union officialdom acted as another arm of the capitalist state. “The annual reports of the TUC General Council”, notes Henry Pelling, “began to read like the records of some special government department responsible for coordinating policy in the social and industrial spheres.” At every level, through different government committees, the trade union bureaucracy was intertwined with the state apparatus. The prestige of the trade union hierarchy had been greatly enhanced in these years, and it was a role they were most eager to promote. Bevin, for example, slipped very easily from Minister of Labour in Churchill’s government to Foreign Secretary in the new post-war Labour government.

The war years had brought about great changes. Membership of the trade unions, as in the First World War, grew impressively. Total numbers rose from 6,053,000 in 1938 (4,669,000 affiliated to the TUC) to 7,803,000 in 1945 (6,671,000 affiliated). The Transport and General Workers grew to over a million members, while the Miners’ Federation fell to fourth place with 602,000 members. The number of female trade unionists nearly doubled between 1938 and 1944, to 1.8 million.

The mass of workers looked to the Labour government to solve its problems and carry through their promises of a new socialist society. “The significance of the election is that the British people have voted deliberately and consciously for a new world, both at home and abroad”, stated Nye Bevan. Resting on this radicalised mood, and with the ruling class languishing on the ropes, the Labour leaders could have put an end to capitalism painlessly and peacefully. To the great relief of the ruling class, by tinkering with the system instead of overthrowing it, the Labour government ended up throwing British capitalism a lifeline. The Labour leaders once again threw away a golden opportunity to change society – and the working class were again asked to pay the price of this failure.


[1] Clausewitz, On War, p.168, London 1968

[2] Jack Jones, Union Man – an autobiography, p. 102, London 1986

[3] The Times, 25th January 1940

[4] Croucher, Engineers at War 1939-1945, p.143, London 1982

[5] Quoted in Foot, op. cit, p.442

[6] Bornstein and Richardson, Two Steps Back, page 114, London 1982

[7] Quoted in Armstrong, Glyn, Harrisson, Capitalism Since World War Two, p.47, London 1984

[8] Churchill, Triumph and Tragedy, p.227-8, London 1953

[9] The Economist, 1 December 1945

Post War Dreams

The historic victory for the Labour Party in the 1945 general election saw unprecedented scenes of jubilation. Even at the opening session of the House of Commons, the massed ranks of the Labour benches, to the horror of the Tories, celebrated the event by singing the Red Flag. There was tremendous optimism everywhere. For the working class, there was a deep yearning for change. Now, with a massive parliamentary majority, this appeared to be Labour’s “finest hour”.

However, Herbert Morrison, the new Leader of the House, ominously described himself as “mildly disturbed” by these events. It was a sign of things to come. “These youngsters still had to absorb the atmosphere of the House”, he said. “But I recognised that it was largely first-day spirits.” Despite Morrison’s concerns about “high spirits”, millions of workers now looked to the Labour government to satisfy their aspirations for socialist change. Reflecting these pressures, the 1944 TUC Congress adopted a radical programme for post-war reconstruction, which included the nationalisation of all basic industries. The Labour Party followed suit with its programme Let Us Face the Future, stating that the Party’s main aim was “the establishment of the Socialist Commonwealth”.

Clearly, the deep-felt longing of the working class, after years of bitter and bloody war, harsh poverty and mass unemployment, was for an end to capitalism and the establishment of a socialist Britain. And this is what Labour had promised. That was the reason why the Labour leaders were thrust into power, literally by the scruff of the neck, on a tidal wave of working-class hope. At long last, everything now seemed possible.

Unlike its predecessors, the new Labour government was freed from the difficulties of 1924 and 1929-31. The Labour government had come to power in entirely different circumstances. Far from being a “government of crisis”, reliant on Liberal support, Labour had a crushing majority with which to act. Rather than facing a world slump as in 1929, the government was staring at the beginnings of a world economic upswing; rather than mass unemployment, the post war boom was creating full employment; rather than counter-reforms, radical reforms were on the order of the day. The Labour government quickly set about the task of reconstruction and overcoming the shortages arising from the war years. New radical policies were introduced, such as the creation of the Welfare State, a key component being the National Health Service, with free health care at the point of use. This was followed by the public ownership of the Bank of England, the coal industry, railways, road haulage, electricity, gas, and the steel industry. In addition, to the delight of the trade unions, one of Labour’s first acts was the repeal of the hated Trades Dispute Act of 1927, introduced after the defeat of the General Strike. As a consequence, the civil service unions were now able to affiliate to the TUC, and the Labour Party received a big boost to its finances when “contracting out” from the political levy was reintroduced.

At long last, for the majority of the population, a Labour government seemed to be taking bold steps in the direction of socialism, which gave rise to widespread enthusiasm. For the first time, radical measures were being pushed through Parliament in the interests of ordinary working people. Labour was carrying out its programme!

Nevertheless, despite the promising start, the Labour government still attempted to work within the confines of capitalism. They had the illusion that socialism could be introduced bit-by-bit, gradually and slowly, as the Fabians had preached. Above all, the government did not want to antagonise big business or the bankers. Labour’s nationalisation programme, instead of taking over the “commanding heights”, took over the unprofitable or bankrupt sectors of the British economy, leaving the dominant profitable sectors in private hands.

By the time of the Second World War, the four major rail companies were in deep financial difficulties. On 1 January 1948, nationalisation day, the state took over a run-down rail system, saddled with a capital debt of almost £100 million, a massive amount at the time. Although a welcomed step, this policy, in effect, represented a form of “state capitalism”, where the state would bail out the private sector and play an auxiliary role in the capitalist economy. The former owners of the nationalised industries, who put up only token resistance, received massive over compensation for their troubles. The transport bosses, for instance, received £3.8 million per annum in compensation. The former coal owners got £164.7 million for the coalmines and £78.5 million in royalties. There was also additional compensation for other assets taken over by the state. The former owners were laughing all the way to the bank!

In this context, capitalist opposition to nationalisation was extremely mild indeed, and in complete contrast to the violent resistance expected before the war. The old bankrupt industries, which needed vast amounts of capital expenditure to bring them up to scratch, were handed over to the state without much fuss – and, of course, in return for massive compensation. Once modernised at state expense, the capitalists would then benefit through the provision of cheap coal, cheap electricity, cheap gas, and cheap transport. In reality, the initiative for the nationalisation of the coal industry and the railways did not come from the Labour government, as both industries had been previously taken into state control by the Tory-dominated Churchill Coalition government. The decision whether or not to hand them back to their former owners was settled by a Royal Commission, in the case of coal by Sir Charles Reid of the Fife Coal Company, who headed the Commission. These people had a head for business, and were prepared to reluctantly accept nationalisation on their (very profitable) terms!

So, despite its radical programme, the Attlee government continued to operate as before on the basis of capitalism. With roughly 20 per cent of the economy in state hands, and 80 per cent in the private sector, it was inevitable that the latter would dictate to the former. In the stark words of Morrison to King George VI: “During the Coalition, the Labour members had learnt a great deal from the Conservatives in how to govern.” In effect, they had absorbed “the atmosphere of the House”.

Gradual Approach

This summed up the whole pragmatic approach of the Labour leaders. For them, socialism, which was a grand idea, was only possible in the dim and distant future after a very long period of transition. Unlike the “utopians” who demanded wholesale change, they were “realistic” people who lived in the here and now. They believed that gradually, over many years, maybe many decades, capitalism would be slowly and peacefully transformed into socialism. They were typical petty-bourgeois Fabians, completely blinded to the realities of class society.

Nationalisation or public ownership had long been the aspiration of the organised labour movement. It was the means by which socialism would supersede capitalism. Ever since 1919, the Miners’ Federation had demanded nationalisation of the mines under workers’ control. However, by 1947, government consultations with the TUC and the miners’ union resulted not in the nationalisation dreamed of by the socialist pioneers, but state ownership under the control of bureaucratic unelected management boards at regional and national level. These governing boards were staffed not with ordinary workers, but with former managers, ex-generals, top civil servants and a sprinkling of right-wing trade union officials. In the contemptuous words of the former “Left” Stafford Cripps: “workers simply did not have the necessary skills to participate in management.”[1] Apparently they were too ignorant and uneducated to understand the “divine rights of management”. For Cripps, management would have to be left to the pampered bureaucrats of the Establishment and their friends in the capitalist boardrooms, the traditional “Captains of Industry”, who had the necessary acumen. Manny Shinwell, the government minister, noted not surprisingly, that many of his officials at the Ministry of Fuel and Power were “apathetic or antagonistic to nationalisation”. But nothing was done about it. They all carried on as respectable statesmen and women, careful not to challenge the real power in society, the giant monopolies and their millionaire owners.

Sir Walter Citrine, who had already been knighted by the National government, was now granted a peerage, and brought onto a board of nationalised industry. Eddy Edwards, the miners’ national secretary, went on to the National Coal Board, swapping his cloth cap for a bowler hat. The same was true of all the other management boards. In other words, this was not workers’ control or management – far from it – but a bureaucratic management, that mirrored the capitalist managerial elite, and utterly divorced from working people on the shop floor. While the miners celebrated the nationalisation of their industry and the end of the dictatorial rule of the coal magnates, which represented a gigantic step forward, they were still forced to fight the bureaucrats running the National Coal Board.

At the same time, the former coalowners, such as Powell Dyffryn in South Wales invested their compensation in profitable oil shares, and still continued to supply the industry – on very favourable terms – with new mining equipment. And of course, the profitable distribution of coal still remained in private hands. Meanwhile, the nationalised industries were saddled with colossal debts and massive interest charges, mainly acquired through the borrowing needed to modernise out-dated plant and machinery.

As expected, Clement Attlee brought a number of trade union leaders and union-sponsored MPs into the government: Nye Bevan at Health, Ellen Wilkinson at Education, Isaacs, chairman of the TUC, as Minister of Labour, and finally, Ernest Bevin as Foreign secretary. Throughout these post-war years there was very close collaboration between the trade union leaders and the government, which leaned heavily upon the former to maintain “industrial peace” and guarantee production. “Communist” trade union officials such as Arthur Horner continued to play second fiddle in this drive for increased coal production, just as they had done during the war.

Horner, the newly-elected general secretary of the NUM, in fact headed a £20,000 union campaign to increase coal production. “For the first time in the history of the trade union movement in this country”, stated Horner, “the miners’ union assumed the responsibility of actively assisting in the efforts to increase coal output.” In the words of Harry Pollitt: “The battle for production… must not be confined to the nationalised industries. The unions should demand that joint production machinery – national, regional, local and factory – should be set up in all industries without delay.” Incredibly, the stance the CP leaders were little different from Mondism and right-wing reformism. But with full employment, the workers were not content to wait patiently for “jam tomorrow”, and began to push for a bigger share of the cake that they produced.

As soon as Labour came to power, the Attlee government was faced with a continuing ten-week old national dock strike over revised wage rates. Employers at the Surrey Docks in London had already suspended 1,500 workers for working to rule. As expected, this provoked further unofficial action. The Churchill government had already used troops against the strike in Glasgow, Grimsby and Swansea. He then ordered 600 troops on standby to unload strike-bound ships at the Surrey Docks. Now, five days after the general election, the new Labour government ordered the troops to unload the cargoes at Surrey. This use of troops to break the strike by a Labour government came as a shock, and led to the growth of unofficial committees on the docks across the country.

Another unofficial dock strike took place in the autumn, involving 43,000 strikers at its height. This second strike resulted from widespread discontent over wages, conditions and, in particular, grievances against the TGWU officialdom. Arthur Deakin, who took over from Bevin, continued to rule the union with a rod of iron. The union bureaucracy treated the rank and file with complete contempt, and blocked official strike action at every turn. “Settlements were made, usually most inadequate, without any reference back to the membership”, stated Jack Jones. “Although numerous agreements left a lot to be desired, if unofficial strikes took place the local union officials were simply told: ‘Get those men back to work!’ I knew we would never build strong unions while such attitudes prevailed.”[2] This approach resulted in widespread resentment and even outright hostility towards the union officials. Again, 21,000 troops were used to break the ten-week old strike. By November, the workers decided to return to work with promises of an official investigation to look into their grievances.

Unlike the interwar period, the situation after 1945 saw a considerable expansion of world trade and was accompanied by full employment in the advanced capitalist countries. Under these conditions, even if the employers wanted to, it was impossible to return to the old pre-war casual labour system. The dockers were in a strong position at last to improve their terms and conditions, and the employers were forced to recognise this new balance of forces. The Foster Committee made recommendations on decasualisation and the Labour government introduced the Dock Workers (Regulation of Employment) Scheme in 1947. Following on from the wartime regulation of the docks, the bosses had no alternative but to accept the establishment of such a Dock Labour Scheme. This, in turn, set up a Dock Labour Board made up of employers and union representatives to administer the scheme. While employers continued to hire workers on the same basis, those workers not hired received full pay from the Board. By this means, however, the government side-stepped the question of nationalisation of the profitable dock industry. Furthermore, the scheme did not cover all dockers, especially those in the very small ports. In the future, this was to become a major issue as the numbers of non-registered dockers grew with the new containerisation and mechanisation of the industry.

National Debts

The World War had transformed British capitalism from a major international creditor into a major debtor. Overseas assets of £1.2 billion had been sold off and exports were down to a third of their pre-war level. On the basis of the Bretton Woods agreement, American imperialism granted Britain a loan of $3.75 billion, which helped bridge the balance of payments deficit with the United States. While the Labour government had carried through certain radical measures, under pressure from the working class, it also continued to carry through policies, under pressure from big business, congenial to British capitalism.

For instance, the 1947 fuel crisis pushed the Labour government to introduce a number of austerity measures. The sterling crisis that ensued forced the Chancellor Hugh Dalton to abandon the convertibility of sterling. By February 1948, Attlee presented a statement to Parliament on “Personal Incomes, Costs and Prices”, and further pressure was put on organised labour to desist from any form of militancy. The Ministry of Labour had persuaded the TUC, under the prodding of Ernest Bevin, to allow the continued operation of wartime Order 1305, which declared strikes illegal and enforced arbitration. Scandalously, this legislation was to be later used to arrest and try seven unofficial dockworkers’ leaders. The TUC leaders also agreed that the Restoration of Pre-War Practices Act (1942) would not be enforced for the time being. Despite growing industrial action on the buses and on the docks (which resulted in a state of emergency), the TUC General Council went along with the austerity, agreeing to examine “wage restraint” as an option. By 1949, the new Chancellor Stafford Cripps, now a firm supporter of capitalism, decided to devalue the pound and impose a wage freeze.

This caused dismay and uproar in the working class. But even prior to the freeze, there was continual industrial unrest – largely unofficial – throughout the four years of the Attlee government. The docks became a traditional centre of working-class unrest. Unofficial action on the docks occurred regularly each year from 1947 to 1951. These actions took place over various issues, including the victimisation of unofficial leaders by Arthur Deakin. Despite these disputes, and others in the Smithfield food market (1946), road transport (1947), and power stations (1949), the General Council fought desperately to hold the line.

Cripps’s devaluation and the effects of the Korean war rapidly pushed up the cost of living. With a boom in the economy, workers took action to improve their position and get a share of the increased profits. At the 1950 Easter conference of the shopworkers union, USDAW, delegates voted to oppose the wage freeze, while the AEU conference debated taking strike action. In June, 1,500 lorry drivers, members of the TGWU, at Smithfield market again came out on unofficial strike over wages. The government called in troops to clear meat supplies and the strikers were eventually persuaded to return to work. By the autumn, gasworkers struck over wages, but the government, fearing an escalation, decided not to use the army. Eventually, given the dead-lock, the government dispatched troops and used Order 1305 to force the workers back to work. On no less than fourteen separate occasions, between July 1945 and October 1951, the Labour government despatched troops to break strikes under the pretext of keeping “essential” supplies moving.

By this time, powerful pressures were mounting against the government’s wages policy and the trade union leaders were forced at last to give in to the mood. At the September TUC conference, a resolution was carried against the platform declaring there was “no basis for a restraint on wage applications.” Despite their best efforts, they could no longer hold the line. The Labour government, which was returned in the general election of February 1951 with a majority of only six seats, was also forced to accept the position or face a massive wave of unofficial strikes. The election result also showed the growing despondency among traditional Labour supporters, but especially the middle class, which was swinging behind the Tories. Their patience had begun to wear thin and their hopes of a socialist future had been undermined.

The Cold War

After the War, the United States bankrolled European capitalism as a bulwark against revolution. During 1946 and 1947, it made some $10.5 billion available in the form of Marshall Aid and long-term loans. In 1946 these dollars financed nearly half of Europe’s imports from the United States, and considerably more in 1947. Once Western Europe was deemed secure, the American imperialists attempted to undermine the influence of the Soviet Union by extending the Marshall Plan into Eastern Europe. Such interference led to a sharp deterioration in relations between the powers. This marked the beginning of what was to become the “Cold War” – a period of intense political, diplomatic and military rivalry between the two super powers, the Soviet Union and US imperialism, on a world scale. In the final analysis, the conflict reflected the irreconcilable antagonism between the two social systems on which they rested – the Soviet Union was based upon state ownership, while imperialism rested upon private ownership. This rivalry set off an arms race between the super powers, that was to create a “nuclear balance of terror”. In Fulton, Missouri, Winston Churchill, a key spokesman for the Cold War, talked of the need to “roll back the frontiers of Communism”. Britain, although a nominal victor in the War, had emerged as a second-rate power next to the colossus of the United States and Russia. Accordingly, in recognition of this subordinate role, she had no alternative but to hitch her declining fortunes to American imperialism through a “special relationship”, namely the relationship between boss and employee. This relationship exists to the present-day, epitomised by the slavish dependency of Blair on the Bush administration.

This fundamental change in world relations gave rise to dramatic changes within the Labour movement in Britain. The leaders of the British Communist Party, which had become ultra-nationalist during the war, now followed new instructions from Moscow and turned against the Labour government. They opposed Marshall Aid and began to galvanise opposition to wage restraint in the trade unions.

Although extremely weak on the political front (they had won two Parliamentary seats in 1945), the Communist Party had a significant influence in a number of trade unions. They controlled, for instance, the Electrical Trades Union, the Foundry Workers, and the Fire Brigades Union. They dominated the Welsh and Scottish areas of the National Union of Mineworkers, and Arthur Horner was national secretary of the union after Eddy Edwards left to join the Coal Board. The CP also had a strong influence in the engineering union, especially in London, and by 1946, they had nine out of 34 members of the executive council of the Transport and General Workers Union. They also had a large presence nationally in the Trades Councils and were well placed throughout industry generally.

Since the War, the American CIA had financed the rebuilding of the trade union movement in Europe, ensuring the domination of the right wing. Now, in close collaboration with the CIA and Special Branch, the right-wing majority on the TUC General Council began to take action against communist influence in the unions. By October 1948, the witch-hunt was in full swing. The TUC issued a statement denouncing the Communist Party’s attempt to sabotage the European Recovery Programme, and was followed up by another statement, Defend Democracy, calling upon all unions to purge CP members from key positions and block them as delegates to union conferences. The General Council also threatened to disaffiliate Trades Councils that refused to adhere to this line. As Jack Jones, former general secretary of the TGWU explained:

“With the increasing tension between East and West he (Deakin) began to look on the union and the TUC as battlegrounds and he set out to bludgeon any opposition, whether from Labour’s left wing or from members of the Communist Party. He became highly suspicious of anything smelling of the Left. In my experience those who claimed that he suffered from a ‘reds under the beds’ complex were correct.”[3]

However, this outlook was not the isolated paranoid view of Arthur Deakin, but was shared by the right-wing majority of the TUC General Council. Some unions like the General and Municipal Workers already had rules banning communists from union office. Those under CP influence, such as the Fire Brigades’ Union, simply rejected the advice.

“The response of the FBU leadership”, records the official history of the union, “was that these publications had no relevance to the union and, as such, ‘witch-hunting’ could only weaken the working class.”[4]

But in terms of size, this was a small trade union. The biggest battle over this question took place in the TGWU.

A dockers’ lockout in Canada in June 1949 had attracted the support of British dockers. As expected, Deakin was furious at this unofficial action and came down hard. Six militants were hauled up in front of the executive committee.

“I shall never forget that morning at Transport House”, recalls the London dockers’ leader Jack Dash. “We sat there like prisoners of the Inquisition, the general secretary Arthur Deakin in the chair and facing us the paid and lay officials of the Docks’ Trade Group. We were questioned about our activities in the Canadian seamen’s struggle and the dockers’ lockout. Veiled remarks were made about our membership (supposed or actual) of the Communist Party; a heated debate took place between Ted Dickens, Harry Constable and the general secretary, with the general secretary blowing his top… Anyhow the result of the enquiry was that Harry Constable, Ted Dickens and Bert Saunders were expelled from the union; Ted Kirby, Vic Marney and I were suspended for two years from holding office even if elected.”[5]

Following this episode, Arthur Deakin persuaded the union’s Biennial Delegate Conference in July 1949 to bar CP members from holding union office. Originally, the TGWU had gone on record opposing the 1934 “Black Circular”, but now it was in the forefront of the anti-communist witch-hunt. Within six months, nine full-time officials were sacked, including Bert Papworth, who lost his position on the General Council. All lay officials were forced to sign a “declaration” before taking office. Incredibly, the left-wing Tribune newspaper gave support to this purge:

“It is nonsense to denounce the TGWU’s ban on communist office-holders as ‘undemocratic’. The decision which, incidentally, also applies to members of the British Union of Fascists, was taken by more than two-thirds of the conference delegates.”[6]

However, this mealy-mouthed justification for Deakin’s attacks did not protect Tribune. Predictably, within two years, Tribune supporters were themselves reeling under the hammer blows from a vicious witch-hunt within the Labour Party against the Bevanites, where Deakin was once again the main instigator.

Cold War

“I shared their view [of the active members] that the decision smelled of McCarthyism”, wrote Jack Jones. “Since a number of shop stewards in my district were communists I felt that the union could only be harmed by the decision. Some members did, in fact, leave the TGWU and join the ETU. Determined to be no party to victimisation, I managed to protect the shop stewards and they continued to function in my district.”[7]

It was not until twenty years later, in 1969, when Jack Jones became general secretary of the union, that this ban on CP members holding union office in the TGWU was finally rescinded. But in the meantime, the ban had resulted in the removal of many leading figures in the London Bus Section and provoked an upsurge of unofficial action. The union bureaucracy came down hard, and, after a series of skirmishes, the whole of the Dalston union committee and officers were debarred from office until the end of 1952/3. Although unofficial opposition to Deakin was successfully organised around the fortnightly Platform journal, it never succeeded in creating a large-scale opposition within the union. “This was due partly to the climate created by Deakinism...” explains Ken Fuller.[8] The right-wing bureaucracy, through control of the machine, maintained a vice-like grip on the union.

The Cold War witch-hunt took on international dimensions with the rise of McCarthyism in America. In October 1945, the World Federation of Trade Unions (WFTU) was formed, composed of 70 million members in 71 countries. Within two years, the Cold War had split the federation wide apart. The initiative for this split was taken by the then President of the WFTU, none other than Arthur Deakin, who rested for support on the British TUC and the American CIO. Deakin denounced the WFTU at the 1948 TUC Congress as “nothing more than another platform and instrument for furtherance of Soviet policy”. The following January, the British, American and Dutch representatives walked out, and by the end of 1949 established the pro-Western International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU).

In Britain, unrest on the docks and on the railways set the scene for 1951. The new Labour Chancellor, the upwardly mobile Hugh Gaitskell, in the face of a new balance of payments crisis, again introduced austerity measures, reducing the NHS budget by £25 million. In the words of the historian Ralph Milliband, “the Budget served to crystallise an accumulation of discontent over the general drift of the government’s policy.” This provoked the resignations of Nye Bevan, Harold Wilson and John Freeman from the government, and created a spur for the development of a Bevanite opposition grouping within the Labour Party.

However, in the general election on 25 October 1951, the Labour Party was defeated – despite achieving its highest poll ever – with 13,948,605 votes or 48.8 percent of the total vote. The Conservatives, who formed the new government, secured their victory with only 13,717,538 votes or 48 percent of the vote, due to crooked parliamentary boundaries. A Tory government was returned to power with Churchill at its head.

Like the Catholic Church that could adapt from feudalism to capitalism, and later even reach an accommodation with the Stalinist regime in Poland, the trade union hierarchy immediately entered into “fraternal” relations with the new Tory government. This subservient class collaboration coloured British trade unionism for the following decade. It was a continuation of a policy that had emerged from the defeat of 1926. The long economic upswing throughout the 1950s served to underpin this close “co-operation” between master and ever-so-humble servant. It also served to preserve the domination of the right wing within the leadership of the British trade unions. As long as these favourable economic conditions prevailed, and there was relative social peace, there would be no serious challenge to this consensus.


[1] Quoted in Milliband, op. cit, p.289

[2] Jack Jones, op. cit, p.142

[3] Ibid, p.132

[4] Forged in Fire, p.198

[5] Jack Dash, Good Morning Brothers!, pp.66-7

[6] Tribune, 15 July 1949

[7] Jones, op. cit, p.133

[8] Fuller, op. cit.

Business (Unionism) as usual

The victory of Churchill in the 1951 general election was to mark the beginning of thirteen years of uninterrupted Tory rule. One of the main reasons for this remarkable success was the world economic upswing that was underway, which enormously benefited British capitalism, masked its deficiencies, as well as serving to reinforce illusions in the capitalist system itself. Within the organised Labour movement, these favourable economic conditions served, in turn, to bolster the position of the right-wing leaders of the trade unions and the Labour Party.

The nightmare of the Thirties had disappeared. The eradication of mass unemployment and rising prosperity stood in marked contrast to the wretched inter-war period. Again, the economic upswing served to heal the deep wounds of past defeats, and strengthen the organisations of the working class in terms of numbers and cohesion. These new conditions appeared to confirm the idea that capitalism had really changed, as the Labour leaders argued, and that the ideas of Marxism and class struggle seemed to be a thing of the past. According to them, simply through the policies of John Maynard Keynes, the new economic guru, and government intervention, the capitalist economy could be fine-tuned to eradicate booms and slumps and the vagaries of the market economy. (Interestingly, Gordon Brown again made similar assertions of eliminating “boom and bust” some fifty years later). In place of “old-fashioned” class struggle, the leaders of parties and trade unions preached conciliation and class harmony. According to them, “everything would work out for the best, in the best of all capitalist worlds”.

The General Council of the TUC, completely under the domination of the Neanderthal right wing, and ever eager to promote its own importance, issued a statement concerning its relations with the new Conservative government:

“Since the Conservative administrations of pre-war days, the range of consultation between Ministers and both sides of industry has considerably increased, and the machinery of joint consultation has enormously improved. We expect of this government that they will maintain to the full this practice of consultation.”

Unlike in the 1930s, this collaborationist role of the trade union tops suited the Tories and the employers. With the lowering of international trade barriers, there was an unprecedented expansion of world trade, which in turn, gave a further impetus to global production. Under these circumstances, the British capitalists needed to urgently expand production, not only to reach new markets, but also to hold on to their share of world trade. Given the increased strength of organised labour, it was now very much in the interests of the ruling class to pursue a policy of collaboration with the union leaders. In turn, they would lean heavily upon the trade union bureaucracy to police its members, keep wages stable and, above all, boost productivity and profits. Despite some minor reservations, it was a role that the TUC was wholeheartedly pleased to embrace.

As explained, throughout the 1950s the British trade unions as well as the Labour Party were firmly in the grip of the right wing. The triumvirate of Arthur Deakin (TGWU), Tom Williamson (GMWU) and Will Lawther (NUM), ruled the movement in the most authoritarian manner, using their bloc vote to the maximum effect both in the TUC and the Labour Party. Williamson was so close to the capitalist Establishment that he was one of the participants at the first meeting of the conspiratorial Bilderberg Group in 1954, an elite gathering of the world’s rich and powerful. In the words of Aneurin Bevan:

“… the policies of the Party are, in fact, determined by an irresponsible group of trade union bureaucrats. You should appreciate the fact that the bloc vote operates inside the Executive as well as at the Conference. We have actually reached the position where it would be true to say that the leaders of the Transport and General Workers’ Union and the Municipal and General Workers’ Union decide the policy of the Labour Party. The preponderance of votes they enjoy is such that no trade union representative can be elected to the executive without their consent. This power they have exercised ruthlessly and cynically… This domination must be broken if democracy inside the party is to have the chance to breathe.”[1]

The economic boom, with its increased profits for the capitalists, allowed them to grant small wage rises without much trouble, providing they were linked to increases in productivity. Given the shortage of skilled labour, employers preferred to negotiate agreements and avoid strikes, which only served to disrupt production. In comparison to the immediate post-war period, the decade of the Fifties can be considered on the whole as one of relative social peace between the classes. The unofficial strike by oil tanker drivers in London in October 1953, where troops were used to break the strike, was the exception rather than the rule.

The TGWU, the biggest union in Britain, was the standard bearer of right-wing reaction within the Labour movement. Deakin was the archetypal trade union “boss”, who regarded internal union democracy as a hindrance, and shop stewards as troublemakers, needing to be continually policed and kept in check. This was illustrated by an agreement with the Ford Motor Company in the early 1950s. “Because of their [the Deakin leadership] deep hostility towards left-wing shop stewards, they had designed an agreement which put all power at the centre and virtually ruled out membership participation”, stated Jack Jones, a full-time official at the time.

“A limited number of shop stewards were allowed, but their activities were tightly controlled and shop floor bargaining was virtually outlawed. The management could exercise a veto on the nomination of shop stewards and altogether trade union activity was effectively circumscribed.”[2]

As long as living standards rose, the Neanderthal right wing could use these gangster methods to police the workers’ movement without much difficulty. That did not mean there was no discontent or opposition – far from it – but such feelings were largely stultified by the union apparatus. The nearest parallel to this kind of internal regime was the American AFL-CIO, whose leadership typified the most degenerate form of business unionism, and was heavily influenced by organised crime.

The Tories attempted to persuade the trade union leaders to agree to some form of permanent arbitration machinery for the settlement of disputes. But the TUC leaders opposed this suggestion, preferring to treat industrial relations “in their own way”. By the middle of the 1950s, however, strike figures took a leap upwards, with fifty per cent more days lost than in any other year since the war. One of the reasons for this was the continuous simmering discontent on the docks.

The Blue Union

Within the Labour movement, dockers were considered a special breed. The tough conditions in which they worked created a natural solidarity and class-consciousness. The dockers had a militant tradition that constantly came into conflict with the national bureaucracy of the TGWU. Due to the heavy hand of the Deakin leadership unofficial action became widespread on the docks. Between 1945 and 1955, there were thirty-seven unofficial strikes in the industry. As neither employers nor union bureaucrats permitted a shop steward system within the docks, an unofficial Port Workers’ Committee was set up in 1945 that led a whole series of unofficial strikes. During the witch-hunt against the Communist Party, 77 dockworkers had been disciplined and three expelled from the union. More often than not, unofficial strikes were attacked by Deakin as “communist inspired” events. Under these circumstances, the policing role of the full-time officials was bitterly detested by the rank and file. This was especially the case when these officials colluded with the employers on the Dock Labour Boards.

The TGWU dominated the docks with its 83,000 members. The National Amalgamated Stevedores and Dockers Union (NASD), known as the “Blue Union” by the colour of its membership card, had some 7,000 stevedores and dockers confined to the London docks. In comparison with the TGWU, the NASD clearly had a more democratic and militant structure and tradition – which, under the circumstances, was not too difficult. Given the growing dissatisfaction amongst TGWU members with Deakin, unofficial strikes in Hull in August 1954 resulted in members voting to breakaway from the T&G and join the “Blue Union” instead. This breakaway movement quickly spread to Birkenhead, Liverpool, and Manchester. By the end of the year an estimated 10,000 dockers had left the T&G for the “Blue”.

As expected, the T&G bureaucracy came down on the breakaway like a ton of bricks. It used the authority of the TUC and the Bridlington Agreement, which prohibited the poaching of members from affiliated unions, to attack the NASD. In 1955, the “Blue” was compelled to wage a strike on Merseyside to prevent members losing their jobs. Following this strike, which was successful, the NASD demanded its recognition by the northern ports employers. The employers, however, refused even to negotiate over the issue, and a strike for NASD recognition was subsequently defeated. The “Blue Union” was later suspended and eventually expelled from the TUC in 1959 for refusing to hand back former T&G members.

As with all similar attempts to split the unions, this experience proved disastrous. They failed to learn the lesson from an earlier attempt involving the T&G in 1938, when busworkers set up the National Passenger Workers’ Union, which later collapsed. Of course, the responsibility for these splits lies with the heavy-handed bureaucracy of the unions and their police methods, and this split in the T&G was no different. However, in such cases, the advice of the most class-conscious activists must not be to promote splits, but to encourage members to stay and fight within their existing unions, despite the machinations of the officials.

Typically, the dockers were egged on by various ultra-left groups (as well as Tribune) to leave the T&G. For them such a bureaucratic union “could never be reformed”. These flag-waving groups learned nothing and forgot everything. The argument that the T&G could not be changed did enormous damage in misdirecting the genuine frustrations of rank-and-file members. While appreciating the bitterness and anger over the antics of their so-called leaders, the split nevertheless simply served to strengthen the right-wing grip within the T&G, particularly its Docks’ Section. Even more criminal, the dispute served to introduce non-unionism onto the docks.

In the end, to preserve their position in the TUC, the NASD leaders agreed to exclude their newly-won northern members. Yet the men refused to return to the T&G and eventually took legal action to rescind their expulsions. Despite being successful in the courts, they still were not recognised by the northern employers. The NASD, outside of the TUC, moved to the right. It eventually ended up accepting in its entirety the 1965 Devlin Report (set up by the Wilson government), as it offered the NASD limited union recognition. On the other hand, the T&G, which opposed Devlin because of its large-scale redundancies and lack of security, eventually moved to the left. In the end, those activists who remained behind in the T&G to continue the fight for democratic change won through. Despite all the obstacles and difficulties, they succeeded in changing the union.

The damage, however, had been done. The main beneficiaries of the split, of course, were the employers, with some 30 per cent of dockworkers in Liverpool and Hull ending up as non-union. In 1984, the “Blue Union” amalgamated with the TGWU, finally putting an end to the disunity that had arisen from the breakaway.

The 1950s witnessed a sharp struggle within the Labour Party between left and right over German rearmament and unilateral disarmament. The party leadership, dominated by the triumvirate of Deakin, Williamson and Lawther, had no time for internal “debate” and “democracy” and strove to drive the left-wing Bevanites out of the Party. At the 1952 Party Conference, Deakin, as the “fraternal” delegate from the TUC, demanded the proscription of the Bevanites. When barracked by Constituency Party delegates, he replied arrogantly: “You know you would listen if you wanted to get money from the trade unions.” When Deakin died in 1955, his replacement Jock Tiffin only lasted six months before his untimely death. Eventually Frank Cousins became TGWU general secretary, and the right-wing monolith began to falter.

“It was a sign of the times. Rank-and-file members wanted changes. The union’s policies did not switch from right to left overnight with his election. Many of the officers and branches remained faithful to the traditional right-wing policies of the union. But looking back at that period”, recalls Jack Jones, “the change at the top of the TGWU was a watershed in the history of the Labour movement.”[3]

By 1959, the TGWU had changed its policy to support unilateral nuclear disarmament, which was carried by the Labour Conference a year later. The earth began to move, as the right-wing grip began to falter.

With Labour’s defeat in the general election of 1955 (the Tory majority had risen to 100 seats), Attlee retired and Hugh Gaitskell was elected by the PLP as party leader. Gaitskell, a middle-class upstart, represented the high point of right-wing ascendancy, in much the same way as Blair did some forty years later. Under his leadership, moves were now undertaken to distance the Party from “old style” nationalisation and “broaden” its appeal to the newly affluent middle classes. James Griffiths stated that the Labour Party should “go back to the classroom.” Right-wing theoreticians, like Anthony Crosland, explained that capitalism had fundamentally changed and could now be easily managed. So close were the policies of both Tory and Labour Parties that the resulting consensus became known as “Butskellism” (R.A. Butler was a prominent Tory leader).

But by the mid-Fifties the industrial scene was becoming more unsettled. After the 1955 national ASLEF strike (where the right-dominated NUR continued to work), strike figures began to grow once more. In 1957 strikes broke out in the engineering and shipbuilding industries. The following year saw a six-and-half week strike by London busworkers. The TUC intervened in the bus dispute, not to widen the strike, but to mediate between the workers and employers. According to Ken Fuller,

“a Delegate Conference heard Frank Cousins argue against spreading the strike, even though the Central Bus Committee had voted, by a majority of one, for this to happen. In fact, the chances of solidarity action were looking increasingly remote, given the attitude of the TUC. Local NUR leaders had voted to strike every Monday in support of the bus workers, but their general secretary, Sidney Greene, had instructed them to work; some railwaymen who stood by their original decision were sacked. Nevertheless, the Conference voted to continue the strike. A week later Conference acknowledged defeat and voted to return to work.”[4]

It was a defeat of major proportions for transport workers. Sidney Greene, however, was to receive a knighthood for his services.

The miners, still a powerful section of the working class, undertook the brunt of industrial action in these years. Between 1947 and 1957 disputes in the coal industry constituted 70.5 per cent of all industrial disputes, and accounted for 21.9 per cent of the total number of strike days lost. These were all unofficial strikes, many over local piece-rates. However, by the late Fifties, the motor industry was increasingly becoming the cockpit of industrial strife, with the loss of days running at seven or eight times the national average. Between 1960 and 1964 over 480,000 working days were lost each year in the car industry – by this time, far higher than in the coal industry. This arose out of the difficult conditions in the car plants and the ruthless approach of management, desperate to push up productivity.

“Management in the motor industry were notoriously bloody minded,” states Jack Jones, “not only in their relations with employees but among themselves. It was not unusual for top men to be fired in that rough, tough industry. In turn managers tried to reduce the labour force, intensify production, drive hard bargains. Resistance was bound to come as our efforts intensified.”[5]

Between 1955 and 1966, the average number of strikes per year was 2,458, an increase of almost 40 per cent on the 1945-54 figures. As mentioned, the mining industry, until 1962, accounted for over half these strikes. With a sustained pit closure programme under Lord Robens, involving large-scale redundancies, disputes fell off sharply. From being 77 per cent of the total in 1958, strikes in the coal industry fell to 31 per cent of total strikes in 1965 (and less than one per cent by 1970). Still reflecting the right-wing domination of the unions, between 1960 and 1964, unofficial strikes accounted for nearly 60 per cent of all the days lost through strikes, though if the national one-day token strikes are excluded the proportion rises to over 75 per cent.

Yet despite this upturn in industrial struggle, its reflection within the official structures of the unions still lagged far behind. The calm displayed at the TUC Congresses, a long way removed from the shop floor, was a pale reflection of the real mood. “At the 1957 Congress”, states Pelling, “there were no card votes whatsoever; and the 1958 Congress was also much less controversial than usual.”

ETU Trial

Events in 1956, however, were to have a significant, but unexpected, effect within the trade union movement. The British Communist Party was deeply shaken, as was the Communist movement internationally, by the secret revelations of Khrushchev in the Twentieth Congress of the Soviet Communist Party. He was forced to raise the lid on the heinous crimes of Stalinism – the frame-ups, purge trials, labour camps and murders – in order to place the sole blame for these atrocities on the personally of Stalin and away from the regime. In October 1956, another shock-wave hit the CP when the Hungarian Uprising (two general strikes and two insurrections) against the Stalinist rule and its bloody suppression by Russian troops created a widespread crisis internationally. In Britain, up to a third of the party’s membership resigned in protest, including two prominent members in the electricians’ union, Les Cannon and Frank Chapple.

The Electrical Trades Union (ETU), with its quarter-of-a-million membership, had been under the control of the Communist Party since the war. But with Cannon and Chapple now in opposition to the party, a battle royal opened up for control of the union. Eventually, both men ended up with Jock Byrne (who was backed by Catholic Action) and former CP member Mark Young, on a programme of a “free democratic union”. They travelled up and down the country to union branches gathering evidence about corrupt practises in union internal elections. These “democrats” received financial aid from a group of Catholic businessmen, members of “moral rearmament”, whose aim was to deter workers’ militancy by appealing to their religious and “patriotic” fervour. Apparently, Vic Feather from the TUC bureaucracy acted as the “go-between” for the conspiracy. Les Cannon was even given a year’s leave of absence on full pay from his job in order to lead the investigation. There were no depths to which the Cannon-Byrne-Chapple axis was not prepared to sink to gain control of the union. It is worth bearing in mind how easy it was for Chapple, Cannon, and co. to gather this evidence. As former members of the CP caucus in the union they must have had intimate knowledge of the ballot-rigging procedures. In fact, Les Cannon, as chief instructor at the union’s college probably trained many of the branch officials involved in the ballot-rigging case. What form of tuition they received from Cannon can only be left to the imagination. Subsequently, the ETU became a highly publicised political confrontation, involving the capitalist press, the TUC, and the Communist Party.

At this time, the CP had a strong industrial base and drew towards it many excellent and sincere class fighters, deeply influence by the aura of the October Revolution. They constituted the militant left of the unions. The best militant activists, shop stewards and convenors in industry, were instinctively drawn to the CP as a means of fighting the right wing. Unfortunately, many of these class fighters were misled and mis-educated by the leadership of the CP, who had long ago abandoned any revolutionary perspective of changing society. For many years, especially since the popular front period, the party sought a left-wing “accommodation” with the union bureaucracy. Its leadership, corrupted by decades of Stalinism, had in reality lost confidence in the working class. This lack of faith had bred a large degree of scepticism, the hallmark and psychological basis for reformism. Such scepticism sometimes even affected genuine militants, who tended to move ahead of their class and became disappointed by the lack of response from their fellow workers. It is not uncommon that those who held such views ended up as a barrier to struggle at a later stage. This mood of despondency became the starting point of all kinds of mistakes and opportunist tendencies, which were to have disastrous consequences in the ETU. A layer of the top officials, who held CP cards, was determined to hold on to their positions (“for the good of the members”) at all costs. Shamefully, this false method led to all kinds of skulduggery, including election fraud, forgery, arbitrary disqualification of branches, and the falsification of electoral returns. Of course, all this played into the hands of the right wing, which took up a hue and cry for “democracy”.

Woodrow Wyatt MP, then a left-wing supporter of Tribune, made allegations of corruption in the magazine Illustrated, which opened up an outcry involving the rest of the media. Wyatt prepared and took part in a series of BBC Panorama programmes on the ETU, and this was followed by an “exposure” in the right-wing New Statesman magazine.

According to John Freeman, the editor of the New Statesman:

“Ever since 1957, the New Statesman has consistently exposed the operations of the Communist clique and urged both the rank and file of the ETU, and the TUC, to take action to remove a scandal which, allowed to go unchecked, would bring grave discredit on the whole trade union movement.”[6]

Of course, these allegations of criminal malpractice were grist to the mill of the right-wing union leaders, which, behind closed doors, were never adverse to such practices. A hue and cry was launched against the “Communist clique” controlling the ETU. Chapple and co. were hailed as the saviours of British trade union democracy. Clearly, no class-conscious worker could condone the actions of the ETU leaders, Foulkes and Haxell, but neither could they support this right-wing witch-hunt orchestrated by the capitalist press whose sole purpose was to discredit the militant left. This hired press has always defended their friends in the right wing of the Labour movement, despite its corrupt double-dealings and links to the intelligence services, both in Britain and the United States. The press barons deliberately turned a blind eye to such malpractices.

Very quickly the TUC bureaucracy was drawn into the controversy, and demanded an explanation from the ETU leaders. As expected, an internal ETU enquiry exonerated the union leaders. However in 1960, Byrne and Chapple issued writs against the union and its officers for alleged fraud in the 1959 general secretary election. In June 1961, the Courts found that a group of ETU leaders, including Frank Foulkes, its president since 1945, and Frank Haxell, its general secretary, had acted to prevent Byrne’s election by “fraudulent and unlawful” means. The judge pronounced Byrne duly elected general secretary of the ETU with immediate effect. The Communist Party had little choice but to distanced itself from the ballot-rigging, and placed the sole responsibility for the affair onto Haxell’s shoulders, who duly resigned from the party.

Arising from the legal judgement, the TUC gave the ETU leaders an ultimatum to debar its officers for five years. Their refusal resulted in the ETU being expelled from the TUC and then the Labour Party. In the ensuing witch-hunt, most of the Communist members and supporters were soon removed from the leadership in the union executive elections. These were conducted under new procedures, which allowed Byrne’s supporters to take control of the leadership, winning nine out of eleven places on the executive. The publicity and acclaim which Chapple, Cannon and the others received in the capitalist press, ensured that in the postal ballot their election to office was guaranteed by a grateful membership. In the election Byrne became general secretary, Les Cannon became president, Chapple became a member of the EC and Young was given a full-time position. The following year, under right-wing control, the ETU was readmitted to both the TUC and Labour Party. To consolidate their victory, the rules of the ETU were then changed banning CP members from holding office. Any member of the union who had a CP card was forced to resign from office or renounce their CP membership. Many tore up their cards, while others resigned their posts, leaving control of the union completely in the hands of the right wing. Hand-picked national and area officials were installed by the leadership to take charge of the day-to-day running of the union. The left in the union suffered from an almighty backlash. Later, Cannon and Chapple used their extensive experience from when they were in the Communist Party to manipulate the union, this time in the interests of the right-wing clique, which ruthlessly controlled the union right up to the 1992 amalgamation, and beyond in the AEEU.

On Byrne’s death Chapple was elected general secretary. In the ensuing period, rank-and-file appeals’ committees and area committees were abolished. Under Cannon and Chapple, literally volumes could be written about the destruction of union democracy in the ETU. It will be sufficient to note that rules were introduced forbidding the reading of unauthorised circulars in branches, forbidding written communication between branches except with the permission of head office, forbidding communication of internal union matter to any outside body, etc. Branches were bureaucratically closed down or amalgamated and placed under the control of appointed officials. The intension of these measures was to drive out the union activists and reduce participation to a minimum, allowing the union apparatus to assume even greater powers. The election of officials was abolished and the appointment system introduced – supposedly to make the union more efficient by giving continuity of employment to officials! With the death of Les Cannon, all real power was concentrated into the hands of the general secretary, Frank Chapple. The ETU was dominated by a totalitarian regime. Increasingly isolated and paranoid of his own toadies on the EC, Chapple even went so far as to secretly tape-record all conversations in his office. His old desk, which is now stored at the union’s headquarters at Hays Court, shows the secret compartments and wires where tape recorders were once hidden from sight. Those tapes, if they ever came to light, would be more devastating than the Watergate tapes of the Nixon administration!

At the 1959 TUC Congress, George Woodcock took over as general secretary from Sir Vincent Tewson. This Congress witnessed a shift to the left with the adoption of an anti-nuclear defence policy and the reaffirmation of Clause Four. Yet despite these successes, the right wing still retained its organisational stranglehold on the movement.

The election of Frank Cousins as general secretary of the TGWU was nevertheless symptomatic of the future changes that would loosen the grip of the right wing. In that year, the Conservative Party won a new term of office under Harold MacMillan’s famous election slogan “You’ve never had it so good”. MacMillan was a very clever and astute bourgeois politician – one of the last in a long line of Tory patricians – who greatly valued “compromise” and “manoeuvre” as diplomatic weapons in the class struggle. In his book, The Middle Way, he expressed the astute belief that “if capitalism had been conducted all along as if the theory of private enterprise were a matter of principle”, and all intervention by the state had been resisted, “we should have had civil war long ago.”[7] With the decline of British capitalism, this breed of Tory leader became increasingly scarce. The Tories of today have more in common with the grocer’s daughter, the narrow-minded get-rich-quick parvenu, than the likes of Harold MacMillian.

Clause Four

In 1959, the Labour Party had been defeated for the third consecutive time, despite its shiny new “moderate” image. This setback prompted the Party’s right wing under Gaitskell to move even further to the right. They immediately began to challenge the whole class basis of the party by proposing to drop nationalisation, change the Party’s name, and break the links with the trade unions. They believed the Labour Party had become too identified with “class” interests, and needed to follow the example of the German Social Democratic Party, which a few years earlier had jettisoned its “out-dated Marxist baggage”. Since the Tories won elections, went the new reasoning, Labour would have to become more like the Tories to win. These arguments sound very familiar forty years later. There is clearly nothing “new” in New Labour or Blairism. But Gaitskell did not succeed in his aim, and although Blair has gone much further in his “counter-revolution”, he will not succeed either in his project to abolish the Labour Party.

Gaitskell’s attack created a storm of opposition within the local Labour Parties, which, in turn, forced the parliamentary lefts to raise some protests. The attempt to scrap Clause Four was thwarted by a revolt of the rank and file, and the other proposals were temporarily shelved for a more opportune time. It took another thirty years before such plans were seriously raised again in the Party.

In 1960, a bitter unofficial strike by Merchant Navy crews broke out over Victorian working conditions, lack of basic rights, low pay, and dissatisfaction with their right-wing union leaders. The unofficial National Seamen’s Reform Movement attempted to maintain the stoppage but it eventually fizzled out. The action nevertheless signalled significant changes in the National Union of Seamen, which had long been a company union, and laid the basis for a further successful official strike in 1966.

Despite this so-called “wild cat” disruption, the national trade union leaders were determined to maintain their collaboration with the Tory government. In 1962, in spite of growing disenchantment over a nine-month pay “pause” imposed by the Tories, the General Council accepted an invitation from the Chancellor to join the new National Economic Development Council, to co-operate in the long-term development of the British economy. At the 1963 TUC Congress, George Woodcock proudly proclaimed that the TUC had moved from Trafalgar Square to the government’s committee rooms. But while they were sweet-talking the TUC leaders in “committee rooms” and embroiling them within government structures, the Tories unleashed attacks upon those working in the nationalised industries, particularly in coal and rail. In January 1963 Dr Richard Beeching (later Lord) was made chairman of the new British Rail and given the task of financially breaking even over the following five years. Consequently, the Beeching axe butchered a fifth of the national rail network, some 3,600 miles of track were closed, including stations, yards and depots, resulting in widespread job losses. But the right-wing leaders of the NUR put up little resistance to this “restructuring”.

Within twelve months, the Profumo scandal had plunged the Tory government into a deep crisis, resulting in MacMillan being replaced by Sir Alec Douglas Home as Prime Minister. The death of Gaitskell also saw a leadership contest within the Labour Party, resulting in the election of former Bevanite, Harold Wilson, as Party leader. A general election in October 1964 witnessed the defeat of the Tories after 13 years of continuous rule and the coming to power once again of a majority Labour government. Wilson promised a new vision that would harness “the white heat of the scientific and technological revolution” and develop an economic National Plan that would transform Britain. Once again, the working class looked with hope to the political front to solve its problems.


[1] Michael Foot, op. cit, p.436,

[2] Jones, op. cit, page 136

[3] Ibid, p.143

[4] Fuller, op. cit, p.228

[5] Jones, op. cit, p.147

[6] C. H. Rolph, All Those in Favour? The ETU Trial, page 10, London 1962

[7] Quoted by Ian Gilmour, Inside Right, p.168, London, 1978

In Place of Strife

The election of the Wilson government in October 1964 was greeted with tremendous enthusiasm. After more than a decade of Tory rule, for many the election heralded a new era. It certainly appeared time for a change. The Beatles had transformed music, and Labour it was hoped would transform Britain. The promises of Wilson to harness the scientific revolution and transform people’s lives caught the imagination of wide layers of the population, especially the youth. Talk about rational planning became fashionable. There were debates about automation and what people would do with their leisure time. The spread of television and programmes like Tomorrow’s World painted a future where modern technology would end the monotony of work and science would solve all our daily problems. In addition, the Nuclear Age would meet our energy needs for generations to come. Optimism was in the air, and the election of the new Labour government added to that confidence in the future.

However, as in the past, the attempt of the new government to work within the confines of capitalism, gave rise to grave problems. Soon after the election, Lord Cromer, the Governor of the Bank of England, approached Wilson demanding all-round cuts in government expenditure. He told him that the country could not afford Labour’s programme, and if he persisted with it, the government would face a financial ruin and a strike of capital.

Many years later Wilson revealed in his memoirs:

“I asked him if this meant that it was impossible for any government, whatever its party label, whatever its manifesto or the policies on which it fought an election, to continue, unless it immediately reverted to full-scale Tory policies… We had now reached the situation where a newly elected government was being told by international speculators that the policy on which we had fought the election could not be implemented: that the government was to be forced into adoption of Tory policies to which it was fundamentally opposed... The Queen’s First Minister was being asked to bring down the curtain on parliamentary democracy by accepting the doctrine that an election in Britain was a farce, that the British people could not make a choice between policies.”[1]

Instead of rallying the Labour movement and answering this corporate conspiracy with socialist policies, the working class was kept in the dark, and the Labour government bowed to the pressure of the City of London and the bankers. To restore the flagging competitiveness of British industry, old policies were dusted down and presented as something new. In the face of a serious balance of payments crisis inherited from the Tories, the government acted to reduce spending through orthodox cuts and the introduction of a “Prices and Incomes” policy. These traditional capitalist measures were combined with an attack on unofficial strikes and the declaration that workers needed to increase their productivity (i.e. work harder) in order to make Britain more competitive. In February 1965, the government established a Royal Commission on Trade Unions and Employers’ Associations, under Lord Donovan, to investigate industrial relations and make suitable recommendations for “reform”, in other words, changes more suitable to the needs of capitalism.

Wage Restraint

By April, the National Board for Prices and Incomes was established under the chairmanship of former Tory MP, Aubrey Jones, which required voluntary wage restraint as a first stage. Wilson, however, was able to sell the incomes policy to a sceptical trade union membership as “a planned growth of wages”. There was much talk of economic planning and George Brown, the Minister for Economic Affairs, came forward with his short-lived National Plan. It failed, of course, because it is not possible to plan within the anarchy of capitalist production, where the blind forces of the market decide, underpinned by the profit motive. Under capitalism, it is not the government that decides economic policy, but the boardrooms of the major monopolies.

The TUC, while opposed to any statutory enforcement, backed Labour’s voluntary approach to wages. But, as with all incomes policies under capitalism, the Prices and Incomes Policy was simply a means of boosting profits at the expense of wages, to the particular disadvantage of the low paid. As Marx explained, profit comes from the unpaid labour of the working class. All else being equal, wages and profits rise and fall in proportion to one another. If wages are forced down, then profits will rise, and vice versa. The class struggle itself is nothing more than a struggle for the division of the surplus value produced by the workers.

In April 1966, given Labour’s slim parliamentary majority, Wilson called another general election and won a landslide victory. After 13 years of Toryism, people were keen to give the Labour government a chance to work. Under these circumstances, the trade union leaders put their full weight behind the government’s Prices and Incomes Policy, which was supposed to be in the interests of the low paid. This went hand in hand with a remorseless drive by employers and government to push up profit levels through the introduction of so-called productivity (more accurately, “profitability”) deals.

The second stage of the incomes policy, which lasted six months from July 1966, took the form of a government-imposed wage freeze, followed by harsh deflationary measures. This then gave way to a ceiling on wages of 3.5 per cent, coupled with further increases in productivity. Frank Cousins, the general secretary of the TGWU, had joined the Labour government in 1965, but when Wilson introduced statutory enforcement powers into the Prices and Incomes Act, he resigned in protest, signifying an underlying discontent with the drift of the government.

In the years since 1960, productivity deals, according to the Prices and Incomes Board, probably affected no more than half a million workers. By June 1969, they covered some six million workers, or 25 per cent of the total workforce. This constituted a relentless drive to increase the intensity of labour and boost the rate of profit.

In spite of his huge majority, Wilson remained within the parameters of capitalism and in effect attempted to run the system better than the Tories. Socialism was regarded as suitable for May Day speeches, but totally inappropriate for the here and now. At the Labour Party Conference, Wilson told delegates

“we cannot afford to fight the problems of the Sixties with the attitudes of the Social Democratic Federation, nor, in looking for a solution to these problems, seek vainly to find the answers in Highgate cemetery.”[2]

A month after the 1966 general election, the government was faced with a seafarers’ strike against poor wages and conditions. Men were expected to work a 56-hour week for less than £16 a week. This was the first official strike of seafarers’ since 1911. It was an important reflection of the changes taking place in the trade unions generally. This was especially the case in the National Union of Seamen (NUS), which, as we have seen, which was previously a company union and its leadership had scabbed on the 1926 General Strike.

In the seafarers’ strike, the union’s main demand was for a 40-hour week, a monthly wage of £60 and direct overtime rates for anything above the 40 hours. The right-wing Economist made the bosses’ position crystal clear: “The price of securing an incomes policy in Britain will be a willingness to stand up to strikes.”[3] Wilson, who certainly was not looking in the direction of Highgate, but rather Thread Needle Street, came out promptly against the strike on the grounds that “this would be a strike against the state – against the community. But this isn’t all. What is at issue here is our national Prices and Incomes Policy”.

To underline its determination to defeat the seafarers, and while appealing to the “national interest”, the government announced a state of emergency on 23 May. Wilson went so far as to use the “red scare” card against the strikers, accusing the NUS executive of being in the control of a “tightly knit group of politically-motivated men” who, for their own nefarious reasons, were “forcing great hardship on the members of the union and their families, and endangering the security of the industry and the economic welfare of the nation.”

John Prescott, then a leading left-wing official in the NUS, attacked the Wilson Labour government for its stand: “There is a wealth of evidence we could produce to show that behind the government, in its resistance to our just demands, stand the international banks, the financial powers which really direct the government’s anti-wages policy…” thundered Prescott.

“The goodwill of the bankers, the ill-will of the working class”, he continued. “How familiar a story that is of Labour governments, when we cast our minds back to Ramsay MacDonald and the 1929-31 government. It was the trade unions then that stiffened the Labour Party against the attacks on unemployment pay. They must rally to the cause in the different circumstances of today.”[4]

Today, an older and mellower John Prescott, serves as deputy PM in the Blair government. He could do worse than to reread his former speeches before attacking striking firefighters and others. Unfortunately, some memories are short. Despite the attacks of the Wilson government, the seafarers were successful in getting a wage rise above the norm and a 42-hour week.

The Labour government had set up the Devlin Inquiry into the docks, which recommended fewer companies and more job security – but linked to a much scaled-down workforce. While it recommended some favourable changes, such as higher guaranteed pay, sick and accident pay, and a shop stewards system, the control of labour was to a considerable extent to be handed back to the employers. The disease in Britain’s ports would not be cured through further exploitation of dock labour, but only through reorganisation based upon nationalisation under democratic workers’ control.

The report met widespread opposition among the rank-and-file dockers, who engaged in protest strikes against the proposals. “Don’t Delvinise – Nationalise!” read the London Liaison Committee posters. Unfortunately the action was not sufficient to defeat Devlin’s reorganisation plans, which was eventually to lead to containerisation on the docks and mass redundancies.

Of course, workers are not against modernisation. New methods should be used to shorten hours, lighten the burden of work, and improve working conditions. But under capitalism, new techniques are used to make fewer workers work harder, while the remainder are thrown on the scrap heap. Modernisation under capitalism is used not to ease work, but to maximise profits. “I’m not opposed to mechanisation as such”, stated London dockers’ leader Jack Dash. “I am opposed to mechanisation when it puts men on the dole. Progress measures by the degree of automation you can get without considering the plight of the displaced worker is not progress at all.”[5]

Containerisation on the docks was to provide the employers with greater flexibility and the power to redirect work from the more militant ports to those less well organised. The struggle against containerisation was to end up with the jailing of five dockers (the “Pentonville Five”) in July 1972 and the threat of a general strike. The policy of wage restraint pursued by the Wilson government became deeply unpopular. The docks’ strike in 1967 was quickly followed by the TGWU coming into opposition to the government’s pay policy. At this time, a bitter strike at Roberts Arundel in Stockport over union recognition drew national attention. These events were symptomatic of a deep-seated discontent in the working class, still hoping against hope that the Labour government would deliver on its promises.

On 7 November 1967 a dramatic shake-up took place at the top of one of Britain’s biggest unions, the Amalgamated Engineering Workers’ Union. In the fight to succeed arch right-winger, Lord Carron, the left-wing candidate Hugh Scanlon was elected as President. This represented a major shift, and not only in the AEWU. The result reflected a new mood in the union membership after years of right-wing domination. It was time for a change in the unions. Within a year, a further left victory took place in the massive TGWU, when left-winger Jack Jones was elected the union’s general secretary. These changes in Britain’s most powerful unions were to have a profound effect throughout the Labour movement in the next few years.

Jack Jones had already been elected to the NEC of the Labour Party. In his memoirs, he gave a glimpse of the real state of affairs at the top of the movement: “On the NEC criticism of the government came mainly from Ian Mikardo, Tom Driberg and myself,” he recalled, “with occasional support from Danny McGarvey of the Boilermakers Union. Some of the Ministers shared our disquiet but they were muted in debate and never risked voting against the government.”[6]

In 1967 the Wilson government nationalised the steel industry, not out of any socialist perspective, but in an attempt to provide cheap steel to big business. Of course, as was customary the former owners were well compensated for the loss: “This change, which had for so long been a major issue of controversy between parties, took place without fuss, and appeared to make little difference”, noted Henry Pelling.[7] In these years, the capitalists had grown accustomed to being bailed out by the state in times of difficulty. However the British Steel Corporation was to face bitter competition from abroad that was to see its share of the market shrink. Given the lack of investment in new plant, this was to result in massive lay-offs. In particular, the failure of the steel unions, especially the ISTC, to make a stand saw the butchering of the industry a further haemorrhage of jobs throughout the 1970s and 1980s.

Economic Difficulties

The Wilson government was facing deepening economic difficulties at this time, as a result of the long-term decline of British capitalism. Britain was being constantly outstripped by its competitors. The short-sighted British capitalists were not willing to invest in the modernisation of industry, as was evident in the steel industry and shipbuilding. Instead, they invested abroad, or in gold, in antiques and old paintings, but not in productive industry. The lack of investment forced British workers to use antiquated machinery, resulting in the loss of world and home markets. By 1964 Britain’s share of world exports had fallen to just over 14 percent. The decline was masked by the general increase in world trade, but the fact remained that Britain was falling further and further behind.

In a desperate bid to restore industry’s competitiveness and overcome the balance of payments crisis, the government devalued the pound sterling in 1967. The British bosses, however, instead of using the devaluation to become more competitive abroad, simply raised their prices. As a result, their share of world exports fell from 14.4 per cent in 1964 to 10.8 per cent in 1970. Import penetration increased from 11.9 per cent in 1964 to 14.8 per cent in 1970. Although the mass of profit increased, average profit margins fell from 14.5 per cent to 10 per cent between 1964 and 1969, reflecting a falling rate of profit. The government, operating on the basis of its incomes policy, attempted to reverse this decline by boosting profits at the expense of workers’ living standards.

The deepening economic crisis forced the Labour government to introduce a series of cuts and counter-reforms: free school milk for secondary pupils was abolished, prescription charges were reintroduced, National Assistance rules were tightened up, and wage restraint introduced, while profits rose. In terms of foreign policy, which is always a continuation of home policy, and based upon exactly the same class considerations, the Wilson government gave full backing to American imperialism in its aggressive war against the Vietnamese people. The results of these policies at home and abroad was to disappoint and demoralise activists in the Labour movement as well as its supporters throughout the country. Party meetings were reduced to a shell as activists drifted away and internal Party life collapsed.

Opposition to the American war in Vietnam caught the imagination of the youth, especially the student youth. Huge protest demonstrations were held in London and elsewhere. In fact, 1968 was the highpoint of student radicalisation internationally. A further stimulus was provided by the events of 1968 in France, where ten million workers had occupied the factories in the biggest revolutionary general strike in history. This was completely unexpected by most of the Left in France, who considered that the working class had been bought off and corrupted by capitalism.

The movement in France began with the students and has therefore been wrongly presented as a “student revolt”. But in fact the main revolt was on the part of the working class. Students, who are predominantly from a middle class background, cannot play an independent role, but they are particularly sensitive to the moods in society. At this time, they represented a barometer of the new radicalisation that was developing deep within the bowels of society. The student ferment was a harbinger of the later movement of the working class, as we saw in one country after another after 1970.

The revolt of the students provided the spark that lit the smouldering discontent of the working classes that had been quietly accumulating for years. Although there were less than four million workers organised in the unions in France, ten million occupied the factories, mines and offices. The French ruling class was alarmed and despondent. The government did know how to react, and had effectively lost control of the situation. President De Gaulle told the American ambassador: “The game’s up. In a few days the Communists will be in power.” This was no exaggeration. If the Communist Party and CGT had wished it, the French workers could have taken power without a civil war. There was simply no force able to resist them. But the socialist transformation of society was not on their agenda, and the opportunity was allowed to slip.

In June 1968, after three years of deliberation, the Donovan Commission delivered its Report on British trade unions. As expected, the Report identified the central problem as the spread of unofficial strikes, estimated to have formed 90 per cent of all strikes between 1960 and 1968. Of course, this “problem” arises from and is a reflection of the conflict within capitalist society. It has its roots not in trade union practices, but in the class struggle itself. The Commission’s recommendations were an attempt to modify the class struggle, and tilt the balance of forces back in favour of the employers.

To reduce unofficial action it urged that the semi-official shop stewards’ movement (estimated at 175,000 by Donovan) be further integrated into the union machinery. Above all, the Commission wanted to make the trade union leadership police its own rank-and-file membership more effectively. But to the dismay of the capitalist press, the Commission came out against legal sanctions on the trade unions, suggesting instead a voluntary approach. In parallel the Tory Party issued its own report on industrial relations – innocently entitled Fair Deal at Work – arguing for the introduction of anti-union laws – a foretaste of what was to come.

In Place of Strife

Nevertheless, within seven months, to the utter astonishment of the Labour movement, the Labour Minister, Barbara Castle, produced a white paper entitled In Place of Strife. This paper went far beyond Donovan’s recommendations and embraced many of the proposals contained in Fair Deal at Work. Castle for instance recommended the creation of a Registrar of Trade Unions and Employers’ Associations and the setting up of Industrial Courts. It envisaged “cooling-off” periods and fines on trade unions. According to the government the legislation would “enable the Secretary of State by order to require those involved to desist for up to 28 days from a strike or lockout which is unconstitutional...” And further, “The Board will have the power to impose financial penalties on an employer, union or individual striker as it found appropriate”.[8]

Here was a Labour government attempting to introduce anti-union legislation! As expected, In Place of Strife itself created massive strife throughout the Labour movement. Angry protests were raised in all quarters, both in the trade unions and the Labour Party. “The White Paper In Place of Strife caused much division and bitterness. It shook the Labour movement”, stated Jack Jones. Special meetings of Constituency Labour Parties were called to which the Members of Parliament were summoned to explain themselves. Protests came in thick and fast to Transport House, Labour’s headquarters. Miners’ lodges in South Wales even threatened to disaffiliate from the Labour Party if the “Castle Bill” ever became law.

“Harold Wilson backed them [the proposals] enthusiastically but the unions were outraged”, admitted Barbara Castle in her Diaries. “They claimed – with some justification as it turned out – that the Conservatives would use my proposals as an alibi for the very different legal constraints they were proposing to place on the unions. Labour MPs mobilized in protest. So did the party’s National Executive Committee [NEC], of which I was a member. Some Cabinet Ministers opposed me openly. Others, who had supported me, began to get cold feet… But the bitterness remained. My own standing in the party was damaged…”[9]

The AEU and the TGWU demanded a recall conference of the TUC to discuss the anti-union attack. But the main thrust came from below. Under the initiative of the Communist Party, an ad-hoc body was established to fight the new proposals, the Liaison Committee for the Defence of Trade Unions (LCDTU). This body drew behind it a wide layer of trade union activists and militants across industry. The LCDTU conference in November 1969 put out the call for a national Day of Action on 8 December, which was answered by over one million striking workers. This was the first political strike since the General Strike, and opened up a new period for British trade unionism.

Jack Jones recalls a meeting at Chequers where Barbara Castle was present. “Barbara was rather shrewish, trying to put Hughie [Scanlon] and me in our place. We were told once again that ‘the public is looking for action against unofficial strikers. Action must be taken by the government; you’ve had your chance, boys!’ The nearest thing to a conciliatory tone was adopted when they explained their attitude to ‘criminal sanctions’, as we called them. ‘No,’ said Barbara, ‘people will not go to prison. Fines could be imposed but they would be collected as civil debts.’”[10] But this fine detail did not fool anyone, least of all the trade unions, which were in no mood to have their rights curtailed.

Under growing pressure from below, the TUC came out in opposition to the proposed Bill. On 1 May 1969, some one-and-a-quarter million workers took strike action, combined with mass protests and marches throughout the country. A recalled TUC Congress in June – the first such special Congress for over 50 years – met to draw up plans for action. By April 1970, the anti-trade union Bill had been carried in the Commons with 55 Labour MPs voting against and around 40 MPs abstaining. This proved to be the last straw. The pressure on the Labour government from trade unions, Trades Councils, shop stewards committees, and local Labour Parties became so intense that the government was forced to back down and abandon the legislation. This struggle against In Place of Strife resulted in a considerable radicalisation in the Labour movement that was to prove a dress rehearsal for the campaign against the Tory anti-union legislation over the five years that followed.

Between 1967 and 1968, the National Coal Board had closed 62 pits, the largest number in any single year. The workforce had now shrunk from 692,700 in 1959 to 365,000 in 1968. From almost a thousand pits at the time of nationalisation, they had been reduced by closures to 317 collieries. Between 1964 and 1968 the number of pits fell by 40 per cent and the workforce was cut by almost the same percentage. This change was prompted by the increased use of oil as a source of power and the rapid introduction of mechanisation in the pits. The proportion of coal that was power-loaded rose from 23 per cent in 1957 to 92 per cent in 1968. With fewer miners needed to produce more coal, they were simply told that ‘uneconomic’ pits would close. Those made redundant had the option of taking redundancy or transferring to another pit, like “industrial gypsies”, as they became known, driven by closures from one pit to another.

The destruction of miners’ jobs was a poor reflection on the then NUM leadership – not only the right wing but also the Communist Party. For many years they had pursued a policy of moderation, as Vic Allen, a historian of the miners explained, “Communist Party members, such as Will Paynter, the general secretary from 1959, Bill Whitehead, who succeeded Paynter as the president of the South Wales miners, Abe Moffat the president of the Scottish miners and his brother Alex who succeeded him as well as others in official positions around the coalfields continued to advocate continuity in the union’s policy of co-operation with the NCB.” Allen continued:

“They were in agreement on this issue with those who were their political antagonists, such as Sidney Ford, the union president, Sam Bullough, the president of the Yorkshire Area and Jack Lally, President of the Midlands Area. The union revealed no significant sectional differences over the important issues, which faced it. On the question of contraction it insisted that the decisions to close which pits, when and where, were the prerogative of the management. The union intervened only to facilitate the closures by assisting to alleviate the hardships which might result from them.”[11]

From 1962 onwards there had been virtually no national protests against pit closures, despite the lack of alternative work in mining areas. Strikes in the mining industry were at an all-time low. The NCB Report of 1967-68 recorded a “sharp reduction in output lost through disputes.” There was not one recorded industrial dispute over redundancies. A consequence of this union-NCB collaboration over decades had also pushed miners from the top of the wages league table after the war, to twelfth place by 1970. These factors were to produce a new militancy in the British coalfields.

Discontent grows

Discontent began to surface in the Yorkshire coalfield, where an unofficial Left (the “Forum”) began to challenge for the leadership. In Barnsley, a young faceworker and former Communist Party member, Arthur Scargill, played a key role in the Forum and the growing opposition. In December 1968, Will Paynter retired, and the Left candidate, Lawrence Daly, won the election for national secretary. This coincided with a change within the union, not over the question of redundancies, but the plight of surface workers, who worked longer hours with less pay than those underground. The South Wales miners, in May 1969, had passed a resolution demanding a reduction in hours for surface workers, through strike action if necessary.

Miners from all over the coalfields lobbied the National Conference as pressure built up for action over the issue. Unofficial strikes first broke out in Yorkshire, when on 13 October every pit in the Area bar one took industrial action. The following day all Yorkshire pits were at a standstill. Despite threats from the NCB, and the pleas of Lawreance Daly for miners to return to work, the strike spread through the use of flying pickets to Scotland, South Wales, Derbyshire, Kent, Nottingham and the Midlands, eventually involving over 130,000 miners. While the strike was going on, national negotiations over pay were underway. Although the NCB refused to give way over hours, fearing the spontaneous movement from below, they granted the NUM wage demand in full! The 1969 unofficial strike would prove to be a turning point in the union as well as a dress rehearsal for the battles that lay ahead.

At this point, the Donovan Commission came out with a recommendation to establish a Commission on Industrial Relations (CIR), as a means of controlling the power of the unions. This had originally been part of the In Place of Strife legislation introduced by Barbara Castle that had been vehemently opposed by the Labour and trade union movement. But Will Paynter, the “Communist”, described it in his memoirs as “a useful and constructive piece of machinery” and “ideal for the job” of modernising industrial relations. In reality, it was a vehicle for class collaboration and harmony under capitalism, a means of gluing together the interests of employers, union officials and shop stewards.

Paynter found the CIR so attractive that in February 1968 he accepted a job as CIR head on a salary of £6,500 p.a. (as opposed to £15 a week for a surface worker), and sat down alongside the likes of Leslie Blackeman, former personnel director of Ford, who dreamed up the infamous penalty clauses to outlaw unofficial strikes. Yet according to Paynter, it was an “independent” body, free from government interference and big business! When the Tories came back to power offering their own anti-union legislation, Will Paynter resigned, commenting, “Such measures are more likely to incite than to appease… Industrial relations and trade union and employer relations are not likely to be assisted by this kind of political knock-about.”[12] But these laws were nothing to do with “knock-abouts” and everything to do with class interests and the position of British capitalism. The CIR was the “voluntary” approach favoured by Paynter, whereas the Tories wanted to go that one step further in binding the trade union leaders to the state.

By the 1968-69 period, the “stop-go” policies and the price rises following the devaluation of the Wilson government, provoked a number of strikes over pay. In 1968, women machinists went on strike in the Ford Motor Company over equal pay. The discrimination against the machinists was symptomatic of the Company’s more general discrimination against women. Of the 38,000 male production workers, 9,000 were on Grade C – roughly one in four. The 850 female production workers included only two in Grade C – one in 400. Even with technical and clerical work included there were only twelve women in Grade C. There were no women at all in the two top grades D and E.

The militancy of these women workers, the most oppressed section of the workforce, preceded the general mood of militancy that was developing. The following February and March Ford workers went on national strike over wages. “The 1969 strike can also be seen as a turning-point for the British working class and the Labour movement as a whole”, writes Huw Beynon.

“As it progressed, the Labour government became more and more involved and increasingly antagonistic towards the strikers and Jack Jones’s shop stewards. It was the harbinger of a lost election and of the 1970s when strikes would be bigger and longer and take place under the close scrutiny of the state.”[13]

Following on from the example of the carworkers, dustmen engaged in a prolonged battle over wages in September, securing a wage of £20 per week. These strikes reflected a new militancy, after years of restraint, wage freeze and growing inflation. In fact, more days were lost in strikes in 1970 than in any year since 1926. Having been let down by a Labour government, the working class once again began to turn to the industrial front in an attempt to solve their problems.


In April 1970, a bitter strike broke out at the Pilkington Glass Factory in St Helens, Lancashire. The workers were members of the General and Municipal Workers (GMWU), which was bureaucratically controlled and stood on the far right of the Labour movement. Its general secretary, Lord Cooper, also had other outside interests, such as governor of the London School of Business Studies, director of Telefusion Yorkshire, and director of the National Ports Council. In the tradition of right-wing “democracy”, he ruled the union with a heavvy hand. The Pilkington GMWU branch of 7,400 members was the largest in the country. Incredibly its branch meetings were not open to ordinary members, but only to shop stewards. Negotiations were conducted within a Joint Industrial Council, which was supervised and heavily influenced by union full-time officials.

A spontaneous unofficial walkout at Pilkington’s main factory over bonus pay quickly spread to the other sectors. The workers were demanding a £10 wage rise. At first, the shop stewards called for a return to work, but under intense pressure they were forced to declare the strike official at branch level. Reflecting the colossal discontent within the work-force, the strike rapidly spread to other Pilkington factories throughout Britain. Within a week, the GMWU national officials intervened to get the strike called off, but were met with determined opposition. The Joint Industrial Council was hastily convened and recommend-ed a £3 wage rise – but the strikers rejected this offer out of hand.

The older shop stewards, who had originally acted as a break on the struggle, were pushed to one side and replaced by the Rank and File Strike Committee (RFSC), which assumed charge of the strike. The GMWU leaders, now in league with Pilkington management, used every device to get the industrial action called off, but failed miserably. However, on 16 May, in a poll organised by the local church, a small majority voted in favour of returning to work. With pressure from the TUC itself, the RFSC saw no alternative but to call off the strike.

The workers were extremely bitter at the manoeuvres of their own trade union officials. The task facing the RFSC was to conduct a serious struggle to transform the union on democratic lines, as a genuine instrument of the members. Unfortunately, many workers were influenced to split away from the GMWU, egged on by groups on the left, particularly the Socialist Workers Party (formerly the International Socialists), who urged them to break from the GMWU and set up their own union. The SWP produced leaflets entitled NUGMWU Scab Union, and a pamphlet that argued:

“Can the GMWU be reformed from within? The obvious answer is to say no, since the right-wing bureaucracy has so many safe guards built into the constitution to prevent militants getting into influential positions, since the rules prohibit organisation between branches, and since history shows how the NEC can chop off and re-organise any sections whose policies, etc. it does not like.”[14]

We have heard such arguments many times: that the workers cannot change the unions from within: that the only answer is to split away and form a new union and so on. Such splits are always ruinous for the trade unions, whose only strength is their unity. Attempts to form minority “left” unions merely serve to strengthen the stranglehold of the bureaucracy and weaken the Left, while sowing division and confusion among the workers. The net result is always the same: an increase of non-unionism. Many workers drop out of the union altogether. And the new “left” union, if it survives at all, inevitably moves to the right and plays a reactionary role. On the other hand, the majority union will eventually respond to the pressure from below and the old bureaucrats will retire or be replaced by more militant elements. This is just what happened here.

The RFSC changed its name to the Pilkington Provisional Trade Union Committee and around 3,500 handed in their resignations from the GMWU. As a result of the Bridlington Agreement they were refused membership of the TGWU. By the end of June, the Committee established their own Glass and General Workers’ Union (GGWU). In a scandalous manner, Pilkingtons and the GMWU bureaucracy nationally colluded to break the new union. In August, the GGWU imposed an overtime ban which led to suspensions and a short strike at the Cowley Hill plant. This led to 480 workers being sacked. Some were later re-employed, but 130 remained sacked, including the leaders of the GGWU, Gerry Caughey and John Potter. Within weeks, the breakaway union was wound up. It proved a very bitter experience, with victimised union militants sacked and blacklisted from work.

Those who seek short-cuts where none exist merely simply served to break away the more militant and class conscious workers from their less militant brothers and sisters. The split of the GMWU at Pilkingtons only served to reinforce the position of the right wing and the union bureaucracy, which in one fell swoop got rid of any potential challenge to its authority.

“Impatient leftists sometimes say that it is absolutely impossible to win over the trade. unions because the bureaucracy uses the organisation’s internal regimes for preserving its own interests, resorting to the basest machinations, repressions and plain crookedness...” stated Leon Trotsky just before the war, “Why then waste time and energy? This argument reduces itself in reality to giving up the actual struggle to win the masses, using the corrupt character of the trade union bureaucracy as a pretext.” The class-conscious workers must learn from the history of such disastrous splits and avoid them in the future.

The argument that it was impossible to change the GMWU was shown to be com-pletely false. Pressure from the rank and file forced the GMWU leaders to shift tack. The official union branch at Pilkingtons was divided into six factory branches, this time with the right of every member to attend the meetings. Lord Cooper retired early and was replaced in 1973 by David Basnett, who was a moderate but more responsive to the views of the rank and file. This served to move the union towards the centre-left and opened it up to democratic reform. Strikes in other industries were increasingly made official by the GMWU – in complete contrast to the past. From £27,000 paid out in strike pay in 1967, the GMWU’s strike pay figure rose to £700,000 by 1971. Unfortunately, those militants misled by the ultra-left groups, who could have acted as a catalyst to push the union further to the left, were now outside of the union, without work or influence. It was a tragic end to a brave fight. Nevertheless, Basnett’s election was clearly a product of the strike upsurge, which served to shift the union in a more progressive direction.

1970 was the year when the Wilson government went to the polls and was defeated by the Tories led by Edward Heath. The period of counter-reform under Labour had disil- lusioned its supporters, resulting in large Labour abstentions in the July 1970 general elec- tion. The coming to power of the Tory government’ constituted a sharp change in the polit- ical situation, opening up a tidal wave of struggle not seen since the 1920s.


[1] Harold Wilson, The Labour government 1964-1970. A Personal Record, London, 1971, p.37

[2] Labour Party Annual Report, 1966, p. 163

[3] The Economist, 5 June 1965

[4] Not Wanted on Voyage: The Seamen’s Reply by John Prescott and Charlie Hodgins, June 1966, published by the National Union of Seamen Hull Dispute Committee

[5] Jack Dash, op. cit, p. 164, London 1970

[6] Jack Jones, op.cit, p. 175

[7] Petting, A Short History of the Labour Party, p. 147, London 1972

[8] In Place of Strife, page 37 and 21

[9] Barbara Castle, The Castle Diaries 1974-76, pp.3, London 1980

[10] Jones, op. cit, p.204

[11] Alien, The Militancy of British Miners, p.63-4, London 1981, my emphasis

[12] Will Paynter, My Generation, p,156-161, London 1972

[13] Beynon, Working for Ford, p.248, London, 1984

[14] ‘The Pilkington Dispute’, International Socialists pamphlet, 1970

“Close the Gates!”

The coming to power of the big business government of Ted Heath in June 1970 was a major challenge to the Labour movement. The result was a transformation in the industrial and political climate in Britain. Heath, who was determined to reverse the decline of British capitalism, set out to tame the trade unions and carry through a programme of deep cuts in living standards. It constituted, in reality, the abandonment of the post-war “consensus” and a declaration of war on the working class by the Heath government. It was to become the “whip of counter-revolution”, to use the words of Marx, which served to unleash the biggest class movement for more than fifty years.

British capitalism had long suffered from a relative economic decline especially since the Second World War. Trailing behind the real victors, the United States and the USSR, Britain had been reduced to a second rate power, and was now threatened with further relegation. Between 1945 and 1970, her industrial productivity grew annually on average by 1.5 per cent, compared with three per cent in the USA and Germany and almost four per cent in Japan. In the same period, Britain’s share of world manufacturing exports slumped from 25 per cent to ten per cent. While fixed assets in manufacturing industry in Japan and Germany were £30,000 and £23,000 per worker respectively, in Britain it was only £7,500. The rate of profit for British industry was also significantly lower by comparison. Between 1964 and 1970 the rate of profit of British capitalism had fallen dramatically from 12 per cent to 6.8 per cent. This decline (“the British disease”) was due to the short-sightedness of the British ruling class, which in comparison to its rivals, stubbornly refused to reinvest the profit extracted from the working class in re-equipping industry. By now the British bourgeoisie had become a largely parasitic class, which was to have serious long-term implications for the economy and society.

In the hundred-year period to 1979, the gross domestic product of the UK trebled. By comparison, the United States, Germany, and Japan it had grown by a factor of seven, ten and fifty respectively. The protected markets of the British Empire, and then the world economic upswing following the Second World War, served to mask the decline of British capitalism. Nevertheless, while Britain’s competitors developed their productive capacity, the relative decline of Britain continued unabated. The ruling class, which blamed the “lazy British worker” and the “restrictive practises” of the unions for all its ills, attempted to resolve this problem by reducing “costs” at the expense of the working class.

The Heath government started out full of confidence. However, given the strength of the workers’ organisations, this proved much more difficult than was first envisaged. The early attacks of the Tories brought the class struggle to record heights. The working class was like some sleeping giant, which once disturbed, reacted with fury. Such was the tempo of the ensuing movement, that within four years the industrial struggle succeeded for the first time in history in bringing down the elected government.

Heath was now determined to restore British profitability rates, and with it Britain’s success. As profits come from unpaid labour, wages had to decline. Robert Carr, the employment minister, set the pace by curbing wage rises for public sector workers, and other employers were encouraged to follow suit.

State of emergency

Yet the Tories were in for more than they bargained for! Within a month of coming to power they were forced to introduce a state of emergency to deal with a national dock strike – the first official one since 1926. Although the government threatened the use of troops, the Person Inquiry stepped in to recommend an improved pay offer, subsequently accepted by a conference of dockers’ representatives. The second test for the government came in September 1970 when a quarter of a million local authority workers went on strike in pursuit of a wage claim. Bernard Dix, a NUPE leader, later recalled:

“Within three days of the strike in 1970 we were called up before the Lord President of the Council, who was William Whitelaw, who said that if we didn’t put people back on sewerage work they would have to call in the troops. We told them they could call in who they liked.”

To the consternation of the government, another Committee of Inquiry awarded local authority workers most of their demands.

On the industrial front setbacks for the Tories seemed to pile up. An unofficial miners’ strike secured a £3 a week rise. Electricity supply workers gained around 15 per cent after a state of emergency was declared and the Queen in Buckingham Palace was forced to “take tea by candlelight”. In the private sector Ford workers won an £8 a week rise over two years. The only success for the government was the defeat of the seven-week old postal workers’ strike over pay, led by the extremely moderate Tom Jackson. During the dispute, he threatened to sell every brick of the union’s headquarters before giving in. But he ended up selling out the workers instead. The government was less successful in disputes affecting electricity supply, railworkers and refuse collectors.

The “Holy Grail” of the Tory strategy was, however, the new Industrial Relations Bill, which sought to curtail the power of the trade unions through legislation. Throughout this period the tendency of the trade union apparatus to entwine itself with the capitalist state had broken down. In fact, things were moving in the opposite direction, as the pressures of the union rank and file exerted themselves on the leadership. The Tory legislation, as with In Place of Strife, was aimed at forcing the union leaders to police their own “undisciplined” membership by threatening them with legal penalties. As expected, the main aspects of the legislation went much further than In Place of Strife. These included:

1) Outlaw of the closed shop.

2) Trade unions to register with a Registrar as a condition for keeping certain legal immunities. Registration would bind trade unions to a code under which strikes could be called. This would impose limits on members to avoid claims against unions for “unfair industrial practices”. Anyone who scabs, even on an official strike, which is deemed “unfair” by the Bill, could not be “expelled, disciplined or discriminated against by the organisation, notwithstanding anything in the rules.”

3) To treat all collective agreements as legally binding contracts.

4) Compulsory ballots prior to action if a dispute threatened the “life of the nation”. Any employer could apply for compensation against trade unions and unionists for a wide range of supposed offences.

5) Allow the Secretary of State the right to order the postponement of strike action (“cooling-off” period) for up to 60 days.

6) Grant trade union recognition only after investigation by the Commission on Industrial Relations. The National Industrial Relations Court (NIRC) would have such powers as would leave union rulebooks and funds at their mercy.

7) Removal of legal immunity from sympathy strikes. Unregistered unions, like shop stewards committees, would have a total absence of protection at law from crippling fines.

Within the Labour movement the Industrial Relations Bill became known as “the scabs charter”. A mass campaign was organised from below, mainly by the CP-inspired Liaison Committee for the Defence of Trade Unions, to defeat the Tory legislation. Both the TUC and Parliamentary Labour Party came out against the Bill. While the TUC rejected strike action against the government, on 8 December 1970 the LCDTU organised a massive unofficial protest strike of 600,000 workers. On the 12 January, half a million workers took part in a day of protest against the government. On 21 February, 300,000 trade unionists demonstrated in London to “Kill the Bill”.

The doubting Thomases on the TUC General Council, who opposed the demonstration, were utterly gob-smacked. “You know very well, Jack, people won’t take part in that sort of thing unless they’re paid to do it”, stated George Lowthian of the Bricklayers Union. But it proved to be the largest demonstration of the century. As the TUC reported at the time: “It was the biggest demonstration since the Chartists moved working men to demand the right to vote, 130 years earlier.” The left-wing engineering workers’ union, the AUEW, called a series of one-day strikes beginning on 1 March, where more than two million workers took strike action against the Tory government. These were overtly political strikes.

On the day of the TUC special conference in March, three million workers went on strike – until then, the biggest strike since the General Strike of 1926. The conference “strongly advised” a compete boycott of the Tory anti-union legislation. At the September TUC, a resolution submitted from the AUEW and TGWU, was passed instructing unions not to register with the government’s Registrar. A handful of unions hesitated, but went along with the decision, while a few small unions were expelled from the TUC for failing to comply.

Between July 1970 and July 1974, more than three million days were lost in political protest strikes against the Industrial Relations Act, more than one million against the NIRC and 1.6 million against the government’s incomes policy. It was an historic show of militancy, and the high point of working class confidence not seen for generations.

In the summer of 1971, a mass movement had taken place to save the jobs of workers at the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders (UCS), which was threatened by complete closure. Set up by the Labour government in 1966, this artificial conglomerate suffered from the general decline of British shipbuilding over the previous decades. Since its inception, the UCS had staggered from one crisis to another. Instead of nationalising the industry, Labour preferred to dish out public subsidies, and reorganise the industry on a more efficient capitalist basis. Despite a 30 per cent cut in the workforce and an 85 per cent increase in productivity within the yards, within five years UCS once again faced bankruptcy and closure.

The Tories began to break up the industry and the most profitable sections were sold to Yarrow for the nominal sum of £1. In return, Yarrow received a £4.5 million loan as a “sweetener”. Eventually all the taxpayers’ money soon ran out. The Tory government turned down the bosses’ request for new subsidies, and a Committee of Inquiry recommended the closure of two out of the four UCS shipyards with loss of some 6,000 jobs.

The UCS workers – already living in areas of high unemployment – refused to accept this jobs slaughter without a fight. In response to the threatened closures, a “work-in” was organised at the yards and two one-day solidarity strikes were held across Scotland. It was an inspiration to workers everywhere. From one end of Britain to the other messages of support and finance poured in. Nevertheless, despite the heroism of the UCS workers, their leaders Jimmy Airlie and Jimmy Reid, both members of the Communist Party, wanted to limit the protest action to a “work-in”. They fought against the idea of spreading the occupation to other yards nationally. In doing so, the opportunity was lost of safeguarding all shipbuilding jobs through a mass campaign to force the nationalisation of the industry.

The idea of nationalisation was no far-fetched dream. Under intense pressure, the Heath government had already nationalised crisis-ridden Rolls Royce, “at a stroke”, to use Heath’s famous phrase, in February 1971. They could have been forced to do the same for shipbuilding if a massive campaign had been undertaken. The occupations could have been spread to Swan Hunters, Cammell Lairds, Harland and Wolf, and throughout the shipbuilding industry. Unfortunately, the action was limited to UCS. Eventually, an agreement was struck, whereby three of the yards were incorporated into Govan shipbuilders, with a grant of £35 million and the fourth yard was sold off to Marathon with grants of £12 million. In July 1972, John Davies, Minister for Industry, was forced to guarantee Govan support “for five years or until the company is on its feet”. Nevertheless, 2,000 UCS workers still lost their jobs in the deal. Eventually Airlie ended up as a national full-time official of the AEU, while Reid shifted to the right, becoming a journalist and media personality.

The UCS struggle had, however, forced a U-turn in government policy. Up until then the Tories had pursued a policy of no subsidies for “lame duck” industries. Firstly, the Rolls Royce crisis and then the battle at UCS, as Nicholas Ridley subsequently admitted, forced the government to ditch this “lame duck” policy for fear of the social consequences.

The UCS “work-in” was an inspiration to all workers facing redundancies. Unemployment had risen sharply with the shake-out of labour during the recession of 1971. In the winter of 1971-72 unemployment was the highest since 1939 – prompting the TUC to organise a national lobby of Parliament. The response of workers facing closure was a wave of factory occupations and sit-ins across Britain. Following the initial upsurge in 1971, the following years saw no fewer than 200 occupations or “work-ins”. The most prominent were: Plessey in Dunbartonshire, Fisher Bendix, Don Steel Works, Pressed Steel Fisher in Birmingham, Briant Colour, BSA, Norton Villiers Triumph, Thorneycroft in Basingstoke, Allis Chambers, Seiko Time, Scottish Daily Express, amongst many others. This rising curve of class struggle represented an industrial upsurge not seen since possibly the “Great Unrest” of 1910-12.

1972 Miners’ Strike

The year 1972 was a decisive one for the Labour movement. At the beginning of 1972, the Heath government faced the first official national strike of mineworkers since the 1926 General Strike. It was a historic moment. A pithead ballot had returned a 58.8 per cent majority in favour of industrial action. On 9 January, given the high levels of inflation at the time, and the falling behind of miners’ pay in relation to the national wages’ league, 280,000 members of the National Union of Mineworkers took action demanding a 47 per cent wage increase. The action was preceded by a two-month over-time ban. Although the right wing still dominated the NUM national executive by 26 to 8, a layer of younger militant activists at Area level had tapped into the mood of discontent throughout the coalfields. Above all in the decisive Yorkshire coalfield, the tradition of flying pickets developed in the unofficial 1969 strike, was extended on a national scale. With trade unionists in other industries observing the TUC guidelines to respect NUM picket lines, the movement of coal was halted. The miners’ strike of January and February 1972 had a profound impact in boosting the confidence of the working class and, conversely, in undermining the confidence of the ruling class.

Prime Minister Heath recognised that “sure handling of the dispute was of critical importance in the government’s continuing success in holding down wage levels”. Heath considered the use of troops against the NUM, but feared that this would aggravate and deepen the strike. But, he insisted in Cabinet, “It is important that the government is not seen to be weakening.” Yet the government was soon to find itself completely paralysed. A top secret Cabinet report recognised the dangers confronting them: “If this sort of attitude is pressed too far, the social consequences are unpredictable.” In other words, the Tories could face a social explosion, if not another general strike.

The miners’ union marched as one. With the mines at a complete standstill, no picket lines were required at the pitheads, so attention was turned to coal stocks. Compared to the past, the use of flying pickets was made more effective by the widespread ownership of cars and other transport. Up to 300 pickets disrupted coal supplies to Scottish power stations. The story was repeated in Kent, South Wales, Derbyshire and Yorkshire. Miners hoped that electricity power workers would join them in their own pay battle, but they came to a settlement independently on 7 February.

“Driven into a corner by the magnificent struggle of the miners, with the support of the whole working class”, wrote Alan Woods, who was giving assistance to miners in South Wales at the time, “the Tory government has lashed out with blind class hatred. The panic measures of Heath and Co. are intended to bludgeon the miners back to work by turning their fellow workers against them. But the crocodile tears shed by Heath over the fate of the aged, the sick and the millions who will be laid off because of the government’s measures, will fool no-one.”

He went on: “The miners’ strike is an inspiration to the whole of the working class. Every section of the trade union and labour movement has given practical assistance to the miners. Even the Tory press has had to reflect the massive sympathy of millions of ordinary people.

“It is high time the TUC followed the lead of the rank and file! The organised strength of 10 million workers must be used to force the Tory government to back down.

“The government of big business is prepared to inflict terrible suffering on millions of people, in order to bear down on the miners and the whole Labour movement. The TUC alone has the strength to stay its hand. Already, sections of workers have staged sympathy strikes in solidarity with the miners. Let the TUC call a one-day strike in support of the miners!”[1]

Solidarity action from below began to spread. On the 1 February some 150 men took spontaneous strike action at a British Leyland subsidiary, the S.U. Carburettors in Birmingham. They felt that giving £1 a week out of their pay was insufficient. As Brother Iredale (who was on the TGWU Regional Committee) stated: “The miners are not going to win by kind words and collections, only by forcing the government to back down.” This strike was symptomatic of the support for the miners across industry. It was a foretaste of what was about to take place on a massive scale in the West Midlands.

The attention of the striking miners soon turned to the coke depot at Saltley Gasworks in Birmingham, the last big fuel depot to remain open in the region. The number of pickets at the gate steadily increased. On Tuesday, 8 February, 1,800 Midland car delivery workers struck in sympathy with the miners. The following day, the government declared a state of emergency. On the Thursday, a meeting of about 200 shop stewards in the Midlands’ engineering industry called for solidarity action from the 40,000 engineering workers and a mass march on the Saltley deport to close the plant. The secretary of the West Birmingham AEU District Committee stated: “We saw what happened to the postal workers last year. We are not going to let it happen to the miners.”[2]

Saltley Gate

The mood was electric as almost all of Birmingham’s 40,000 engineering workers went on strike, and some 10,000 marched on Saltley Gate. They joined 2,000 miners at the gates. The 1,000 police on duty were simply overwhelmed.

“At first there were only ten of us, then twenty, fifty, five hundred and finally ten thousand”, reported Bob McKee outside the gates. “That is how the picketing built up outside Saltley coke depot.” He continued, “men from Dunlops, British Leyland, Rover, Drop Forge, GEC, etc. were there. Birmingham industry was at a standstill and ten thousand people flooded the square outside the depot, stopping the movement of traffic. The police closed the gates for the day. Victory was ours. I cannot describe to you the feeling of joy, relief and solidarity that descended over all of us there. Leaflets I brought to hand out were taken out of my hands in bundles by total strangers, who distributed them for me – it was like what Petrograd 1917 must have been!”[3]

Arthur Scargill also described what happened:

“Some of the lads… were a bit dispirited… And then over the hill came a banner and I’ve never seen in my life as many people following a banner. As far as the eye could see it was just a mass of people marching towards Saltley… Our lads were jumping in the air with emotion – fantastic situation… I started to chant… ‘Close the Gates! Close the Gates! And it was taken up, just like a football crowd.”

With no alternative, the Chief Constable of Birmingham ordered the gates of the depot closed. It was to be a turning point. By 14 February fuel supplies were so low that many industries were forced onto a three-day week. The Tory government took fright at the scale of the movement. Reginald Maudling, the Home Secretary, was later asked why he had not used troops to assist the police. In reply he said, “I remember asking them one single question: ‘If they had been sent in, should they have gone in with rifles loaded or unloaded?’ Either course could have been disastrous.”

He informed the Tory Cabinet:

“Its enforced closure represents a victory for violence against the lawful activities of the gas board and the coal merchants. This provides disturbing evidence of the ease with which, by assembling large crowds, militants could flout the law with impunity because of the risk that attempts to enforce it would provoke disorder on a large scale.”

Alarmed, the government took fright and rapidly established a Court of Inquiry under Lord Wilberforce to settle the dispute. The Inquiry finished its hearings on a Wednesday, wrote its report on Thursday and published its findings on Friday. Setting what must be a speed record for such a body, they declared the miners a “special case”. Finally, the strike was called off after the NUM executive voted by 14 to 11 to suspend picketing when the Wilberforce Inquiry (“we believe the mineworkers at this particular time have a just case for special treatment”) recommended a sizeable pay award of 20 per cent. “Even then further concessions were exacted by the NUM in Downing Street talks before a settlement was concluded”, stated cabinet minister Willie Whitelaw.[4] Heath was against the ropes and forced to give in. The miners had broken through the government’s pay policy. The miners, with fringe benefits, gained a 21 per cent increase in total, with £4.50 for face workers, £5.00 for surface workers and £6.00 for underground workers, a minimum of £34.50, £23.00 and £25.00 respectively. A whole host of other concessions on overtime rates, subsidized transport, and shift payments were also conceded.

“Inside and outside the Conservative Party”, relates Whitelaw, “the defeat was seen as a humiliation for the Government.”[5] The Times, the classic organ of big business gave its view on behalf of the ruling class.

“Every prime minister since Sir Winston Churchill had normally exerted a pressure to settle wage disputes rather than face the consequences of national strikes… Mr Heath has been working in exactly the opposite way. Unpalatable as the view may be, the cost of this coal strike so far and its likely future cost if it is settled as a result of the Wilberforce report is only a fraction of the damage that would have been done if there had not been a real determination to resist wage inflation. There really is no way of fighting wage inflation without being prepared to face major and damaging strikes.”[6]

This stark conclusion of The Times, the naked truth as it were, graphically revealed that the employers and their “strong” government had declared war on the trade unions. This fact was not due to the character of Edward Heath, which, as events proved was rather weak, but stemmed from the parlous state of British capitalism and the need to defend the interests of the ruling class.

Although a significant victory for the miners, if the strike had continued the union could have achieved its full claim. Nevertheless, the miners fought with courage and determination after 20-odd years of broken promises from governments and union leaders. After the 1972 strike, the policy of hard-faced Toryism was in ruins. They had completely miscalculated the determination of the miners and the solidarity of the rest of the working class. The victory was an inspiration to other sections of workers, who were also being pushed to the forefront to defend their conditions.

The miners had revived a fighting tradition that was to set the tone in forthcoming industrial disputes. The mass picketing, above all of the power stations, was an important feature of the miners’ victory. It was an example that other sections would emulate. For many workers, and especially the miners, the 1972 strike was an historic turning point and proved a just reward for the humiliating defeat of 1926.


[1] Militant, 18 February 1972

[2] Quoted in the Financial Times, 10 February 1972

[3] Militant, 18 February 1972

[4] The Whitelaw Memoirs, p.124, London 1989

[5] Ibid, p.125

[6] The Times, 15 February 1972

The Road to Pentonville

Of all the great working class victories in history, the miners’ strike of 1972 stands out as one of the greatest. Since the beginning of the century, the miners had been at the centre of all important working class struggles in Britain. However the defeat of 1926 struck a heavy blow against the miners, who saw their communities crucified by hunger and unemployment. After decades of keeping their heads down, the miners had finally emerged victorious and given the ruling class a bloody nose. It was their revenge for the heavy defeats of the past. Moreover, since they were regarded traditionally as the advanced guard of the British proletariat, the miners’ victory was regarded as a triumph of the whole working class.

The miners’ victory had set alarm bells ringing in upper class circles. The government was profoundly worried by the general spread of industrial and civil disorder. A secret government report a few weeks after the miners’ strike revealed, “A majority of shop floor workers lacked appreciation of the risks of lawlessness and were easily led by comparatively few but energetic elements intent on subversion.” Another observer, Paul Ferris, stated: “The trade union movement is more left-wing than at any time in its history… The idea of ‘direct action’, of using unions for political ends, has revived after half a century.”[1]

The Civil Contingencies Unit was established under Brigadier Richard Bishop in the spring of 1972 to deal with any such potential disorder. The CCU was kept secret and its very existence was still officially denied a decade later. A report in The Times revealed that “by early 1973 ministers had detailed estimates of 16 key industries, their capacity for disruption, their importance to the country’s well-being and the possibility of using alternative military labour in the event of strikes.”[2]

In the spring of 1972, after some trouble on the railways, a battle flared up on the docks. The Tories had made no secret of the fact that they were keen to get rid of the National Dock Labour Scheme, which protected dockers from the indignities of casual labour. The Tory Cabinet nevertheless decided not to press ahead, because, according to an internal report, “union officials were having difficulty retaining control, in the face of increasing militancy at a local level”. However, their caution was upset by the news that two haulage firms, Heaton’s and Craddock’s, had taken legal action against the TGWU for allowing their members (unofficially) to boycott their haulage business in protest against containerisation.

Typically, the NIRC under the chairmanship of Tory judge Sir John Donaldson proclaimed that the TGWU nationally was responsible for their stewards’ actions at the Heaton’s terminal and were in breach of the law. In the light of union policy, the TGWU refused to attend the court hearing and was fined £5,000 for contempt. Then, with the blacking still in place, an additional fine of £50,000 was imposed with the threat of total sequestration of the union’s assets if the union failed to comply with the order to lift the boycott. The capitalist courts had thrown down the gauntlet. But instead of calling a national strike of the TGWU, which would have brought the country to a complete standstill within hours, the union leadership decided to take its case to the TUC.

If the union leaders had gone at first to its own rank and file with an appeal to defend the union, there is no doubt they would have been met with a massive response. Then a call for solidarity could have been made to other unions. Given the size and influence of the TGWU, a strike by this union alone would have been equivalent to a general strike. But the leaders were not prepared for this kind of showdown and decided on what they regarded as a safer route. This proved a fatal mistake.

“The union was caught between the devil and the deep blue sea”, stated Jack Jones. “From the dockers there were increasing calls for a national strike; on the other hand the threat of sequestration posed a challenge to the very existence of the TGWU. Because of its size the TGWU was very vulnerable, but I was still convinced that a collective response by the whole trade union movement could defeat the challenge…

“In the event, when the General Council had had spelled out to it the need to back the TGWU with all the consequences that might follow defiance of the court, some of the members – according to one commentator – ‘ran like rabbits frightened by gunfire’. A motion I proposed – ‘that the TGWU be advised to continue the policy of non-co-operation with the National Industrial Relations Court; that any financial penalty involved is accepted as the responsibility of the TUC; and that a fund be organised for this purpose – was ruled out of order by the chairman.

“At a later meeting a similar motion by Dick Briginshaw was shelved. The majority on the General Council decided to hedge its bets; the TGWU was advised to pay the fines and it was decided that unions should have the right to be represented at the NIRC, without prior consultation with the General Council, ‘where offensive actions were taken against unions or their members’. To sugar the pill it was also agreed that, in the case of the TGWU, ‘a measure of financial responsibility should be accepted by the TUC.’ In fact, when it came to the point, a paltry £20,000 was paid to the TGWU. It was offered reluctantly and I accepted it as a token rather than engaging in a dutch auction with Vic Feather. I felt let down. I realised then how weak an instrument the General Council was, and tried to get approval for the calling of a special congress so that the whole movement could determine its position. I said there was a need to re-establish unity against the Industrial Relations Act and to adopt positive policies which would show that the movement meant what it said. Although I was supported by Hugh Scanlon and others, we were defeated by fifteen votes to eleven.”[3]

Jack Jones, who was a genuine left-winger and a very sincere man, nevertheless demonstrated a lack of understanding when he writes that the size of the TGWU was a source of “vulnerability”. This demonstrated a lack of confidence in the ranks of the union on the part of even the best of the Lefts. Some weeks later the dockers showed that they were clearly prepared to struggle against the Tory government. But they now looked for a fighting lead from the top. Unfortunately, no such lead was forthcoming, and the workers were left to their own devices.

The T&G leadership was split with Jack Jones unfortunately arguing to support the line of the TUC. When the vote was taken on the executive committee, the decision of the TUC to pay the fines was carried by a wafer-thin majority. The opposition to the Tory anti-union laws, so heroically taken up from below, was coming apart at the top of the movement. Nevertheless, despite the wobbling of the leadership, the dock shop stewards remained defiant and refused to lift the boycott of the haulage companies.

Pentonville Five

A worried Tory Cabinet met to review the situation and discuss tactics. Its memorandum of the 18 July 1972 recognised that an “unofficial shop stewards committee still has support from many moderate-minded dockers because they fear for their jobs.” Options were then discussed: a state of emergency, rationing of essential food, and the requisitioning of vehicles to transport food around the country. But as the Cabinet wracked its brains for a solution, events began to overtake them.

The haulage bosses sought a court order to halt picketing at the Chodham Farm container depot, but were turned down by the Court of Appeal. However, the Midland Cold Storage Company, which was also being blockaded, succeeded in bringing its own injunction. On hearing the news, the dispute rapidly spread throughout the London docks. On the evidence of private detectives, five dockers were arrested and imprisoned in Pentonville Prison on 21 July. As the news spread about the “Pentonville Five”, the working class erupted. 44,000 dockers and 130,000 other workers immediately downed tools in protest. Docks were brought to a complete standstill at London, Liverpool, Cardiff, Swansea, Glasgow, Bristol, Felixtowe, Leith, Chatham, Ipswich, Middlesborough and even King’s Lynn. This was the magnificent spontaneous answer from the working class to a direct attack on their organisations.

The movement spread like wildfire from below. Tommy Hilton, the spokesman for the Swansea dockers said: “People must realise that this is not a dockers’ strike, but a strike in defence of trade union rights against the Industrial Relations Act.” Pressure mounted rapidly on the TUC General Council to act. Belatedly they were forced to call (by 18 votes to 7) a one-day general strike scheduled for 31 July. This was in complete contrast to the platitudes of TUC general secretary Vic Feather, who had some weeks earlier dismissed the idea of a general strike as a complete fantasy: “Such things happen in Italy and France, but not in Britain”, he had said.

The marvellous movement from below had the potential to develop into an all-out general strike. Either the Tories would make big concessions, or the whole situation threatened to spiral out of control. The TUC was reluctantly forced to put itself at the head of this movement. They wished to steer it into safe channels, but this was also extremely risky because if the one-day general strike had gone ahead, there was no guarantee that it would last 24-hours. The whole situation was extremely volatile.

Panicking, the Tory government called in the Official Solicitor, an obscure unknown legal figure, to bail them out of the crisis. The law was now reinterpreted to state that the Courts held the unions, rather than individual pickets, responsible for their actions. The Pentonville Five were immediately released and the general strike, to the utter relief of the TUC leaders, was called off. The Times humorously compared the actions of the Tory government to a “disordered slot-machine, which produced a succession of unforeseen results, mostly raspberry flavoured.”

On 28 July, when dockers struck again over job security, the government declared another state of emergency. The question of sending in the troops to break the strike was raised, then dropped like a hot potato. A few days later, a government contingency group reported, “If troops were used there is a real danger of sympathetic action by lorry drivers and others which would be more damaging than the present situation.” The dockers’ national shop stewards committee stepped up their campaign to close all ports using unregistered labour. By mid-August the Tory government was forced to accept a deal to end the action.

A further skirmish over the Industrial Relations Act occurred when the engineering union, the AUEW, was fined £55,000 on 1 December 1972, for refusing union membership to James Goad, a scab, lay preacher, and crusader for the “freedom of the individual”. The union’s refusal to pay resulted in the fine being sequestrated from the union’s funds by the Courts. In the face of this blatant attack on trade unionism, 750,000 workers struck unofficially. The AUEW leadership, however, confined themselves to verbal protests. In reality, as the dockers had shown, the only effective means of crippling the anti-union laws was through the militant actions of the mass movement. But the leaders of the trade unions, both right and left, did not relish the prospect of a direct challenge to the Tory government, and they recoiled.

Shrewsbury trial

1972 saw not only the first official miners’ strike but also the first official building workers’ strike since the 1920s. Building workers, whose separate unions merged to form the Union of Construction, Allied Trades and Technicians (UCATT) in 1971, staged their national stoppage for £30 for a 35-hour week, and for the abolition of lump (self-contract) labour. The 13-week strike resulted in increased union organisation and the biggest single rise ever negotiated in the building industry. Again, the key weapon in this struggle was the use of flying pickets that toured around the construction sites ensuring the strike was solid.

The Tory government was desperate to contain the situation and stop the mass picketing. They decided to achieve this by making an example of those guilty of mass picketing, by framing them on charges of intimidation, violence and conspiracy. They hoped this would stop the militant workers and act as a deterrent to others. As a consequence arrests were made of two-dozen leading building workers in the North Wales area. The trial of the “Shrewsbury 24”, as it was called, was a political trial. It was a deliberate conspiracy of the Employers’ Federation, government and state, to frame the men and demonstrate to everyone that militancy does not pay.

“I have heard the judge say that this was not a political trial, just an ordinary criminal case, and I refute that with every fibre of my being…” stated one of the accused, Ricky Tomlinson. “I look forward to the day when the real culprits, the McAlpines, the Wimpeys, the Laings and the Bovis’ and their political bodies are in the dock facing charge of conspiracy to intimidate workers from doing what is their lawful right – picketing.”

Des Warren was just as defiant.

“Mr Bumble said ‘The law is an ass’. If he were here now he might draw the conclusion that the law is quite clearly the instrument of the state to be used in the interests of a tiny minority against the majority.”[4]

In the end, six men were found guilty in the capitalist courts of unlawful assembly and three of affray. On appeal, the charge of affray was quashed. McKinsie Jones, Des Warren, and Ricky Tomlinson were found guilty of conspiracy. The latter got nine months, three years and two years respectively. In the subsequent trials, pressure was brought on defendants to plea guilty to unlawful assembly to avoid the charge of conspiracy. Some accepted the deal, while others steadfastly refused. Brian Williams, Arthur Murray and Mike Pierce were subsequently found guilty on unlawful assembly and affray and were given sentences of six months and four months concurrent.

In the last of the trials, Terry Renshaw, John Seaburg and Lennie Williams again refused to plead guilty to unlawful assembly. Seaburg was found guilty on both charges and got suspended sentences of six and four months, while Renshaw and Williams were found guilty of unlawful assembly and given suspended sentences of four months. These were class laws passed against those who challenged the employers and their state, every much as those against the Tolpuddle Martyrs or the Glasgow spinners. Now as then, the spirit of these men was not broken.

Des Warren wrote optimistically from his prison cell:

“I was greatly encouraged by the sentiments expressed in it as in all the other messages of support my family and myself have received from comrades and fellow workers from all over the country. I tend to be something of an optimist and so tend to put setbacks such as the position Mac Jones, Eric Tomlinson, me and our families find themselves in, in their right perspective and gauge them against the advances made.

“Through their attack on the trade union movement and workers’ reaction to it, in the form of ‘Free the Three’ campaign, new links, contacts and friendships have been made and unity is being formed as with the miners’ fight, which will last until long after we are out of prison and which will stand the movement in good stead in the continuing struggle, for these reasons I believe our time in prison will not have been in vain and I look forward to my day of release so that I can rejoin that struggle, not with a feeling of bitterness or revenge but with a strengthened resolve to help bring about a socialist Britain.”[5]

Scandalously, despite the campaign of protests, Warren and Tomlinson were left to serve the remainder of their prison sentence under a new Labour government, which came to power in February 1974. The Labour Home Secretary, Roy Jenkins (who crossed the floor and ended up as a Lord) refused to “compromise the law of the land”. Ricky Tomlinson was released on 25 July 1975. Des Warren was then left isolated in prison. At the end of his sentence Des Warren served six months in solitary confinement, was reported on 36 occasions by prison officers and moved 15 times through ten different prisons.

Maltreatment in prison undermined Warren’s health and destroyed his family life. Tragically, he contracted Parkinson’s disease. Such was the pressure on Warren and his family that in February 1976 his wife Elsa suffered a nervous breakdown and their five children were taken into care. The stress finally resulted in a family break-up and eventual divorce. Today, Des resides at home in the North East, crippled by illness, and remarried to his former carer Pat. The last time Des Warren appeared in public was three years ago at the Durham miners’ gala, but since then his health has continued to deteriorate. The expense of his care was met by a trust fund set up by the Durham miners’ mechanics and the Wear Valley and District Trades Council. Eric Tomlinson, who was blacked for his union activities, subsequently became famous as a result of his acting career, but remains true, now as then, to the cause of trade unionism and the working class.

1972 could be accurately described as the year of industrial insurrection. 23,909,000 days were lost through strikes – excluding about 4 million lost through political action. Even if the figures for the miners’ strike are excluded, only once, in 1919, was the number of strike days greater. Old traditions of militancy were being reborn. This titanic movement on the industrial front was also shaking up the Labour Party. Under the impact of this militancy, Labour’s NEC also began to swing to the left. For the first time since the 1920s, a left grouping emerged simultaneously on both the TUC General Council and the Labour Party NEC.

As always, the right wing on the TUC General Council was still interested in collaborating with the Tories. In April 1972, the TUC was invited to Downing Street to meet Ted Heath and discuss the economic situation.

“Before this was reported to the General Council Vic Feather had a word with me in a heavily confidential way”, stated Jack Jones. “At that stage I was opposed to such a meeting and I quizzed Vic, saying: ‘Why do you keep having these private meetings? They may give the impression that we’re weak, when it’s the government that’s taking a battering!’ His reply was: ‘We’ve got to talk. Ted’s coming our way.’ He knew he was on an easy wicket with a majority of the General Council, who at that time were opposed to confrontation with the government. A motion objecting to the talks was defeated by 21 votes to 9.

“Should we talk to the government, if they want to talk to us? That question became an issue the General Council debated over many months.” However, in due course, Jack Jones succumbed to the pressure and went along with it. “I became convinced that it was in our members’ interests not to miss an opportunity of changing the government’s mind.”[6]

The right wing was desperate to avoid a confrontation with the Tories and attempted to curtail the growing militancy from below. However, the Lefts had no perspective for the movement. Instead of preparing the ground and mobilising the workers to bring down the government, they dithered and prevaricated, and eventually capitulated to the right wing on the General Council. When it came down to it, they all had illusions about how they could influence the Tories through discussion. They treated the whole affair as a polite conversation, rather than a struggle of mutually antagonistic class interests.

These illusions did not take them very far. To their utter bewilderment, the trade union leaders were shown the door by the government.

“Proposals and counter-proposals were argued over the table. The TUC and the government spokesmen did most of the talking, the CBI contribution was very limited”, continued Jones. “Then, after countless hours of meetings, there was an abrupt ending. To the surprise of the trade union side, Ted Heath declared that certain important items we had been emphasising – pensions, rents, the impact of EEC membership, Industrial Relations Act – were outside the scope of negotiation. Such matters, we were told, were for the House of Commons to determine. A rigid posture was suddenly adopted by the government; even to this day I am unable to understand why.

“No one could have been more disappointed than Vic Feather. He had been a firm supporter of the talks throughout and had taken at face value the government’s claim that it was prepared to enter into a real partnership with both sides of industry in the management of the economy. He felt that Ted Heath had thrown away a golden opportunity.”

Here Jack Jones reveals the real face of Toryism: “In place of talks we had confrontation.” But still the General Council, fearing the alternative, wanted to convince Heath of the error of his ways: “The government must be given a chance to get off the hook,” pleaded Len Murray, the new general secretary of the TUC. But it did not do them a bit of good. The door of Number Ten was firmly closed.

In November 1972, the Heath government imposed “Phase One” of a statutory incomes policy, which was met with muted response. This was later followed by “Phase Two”. After the tremendous struggles of the previous two years, there was an inevitable ebb on the industrial front. The mass movement, which had reached unprecedented heights, could not be sustained indefinitely, especially as no clear alternative was coming from the top. After a period of prolonged militancy, workers had to “take a breather” and take stock of the situation.

This lull in the movement continued for most of 1973. The number of days lost through strikes declined dramatically. From a peak of 24 million strike-days lost, the figure plummeted to just under 8 million. Despite the pause, the number of shop stewards had risen to around 300,000 and trade union membership was rising substantially, especially amongst white collar and professional workers. With practically every layer of the working class involved in strike action over the previous few years, confidence was very high. The possibility of a general strike, given the provocative behaviour of the Tories, was implicit in the situation. Britain had entered an epoch of sharp turns and sudden changes, politically, economically and industrially.

The turnaround in the industrial situation took place towards the end of 1973, which coincided with the announcement of “Phase Three” of the Tories’ incomes policy. This now allowed a 7 per cent wage norm – well below the rate of inflation. If accepted, it would mean a significant cut in living standards. Earlier in the year, miners had rejected strike action over wages, however, resentment began to build up. The Left had strengthened its position in the NUM, and Mick McGahey, a leading member of the CPGB, had been newly elected as vice-president. War in the Middle East led to the quadrupling of oil prices, which tipped the world economy into the first major slump since the 1930s. This energy squeeze served to increase the bargaining power of the miners. This was put to full use in a new substantial wage claim. As part of a national campaign, an overtime ban was introduced throughout the coalfields on 12 November.

In an attempt to isolate the miners, the Heath government hit back by announcing a state of emergency and then on 1 January 1974, the introduction of a three-day working week, ostensibly to save energy. Street lighting was cut back and television was ordered to close down every night at 10.30 p.m. “Already the country felt on the brink of a major crisis”, stated William Whitelaw.[7] By the middle of January more than one million workers had been laid off work. A national ballot in early February recorded a massive 81 per cent majority in favour of strike action – far higher than in 1972. The second national miners’ strike was announced for 9 February 1974. Fearing a humiliating repeat of 1972, Heath gambled the fate of his entire government in a new general election. A few days before the miners’ strike was due to begin, the dissolution of Parliament was announced and a snap general election was called for 28 February.

As expected, the capitalist press attempted to whip up a campaign against the miners, talking of an alleged threat to democracy. “Who runs the country? Parliament or the militants?” were the banner headlines at the time. But despite all the attempts by Heath to win a panic election, a decisive section of workers and the middle class, sickened by the Tories, were looking to the Labour Party. Reflecting the radicalisation on the industrial front, the Labour Party had moved sharply to the left. In October 1973, the Party conference had endorsed a radical programme that included the nationalisation of the top 25 monopolies.

Although the right wing still controlled the contents of the election Manifesto and watered down the Party’s socialist commitments, it was still very radical. Labour entered the election promising to “bring about a fundamental and irreversible shift in the balance of power and wealth in favour of working people and their families.” Even the arch right-winger Dennis Healey, the shadow Chancellor, threatened to “squeeze the rich till the pips squeaked”.

The ruling class were alarmed by these developments:

“… the Labour Party has become a threat to the constitution, both in Opposition and in government”, stated the ex-Conservative Minister, Ian Gilmour. “Extremists have penetrated it at every level, and swung it violently to the Left. As Lord George-Brown said in April 1972, ‘in the fifties and sixties the men at the head of the unions were genuine social democrats… Now, I think today that the situation is different. The major unions are the subjects of a different kind of leadership, with a different outlook.’ And he added shortly afterwards: ‘We have been taken over. And we have been taken over by a collection of people who call themselves “activists”. But they are for the most part people who do not believe in our way of life or in our social democratic outlook… And these fellows have now captured control of the Labour movement at every level; constituency parties; trade union branches; executives of the trade unions; the General Council of the TUC; the Labour Party National Executive; and the Shadow Cabinet.”[8]

In the end, the whole panic election gamble backfired and the Tory government went down to defeat. The Labour Party won 301 seats to the Tories’ 296. The Liberals had managed to pick up 14 seats, and in theory held the balance of power. Heath desperately tried to cling on to office, holding secret discussions on 2 March with Jeremy Thorpe, the leader of the Liberal Party, in an attempt to patch together some form of coalition. This farce turned to dust when the Liberal headquarters was inundated with 3,000 telegrams of protest. The forlorn attempt to cobble together a coalition government to keep Labour out of office fell flat. It was a humiliating episode for Heath. And so on 4 March, with his tail between his legs, he resigned. “This has been an historic dispute. It is the first time that an industrial stoppage has provoked a general election and indirectly brought about the downfall of a government”, stated the editorial of The Times a few days later.[9]

Labour once again came to power in early March 1974. On 11 March, the miners returned to work with major concessions. On the same day, Margaret Thatcher defeated Edward Heath to become the new leader of the Tory Party. The collapse of the Tory government was certainly a turning point in the Labour movement. For the first time in British history, an elected government had been brought down by industrial action. “It was certainly the worst time in my political life”, recalled Tory minister Willie Whitelaw. Now, organised Labour looked to the new Labour government to carry through its radical commitments, and, in particular, sweep away the detested Tory anti-union legislation.


[1] Paul Ferris, The New Militants, p.8, London, 1972

[2] The Times, 13 November 1979

[3] Jack Jones, op. cit, pp.247-48

[4] Quoted in Jim Arnison, The Shrewsbury Three, pp.73 and 75, London 1974

[5] Ibid, pp.10-11, London, 1974

[6] Jones, op. cit, p.255

[7] Whitelaw, op. cit, p.126

[8] Gilmour, op. cit, pp.200-201

[9] The Times, 7 March 1974

The Turning Point

1974 proved to be a turning point not only for Britain, but also for world politics and the world economy. The world slump of that year was the biggest since 1929. The post war economic upswing, fuelled by the expansion of world trade, had dramatically come to an end in the first simultaneous world downturn since the Thirties. Industrial production in the advanced capitalist countries fell by a massive ten per cent between July 1974 and April 1975. In the first half of 1975 output was three-and-a-half per cent down on the previous year, and international trade was 13 per cent lower. The crisis indicated that the “Golden Age” of capitalist expansion was over. Capitalism would never again be able to attain the growth rates of the 25-year upswing.

This slump in turn ushered in a new period of political, social and industrial turmoil throughout the capitalist world. The ruling class was seized with a deep sense of foreboding for the future of their system. “For years the gold enthusiasts have been regarded as barbarians”, noted The Economist. “Now that it is fashionable to talk of the imminent collapse of civilisation, their day has come on Wall Street.”[1]

1974 was a year of revolution. Portugal was rocked by a revolutionary movement of workers, soldiers, sailors and peasants, which succeeded in sweeping away the hated dictatorship of Caetano. In Southern Africa, the events in Portugal resulted in profound revolutionary changes in Angola, Guinea Bissau and Mozambique. In Ethiopia the removal of emperor Haile Selassie ended up in the nationalisation of the economy. In Spain, the dying Franco regime was met with an explosion of opposition and mass strikes. The overthrow of the Greek Junta produced a pre-revolutionary crisis in the country.

This was the most disturbed period faced by capitalism since the inter-war years. The strategists of capital, terrified by the scale of revolutionary events, began to make serious preparations for civil war to defend themselves and their system. The movement in the direction of revolution produced its opposite in the form of counterrevolutionary plots and conspiracies, like the “Gladio Conspiracy” that came to light at the time. It revealed the existence of secret military plans for the instalment of military police dictatorships throughout Europe. The ramifications of this made themselves felt in Britain too.

After the miners’ strike had brought down the Heath government, the question of a military “solution” to the problems of capitalism was not only discussed in the smoke-filled clubs and boardrooms of big business, but was openly debated in the “quality” press. The Times carried a series of articles on contingency measures to deal with a possible general strike situation, drawing on experiences such as the Kapp putsch in Germany in 1920. However, this was not a very pleasant analogy. General Kapp had marched at the head of his army into Berlin but was met with a spontaneous general strike. Unable to find a single stenographer to take down his decrees he eventually marched ignominiously out of the capital, impotent in face of the power of the German workers.

Military exercises took place at Heathrow airport under the guise of “counter-terrorism”. Brian Crozier, the MI6 and CIA “alongsider”, gave regular talks to groups of army officers warning of the possibility of military intervention in British politics. On one occasion, he recalls an audience of officers were so enthusiastic about such a scenario, that they “rose as one man, cheering and clapping for fully five minutes.”[2]

The ruling class were preparing for a showdown with organised Labour. The Tory theoretician and MP Ian Gilmour wrote a theoretical justification for doing away with democracy if it ever posed a threat to the capitalist system. Gilmour was no right-wing crank or obscure figure, but a leading Tory who became a minister in the Thatcher government. In his well-known book, Inside Right, Gilmour showed admirable frankness when describing the real attitude of the ruling class to democratic rights and the rule of the majority:

“Conservatives do not worship democracy. For them, majority rule is a device… Rational, economic, utilitarian man exists only in the imagination of some economists and philosophers. Similarly, majorities do not always see where their best interests lie and then act upon their understanding. For Conservatives, therefore, democracy is a means to an end not an end in itself. In Dr Hayek’s words, democracy ‘is not an ultimate or absolute value and must be judged by what it will achieve’. And if it is leading to an end that is undesirable or is inconsistent with itself, then there is a theoretical case for ending it…

‘Numbers in a state’, said Burke, ‘are always of consideration, but they are not the whole consideration.’ In practice, no alternative to majority rule exists, though it has to be used in conjunction with other devices. And in the Conservative Party, unlike the Labour Party, there is no extreme wing which hankers after the death of parliamentary democracy and the imposition of a dictatorship. If our free institutions are overthrown or totally perverted, the Left not the Right will be responsible. There is no danger of a right-wing coup. Only if the constitution had already been destroyed by the Left, might the Right react and the Left find itself overthrown in its turn by a counter-coup from the Right.”[3]

Stripped of its rhetoric about the dangers of a so-called “left dictatorship”, these authoritarian views represented a dire warning to the trade union and Labour movement. It was clear that if capitalism was in any way threatened by a left Labour government, despite being elected through the ballot-box, it would be faced with a conspiracy and overthrow by reactionary forces, as happened in Chile in September 1973, when the socialist government of Allende was overthrown in a military coup led by General Pinochet, backed by British and US capitalism.

In the aftermath of this coup, 30,000 Chilean workers were murdered in cold blood. Now the US imperialists try to distance themselves from the Pinochet regime and the coup, but at the time Henry Kissinger, a leading member of the Nixon administration and a Nobel Peace Prize winner (!) declared: “I don’t see why we need to stand by and watch a country go communist because of the irresponsibility of its own people.” The CIA, with the authorisation of Dr Kissinger, spent eight million dollars between 1970 and 1973 to destabilise the Chilean economy, sending money to right-wing strikers to bring down the Allende government.[4] In Britain, The Times, echoing the real feelings of the ruling class, welcomed the Pinochet coup: “there is a limit to the ruin a country can be expected to tolerate… The circumstances were such that a reasonable military man could in good faith have thought it his constitutional duty to intervene.”[5]

Ulster workers council

A few months later the potential power of the trade unions was demonstrated once more, although in a distorted and reactionary manner. In May 1974 there was a “general strike” in the North of Ireland, called by the sectarian Ulster Workers’ Council against the “power-sharing” Executive established by the Sunningdale Agreement. Despite the fact that this was a reactionary sectarian strike, involving threats and physical intimidation by Protestant paramilitary groups, it nevertheless showed the power of the organised working class. Workplace after workplace was shut down and the government was impotent to do anything about it. Faced with a strike of power engineers and technicians, the military tried to employ naval technicians to run the power stations, but they were completely baffled by the voluminous instruction manuals! “The army therefore concluded they could do nothing to maintain the power system in Northern Ireland, and by inference anywhere else in the United Kingdom”, stated Robert Fisk in his book The Point of No Return. After a fortnight of trying to use troops to break the strike, the Tories were forced to back down, demonstrating how ineffective military intervention was in any large-scale industrial stoppage.

Following the successful 1972 miners’ strike, the Tories established the secret Civil Contingencies Unit, a government anti-strike operation. This body had direct links with the heads of the military establishment, who had been drawn into, and were a vital component of the government’s strikebreaking plans. At this time, the military top brass, together with high-ranking civil servants, businessmen and politicians were in constant discussions about the dangers of revolution in Britain. To their utter dismay, left-wing “subversives” had come into positions of influence in both the unions and Labour Party.

Brigadier-General Sir Frank Kitson became the focal point for the military option. In his book, Low Intensity Operations, he argued that the main role of the British Army was not abroad, but increasingly at home dealing with social disorder: “If a genuine and serious grievance arose, such as might result from a significant drop in the standard of living, all those who now dissipate their protest over a wide variety of causes might concentrate their efforts and produce a situation which was beyond the power of the police to handle. Should this happen the army would be required to restore the position rapidly.” The Tory Minister of State for Defence, Lord Balniel, rather than condemn it, recommended Kitson’s book in the House of Commons. He said that it was viewed as an official manual, “regarded as being of valuable assistance to our troops.”

Paramilitary solutions

It subsequently emerged that senior army officers were considering military intervention in the event of the situation “deteriorating”. But the more sober, and far-sighted sections of the ruling class were not amused. Lord Carver, Chief of the Defence Staff in 1974, recalled that he personally intervened “to make certain nobody was so stupid as to go around saying those things.” That is to say, the problem was not the idea itself but that it should not be publicly expressed. They preferred such plans to be kept under wraps until needed. Carver was also reported to have used his influence at the time to prevent army officers openly establishing right-wing paramilitary organisations.[6] Not that he was against these initiatives in principle, but for the moment they proved counterproductive and highly provocative to the Labour movement.

The industrial battles of the early 1970s resulted in a number of important victories for the working class. Real take-home pay increased by 3.5 per cent a year between 1970 and 1973, four times the rate achieved under the 1964-70 Labour government. The miners’ strikes, in particular, had given rise to increased self-confidence among workers. This had wrong-footed the ruling class. But these successes also served to produce a semi-syndicalist mood amongst certain sections of union militants – who regarded the trade union struggle alone as sufficient in dealing with the Tories and the employers. The fall of the Heath government certainly tended to reinforce this outlook.

Nevertheless, the election of the Labour government in 1974, despite being in a minority position, created high expectations from the working class. The new intake of Labour MPs was also clearly to the left, the majority being aligned to the Tribune Group in Parliament, which had doubled in size in comparison to the period 1964-70. Although the new Wilson administration was right wing, both Michael Foot and Tony Benn were included in the Cabinet, at the Department of Employment and the Department of Industry respectively. The first real task of the government was to produce a settlement with the miners. They were eventually awarded wage increases ranging from 22-32 per cent. Within a week of the election, industry was back to five-day working and the crisis was resolved.

The Labour government began by introducing a series of welcome reforms: it raised old age pensions, increased food and rent subsidies, cut the rate of VAT, and encouraged the building of council houses. To the great relief of the Labour movement, the government repealed the hated Industrial Relations Act, abolished the Pay Board and scrapped Heath’s statutory incomes policy. The Housing Finance Act was also repealed and a rent freeze was introduced. As promised, the Labour government introduced gift and wealth taxes, although not as much as to make the rich squeak too loudly. The granting of these reforms produced a honeymoon period for the Wilson government, which appeared at long last to be carrying out a radical programme.

From the beginning, the Labour government was under colossal pressure from both the working class and the capitalist class. At first, it attempted to appease the workers with reforms, which worked for a period as workers were prepared to extend credit to the new government. For big business, however, these reforms were a source of major irritation and annoyance. But for the moment the capitalists were forced to bide their time. Within months Wilson was compelled to go for a second general election in October 1974 in an attempt to gain a working majority in the Commons. Despite these hopes, Labour still only managed to secure a small overall majority, and remained vulnerable.

The Labour government had come to power at a time of a new world slump. Throughout 1974 industrial production declined in the face of a deepening economic slowdown. It was the first generalised worldwide slump since the Second World War. In Britain, unemployment began to climb insatiably towards the politically sensitive figure of one million, reaching 1,319,000 by the third quarter of 1976. Orders for steel products in western Europe during the first quarter of 1975 were down 33 per cent from the same period in 1974. The same was true of shipbuilding, aeronautics, electronics, textiles, automobiles, construction, and electrical appliances. The number of bankruptcies in the United States rose by more than 30 per cent during 1974-75, and in Britain by more than 60 per cent.

Bourgeois economists attempted to explain away the slump as a consequence of the quadrupling of oil prices, but this was a shallow argument. The rise in oil prices certainly aggravated the crisis, but it did not cause it. It simply accentuated the trends that were already present. The elements of overproduction existed prior to the rise in oil prices. The boom and slump cycle was always present under capitalism but the fluctuations were hardly noticed in the unprecedented post war upswing. Now the situation was entirely different, and more like the slumps of the past that were explained by Karl Marx:

“Too many commodities are produced to permit of a realisation and conversion into new capital of the value and surplus value contained in them under the conditions of distribution and consumption peculiar to capitalist production, i.e., too many to permit of the consumption of this process without constantly recurring explosions”,

stated Marx in volume three of Capital. The crisis arose out of overproduction, as Marx had explained over 100 years previously, and would reoccur periodically in 1979-81, 1990-92, and 2001-2. This fact alone shows that the slump of 1974-75 was not the product of an accidental rise in oil prices, but the re-emergence of the boom/slump cycle.

In Britain, inflation rose to nearly 20 per cent, which served to erode living standards very quickly. The economists ironically dubbed the situation “slumpflation”, reflecting a new disease of world capitalism – a combination of slump and inflation. In order to stand still, unions had to fight for sizable wage increases, which averaged 25.4 per cent by the end of the year. At the same time, pre-tax profits fell from 7.2 per cent in 1973 to 4 per cent a year later, and then continued to decline. This fall was primarily due to the tendency in capitalism for the rate of profit to decline. This tendency arose from the accumulation of capital, greater resources ploughed into constant capital (materials and machinery) relative to that invested in variable capital (wages). As the only source of surplus value comes from variable capital, the rate of profit tends to decline. To counter this decline, which would eventually affect the mass of profits, the capitalists are forced to take measures to increase the exploitation of labour power and increase their margins. In particular, they demanded that the Labour government cut public expenditure, hold back wages and stop all state interference.

According to the Financial Times, “the CBI told Mr. Wilson that there was absolutely no room for compromise or negotiation about further state intervention in industry and further nationalisation”.[7] Two days before the November Budget, the Director General of the CBI sent Wilson an open letter threatening drastic action if the government did not toe the pro-business line. Just after the general election, big business had begun a “strike of capital” with the announcement by Pilkingtons that their £150 million investment would be shelved “until such time as essential changes are made in taxation and price control”. As in October 1964, Wilson was again faced with the blackmail and sabotage of Britain’s ruling class. As then, the Labour government had a choice: either capitulate to big business or act against these powerful interests. There was no middle road. Wilson decided to bend the knee to capital. Once again he came forward with an incomes policy to restore profitability, known as the “Social Contract”, but later dubbed the “Social Con-trick”.

The Left on the TUC General Council, headed by Jack Jones and Hugh Scanlon, also faced a stark choice, either back Wilson or fight for the alternative of socialist policies. But like the Left union leaders in 1926, they looked over the abyss and stepped back. These left leaders had built up a powerful reputation and massive support amongst workers because of the militant role they had played between 1968-74. But now, lacking a clear perspective and policy, they recoiled from an all-out struggle with the Labour government. Instead, they used their colossal authority to back Wilson’s policies. In September, the TUC, with the full backing of Scanlon and Jones, accepted a “Social Contract” with the Labour government. The government, in turn, leaned upon the trade union leadership to deliver the support from the rank and file for this wages’ policy.

The problem was that it is not possible to serve two masters and the Wilson government had already surrendered to the blackmail of the City of London. The 1974 November Budget proved a watershed for the government. The Chancellor announced measures to increase profitability: reduction of corporation tax, less stringent price controls, and state handouts for industry. Healey also announced restrictions on public expenditure for the duration of the government. As in the past, this signalled a continuation of orthodox economic policies, and as usual the working class was being asked to pay for the crisis of capitalism.

Wage Restraint

In spite of the “Social Contract”, the initial TUC guidelines on wages were quite vague. In fact real wages grew by eight per cent between April and December 1974. However, by the spring of 1975, with the acceleration of inflation, real take-home pay began to decline. By June real wages were nine per cent lower than December 1974, and living standards were falling. Wages were chasing higher prices and falling behind. Yet the economists who had the ear of the Labour government argued that prices were following wages, and that the latter had to be controlled to halt inflation.

At this point the government used the sterling crisis to turn its policy firmly to the right, to the delight of big business. Denis Healey announced that he intended to reduce inflation – which was around 30 per cent – to 10 per cent by the following wage round, and to single figures by the end of 1976. Since the government regarded wages as the main cause of inflation, pay increases would have to be dramatically curtailed.

Wilson’s economic arguments, supplied by bourgeois economists, were bogus. In reality the inflation of the 1970s was not caused by wage increases, but by the colossal sums of speculative fictitious capital that had been injected into the system as a result of decades of Keynesian deficit financing. The propaganda about “excessive” wage rises causing inflation was used as a pretext to boost profits at the expense of wages.

The Wilson government put forward a voluntary incomes policy in co-operation with the TUC based on raises of 10 per cent. However, Wilson warned that if this proved unworkable, a statutory limit would be imposed. As was to be expected, the TUC readily acquiesced to the government’s wage controls and published guidelines for voluntary restraint with a £6 limit on all settlements prior to August 1976:

“The £6 policy was accepted by the General Council at its meeting in July but only narrowly, nineteen votes to thirteen”, recalls Jack Jones. “I urged those who opposed the policy not to push the government to the point where it might fall… Whatever my misgivings I was determined to back the government, ‘warts and all’.”[8]

Although it meant a cut in real wages, the £6 limit was agreed at both the TUC, on a resolution proposed by Jack Jones, and the Labour Party Conference. When left-winger Ian Mikardo attacked the decision at the Tribune meeting at Labour Conference, Jones shouted across the platform, “I object to these attacks like this!” Hugh Scanlon also supported Jack Jones’ stance. The Labour movement demonstrated tremendous loyalty to its leaders, and the incomes policy of Wilson and Callaghan was taken on trust. The Labour leaders demanded sacrifices to overcome “the legacy left by the Tories”, and, without any alternative being offered by the Lefts, this was accepted as a necessary price to be paid for a Labour government.

But when a “Phase Two” followed “Phase One” of the incomes policy, there was a growing disquiet in the Labour movement. As a concession to the government (which wanted a three per cent limit), the TUC offered its own voluntary five per cent norm, with a lower limit of £2.50 and an upper limit of £4. A special TUC conference adopted this policy by a massive majority of 17 to 1. But this decision was to have grave effects on the living standards of ordinary workers. In fact, between 1974 and 1977, the Labour government was to preside over the largest fall in real wages than at any comparable period in British history.

The sterling crisis of early 1976 forced the Labour government to go cap in hand to the IMF. But the IMF would only grant these loans on condition that a £3 billion cut was made in public expenditure over the following two years. The Cabinet reluctantly accepted this IMF proposal.

Anthony Crosland later told Labour Party Conference, to everybody’s astonishment that “the party was over”. Callaghan also stated that Keynesianism was dead and that no government could now spend itself out of a crisis. “We used to think that you could spend your way out of a recession and increase employment by cutting taxes and boosting government spending,” stated Callaghan to the 1976 Labour conference. “I tell you in all candour that that option no longer exists and that insofar as it ever did exist, it only worked on each occasion since the war by injecting a bigger dose of inflation into the economy, followed by a higher level of unemployment at the next step”. In all, over the following period, the government was to slash public expenditure by an estimated £8 billion. This proved to be the thin end of the wedge.

When Wilson resigned the premiership, Callaghan took his place as prime minister. Labour had now lost its overall majority. There was a growing sense of political instability. The following year, in order to get a working majority, the Labour government entered into a formal “Lib-Lab” pact with the Liberals. This retreat, which gave rise to despondency in the rank and file, sealed the fate of the government.

Around this time, a bitter industrial dispute at Grunwick, a photographic processing business in North West London hit the headlines. Mass picketing took place in an attempt to gain the reinstatement of sacked women, mainly Asian workers. The dispute was led by the APEX union, and attracted widespread support. Postal workers refused to handle mail, a key to the company’s business survival. The right-wing National Association for Freedom rushed to the owners’ support in organising alternative deliveries. “I gave NAFF as much support as I could”, stated Margaret Thatcher.

It was the Grunwick dispute that caused Margaret Thatcher to began to formulate her future plans to cripple the trade unions:

“Yet, for all that, Grunwick was not limited to the closed shop; it was about the sheer power of the unions”, wrote Thatcher. “Appalled as I was by what was happening at Grunwick, I did not believe that the time was yet ripe to depart from the cautious line about trade union reform (which I had agreed with Jim Prior) in order to mount radical attack on the closed shop. We had to consider a much wider raft of questions, ranging from the unions’ immunity under civil law, to violence and intimidation which only escaped the criminal law because they came under the guise of lawful picketing. Until we had begun to solve some of these problems, we could not effectively outlaw the closed shop.”[9]

As might be expected, the World Bank and the IMF took a hard view of the Labour government – given its links with the unions and the presence of a left wing inside the party. They correctly feared that the intense pressure of the working class could force Labour to take measures against big business.

“As I saw it, it was a choice between Britain remaining in the liberal financial system of the West as opposed to a radical change of course because we were concerned about Tony Benn precipitating a policy decision by Britain to turn its back on the IMF”, stated William Rogers from the US State Department. “I think if that had happened the whole system would have begun to come apart... it would have had great political consequences. So we tended to see it in cosmic terms.”[10]

The strategists of capital were alarmed by these dangers and called for disciplinary action against the Labour Left, which according to them, was subverting the Labour Party from within: “Moderates in the constituencies must be organised to combat the activities not just of the undemocratic sectarian left, but of the more numerous, less sinister supporters of the Tribune group whose leaders effectively control the NEC”, urged The Economist. “The sensible leaders among Britain’s larger trade unions must be persuaded to purge the national executive.”[11] At all costs, the Labour Party had to be kept in reliable (that is, pro-capitalist) hands, and that was a job for the right-wing trade union leaders.

The cuts in public expenditure were followed by a further stage – Phase Three of the incomes policy. This now stipulated a ten per cent limit on wages rises. But for the working class, this phase proved to be the straw that broke the camel’s back. Enough was enough! Asking for a further round of restraint was simply adding insult to injury. Under pressure, the TUC voted to reject the incomes policy and demanded an immediate return to free collective bargaining. Jack Jones realised the game was up when the vote went against him at the TGWU national conference. In November, 80,000 trade unionists lobbied Parliament against the government’s incomes policy. Callaghan’s attempt to impose a wage limit in the public sector simply pushed “moderate” sections into industrial action. Although strikes were limited in the first period of the Labour government, things began to come to a head at the end of 1977.

In early November, a special conference of the Fire Brigades Union voted to take industrial action (against the wishes of its Executive Council) in pursuit of a 30 per cent wage rise and a reduction in hours from 48 to 42. It was to herald the first national fire brigades’ strike in British history. In spite of the attacks by the press and the use of troops to break the strike, the action remained solid for over two months. Despite the Home Secretary’s hand wringing at the potential loss of life, Merlyn Rees’ over-riding principle was to maintain the government’s pay policy.

Despite widespread sympathy for the striking firefighters, the TUC refused to endorse the dispute. At a special FBU conference in January 1978, 70 per cent of the delegates voted to accept an immediate ten per cent offer, with a new pay formula that was to link firefighters’ pay to manual workers. To the government’s dismay, the 1977 firefighters’ strike served to break the dam of wage-restraint and open the floodgates for other workers.

Winter of Discontent

It was the beginning of the end for the government’s incomes policy. Within a matter of months, the “Winter of Discontent” had commenced. This movement was initially sparked off by an announcement by James Callaghan of a further round of wage restraint. But the prime minister had misjudged the mood entirely. Workers had reached their limit and were not prepared to tow the line any longer. With the TUC in opposition, the incomes policy was dead in the water. Callaghan’s wages proposal was again rejected by the full TUC conference in September 1978.

This signalled a general offensive by the trade unions keen to get back the ground they had lost. Between October 1978 and March 1979 some ten million working days were lost through industrial action. Perhaps the most significant strike was at the Ford Motor Company in 1978, where after seven weeks on strike workers won a 17 per cent increase in wages. In the course of this dispute, the Labour Party Conference also voted against the Labour government’s new five per cent pay policy. This represented a mortal blow for the government. The vote reflected an important shift to the left within the unions and Labour Party. The workers had needed time to digest the lessons of the past period. Now consciousness began very quickly to catch up with reality. By the end of 1978, all hell was let loose.

It is a social law that discontent within the working class finds its expression within the official mass organisations, and this is above all true in Britain. Opposition tends to develop first in the trade unions, then with a certain delay, in the Labour Party, which is historically the political expression of the unions. If their leaders, as in the 1950s and early 1960s, block the workers from taking official action they will tend to take unofficial action. Nevertheless, this accumulated resentment will ultimately find its expression within the trade unions – as is currently taking place today – and also inside the Labour Party.

Local authority manual workers, who were one of the poorest paid sections, took widespread action in support of their wage claim, beginning with a major one-day strike on 22 January 1979. Talks finally broke down at the end of January and half a million workers took strike action in the first week of February. These workers were subjected to a smear campaign in the press, with lurid stories of dead bodies being left unburied and rats in the streets, but they managed to hold out until a revised offer of nine per cent was made at the end of the month.

In a remarkable show of militancy 185,000 TGWU lorry drivers won their first national strike for 50 years through effective picketing. Strike committees were established to run the strike, which vetted transport needs, permitting emergency and essential deliveries, but stopping all others. It was once again a demonstration of the potential power of the workers, and an echo of the Councils of Action of the 1920s. These committees constituted elements of “dual power” in the strike, as they challenged the prerogatives of employers and the state. Thatcher, who was horrified at this display of union strength, declared in the Commons,

“Now we find that the place is practically being run by strikers’ committees... They are ‘allowing’ access to food. They are ‘allowing’ certain lorries to go through... They have no right to prevent them from going through.”

Other low-paid sections, like ambulance workers also followed suit. Although troops were brought in to deal with the dispute, the government made an improved offer of nine per cent plus the promise of pay comparability. On the basis of the revised offer the strike was called off. The struggle of these low paid workers – predominantly women workers – brought them into the trades unions in droves. Membership of the National Union of Public Employees (NUPE), for instance, swelled from 256,000 in 1968 to 693,000 a decade later! Total union membership in 1979 reached unprecedented levels, embracing some 13.3 million or 55 per cent of the workforce. It was an incredible figure and a historic high point of trade union organisation.

The tremendous strike wave of 1978-79 was largely a product of the wage restraint of 1974-77. Workers were prepared to make sacrifices for the Labour government, but were now no longer prepared to see a dramatic fall in their living standards. After months of dithering, in May 1979, Callaghan decided to call a general election. This was a bad miscalculation. As in 1964-70, the counter-reforms of the Labour government had created widespread despondency and disillusionment. On 28 March the government lost a vote of confidence in the Commons by 312 to 311, and Callaghan was forced to dissolveParliament. In the ensuing general election on 3 May, the Callaghan government was defeated. The Tory leader, Margaret Thatcher, became the first woman Prime Minister in history. She would end up also as being the most hated.

The pundits blamed the 1979 defeat on the “Winter of Discontent” and the militant actions of the working class. This is fundamentally false. It was not the struggle for decent pay that caused the defeat, but the growing alienation of workers fed up with the counter-reforms of the Labour government. It was this mood of widespread apathy and abstention amongst Labour voters that led to the electoral debacle. “Disillusion with the Callaghan government was almost complete. Once again, a Labour administration had lost touch with its own supporters”, stated Eric Heffer.[12] Even Denis Healey concurred, “Jim himself was badly out of touch with popular feeling.”[13] The same process had resulted earlier in Labour’s defeat of 1970, a lesson that was not lost on the rank and file of the labour movement.

The coming to power of Margaret Thatcher in 1979 was to pose a new and dangerous threat to organised Labour. The strategy of the Tory Party, developed while in opposition, was to break the power of the unions and to seek revenge for the humiliations of the past. This, in turn, was born out of the special crisis of British capitalism and the need to tame the working class. Thatcherism, which represented capitalism “red in tooth and claw”, was to prove the greatest of test for the trade union movement for more than half a century.


[1] The Economist, 16 February 1974

[2] Quoted in Seumas Milne, The Enemy Within, p.275, London 1994

[3] Gilmour, op. cit, p.211-12.

[4] Chile, the State and Revolution, ed. M. Gonzales, p.152, London 1977

[5] The Times, 15 September 1973

[6] See Steve Peak, Troops in Strikes, p.122, London 1984

[7] The Financial Times, 16 October 1974

[8] Jones, op. cit, p. 298

[9] Margaret Thatcher, The Path to Power, p.401, London 1995

[10] Quoted in Glynn and Harrison, The British Economic Disaster, p.97, London 1980

[11] The Economist, 11 December 1976

[12] Eric Heffer, Labour’s Future, Socialist or SDP Mark Two, p.16, London 1986

[13] Denis Healey, The Time of My Life, p.463, London 1991

Preparing the Class War

The decade of the Seventies had witnessed a prodigious growth in the power and prestige of the trade union movement in Britain. Before the First World War, Lenin once remarked that the trade unions could never hope to encompass more than one third of the working class under capitalism. Yet in 1979, when Margaret Thatcher first came to power, trade union membership reached an historic highpoint of 55 per cent of the workforce, some 13.3 million people. These organisations embraced millions of workers, not least the growing army of white-collar workers, increasingly proletarianised by the changing nature of work.

However, within a decade and a half, the juggernaut of Thatcherism had brought the unions to their knees. Overall numbers in the trade unions had declined to nine million, of which little more than seven million were affiliated to the TUC. The closed shop had been outlawed and the basic right to strike had been severely curtailed. The large elements of workers’ control in the factories and workplaces – control of hiring and firing, the speed of the job, and other restrictions on the prerogatives of management – were completely undermined by the employers’ offensive. The balance of forces within the workplaces swung dramatically in favour of the employers, who, in turn, had no hesitation about putting the boot in. For them, it was retribution for the great unrest of organised labour during much of the 1970s. And as we know, revenge is sweet.

Thatcher’s election victory ushered in a period of sustained attack on the Labour movement. Standing at the doorway of Number Ten, Thatcher quoted the words of St Francis of Assisi: “Where there is discord, may we bring harmony… where there is despair, may we bring hope.” James Prior, her future minister, recalled: “I was nearly sick on the spot. It was so untypical of Margaret’s attitude.”

Prior was quite right. More typical of Thatcher was the language of open class war. But this strident tone was no accident. It reflected the impasse of British capitalism and the new period that demanded an all-out attack on the wages and conditions of the working class. Her election also coincided with a new world slump from 1979-81 that drove up unemployment to record levels, as millions of workers, especially in manufacturing, lost their jobs in the shake-out.

This new harsh climate shocked and stunned the working class. The fear of mass unemployment, which emerged especially after 1974, proved a key weapon in the hands of the bosses and the Tory government. Behind these attacks lay the over-riding strategy of the ruling class, as well as Thatcher, to restore the diminishing power of British capitalism, at the expense of British workers.

Keynesian deficit financing was now declared dead and buried even under the Callaghan government. Tory economic policy was based upon Milton Friedman’s crude theories, which, under the new-fangled name of Monetarism, merely repeated the old nostrums of classical capitalist economics. These were the stale dishes of the interwar period simply reheated and served on different plates. Thatcher’s monetarist policies actually served to exacerbate the economic crisis, leading to the destruction of around 20 per cent of manufacturing industry between 1979 and 1981.

In the context of the global slump of 1979-81, when the output of the OECD countries fell by some 19 per cent, the impact of these policies on Britain was truly catastrophic. It was a kind of Twentieth Century Luddism – but on a vast scale. Industry after industry went to the wall, in a frenzy of downsizing, asset-stripping and take-overs. British industry was forced onto a Procrustean bed, and cut to pieces. Thatcher epitomised the upstart, short-sighted, get-rich-quick sections of the capitalist class. She proclaimed that British industry was “slimmer and fitter,” when it was dying of anorexia.

The ruling class declared open war on the unions. They put their full weight behind the Tories’ attempt to break the power of the trade unions and teach the working class a brutal lesson. Under Lord Carrington a strategy was worked out to shackle the unions. The Tories had neither forgotten nor forgiven their double humiliation in 1972 and 1974. Thatcher was determined to avenge these indignities and destroy the National Union of Mineworkers. If that meant wrecking the majority of the British coalfield in the process, so be it. Whatever it would take in terms of money and resources, she would see the job through to the end. Nevertheless, the conclusions of Lord Carrington were not particularly optimistic:

“Strong unions and advanced technology operated by their members, particularly in fuel and power, mean that no government these days can ‘win’ in the way Mr. Baldwin’s Cabinet triumphed during the General Strike of 1926 by maintaining supplies and services. The group examined the possibility of using the Armed Forces to break strikes and concluded that such a practice could not be adopted on a large scale for two reasons: first that Britain no longer had enough troops and second that it would permanently damage the fabric and practice of the country’s politics.”[1]

Six weeks after the lily-livered Carrington report and its “capitulationist” conclusions, another internal Tory document drafted by Thatcher’s close ally, Nicholas Ridley MP, was leaked. This was far more encouraging for the Thatcherites. This document sketched out the necessary contingency plans to take on the unions, especially the miners, and defeat them. It categorised three sectors vulnerable to strikes:

“(a) sewerage, water, electricity, gas and the health service is the most vulnerable group; (b) railways, docks, coal and dustmen in an intermediate group; and (c) other public transport, education, the postal service and telephones, air transport and steel in the least vulnerable group.”

It concluded that in the most vulnerable sector strikes could not be fought effectively. It was therefore essential to isolate each group and pick them off one at a time. It was important to concentrate on the weakest sections, and be prepared to take whatever means were necessary, including the rigging of profit figures in the nationalised industries to put them on the defensive. “There should be a large and mobile squad of police equipped and prepared to uphold the law against violent picketing”, stated Ridley’s report. “Good non-union drivers should be recruited to cross picket-lines with police protection.”

This was music to Thatcher’s ears! It drew a clear distinction between the “wets” and “dries” in the Cabinet. This union-busting strategy was to be systematically applied over the coming years, and was to prepare the most explosive industrial dispute in Britain since 1926. The preparations, in the words of Nigel Lawson, were “just like re-arming to face the threat of Hitler in the late 1930s.” If only the union leaders would show such determination as Thatcher did for her class!

In preparation for the showdown, new hard-faced managers were recruited to deal with the unions in the nationalised industries. In November 1979, the chairman of British Leyland, Sir Michael Edwards, in collusion with the secret services, succeeded in sacking Derek Robinson (vilified in the press as “Red Robbo”), convenor of Longbridge in Birmingham and undermining union organisation in the plant. In April 1980 Edwards imposed a wage deal and changed working practices over the heads of the union. The resulting strike was undermined and broken by threats of dismissals. In November, Edwards threatened to close the Cowley plant if the workers went on strike over pay. Intimidated by these tactics, when the TGWU and AUEW called strikes, they were rejected by large margins and the “deal” was reluctantly accepted.

Following this, management attempted to operate a system of unilateral control, which later resulted in internal changes and mass redundancies throughout British Leyland. These actions represented the new brutal management methods being introduced across British industry. Ian MacGregor, an American boss with a record of fighting the American mineworkers’ unions, was brought in as steel industry chairman to “sort things out”. He had, incidentally, been deputy-chairman of BL under Michael Edwards. In 1980, he provoked a thirteen week steel strike, which ended in defeat for the steel union, the ISTC, under the “moderate” Bill Sirs. This resulted in the destruction of 80,000 jobs. Later MacGregor’s tried and tested talents would be used to take on the miners.

After the bitter experience of the Callaghan government, the Labour Party had moved dramatically to the left. In May 1980 the TUC called a successful mass “Day of Action” against the Tories. In November, the Labour Party held a national demonstration of 150,000 in Liverpool against unemployment. Demands for greater controls over the party leadership and the contents of the election manifesto grew rapidly within Labour’s ranks. This culminated in a special Labour Conference at Wembley in January 1981.

After a bitter struggle, the old system whereby the Parliamentary Labour Party alone elected the Party Leader and Deputy Leader was thrown out, and a new Electoral College was established, giving the unions 40 per cent of the votes, and the constituency parties and the PLP 30 per cent each. It also endorsed mandatory reselection of MPs, which arose from a growing dissatisfaction with the long list of fifth columnists within Labour’s ranks. People such as Reg Prentice, Ray Gunter, Roy Jenkins and George Brown had used and abused the party to promote their careers, and then ditched it. This produced immense dissatisfaction in the ranks that was expressed in the demand for control over the leadership. The changes approved at Wembley abolished the “divine right of MPs” to rule the Labour Party. They were an immense advance for internal democracy and the rights of the rank and file.

Of course, they were not to everybody’s liking. The usual cabal of right-wing trade union leaders did everything in its power to prevent this shift to the left, and organised a secret faction to secure their aims. “St. Ermine’s Hotel dinners, where Duffy (AEU), Roy Grantham (APEX), Bill Sirs (steelworkers), Sid Weighell (railwaymen), Frank Chapple (electricians) and others met regularly to plan their strategy”, revealed The Observer (4 October 1981). Here they met regularly to plot and hatch their plans to subvert the Labour Party. But given the profound disappointment with the Callaghan government, at this stage this secret “conspiracy” was largely a rearguard struggle.

Before the new party rules were put in place, Callaghan resigned, leaving the PLP, yet again, to choose the Leader of the party. Unexpectedly, the soft-left Michael Foot was chosen as the new Leader. In the following election for Deputy Leader, which took place under the new rules, the Left decided to put up Tony Benn against the Right’s candidate, Denis Healey. Benn was defeated by a hair’s breadth – 50.426 per cent to 49.574 per cent. He had taken over 80 per cent support in the Constituency Labour Parties and 40 per cent of the union votes. The vote in the PLP, however, tipped the balance in Healey’s favour.

As a pointer to his future role, Neil Kinnock, though elected on a Left ticket to Labour’s executive committee, abstained with 20 other Tribune supporters, robbing Benn of victory. Another factor in Healey’s favour was the votes of the treacherous “Gang of Four”, Roy Jenkins, Shirley Williams, David Owen and Bill Rodgers, who voted in the Deputy Leadership election, and then split away from the party soon after to form the SDP. The Gang attracted the support of twenty-five Labour MPs and one Tory to their breakaway. However, as in 1931, the bulk of right-wingers remained behind in the Labour Party.

“I would have fitted into the SDP, and they would have liked to enrol me”, wrote right-winger Betty Boothroyd in her autobiography. “None of my friends who left the party discussed it with me, but I never thought of them as traitors and there was no bitterness between us.”[2] For these right-wingers, it was simply a division of labour in keeping the Labour Party committed to the capitalist track.

The Tories’ hold on power was extremely fragile. 1981 proved to be a low point in Thatcher’s political fortunes. The attacks carried out by the Tories on the welfare state, local government, and the working class generally, provoked enormous resentment. The avalanche of redundancies across the face of British industry added to their unpopularity. The Tories sunk to new lows in the opinion polls. Like King Midas in reverse, everything Thatcher touched seemed to turn to ashes. It was later revealed that the “Iron Lady” was completely demoralised and even on the verge of resigning as Prime Minister.

Premature confrontation

In February 1981, the Tories had provoked a premature confrontation with the miners. The then NCB chairman, Derek Ezra, announced the closure of up to fifty pits on “uneconomic” grounds, twenty-three immediately. Miners in South Wales immediately struck and sent flying pickets calling on other areas to follow suit. Kent struck followed by Scotland, Derbyshire and Yorkshire. Totally unprepared for a miners’ strike, the Tories beat a hasty retreat. Tory John Biffen remarked at the time: “I did not come into politics in order to be a Kamikaze pilot.” In the words of Mick McGahey, the NUM’s vice-president, the government’s action was “not so much a U-turn, more a body swerve.” It was only a temporary truce in the war, similar to “Red Friday” 1925, when the miners were granted a subsidy, giving Baldwin time to prepare for a showdown.

Joe Gormley, the right-wing president of the NUM, who had been working closely with MI5, retired in December 1981. By this time, miners were sick and tired of decades of right-wing leadership, which had resulted in massive closures and declining relative pay. As a consequence, Arthur Scargill, the Left candidate, was elected as president with 70 per cent of the vote – the biggest vote for such a position in the union’s history. It was regarded as an historic victory for the Left generally. Scargill, who liked to model himself on Arthur Cook, was by far the most militant of the trade union leaders. At the following year’s union conference in Inverness, the Left clearly revealed its increased strength. Within two years, the Left had won an overall majority on the executive for the first time in NUM history.

The union was certainly in a strong position to face any attempt to introduce a new closure package. However, the left leadership experienced a succession of setbacks. Misjudging the mood, they lost no less than three national strike ballots in just over a year. In January 1982, the call for strike action over a national pay claim was turned down with 45 per cent in favour. Again the October 1982 ballot on pay and jobs was defeated, this time with only 39 per cent support. In February 1983 the NCB announced the closure of two South Wales’ pits, Lewis Merthyr and Blaengwrach. The Lewis Merthyr men occupied their pit and miners struck elsewhere in the coalfield in solidarity. Nonetheless, in a national ballot, while 68 per cent in South Wales voted in favour of action, disastrously only 39 per cent overall voted to support the strike.

It was a bitter pill to swallow and had a disheartening effect on the confidence of many of the union’s activists. In Nottinghamshire only 19 per cent voted for strike action, in South Derbyshire a mere 12 per cent. Many union activists in Scotland, South Wales and the North East, increasingly believed they had been marginalised. Scargill had argued on the executive committee that a national strike could have been called under Rule 41, allowing Area strikes on which national support could be built. However, as the Left was still in a minority at this stage, he was over-ruled by the right-wing majority.

A deep-seated feeling developed amongst a layer of activists that a national ballot on pit closures was unwinnable. They were convinced (wrongly) that the younger miners in Yorkshire, never mind Nottinghamshire, would never be prepared to strike again. Clearly there were difficulties. In particular, the area incentive scheme of 1977, which was forced through by the right wing although it had been thrown out in a national ballot, served to sow divisions within the workforce. There were big disparities between different pits and different areas, which could only be overcome with a continuous campaign of explanation and agitation. The Left wanted to fight in 1982, but with the right wing still in a majority at the top of the union, this was not to be.

Workers, whether they are miners or any other section, do not go on strike at the drop of a hat. Not only must there be a strong reason, but a strike needs to be well prepared. This is particularly the case where workers are challenging a hostile government. This is even more the case over the issue of pit closures when miners were under varying degrees of threat. A campaign would have to be waged to reach to every worker to explain all the issues so that essential unity could be built from below. Given the results of previous ballots, a lot of work had still to be done in the field of propaganda and organisation.

The Tories had introduced anti-trade union legislation to curb the power of the unions. The Trade Union Act of 1980 provided finance for secret ballots, limited picketing to six people, outlawed secondary picketing and removed the immunity for certain types of secondary actions. The 1982 Act exposed union funds to damages for “unlawful acts” (unless explicitly repudiated) and removed trade union immunity from political strikes. This legislation placed restrictions on the closed shop: “The Conservative Party is not prepared to get itself into a position of trying to pass laws which employers ask us to pass and then don’t use”, remarked Employment secretary James Prior.

Under pressure from below, the TUC Congresses of 1982 and 1983 passed motions of opposition to these laws and promised to mobilise the movement in the event of any legal attacks. However, the leaders of the trade unions were constantly looking to avoid confrontation with the Tory government, preferring the road of “dialogue”. By 1985, with the engineering and electricians unions voting to accept Tory government funds for secret ballots, any semblance of united trade union opposition to government legislation finally crumbled.

In 1982 the Left’s advance in the Labour movement appeared to have come to a halt. This was partly a reflection of the objective situation. Following the slump of 1979-81, the growth of mass unemployment sapped the strength of the working class. Unemployment had risen to well over three million, three times the figure of 1979. Under these conditions, industrial militancy began to ebb away, although a number of bitter strikes still occurred even during these years. These involved civil servants, oil tanker drivers, water workers, carworkers, printworkers, teachers, bank workers, prison officers, bakers, civil servants, ambulance workers, seafarers, miners, railworkers, and steelworkers. Despite this long list of disputes, the number of days actually lost through strikes in 1983 – a general election year – was the lowest since the war.

There were other factors in this industrial ebb, such as the defeat of the train drivers in July 1982 over the question of “flexible rostering”. British Rail saw flexible rostering as part of the previous summer’s deal on pay and productivity. Determined to increase “efficiency” (cut costs), management had sought to impose a productivity deal on the industry involving a flexible roster that would eventually lead to 4,000 job losses. “The isolation of the ASLEF executive and its militant stupidity was going to be crucial to my strategy”, wrote Sir Peter Parker, Chairman of British Rail.[3]

Flexible rostering

Management successfully managed to bring the NUR and TSSA on board. While Parker regarded Sid Weighell of the NUR as “a man to do business with”, ASLEF’s Ray Buckton “went with the Militant Tendency, although I still doubt whether he was one of them.”[4] Parker withdrew the last pay offer of three per cent, but this backfired when it provoked the NUR to take action. Of course, Weighell opposed the strike. “I’ve already told them they’re daft”, Weighell told Parker. ASLEF also planned to strike. “What made this time particularly dangerous was that the separate negotiations with ASLEF and NUR were racing parallel and it was absolutely essential they be kept apart: a combined attack by both unions would have been hard, if not impossible, to resist”, stated Parker.[5] But within 48 hours of the NUR strike, Weighell had come to the rescue and managed to get the strike called off, leaving ASLEF isolated.

Management announced that it was imposing flexible rostering by 5 July unless, by 30 June, ASLEF agreed to its introduction. The ASLEF strike began on 4 July. Thatcher was now flushed with the military victory in the South Atlantic. She now talked of the trade unions in the same terms that she spoke of the Argentine army. In a speech at Cheltenham, Thatcher invoked what she called the “Falkland’s spirit”. BR tried everything to break the strike and even announced the closure of the whole network. Eventually, with a back room deal brokered by the TUC the strike buckled after two weeks. “Len (Murray) could get no public thanks for his help, but his intervention, the generosity of his time, was typical of him”, states Parker. “He was one of the industry’s gentlemen.”[6]

“The collapse of the two-week strike by Britain’s train drivers is one of the most significant union defeats of recent times and its repercussions will be felt throughout the Labour movement…” stated Philip Bassett, Labour Correspondent of The Financial Times. “The outcome is a triumph for the hard line approach to industrial relations as patented by Sir Michael Edwards at BL… Again the ending of the strike, and ASLEF’s likely acceptance of flexible rostering, is a success for the government on a spectacular scale. Following the victory over the Falklands, the government was in no mood to compromise.”[7]

The article continued:

“The fact that it was the TUC which provided the means for getting the railways back to work may give it kudos among outsiders. To the union rank and file it will be taken as evidence of betrayal.”

Indeed it is hard to find any other word to describe this. The leadership had capitulated and, to make matters worse, the “Left” on the General Council was also responsible, as no vote was even taken on the negotiating body when the deal was hatched to accept flexible rostering. The pathetic conduct of the TUC is summed up by the following exchange between the general secretary of the TUC and the Chairman of British rail:“OK, Peter, that’s it then”, said Len Murray to Parker. “Don’t shoot any prisoners.”[8] The defeat served to further undermine the confidence of the workers. If the left-wing ASLEF could not win, what hope was there for the less militant unions?

In the political arena, under the pressure of the capitalist media, a witch-hunt was in full swing inside the Labour Party against supporters of the Militant tendency, resulting in the expulsion of its editorial board from the party. This was the prelude of an attack against the Left generally, and had the full backing of the right-wing trade union leaders. The growing mood of witch hunting and McCarthyism within the Party and the hue and cry in the press affected the “soft Left”, which began to shift rapidly to the right. A number of former “Lefts” were to eventually end up as leading Blairites, such as Mr Paul Boateng, now a minister at the Treasury, and David Blunkett, now Blair’s reactionary Home Secretary.

The Falklands War

Up until April 1982, the Tories had been floundering in the opinion polls. They were in grave difficulties politically and looked as if they were heading for electoral defeat. The revival of their political fortunes was the result of an unforeseen accident. In order to deflect the growing unrest within his own country, Argentina’s General Galtieri, a loyal and trusted ally of Britain, seized the Falkland Islands, a British province in the South Atlantic. This act resulted in war with Britain, a war that neither side expected or desired: “Sadly, both sides misread the real intentions of the other”, stated Tory minister William Whitelaw.

Up until that moment Britain had had very good relations with the Argentine military dictatorship. They had cheerfully supplied a regime that had murdered 24,000 people since 1976 with destroyers, bombers, planes and missiles. They were even prepared to contemplate handing the Falkland Islands back to Argentina, a fact that was underlined by the negotiations conducted by Lord Carrington, Thatcher’s foreign minister and confidant, with the Junta. But the seizure of the islands was a military humiliation for Britain that could not be accepted.

The war provided a golden opportunity for Thatcher to rally people on the basis of “national unity” against the “foreign aggression” perpetrated on the Falkland Islanders. Up until then, the British government showed not the slightest interest in the conditions or rights of the Falklanders, and even went as far as to deny them entry into Britain under the Nationality Act. Even less were they concerned with the democratic rights of the Argentineans. Only after the invasion of the islands did they suddenly discover that the Junta was a “fascist” regime that murdered and tortured people.

It would not have been difficult to expose the hypocritical and lying propaganda of the Tories in relation to Argentina. But the confused and position of the Labour leadership on the war played into Tory hands. Michael Foot revealed himself as a dithering old man in the debates in the Commons, where in practice he supported the fleet being sent to the South Atlantic to “defend democracy”, but then was against using it! By contrast Thatcher appeared to be firm and uncompromising, as indeed she always was in defence of the interests of capitalism and imperialism.

In fact, however, this “uncompromising” style was a disguise for stupidity and a lack of any understanding, perspective or sense of proportion. Traditionally, the most able leaders of the British ruling class were characterised by their extreme flexibility. They were usually aristocrats, used to taking abroad view of things, whereas Mrs. Thatcher (like Tony Blair) was a middle-class upstart, accustomed to thinking in pounds, shillings and pence. And upstarts with big ideas are very dangerous animals, highly prone to adventures.

A “conviction” politician (again like Tony Blair), the “Iron lady” merely blundered into situations and hoped for the best. This is not a very intelligent policy. In fact, it is not a policy at all. From a military point of view the Falklands war was a foolish adventure that could easily have ended in a catastrophe (and nearly did so). Mrs Thatcher’s great advantage was that she usually faced enemies who were even more incompetent than herself. The result of the war was just a stroke of luck. But it dramatically transformed the perspectives for her government.

The quick victory over Argentina had a profound short-term effect. It was sufficient to provide the Tory government with a landslide victory at the general election. In December 1981, the Tories were trailing at 23 per cent in the polls; a month after the Falklands’ war, their support stood at 46 per cent, with Labour at 27 per cent and the SDP-Liberal Alliance at 24 per cent. By the time of the general election in June 1983, the Tories scored a major victory with 43.5 per cent of the vote to Labour’s 28.3 per cent and the SDP-Alliance’s 26 per cent. The Tory landslide was a terrible blow for the Labour Party. While the SDP failed to split the Labour Party, it did succeed in splitting the Labour vote, costing the party some 2-3 million votes, and resulting in its most humiliating defeat in sixty years.

This was the highpoint for the SDP-Alliance. It was backed by the capitalist media with the expressed intention of undermining the “extremist” Labour Party. Eventually, an acrimonious unity between the SDP and the Liberal Party resulted in a messy fusion to form the Liberal Democrats. However, a number of former SDP members, who stabbed the Labour Party in the back, would eventually rejoin the Labour Party to provide support for John Smith, and especially Tony Blair.

In the aftermath of the 1983 defeat, Michael Foot resigned and Neil Kinnock, the former-left, was elected leader of the Labour Party. It marked a significant move to the right in the Party and the unions. At the TUC Congress in September, Len Murray, the Methodist general secretary, with the vocal support of right-wingers Frank Chappell of the Electrical Electronic Telecommunications and Plumbing Union (EETPU) and Alistair Graham of the Civil Public Services Association (CPSA), announced the policy of “New Realism”. It signified the official abandonment of any form of militant action or resistance to Thatcherism.

In the opinion of these people, the unions had to accept the domination of Thatcherism, adopt a more “conciliatory” approach to the employers, and above all be prepared to enter talks with the Tory government:

“We cannot talk as if the trade union movement is some sort of alternative government…” said Murray. “We are at a watershed in our affairs,” Graham said. “It is obvious that very many of us are in the mood for change, and my argument is that change we must.”

For the right wing, the unions had to be pragmatic and hold out the hand of “co-operation” to the union-hater Thatcher. This, in turn, would involve the unions distancing themselves to a greater degree than ever before from the Labour Party. The unions had to “do business” with the Tories as well as the employers.

The TUC tops fell over backwards in their enthusiasm for carrying out this hopeless strategy of prostration. “TUC involvement in government owes much to Churchill’s war-time Coalition government, and to the Conservative governments that established the NEDC and the MSC”, pontificated the TUC Strategy, written by Len Murray. The TUC Congress accepted “New Realism” by 5.8 million to 4 million votes. It signified the start of the most catastrophic period of defeats and decline in the history of the trade union movement for the last half a century.

What caused this shift to the right in the Labour movement, especially at the top? The ruling class puts tremendous pressure on the leaders of the movement through its press, media, and “public opinion” as a means of moulding their outlook. The elevated position of the trade union and Labour leadership, with their indulgent life-style, creates an inherent tendency to become divorced from the rank and file. They came to see themselves as mediators in the class struggle, with one foot in either camp. In times of heightened class struggle, when workers are active and participating in their organisations, they put counter pressure on the tops of the unions, forcing them to reflect the aspirations of the rank and file. Conversely, when the mass organisations empty out, the leadership is subjected to the pressures of the ruling class a hundred-fold. This causes them to shift further to the right and embrace bourgeois ideology.

Broadly speaking this process took place during the 1980s. In this decade, although the rate of exploitation increased, the capitalists were generally prepared to grant wage rises above the rate of inflation. In particular from 1982 until 1987 there was a rise in real earnings. Those fortunate enough to keep their jobs, particularly in manufacturing industry, experienced an increase in living standards in absolute terms, though the rate of exploitation increased, as did indebtedness through credit.

The increased intensity and pressure of work meant that most workers had less time to participate in the union organisations. In any case, what was the point of participating when the unions were not offering anything? Therefore, participation in the trade unions and Labour Party fell away as the result of both objective and subjective reasons. This, in turn, served to intensify the pressures of capitalism on the trade union and Labour leadership, pushing them further to the right. The economic boom of the 1980s, which began in 1982, provided the material basis for this rightward shift of the social pendulum. There were other factors that reinforced this development, especially the series of defeats on the industrial front, which again served to sap the confidence of the working class.

Warrington dispute

During December 1983, just months after the Tory victory, came another important test case for the unions. In Warrington a bitter dispute broke out between the print union, the National Graphical Association (NGA), and the Stockport Messenger, a local newspaper owned by small businessman Eddie Shah – an anti-union tin-pot employer and staunch admirer of Margaret Thatcher. The dispute was over the employment of non-union labour. It was a vital dispute for the print industry. If the print unions could be defeated here, then the employers across the industry would be given the green light to smash closed shop agreements and introduce new technology at the expense of jobs. During the dispute, the print bosses and the Tories bankrolled Eddie Shah.

At Warrington the policing methods later used against other strikers, especially the miners, were perfected. It was a dress rehearsal for future industrial battles. At one point, in a departure from “normal” policing, police set up road blocks on M6 motorway exits to stop pickets getting near the newspaper plant. On the picket line riot police were used in the most ferocious manner to attack strikers and keep the plant open. Clearly the use of these new policing techniques was intended to prevent any possibility of a re-enactment of Saltley Gate, where the police were caught completely off guard.

As soon as the NGA instructed all its members to boycott the Stockport Messenger Group and began mass picketing of the Warrington Plant, Eddie Shah was granted an injunction against the union for breaching the 1980 Employment Act – which forbade secondary action – as well as the 1982 Employment Act – limiting the closed shop. When the union ignored the injunction it was first fined £50,000. When it still refused to obey the court, further fines of £100,000, and eventually £250,000 were imposed. At the end of November 1983, the High Court ordered the sequestration of the total assets of the NGA.

This was a declaration of all-out war by the Tory government. Under the circumstances, the printworkers looked to the TUC for solidarity action. In December, the Employment Committee of the General Council voted to support the NGA’s stance. However, Len Murray, who was subsequently backed by the full General Council, publicly repudiated this stand. This sabotage by the TUC right wing left the NGA isolated. The union went down to defeat. To rub salt into the wound, at the full legal hearing in 1984, Eddie Shah was awarded a further £250,000 damages against the NGA. This represented a major defeat for the trade union movement.

This signalled the beginning of an offensive in the print industry that was to effectively break the strength of the print unions and tear up all terms and conditions. A decade later, after the rout of the print unions at Warrington and Wapping, a centralised deal was eventually agreed between the employers and the GPMU (which was an amalgamation of the NGA and SOGAT). Complete “flexibility” was introduced into the industry between all occupations and grades, effectively sweeping away all demarcation lines between skills. Both unions and employers agreed that “the industry’s workforce, plant and equipment” would be “deployed fully and effectively in order to increase efficiency, provide a quick and flexible response to customers’ requirements and improve profitability.”[9]

In January 1984, Thatcher personally stepped in to ban 7,000 staff at GCHQ communications centre in Cheltenham from holding union membership. Trade unionists, it was implied, could no longer be trusted with national security. This was another blatant attack on democratic rights and a further affront to the trade union movement. However, the TUC gave a docile response, offering Thatcher a feeble “no-disruption” deal at GCHQ. Predictably, the Prime Minister rejected the offer “with distain”, to quote the moderate Alistair Graham, who took his “New Realism” very seriously and, not surprisingly, ended up on the other side of the class divide. He later resigned from the CPSA to become head of the Industrial Society.

After the 1983 general election victory, with a thumping 141-seat majority behind her, Thatcher appointed Peter Walker as Energy Secretary. “Peter, I want you to go to Energy,” Walker is said to have been told by Thatcher. “We’re going to have a miners’ strike.”[10]


[1] The Times, 18 April 1978

[2] Betty Boothroyd – The Autobiography, p.109, London 2001

[3] Parker, For Starters, p.254, London 1989

[4] Ibid, p.258

[5] Ibid, p.276

[6] Ibid, p.281

[7] The Financial Times, 19 July 1982

[8] Parker, op. cit, p.286

[9] Quoted in Taylor, op. cit, p.102

[10] Michael Crick, Scargill and the Miners, p.96, London 1985

“The Enemy Within”

The miners’ strike of 1984-85 was the bitterest class war since the 1926 General Strike. The Tory government of Margaret Thatcher mobilised the entire strength of the state to crush the National Union of Mineworkers. Paramilitary riot police placed mining communities under total siege. The welfare state was manipulated to starve miners back to work. A scab workforce was organised to break the strike, and billions were spent to keep the power stations running without coal. The full weight of the courts was used to sequestrate the funds of the miners’ union and break its resolve. The capitalist press churned out a Niagara of lies against the miners. As with all great events, it exposed the class relations of society. All the forces of the old society combined in order to crush the miners.

For twelve months, the miners and their families held out against this unprecedented onslaught. Their heroism, determination and courage astonished the world and inspired millions. They demonstrated their unconquerable will to fight. This struggle brings to mind the epic words of the revolutionary poet Shelley, written in the aftermath of the massacre at Peterloo:

Rise, like lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number!
Shake your chains to earth, like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you:
Ye are many – they are few!

At the time of Thatcher’s second election victory in 1983, plans were well advanced to take revenge on the miners. Coal stocks were steadily built up, totalling nearly 49 million tons by the time of the strike. The Central Electricity Generating Board increasingly switched from coal to nuclear power. Everything was done to make existing pits appear “uneconomic” and therefore “unprofitable”. The Tories demanded they be shut down, despite the terrible social consequences. They were determined to impose the “rigours of the market”, which had already destroyed swathes of manufacturing jobs, on the coal industry. This policy had been bitterly opposed by the NUM, which insisted that pits should only close when they run out of mineable reserves, and not on so-called “uneconomic” grounds.

This plan to defeat the miners was more than just about revenge for past humiliations. The Tories wanted to crush the miners because to them they epitomised militancy. Their real aim, however, was to cow the rest of the working class, and completely alter the balance of forces across British industry. Thatcher imagined that Great Britain could only become great once more on the backs of an oppressed and exploited working class. Wages had to be driven down to the lowest levels possible. In effect, the programme of Thatcherism meant an attempt to return to Victorian times. A humiliating defeat of the NUM would represent a decisive blow to the morale of the British workers, and open up a new stage of capitalist domination.

In preparation for the struggle, the Tories had placed the police force under centralised command in the guise of the National Reporting Centre at New Scotland Yard. Thousands of extra riot police were trained and the Special Patrol Group was beefed up. New anti-union laws were on the statute books. Non-unionism had been systematically encouraged amongst road haulage firms. In October, the NUM had begun an overtime ban over wages to reduce coal stocks and to prepare the ground for industrial action. By early 1984 Thatcher believed everything was in place to quickly isolate and defeat the miners. The Tories boasted that it was to be their “industrial Falklands”.

The Coal Board chairman Ian MacGregor immediately set about making provocative statements about reducing the size of the coal industry. In the course of this he dropped a bombshell about plans to shed 20,000 jobs and close some twenty pits. On 1 March 1984 the NCB announced the closure of Cortonwood colliery in Yorkshire. It was to be the first pit closure on “uneconomic” grounds without NUM consent since 1981. The fat was on the fire; there was no turning back. The stage was set for the “mother of all class battles”.

Superficial commentators in the capitalist press had written-off the fighting abilities of the miners. They said the old militant traditions of 1972 and 1974 had been swamped by consumer affluence. Young miners now had mortgages, cars, TVs, videos, foreign holidays and such like. Such opinions were reinforced by the likes of Professor Hobsbawn, of the British “Communist” Party, who had drawn deeply pessimistic conclusions about the working class in his essay The Forward March of Labour Halted? For him, the highpoint of working class solidarity and consciousness had peaked some 25-30 years earlier, and from then on it was downhill all the way. Events were soon to give the lie to this ingrained pessimism, so characteristic of the “left” intelligentsia.

On hearing the news of the Cortonwood closure, and without waiting for the NUM executive to call a national ballot, there were spontaneous walkouts across the coalfields. It was like a mighty army regrouping for battle. As in 1981, flying pickets were sent out to bring all pits to a standstill. In South Wales, Tyrone O’sullivan, the branch secretary of Tower colliery, took the initiative of sending pickets to every Welsh pit to rally support, to great effect. In South Wales, at the initial pithead ballots only 11 out of 28 pits voted to strike. Clearly bad feeling had been created by the abandonment of the earlier struggle over Lewis Merthyr. However, once the pickets arrived and the case was explained, the situation was transformed. The South Wales coalfield was rock solid for action, and would remain so for the duration of the strike. By early March some 171 pits were at a standstill. Not only were Yorkshire, Scotland, Wales, Kent and Durham firm, flying pickets were sent into Nottinghamshire, North Derbyshire and Lancashire to spread the stoppage.

A special issue of The Miner was rushed out with the heading “The Fight’s On.” Unfortunately, the national executive of the union decided not to call a national ballot. This was a serious mistake since there is no doubt that a ballot could have been won with a campaign. This was demonstrated by what happened in South Wales. Also a MORI poll for LWT’s Weekend World, taken on Friday 9 March, showed that 62 per cent of miners were prepared to strike over pit closures, compared with 33 per cent against.[1] Instead the executive endorsed the strike through Rule 41, which gave powers to the Areas to call strikes. “I want to make it clear that we are not dealing with niceties here,” explained Mick McGahey, the union’s vice-president. “Area by area will decide, and in my opinion it will have a domino effect.” He went on to oppose a national ballot with the words: “We shall not be constitutionalised out of a defence of our jobs.”[2]

But this was a tactical blunder of the first magnitude. It reflected a lack of confidence in the miners. Traditionally, as was evident from 1972 and 1974, miners held a national ballot before any national action. The attempt to circumvent this practice simply served to play into the hands of the Tories and all those who opposed the miners. This and other mistakes were to have far reaching consequences for the dispute. A successful ballot for action, a united army facing the NCB and Tories, would have resulted in victory within a space of three or four months. Now there was to be a long drawn-out battle.


The failure of get the Nottingham miners to join the strike had serious consequences for the dispute. Attempts by miners from Yorkshire and elsewhere to repeat the tactic of mass picketing in Nottingham failed to stop the working pits and only embittered relations between the coalfields. Rather than calling pithead meetings to bring the pits out as in South Wales, the Nottingham NUM leaders announced an area coalfield ballot and opposed picketing from other areas as “counter-productive”. The Fleet Street press, co-ordinated by Downing Street, whipped up a hysterical campaign about “intimidation”, “violence” and picket-line “thugs” attacking working miners. At this point, an NUM picket, David Jones, was tragically killed in an incident at Ollerton in Nottinghamshire. On 14 March, MacGregor and Thatcher met privately and agreed that the key to breaking the NUM would be to keep the Nottingham pits working. Leon Brittan, the Home Secretary, faced with 90 per cent of pits closed, ordered 3,000 police into Nottinghamshire to deal with “mob rule” and create an atmosphere of lawlessness – all of which was used as propaganda against the NUM.

Countless police vans streamed into the coalfield, breaking up picket lines, and intimidating strikers. While this was going on, the result of the Notts vote revealed 26 per cent of miners had backed the strike, an increase of seven per cent on the previous ballot. In Lancashire, the strike vote was lost 3,765 to 2,596; in the Midlands it went down by around three to one; and in North Derbyshire there was a wafer-thin 16-vote majority against. The failure to support the strike in these areas can be explained by a number of factors but ultimately it was the lack of a serious campaign by the leadership that could have turned the situation around. These miners were not innately right-wing. They had given strong support in the 1972 and 1974 strikes. Richardson, the Broad Left candidate had also won the Notts general secretary comfortably the year before. As the strike spread from below, the key was to extend and deepen it and ensure its success. When the police proceeded to completely seal off Nottinghamshire, pickets were prevented from talking to or communicating with working miners. They were deliberately kept isolated, bussed into work, and sealed-off by massed ranks of police. Nottinghamshire was like a besieged fortress.

Along with the ideological attack from the Tories and the capitalist media the miners were subjected throughout the strike to unparalleled attacks from the police and judiciary. During the dispute an unprecedented 10,000 striking miners were arrested, two were killed on picket duty, David Jones and Joe Green, and countless numbers were injured. The judiciary was used like a sledgehammer against the men – this can be seen in the use of bail conditions. For example, in May 1984 three Doncaster miners were granted bail (on charges that, if found guilty, would entail little more than a fine) on condition they had no contact whatsoever with each other, that they observe an 8pm to 8am curfew, that they report to the police station twice a day and that they did not enter Nottinghamshire! Most of the miners arrested were charged with minor offences that had not been heard in British courts for generations: 500 were charged with “unlawful assembly,” and 200 were charged with “watching and besetting” (a charge brought under the 1875 Conspiracy and Protection of Property Act). Despite this onslaught from the state, the young miners fought like lions.

By the end of the first week of the Notts picketing, there were over twenty thousand police from 43 different forces available to police picket lines and patrol the mining communities. The chief constable of Nottinghamshire estimated that 64,508 individuals were stopped from entering the county in the first twenty-seven weeks of the strike. Their actions were coordinated by the NRC (National Reporting Centre), with all the technology and new policing methods developed over the previous period. The police were determined to match and even outnumber the pickets. On the explicit orders of the Thatcherites, all means – including violence – were to be used against the NUM to break the strike. As in Warrington, the first police tactic was to stop pickets getting near the working miners. On the picket line it was one of containment, rapidly followed by assault. Police would attempt to cordon-off the pickets well away from any scabs. Arbitrary and indiscriminate arrests would take place then snatch squads would build up pressure on the pickets.

Where large numbers of pickets converged, police on foot, wielding truncheons, faced them with baton charges and short shields, the use of dogs and specially armoured police vans. If this were not enough to break the pickets, the police cordons would part to let through the lightly armed Police Support Units (PSUs) with their round Perspex shields and truncheons, followed by a cavalry charge from the mounted police. These activities were routinely backed up by MI5 surveillance and intelligence, under the ever-watchful eye and direction of Stella Rimington.

On 20 April, a Notts NUM delegate conference representing all those on strike belatedly agreed to make the strike official. But it was somewhat late. The failure to act earlier meant that the bulk of the Nottinghamshire coalfield continued to work. Two-thirds of the miners were at work, while a third backed the strike. This proved to be an Achilles’ heel. It allowed coal to be mined, but more importantly, it was used by the government and capitalist media to foster disunity in the working class. It became a focal point for all those wanting to break the strike.

The Ballot

The decision not to call a national ballot resulted in a hue and cry from all who opposed the strike. A frenzied campaign orchestrated by the Tories, the capitalist media, and the right wing – with the Labour leaders in tow – was waged to smash the miners and break the strike. Of course in the past, when it suited their interests, these “democrats” were quite prepared to ignore ballots. For instance, when the NUM membership voted in a ballot by 55.75 per cent to oppose the introduction of the national incentive scheme, it was declared null and void by Gormley and the right wing. When the issue was taken to the High Court, Mr Justice Watkins declared that the ballot result had “no great force or significance.” For the ruling class, deceit, lies, black propaganda, violence and subterfuge are all legitimate weapons in the struggle.

In the concrete circumstances of the strike, the ballot controversy became a diversion. It was well within the rules of the union to carry through the struggle by using Rule 41. However, at the special delegate conference on 19 April 1984, just over a month into the strike, there was an opportunity to turn the ballot issue against the opponents of the strike. Delegates voted to change the rules so that a simple majority was enough for a strike, as opposed to 55 per cent previously. At this point, tactically it would have been preferable to organise a ballot while on strike to cut the ground from under the Tories. With more than 80 per cent of miners on strike, a ballot for strike action would have been easily carried.

The subsequent NACODS ballot, with 82.5 per cent voting for strike action, showed what would have been possible. Whether such a decision would have turned around the situation in Nottinghamshire is an open question, but it would have deprived the Labour and TUC leaders of the lame excuses behind which they were hiding. But on the advice of their leaders, the delegates rejected this, and attention now turned to stopping the movement of coal. From now on, every miner not working was deemed to be on strike. It was a fight to the finish, with no holds barred.

Thatcher was hoping for a quick victory as the strike headed towards the summer months, a time when less coal was burned, and stockpiles were high. Publicly the Tories preached “non-intervention” as they believed they were assured of victory, and had only to sit out the strike. They were, nevertheless, desperate to avoid provoking other groups of workers from joining the miners on strike. Therefore, they made significant concessions to other workers. But as time wore on, they became more and more alarmed by the situation. The miners stubbornly refused to give up. The Tories were taken aback by the enormous will power, solidarity, imagination, and organising abilities of the miners, their families and supporters. The strategy of the government was beginning to run into difficulties.

To the utter astonishment of the ruling class, the resolve of the miners hardened. This was particularly the case after the experience of police violence, roadblocks and the besieging of mining communities. In many instances, miners and their families were beginning to draw revolutionary conclusions from their own experiences. It was like a miniature revolution, in which the masses were in direct struggle against the state, which appeared before them as an instrument of repression in the hands of the ruling class.

Through their experiences, the miners and their families clearly understood the class struggle, the role of the capitalist state, and the rottenness of capitalism that was intent on destroying their livelihoods. Some of the Tory “wets”, such as Heath and Francis Pym could see what was happening and were openly worried that the strike was “damaging the fabric of British society.” Their concern was not for the miners or their communities, but for the long-term interests and survival of capitalism. They understood that even if the government won, nothing would ever be the same again. The “consensus” built up in the post-war years would be completely undermined, if not destroyed altogether.

The Orgreave

The attempt to use lorry convoys to break the picket lines at Ravenscraig was repeated at the Scunthorpe steel works. On 23 May the first lorries were to leave the Orgreave coking plant near Rotherham. NUM pickets began to arrive at Orgreave, and at first heavily outnumbered the police. Police reinforcements then turned up in force, which was to result in the most violent scenes in any industrial dispute in Britain since the First World War. If anyone had any doubts that this was class war, there was no longer any room for confusion after the “Battle of Orgreave”.

The pickets assembled in a housing estate on the Sheffield side of the Orgreave plant. The police assembled in front of the coke works, while mounted police lined up in the adjacent field. Other police with dogs, as well as thousands in riot gear, mobilised their ranks to surround the pickets. As soon as the lorries had entered the plant to load up, riot police attacked the pickets in a series of baton charges. The mounted police rode into the strikers, followed by truncheon wielding foot police.

Despite the beatings and arrests, the miners were not cowed. However, the following days’ pickets were diverted by the Yorkshire Area to Nottingham, resulting in hundreds, rather than thousands facing the police lines. On 30 May Scargill was arrested, but this served only to increase the anger of the pickets. On 18 June, 5,000 strikers turned up and were met with an orgy of violence by the police. The forces of “law and order” ran riot, chasing and bludgeoning pickets. Wounded pickets were even arrested while in bed in hospital. Of course, the capitalist media portrayed the whole episode as picket line violence, and doctored film footage was used to place the blame for disorder and violence on the NUM. There were no mass pickets of Orgreave after that.

“The use of police horses to deal with riots has always been seen as the ultimate response”, stated the Police Review a few weeks before Orgreave. “From the Trafalgar Square riots of a hundred years ago, to the anti-fascist skirmishes of the Thirties, the imagery of charging horses and flailing batons has been enough to put the seal on charges of police brutality.”[3] Orgreave was no different. In August, 137 riot charges against miners arising from the Orgreave police operation were dropped for lack of evidence. But the police had done their job.

The tactic of mass picketing, especially after the setback at Orgreave, did not have the expected results. The massive scab operation to move coal by road was stepped up. The miners’ backs were now against the wall. For the miners to win on their own would have been an immense task. Given the gravity of the situation, solidarity action from other unions was becoming essential to win the dispute.

In the summer, Ian MacGregor sent a personal letter to all miners urging them to return to work, but it had no effect. The Times (16 July) advocated the calling of a state of emergency, but such measures were put on ice for the time being. Despite all the propaganda against the NUM and picket-line violence, there was widespread sympathy for the miners. Many sections of workers, railworkers and others, at great personal risk, were taking solidarity seriously. In particular, the railworkers at Coalville in Leicestershire from early April onwards, despite continuous threats from BR management, effectively blacked coal from the working pits of the area. Even printworkers on The Sun closed down the paper on two separate occasions in protest at the blatant lies they were being asked to print about the miners.

The steadfast determination of the miners was inspiring support across the country and beyond. Unfortunately, similar resolve was not replicated at the top of the movement. The leadership, both in the Labour Party and the unions, were either deeply reluctant or opposed to broadening out the struggle, and yet there was overwhelming potential for wider industrial action. The might of the Labour movement, if brought into play, would not only have saved the miners, but could have brought down Thatcher in the bargain, as it had done her predecessor.

Dock strikes

Right-wing leaders, such as Bill Sirs (ISTC) and John Lyons (EMA) spurned the cause of the NUM. Unfortunately, the left leaders proved incapable of delivering the national action needed to defend the miners. Ron Todd, although deeply sympathetic to the miners, failed to link up the fight of dockers and miners. Two national dock strikes in the summer of 1984 created a great opportunity to unite their respective struggles into a unified movement. The root cause of these dockers’ strikes was the National Dock Labour scheme, a scheme that Thatcher was intent on destroying, just as she was determined to destroy the coal industry. As a result of the Jones-Aldington Agreement, which allowed for enhanced voluntary redundancy terms, there were only 13,500 dockers left by 1984.

Sabre rattling by the Transport Secretary, Ridley, resulted in the TGWU threatening an immediate national dock strike. Scab coal was being shipped in through the unregistered ports, a serious threat to both miners and registered dockers. A dock strike in Scotland was only narrowly averted in May. Then at the port of Immingham in early July, railworkers refused to transport iron ore to Scunthorpe steel works, so BSC transferred the ore to lorries. Immingham’s registered dockers refused to scab and went on strike.

Things came to ahead when the TGWU nationally called a strike of all dockers on 9 July to defend the Dock Labour scheme. The situation looked extremely serious for the government. However, although the strike was initially solid, it rested on unity between registered and unregistered dockers. They only way this unity could be cemented were to put forward the central demand of extending the Dock Labour Scheme to all ports, and defending all jobs. But this was not done. This failure resulted in the strike cracking at Dover, and its eventual end. What began with such great potential ended in a shambles. A golden opportunity was thrown away.

On 30 July, in a case brought by two haulage contractors, the South Wales NUM was fined £50,000 for contempt of court. When the South Wales Area refused to pay the fine, the courts sequestrated their funds. When Scargill appealed for solidarity action, the TUC turned a deaf ear. A lead from the top, with the TUC calling a 24-hour general strike, could lave transformed the whole situation. But the TUC shamefully let the initiative slip by. They were paralysed by their fear of militant action and of breaking Tory laws. They decided that rather than support the miners, and get themselves into a hole later, it would be far better and simpler not to support them in the first place!

But the problems on the docks would not go away. In early August the TGWU dockers at Hunterston decided to black the Ostia, carrying coking coal bound for Ravenscraig. When the ship attempted to dock, a delegate union conference voted massively by 78 to 12 to call a national strike within the space of six weeks. Without any serious preparation by the union leadership, the strike started on a shaky basis, with Dover and Felixstow continuing to work normally. Again the union leadership avoided the question of extending the Dock Scheme to all ports. The strike began to fray at the edges as heated negotiations took place with the BSC and the port employers piled on the pressure. Finally, the dispute came to an ignominious end on the 18 September.

Despite these setbacks, the miners were granted a further opportunity to widen the dispute on the 15 August, when the NCB tore up an agreement with the pit deputies and overseers’ union NACODS. They had originally agreed that NACODS members would be paid if they refused to cross NUM picket lines. Now, according to Ned Smith, the NCB industrial relations officer: “When mineworkers are going through pickets then in the board’s view there can be no good reason why officials should not go as well.” These NACODS workers were responsible for safety in the pits. If they stopped work, the pits would close. The NACODS’s leadership called a strike ballot and an unprecedented 82.5 per cent backed industrial action. If they struck even the Nottinghamshire coalfield would grind to a halt. In the previous April, a majority of NACODS members had in fact voted to strike, but 54 per cent was a single percentage point short of the necessary 55 per cent majority! Now, after failed negotiations, notice was given to strike. This was a potential turning point for the whole dispute.

The Tory government suddenly saw the ground open up beneath them. They began running around like headless chickens. “I could therefore understand the pressures on her [Thatcher] when she exhibited nervousness on a couple of occasions over the direction of the dispute”, revealed Ian MacGregor later. “Particularly in the period of the NACODS threat, I got the feeling that she really thought the house was going to fall down all around her.”[4] Suddenly, within 24 hours of the strike deadline, the NACODS leaders called off the proposed strike and accepted a fudged deal, so that all disputed “matters” would be referred to an independent appeals body. If NACODS leaders had held firm, Thatcher’s plans could have been defeated and the situation transformed. But once again, the NUM was left isolated to face the wrath of the ruling class. Despite the cowardly capitulation of their leaders, NACODS members were later to lose their jobs when Thatcher butchered the industry.

At the September TUC Congress, a General Council statement giving general support to the miners was overwhelmingly passed, but it contained no proposals for any concrete action. The real intention of the right wing was to settle the dispute as quickly as possible on whatever terms they could get. In the heated Congress debate, however, Eric Hammond, the leader of the EETPU, denounced Scargill as a donkey. Todd declared in reply to rapturous applause, “I’d rather be led by a donkey than by a jackal.” The rebuttal was well deserved, but did not alter the fact that the union leaders proved incapable of translating their words of support into effective solidarity action.

The miners’ strike had transformed life in the mining communities. They lived and breathed the strike, day in and day out. The magnificent role of the miners’ wives in their support groups helped to sustain the strike through thick and thin. They showed great courage and endurance in the struggle. At critical times, when the men’s resolve weakened, they provided the backbone for continuing the strike. They were in the forefront of defending their families, communities, and their very way of life. Nothing could destroy this resolve.

The role of the women in the miners’ strike mirrored the growing militancy of women workers in general. Having come close to becoming a majority of the national workforce, they had increasingly played a leading role in the industrial battles of the previous decade – from Ford sewing machinists, through Trico, Grunwick, to Chix, Lee Jeans and Barking hospital workers. Now the miners’ wives showed they had the mettle to take on their class enemies, starting with the so-called Iron Lady. They would not be the last to display such courage.

Propaganda offensive

The government’s plan was to isolate the miners. To this end, they exerted pressure on Kinnock and the rest of the Labour and trade union leadership to condemn the strike. They made no attempt to disguise their intentions: “Mr Scargill’s defeat will come from within the union movement”, wrote The Economist with ill-concealed glee.[5] The Tories played up the politicisation of the strike, just as Baldwin had done in 1926. Tory MP Geoffrey Dickens talked of Scargill as a “confessed Marxist surrounded by Communist aides and advisers… much more serious support for him is coming from the Kremlin.” Cranley Onslow suggested that unidentified figures were “controlling and directing riotous mobs”; Tony Marlow advocated that Scargill be “arrested for organising a private army.” But it was not just the Tory backbenchers that were making these attacks.

At the end of July, the campaign climaxed with Thatcher’s infamous “enemy within” speech. Addressing the 1922 Committee, she said: “In the Falklands we had to fight the enemy without. Here is the enemy within.” Scargillism was portrayed as the phenomenon dedicated to the wholesale destruction of British society. At the Tory Party conference in October, Thatcher declared: “Mr President, what we have seen in this country is the emergence of an organised revolutionary minority who are prepared to exploit industrial disputes, but whose real aim is the breakdown of law and order and the destruction of democratic Parliamentary government. We have seen the same sort of thugs and bullies at Grunwick, and more recently against Eddie Shah in Stockport, and now organised into flying squads around the country.”[6] In Thatcher’s address at the Guildhall in November she equated the actions of miners with terrorism, “We are drawing to the end of a year in which our people have seen violence and intimidation in our midst: the cruelty of the terrorist; the violence of the picket-line; the deliberate flouting of the law of the land.”

The TUC general secretary Norman Willis addressed a mass meeting in Aberavon on 13 November. Thousands were inside and outside of the Afan Lido building, amid scenes of chanting defiant miners and their supporters. Typically, the “even handed” Willis criticized “scenes of unprovoked police violence”, and then laid into the miners with greater vigour. “Any miner who resorts to violence damages the miners’ case far more than they weaken their opponents’ resolve,” he declared. “Violence creates more violence. Such acts if they are done by miners are alien to our common trade union tradition, however, not just because they were counter-productive but because they are wrong.”

The miners did not want violence. But they were not going to remain with arms folded when faced with police provocation, intimidation and state violence against them and their families. During Willis’s speech, a great roar went up from the crowd. In the middle of his attack on picket line violence, a noose was lowered and dangled in front of him with a placard that read, “Where’s Ramsay McKinnock?” This incident was an example of the rough and ready humour of the Welsh miners, but it also made a serious point about Kinnock’s role. Within days, Kinnock was accusing the leaders of the NUM of wanting a “glorious defeat”. This was comparable to the role of Citrine and MacDonald in 1926, and the miners knew it. It would never forgotten nor forgiven.

In October the government placed a gun to the head of the whole Labour movement when the High Court in London sequestrated the entire funds of the NUM. On 31 November, following contempt proceedings, the Court appointed a receiver to take charge of the affairs of the NUM. This brutal attack placed a question mark over the very survival of the NUM as a union. It could only be successfully repulsed by a general strike. However, while promising to continue support for the NUM “in line with Congress policy”, the TUC leaders studiously avoiding any risk of the TUC being held in contempt of court.

Arthur Scargill accused them correctly of “making mealy-mouthed” resolutions, and called instead for solidarity action: “The most massive mobilisation of industrial action our movement has ever known and we must have it now”, said Scargill. “There is no other way to stop the courts attempt to destroy the NUM.” He concluded that the “trade union and Labour Party leaders must now stand up in contempt of laws being used against us – or remain forever in contempt of all those they represent: all those whose futures are at stake in this crucial battle.”

In face of these attempts to crush the NUM by use of the capitalist courts, the whole strength of the trade union movement was needed to repulse this sustained attack from the state. Tony Benn took up the call for a general strike, as did Dennis Skinner and other left MPs. “But a general strike may prove to be the only way of reminding this government of the harsh realities of life”, stated Benn. “The Labour movement has now got to face the fact that a general strike might become necessary to protect free trade unionism, ballot-box democracy, political freedom and civil liberties in Britain.”[7]

Kinnock, known to many as the Welsh windbag, immediately waded in. “The prospect of a general strike is nil, and any threat of a strike without a prospect of it being successful would be terminally damaging to the movement’s chances of putting the case for coal over to the public.” As usual Kinnock missed the point. The attack of the Thatcher government had gone far beyond the “case for coal”. At stake now was the very survival of trade unionism. Like an old record with a repeating groove, the Labour leader was continually warning the NUM leadership against violence, while at the same time down playing police violence against the picket lines. Throughout the dispute, he cut a cowardly and despicable figure. He was desperate to “prove himself” to the ruling class by kicking the miners, but his mealy-mouthed pleadings would not stop or appease the Tories, but only served to encourage them in their attacks.

Action not words

The TUC was a picture of impotence and inaction. The seven TUC leaders chosen to liase with the NUM – including Norman Willis, David Basnett, Bill Keys and Gerry Russel – even dithered over calling a meeting of the Finance and General Purposes Committee, the TUC’s inner cabinet. Wringing their hands, and ignoring the magnificent solidarity from below, they made clear to the NUM leaders that support from the Labour movement had not been forthcoming. It was like 1926 all over again. The surrender of the TUC leaders was pitiful, as they begged the government to be “reasonable” and allow “meaningful talks”.

Some leaders, like Frank Chapple and Eric Hammond, continued to denounce the striking miners. In fact, Chapple went as far as to suggest to the Tory government that McGregor, prior to his appointment, be made Coal Board chairman to deal with Scargill and the miners! Given their past role, that was perhaps to be expected of the right wing. After all, Chapple once stated that he admired Thatcher as much as anyone on his union executive. But sadly the left trade union leaders also failed to deliver their promises of solidarity.

The left-led TGWU in particular could have transformed the situation. It was facing its own legal attack in the courts with a £200,000 fine hanging over its head and the possibility of the sequestration of its funds due to the failure to hold a legal ballot at Rover. Yet the TGWU leaders limited themselves to a passive defiance of the law and to legal pleading.

The only possibility left to the NUM to obtain national action would have been for them to appeal directly to the ranks of the trade unions over the heads of the General Council and to name the day for a general strike. The NUM had built up enormous authority in the eyes of the class. Had they made such an appeal, it would have placed the TUC in a very difficult position, exposing the right wing and putting very serious pressure on the Lefts to act. “Action, not words!” would have been the central slogan to force the TUC to come off the sidelines and begin to fight. Unfortunately the NUM leaders failed to do so. The opportunity was again lost to salvage the situation and transform the course of events.

By this stage, any hope of widening the action to other sections of the movement had all but evaporated. In the absence of generalised national action, the miners were in an impossible position. Over the winter a slow drift back to work developed. By mid-January the strike began to crumble in a number of areas. By running nuclear and oil-fired power stations flat-out, and using coal as sparingly as possible, the Central Electricity Generating Board never imposed power cuts. At least so they claimed. In fact sporadic power cuts were taking place at 2 and 3 in the morning to drag out supplies. There was, nonetheless, something like 12m tonnes of coal stockpiled at the power stations, and 60 million tones at the pitheads. Ironically, the Tories had also been busy importing coal from so-called “socialist” Poland, to the shame of the Stalinist regime, to break the strike. The Polish bureaucracy was more concerned about securing contracts with Thatcher than giving support to British strikers.

All this served to embolden Thatcher. The miners’ strike represented a watershed. The Tories tried everything to break the miners as a means of breaking the spirit of the working class. The dispute had cost the country an estimated £3.75 billion. The strikers and their families had to be crushed, and seen to be crushed. But the Tories had underestimated the support, resilience, stamina and courage of the miners and their communities. They threw everything at them: the police, the laws, mass media, etc. But it was the divisions within the miners, played up and cultivated by the Tories and the press that fatally undermined the strike. This led to the formation of the scab Union of Democratic Miners (UDM) led by the renegade Roy Link. The UDM naturally had the full support of Thatcher, MacGregor and the rest of the capitalist Establishment, as did the Spencer union after 1926.

The NUM leaders made a number of tactical mistakes throughout the year-long strike, but the decisive factor in the defeat of the miners was the failure of the TUC and Labour leaders to organise effective solidarity action. The mood existed in society to help the miners, despite the orchestrated propaganda campaign by the government. The magnificent work of the miners’ support groups, which collected hundreds of thousands of pounds outside factories, offices and shopping centres, demonstrated this fact. When the miners and their families faced Christmas 1984 penniless, the workers of Britain and other countries sent them food parcels and presents, organised Christmas dinners, parties. The miners will never forget this tremendous working class solidarity, just as they will never forget how Thatcher or the Tories destroyed their communities.

The strike continued until March 1985, twelve months since the announcement of the closure of Cortonwood. On 3 March the special delegate conference of the NUM held in Congress House, the headquarters of the TUC that had let them down so badly, voted 98 to 91 to return to work with no agreement, no reprieve for the threatened pits and no amnesty for the sacked miners. Faced with the coalfield’s extinction, only Kent opposed ending the strike. By this time some 718 miners had been sacked.

The end result of this Herculean struggle was a defeat. Not like the abject humiliation of 1926, but a bitter defeat nonetheless. The return to work was a shattering disappointment to most activists. True, the proud and dignified nature of the return to work behind colliery bands and banners robbed Thatcher of the “total” victory she and her class sought. Nevertheless, the Tory government subsequently closed over 100 pits and more than 100,000 were made redundant. The pit closure programme was carried through remorselessly. It tore the guts out of the industry and out of the mining communities. In the immediate aftermath, the miners staged a whole series of guerrilla struggles in the pits, but these failed to prevent the destruction of the industry. As a final measure, privatisation was now brought forward to pick over the carcass of whatever was left.

The defeat of the miners had an enormous impact on the whole movement. Along with the extension of the economic boom, it accelerated the shift to the right amongst the Labour and trade union leaders. It further strengthened the ideas of “New Realism”, widespread in the trade union bureaucracy. The mining industry was decimated. In 1926 there were over one million miners. At the time of the 1984-85 strike there were still 181,000. By 1990, numbers had fallen to 65,000. But the private mining industry today has been almost totally destroyed with some 5,000 miners remaining, and the massive Selby coalfield, the largest in Europe, due to close soon. Ironically, the wholesale slaughter of the pits now coincides with the exhaustion of natural gas and oil reserves. By 2012, 70 per cent of our electricity would be generated by gas and 90 per cent of this would have to be imported from such countries as Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan and the Yemen. Such a situation could leave Britain facing serious power cuts within the next 15 years. In fact, London has already faced a massive power cut in August of this year, where a quarter of a million people had to be evacuated from London Underground. This astonishing result of privatisation, asset stripping and under investment came only weeks after a devastating power cut in the United States. At that time, bosses at the National Grid went on record as saying that that sort of thing could never happen here. The short-sightedness of the myopic British bourgeois has now become a way of life.

The slaughter of the mining communities vindicated the courageous stand taken by the NUM in the heroic struggle of 1984-5, as much as the counter-revolution on the shopfloor that followed the defeat dammed forever the craven stand of the Labour and trade union leaders. The strike was defeated but the fighting spirit of the miners lives on. It had left behind a tradition of courageous struggle, which will be revived in the titanic struggles that lie ahead.


[1] Crick, op. cit, p.102

[2] Ibid, pp.100-101

[3] Police Review, 4 May 1984

[4] Ian MacGregor, The Enemies Within, p.375, London 1986

[5] The Economist, 8 September 1984

[6] Margaret Thatcher, The Collected Speeches, p.225, London 1997

[7] Financial Times, 7 December 1984

Aftermath of Defeat

The period after 1985 was an extremely difficult one. The tragedy of the miners’ defeat had a profound effect on the working class. “If the miners can’t win, what chance do we have?” became a familiar refrain. The feeling of despair and betrayal served to undermine the confidence of important layers of the working class. The defeat constituted a terrific blow, which took the wind out of the trade union activists, causing a layer to drift into inactivity or even abandon the movement in demoralisation. Some, even on the left, started to look to their own careers, and slid over to the position of the right-wing bureaucracy. This in turn reinforced the shift to the right in the trade unions that had begun in 1982, and was expressed in the ideology of “New Realism”, or class collaboration to give it its correct name.

The miners’ strike had taken place against the beginnings of a general shift to the right within the movement. The swing to the left in the 1970s and early 1980s had reached its limits. Britain’s victory in the Falklands’ war under Thatcher, culminating in the Tory election victory in 1983, served to push the situation (underpinned by the economic revival) to the right. Scargill, whose name was identified in the popular imagination with the idea of militant class struggle, was vilified in the capitalist press. Labour leader Neil Kinnock joined in the chorus, describing Arthur Scargill as “the Labour movement’s nearest equivalent to a first world war general.” The old tune that “militancy never pays” became the constant refrain of the capitalists and their shadows in the Labour movement.

This situation had a dampening effect on the class struggle, exacerbated by high unemployment that made workers fearful of their jobs. By the end of 1985 unemployment stood officially at almost 3.2 million, or 13.2 per cent, but the real figure was well over 4 million. This economic climate, combined with the miners’ defeat and the attitude of the trade union leaders served to generate a general feeling of despondency in the unions. By contrast the capitalists and their Tory representatives were jubilant. “Britain is enjoying its most strike-free year for nearly fifty years,” boasted Tory Employment Minister, Kenneth Clarke.

Ever since the victory of Eddy Shah at Warrington, the TUC had capitulated in face of the Tory anti-union laws. They imagined that their moderation would make the bosses more amenable, but the opposite was the case. As the old adage states, weakness invites aggression. Buoyed up by the backsliding of the union leaders, the employers rushed to use the law courts whenever they felt threatened. Injunctions were issued against strikers at Shell and then against the National Union of Journalists in a dispute with T. Bailey Foreman, the printers of Dimbleby’s newspapers.

In the latter case, the courts proclaimed that the union was in breach of the law. It said the dispute was with Foreman, which refused to employ NUJ members, and not with TBF Ltd, despite the fact that the company controlled both, with exactly the same directors and shareholders. In late 1984, the TGWU ignored an injunction for failing to call a secret ballot at Austin Rover and was fined £200,000. A survey found a total of 70 cases had been brought before the courts by August 1985, the vast majority under the 1980 and 1982 Employment Acts. By 1985, a third of the cases emanated from employers in printing and publishing. The courts were issuing injunctions at the drop of a hat, usually within 24-hours, in some cases without union representatives being present. Astonishingly, between 1979 and 1987, 29 trade unions, comprising more than 80 per cent of the TUC’s affiliated membership, had appeared before the courts for breaking the Tories’ anti-union laws.[1]

The Thatcher government was determined to claw back all the reforms conquered in the past by the working class. The Tories were determined to restore the rate of profitability of British capitalism, and part of this plan was their attack on local government and local authority spending. New rate-capping legislation was introduced to squeeze local authority spending, resulting in massive cuts. In 1984, these attacks resulted in Labour councils collectively adopting a policy of “non compliance” with the Tories’ legislation, a policy whole-heartedly endorsed by Labour party conference. However, in practice this defiance remained largely verbal. As an aside, it is ironic that John Prescott is today threatening councils with “rate-capping”, in face of a 60 per cent rise in council tax since Labour came to power.

Within twelve months, only two councils remained true to the original policy: Liverpool and Lambeth. Kinnock, the Labour leader and former Left, came forward with a policy of capitulation: the so-called “dented shield”, which instead of openly defying the Tory government, urged Labour councils to try to soften the impact of Tory cuts. The only thing this policy shielded however was the failure of the leadership to defend its supporters. At the 1985 party conference, under the pressure of the capitalist media, Kinnock launched a vitriolic attack on Liverpool city council and its Militant leadership. This episode marked a further shift to the right, the abandonment of previous left policies, and an acceleration of the witch-hunt within the Labour party. The following year saw the expulsion of Derek Hatton and the Liverpool Militant city councillors. Although these comrades had retained overwhelming support from the Liverpool working class, and won every democratic election they stood for, they were later surcharged and subsequently removed from public office, not by the electorate, but by unelected Tory judges.

On the trade union front, the retreat of the TUC leadership continued with its failure to sustain the boycott of Tory government funds for union ballots. By February 1986, a TUC Special conference voted to drop the boycott, as well as any further thoughts of defiance. The right-wing leadership was still hoping against all the odds to engage the Tories in dialogue. But no amount of fawning would get them anywhere with those who simply regarded them with contempt. The Tories had the upper hand and were in no mood to invite the TUC leaders for tea and biscuits.

The Defeats

In 1981, Thatcher allowed the media baron Rupert Murdoch, an ardent admirer of hers, as she was of him, to buy The Times and the Sunday Times without any reference to the Monopolies Commission. Murdoch also bought a half-interest and control of Britain’s only satellite television service, despite the fact that Thatcher’s own Home Secretary found the deal “not technically legal”, a far cry from the treatment dished out to the Liverpool councillors.

In 1985, in a bid to build his media empire, Murdoch staged a pre-planned showdown with the print unions. The millionaire tycoon had invested more than £100 million in Wapping and another satellite plant at Kinning Park, Glasgow, but both lay idle as a result of the objections of the print unions. “That’s where we came in”, stated Eric Hammond, leader of the electricians’ union, in his memoirs. Hammond explained that his secret talks between the EETPU and Murdoch were set up through extreme right-winger Woodrow Wyatt:

“Having set out the scenario, Murdoch, whose American newspaper empire had shed thousands of staff as new technology had been introduced, made it clear he wanted to do the same in the UK. What could we do to help, Murdoch asked impassively. Could our members set up the machinery? ‘Not only that,’ I told him, ‘but they could operate it as well.’ There was an almost audible click as Rupert suddenly realised that here was an opportunity to end print union power once and for all. He turned to me and said, “Eric, I think we might be able to do a deal.’”[2]

With these immortal words, Hammond went on to explain his treacherous union-busting strategy of recruiting electricians to work at the Wapping newspaper plant.

“The ‘sparks’ would become printers on computer. We had broken the mould. By the time details leaked out in July, it was too late for the print unions to do anything about it. My confidence had increased with my experience as general secretary. I had a growing conviction in the correctness of my union’s commonsense policies and its right to achieve its own destiny, unimpeded by the Luddites who inhabited certain trade union headquarters.”[3]

Murdoch demanded a legally binding agreement from the SOGAT and the NGA demanding that employees would undertake work “with complete flexibility. There will be no demarcation lines… The starting and finishing times of an employee may be changed upon… a day’s notice… manning levels will be determined by the employer…New technology may be adopted at any time … There will be no closed shop…” Industrial action would also be forbidden. Basically Murdoch was asking the unions to sign away their rights.

When the time came, he deliberately provoked a dispute at Wapping to break the power of the print unions. For months he had been secretly moving non-union staff into Wapping and was discussing with his senior executives about how they could sack thousands of workers who had been given “assurances” that their jobs were safe. Management had told the unions that Wapping was to be used only to print the new London evening paper The London Post, but the plan was to switch all titles to the new plant. In January 1986 – a day before the move to the new plant at Wapping – some 6,000 printworkers at News International received dismissal notices. Not only had a deal been agreed with the EETPU leaders, but also a contract had also been signed with Thorns National Transport (TNT) to distribute the papers without union labour.

When the showdown came it was an extremely bitter confrontation that would last for over twelve months. It was a fight to the death at Wapping. The unions were demanding nothing less than full reinstatement of their members. Following the defeat of the miners, thousands of workers and youth came to express their solidarity in late night and weekend pickets and demonstrations at Wellclose Square. Mass picketing attempted to close down News International at Wapping, but as with the miners, they were faced with the full might of the state. To assist their friend Murdoch, the Tories employed the Metropolitan police, reinforced by police from outside London, to attack and arrest pickets, using the most violent and provocative means.

Labour MP Tony Benn described what he saw in a Parliamentary debate over the issue:

“The mounted police advanced out of the plant exactly as the tactical options manual says that they should. They ran into the crowd. They were covered by riot police who did several things. First they ran indiscriminately into the crowd and battered people who had had nothing whatsoever to do with any stones that might have been thrown. . . They surrounded the bus that was acting as an ambulance. One man had a heart attack and I appealed over the loudspeaker for the police to withdraw to allow an ambulance to come. None was allowed for 30 minutes. When the man was put on a trestle a police horse jostled it and the man nearly fell off as he was carried out to the ambulance. The police surrounded the park where the meeting took place. They surrounded the area so that people could not escape”.[4]

In the first two weeks of the dispute there were 310 police officers present at Wapping each night. On the night of 15 February 1986 the numbers of police climbed dramatically to 1,029. By May, the numbers had further increased to 1,800. No effort was spared to defeat the print unions. By the end of December, the estimated policing costs were an additional £5.3 million. Police horses were first used indiscriminately at Wapping on 22 February. They ploughed into the crowds of pickets, clearing the plant entrance for the scab delivery lorries. It should be remembered that the combined weight of horse and rider was almost a ton. Of the 1,370 pickets arrested by the end of the dispute, some 1,058 had been convicted on various charges by February 1987, twelve months after the start of the dispute. Tragedy struck on 10 January 1987, when a picket, Michael Delaney, was struck and killed by a scab TNT lorry outside the plant.

Once again the TUC leaders played a lamentable role. Instead of throwing their full weight behind the 6,000 sacked at Wapping, on 26 November the TUC General Council voted not to discipline the EEPTU for its role in assisting Murdoch. The failure of the TUC to rally to the printworkers’ cause eventually doomed the dispute. In early February 1987 the printworkers went down to heavy defeat. Union organisation was broken at Wapping, a demoralising blow to workers everywhere. The EEPTU was shown the door, in much the same fashion as a once-faithful dog, after it had fulfilled its strike-breaking role. In its place Murdock set up his own company union, the News International Staff Association, which was granted a monopoly at the Wapping plant.

In 2002, for his services to capitalism, Murdoch was recognised as Britain’s greatest living businessman. Richard Desmond, the notorious owner of Express newspapers as well as a string of pornographic titles, said: “I would not have the business I have today unless he [Murdoch] had done what he did to make Britain a fairer place.”

The failure of the TUC resulted not only in the tragic defeat of printers at Wapping, but also the victimisation of seafarers on the P&O shipping line. During the P&O dispute, the shipping bosses acted to break the union and impose harsh conditions on the seafarers. They derecognised the National Union of Seamen, sacked the workforce, and brazenly advertised for scab labour to replace union members’ jobs. The ensuing battle, as with the NUM, resulted in the union’s funds being sequestrated.

Once again, this onslaught was a direct challenge to the fundamental rights of trade unionism. Either the NUS would have to either call a national strike or capitulate to the employers. There was no middle road. But the leadership of the NUS lacked the necessary determination, despite the courage shown by its members. They gave in without a fight. The NUS leader Sam McClusky, as a justification for his personal capitulation, announced he “had little choice but to lead from the head.” This was euphemism for no leadership at all. The retreat and capitulation of the union leaders allowed the ferry companies to slash the workforce, adding hundreds of seafarers’ jobs to the scrap heap.

These tragic defeats added to the general lack of confidence felt at the time, and were grist to the mill of the trade union bureaucracy. For the latter, retreat and surrender became a normal way of life. The downward spiral of capitulation, together with the right-wing stranglehold at the top of the movement, became a self-fulfilling process, one element feeding upon the other. However, in 1987, under mounting pressure from below, the TUC was forced to order the EETPU to withdraw from three single-union deals at Yuasa, the Japanese battery firm, at Thorn-EMI and at Orion, another Japanese-owned electronics operation, on the grounds that it was infringing the rights of other TUC affiliates.

Despite attempts to establish a Code of Practice, single-union no-strike deals remained an open sore that would eventually split the TUC. Finally, when a split with the electricians became inevitable, the TUC vacillated, hoping to placate Hammond. But they were forced to suspend and then expel the EETPU as a result of the groundswell of pressure from the union ranks, disgusted by the strikebreaking role of Hammond and his right-wing clique. The expulsion of the 225,000-strong EETPU represented the most serious split in the history of the TUC.

The EETPU’s expulsion then provoked a split within the union itself. A sizeable left grouping, the Flashlight group, under the influence of the Communist Party, split away to form the tiny EPIU. This split-away was a grave mistake. Their argument to split from the EETPU was based on the spurious notion of needing to remain members of a TUC-based union. This was a phoney argument. Much as one may sympathise with the sentiments of the Flashlight group, they were leading trade unions up the proverbial garden path. To break away from the EETPU only left the union, and the vast bulk of the members, even more firmly under the grip of the right-wing clique around Hammond. The whole episode simply played into Hammond’s hands.

Similarly, it was also a major mistake for a section of the 1,200-strong London Press branch of the EETPU, again under the influence of the CP, to propose leaving the EETPU to join the print union SOGAT. Had the Bridlington Agreement not been invoked, this would have led to a disaster. The split would have enabled the bosses to play one section off against the other. Of course, the Hammonds of this world all crowed they had defeated the Left’s splitting tactics.

“The Communists had been beaten and prevented from stealing our branch”, wrote Hammond. “Their hostility to the EETPU increased and, for our part, we still had a score to settle with the print unions.”[5]

Had the Left remained in the EETPU, fighting every inch of the way, they would have been in a far stronger position in 1992 at the time of the merger to form the AEEU, and speeded up the eventual demise of the right wing. Rather than organising a new union, they should have been redoubling their efforts to challenge Hammond. Unfortunately, guided by impatience, they decided to look for a short-cut where none existed. At bottom this action reflected a lack of faith in the workers to change their unions. The 4,000-strong EPIU, which remained impotent in face of the 225,000-strong EETPU, later ended up disappearing in a merger with the TGWU. Once again, the experience of breakaway unions ended in a blind alley.

1987 General election

The 1987 general election witnessed a third election victory for the Tories. They managed to take 43 per cent of the vote compared to Labour’s humiliating 32 per cent. The shift to the right of the Labour Party under Kinnock had ended in electoral failure. While the continuing economic boom assisted Thatcher, Labour’s right-wing stance sealed its fate. Given this situation, pundits again pontificated over whether Labour could ever win another general election. The empirical Peter Kellner, the political editor of the New Statesman, stated: “The Party would have to abandon all hope of ever governing again… is that not merely an abrupt way of saying what many of us feel in our bones to be true, but are reluctant to admit?”

As always, the conclusions drawn by the trade union and Labour leaders were that Labour was not right-wing enough! Accordingly, the Labour Party had to move even further to the right and fully embrace the “market economy”. The TUC had shifted so far to the right that Arthur Scargill lost his seat on the General Council. For the first time since their affiliation to the TUC more than a hundred years ago, the mineworkers had no representative on the leading body of British trade unionism. It was a sign of the times.

From November 1987, the Tory government turned its attention to the problem of the docks, a continuing bastion of trade unionism. With the miners defeated and the opportunity of a Triple Alliance lost for the time being, the Tory offensive could begin in earnest against this outpost of union militancy. On 7 April 1989, the Tories announced a Bill to abolish the Dock Labour Scheme. Both Tilbury and Liverpool docks struck work in protest. The TGWU national docks committee voted to ballot its members for a strike, but to the utter dismay and disgust of the rank and file, the national executive committee of the union overturned this decision. Unfortunately, they had learned nothing from the debacle of 1984.

With the full backing of the government, the port employers bared their teeth. They threatened legal action against the union if it dared launch a dock strike. The assets of the TGWU were in danger of being sequestrated unless they capitulated. They were being forced into a corner. The question was whether or not they would come out fighting. As the deadline for the abolition of the scheme approached, the union leaders prevaricated and looked for a legal loophole out of their dilemma. In the meantime, the port employers had categorically refused the union’s demand for a new national agreement.

With their backs to the wall, the TGWU executive committee eventually called a strike ballot of the 9,000 registered dockers. But unfortunately once again they left the unregistered workforce out of the fight. In face of this attack by the Tories, the dockers decisively answered the challenge. With no perspective being offered by the leadership, the dockers voted 74.3 per cent for industrial action in defence of the Dock Labour Scheme. It was an overwhelming display of defiance.

After a pantomime at the High Court, the Appeal Judges, in collusion with government and bosses, granted an injunction restraining the TGWU from taking action. In response to this blatant class judgement, the National Port Shop Stewards Committee called for an immediate strike. Dockers in Liverpool, Tilbury, Bristol, Newport and Lowestoft answered the call to action. Now was the time for action! But Ron Todd, the general secretary of the union, called for an immediate return to work pending a legal appeal in the House of Lords. This broke the momentum of the strike and undermined the resolve of the men and there was, as was to be expected, a drift back to work. Once the workers were on the move, the dispute could have spread throughout the industry. But the leadership acted as firefighters dowsing the flames of militancy.

The TGWU’s legal appeal at the High Court was belatedly upheld. But the wind had been taken out of the struggle. The national committee then organised a further ballot for strike action. Astonishingly, even under these conditions the result was a three to one majority in favour of strike action – but crucially – the decision came after the Dock Scheme had already been abolished. The union leadership had decided to fight under the most unfavourable conditions possible.

As the strike took place, the employers put in the boot, threatening to sack all strikers. With the balance of forces tilting in their favour, the bosses decided to sack the leading shop stewards in the Tilbury docks. These sackings constituted a blatant attack on all dockers, and a challenge to the whole union, but the TGWU leadership steadfastly avoided “secondary action” that would mean the sequestration of the union’s assets. But what was at stake was not assets, but the functioning of the TGWU as a union.

In the face of confusion and vacillation at the top, the strike began to crumble and was eventually called off three weeks later. “I basically agree that we should remain on strike but I have no confidence that the union will support us”, said a Tilbury docker. “Why should we expect any different treatment than that meted out to the miners, printers and seafarers? They were all sold down the river.”[6]

If ever there was a union that could defeat the government, it was the TGWU. But the leadership refused to use its strength. The collapse of the strike was a demoralising setback. The Broad Left formally controlled the union, but it had no clear strategy of how to take on the government and build the necessary solidarity. They stumbled into a strike without the necessary foresight or planning. As a consequence, the dockers suffered the same tragic isolation and defeat as the miners had done five years earlier.

The Tories had succeeded in isolating and defeating one section of workers after another. It was a clear case of salami tactics. In fact, nothing could be clearer. This should have been recognised by the trade union leaders and the appropriate action taken on the time-honoured principle “an injury to one is an injury to all.” But this was not done. As a result, the sixteen sacked Tilbury shop stewards never got their jobs back, the union was derecognised and redundancies were brought in across the board. With the abolition of the Dock Labour Scheme casual labour returned to the docks with a vengeance, in an industry that by this time had shrunk to only 12,000 workers. By 1993, there were less than 500 dockworkers left on Merseyside alone – down from 17,000 just after the war.

The failure to fight had catastrophic consequences. Dockers were now on call round the clock. As a dockers’ wife described it, “They call it work to finish the job, but it became ‘work to finish’ our men – 12 or 14 hour shifts, constant phone calls changing their shifts, no social life.” As another docker explained when casualisation was reintroduced,

“After I became full-time my wages were £170 top line with pension, no sick pay, no work clothing. They’d call us out to work at any time for up to 80 hours a week. You can go in at 7.45 am and if there’s no work in they send you home at 12 o’clock, tell you to get eight hours’ sleep and come back and do the night shift.”

These heavy defeats served to further strengthen the grip of the right-wing union bureaucracy. Strike figures fell to an all-time low by the end of the decade, as the union leadership acted even more as a barrier to struggle. The employers took advantage of mass unemployment and the compliance of the union leaders to relentlessly push through drastic changes in working practices, terms and conditions. Compulsory Competitive Tendering was introduced into local authorities, forcing down established conditions and wage levels. Personal contracts, part-time working and short-term contracts were also brought in across the board. Thus, the economic boom from 1982 onwards, was a boom at the expense of the working class. Under these conditions, workers had their heads down, hoping to survive, many hoping to see the election of a Labour government as a solution to their problems.

The earlier Tory anti-union laws of 1980 and 1982 introduced a battery of changes to industrial relations. It limited picketing, banned secondary action, effectively outlawed the closed shop, watered down unfair dismissal procedures, repealed the 1975 Employment Protection Act, provided money for union postal ballots, and removed the legal immunity covering unions. The Tories introduced further anti-union legislation in 1984, 1988, 1989, 1990, and then later in 1993. These forced unions to hold regular secret ballots for union posts, ballots for political funds, secret ballots for strikes, abolished the post-entry closed shop, union officials were forced to repudiate unofficial strikes, the check-off system was undermined, the Bridlington Agreement was effectively scraped as workers were allowed to join a union of their choice, rules governing pre-strike ballots were further tightened, wages councils were abolished, and employers were allowed to offer workers financial inducements to leave their trade unions.

Over a fifteen-year period from 1980, seven separate pieces of Tory legislation were introduced to break the back of the trade unions and undermine collective bargaining. The restrictions governing strikes were so strict that the effective right to strike, with the necessary solidarity (“secondary action”), was largely undermined. As with much of the nineteenth century, after the repeal of the Combination Acts, legal trade unions existed but with either one or both hands tied behind their backs. These laws all added up to a “counter-revolution” against the trade union movement. They constituted the most important challenge to trade unionism for more than a century.

Despite this, the TUC leaders refused to break the law, preferring a cosy chat and deal with the Tories. They were terrified of losing their trade union funds through sequestration, and with them their nice cars, their plush offices and their comfortable lifestyles. This they could not afford to jeopardise! At the same time, they would have the gall to pay tribute to the Tolpuddle Martyrs and the early pioneers of trade unionism. Whereas these pioneers fought uncompromisingly against unjust laws, regardless of personal cost, the union leaders, with some notable exceptions, acquiesced to the anti-union laws.

There were astonishing similarities between the current Tory legislation and the clauses of the Trades Disputes Act of 1927. This onslaught against the unions arose not from a desire for revenge (although this played a part) but from the needs of the ruling class to reduce costs – just as in 1926. The defeat of the General Strike was, however, on an altogether greater scale. It was a catastrophic bludgeoning that, combined with the economic depression, knocked the guts out of the British working class for a whole period. It took decades for the workers to recover. The defeat of the miners in 1985 created wounds and scars – but not nearly as severe and deep as the ones inflicted after the defeat in 1926. Thus, in the years following the miners’ strike there were important industrial battles, which were entirely absent in the 1930s.

Driven out

By 1990, Thatcher had been in power continuously for eleven years. She had earned the undying hatred of the working class, for whom she personified the viciousness of the employers. Her resignation in 1990 was brought about, not by the Labour “opposition” but by the mass revolt against the hated poll tax, in which the Marxists played a decisive role. The event drew were scenes of great jubilation in all working-class areas. It was literally the talk of the town, in the clubs, pubs and bars. The “Iron Lady” had finally been driven out.

Thatcherism was largely discredited, so the strategy of the Tory leaders was to refurbish the image of the Tory party, or re-invent itself, for the general election. For this purpose, they chose John Major to head the Party. Despite the fact that the Tories were unpopular and Britain was in the grip of a new economic recession, Kinnock and the right-wing Labour leadership succeeded in losing another election. For the fourth time in a row, the Tories were victorious in the general election of May 1992. They could not believe their luck. But it was luck that could not last.

The Labour leadership proved incapable of offering a real alternative to the Tories. Neil Kinnock was forced to resign the Party leadership, and as a consolation was given a plum job, approved by the Tory Cabinet, as European Commissioner on a handsome salary of £103,534 per annum. This was the man who used to denounce the EEC in the most fiery terms as “the robber” of the people. But Kinnock’s resignation did not halt the continual shift to the right by the leadership. The new Labour leader John Smith was a barrister and traditional Old Labour right-winger.

A few months after the Tories were re-elected, Michael Heseltine announced a massive attack on the mining industry involving the closure of some thirty pits. The response was massive and instantaneous. In October, a giant mid-week demonstration of 50,000 miners and their supporters marched through the streets of London. The switchboards at TUC’s Congress House were jammed as workers from every town and city phoned to demand action.

Within a few weeks, the TUC were forced to call a national demonstration in support of the NUM. They were shocked by the response. Something like 250,000 turned out in the pouring rain to express their solidarity. These demonstrations and the incredible response from workers gave a glimpse of the potential power that exists in the working class. If that power had been properly harnessed and organised the pits could have been saved and the fortunes of the trade union movement turned around. It was not excluded that the government could have been toppled.

Unfortunately, so steeped in their “moderation” the TUC leaders allowed the mood dissipate. They acted like the Grand Old Duke of York who led his troops a merry dance up and down a hill. Having used the demonstrations as a safety valve, the TUC refused to call any further actions. The result was predictable. The government recovered its nerve and resorted to the well-known ploy of setting up a Royal Commission to “look into” the pit closure programme. Instead of denouncing this obvious ruse to buy time, the TUC went along with these proposals. Despite one-day strikes of the RMT in the New Year, the miners were once again left to fight alone against the attacks of the Tories. The TUC strategy ended ruins six months later, when even more pits were designated for closure than those originally named in October 1992.

The lack of a fight-back gave the green light to the Tories to press on with their anti-working class policies. They continued with their privatisation programme, targeting those areas of the public sector that were potentially profitable, and running down the rest. Gas, water and electricity were privatised and the rail network was also split up into 100 different operating companies and privatised. It was Thatcherism without Thatcher. Their policies represented a serious attack on local government, the health service, civil service and public services generally. The ruling class and its political representatives had abandoned all pretence at consensus politics. In place of “managed capitalism” we had the untrammelled domination of the “free market”. In face of the deepening crisis of British capitalism, the working class was being squeezed to the limit.

In October 1992 the country was in the grip of a deep economic crisis. The Tories had taken Britain into the European exchange rate mechanism. However, with sterling over-valued and a budget deficit at unsustainable levels, the currency was subjected to a barrage of speculation. In the end Britain was forced humiliatingly out of the ERM, and the Chancellor, Norman Lamont, was forced to resign on this “Black Wednesday”. Fears of economic turmoil increased as interests rose to 15 per cent, to the dismay of the Tories.

The Tory government, which in the past had a reputation for financial competence, was shaken to its very foundations. From then on, everything started to unravel. Support for the Tories in the opinion polls collapsed, and they would continue to trail behind Labour for the following four-and-a-half years. It signalled the beginning of the end for the Major government, which staggered on from one crisis to another.


[1] See John Mcllroy, Trade Unions in Britain Today, London, 1990

[2] Hammond, Maverick, Life of a union rebel, p.76-77, London 1992

[3] Ibid, p.81-82

[4] Hansard, 8 May 1986

[5] Hammond, op. cit, p.75-6

[6] Quoted by Hunter, They Knew Why They Fought, pp.111-2, London

“Ignorance is Strength”

The 1992 TUC Congress represented an historic low point for trade unionism. The right wing had clearly achieved a crushing dominance in the trade unions. The merging of the AEU and EETPU, to produce the Amalgamated Engineering and Electrical Union (AEEU), created an immense and powerful right-wing block within the British trade union movement. The merger was in effect an EETPU take-over, resulting in the dismantling of the democratic structures of the engineering union, and the consolidation of the Neanderthal right wing. Despite resistance from a number of unions, the EETPU had been allowed back into the TUC fold via the AEEU merger. Their past attempts to pull together a rival right-wing TUC, composed of the EETPU, the AEU, the UDM and other such “employer-friendly” bodies had come to nothing. Nevertheless, the new AEEU acted as a right-wing Trojan horse within the organised labour movement, and a focal point for business unionism. The leaders of the AEEU, the extreme right of the TUC, simply expressed openly and crudely what the others thought and talked about in private. They were all very much wedded to “New Realism” and the capitalist system. So degenerate had they become, that CBI boss Howard Davies was allowed to address the TUC Congress, while strikers, such as those of Burnstall’s in Smethwick, were left to stand outside.

This right-wing tendency in the trade unions was further reinforced by the collapse of the Soviet Union and the crisis within the Communist Parties internationally. The bourgeois apologists and their shadows within the labour movement portrayed the collapse of the Berlin Wall as a “victory” of capitalism and the “defeat” of socialism. In fact, the demise of Stalinism was a defeat, not for socialism, but for a bureaucratic totalitarian regime that was a mere caricature of socialism. This caused a layer of ex-lefts and former CP members to make common cause with the right wing to further their own ambitions and careers as Labour “advisers”. The ex-Stalinist Charlie Wheelan, Gordon Brown’s former spin-doctor, typified this new creature. They simply jumped ship and moved over to a pro-capitalist, pro-market position, with the ease of a man moving from standard class to first class on a train. This precipitated an even further shift to the right in the TUC, which in turn, was mirrored by a similar shift in the Labour Party. This itself is sufficient proof that the trade unions are the key to the developments within the Labour Party, for better or worse. This was no accident, but reflected the complicated objective processes unfolding deep within society.

Under pressure from the ruling class and the capitalist media, John Smith, the new party leader, sought to weaken the Labour Party’s links with the trade unions. A number of union leaders, fearing political marginalisation, resisted this attack. It was one thing to support Labour’s right wing, but this was going too far! At the 1992 Labour Party conference, John Edmunds and Bill Morris led the battle to preserve the union link, and the original One Member One Vote proposal (OMOV) was voted down by a clear major