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


“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