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

“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 The telegram from C. T. Cramp to NUR members claimed that not only had lockout notices been withdrawn, but also that “there are to be no wage cuts whatever for the miners”!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