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

“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