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

“The First Giant Step”

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

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

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

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

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

He went on to urge not to

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mass Movements

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

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

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

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

Independent Representation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Breakthrough

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Victory Grayson

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

[3] Ibid, p.398-411

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

[5] Ibid, p.114

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

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