British Labour Movement

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The British organised Labour movement is the oldest in the world. Its pioneers created illegal revolutionary trade unions, before establishing the first workers’ party in history: the Chartist Association, which fought for the enfranchisement of working people. They later participated in the founding of the First International.

In the nineteenth century, the British labour movement built trade unions of the downtrodden, unskilled workers – those with “blistered hands and the unshorn chins,” as the Chartist Feargus O’Connor called them. Finally, Keir Hardie established a mass parliamentary party based on the trade unions in 1900: the Labour Party. After the Russian Revolution, the labour movement engaged in ferocious class battles, culminating in the General Strike of 1926.

The post-war upswing strengthened the working class. By the early 1970s, they had driven a Tory government from power, and in the 1980s unions miners waged a semi-insurrectionary (though tragically unsuccessful) struggle against the reactionary Thatcher government. The defeat of the miners, and later the dockers and print workers in the late 1980s, struck a serious blow against the trade unions, but the latest period of capitalist crisis since 2008 has seen a reinvigoration of the British Labour movement.

The election of left-winger Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader in 2015 was a political earthquake that transformed Britain into a field of ferocious field of class struggle. The “oldest parliamentary democracy in the world” is now an open battlefield between workers and youth on one side, and an increasingly desperate and degenerate capitalist class on the other. The history of the British labour movement holds important lessons for carrying the world socialist revolution to victory.

Eighty years ago an earthquake shook the very foundations of British capitalism. In the greatest display of militant power in its history, the British working class moved into action in the General Strike of 1926. For 9 days, from May 3, not a wheel turned nor a light shone without the permission of the working class. In such a moment, with such power, surely it ought to have been possible to have transformed society? How can such a position have ended in defeat? (by Phil Mitchinson, originally published in May 2001)

Twenty years ago this month, the heroic twelve-month long struggle of the British miners to defend their jobs and their communities came to an end. The BBC drama Faith broadcast on February 28 on these events was like a breath of fresh air, an antidote to that earlier filth masquerading as ‘impartial documentaries’. For the first time in the national media the role of the state – its specially created national police force, its media, its secret services, and all the weapons employed by the ruling class to fight the miners – was vividly exposed.

We republish this article on the referundum on the EEC Common Market, written by Ted Grant in 1979. The article explains that the struggle against a capitalist common market needs to be linked to the struggle of changing society on socialist lines, as the struggle against the European Constitution today must also be.

This article was written to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the commencement of the 1984/5 miners' strike in the United Kingdom. This ferocious confrontation between the organised working class (led by the National Union of Mineworkers) and Margaret Thatcher's Conservative Government was a momentous chapter in the history of the class struggle in Britain. The lessons of the miners' strike – and its defeat – are of great significance to the future of the workers' movement, and deserve thorough study.

On Saturday 24 January, the British TV channel, Channel Four, broadcast a documentary about the miners’ strike. Anyone who tuned in looking for an objective account of the strike was doomed to be disappointed. The purpose of this documentary was not to clarify what happened but to blacken the memory of the striking miners and mislead the present generation by a combination of lies, falsifications and trivialisation. Against all the lies, distortion and venom, the Marxists will defend the memory of this epic struggle and pass on the great lessons to the new generation that is destined to carry on the fight to a victorious conclusion.

In the Cause of Labour - A History of British Trade Unionism

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

John Maclean was undoubtedly a class fighter and Marxist, but he made one important mistake, and that was to succumb to the idea that a socialist revolution would be possible in Scotland, separate from the rest of Britain. Ted Grant briefly comments on why this was.

This is the first of a series of articles on the history of the British Labour Party. These articles will help workers and youth to get a greater understanding of what the Labour Party is and what the attitude of Marxists to it should be. In this article we look at how the Party emerged from the struggles of the working class towards the end of the 19th and at the beginning of the 20th centuries.

Barbara Humphries continues her series on the history of the Labour Party with a look at the experience of the first two Labour governments. This article was originally published in Socialist Appeal, issue 49 March 1997.

Barbara Humphries continues her series on the history of the Labour Party. 1945 marked a watershed for Labour and for British society. The Labour Party won an historic victory, with a 146-seat majority over all other parties. It was won on the most radical election manifesto, before or since. This article was originally published in Socialist Appeal, issue 50 April 1997.

In this last article in her series on the History of the Labour Party, Barbara Humphries looks at how the turn to the left in the 1970s was cut across and how the present Blairite clique came to dominate the party, and draws the lessons for today's activists. The present turn to the right is nothing new in the party's history. As in the past it will be followed by a turn to the left.

Alan Woods writes an obituary of Olwyn Hughes, a Welsh miner whose political life went back to the period during and just after the War, when he first got active in politics, first in the Young Communist League, and then in the Trotskyist Revolutionary Communist Party.

The Labour Party and the trade unions remained defiant in the face of the 1931 general election defeat. The 1932 Annual Conference of the Party was told that "when the dust of battle had settled, an army of nearly 7 million men and women had rallied with unflinching loyalty and resolute determination to withstand the supreme attack of the combined forces of reaction…Labour refused to yield and at the end remained on the battleground a united formidable compact force that was the admiration of the working class movements of all countries. This augurs well for the future."

In this article in our series on the history of the British Labour party, Barbara Humphries looks at the early years of Labour in parliament and how the development of the class struggle forced the leaders of the party to make the final break with Liberalism. (Originally published in Socialist Appeal, issue 48, February 1997).