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.

Following on from our first introductory article on the founding years of the British Labour Party, Barbara Humphries continues her series of articles that look at the issues and characters involved in the British Labour Party’s history and development. This was originally published in November 1996 in the British Socialist Appeal.

In the light of recent developments in the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP) we are publishing a document written by Ted Grant back in 1992 which already outlined the roots of the present crisis in the SSP. Ted explained that the concessions the leaders of the then SML (later to become SSP) were making to Scottish nationalism would lead to a disaster. Time has proven him correct.

The end of the war brought about an entirely novel situation in Europe, presenting the Marxists with difficult and unforeseen theoretical problems. The revolutionary wave in Western Europe did indeed manifest itself in the election of left governments and the strident demands of the workers for concrete reforms and social change. But the full impact of the workers' movement was blunted by the Communist and Socialist Party leaderships, acting as a brake on developments. The precise characterisation of the post-war regimes in Western Europe and the perspectives for these countries were the subjects of intense debate within the Trotskyist movement.

This is the speech made by Ted Grant at Labour Party annual conference in 1983, appealing against his expulsion by the National Executive Committee in February of the same year. The NEC had begun an 'enquiry' into the newspaper Militant, on the urging of the capitalist press and Tory ministers, who goaded Michael Foot, the Labour leader, with having 'extremists' in his party.

Originally published in 1975, this article was an answer to Chrysler’s plans to sack thousands of workers in Britain. We are publishing it together with our article on workers' participation or workers' control as it posed clearly the demand for nationalisation under workers’ control and management.

Originally published in 1974 in a period when there was a discussion on the question of workers’ control and what it meant. The right-wing leaders in the British labour movement (and internationally) interpreted it as “workers’ participation”, which meant the workers would be consulted on minor questions, but real control remained in the hands of the bosses. Today, thirty years later, this article maintains all its validity, in explaining the real Marxist approach to this question.

"What was necessary in 1926 and is necessary today is a friendly but implacable criticism of the left leaders in the unions — and in the Labour Party. A skilful criticism of the woolliness, the vagueness and inconsistency of the Lefts and their failure to present the issues in sharp and clear class terms; not to wobble over the issue of the "nation" or "collaboration with the management", or even with the Tory government as suggested by Scanlon and Jones in recent weeks, but to pose the issue clearly of the "two nations" in Britain — workers and capitalists." (Ted Grant in 1973)

In 1971 in Britain the Tory government's the Industrial Relations Bill brought the country close to a general strike with many militants calling for concrete action. The Communist Party first called for such a strike and then light-mindedly dropped it without any explanation. Ted Grant pointed out that in the conditions of the time the call for a general strike had to go hand in hand with systematic preparation for power; otherwise it would be a frivolous and dangerous approach.

This article was originally published in the Militant under the title "Northern Ireland - For A United Workers' Defence Force" just after the British troops were sent into the North of Ireland in 1969. While most of the left capitulated and supported the sending in of troops the Marxists explained clearly that, "The call made for the entry of British troops will turn to vinegar in the mouths of some of the Civil Rights leaders. The troops have been sent in to impose a solution in the interest of British and Ulster Big Business."

In November 1967 the devaluation of the pound underlined the fact that the undergoing crisis of British capitalism had not been solved. The crisis highlighted the beginning of a polarisation between the left and right wing within the Labour Party. Recognising that this was the result of conflicting class pressures on the LP leadership, Ted Grant debunked the arguments of the “lefts” and outlined the strategy of the Marxist wing within the labour movement in an epoch of sharp class conflict that was impending, a strategy that was later to crystallise in the growth of the Militant Tendency in the 1970s.

A few weeks into the first Wilson government Ted Grant pointed out that, "Labour must either introduce drastic measures against the insurance giants, the big banks and the monopoly concerns that dominate the British economy, or the Labour leaders will become tools in their hands." He warned that if they chose the latter, this would lead to defeat of Labour, which eventually came in 1970.

On the eve of the 1959 general elections, Ted Grant explained the reasons why workers needed to get rid of the Tories. Only the bosses had gained anything after eight years of Tory rule.

In 1959, the Transport and General Workers’ Union (T&GWU) and the General and Municipal Workers’ Union (G&MWU) gave voice to the growing mass opposition within the labour movement to atomic and nuclear arms. Labour Party leader Gaitskell declared that the pro-Nuclear party policy would not be changed. Ted Grant expressed the Marxists’ critical support for the trade unions’ stand and exposed the right-wing policy of the Labour leaders.

Rising unemployment provoked a parliamentary debate in March 1959. Ted Grant explained the reasons for the growing unemployment and the need to reject bourgeois policies. Unfortunately, Labour leaders were tail-ending the policies of the Tory government, which also explained why the Labour Party was finding it difficult to defeat the Tories, something which was confirmed later that year in the general election.