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.

At the beginning of 1959 the National Coal Board decided to close 36 pits and throw 13,000 miners out of work in Wales and Scotland. Despite the wave of unrest amongst the miners, the reaction of the leaders of the Miners' Union was to "co-operate in minimising hardship caused by the closures". Ted Grant argued that the NUM should strike back and mobilise around the lines set out by the Miners' Charter and enforce workers' control on the Coal Board.

In the run-up to the 1959 General Election Ted Grant criticised the programme of the Labour Party highlighting that promises of reforms were just words, especially in the context of the economic slump, if the bosses' pockets had not to be touched. Unless the big 600 were taken over and production rationally organised according to a democratic plan, with the full participation of the workers and technicians themselves - Grant argued - the programme of reforms was unrealistic.

A few months before the 1959 General Election, after 7 years of Tory rule, their policies in favour of the rich had alienated the mass of the workers. Cracks appeared in Tory rule but the Labour Party under Gaitskell had no real alternative to offer to British workers. Unless a sharp change to the left in policies and leadership was forced by the Labour ranks, Labour would head for disaster, argued Ted Grant.

In 1958, after 7 years in power, Tory rule was shaken by recession. The class character of Tory policies was clear for all to see. At the same time the right-wing orientation of Labour under Gaitskell was frustrating the ranks of the labour movement. Growing criticism was revealed by a Gallup Poll. Ted Grant explained that workers were prepared to fight the Tories but the Labour leaders were not willing to give a lead. The most class-conscious elements should therefore organise in opposition to Gaitskell's policies.

In 1958 the economic recession in Britain undermined the stability of the then Tory government. The combination of rising unemployment and inflation and the Tory government's policies provoked a massive swing against them. Ted Grant urged that all forces of the trade union and labour movement be mobilised to force the Tories out.

In 1958 there were fears of a slump spreading from the US economy. British CP leader Campbell started a campaign in consonance with Russian foreign policy to put the blame for the slump on the "Americans" and protested against the bankers' behaviour and the shortsighted British government's attempt to "create a slump" in the UK. Ted Grant argued against this nonsense that it is not the "obsessions" of the bankers nor the "stupidity" of the capitalists and their representatives which cause them to act in a certain way, but the economic laws of the capitalist system.

The NEC of the Labour Party in 1954 argued in favour of German rearmament against the Soviet "threat". The Labour left argued that a re-armed West Germany, backed by the United States, would be facing a hostile and armed East Germany, backed by Russia, making World War III "inevitable." Ted Grant replied to both, putting forward an internationalist position.

Cutting through the superficiality of the Fabian theories, Ted Grant defends the basic Marxist position, that as long as the market dominated the economy, then there would inevitably be cycles of boom and slump. Explaining the causes for the longevity of the boom, he also points out its limitation and the inevitability, at a later stage, of new recessions and slumps. This article, although directed particularly towards the British economy, was no less relevant to the other main capitalist countries, where similar conditions prevailed and similar arguments raged.

Ted Grant's criticism of the pamphlet "Problems of Foreign Policy" published by Transport House in 1952 exposes the chauvinistic approach in foreign policy of the Labour leaders and their abandonment of a working class perspective.

In early 1952 fifty-seven Labour MPs voted against the Tory motion of endorsement for the rearmament programme, reflecting the deep dissatisfaction of the rank and file members of the Trade Unions and the Labour Party with the policy of the official Labour Movement. Ted Grant analysed the limits and the potential of this opposition developing around Bevan.

In 1949 the new Occupation Statute gave control of the Ruhr region, the powerhouse of Europe, to the British, French and US imperialists. The excuse was to prevent the possibility of German rearmament. Ted Grant exposed the imperialists' interests behind this measure and denounced the chauvinistic policies of both the Stalinist and Labour leaders.

In 1948 Ted Grant, commenting on the debate at the Tory Conference, argued that the Conservatives were trying to disguise with a thin layer of “social” veneer the class character of their policies in favour of the ruling class and warned against the possibility of a Tory comeback if the Labour leaders failed to deliver decisive social change.

In 1947 a group of Russian workers over in Britain on a training programme were banned by the Soviet authorities from joining a British trade union, leading to conflict with the British workers who had fought for a closed shop. The Soviet bureaucracy could not tolerate the fact that these Russian workers might pick up a few ideas about basic trade union rights, which caused harsh debates within the British Communist Party.

After nationalizing Coal, it became evident to workers that conditions were not improving. A number of unofficial strikes broke out in 1947 provoking the threat of retaliatory sackings by the capitalist led Coal Board. Ted Grant vibrantly protested against the lavish acceptance of this measure by the leaders of the Miners' Union and called on them to give voice to the legitimate demands and grievances of the workers and fight for workers' control over the Coal industry.

In March 1947, Ted Grant welcomed the revolutionary opposition to the reformist policies of the leadership emerging from within the ranks of the Communist Party, especially among workers, at that year's Party conference. Differences were raised on the question of workers' control on the railways and the CP leaders' lavish support for Labour government's policies.