British Labour Movement

Clause4 700

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.

On the eve of 1946 post-war Britain was on her knees. The British ruling class reached a deal with the former U.S. allies for a huge loan, but the repayment conditions were very severe. The Labour leaders in office were willingly carrying out the dirty job of asking British workers to postpone any demands to improve their conditions. Ted Grant looked at the consequences of these policies for the workers.

At the end of the Second World War the Labour Party was elected into office, a clear rejection of Churchill and his anti-working class policies. But the statements of the Labour leaders revealed that they intended to continue with capitalism. The British ruling class understood they could use these leaders, discredit them and then bring back the Tories. Ted Grant warned the Labour leaders that this is what would happen.

The election of a majority Labour Government for the first time marked a definite turn in European, world and British history. In voting for the Labour Party, the mass of the British workers indicated that they wanted a complete change from the capitalist system. With such a decisive victory, the whole social structure of Britain and Europe could have been changed by a bold socialist programme on the part of the Labour leaders.

After the Crimea conference, the British Communist Party leaders came out with a position advocating a National unity government with the Tories for the post-war period. This policy of class collaboration was denounced by Ted Grant, who wrote in 1945 that, "to support Churchill is to support monopoly capitalism. To support the capitalists, the interests of the working class must be betrayed. It has taken the advanced British workers the experience of 50 years to realise that the Liberal and Tory Parties are parties of capitalism."

In early 1945 the radical mood within the British working class was preparing a landslide victory for the Labour Party. In this context the I.L.P. leadership raised the idea of re-affiliation to the L.P., but gave no explanation for its 13 years of independent existence. Here Ted Grant provided a sober-minded Marxist approach to the question of the Labour Party and the mass organizations of the working class in general.

In 1945 Churchill justified the brutal repression of the Greek workers at the hands of British troops. The then leaders of the Labour Party and the Communist Party in Britain hid the real meaning of the Greek events from the British workers. Ted Grant exposed this terrible betrayal in this article that appeared in the Mid-February 1945 edition of the Socialist Appeal.

In 1944 the Labour Party held its annual conference while British troops were being used to crush the Greek workers. The Labour leaders scandalously supported British imperialist policy in Greece, but even worse was the fact that the Labour left had capitulated on this issue. Ted Grant put forward a revolutionary Marxist position on the question.

Ted Grant in 1944 defends an internationalist approach towards the German workers as opposed to the utter nationalist degeneration of the Trade Union, Labour and C.P. leaders who enthusiastically joined the bandwagon of those blaming the German workers for the crimes of the Nazi regime, when in fact they were its first victims.

In October 1944 the Communist Party of Great Britain held a national conference where the leadership did everything possible to disguise in revolutionary sounding language their support for the Tories, for Churchill, for the Atlantic Alliance and so on. Some dared to criticise from the ranks but these were soon silenced. Ted Grant exposed the contradictions in the position presented by the leadership of the party.

Towards the end of the Second World War the coalition government in Britain was pushing through the Town and Country Planning Bill in such a way that it guaranteed the property rights of the big landowners. In this article (July 1944) Ted Grant called on Labour to break the coalition and nationalise the land without compensation to the big landowners!

At the 1944 conference of the ILP there were clear indications that a steady move to the right on the part of the leadership was taking place. This posed the question of what the left wing of the party should do. Here Ted Grant raises the need for the left to sharpen up its ideas and take a firm stand.

Contrary to the official mythology about Churchill, by 1944 he was already losing support among the people of Britain. This article by Ted Grant, written at the time and based on local election results, shows that the workers were becoming radicalised. This was to be confirmed in a dramatic way just after the war when Labour won a landslide victory.

The Labour leaders were in the wartime coalition, but not as “equal partners”. What the bosses wanted came first and the Labour leaders bowed down to this pressure. But pressure was also building up from below to meet the needs of the workers. Ted Grant looked at how all this was reflected in the Labour Party conference.

More than halfway into the Second World War the mood among the British workers was changing. The bourgeois could feel the changing mood and attempted to manoeuvre by making false promises. All this was putting pressure on the Labour Party, where the contradiction between the leaders in the coalition government and the workers in general was becoming ever more evident.

In 1942 the British Stalinists launched a vicious campaign of slander and lies against Trotskyism. Ted Grant, in the best traditions of Marxism, used the weapon of truth to reply to the Stalinists, whose methods were without honour, truth and conscience.