• 1815 - 1834

    Background up to 1815

    Between the late 18th and mid 19th centuries, Britain was transformed from a mainly agrarian and rural society into one whose wealth was based on industrial production and whose population was increasingly located in fast expanding towns. Some of these towns like Manchester and Leeds had been mere villages 70 years previously.

    The process of industrialisation (commonly known as 'the industrial revolution') was facilitated by the use of new sources of motive power - first water, then steam. Steam was used to drive the machinery, which now had to be located in factories, near to the source of power - coal.

    The disruption caused by industrialisation was made worse by 22 years of war with France (1793-1815) and huge rises in food prices. All this gave an impetus to workplace combination and trade organisation, despite the notorious Combination Acts 1799/1800. These acts banned every kind of combination or meeting leading to combination.


    Fearing the influence of the ideas inspiring the French Revolution (1789), the Tory government of 1815 was determined to crush protest. Nevertheless, political radicalism was widespread in these years and was expressed in demonstrations, rebellions and a flurry of political tracts and newspapers defying the infamous 'taxes on knowledge' (the stamp duties of 1819). Political power was in the hands of the aristocracy and it is estimated that only c.400, 000 men had the vote, thus parliamentary reform was a major campaigning issue. The 1832 Reform Act extended the franchise to the industrialists and in so doing dashed the hopes of working people who dubbed 1832 'the great betrayal'.

    The Combination Acts were repealed in 1824 and although their activity was limited by the 1825 Combination Act, unions developed rapidly especially in the factory based textile industry. Women were prominent in these unions.

    There were also attempts to form general unions of all workers irrespective of trade. William Benbow (a Lancashire shoemaker), Robert Owen and many others looked upon trade unionism not just as a means for protecting and improving workers' living standards, but also as a vehicle for changing the entire political and economic order of society. Owen experimented with co-operative ventures and 'labour exchanges'; both attempts to bypass the existing order of wage slavery.

    The most famous of the general unions was, the Grand National Consolidated Trades Union (GNCTU) 1833-4. In 1834, the government attempted to smash the union by arresting six agricultural labourers from the village of Tolpuddle in Dorsetshire (the Tolpuddle Martyrs). These six men, having joined the GNCTU, were accused and found guilty in a show trial of 'administering illegal oaths'. They were transported to Australia. There was a mass campaign to prevent the sentences being carried out and, although unsuccessful in its immediate aim, it succeeded in pressuring the government to commute the sentences of the six.

  • 1834 - 1850

    The temporary defeat of trade unionism in 1834 had the effect of concentrating working class activity on three other mass campaigns:

    'short time' committees - a mass movement demanding the regulation of working conditions and hours of work in the factories

    mass opposition to the new Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 (this act abolished 'outdoor relief' and condemned the poor to the hated workhouses)


    Chartism was a political movement based on the demands of a 6-point Charter. Its mass support was clearly visible in the presentation of three 'monster' petitions to parliament in 1839, 1842 and 1848 containing millions of signatures. At first Chartism won support from a wide variety of workers and even from lower middle class radicals. From this mass support came the formation of the first ever working class political party - the National Charter Association, founded in 1840.

    Chartist leaders like William Lovett and Feargus O'Connor represented the high point of a long radical tradition. However, others within the leadership were gravitating away from radicalism and towards socialism. Bronterre O'Brien ('the schoolmaster of Chartism') and later leaders like George Julian Harney (editor of the Chartist paper The Northern Star) and Ernest Jones made connections between political oppression and economic exploitation. (Harney and Jones were closely associated with Karl Marx and Friederich Engels who lived in Britain as political exiles from their native Germany).

    Chartism posed an enormous threat to the established order. This was clearly shown by the 1842 General Strike (disparagingly referred to as the 'plug riots' when the plugs were removed from the cotton factory boilers, thus forcing them to stop work). The immediate cause of the strike was the proposal of the cotton manufacturers to cut wages by 25% because of the severe trade depression. However, the strike was also political in character, involving the demand for the Charter as its central aim. At countless meetings the strikers passed resolutions declaring that they would not return to work "until the People's Charter is the law of the land".

    1848 was the year of revolution throughout Europe. In Britain, a huge Chartist demonstration massed in Kennington Common, London on 10 April 1848. The demonstrators had planned to march to Westminster to present the third Chartist petition containing almost two million signatures. The government responded with mass arrests of Chartist leaders, included amongst whom was William Cuffay - a black man, the son of a slave. Cuffay was a tailor and had emerged as one of the most prominent leaders of London Chartism. He was the main organiser of the Kennington Common meeting. He was later put on trial for 'levying war against the Queen' and sentenced to transportation for life to Van Diemen's Land (now Tasmania).

    Chartism was not defeated in 1848, but it never again became the national mass movement that it once was. This is partly due to bitter internal divisions and partly due to a stabilisation of the economy which made the unity of working people less possible.

  • 1850 - 1880

    By the late 1840s Britain entered into a second phase of industrialisation. The construction of the railway network, almost complete by 1847, had stimulated the growth of the coal, iron and (later) steel and engineering industries. Together with cotton, these formed Britain's staple industries. Until the 1870s they flourished in a unique period of steady uninterrupted growth, punctuated only by the two short depressions in 1857 and 1866. Reaping the benefit of her early industrial lead, Britain had acquired a monopoly of world trade - she had literally become 'the workshop of the world'.

    'New Model' unionism

    Many workers in the profitable staple industries benefited from the new boom conditions. Sometimes referred to as an 'aristocracy of labour', such workers were the backbone of the trade union revival which followed the demise of Chartism. It was very different from the trade unionism of the earlier period. Most of the so-called new unions were re-formations of already existing (usually) craft organisations. These new unions, like the Amalgamated Society of Engineers (ASE) 1851 (the 'model' on which others were based), were organised nationally and highly centralised. They levied high membership dues and hence were able to employ full time officials and offer improved 'friendly society' benefits.

    Negotiation and arbitration gradually came to be accepted practices and were a much more common means of securing improvements in wages and conditions than strike action. Strikes did take place (for example the engineers' strike of 1852 and the protracted London builders' strike of 1859-60), but caution was to be exercised in the use of the "double edged (strike) weapon" (Robert Applegarth, secretary of the Amalgamated Society of Carpenter and Joiners).

    The smaller craft unions like those of the tailors and shoemakers, whilst not 'new model' in their organisational form, shared a similar ideology. George Potter, editor of the trade union paper 'The Beehive' was the spokesman for these and the northern unions. In 1850, there were roughly 100,000 trade union members. By 1874, this figure as represented at the Trades Union Congress that year had risen to over a million. Thereafter there was a sharp decline in membership, reflecting the strong associations of this type of trade unionism with Britain's economic fortunes. In 1872, Joseph Arch's attempt to organise agricultural workers met with initial success, but this too was short lived.

    Women were excluded from most of these 'craft' unions. The only trade in which they still remained organised in any numbers was that of weaving. Any attempts to organise women in this period came from outside the labour movement, often through the work of philanthropic women. The most notable example is the formation in 1874 of the Women's Protective and Provident League (later the Women's Trade Union League).

    The London Trades Council, formed in 1860 as a result of a building workers' dispute, brought together many of the London based leaders of trade unions. However, it was not until 1868 that the Trades Union Congress was founded. Its first congress was convened by the Manchester and Salford Trades Council. Trade unions were quick to exploit the new opportunities presented by the extension of the franchise in 1867 to better paid urban male workers by taking on some of the functions of a parliamentary pressure group. Hence the TUC's Parliamentary Committee was formed in 1871. This was the forerunner of the General Council.

    After the 1867 Reform Act, both Liberal and Tory governments showed interest in trade unions. Two Royal Commissions were established in the space of seven years. The first, in 1867, was to enquire into the Trade Unions, following the so-called Sheffield 'outrages' (when unions were accused of using arson and murder to intimidate non-unionists) and the second, on Labour Laws, was appointed in 1874. Of the six major pieces of factory/trade union/industrial relations legislation passed as a result, the main consequence was that the status of trade unions, although not their power, was enhanced. The Employers and Workmen Act 1875 modified the old Master and Servant Law so that employers too could be sued for breach of contract. The 1874 Factory Act set a ten-hour limit on the working day - the unions were campaigning for eight. The 1871 Trade Union Act recognised unions as legal entities as corporations and as such they were entitled to protection under the law. (This provided an end to the anomaly revealed by the Hornby vs Close case, in which it was deemed not to be unlawful to abscond with the funds of a union- in this case the Boilermakers). The question as to whether unions could in practice take effective strike action by picketing the workplace was the subject of much controversy. Interestingly, it was a Liberal government which criminalised picketing, (1871 Criminal Law Amendment Act), and a Tory government which de-criminalised it (1875 Conspiracy and Protection of Property Act).

    The working class vote was important to both parties and the Tories were as keen as the Liberals to use it to advantage. The Liberal Party strategy of 'lib-labism' (supporting working men as parliamentary candidates in selected constituencies) resulted in the return of a miner, Thomas Burt, as the Liberal MP for Morpeth, and Alexander McDonald (secretary of the National Miners' Association) as Liberal MP for Stafford in the 1874 election.

    Therefore by the 1880s, a strong, although narrowly based trade union movement had been created, but there were stirrings of a challenge. The boom was over and the ensuing depression questioned the complacency of the self-help ideal.

  • 1880 - 1914

    The years up to and including the First World War witnessed the rise of a mass labour movement. Trade Unionism spread to previously unorganised workers and its initial militancy rocked the complacency of the old leadership. The new mood was inspired by a revival in socialist activity. Britain's industrial lead and trading dominance was now challenged by the growing economic might of Germany and the USA. The profits from Britain's massive colonial empire concealed the impact of the decline in the staple industries. The empire expanded massively during the last quarter of the 19th century, as Britain, in common with other European 'Great Powers' participated in the race to divide Asia and Africa between them.

    New unionism

    Between 1888 and 1918 trade unions grew at a faster rate than at any other time in their history. Membership figure stood at roughly 750,000 at the beginning of the period, rising to six and a half million in 1918. Inspired by the successes of the women match workers' strike at the Bryant and May factory in 1888 and subsequently by the Gasworkers' and Dockers' strikes of 1889, trade unionism among unskilled, semi-skilled, white collar and professional workers spread rapidly. Led by socialists like John Burns and Tom Mann (with Eleanor Marx as secretary to the strike committee), the dockers' struggle captured the public imagination. Their strike, which lasted 5 weeks, was over the issue of casual working (they demanded a minimum of 4 hours per day) and for a minimum wage of 6 pence an hour (the 'dockers' tanner). They won their latter demand. Their vistory was ultimately ensured by the financial support received from other trade unionsts, including a £30,000 donation from Australia

    The central slogan of this forward movement was that of the demand for an 8-hour day - a demand of the international labour movement, popularised by the newly formed Second International (1889-1914) (an alliance of European socialists and trade unionists which attempted to give practical expression to Marx's famous slogan 'workers of all countries unite'). The huge May Day 1890 demonstration in favour of the 8-hour day took even its organisers by surprise. Many of the gains of 'new unionism' were reversed by 1891 owing to a counter offensive by employers. This was supported by two infamous legal decisions. The case of Lyons vs Wilkins in 1896 set a precedent for outlawing even peaceful picketing. In 1901, the Taff Vale judgment, enabled the employer (the Taff Vale Railway Company) to sue the union (the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants) for losses sustained during a strike. This action, inspired as it was by the Employers' Parliamentary Council, was intended to prevent strike action altogether, thus reversing the legal gains made by trade unions in the 1870's. This had the desired defect of curtailing (albeit temporarily) the mood of trade union militancy which had infected even the older more 'conservative' unions like the Amalgamated Society of Engineers (ASE). (In 1891, the socialist, Tom Mann came within 1,000 votes of winning the general secretaryship of the ASE). The trade union 'old guard' used this calmer period to consolidate their position. A change in the TUC standing orders in 1895 introduced the block vote, and trades councils (regarded as hotbeds of militancy) were banned from sending delegates to the annual congress of the TUC.


    Trade Union membership grew rapidly between 1910 and 1914. This growth - a product of the extraordinary militancy of the pre-war years - exploded in a huge wave of strike action, dubbed 'the great unrest'. The printers' strike of 1911 was the occasion for the establishment of a new workers' daily newspaper in April 1912 - the Daily Herald edited by George Lansbury.

    The organisers of these pre-war strikes were hostile to the leadership of the industrial and political wings of the labour movement, which they condemned as class collaborationist. Instead they were inspired by syndicalism. Syndicalists were a minority current in the labour movement, but nonetheless they offered a simple alternative to the continued employers' offensive - that of direct action in order to regain some form of workers' control over workplace pay and conditions by utilising the strategy of the mass strike and rapid trade union recruitment.

    Women workers

    Although the number of women in trade unions had increased by 1914, 90% of all trade unionists were men and over 90% of women workers remained unorganised. Of the 10% of organised women, almost half were members of unions in the textile industry (the only industry in which they had maintained continuous organisation), and a high proportion of the remainder were members of teaching, clerical and shop workers unions.

    Although the periods of growth in women's trade union membership usually coincided with overall union expansion, the unions themselves cannot claim the sole credit for organising women workers. As in the previous period, that task fell to women themselves. The Women's Trade Union League (formerly the Women's Protective and Provident League founded in 1874) became more militant and abandoned some of the policies of its predecessors. The secretary of the League, Clementina Black, moved the first successful equal pay resolution at the 1888 Trades Union Congress (TUC). The League supported strikes and encouraged women to join existing trade unions. It reversed the WPPL policy of opposing protective legislation for women and instead campaigned for its extension. The League became an unofficial Women's TUC and was dissolved in 1921 when the TUC agreed to take on its functions by forming the Women Workers' Group.

    In membership terms, the two most important women's organisations were the Co-operative Women's Guild formed in 1883 (by 1931 it had 67,000 members organised in 1,400 branches) and the National Federation of Women Workers, founded in 1906.

    Women's Suffrage

    The fight for the vote was the single demand around which the disparate strands of the women's movement could rally in the late nineteenth century. By the end of the 19th century the women's suffrage campaign had a mass following among working class women. Many of its leaders were well known as socialists and worked through various labour movement organisations as well as establishing their own organisation - the Lancashire and Cheshire Women Textile and Other Workers' Representation Committee. In 1903 the Pankhursts (Emmeline and her daughters Christabel and Sylvia) formed the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU). In its early years the WSPU had strong labour movement connections but apart from the Independent Labour Party, the labour movement was slow to support women's suffrage and the link was severed. The WSPU concentrated its efforts on influential and 'well placed' women in a less democratic pressure group style of campaigning differing only from the salon style of the older middle class suffrage societies in its less orthodox tactics. Individual acts of arson and terrorism captured the headlines, as did the strong-arm response of the Liberal government. The mass campaigns of working class women with which Sylvia Pankhurst was identified attracted less media attention. Sylvia was expelled from the WSPU in 1914 because of her support for labour movement causes and for her activities among working class women in the East End of London.


    Unlike reformist social democracy in Continental Europe, the British strain emerged without the theoretical underpinnings which characterised the sharp ideological battles of the Second International in general and of the largest of the European workers' parties, the German Social Democratic Party (SDP), in particular. The Fabian Society, formed in 1884 was the most 'theoretical' of the non-marxist organisations and distanced itself initially from labour politics. Although there was a representative of the Fabian Society, Edward Pease, on the Labour Representation Committee, the Fabians played very little part in the fight for independent labour representation, preferring instead their policy of permeating the Liberal Party. Once the Labour Party was up and running, the Fabians saw its possibilities and switched their intellectual efforts in its direction. The Fabian track record was fairly impressive. As a predominantly middle class organisation, much of its effort was devoted to scholarly research into all manner of social and political questions, with leading members like Sidney and Beatrice Webb becoming acknowledged 'experts' in their fields. On a practical level, it was the proud Fabian boast that they had defeated marxism in London through their assiduous work in nurturing the liberal-labour alliance which had captured control of the newly (1889) formed London County Council. Their 'gas and water' municipal socialism established a tradition of attention to detail at local government level which, its supporters argued, brought more tangible benefit to the working class than all the marxist polemic put together.

    Fabianism itself, however, was not immune from intellectual challenges from within. During the 'great unrest' (1910-14), opposition to its non-revolutionary gradualist philosophy emerged. The main rebel was G.D.H.Cole, whose breakaway group of Guild Socialists (a strand of democratic socialism which advocated the control of production by workers through self-governing guilds based on industrial labour unions) took with them the Fabian Research Department, renamed the Labour Research Department in 1918. (The latter still survives to fulfil its original purpose to provide a service for trade unionists.)

  • 1914 - 1918

    The First World War accentuated the divisions between the left and right in the labour movement. The militancy of labour's rank and file continued unabated, whilst the exigencies of war gave labour's leaders the chance to become fully enmeshed within the State itself. The gulf between the two widened to such an extent that it was difficult for both to co-exist within the same organisations. The 'unofficial' opposition, reflecting the chasm between leaders and led, generated its own structures in the form of the Shop Stewards Movement and Workers' Committees. The shop stewards of today can trace their origins to this wartime period, during which rank and file workers kept effective trade unionism alive in the face of their leaders' preoccupation with the war effort.

    Support for war

    The resolutions of the Second International, in condemning colonialism (1907 Stuttgart Congress) and calling for workers to oppose war (1910 Copenhagen Congress), were promptly forgotten in the rush to arms and the International itself collapsed.

    British labour leaders maintained an anti-war stance up until the point, on August 4th 1914, that the government finally declared war on Germany. By the end of August, the Labour Party and the TUC declared an 'industrial truce' for the duration of the war and lent their support to an all-party recruitment campaign. By May 1915, there were three Labour MP's in the Coalition Government, one of them, Arthur Henderson, in the cabinet. The two Treasury Agreements signed by government and trade union representatives confirmed labour's promise to abandon strike action for the duration of the war. It also drew the unions (including the Amalgamated Society, whose members were principally affected) into agreeing to suspend 'restrictive practices' in skilled trades by agreeing to the use of unskilled or semi-skilled labour (particularly that of women) in the war industries. (This was known as 'dilution'.)

    Anti-war movement

    The Independent Labour Party, however, maintained an anti-war policy from the start, even though some of its leading parliamentary members did not.

    In addition, there was a considerable body of political opposition to the war which generated a host of anti-war organisations like the Union of Democratic Control and the No Conscription Fellowship. As the war progressed the lack of war aims coupled with the blundering of the military commanders, made it clear that the price of victory was to be paid through mass slaughter. Conscription was introduced in 1916.

    'Red' Clyde

    Whether consciously anti-war or not, it was clear from 1915 that industrial workers were not going to be cowed by the legal strictures against strike action. An early example of this mood of defiance came from the strike by engineering workers in munitions factories on the Clyde in 1915. The strike was, of course, unsupported by the ASE leadership. Aided by the hastily formed Central Labour Witholding Committee, the strike spread rapidly throughout the Clyde. Signs of mass defiance were not limited to Scotland. The strikes were ultimately defeated. However, on Clydeside, the Central Labour Witholding Committee was replaced by a permanent organisation - the Clyde Workers' Committee (CWC), whose chairman, William Gallacher was a member of the British Socialist Party.

    The CWC provided the model for similar organisations in other urban industrial centres. Its language was syndicalist, but its practice was not - in the sense that it sought to link the industrial struggle (based on the shop stewards) with wider community based campaigns.

    Shop Steward & Workers' Committee Movement

    'Red Clyde' was in the vanguard of the wartime workers' movement, but mass protests led by revolutionary socialists developed with as much force in other parts of the country. The election of shop stewards and the formation of shop stewards committees was commonplace in most large factories which had been turned over to war time production. In Sheffield a Workers' Committee under the leadership of J.T.Murphy was formed on the model of the CWC. Other industrial centres like Manchester, London and later Birmingham also had Workers' Committees, but they were less long lived than their Sheffield and Clyde counterparts.

    Women trade unionists

    Women's trade union membership increased by about 160% during the war, but apart from the National Federation of Women Workers, the Workers' Union (WU) was the only union to make a serious commitment to organising women. By 1918 the WU employed twenty women full time officials and had a female membership of over 80,000. This was more than any other general union and represented a quarter of the WU's own membership. In 1918 the Equal Pay strike was led and ultimately won by women tramway workers - starting in London and spreading to other towns.

    In 1914, the Women's Social and Political Union abandoned the suffrage campaign itself and ardently supported the war effort and urged all women to do the same. Sylvia Pankhurst's organisation was one of the very few to maintain the fight for the vote until its first instalment (to women over 30) was granted in 1918. The National Council for Adult Suffrage also kept up the pressure for the vote in the war years. This organisation was established in 1916 and held its first meeting at the Daily Herald offices. It was a broad based activist adult suffrage campaigning group linking the left wing of the women's movement with the left wing of the labour movement.

  • 1918 - 1939

    The First World War and the temporary post-war boom camouflaged the underlying chronic economic problems associated with Britain's loss of status as a prime manufacturing power.

    This was a period of readjustment, economically and politically. Politically the era of the mass franchise (universal after 1928) brought about a new two party system. The Liberal Party declined after 1914 and was replaced by Labour as the main opponent of the Tories. Two Labour Governments were formed in the inter-war period, in 1924 and 1929-31. Both were minority administrations.

    The continuing decline of the staple industries was in part responsible for the persistent high unemployment of the 1920's and '30's. Despite the fact that new industries began to develop, they were located mainly in the Midlands and the southern part of England and did not compensate for the problems of the declining industries in the 'distressed areas' - the old industrial heartlands of South Wales, the West of Scotland, Lancashire, Tyneside and West Yorkshire. Unemployment in these areas never fell below a million in the 1920's and remained at shockingly high levels of between 40% and 60% (even 80% in some of the most blighted regions) during the 1930's. The 'great crash' at the end of the 1920's produced a prolonged slump in industry as a whole, with even higher rates of unemployment in the 1930s. One of the consequences of this was a decline in trade union membership from around six and a half million in 1920 to its lowest point in the inter war years of three and a quarter million in 1933. (Membership rose slowly but steadily thereafter.) Nonetheless, the mood remained militant. Strike action was almost as prevalent as the preceding period and culminated in the biggest display of working class strength yet seen - the General Strike of 1926.

    Strikes of 1919

    1919 witnessed the broadest and most serious strike wave yet seen. Thirty five million working days were lost in strike action - six times as many as in the previous year. This included strikes of the police and the armed forces. Miners, transport workers, printers joined those who had been taking action throughout the war. Their mood was influenced by the news of the workers' rising in Germany and Hungary and their strong support for the fledgling Soviet Russia. At the forefront was, once again, the Clyde Workers' Committee which organised a mass strike in January 1919. In Belfast too a huge strike wave paralysed the city.

    Strikes of 1919

    1919 witnessed the broadest and most serious strike wave yet seen. Thirty five million working days were lost in strike action - six times as many as in the previous year. This included strikes of the police and the armed forces. Miners, transport workers, printers joined those who had been taking action throughout the war. Their mood was influenced by the news of the workers' rising in Germany and Hungary and their strong support for the fledgling Soviet Russia. At the forefront was, once again, the Clyde Workers' Committee which organised a mass strike in January 1919. In Belfast too a huge strike wave paralysed the city.

    Reorganisation of the TUC

    In September 1921, the Parliamentary Committee was replaced by a General Council, equipped with broader powers and a more elaborate administrative structure. The aim was to develop industrial activities as opposed to legislative or political lobbying. In the same year, the TUC took over the functions of the Women's Trade Union League and two seats on the new General Council were reserved for women. The 1921 Congress also endorsed the formation of four joint departments with the Labour Party - research, legal advice, publicity and international affairs - and approved the creation of a National Joint Council with representatives from the TUC, Parliamentary Labour Party as well as the Party Executive. After the fall of the Labour Government in 1924, all the joint departments except the shared Library were dismantled

    Russian Revolution and the Communist Party

    Revolutionary industrial militants had reached a turning point in 1919. Syndicalism had shown itself capable of confronting individual employers, but not able to sustain lasting advances in the face of the full repressive power of the State. Many of the militant shop stewards were influenced by the theories of Marx and Lenin (popularised by John McLean and others). Events in Russia were followed with close interest, and when it became clear that British troops were being used with those of other capitalist countries against the revolution, a powerful solidarity movement emerged in the form of the 'Hands Off Russia' campaign. Practical solidarity, following intensive agitation, was shown by East London dockworkers when they refused in 1918 to load a munitions ship destined for Russia, the 'Jolly George'.

    Sidney & Beatrice Webb were very impressed by their visit to Soviet Russia. This may be have been the reason for the inclusion of the socialist clause 4 in the Labour Party's first constitution written by Sidney Webb in 1918. The threat that Britain might actually declare war against the Soviet Republic resulted, in August 1920, in the formation of Councils of Action (over 350 were established in all parts of the country, largely based on trades councils), which pledged, with the support of the TUC and the Labour Party, to mobilise mass strikes should the threat prove real.

    In this atmosphere, the talk of Communist unity became more urgent and more realistic. Attempts had been made to unite the disparate socialist parties and factions during the war on the initiative of the British Socialist Party (BSP). The talks in 1919 and 1920 revealed deep disagreements but by August 1920, the Communist Party of Great Britain existed. It was, and for many years remained, tiny. Its influence however was immeasurably greater than the sum total of its membership. From the very beginning it had within its ranks the leading industrial militants who had led the massive pre-war strikes and who had formed the core of the Shop Stewards' Movement during the war.

    Support for the fledgling Soviet Union was not confined to communists. TUC delegations visited the USSR in 1920 and 1924, and an Anglo-Russian Joint Advisory Council was established between the TUC and Soviet unions.


    Labour councillors in Poplar, East London under the leadership of George Lansbury (editor of the 'Daily Herald'), attempted to do all in their power to alleviate the problems of poverty and unemployment in the borough. To finance this, the council decided in 1921, to use its own local rates for its own purposes and to refuse to levy them for outside bodies like the London County Council (LCC), the Metropolitan Police authority and other London wide organisations. The Poplar argument was simple - if the poor boroughs had to pay for London-wide services, then the richer ones should be forced to contribute to a pooled fund for the provision of local schemes to relieve poverty in those boroughs least able to afford its rising cost. Hence arose the demand for the 'equalisation of the rates' and until this was conceded Poplar, at a Council meeting in March 1921, voted (with one vote against) not to levy rates on behalf of central London bodies. Writs were served on thirty of the Poplar councillors, who despite the opposition of the London Labour Party led by its secretary, Herbert Morrison, stuck to their policy and were arrested and imprisoned in September 1921 amidst mass demonstrations in their support. They were released after six weeks and won their principal demand.


    This period also saw the rise of fascism at home and internationally - most dramatically in the Spanish Civil War.

    The National Joint Council, later the National Council of Labour, which comprised representatives from the TUC, Labour Party and Co-operative Movement, launched an anti-fascist campaign in 1933, which included a mass meeting in the Albert Hall, demonstrations and calling for a ban on all German goods. From 1935 onwards, Oswald Moseley's British Union of Fascists (BUF) targeted overtly anti-Semitic propaganda on working class areas, especially the East End of London, an area which accommodated 90% of Britain's 330,000 Jewish population (Jews accounted for a tiny 0.8% of the total population of Britain). With police protection, the BUF attempted to stage a number of marches and rallies, most provocatively through the East End in October 1936 when anti-fascist groups led by the Communist Party stopped the march by barricades and pitched battles.

    This meant that it was isolated from the increasingly broad based movement which sought to expose the evils of fascism internationally and to fight Oswald Mosley's British Union of Fascists at home. The TUC, however, joined with the National Council of Labour in 1933 in calling for a ban on all German goods. From 1935 onwards Moseley's overtly anti-Semitic propaganda was targeted in working class areas especially the East End of London, an area which accommodated 90% of Britain's 330,000 Jewish population. (Jews accounted for a tiny 0.8% of the total population of Britain.) With police protection the BUF attempted to stage a number of marches and rallies the most provocative and infamous being the attempt to march through the East End in October 1936. Anti-fascist groups led by the Communist Party prevented or stopped many of these marches, but in the case of the East End this was accomplished by barricades and pitched battles particularly in Cable Street. Similar tactics were used by anti-fascists in Bermondsey.

    The Popular Front

    The Labour Party's anti-communism led it to reject participation in, with others on the left, a United anti-Fascist Front. The years between 1936 and 1938 witnessed the emergence of an even broader anti-fascist 'popular front' appealing to all whether on the left or right politically. The Labour Party remained hostile and in 1939 it expelled from the Party all those who continued to support the campaign. This included, among others, Stafford Cripps and Aneurin Bevan.

    Women workers in the inter war years

    In 1920, women's membership of trade unions was at its peak reaching 1,342,000 representing 25% of the total female workforce. By 1939, the figure had dropped to one million even though the percentage of women in the workforce had risen from 27% of the total workforce in 1923 to 30% in 1939.

    In the general climate of unemployment, cost cutting and reversion on the part of the unions to narrow and sectionalist attitudes, women workers were perceived as a threat. This provoked contradictory attitudes on the part of the union leadership. On the one hand many unions which organised in industries with a high percentage of women workers (e.g. retailing, teaching, the Post Office and other clerical occupations) sought to restrict the employment of women by calling for a strict application of the marriage bar, or the introduction of one. Almost all of them refused to campaign or shelved demands for equal pay and instead pursued wage claims which increased the differentials between men and women. Others, like the Union of Post Office Workers in 1935, went even further and called on a halt to female employment altogether. On the other hand, individual unions and the TUC were actively involved in women's recruitment campaigns. In 1925, the TUC established its own Women's Conference and in 1930, a Women's Advisory Committee to assist the General Council to tackle the 'problem' of women. The Women's Committee launched a campaign to increase the involvement of women by establishing local women's committees. This initiative was greeted apathetically, so a new range of publicity material was launched in 1937 based on the assumption that trade unionism would only appeal to women if it was concerned with 'womanly' issues such as health and beauty.

  • 1939 - 1945

    The Labour Movement and World War Two

    The roots of the first majority Labour government 1945-1951 were to be found during the Second World War when, from 1940 Labour participated as a full partner in Churchill's coalition government. During the war Labour leaders not only acquired invaluable experience, after twenty years in the wilderness, of ministerial responsibility, but also helped to construct the collectivist practices of wartime which laid the foundations of the Welfare State. The wartime alliance with the Soviet Union whose decisive contribution to the defeat of fascism was widely acknowledged, lessened for a while the anti-sovietism and anti-communism which had pervaded the inter war years. In these conditions the post war domestic policies of the Allied powers were forced to pay regard to the needs of the masses to a greater extent than ever before. For Britain the political wartime consensus extended beyond state controls to social reform, enabling parliamentary labourism in the form of the first majority Labour government to reach its 'finest hour'.

    Of the five members of Churchill's war cabinet formed in May 1940 two, Clement Attlee and Arthur Greenwood, were Labour MP's. Other Labour members held ministerial positions, the most important of whom in terms of labour relations was Ernest Bevin, Minister of Labour and National Service. Clearly Bevin's standing as leader of Britain's biggest trade union (the Transport and General Workers Union) was intended to deflect the kind of opposition to the control of labour which had been such a feature of the First World War. The measures introduced during this war were similarly draconian. The Emergency Powers Act and Defence Regulations provided the government with all the power it needed to direct and control labour. Strikes and lockouts were banned under Order 1305 and the 1941 Essential Work (General Provisions) Order allowed for the dilution of labour and the direction of skilled workers to wherever they were most needed. Bevin established a Joint Consultative Committee of seven employers' representatives and seven trade unionists to advise in the conduct of the war effort on the home front.

    Until 1941 when the Soviet Union entered the war, communists in Britain, having little commitment to the war effort, refused to be bound by the national unity consensus and in particular the ban on strike action. During the first few months of the war, there were over 900 strikes, almost all of them very short but illegal nonetheless. Despite the provisions of Order 1305 there were very few prosecutions until 1941 since Bevin, anxious to avoid the labour unrest of the First World War, sought to promote conciliation rather than conflict. The number of strikes increased each year until 1944, almost half of them in support of wage demands and the remainder being defensive actions against deteriorations in workplace conditions. Coal and engineering were particularly affected. A strike in the Betteshanger colliery in Kent in 1942 prompted the first mass prosecutions under Order 1305. Three officials of the Betteshanger branch were imprisoned and over a thousand strikers were fined. Such repression and the general 'shoulders to the wheel' approach to industrial production in support of the war effort (strongly backed by the Communist Party after 1941) did not stop strikes. The fact that so many strikes took place in the mining industry was due in the main to the fact that the designation of coal mining as essential war work entailed the direction of selected conscripts to work in the mines ('Bevin boys'). This was very unpopular among regular miners.

    In 1943 there were two major stoppages, one was a strike of 12,000 bus drivers and conductors and the other of dockers in Liverpool and Birkenhead. Both were a considerable embarrassment to Bevin since they involved mainly TGWU members. 1944 marked the peak of wartime strike action with over two thousand stoppages involving the loss of 3,714,000 days' production. This led to the imposition of Defence Regulation 1AA, supported by the TUC, which now made incitement to strike unlawful.

    Trade unions (TUC affiliates) increased their membership by about three million during the war - from roughly four and a half million in 1938 to around seven and a half million in 1946 and this was accompanied by the spread of recognition agreements to industries in which unions had only a toe-hold before the war. To some extent this extension of trade union rights was underwritten by the government who denied war contracts to firms (under the Essential Works Order) who failed to conform to minimum standards demanded by the unions.

    In 1941 the beginnings of TUC regional organisation was established (to operate in parallel to the Government's 12 defence regions), formally becoming TUC Regional Advisory Committees in 1945.

    The People's War

    Whereas the 1914-18 war was unpopular as a mismanaged fight between rival imperialisms, the war of 1939-45 was not perceived in the same way. The mass mobilisation of opposition to the Axis powers (Germany, Italy and Japan) was motivated by a higher ideal - the determination to rid the world of fascism. Of course, not every participant in the struggle was a conscious anti-fascist, but as news of the horrors perpetrated by fascism and the heroic resistance movements of nations under its control gradually filtered through, so the war itself took on something of the character of a 'people's war'.

    The war itself, especially after the Soviet Union's entry, was a popular one. The German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, although not resulting in the opening of a 'second front', nonetheless prompted the government to send a flow of supplies and armaments via the dangerous Murmansk convoys. The TUC assisted this through its 'Help for Russia' fund and maintained close contact with Soviet trade unions through the Anglo-Russian Trade Union Council established in 1941. Until the end of the war, the anti-communism which had been the hallmark of the TUC leadership since 1926 was temporarily abandoned.

    The Coalition government did much more than Lloyd George's administration to spread the burden of sacrifice (although it did not equalise it) through state controls and important measures of social reform. Such reforms included the provision of cheap school meals and day nurseries, improved pre-natal and infant welfare facilities and the abolition in 1941 of the hated 'means test'. Due to the sustained German bombing of urban areas (the 'blitz'), the government also provided emergency housing. In 1943 the main provisions of the Beveridge report, which laid the foundations of the welfare state, were accepted by the cabinet, although not acted upon until the war was over.

    Women and World War Two

    The war accorded women workers a high profile. Conscription for women was introduced in 1941. They had either to work in the munitions (or other designated) industry or were recruited into the Land Army. This did not mean that the state, in spite of some temporary concessions, had any intention of meaningfully addressing women's 'double burden'. An uneasy contradiction existed in the official mind between the obvious necessity to maintain wartime production on the one hand, and on the other the desire not to destabilise women's role in the family. It manifested itself in an unwillingness to ensure any lasting or general changes to the social order in favour of meeting the needs of working wives and mothers. Even the frequently cited provision of state day nurseries for working mothers, which was undoubtedly an historic initiative, was in itself the locus of intense ideological debate between realists like Bevin in the Ministry of Labour and the traditionalists of the Ministry of Health. Although the former appeared to win, as witnessed by the fact that 1,345 nurseries had been established by 1943 (compared with 14 existing in 1940), this did not represent a real victory for women workers. Firstly, it failed to satisfy the enormous demand or indeed to provide childcare for the duration of the mothers' working day, hence the great increase in private child minding arrangements and, secondly, it was always clear that this was a wartime expedient only - what the state provided the state could also easily remove.

    There was discussion, although little action, on other ways to ease the double burden of women war workers. Sheer economic necessity forced such 'women's issues' as child-care facilities and maternity benefit on to the political agenda with undoubted advantages for women, albeit of a temporary nature, as the post-1945 period was to show. The more convenient and ideologically acceptable expedient of adjusting women to their double burden by permitting them to work part-time was the favoured alternative. Such a 'concession' was one of the few wartime changes which remains as a permanent feature of women's labour and of course helps to account for continuing low wages and lack of job opportunity.

  • 1945 - 1960

    The Third Labour Government 1945-1951

    The size of the Labour majority in the 1945 election (146 seats) gave it a mandate for the first time to carry out its election manifesto 'Let Us Face the Future'. Six of the 20 members of Attlee's cabinet were union sponsored.

    The Labour government inherited the severe economic problems of the pre-war period with the added burden of the economic destabilisation of war. British exports in 1945 stood at a third of their already low 1939 level. A flurry of legislation covered three main areas - nationalisation and economic planning, social welfare and trade union law.

    Nationalisation and Planning

    Labour's programme of nationalisation was extensive and bold. The coal, gas and electricity industries were taken into state control in 1947. When the National Coal Board was established in 1947, two trade union leaders were appointed to the Board - Walter Citrine of the TUC and Ebby Edwards of the National Union of Mineworkers. The transport infrastructure - railways, most wharves and docks, London's buses and tubes, and later road haulage, were nationalised. The major, but ailing iron and steel industry was nationalised in 1950 as was the Bank of England in 1946. Several smaller industries and services like cables and telecommunications and parts of the hotel and catering trade were also in state hands by 1951. By then roughly 20% of the national economy was controlled by the state employing a workforce of over two million people. However, only decaying and unprofitable sectors were taken into state control in order, as Herbert Morrison put it, to 'make possible the organisation of a more efficient industry' in the interests of the nation as a whole. This and the fact that astronomical sums in compensation payments were given to the former owners (many of whom became leading figures on the Boards of Directors of their respective public corporation), helps explain why there was so little opposition to nationalisation (except in the case of iron and steel).

    Many of the mechanisms of state planning and control had already been set up during the war. The object was to promote a healthy economy by increasing Britain's gross domestic production and export potential. The means, via four civil service committees (manpower, materials, balance of payments and capital investment) fell far short of the aim, given the irreconcilable clash of interests between the profit motive of private capital and that of the common good. The clamour for de-control of the economy became the rallying cry of private industry, backed by the Tory Party and the Tory press. Labour's economic plan, such as it was, was in tatters. The return to economic orthodoxy was also motivated by the government's reliance on US aid in the form of the Marshall plan. The price for such aid was clearly stated by the Americans - Britain had to cut back on spending on welfare and had to de-control the economy in order to make the entire European market more favourable for American exports.

    The Welfare State

    From the 1930's onwards, Labour was the only party which made the extension of social benefits for all from 'the cradle to the grave' a top campaigning priority. Its achievement in government gave concrete expression to this in 1946 via the National Insurance Act, which provided for sickness and unemployment benefit for all who had paid the required national insurance contributions. The National Insurance (Industrial Injuries) Act, which insured all workers against workplace accidents - a measure for which the TUC had fought long and hard, and the National Health Service Act. The aim of the NHS was 'to promote the establishment ... of a comprehensive health service designed to secure improvement in the physical and mental health of the people' and weathering the storm of protest from the doctors' organisation, the British Medical Association, ensured that it would be free at the point of need. Labour resolutely opposed a means test because it took the view that the welfare state would be a non-starter unless its benefits were genuinely open to all. This principle of universality remained the cornerstone of Labour and the TUC's social policy for the next five decades.

    1947: The Turning Point

    1947 saw a very harsh winter, a fuel shortage and a financial crisis - the gravest since 1931. Labour embarked upon a series of 'austerity' measures which effectively transformed it from a party of reforming zeal into one of retrenchment and economic orthodoxy. An attempt was made to reduce the balance of payments deficit by cutting down on imports. This affected imported foodstuffs especially and meant a cut in the already meagre rationing still extant from the war. The 'black' market provided extra rations for those who could afford it. Domestic spending on social services was cut drastically and in 1948 the government introduced a wage freeze. The TUC assented to the wage freeze, but in so doing recognised that there would be strong opposition to this from the left- in particular from the Communist Party which had grown rapidly in membership and influence during the war.


    Labour's manifesto for the 1950 General Election, 'Let us Win Through Together', displayed the caution already evident in its post 1947 policies. Despite the extraordinarily high turn out (which at 84% remains a record), Labour's overall majority dwindled to five; although its share of the popular vote remained high at 46%. Hence it was just a matter of time before a fresh election was held to give Labour a more workable majority. But by 1951 when a new election was held, the tide had turned. Labour actually won more votes than the Tories but the result of boundary changes gave the latter an undeserved slim majority and secured their position as the party of government for the next thirteen years.

    The Labour Government and the Trade Unions

    The 1927 Trades Disputes and Trade Unions Act was repealed in 1946. The Labour Party's trade union membership rose dramatically since the 1946 Act restored 'contracting in' for purposes of payment of the political levy.

    In general, the TUC was motivated by a commitment to maintaining Labour in power, and its uncritical attitude was bolstered by the continuance of the anti-communism that the trade union leaders had already displayed before the war and now found little difficulty in sharing with the government. The rank-and-file opposition to the government's austerity programme after 1947, identified as the work of communist militants, was interpreted as an attack not only on the government, but on the trade union leaders who tamely supported it. The TUC published two pamphlets, 'Defend Democracy' and 'The Tactics of Disruption'; Communists were labelled as 'abject and slavish agents of forces working incessantly to intensify social misery' and calls were made to ban them from holding office in trade unions and trades councils. Several trades councils were de-registered for failing to toe this line, nine communist full-time officials were sacked from the Transport and General Workers Union (TGWU) and Bert Papworth, the busworkers' leader, also lost his seat on the TUC General Council. There was a succession of strikes in various industries and Seven London dockers were prosecuted under Order 1305 in 1951. This and the invocation of the Emergency Powers Act marked the unprecedented use in peace time of the legal and repressive apparatus of the state.

  • 1960 - 2000

    PART 1

    In the period 1960-79, the British trade union movement seemed to most observers and active members to be in robust good health. In 1968, the TUC celebrated its centenary with due pomp and ceremony. Its leaders had no doubt that they were an important British public institution. They did not, however, rest on their historical laurels. In common with the rest of Britain, the trade union movement was affected by the currents of cultural and social change which gathered force during the 1960s. They responded with sincere, and often successful, initiatives to adapt the culture of trade unionism to take account of the changes. Examples are shown on the website of how unions were extending their reach towards the second wave of feminism and youth culture. There were also determined attempts to address issues of racism at the workplace and inside trade unions.

    Growth in Trade Union Membership

    Membership density not only remained at the record peacetime level of the late 1940s, hovering around 44%, during the late 1960s it began to increase steadily. In 1979, union density was 55.4%; there were 13 million union members, in contrast to the 9-10 million members in 1951-60 (1). Non-trade unionists were impressed by the improving wages and working conditions in the traditional centres of trade unionism - manual workers in large factories, shipyards, coalmining and railways. White collar and technical unions were successfully recruiting clerical and technical workers in the offices and drawing offices attached to these industries, where manual workers' lay representatives and officials provided important support to their sister unions' attempts to gain bargaining rights and recognition. Thus, when the National Association of Local Government Officers first affiliated to the TUC in 1964, it became the sixth biggest union; in 1979 it was the fourth largest, followed by NUPE, which had moved from tenth to fifth place.

    Women's organisation also improved, from 2 millions in 1960 to just under 4 millions in 1979. Between 1950 and 1970, the number of women members in NUPE increased by 332.5%, from 40,000 to 173,000. In the decade between 1968-78, NUPE's women members increased by 236.3% to 457,500, thus becoming the union with the largest number of women members (followed by NALGO, GMWU, TGWU, each with around 318,000 members, having registered an increase of 141.3%, 59.2% and 63.3% respectively.)(2)

    Smaller unions organising manual workers in the National Health Service and local government took advantage of this favourable atmosphere and began to recruit members more energetically. They frequently hired union activists from the engineering industry to be full-time officials, judging that their experience would make them effective agents to propagate the culture and habits of union solidarity and collective bargaining in hospitals and depots. Large professional associations in teaching and local government affiliated to the TUC, e.g. NALGO in 1964 and the National Union of Teachers (NUT) in 1970. Previously, their members had considered themselves to be not only superior to manual workers in status, but also in their bargaining position. Now, their union executives and officials sought to revise these pre-conceptions and persuaded their members that lining up alongside manual unions did not diminish their professional prestige (The British Medical Association and the Royal College of Nursing felt strong enough to remain ostentatiously separate). A contributory factor in persuading the leadership of professional associations there were real material advantages to be gained from TUC affiliation was the evolution of a formal, close relationship between it and the Government. Since their membership was overwhelmingly concentrated in the public sector, these leaders judged that they would significantly increase their influence by operating inside the TUC.

    Law in the Workplace

    This period is indeed remarkable for the extent to which successive governments became involved in legislating and regulating terms and conditions of employment. In 1963, under the Conservative government of Harold Macmillan, the Contracts of Employment Act was passed, requiring employers to give workers a minimum period of notice when terminating their contracts and to give written particulars of any verbal contract when a written contract was not provided. One of the first pieces of legislation enacted by Harold Wilson's 1964-70 Labour government was the Redundancy Payments Act 1965, requiring employers to consult unions at the workplace in advance of decisions to terminate workers' contracts on account of redundancy. Employees were also given a statutory right to both notice of redundancy and substantial financial compensation.

    The Labour government also fulfilled the long-standing ambition of the trade union movement by enacting the Equal Pay Act 1970, requiring employers to pay women the same wage as men for the same work. Though more narrowly drawn than many trade unionists had lobbied for, the Act nevertheless established an important principle, which was supplemented and broadened through collective bargaining and strike action in which women proved notably determined and were well supported by their male colleagues and union officials, e.g. the strikes of women sewing machinists at Ford's Dagenham and of workers at Trico's windscreen wiper factory in West London. This Act, together with the Race Relations Act 1968 and the Sex Discrimination Act 1975, provided the foundation of positive rights for women (and men) workers of all ethnic origins to be treated equally at work, both by employers and their fellow workers.

    An additional factor drawing government and trade unions closer was the changing leadership in both. In 1960, the TUC's new general secretary, George Woodcock, was notably more inclined to enter into a public, formal relationship with government than his immediate predecessor, Vincent Tewson. In 1962, Woodcock persuaded the more conservative members of the TUC General Council to take part in the National Economic Development Council (NEDC), a body designed to discuss matters of national economic policy with representatives of interested organisations including the TUC, CBI, nationalised industries, the Bank of England, etc. It was very much Macmillan's initiative, in which he persisted, despite scepticism from the Ministry of Labour, where the established convention was that union leaders preferred to get on with their own jobs free from government hindrance. The General Council firmly declined, however, to co-operate with Macmillan's other initiative, the National Incomes Commission (NIC), despite a strong government campaign to persuade the voting public and trade union movement that their plans to establish a voluntary incomes policy were in good faith, i.e. not a ruse to increase employers' profits and shareholders' dividends at the expense of working people's standard of living. Despite the clear indications that British industry was unable to compete in the world market, the General Council was unwilling to contemplate making what would have been seen as a significant political concession, agreeing publicly with a Conservative government that both employers and unions had good reason to co-operate to maintain Britain's position as a significant exporter of manufactured commodities. The Labour Party leadership encouraged the General Council's perfunctory refusal to be drawn into the NIC. It was Harold Wilson's view (and Hugh Gaitskell's before him) that the TUC should be encouraged in their negative attitude. They considered it an important electoral advantage to claim that incomes policies could only be successfully implemented by a Labour government.

    Nevertheless, Labour's grand offensive to launch a prices and incomes policy in 1964 with the establishment of the National Board for Prices and Incomes (1965-1971) proved to be as damp a squib as Macmillan's. Further initiatives to launch a workable incomes policy were undertaken by the succeeding three governments, the Conservative Heath government of 1970-4, the minority Wilson administration of February-October 1974, followed by the Labour government of 1974-9 led briefly by Wilson and then by James Callaghan. They all failed, foundering on similar factors to those which had determined the failure of Macmillan's and Brown's bold plans.

    Professor Nina Fishman, Senior Lecturer, History, University of Westminster, School of Social Sciences, Humanities and Languages

    (1) J.McIlroy, N.Fishman, A. Campbell, (eds), 'British Trade Unions and Industrial Politics', 1999, vol. 1, p.103, and A. Campbell, N. Fishman and J. McIlroy (eds.), 'British Trade Unions and Industrial Politics', 1999, vol. 2, p.120

    (2) Chris Wrigley, 'Women in the Labour Market and in the Unions', Campbell et al, vol. 2, p.66

Professor Mary Davis, Centre for Trade Union Studies, London Metropolitan University