SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Issue 180 July/August 2014

War on the home front:

Class struggles in Britain

The industrial struggles of the British working class during the first world war are little commented on. Yet, as JIM HORTON explains, the wave of militancy and the growth of the national shop stewards’ movement not only challenged the union bureaucracy but had the potential to develop into a mass anti-war and socialist movement.

On 4 August 1914 Britain declared war on Germany, condemning millions of workers to their deaths. The next day a pre-planned conference of trade union and labour organisations convened. The original aim to establish a national emergency committee to co-ordinate workers’ opposition to Britain’s participation in the developing war in Europe was abandoned. Instead, the War Emergency Workers’ National Committee was founded to help alleviate inevitable working-class destitution.

Yet, just two days before Britain’s war declaration, a labour movement anti-war demonstration took place in Trafalgar Square. Labour Party leaders, Keir Hardie and Arthur Henderson, had issued a strident manifesto appealing to workers, to "stand together for peace! Combine and conquer the militarist enemy and the self-seeking imperialists today, once and for all... Down with class rule! Down with the rule of brute force! Down with war! Up with the peaceful rule of the people!" This stance chimed with the decision two years earlier of the Basel congress of the Second (Socialist) International, to which the Labour Party was affiliated, calling on affiliates to "act to prevent war with every means available".

Instead, British labour movement leaders, in conjunction with their European counterparts, rushed to betray the interests of the working class. Like their socialism, anti-war sentiment for these leaders was an ideal, to be espoused in speeches and resolutions, not a banner around which to organise workers into action. The formation of the Labour Party in 1900 had been a historic gain for the working class. The majority of its leaders, however, continued to view the party as a radical appendage to the Liberals, which the unions had supported before establishing a party of labour.

Just ten years after its formation, the great industrial unrest of the pre-war years would starkly reveal to the best working-class activists the ‘conservative’ reformism of the labour and trade union leaders. This led to growing support for revolutionary socialist and syndicalist organisations, a process that would shape the response of workers to the crisis of war. The experience of the imperialist conflict would push the Labour Party into adopting a socialist constitution and programme, and, in the absence of a mass revolutionary alternative, see it replace the Liberals as the alternative party of government.

Betrayal of workers’ interests

Did initial ‘popular’ working-class backing for the war render impossible any labour movement hopes of preventing or bringing to an early end the imperialist conflict? The Clyde workers’ leader Willie Gallacher, who later became a Communist Party MP, referred to "the wild excitement, the illusion of wonderful adventure and the actual break in the deadly monotony of working-class life" that drove workers to voluntarily enlist, but this was already on the wane by 1915. The media had to exert immense moral pressure to shame men into signing up for war. A year later the government was forced to introduce conscription, which was also used to intimidate union militants.

Moreover, the industrial unrest that had been gathering pace since 1910 indicated that workers in Britain at the beginning of the war were not one jingoistic mass desperate to kill and be killed in the trenches of France and Belgium. In 1911, The Times warned: "The public must be prepared for a conflict between Labour and Capital, or between employers and employed, upon a scale as has never occurred before". This came to pass as strikes of miners, seamen, dockers, carters, tramway-men and railway workers engulfed every corner of the British Isles.

The number of strikes peaked in 1913 as different sections of workers went into industrial battle. Millions flooded into the unions. During these years troops were deployed against strikers and workers were killed. In his memoirs, David Lloyd George (prime minister 1916-22) accurately outlined the frantic situation confronting his class on the eve of the war: "In the summer of 1914 there was every sign that the autumn would witness a series of industrial disturbances without precedent. Trouble was threatening in the railways, mining, engineering, and building industries, disagreements were active not only between employers and employed, but in the internal organisations of workers. A strong ‘rank-and-file’ movement, keenly critical of the policies and methods of the official leaders of trade unionism, had sprung up and was gaining steadily in strength. Such was the state of the home front when the nation was plunged into war".

The employers and government may well have uttered sighs of relief as the roar of cannons provided an opportunity to halt the potential threat emanating from a combative working class. While not welcoming or wanting the war, the union tops also sought to take advantage of the situation to cut across the radicalisation of their members. They hurriedly terminated all existing industrial disputes with no agreement from the employers to safeguard terms and conditions. The TUC conference scheduled for September was cancelled, but the TUC Parliamentary Committee (forerunner of the General Council), issued a manifesto supporting the war and endorsing the government’s all-party recruitment campaign. Henderson became president of the parliamentary recruiting committee.

The open collaboration of the labour and trade union leaders with the bourgeois state quickly followed. Once they had decided to endorse the war efforts of British imperialism, then logically they would be compelled to back the attendant anti-working class measures the capitalists claimed as necessary to prosecute the war. In the shortest of periods these leaders had shifted from opposing war to sanctioning the sending of millions of workers to the slaughter fields of Europe, and condemning workers at home to the arbitrary dictates of the profiteering bosses.

Strike wave

Yet many workers did not feel bound by their leaders’ unilateral industrial truce, on which they were not consulted. Industrial action broke out from below over pay and conditions. Initially, by the end of the first month of the war, the number of strikes had dwindled to 20. Within seven months it had increased to 74. In 1915, wages disputes led to strikes of 700 labourers in Edinburgh, 4,000 jute workers in Dundee, 1,500 stevedores in London, and 4,000 carpenters and labourers working on army huts on Salisbury Plain.

In London, 5,000 dockers went on strike for a week, and 2,000 dockers at Birkenhead made four weekend stoppages against the imposition of new terms of employment. In Merthyr Tydfil, 2,000 miners stopped work for two days against the employment of non-union labour, and 500 engineers at Sandbach struck for better wages and union recognition. On Clydeside, a successful pay strike by engineers in February 1915 lasted 18 days. Significantly, it was organised by the Clyde Labour Withholding Committee, the forerunner of the Clyde Workers’ Committee, which two years later would lead to the formation of the potentially powerful national shop stewards’ movement.

In March 1915, under the guise of national unity, Lloyd George had no problem persuading the bulk of union leaders to sign up to the Treasury Agreement, which in effect introduced industrial conscription. It lifted workplace restrictions on the use of cheap unskilled labour, imposed longer working hours, and undermined health and safety regulations. The unions undertook not to strike, in favour of compulsory arbitration, for the duration of the war. The only concession the unions extracted was a promised limitation on profits, a condition reneged on by employers and the government a year later.

To their credit, the miners’ leaders withdrew from the treasury talks. The Amalgamated Society of Engineers naively signed up on the condition that union practices would be suspended only in firms connected with war production. Originally conceded by the government, this restriction was soon abandoned. The Daily Herald commented scornfully that "the trade union lamb had lain down with the capitalist lion". It was only the action of rank-and-file union activists that prevented the working class from being routed by rapacious employers.

Three months later, however, a government memorandum revealed concerns about the ineffectiveness of the agreement: "The ordinary economic control of the workman has practically broken down. The result is that to a very considerable extent men are out of control of both employers and their own leaders".

Repressive laws – and resistance

The major concessions willingly agreed by the union tops had proved insufficient. The government sought to rectify this by placing the measures of the voluntary agreement into law. Framed in patriotic language, the draconian Munitions of War Act (1915) laid down severe penalties for any infringement, with local munitions tribunals established to enforce its provisions.

The prohibition on strikes could now be extended beyond munitions to any industry. It became a criminal offence to leave work to start new employment without the consent of the current employer and the issuing of a leaving certificate. It was also an offence to refuse to undertake a new job however low the wage or piece rate, and to refuse to work overtime, whether paid or unpaid. Yet the employer was not bound to give work or pay wages, and could delay or refuse to issue leaving certificates, thus leaving workers without a job or money.

The revolutionary Marxist, John McLean, labelled it the industrial slavery act, as it tightened "the chains of economic slavery on the workers". Any action by workers which the employer deemed restricted production was a criminal offence. Workers were imprisoned for ‘slacking’ and were outlawed from striking even when provoked by employers. The munitions tribunals were hearing 60-70 cases every day. Workers had no right of appeal.

The Act in effect sanctioned tyranny in the workplace. As Lloyd George, who had become minister of munitions, made clear, the real purpose of the Act was to bring about "the greater subordination of labour to the direction and control of the state", and to redress the industrial balance of power in favour of the employers. Not only were workers fighting and dying in the bosses’ war, but the political establishment, under the cover of patriotism, used the war to go on the offensive against the working class to reclaim the ground lost in the pre-war industrial unrest.

Nonetheless, the Munitions Act was barely on the statute book before five days of strike action by South Wales miners smashed through its provisions. Two days before, the government had issued a proclamation making every miner liable to penalties if they proceeded with their strike. This attempted intimidation failed and the miners struck solidly on 15 July. Wary of attempting to fine or imprison 200,000 workers, the government relented and compelled the mine owners to concede to most of the miners’ demands.

The South Wales miners had shown the whole working class that reactionary laws could be broken, even in the harsh conditions of wartime, and that militant action was the only way to compel the employers and the government to accede to workers’ demands.

The Munitions Act, along with the Defence of the Realm Act 1914, which allowed the government to criminalise anything it deemed a threat, resulted in the conviction of thousands of workers. Workplace spies and agents provocateurs were widely deployed. Severe treatment was meted out to pacifists and socialists. Books and pamphlets were seized, plays banned and radical newspapers suppressed. Yet, apart from Russia, Britain had more wartime strikes than any other nation. During 1915 nearly three million working days were lost through strikes, and almost two-and-a-half million the following year, hitting the crucial industries of engineering, shipbuilding and mining.

Incorporating labour leaders

The hardship and exploitation that had fuelled the pre-war industrial unrest had not disappeared. A government inquiry in 1917 into wartime strikes revealed anger at rocketing food prices, extortionate rents and war profiteering, and growing opposition to conscription amid unmistakable signs of war weariness. More worryingly for the government, it found that many workers believed their union officials could no longer be relied on to defend their interests.

In this time of crisis for capitalism the leaders of the workers’ movement came forward to do their duty for the ‘nation’. Ramsay MacDonald, a pacifist, had resigned as Labour Party leader at the beginning of the war. He was succeeded by Arthur Henderson, who insisted that the labour movement had to put its full weight behind the effort to win the war. The sickening depths of Henderson’s nationalist jettisoning of any pretence of internationalism was demonstrated with his claim that the "workmen of Germany have long been the enemies of the British. They have been making munitions of war, secretly preparing to conquer you to gain our trade, to take our work away".

In December 1916 Henderson was given a seat in Lloyd George's coalition war cabinet, specifically to resolve labour ‘difficulties’. Several other trade union leaders accepted positions in government. The majority of these labour leaders, as Beatrice Webb observed in her diary, were under "the illusion that the mere presence of labour men in government... is a sign of democratic progress". However, as Lloyd George made it clear to Tory leader, Bonar Law, these bureaucrats were "not ministers because they are the most suitable men, but because they represent a large class who should have a voice in the government of the country".

The lack of a voice had not remotely concerned the political establishment previously, but now they had to take cognisance of mounting working-class discontent which threatened social unrest. The leaders of the labour movement were incorporated into the capitalist state to police the working class, and to create the illusion that all classes in society were pulling together and making equal sacrifices for the war effort.

Rank-and-file organisation

The leadership’s close collaboration with the government’s anti-working class measures provoked huge resentment among the bulk of union members, which surfaced dramatically in 1917, when six million days were lost to industrial action. In May, when the government extended dilution to private work and withdrew the trade card scheme exempting skilled munitions workers from military service, tens of thousands of engineers struck in Lancashire, Sheffield, Coventry and London.

By the autumn before the armistice workers’ struggles reached a wartime high. Unrest spread from the factories to transport workers striking for equal pay for women doing the jobs previously done by male workers, cotton spinners, railway workers, shipbuilders, miners and even the police and the armed forces. Trade union membership rose dramatically from 4.145 million in 1914 to 6.533 million at the end of the war.

Initial government repression was reversed. Fearing a rank-and-file explosion, the extension of dilution was dropped, the hated leaving certificate was abandoned, wage concessions were granted, and it became an offence to victimise trade unionists after a strike, notwithstanding the illegality of strikes! None of this would have been achieved if left to the official union leaders. Their perfidy created the space for rank-and-file activists to return to and extend the position achieved during the pre-war great unrest.

The return of a heightened mood of militancy from early 1915 had led to the emergence of unofficial union structures – workplace and city-wide, rank-and-file or shop stewards’ committees, which by 1917 had coalesced into the National Shop Stewards Movement. Starting on Clydeside, and spreading to Sheffield and then other towns and cities, it was these unofficial structures, led by socialists, which organised the key industrial battles, especially in engineering.

A potential mass anti-war movement

In the absence of a lead from the official leaders of the workers’ movement, was there any hope that the rising discontent could be channelled into an organised movement against war and capitalism? On the industrial plane workers had shown their willingness to struggle. This did not mean though that the majority were anti-war, particularly at the beginning of the conflict, but they were against being asked to shoulder the costs of war while the bosses and landlords enriched themselves.

By 1917, however, continuing evidence of profiteering and the stalemate on the western front seriously undermined working-class support for the war. Alarmed at the influence of anti-war propaganda on trade union members, in October the cabinet authorised a big increase in spending on domestic propaganda. Direct appeals were made to trade unionists with emphasis placed on the alleged ‘democratic’ war aims of the government, to drive a wedge between ‘moderate’ and revolutionary trade unionism.

Meanwhile, the Russian revolution of February 1917 had given impetus to the developing anti-war movement in Britain. In June 1917, a national rank-and-file convention in Leeds was attended by 1,400 delegates representing hundreds of branches of trade union, labour and socialist organisations. Reflecting the contradictory elements in attendance, it passed motions calling for an early ‘people’s peace’ and, following the example of the soviets in Russia, the establishment of workers’ and soldiers’ councils. The resolution was directed not only at the capitalist class but also against those Labour leaders who had allowed themselves to be used ‘against labour’.

The government responded aggressively, but MacDonald and Philip Snowden of the Independent Labour Party, who had been swept along by the fervour of the meeting, retained control of the convention and had no intention of translating the motion into action.

While the conditions and the temper of the masses in Britain were at this stage not comparable with Russia, the basis for organising a revolutionary movement was beginning to develop. It was the industrial struggles of the organised working class that were crucial to bringing Britain close to producing a mass revolutionary anti-war movement. Successful wage struggles had strengthened the revived Clyde Workers’ Committee. Elsewhere the rank-and-file movement embraced semi-skilled and unskilled workers as militancy extended from the engineering vanguard.

In December 1917 the government warned that "the early months of 1918 may reveal industrial action with a view to the achievement of political ends in the termination of war conditions". Two months earlier the war cabinet had called for a special report on the danger of revolution. In January 1918 there was the prospect of a political strike against wider conscription, which had the potential to unite the industrial unrest with anti-war demands. A national meeting of the shop stewards’ movement rejected a narrow craft response to the new Military Service Bill.

However, the mistaken syndicalist ideology of the shop stewards’ movement, with its antipathy to centralised leadership, meant that, instead of making a clear call for national strike action, they restricted themselves to mere recommendations. This allowed the engineering craftsmen to revert to sectional demands for their continued exemption from conscription, which the syndicalist leaders of the shop stewards’ movement refused to support. Britain was not immune from the revolutionary events sweeping across Europe. Strikes over pay, terms and conditions continued throughout 1918. A year later Britain witnessed a near insurrectionary strike wave, with Glasgow setting up a soviet and the government sending troops and tanks into the city to restore control. The official union leaders had the potential power, but not the will, to fatally undermine the ability of the government to continue the war. The shop stewards’ movement, which had passed its peak, was unable to take the helm.

Drawing political conclusions

In the absence of a lead from the union leadership the shop stewards had played a vital role representing their members’ interests. Correctly, they had not sought to create alternative unions. They supported the union officials provided they properly represented the workers, but sought to act independently immediately union leaders misrepresented their members. The influence of syndicalism on the shop stewards’ movement, however, acted as a barrier to it realising its full potential. They had a policy of not contesting national union positions, and their sole emphasis on industrial unionism left them politically disarmed.

Many shop stewards were members of small Marxist organisations, the British Socialist Party and Socialist Labour Party. But the syndicalism and sectarianism of these groups hampered their ability to broaden their support to the mass of workers. Later, learning from the experience of the Russian revolution of October 1917, the best union activists, including the BSP and SLP, did draw the conclusion that workers needed a mass revolutionary party, and became key players in the formation of the Communist Party in 1921. In the meantime, however, the mistaken approach of the syndicalists allowed the official union leaders to regain the initiative, while the political radicalisation of workers found its reflection in a shift to the left of the Labour Party.

Fearing the spread of revolutionary ideas as much as the capitalist class, the labour leaders adopted the dual tactic of denouncing Bolshevism while attempting to head off militancy and the growing mood among workers for a socialist alternative to the military and economic horrors of capitalism.

Industrially, the ministry of labour, hastily implementing the Whitley Committee proposals, created joint industrial councils comprised of union representatives and employers for collective bargaining purposes across many industrial sectors. The framework of industrial relations established during and after the war endured to one degree or another right up to the 1980s.

Politically, the Labour Party began to establish itself as the mass party of the working class, with individual membership replacing its federal structure, which weakened the influence of socialist organisations. Reflecting the widespread support for a ‘conscription of riches’, and the experience of state control of large sectors of the economy during the war, it adopted a radical manifesto to fight the first post-war general election. It called for the "immediate nationalisation and democratic control of vital public services... fullest recognition and utmost extension of trade unionism... the abolition of the menace of unemployment... the universal right to work or maintenance, [and] legal limitation of the hours of labour".

The radical mood of workers found its expression in the addition of the socialist Clause Four into Labour’s constitution which committed the party, in words at least, to common ownership of the means of production. With perhaps a hint of exaggeration, but nevertheless expressing the real fears of the capitalists at this time, Lloyd George was moved to comment: "The new danger was known as socialism in Germany, Bolshevism in Russia. In Britain it is the Labour Party which strives for the collective ownership of the means of production". Although viewed as an antidote to revolutionary socialism by its authors, for decades it attracted millions of workers looking for an alternative to capitalism to the party, until New Labour emerged in the 1990s as an openly big-business party.

The collaboration of the labour movement leaders with the government’s war aims achieved no short- or long-term gains for the working class. Today, neither New Labour nor the majority of trade union leaders represents a danger to capitalism. Yet with over six million members the union movement’s potential power remains undiminished. In this 100th anniversary year we still have the task of forging industrial and political organisations that can end continuing military conflicts and all the horrors of capitalism that blight the lives of millions of workers across the globe.

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