Women and the early Labour Party

The critical role played by women activists in the formation and development of Britain’s labour and trade union movement is often overlooked. CHRISTINE THOMAS reviews a recent book that aims to redress the balance.

The Women in the Room: Labour’s forgotten history

By Nan Sloane

Published by IB Tauris, 2018, £20

Labour’s general election defeat raises questions about the future of Corbynism and by what means a genuine workers’ party might take shape in the future in Britain. In that context, The Women in the Room is an interesting read. It is fundamentally a brief history of the foundation of the Labour Party and its early years (up to the end of the first world war), but with a difference: making visible the participation of women. In weaving together the three main strands of trade unionism, political representation and women’s suffrage, it shows that identity politics is by no means a modern phenomenon and intense debates over the relationship between class and identity were being waged from the very beginning of Labour’s history. 

The process towards establishing a mass vehicle for independent, working-class political representation was slow, uncertain and far from automatic. When the 1867 Reform Act widened the vote, most trade union leaders considered that the political interests of the additional one million working-class men enfranchised were represented by the Liberal Party, alongside those of the industrial capitalists and urban middle-classes. Women of all classes, of course, remained disenfranchised until 1918, when women over 30 years of age finally won the right to vote. And, as Nan Sloane explains, the struggle for the franchise was an integral part of the formative period of the Labour Party.

At its birth in 1900 the Labour Representation Committee (LRC), which six years later went on to become the Labour Party, was a coalition of affiliated trade unions and socialist societies. Sloane looks briefly at the development of the main socialist organisations which, together with the trade unions, had representatives on the LRC. These included the Social Democratic Federation (SDF), formed in 1881. Although it advocated a sectarian and dogmatic ‘Marxism’, it attracted many class fighters, including Eleanor Marx who was engaged in the unionisation of unorganised workers. The Fabian Society, born three years later than the SDF, was a mainly middle-class organisation promoting gradual reform. The Independent Labour Party (ILP), created in 1893, brought together socialists, local labour parties and Keir Hardie’s Scottish Labour Party.

Unlike the SDF, which was mainly a London-based organisation, the ILP had its roots in the large-scale industrial north. Many women, including textile workers, were involved in the party at a local level, although they were poorly represented in the structures of the organisation and at national conferences.

Rising class consciousness

The chronological narrative of how these and other organisations were formed is peppered with mini-biographies of the women who participated in them. Sometimes, however, Nan Sloane emphasises the role of individuals to the detriment of broader social processes. Socialist consciousness, and an awareness of the need for an independent working-class party and an organisational break with the Liberal Party, grew out of the changing economic, political and social conditions of the last three decades of the 19th century. Sloane makes only brief mention of one of the most important factors, the Great Depression, a prolonged period of economic stagnation from 1873 to 1896 that transformed the outlook of millions of workers and sections of the middle class.

Lib-Labism, the idea that the Liberals could represent the interests of both labour and capital, had been rooted in the preceding decades of economic growth, in which a layer of skilled workers, referred to by Friedrich Engels as the ‘aristocracy of labour’, had gained some improvements in wages and working conditions. The ideology of class collaboration permeated the tops of the craft unions organising skilled workers. Even the miners’ leader, Keir Hardie, later one of the foremost advocates of an independent party of the working class, commented in the early 1880s that “employers and employed will recognise their interests as identical”.

Such views were shattered by the reality of class struggle on the ground. Sloane refers to one of the most seminal strikes, by 5,000 textile workers, many of whom were women, employed at Manningham Mills in Bradford. They struck for 19 weeks in 1890-91 against a 33% cut in wages. The millowners were mostly Liberals, and Bradford council, also run by the Liberals, used police and troops to crush the strike. Although it was defeated, the experiences of the workers, together with gas workers who had been on strike in Leeds, led them to form the Bradford Labour Union, which stood independent workers’ candidates in elections. It was local organisations like these that helped form the ILP, which arose out of struggle and, as Sloane comments, “had grown from the roots up rather than the top down”. Nevertheless, nationally, it was “slow to get off the ground”.

The SDF, in true sectarian fashion, refused to affiliate because the ILP voted not to call itself a socialist party. Later, the SDF participated in the formation of the LRC but only for one year, citing the committee’s refusal to adopt a socialist programme as its reason for leaving. More significantly, with the Great Depression coming to an end, the imperialist boom beginning and the industrial movement ebbing, the support of the organised trade union movement was limited, with its leaders continuing to cling onto the coattails of the Liberals.

Most of the major unions, like the miners and cotton workers, did not attend the founding conference of the LRC in 1900 either. Sloane points out that the smaller unions present represented about a third of the workers organised in the trade unions at that time. It was far from clear what the LRC’s role would be: was its purpose to elect candidates who could act as a pressure group on the Liberal Party in parliament, to encourage it to pass legislation benefitting workers? Or was it to become an independent workers’ party, standing its own candidates and challenging the Liberals electorally and ideologically?

It was certainly far from obvious that the LRC would go on to become a mass party with a working-class base. In spite of the fact that, ideologically, the Labour leaders never fully broke with the Liberals, the formation of the Labour Party was a positive step forward in the development of a collective political class consciousness, and a point of reference and mobilisation for working-class interests. Moreover, the party was structured in a way that allowed workers to exercise a degree of democratic control over their pro-capitalist leaders. At the International Socialist Bureau in 1908 Lenin described the Labour Party as the “parliamentary representative of the trade unions”, “the first step on the part of the proletarian organisations of England towards a class-conscious policy and towards a socialist Labour Party”. In 1919, as workers’ organisations were preparing to found the Communist Party in Britain, he declared himself in favour of it affiliating to the Labour Party, on condition the CP could conduct free and independent activity.

The Labour Party today is a very different organisation, having gone through the process of ‘bourgeoisification’ under Tony Blair and the effective elimination of workers’ influence inside ‘New Labour’ through the shutting down of previously democratic structures, notwithstanding the continuing affiliation of most of the main trade unions. The election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader in 2015 and the enthusiasm this engendered could have become the catalyst for transforming Labour into a workers’ party. But that would have required, as a first step, returning the party to its democratic origins, open to affiliation from trade unions and socialist and community organisations, and decisive action against the pro-capitalist elements in the Parliamentary Labour Party and local councils.

Gender segregated unions

Workplace and wider class conflict had been the spur to early attempts at independent working-class political representation and would determine the transformation of the LRC and create the Labour Party’s mass working-class base. Sloane considers general developments within the labour and trade union movement but with a special emphasis on women. Henry Broadhurst, secretary of the Trades Union Congress (TUC) parliamentary committee from 1875, summed up the outlook of many right-wing craft union leaders when he said that the aim of male trade unionists was to “bring about a condition… where their wives and daughters would be in their proper sphere at home, instead of being dragged into competition for livelihood against the great and strong men of the world”. (Quoted in Women Workers and the Trade Unions, Sarah Boston)

With these words Broadhurst reflected the prevailing bourgeois ideology of separate spheres based on gender, and the fear of skilled male workers of competition from women who, because of their lower status in society, were paid on average half of male wages. Instead of fighting to raise the wages of women workers, thus undermining the capitalists’ attempts to use them to replace men or to drive down their wages and conditions, the right-wing union leaders fought to exclude women from the workforce. When that became impossible, especially as mechanisation increased, they tried to enforce strict gender demarcation, restricting women to lower-paid, lower-status jobs.

The corollary of these attitudes was that the craft unions excluded women from membership. The notable exception was in the cotton industry where women workers predominated and male trade unionists, especially after their experiences of women being deployed as strike breakers by the bosses, were pushed into allowing entry to women on equal terms. Outside of the cotton industry, however, segregated unions became the norm.

This was not primarily because of any separatist ideology on the part of women workers or the middle-class women who helped them to get organised, but because they had no choice. The Women’s Protective and Provident League (WPPL) was set up by middle-class philanthropists in 1874, becoming the Women’s Trade Union League (WTUL) in 1891. Its aim was to encourage workplace organisation among women, giving organisational and financial support to form trade unions or ‘societies’, as they were known.

According to SheiIa Lewenhak – in her book, Women and Trade Unions – the WTUL, understanding the importance of class unity, tried to maintain good relations with male trade unionists, allowed them to sit on its committee and, once a society was established, encouraged it to combine with a similar men’s society to form a mixed union where possible. Unions for women were set up mainly in skilled and semi-skilled industries such as bookbinding and tailoring but were hard to maintain because of the transitory nature of women’s employment outside the home. Three quarters of all organised women were in the textile unions.

The new general unions

The vast majority of other working women were in unskilled jobs in dangerous and exhausting conditions in sweatshops, at home or in domestic service. They, like most unskilled male workers, remained unorganised until the unprecedented wave of ‘new unionism’ which began in the late 1880s. At the epicentre of that movement, which would have a profound effect both on trade unionism and political consciousness, were the gas workers and dockers, first in the East End of London and then spreading to the rest of the country.

They had been preceded by the super-exploited match workers of Bryant and May, many of whom were the wives and daughters of dockers, who took strike action in 1888 and, with the help of socialists, organised themselves into the Match Workers’ Union. In the same year, strikes took place among women weavers in Yorkshire, cigar makers in Nottingham, and cotton and jute workers in Dundee. Huge swathes of workers who it had been considered impossible to organise were proving dramatically that their desperate working conditions were a barrier that could be overcome through struggle: like the confectionery workers at Sanders in Bristol who were joined by local dockers in their protests and mass demonstrations.

The new general unions were born out of class struggle and embraced all workers, skilled and unskilled, male and female. The spirit of new unionism also infected the ‘old’ unions, and overall trade union membership doubled from around 860,000 in 1889 to a little under two million in 1890. During the 1890s, the number of women trade unionists affiliated to the WTUL increased from 2,000 to 70,000. Socialists played a pivotal role in organising the new unions.

New unionism, in turn, gave a boost to the idea of an independent party which could defend the gains won through industrial action and fight for the political interests of workers. By making visible the strikes and unionisation of the most downtrodden, Sloane shows not only that the struggles of women workers have been an important feature throughout the history of the labour movement but that even the most exploited are capable of organisation.

It was the capitalist offensive against this workers’ uprising that provided the missing ingredient, pushing the TUC to vote in 1899 to instruct its parliamentary committee to “invite the co-operation of all the co-operative, socialistic, trade union and other working-class organisations… in convening a special congress of representatives… for the securing of an increased number of Labour members in the next parliament”, and for the major unions to eventually affiliate to the LRC which was formed after this resolution was passed. The bosses turned first to weaken and, where possible, smash the new general unions, but also moved against the more established and craft unions organising cotton workers, miners and engineers.

Faced with growing competition from German and US capitalism, Britain’s ruling class used the panoply of tools at its disposal to attack the unions, including lockouts, scab labour and the courts, where workers’ rights won in the 1870s were eroded by a series of legal rulings in the bosses’ favour. The most significant of these was the 1901 Taff Vale judgement which ruled that unions could be sued for ‘damages’ incurred during a strike. A few months later, damages were sought against the Blackburn Weavers’ Association for picketing during a strike. Trade union affiliations to the LRC, which had initially declined from 570,000 to 350,000 in the first year after its formation, now began to grow as the union leaders saw the need to politically defend their members’ and their own interests; they had risen to one million by 1903, including the main textile union. The miners’ federation finally voted to affiliate five years later.

Opposition to women’s suffrage

In 1902 the LRC’s third MP was elected in Clitheroe, Lancashire, with the support of local textile trade unionists, most of whom were women and were, of course, denied the right to vote for any candidate. The Clitheroe by-election campaign was just one part of a mass movement by thousands of working-class suffragists in Lancashire and Cheshire to secure the vote – not for any abstract desire for ‘equal rights’ but because they saw it as a means of improving their conditions as workers and as women. The textile workers rejected the drawing-room meetings and lobbying of individual MPs that middle-class suffragists of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) were mainly involved in. Instead, they organised factory gate meetings, mass canvassing and petitioning of working women at home and in the mill, spoke and moved motions at union branches and trades councils, and collaborated with local Women’s Co-Operative Guild branches, thus building up a grassroots, working-class campaign for the vote.

Women’s suffrage was a burning issue in society at the turn of the century but, as Sloane points out, it divided the labour movement. Most labour activists, both male and female, counterposed ‘sex antagonism’ and ‘class antagonism’ in a binary way that resulted in opposition to women’s suffrage. In the context of the time, suspicion of women’s suffrage by working-class men and women is understandable. In the 19th century, the suffrage campaign had been dominated by middle-class suffragists demanding the vote ‘as it is, or may be, accorded to men’ – that is, with a property qualification that disenfranchised 40% of adult men.

If only middle-class women were granted the vote, it would “increase the political power of the propertied classes”, stated Harry Quelch of the SDF, echoing the thoughts of many labour militants. They instead supported ‘adult suffrage’, and this was initially the official position of the LRC, Labour Party, and Women’s Labour League, an independent organisation formed in 1906 that affiliated to Labour two years later and became the women’s section of the party in 1918.

The debate was complex and fluid but, basically, adult suffragists demanded universal suffrage for all adults and opposed any partial measures that would not remove the property qualification. In the meantime, they argued, working-class women would be represented by men of their class. While most ‘adultists’ took this position because they considered the demand for women’s suffrage to be purely in the interests of the middle-class and one that distracted from the economic issues affecting working-class men and women, there was undoubtedly also an element of chauvinism at work, reflecting the ideology of the time. 

For working-class suffragists, on the other hand, class and gender were not in opposition but intrinsically linked. They argued that even an extension of the limited franchise to women would grant the vote to an important section of working-class women and would represent a step towards full adult suffrage. In gathering tens of thousands of signatures on petitions in favour of the vote and mobilising them in protests and demonstrations, the suffragists in the north west linked the vote to broader class issues of low pay, working conditions and improving the life of working-class mothers and children.

While the working-class suffragists managed to build significant local trade union and labour movement support, the more precarious and less stable situation of other women workers outside of the cotton industry meant it was difficult to replicate their campaigns elsewhere. Moreover, because they did not pose it as part of a struggle to overthrow capitalism to meet the interests of the working class as a whole, their ability to cut across the divisive propaganda counterposing ‘class’ and ‘sex’ was limited.

Year after year resolutions at national Labour conferences and TUC congresses in support of women’s suffrage were voted down in favour of adult suffrage, and the suffrage campaign became more and more dominated by the Women’s Suffrage and Political Union (WSPU). The WSPU had been formed in 1903 by women members of the ILP to campaign for the vote and it maintained close links with the ILP and the working-class suffragists in Lancashire in its early years. The ILP had voted for women’s suffrage at its conference in 1895 but had done very little about it in practice.

In frustration, the middle-class leaders of the WSPU broke from the party in 1907 and turned their backs on the labour movement. “The House of Commons, and even its Labour members”, said Christabel Pankhurst, were more likely to be “impressed by the demonstrations of the feminine bourgeoisie than of the female proletariat”. But as the Liberals played parliamentary games with women’s suffrage, promising reform and then thwarting it, WSPU tactics became increasingly individualistic and extreme, moving from heckling MPs and disrupting meetings to smashing windows, arson and even bombing. In order to continue gaining publicity each tactic had to be more dramatic than the last and the organisation became directed by the Pankhursts as if it were their own private army of guerrilla fighters.

While many working-class suffragists admired the courage of the suffragettes who were subject to mass imprisonment and torture through forced feeding, they were alienated by their tactics which substituted stunts and individual actions for democratically organised mass campaigns oriented towards the labour movement. As Sloane explains, working-class women could not risk fines or prison as they could end up in the workhouse.

Labour support

As the Liberals’ manoeuvres in parliament alienated more and more women’s suffrage supporters, it seemed possible that a bill to extend male only suffrage might even be passed. This would have dealt a serious blow to the aspirations of the suffragists. A breakthrough finally came in 1912, when the Labour Party conference voted for a resolution which supported adult suffrage but also opposed any franchise bill that did not include women.

A few months later the NUWSS, under pressure from local unions in the north, decided to “strengthen any party in the House of Commons which adopts women’s suffrage as part of its official programme”, and set up an election fighting fund to support Labour candidates in by-elections. This was a huge departure for an organisation whose leadership had previously been so Liberal orientated and raises questions about what could have been possible had Labour supported and mobilised for women’s suffrage at an earlier stage, linking it to the broader economic concerns of working-class women.

In her book, Feminism and Democracy, Sandra Stanley Holton presents evidence to support the claim that the Liberal prime minister Herbert Asquith was seriously considering granting women the vote on the eve of the first world war, as sections of the suffrage movement were allying themselves not just with the Labour Party but with more militant trade union activists and socialists. Asquith had been negotiating with Sylvia Pankhurst’s working-class based East London Federation. In any event, the drawing of women in their millions into the workforce during the war, including in occupations previously the preserve of male workers, had the effect of breaking down gender barriers and, against the background of the 1917 Russian revolution and a world in turmoil, rendered some form of women’s suffrage virtually unavoidable when the war ended, although full suffrage was not obtained until 1928.

Nan Sloane’s book highlights the role women played individually and collectively on the long road to working-class political representation. As part of that struggle they had to fight against the prevailing ideology which considered women as second-class citizens and which was inevitably reflected within the organisations of the working class. They were also limited by the reformist outlook of the labour and trade union leaders, and the absence of a programme and strategy that could combine class and gender in a struggle to overthrow capitalism and radically transform the lives of millions of working-class and middle-class people.

Although taking a different form, debates over identity are an ever-present feature of the labour movement today. And, despite enormous economic and social changes, and the fact that women are a much larger proportion of the workforce, the false dichotomy between identity and class is still very prevalent. In a situation where the question of mass working-class political representation has also yet to be resolved, a study of the period covered in this book is not just of academic interest.