Ten times the Labour party stood behind striking workers in Britain

Actually, there aren’t any. Sorry.

The story is that Labour is the only major socialist party in the world that emerged directly from organised labour—every other important party—in the USA, Germany, France Japan—was the product of an actual revolution or of a popular socialist movement. Labour founders Keir Hardie and Arthur Henderson had both been union leaders and many early Labour parliamentarians were well-known workplace leaders or campaigners for workers’ rights.

(note labour and Labour are used throughout, for obvious reasons).

RMT members holding banners and placards on a picket line in 2022 - photo from the RMT
RMT members on a picket line in 2022 – photo from the RMT

So there’s a logic to the statement that Labour is ‘the party of organised labour’ or ‘the Parliamentary wing of the trade union movement’. And to the reminders that it’s the unions who still largely fund the party and to the shock and upset amongst supporters when Labour’s parliamentary leadership fails to support union action or even opposes it.

His Majesty’s loyal opposition

It turns out, though, that the will of those noble and undoubtedly courageous early Labour leaders – and of their comrades at the top of the union movement – was not to win a victory for workers, to challenge or overthrow the parties of power at the time, to replace or diminish the landowner and business elites, or even to offer a pro-worker counterweight in the Commons. The will of those leaders—as of the current generation—was always to gain access, to join the club, to get their bums on the green benches and to form a polite left-hand hump to the Crown-Parliamentary camel, supplanting the previous occupants of the less-favoured benches and becoming ‘His Majesty’s Loyal Opposition’.

Sepia-toned portrait of Keir Hardie, looking directly at the camera. Labour Party founder and first leader. He sits on the edge of a small table, holding his pipe in his right hand and a handkerchief in his left.
We know what Keir Hardie would have done

This sounds cynical. I don’t mean for a moment to discount the contribution of those pioneer socialists to the pushing back of the multi-century stasis of Tory (and Whig) domination. They were responsible, after all, for the epochal introduction into an ancient elite legislature of working people. And, of course, individual Labour members have provided the backbone to countless labour disputes over the years—but it is vital to be clear-eyed about this. Labour in Parliament, from its very beginnings, was not a workers’ party and, in the present day, it’s a progressive party, a party of the Parliamentary centre-left, but it’s not a workers’ party.

So there’s nothing new or surprising in the Labour party distancing itself from the interests of working people—do you remember the grim spectacle of Neil Kinnock making a flying visit to a miners’ strike picket, right at the end of the strike and at 5 a.m. so as to miss the reporters? (Of course you don’t, it was barely recorded. See if you can find a photo. There are none). During the long strike Kinnock, the miner’s son, never supported the strikers’ aims, repeatedly called for a national ballot and didn’t once ask workers to respect NUM picket lines. It was perhaps the greatest challenge that a modernising Labour leader could possibly face—and we know that Kinnock was unhappy about the position he had to take. It became the most iconic—and relevant—statement of Labour’s labour ambivalence of the post-Thatcher era.

Going back further, almost to the origins of the party, during the First World War, Labour and the unions agreed an ‘industrial truce‘ in the national interest (Labour ministers joined both the Asquith and Lloyd George coalition governments). After the war, Labour continued to oppose all instances of labour militancy and, in the build-up to the 1926 general strike, as the climate worsened and employers tried to force through wage cuts, the Labour leadership mediated ineffectively. Ramsay MacDonald made grand speeches in Parliament, calling for reconciliation but, when the strike came, he opposed it.

Leave it to the Rotary Club

When the Jarrow crusaders marched to London ten years later they had to depend on a strange alliance of churches, rogue trade unionists and the Rotary Club for food and support along the way—the TUC and the Labour party didn’t turn up (local MP Ellen Wilkinson was a charismatic exception). 20th Century history is studded with examples like this. Even earlier, when Churchill moored a battleship in the Mersey to bring a little jeopardy to the 1911 Liverpool dockers’ strike, the Labour party, already a force in Parliament, was nowhere to be seen.

Communist founder and leader of the Unemployed Workers Movement, carried on the shoulders of supporters outside a court in London
Wal Hannington (activist Emily Rothery waving her hat in the foreground)

In the rough years between the wars there was an explosion of labour activism and confidence—in the face of the great depression, active government repression, blacklisting and a hostile judiciary. Wal Hannington’s National Unemployed Workers Movement moved mountains—organising big marches and actions all over the country. Its leadership was convicted under ancient mutiny laws and imprisoned—right at the sharp end of the workers’ struggle—but for Labour it was a bit too Communist. The party stood back. Likewise, the local councils who defied ancient, repressive laws to hold down the rates and to protect the poor did so without the support of Labour in Parliament. In 1921 dozens of Poplar councillors—mostly Labour, including future leader George Lansbury—were imprisoned for their defiance. The Party leadership opposed their action (in the nineties, you won’t be surprised to learn, Neil Kinnock scolded Labour councillors prosecuted and surcharged for not paying the poll tax).

You’re on your own, ladies
Black and white news photograph of strikers and supporters on a picket line at the Grunwick factory holding placards in West London in 1977
What we’ll do is show up on week 40 of your strike

When in government the party found it even harder to support strikers. The Grunwick workers, whose long strike was about union recognition, were defeated and humiliated while the governing Labour Party withheld support, although in scenes familiar to us now, individual MPs, including cabinet ministers, showed up at the picket line (the record shows that Shirley Williams et al waited until the strike was 40 weeks old and essentially already crushed to offer their calculated solidarity, though). The underpaid women at Ford’s Dagenham plant were left high and dry by a serving Labour government, winning only partial parity, after a long dispute, with the equally-calculated support of then Secretary of State Barbara Castle.

Castle’s own contribution to labour relations was to lay the foundations for 1974 legislation that withdrew important workers’ rights. It was this law that first introduced the requirement for strike ballots – and when the Tories introduced their own anti-union legislation in 1992 it essentially just tidied up Labour’s (the title of the act artfully just adds the word ‘consolidation’ to the name of Labour’s 1974 law). When Blair came to power he moderated but did not remove the Thatcher ‘reforms’ and actually introduced new limits on legitimate action to meet the requirements of his new backers in business and the media. His government’s 1999 legislation on union recognition had essentially been neutralised by employer lobbying by the time it was in the statute book. There was so much Third Way promise in the New Labour programme that optimists convinced themselves of an imminent renaissance for British trade unions after the 1997 landslide – of something like the enduring social settlement that had sustained growth and prosperity in post-war Germany. It didn’t happen.

Striking British postal workers on a protest parade with banners and placards in 1971

After Labour lost power in 1970 one of the biggest strikes of the entire period took place right at the heart of the state—in its very guts you might say. The now mostly-forgotten 1971 postal workers’ strike lasted for seven weeks and had overwhelming support from Post Office workers who had been almost uniquely badly-treated in the post-war period. The strike became a template for Tory government opposition to industrial actionRoyal Mail’s monopoly on delivering letters was suspended in an effort to circumvent the strike’s enormous impact. The strike ended without agreement—a dispiriting defeat. The workers were awarded a backdated 9% pay increase and some changes to working patterns after an inquiry but this didn’t even match what they’d been offered before the strike. No one was happy. Individual Labour MPs, including Tony Benn, who’d been Postmaster General under Harold Wilson in the sixties but by this point was on the back benches, supported the strike. Wilson himself, from the opposition front bench, walked a familiar line, saying that the union’s demands were not unreasonable but advocating independent arbitration by a court of inquiry. He opposed the strike.

The one big win

The extraordinary sequence of slow-downs and strikes that brought about the three-day week and the infamous powercuts in the early seventies is still the only industrial action that has ever brought down a UK government. Heath’s battle with miners and power workers was surely the high-water mark for labour activism in Britain—bringing together workers, party members and movement in a way not seen before or since. It was a highly-effective action, using modern communications to coordinate the strikes and winning significant public support for the cause. The workers won and so did Labour. The Parliamentary Labour Party, while in opposition under Harold Wilson, actually supported the pay claims of the miners (often in House of Commons debates) and, once in office, agreed two 35% pay rises for the miners in the space of two years. In the 1974 election Labour ran on a manifesto that promised to “bring about a fundamental and irreversible shift in the balance of wealth and power in favour of working people and their families” but did the party support the strikes that brought about their victory? What do you think?

The series of strikes we now know as the Winter of Discontent was triggered by a Labour government’s imposition of wage controla 5% cap on pay increases. The subsequent industrial action took the form of a battle between state and workers. Fascinating, of course, that the present round of disputes is, at least in principle, more diffuse, pitting workers against dozens of individual employers—many in categories that did not even exist in the last era of union militancy—but that, even in the absence of a government-imposed wage cap, the state is still profoundly present.

The next generation

In the era of apps and zero-hour contracts, the strikes, walkouts and protests by gig workers, outsourced workforces and workers resisting ‘fire and rehire’ policies might seem to offer a useful opportunity for Labour to reconnect with labour, by making an association with a new generation of workers and with an updated labour activism for the social media era—with vivid new causes that have revived support for workers in Britain, especially amongst the young. No chance.

I’m not a historian (no shit, Steve) but it’s been an instructive exercise this, searching for Labour support for striking workers over the years of its existence. For me a fascinating and quite urgent reminder that Labour’s role across the modern period has been much more about achieving and sustaining a position in the Westminster constitutional fabric—holding on to what still feels like a wobbly foothold in the institutions at all cost—than about actually transferring power to working people, or even improving their conditions of work or their pay. The choice was pretty simple: take a polite role in the ancient theatre of the Parliamentary system or work for emancipation, popular sovereignty and worker control. You know the rest.

(Can you think of a time that Labour officially supported an industrial action, in or out of office, in the party’s entire history? Leave a comment).

And my scan of the party’s history suggests that it would really be wrong to expect more from the current leadership while in opposition or in government. For Starmer to even acknowledge what looks to many like an important shift in the terms of the national argument in favour of working people and organised labour would be not only to risk a monstering from the Tory press but would also defy literally the entire institutional history of his party. He leads an establishment party that must, almost as a condition of its existence, retain an even and unsupportive distance from its own organised labour wing.

Uber drivers carry banners at a London protest. They carry banners for the IWGB union
Gig workers strike in London

The party’s establishment orientation is so durable that it comfortably survived the Corbyn insurrection, living on inside the party in the administration and the political bureacracy. The machine had the confidence to take on both leadership and membership – essentially ignoring two leadership elections – and, after almost five years, ultimately deleted the entire experiment as if it had never happened. Corbyn and his programme left essentially no trace in the party. Starmer was able to pick up essentially where his predecessor did in 2015.

So it seems obvious that Starmer, Reeves et al will not have any difficulty resisting calls to expand the reach of organised labour. Nor in finding good, sensible, tactically-savvy reasons for withholding support from strikers once they’re in power too. The difficult truth for the leadership of a progressive party in Britain is that there is literally no circumstance in which it is tactically correct to support a strike.

Let’s face it, if the Tolpuddle Martyrs were to come back to life and join the party tomorrow morning, Starmer would have issued a statement, suspended their memberships, conducted a disciplinary and kicked them out by lunchtime.

  • Many now think that the huge imbalance of power between owners and workers that’s arisen in recent decades must urgently be corrected. We know that Rachel Reeves has ambitious ideas about what she calls ‘securinomics‘, something that sounds a lot like a rebalancing, but scour the party’s web site as much as you like, you’ll find much about renewing our democracy and rebuilding the economy but no mention at all of organised labour, of unions or of union legislation.
  • Wal Hannington wrote several books. He’s a brilliant example of a phenomenon of workers’ politics in the 20th Century – a self-taught labouring man who came to speak for millions and to defy capital and the social elite. You can still find his autobiography, Never on Our Knees and other political works like this terrific pamphlet Black Coffins and the Unemployed, written for Raymond Postgate’s FACT monthly.

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