The British working class has a history of swinging from industrial action to political action. This is as true today as it was in the 1930s. At the present moment the trade unions are beginning to flex their muscles, so also at a later stage workers, recognising the limits of industrial action, will once again seek a political solution to their perennial problems, in the process moving the Labour Party to the left.
On May 30, 1929, the second minority Labour government was formed with Macdonald at its head. They had won on the claim that they could solve the unemployment problem – but at a time when the world was on the eve of a profound economic and political crisis. Then, as now, Labour faced a stark choice; either break with capital, or become the instrument of the ruling class and capitalism.
Throughout its period in office, the Labour government backed the employers campaign to cut wages and reduce living standards. Government spokesmen demanded "increased productivity", and "sacrifices". Following a Liberal amendment the May Committee was set up to look at unemployment and when it reported back in July 1931 it proposed a 20% reduction in all scales of unemployment benefit, a 43% increase in the worker’s weekly contribution to the scheme, a 26-week limit on benefit and a means test for all those who had exhausted benefit. Economies amounting to another £29.5 million were called for by cuts in the wages of civil servants, teachers and armed forces and reductions in education, health services, child welfare and pension spending.
By August, the Bank of England was warning that the economy was on the edge of a precipice and advised on a balanced budget and cuts in public expenditure.
With the government in crisis and the rank and file of the labour movement in uproar, Macdonald, following secret meetings with the opposition, went to the King and readily agreed to form a National Government. Such was the ignominious end to the minority Labour government.
The subsequent election proved a crushing blow for Labour with the National Government gaining 554 seats to Labour’s 52. The ruling class had sought a coalition government because they needed to divide the Labour movement. If a Tory government had been elected there would have been an immediate and mighty struggle by the workers in the trade unions and the unemployed.
Macdonald formed a government, which from its first day in power set out to attack the living standards of the working class and to make them pay for the crisis which capitalism had produced. It was claimed that economies of £120 million were required to restore solvency to the state finances. The wages of post office workers, civil servants, teachers, police, and the armed forces were cut, and unemployment benefits were cut as never before. To the mass of the workers in industry, because the government had chosen public servants and the unemployed for attack, it was not at first apparent that, by a policy of divide and rule, this was the beginning of an offensive of the capitalist class against everyone’s wages and conditions.
Of special interest to all Marxists, was the response of naval ratings at Invergordon. On September 12, 1931, the government announced a cut of one shilling a day for all naval ratings below the rank of warrant officer. For most this meant a cut of approximately 25%. Three days later the naval ratings of Invergordon gave their reply when it was reported that 12,000 men were refusing to obey the orders of the officers. Mass meetings were held and they were effectively on strike against pay cuts. Despite admiralty orders for the fleet to sail the men stood firm. Despite all the threats and intimidation, the men refused to carry out the orders.
One ship’s captain was reported as saying: "This action of the men is a blow to British prestige, it has ruined 300 years of naval tradition." The united ranks of the British Navy ratings at Invergordon was a serious blow to he government, which was forced to retreat and make a very big revision in the amount of the pay cut. This episode had a big effect on the working class in general and helped stimulate the struggle of civilian workers against the government’s economic measures.
The biggest attacks though were reserved for the unemployed, and massive demonstrations organised by the National Unemployed Workers’ Movement (NUWM) became commonplace in many of the industrial centres of Britain. Not untypical was a march at Glasgow Green, October 31, which became a bitter battle between 50,000 unemployed and the police. Although the Committee on National Expenditure had recommended a 20% cut in unemployment benefit rates, the government hesitated and limited the cut to 10%. But the most hated part of the new legislation, the means test, remained in place. For the first time unemployment was treated as a charge upon the family rather than a charge upon the state – this struck a blow at the very means and standards of existence of working-class family life. It brought disaster upon hundreds of thousands of working-class households.
By these means the government was saving approximately £30 million a year at the expense of the unemployed and their families. Given that by January 1933, 2,903,000 were registered unemployed, and that there were hundreds of thousands more not counted in the official figures, then it is not hard to understand the bitter resentment of the working class who had become victims of the capitalist crisis and a government of the ruling class.
Throughout these years terrific struggles of the workers and unemployed took place usually against the forces of the state. In 1932 alone the records of the NUWM show that some 400 of its branch members suffered arrest and imprisonment for leading the struggles of the unemployed. Trade union branches throughout the country passed militant resolutions calling for strike action to compel the government to withdraw the means test. But the TUC leaders – then as now – were not disposed to taking militant action. If they had done, the National Government would have been forced, if not to abolish the means test entirely, then certainly to have made drastic modifications to its implementation.
Some of the most militant action of the unemployed and workers occurred in Birkenhead, where thousands took to the streets in September 1932. Bitter clashes with the police ensued over a number of days; such was the ferociousness of the struggle that the local Public Assistance Committee raised weekly relief scales from 12s to 15s 3d for men, and 10s to 13s 6d for women. The Town Council put in hand Public Work Schemes for the unemployed at trade union rates of pay to the total value of £180,000.
After the struggle subsided 45 workers were placed on trial and two of the NUWM leaders received jail sentences of two years.
Even more bitter were the struggles in Belfast. Here the unemployed from the Falls Road to the Shankhill Road were united; two workers died but considerable concessions followed. Then as now – as the recent January 18 strike showed – common misery, common struggle led to united action proving in the process that only a class-based movement can unite Catholic and Protestant workers.
In Britain during this period the two main organised left groups were the Communist Party and the Independent Labour Party. By 1931 the CP, under the influence of Stalin’s Comintern, had abandoned Lenin’s advice of 1920 of patiently turning towards the Labour Party and the trade union rank and file, and was instead engaged in a violent series of zigzags, seeing little difference between working class parties and those of reaction. This combined with extreme sectarianism in the field of trade union work, reduced the party to just 7,000 members, at a time when it should have been growing by leaps and bounds.
The reality was that despite the disastrous minority government of 1929-31, the betrayal of MacDonald and the coming to power of a National Government in 1931, the bulk of the organised working class remained loyal to the Labour Party, giving it 6.6 million votes in 1931. Potentially this was a force which could have provided the Labour Party with massive support in the future.
The ILP, which had always played a leading role in the formation of the policies and principles of the Labour Party, drew the opposite conclusion. They believed that this was the end of the Labour Party, and that new political formations would develop in which they could play a key role. Disastrously at their July 1932 conference they voted by 241 votes to 142, not only to leave the Labour Party but that all members should cease paying the political levy through the trade unions.
The split however over the question of standing orders for MPs within the Parliamentary Labour Party was posed in purely organisational terms. In 1929-31 the real opposition in parliament to MacDonald and co. had come from a hardcore of ILP members within the PLP. With Macdonald’s betrayal of 1931, the ILP cold have exerted tremendous influence among the rank and file of the Labour Party, exposing the role of reformism and gradualism within the movement.
Unfortunately, far from increasing their support, their split was a disaster as their prestige and membership went into irreversible decline. In 1930 they had 100,000 supporters, when they split in July 1932 they were left with 16,903 and by the end of 1935 they were down to just 4,392. Working people far from deserting the Labour Party continued to support it, only the ILP had deserted the masses in the fight against Labour’s right wing. What had been exposed in the eyes of the ILP militants – that the reformism and gradualism of the leadership could not lead to fundamental socialist change – was not the experience of millions of workers who saw the Labour Party as still representing their interests. Furthermore the ILP in disaffiliating on an organisational question were seen as "splitters" and "deserters". Fenner Brockway, then the ILP leader, later admitted: "This swing to ultra-leftism as a consequence of Labour Party parliamentary rules stands as a permanent warning against theoretical elaboration of revolutionary structure unrelated to the actual conditions of struggle."
Subsequently on the basis of events there was a resurgence of socialist ideas within the Labour Party. Far from the Labour Party going into some kind of internal decline it was the ILP which was to suffer that fate. The radicalisation of the rank and file of the Labour Party showed what opportunities the ILP would have had, provided it had adopted a Marxist programme raising the day-to-day issues and linking them to the need for a socialist transformation of society. However imperfect this move to the left was in Labour’s ranks, i.e. transforming left-wing ideas into action, it was there for all to see. The gains made by the Labour Party at this time were directly due to it having adopted a radical left-wing programme.
Meanwhile the ILP flirted with the CP at a time when the Moscow purge trials of the Old Bolsheviks was leading to widespread revulsion against Stalinism throughout the movement. The CP was campaigning for a Popular Front style government and initiated the Unity Campaign alongside the ILP and the Socialist League. Despite the reservations of the ILP leadership, in practice they subordinated their criticisms to paper over an abstract unity. They approached the Labour Party with a programme far to the right of that which nominally on paper they had already accepted.
Fenner Brockway was further to reflect that when the ILP was out of the Labour Party it had no fundamental philosophy or policy and could not act with united purpose. Their opposition to the right-wing Labour leaders in 1932 consisted merely of a "mixture of reformist sentiment, utopianism and awakening revolutionism". The opportunity to build a mass left wing, organisationally and politically armed with a socialist programme and clear perspectives was lost.
The failure of the ILP was to doom it to obscurity – this at a time when there was much extra-parliamentary action by the working class. Today the left in the labour movement cannot afford to make the same mistakes if a genuine opposition to the right wing is to be built capable of leading the working class in Britain and internationally to a final break with capitalism.