The birth of the Labour Party and the right to strike

Submitted by AWL on 4 May, 2020 - 4:04 Author: Sacha Ismail
RMT banner honour the Taff Vale strikers

In Solidarity 539 (18 March), I told the story of Labour’s rise and drew lessons for rebuilding independent working-class politics – as opposed to Lib-Lab-type “progressive” politics – today.

One aspect I’d like to explore further: how in its first years Labour grew out of, built and led a successful fight to overturn legal anti-strike restrictions and assert workers’ right to strike. That also has lessons for today.

Over the second half of the 19th century, trade unions carved out significant space for organising and industrial action. Legal restrictions on the right to strike were much weaker than they are now. The space won, however, was unstable. There was often fairly severe repression. Many in the ruling-class, alarmed by the growth of mass trade unionism and the socialist left in the 1880s and ’90s, became determined to turn back the clock.

In 1901, the House of Lords ruled on appeal against the main rail union, the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants, saying that unions were liable for costs incurred by employers as a result of strikes. This was the famous “Taff Vale judgement”, referring to a dispute at the Taff Vale Railway Company in South Wales about victimisation of a rep and an unsettled wage claim. The Lords’ judgement threatened to abolish the relatively wide de facto right to strike workers had won over decades.

There were outrage across the labour movement and a resulting growth in the strength of Labour’s precursor, the Labour Representation Committee founded in 1900 (as a result of an Amalgamated Society of Railways Servants motion to the TUC). In 1902 the LRC’s affiliated membership increased from 350,000 to 450,000, in 1903 to 850,000, in 1904 to 956,000. By then 165 unions and 176 trades councils were affiliated. In terms of both institutional support and grassroots popularity, the campaign for independent labour representation became a mass movement.

The Labour leaders were mostly not at all radical. They had broken with the Liberal Party organisationally, but many of them had not even theoretically broken with Liberalism politically. As the Communist International would describe things in 1922, four years after Labour decisively declared itself “socialist”, the party’s leaders “were often Liberals, and might be conservatives, in all else but defence of their own unions, finances and privileges. (This was particularly noticeable, again, in the Parliamentary group)”.

But they were, unlike many more recent Labour politicians even on the left, well-rooted in the organised labour movement. Alarmed by Taff Vale, they did fight for the right to strike, albeit under great grassroots pressure.

In the 1906 general election, the Tories fell from office after a decade of rule (and most of the decade before that). The number of LRC MPs grew from two to 29, alongside a Liberal landslide. Agitation around Taff Vale, the threat posed to unions and the right to strike was a major factor in the election and in the LRC campaign.

The Liberal prime minister, Henry Campbell-Bannerman, was a “Radical”, and the Liberals committed to all kinds of leftish policies – democratising political reforms but also rudimentary elements of a welfare state. There were about thirty labour movement “Lib-Lab” MPs, including a dozen miners. But most Liberal MPs were hostile to trade unions and trade union rights.

The new Labour MPs (after the election the LRC rebranded as the Labour Party) advocated legislation to overturn Taff Vale and create legal immunities for trade unions – including immunity from being sued for damages or costs incurred in strikes. In a situation where there were few procedural restrictions of the kind we have today (eg limitation of action to a narrowly-defined set of issues, requirements for ballots, formal limits on picketing), this would amount to a powerful legal right to strike.

A majority of the Liberal cabinet, including near-future Prime Minister Herbert Asquith, opposed the Labour demand as giving unions too much power and wanted a compromise. To be fair to the Liberal leaders, their willingness to concede on issues including the right to picket put them clearly to the left of the last Labour government. But they did not want to concede the central point in full.

When Labour introduced its own Bill going further than the Liberal one, Attorney General John Walton attacked it bitterly in the House of Commons.

But Campbell-Bannerman knew which way the wind was blowing. The labour movement, including now a strong political wing, had that wind in its sails. In the 1906 election, despite their huge popular support, the Liberals had concluded a non-aggression deal with the LRC in some seats because they feared losing support to its candidates in many more working-class areas. Repeated by-election results between 1900 and 1906 showed that fear was rational.

Taff Vale and the threat to the unions had been a core driver of the growth in support for the LRC. Many worker-Liberals will have been tempted to vote Labour, or would have done so if they had had the option in their area. To have refused to concede Labour’s central demand would have led to greater working-class outrage and probably even faster growth.

To widespread astonishment, Campbell-Bannerman “rebelled” against his own cabinet and pushed Liberal MPs into backing the Labour Bill – which was passed as the 1906 Trade Disputes Act. In 1913 the Liberal government would legislate again to overturn the 1909 Osbourne judgement, once more against the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants, which said that union members must actively “contract in” if they wanted any of their membership fees to go to the Labour Party.

Three lessons

There are at least three important lessons for today.

The first is the contrast between the leaders of today’s Labour left and the mostly quite right-wing Labour leaders of 1906 – a contrast quite unflattering to Corbyn et al. (To say nothing of Blair and Brown, who maintained Thatcher and Major’s anti-strike laws for 13 years and boasted about it.) The Corbyn leadership’s reluctance to demand repeal of the anti-union laws and a clear right to strike, despite repeated Labour conference policy, was a major failing. We will not push Labour into backing this fight if the Labour left continues to evade the issues.

The second lesson is the importance of pro-actively removing restrictions on the right to strike. Today there is talk about how returning to the kind of legal immunities won in 1906 – which the Thatcherite anti-union laws narrowed dramatically in order to restrict the right to strike – is not enough. That is true, although it is often used as way of evading the need to repeal the anti-union laws and remove the restrictions they impose at all. We need to repeal those laws, restoring wide 1906-style immunities, and replace them with positive legal rights.

Nonetheless, the “negative” rights won in 1906 represented a huge victory. As the Free Our Unions campaign’s pamphlet explains:

“After 1906 there was, of course, repression of workers’ struggles, but very few restrictions on what was legally possible. Unions did not have to jump through numerous bureaucratic hoops for a strike to be legal, there were no legal restrictions on what a dispute could be about, and it was legal to picket anywhere.”

As George Dangerfield put it in his The Strange Death of Liberal England:

“It gave the Unions an astounding, indeed an unlimited immunity. Labour was jubilant. The most powerful Government in history had been compelled, by scarcely more than a single show of power, to yield to the just demands of organised workers.”

Finally, this victory was won by political campaigning.

Over the years I’ve heard arguments along the lines that the only way to defeat the anti-union laws is through industrial action defying them. We should absolutely support and develop such action – to weaken and overturn the laws and because it is necessary for workers to assert their interests, particularly in a crisis like this one. In the early 1970s, mass strikes is how the Tories’ first attempt at post-war anti-union laws was overturned. But it is not true this is the only way to win legal changes.

Following the Taff Vale judgement strike figures, which with ups and downs had grown significantly in the 1890s, declined sharply – for obvious reasons. By 1906 they had pretty much hit the bottom (though still not quite as low as today). It was only after the Trade Disputes Act removed the threat of unions being bankrupted that they began to grow again, before surging to the pre-war (and at that time historical all-time) peak of the Great Unrest. That victory was won through a clear, aggressive, mass-mobilising political campaign.

Today, industrial action in defiance of anti-union laws and against them can feed into political campaigning. But even without very much industrial action, really determined political action which actively mobilises workers can make a difference. The problem is that much of today’s labour movement has lost the habit of serious campaigning about anything; and that most of its leadership does not actually want to abolish the anti-union laws, or at least not to fight for it. Those are things we need to change, through pressure and organising from below, as well as the low level of strikes.

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