Since the end of the First World War the mine owners had imposed wage cuts, worsening conditions and exacerbating the problem of non recognition of unions. In 1925 the mine owners demanded more cuts in wages and a longer working week.
Negotiations lasted until 1926 when, because of the attitude of the employers, the miner’s were forced into industrial action under the slogan ‘not a penny of the pay or an hour on the day’. Workers the length and breadth of the country came out in solidarity and a general strike was called by the TUC, on the condition that they controlled the strike.
The employers and government recruited strike-breakers including the armed forces. Confrontation seemed inevitable. The TUC weighed up the situation, lost its nerve and called the strike off on its 9th day, despite the fact that the numbers of workers on strike on the 9th day were greater than the numbers on the 1st. The miners rejected the capitulation of the TUC, fighting on for almost a year. They were forced into defeat through starvation. They, and other members of the trade union movement, would never forgive or trust the TUC again.
The establishment neither forgot nor forgave the general strike. By 1927 draconian laws were passed taking away all the hard won gains of the past 30 years.
In the 1929 General Election the Labour Party won 288 seats, making it the largest party in the House of Commons. Ramsay MacDonald became Prime Minister again, but, as before, he had to rely on the support of the Liberals.
The election of the Labour government coincided with an economic depression. MacDonald rejected the economic advice of Keynes. Instead he put forward the idea that there should be cuts in all public expenditure, especially unemployment and other social benefits. His policy was rejected by the majority of his cabinet and party. MacDonald would not accept this and had talks with the Conservatives and Liberals to form a national government, which he did in 1931. MacDonald was expelled from the Labour Party.
Following the crash of 1929 on Wall Street (since the end of the First World War America had been far and away the richest nation in the world, holding most of the worlds gold reserves), Britain, like the rest of Europe, was plunged into recession and mass unemployment followed. On January 1, 1930, the Daily Worker was first published.
In the 1930s, trade union membership fell. The fear of unemployment and the draconian laws passed after the general strike deterred workers from trade union membership. The 1930s also witnessed the rise in fascism, both in Britain and the rest of Europe. Oswald Mosley broke away from the Labour Party: first forming the New Party then the National Union of Fascists. The Trade Union and Labour Movement organised itself to defeat Mosley and his Blackshirts, culminating in the Battle of Cable Street in 1936.
Many members of the Labour Movement also joined the International Brigade and fought on the side of the Republicans against Franco's fascists.
George Lansbury became leader of the Labour party. Lansbury hated fascism but as a pacifist he was opposed to using violence against it. When Italy invaded Abyssinia he refused to support the view that the League of Nations should use military force against Mussolini's army. After being criticised by several leading members of the party, Lansbury resigned and was replaced by Clement Attlee.
The trade union movement had to consolidate its losses, and a series of conferences and meetings resulted in the so called Bridlington agreement, whereby unions would no longer poach each others members and disputes would be settled by the General Council of the TUC. Resolutions were passed at the Labour Party conference stating that once Labour was back in power there would be reforms in relation to trade union law.
© Labour History Movement Publications 2011
This Abridged History ©Terry McCarthy is available to buy as a book, price £7.99 + p&p.