Labour history uncut: “I’m alright Jack” say the skilled working classes

Pete Goddard and Atul Hatwal continue their look at the development of the unions and their role in establishing the Labour representation committee (LRC) in 1900

By 1866 the Tories had been out of power for 18 of the past 20 years and were pretty ticked off. What’s the point of being a Tory if you can’t lord it over the little people by being in government?

In the meantime working people had started to organise in earnest. Unions were springing up, Duncan’s horses were eating each other and civilisation was teetering on the brink of the abyss – at least as far as the landed gentry saw things.

Worst of all, there was pressure to extend the vote to the working classes. The Tories failed to see why anyone should be allowed to vote if they didn’t even have enough sense to be born into a wealthy family. But apparently, some people thought otherwise.

Throughout the 1860s various attempts by Liberals to broaden the franchise were defeated by a combination of Liberal splits and Tory opposition.

But it was only a matter of time.

In 1866 the Tories squeaked back into government as a minority administration. After so many years out in the cold, and with a toxic electoral brand, the Tories’ first moderniser, Benjamin Disraeli had a plan.

Previous approaches to voting reform had involved saying “no”, and then when pressed, shouting “NO!” much louder and storming out in a huff.

Core Tory supporters loved this approach and it always went down a storm in the House of Lords, which incidentally was where the core Tory support sat, literally. But, out in the electorate, enthusiasm was rather lacking.

Disraeli’s big idea was to stop saying “no” and start saying “sort of.”

It was going to happen at some point anyway, so the Tories might as well be the ones to do it. They could then claim the credit and still only implement low-calorie suffrage, thus averting the risk that the Liberals might implement something bonkers like votes for everyone. Those Liberals were crazy.

Disraeli, shortly after his appearance on "Pimp my Tory"

Disraeli, shortly after his appearance on "Pimp my Tory"

Disraeli’s attempt to ‘combover’ his bald spot was half hearted at best

Disraeli’s attempt to ‘combover’ his bald spot was half hearted at best

The skilled working class were the most vociferous and at the forefront of the union movement. Disraeli figured if those guys had the vote, they might think twice about being so revolting. And start seeing things a little more Conservatively.

With the skilled working classes on side, or at least pacified, everyone could go back to knowing their place and, for the rest of the masses, doing as they were told.

And so Disraeli passed the 1867 Reform Act. Every male adult householder living in a borough constituency was given a shiny new vote. Male lodgers paying £10 for unfurnished rooms were also told they were prize winners in a lottery that extended the vote to about 1,500,000 men. Lodgers paying under £10 for unfurnished rooms were told “no vote for you until you can afford to live somewhere nicer.”

And women were told to put the dinner on.

An 1867 cartoon from  Punch magazine - as hilarious then as it is today

An 1867 cartoon from Punch magazine - as hilarious then as it is today

Disraeli promised his party that passing the act would make the working classes ever so thankful. They would vote Tory and everyone would live happily ever after.

Except for the bit where they didn’t. In the election of 1868, the Tories were voted out, the Liberals returned to government and the unions went from strength to strength.

1871 was a particular landmark year: the TUC parliamentary committee was formed to act as a pressure group for the newly enfranchised voters and the trade union act was passed giving unions’ legal recognition that entitled them to, heaven forbid, protection under the law.

This wasn’t what the Tories had wanted at all.

At the 1874 election there was yet another first: two working class trade unionists were actually elected to parliament: Alexander Macdonald and Thomas Burt.

Alexander Macdonald was from the noble tradition of labour self-improvement. He would work in the pits to save enough money to attend winter sessions at Glasgow University. Every summer he went to the pits until he had enough money for the next stage of his education; a discipline that Nick Clegg is keen to re-introduce for the modern generation of students.

Alexander Macdonald’s colleagues were too embarrassed to point out he’d missed a bit whilst shaving... for ten years

Alexander Macdonald’s colleagues were too embarrassed to point out he’d missed a bit whilst shaving... for ten years

Thomas Burt displayed a similar commitment to education. he  would walk 18 miles to Newcastle from the colliery where he worked, to indulge his love of reading authors such as Shelley, Carlyle and Mill. Another experience the current government is looking to resurrect with its policy on libraries.

Macdonald and Burt were the first working class MPs in the country’s history and in parliament they were known as Lib Labs.

This was another of those attempts by history to confuse students of the future. Lib Labs were working class people elected to represent working class interests but they took the Liberal whip. They had absolutely nothing to do with the Labour party, the Independent Labour Party or the Labour Representation Committee. Sorry.

Still, with votes, legal protections and the first signs of representation in the legislature, all seemed to be going swimmingly for the unions and the working classes.

But something wasn’t quite right.

Things were going well for some of the working classes. The skilled workers and so-called “respectable working class”.

For the rest? Not so much.

The TUC were comparatively uninterested in the plight of the unskilled masses, while the Lib Labs were busy being frock-coated pillars of their local mining communities. In both cases they were more worried about the well-being of their members and constituents than the condition of the wider working class.

Keir Hardie, as conciliatory and charming as ever, described the Lib Labs as “Dumb dogs that dare not bark.” The Lib Labs, for their part, described Keir Hardie as “a twat”. Probably.

Hardie may have been blunt, but the divide between the privileged position of skilled workers and the vast majority of unskilled was undeniable. What’s more, having attained some measure of recognition and representation, the unions and Lib Labs didn’t seem enormously keen on helping out their unskilled brothers and sisters.

Maybe Disraeli hadn’t been so daft after all?

The Tories might have been voted out in 1868 but their brand had been detoxified and the full emancipation of the working classes had been successfully delayed.

And did we mention who actually won the 1874 election? Yes, the Tories, under Disraeli with their first absolute majority since the 1840s.

Much more in line with what Disraeli had promised.

The situation looked bleak if you happened to be in the unskilled working class as change appeared to have stalled.

But something  big was coming. Find out what transformed the unions and brought the creation of the Labour party that much closer next time in “New unionism, not at all like New Labour”

Pete and Atul are not historians

Tags: , , , , ,

2 Responses to “Labour history uncut: “I’m alright Jack” say the skilled working classes”

  1. Les Abbey says:

    I wonder if we will ever see working class MPs again.

  2. uglyfatbloke says:

    Most likely not…hardly any working class people go to the right schools or go straight from university to being researcher/advisers/crawlers…the natural route to the house of commons.

Leave a Reply