by Pete Goddard and Atul Hatwal
New year, new leader. That was Labour’s motto at the start of 1911 as it set about electing its fourth leader in four years. This time, the lucky front-runner (also middle runner, and back runner – he was standing unopposed) was Ramsay Macdonald.
An able organiser and pragmatic strategist, he also had a background with the socialist Independent Labour party (ILP), so the left approved. For now.
Macdonald was to be supported by Arthur Henderson who would take over his old job as party secretary and de facto deputy where he could help look after the low politics of Westminster.
If it wasn’t quite the dream ticket, it was certainly closer than the dog-eared bus tickets of previous leaderships.
On the 6th of February 1911, the new leadership team were confirmed in their roles and hit the ground running. The dynamic duo set to work tackling the number one priority facing the country: MPs’ pay.
More than unemployment or Irish home rule, a government-funded salary for members of parliament was the burning issue of the day. Well, it was for Labour MPs anyway, and not in an “expenses” way either.
Before 1911, MPs had to be supported by their party, by a union or, for the Tories, whichever chunk of Shropshire they managed to inherit. For Labour, thanks to the Osborne judgement which prohibited unions from funding the party, finding a way to maintain the £200 per year stipend was increasingly difficult.
So Ramsay Macdonald used MPs’ wages as his chief demand for continued support of the Liberal government. In 1911 provision for a state-funded payment of £400 per year was agreed and inserted into the parliament act limiting the Lords powers. This was a victory for Macdonald, although it can’t have been that hard to convince Liberal MPs to vote for more money for MPs.
Macdonald was a hero to the parliamentary party. Doubling their wages and freeing union resources to spend on party campaigns meant he commanded a united and supportive parliamentary party.
Unfortunately, outside the gilded corridors of Westminster, pay rises for everyone was not the order of the day.
1911 marked the beginning of an unprecedented wave of nationwide industrial unrest. That summer, veteran union organiser Tom Mann organised wildcat strikes in Liverpool’s dock and railways, which turned into a city-wide general strike.
For the leaders of the Labour party and the union movement it was all intensely unwelcome. They were meant to be in charge of the workers, not sat powerless on the sidelines.
Tom Mann didn’t care. He was a syndicalist – he believed that capitalism could be overthrown through direct industrial action and that parliament was an irrelevance. Not exactly what Labour in parliament wanted to hear.
Faced with this Liverpudlian challenge, Labour’s leaders didn’t know what to do. The Liberal government, on the other hand, had some ideas. They slightly amended the famous song and sent warships up the Mersey. Nobody sang along.
So they also deployed armed troops to break up a demonstration of 80,000 people. Two people were shot dead. Tension mounted, the city teetered on the brink of civil war and the Sun reported it was all down to the terrible behaviour of the scousers.
At this point Labour MPs started developing a new skill that was to be passed down through generations of the PLP: how to sound sympathetic to strikes without quite actually supporting them.
This was Ramsay Macdonald’s contribution in parliament:
“I am not defending the situation; I am sure hon. Members know perfectly well I am only describing a situation to which I think we had better apply our minds first in order that we may understand it for ourselves.”
Or, to put it more clearly, “Can we talk about something else please?”
Ultimately, the government pressured the employers into negotiating and the strikers won a famous victory. “Oh great,” muttered the PLP. Now one bout of workers’ unrest had succeeded, every pain in the arse socialist was going to want one.
“Did someone mention my name?” asked Ben Tillett.
Ever eager for a spot of trouble, Tillett got in on the act at the start of 1912 by leading a national dockers’ strike. He was keen to repeat the success of his first strike in 1889, but this time, things rapidly descended into violence with dockers dying in the confrontations.
Tillett realised it was time to calm the situation – so he declared that if any more of his men got murdered, he would shoot Lord Devonport, head of the Port of London. Nice.
Unfortunately, like all sequels, Dock Strike II: Return of the Starving Dockers wasn’t as good as the original. After several months of action, the strike failed, prompting all sorts of tutting and “told you so’s” from the Labour leadership.
But the trouble was only just beginning.
In early 1912, the miners’ federation demanded a minimum level of pay for underground workers. Although the union leadership was moderate, they were forced to respond to the mood of their members and call a national strike.
The reaction of the establishment was neither subtle nor measured.
The Times branded the strike: “The greatest catastrophe that has threatened the country since the Spanish Armada”, presumably also reporting the death of the Blue Peter cat as “a tragedy from which it will require a generation to recover.”
Meanwhile, a Tory MP called for siege rations and martial law to defeat “socialist trade unionism” while other Tories called for revolvers to be stockpiled for use against working class revolt.
For all that, the government rushed through a bill providing for arbitration to settle the level of minimum wages, district by district: a clear success for militant action.
And Labour’s contribution to this success for the workers?
The limit of Ramsay Macdonald’s parliamentary interventions on the topic was to seek clarification from the government on the timetable for the bill. Other than that, the only noise from the Labour benches at this time was of squeaking bottoms and it wasn’t down to the leather seats.
Then in 1913, industrial unrest spread to Dublin. In a tribute to the classic seventies gameshow, the transport workers of Dublin declared “It’s a Lock Out!” This featured less in the way of giant foam costumes, and more picketing and bitterness than even Stuart Hall could have found amusing.
The strike was led by James Connolly and “Big Jim” Larkin and it brought Dublin’s workers to the brink of starvation.
Labour’s leaders maintained their silence, busying themselves with some important filing and abstaining from Parliamentary interventions.
The TUC meanwhile voted to offer “every support” to the strike, contributing the majority of the £150,000 the British labour movement raised and sent to the strikers. Unfortunately, Connolly and Larkin didn’t read the small print on the TUC offer. So when Larkin asked the TUC for secondary strike action in England, they just coughed and looked at their shoes.
“Every support” apparently meant just the cash.
After eight months, emaciated workers trickled back to work, beaten.
Jim Larkin was in no doubt about how useful Labour had been. “As for the Labour party,” he declared, “they could wrap themselves up in cloth tomorrow and they would be just as useful as the mummies in the museum,” which is a bit harsh on the mummies, which can serve as a novelty door-stop or stylish hatstand as required.
If the sole impact of the “great unrest” for Labour had been some awkward silences, and a bit of parliamentary tumbleweed it would have been embarrassing, but tolerable.
No such luck.
At the ballot box, and within the party, it all translated into, well, great unrest. So great that many questioned whether the party was in fact in terminal decline.
Coming next: The unrest hits the fan for Labour