Labour’s caution on tackling poverty dishonours the memory of the hunger marchers

by Ian Stewart

As reported in the press, Con Shiels, the last participant in the Jarrow Crusade died at the age of 96 on Boxing Day. With him dies perhaps the last living link to the great interwar struggles of the Labour movement against government indifference to suffering and want under the Tory and coalition governments of Baldwin, Macdonald, and Chamberlain.

No doubt Atul and Pete will come up with something more iconoclastic and humorous for this period soon, but I feel like sticking to the story right now.

I suppose that many of us, at least if we are over thirty, “did” the Jarrow march at school. I seem to remember it being of the same set of lessons when we were told that the then Prince of Wales visited depressed areas and murmured “something must be done”. We certainly did NOT learn at school that proud Edward thought that the answer to unemployment lay with Mr Moseley and Mr Hitler.

We did learn about “red” Ellen Wilkinson, and Jarrow, and unemployment, and “buddy can you spare a dime?” What we didn’t learn was that the 1936 Jarrow march was part of a bigger picture of resistance to unemployment and vicious cuts in outdoor relief.

From its creation by the Communist party, the national unemployed workers movement (NUWM) sought to do something that many trades union and Labour leaders thought undesirable, if not impossible – organise the unemployed to fight for a better deal.

And they did it. The NUWM had a life of its own, for despite leadership opposition, ordinary trades unionists and Labour members worked alongside the communists to make it work. There were marches to London in1922,1929,1930,!931,1932,1934, and 1936. From Cardiff and Glasgow they marched, to Bristol from the Rhondda in their tens, hundreds and thousands.

One hundred thousand ended up marching from Glasgow to London in 1932, and the riot in Hyde park, during which the police used overwhelming force as well as agent provocateurs, led to the creation of The national council for civil liberties (Liberty today).

But it wasn’t just the big events – when the coalition government of the day cut relief for the unemployed to starvation levels, local groups protested in their own ways. In the port of Lowestoft in Suffolk, the wives of unemployed fishermen marched with their kids to the town hall, and in furious desperation they left their babies on the council steps. “If you won’t give us the means to look after our young, you do it!” We certainly never heard about that in class.

Of course, there was another more personal, heart-rending hunger march that was completed by tens of thousands throughout the period. When that right wing polecat Norman Tebbit sneered at the unemployed of the 1980s, telling them to emulate his dad and get “on your bike”, many of those crushed by poverty in the most depressed areas of Britain had indeed done just that.

They walked, men, women and children – from Scotland, from Tyneside, from Cornwall and Wales to wherever they could earn a crust. They emigrated as well – to Australia, New Zealand and Canada, as well as South Africa and the USA.

Some of them joined the armed forces like Con Shiels, for want of productive work in the outside world (he spent twelve years in the Royal Navy, before returning to civilian life as a fitter). Today the factories are gone, and the army is full, to steal from Billy Bragg.

During all this time, the leaders of the Labour party refused any official support. In 2011, the second Jarrow crusade, organised by the Socialist party was able to muster official support from Unite, the PCS and RMT Unions, but once again Labour as a party sat on its hands.

This will not do anymore. Labour must not leave protest against unemployment, against poverty to the political margins. Our supporters, our members will not thank Ed for such masterly inactivity, nor be fobbed off with a few words in parliament and opposition to cuts in welfare whilst simultaneously proposing more of the same. Anyone still puzzled as to our slippage of support in areas we consider to be our heartlands need look no further than a glaringly simple, bread and butter issue such as this.

And what of the Labour leadership today? Just this week, Ed Balls announced not only how awfully Coalition plans to cut welfare will hit the poorest in Britain, and then he – unveiled a re-jigged form of workfare. As we now know thanks to The Independent last week, the misconceptions as to the welfare budget, and to who actually gets benefits (as well as how much) are riding at an all time high. George Osborne must b sniggering into his Chateau d’Yqem, as our party leaders swallow palpable lies, and timidly ask for small changes, and small change.

Yet the double dip has meant that the pain of unemployment has fallen not only upon the workers and junior managers in the private sector, it has hit the middle managers too.

The traditional Tory supporters have also felt first hand what it is like to try to fill in a claim, and be treated like dirt. Hence the terrific anger at tax dodgers across the press (oh the irony, given the tax affairs of most media companies), even in the home counties. Why is it that neither Ed can honestly stand up and explain calmly, clearly that the economic crisis is not the cause of benefit claimants, who take up a tiny portion of GDP compared to rich tax cheats and the banking bailout?

That true job creation really needs much more than subsidising cut price wages? That a living wage is not only civilised and desirable, & will pay for itself through local economic spending?

I suppose it would be too much to ask, that after the economic debacle of Thatcherism and its continuation under New Labour, even though the election of Ed Miliband promised at least a modicum of new thinking.

The wider Labour movement, along with British society is crying out for an honest change in the way government works, and in which peoples’ interests too. Albert Einstein once described insanity thus: “doing the same thing over and over again, yet expecting different results”. Can it be that Ed Balls and Ed Miliband are truly content to follow Philip Snowden Ramsay McDonald, Mr Blair and Gordon Brown along the path of irrelevance?

Finally, as a tribute to all the marchers, I can think of nothing better than this song by Alan Price:

Ian Stewart is a Labour party member and blogs at

Tags: , , , , ,

12 Responses to “Labour’s caution on tackling poverty dishonours the memory of the hunger marchers”

  1. Nick says:

    And what’s the legacy of Labour’s policy?

    It’s 5,010 bn of debts hidden off the books.

    You’ve spent people’s pension contributions. Now, there isn’t enough tax money to pay out on the promises, so people aren’t going to get a state pension.

    You’ve made people destitute.

  2. swatantra says:

    Gordon Brown to his credit lifted thousands of children from poverty.
    ‘The Iron Lady’ showing Mrs T in her declining years, was not at all a bad film.
    But it left me with the feeling that poor leadership from people like Foot and Scargill and Kinnock actually helped create this myth of the Iron Lady. And Gorbachev.

  3. Rob the cripple says:

    trust you Swat, god mate are you sure you wanted to be in the Labour party or were you just mixed up a bit.

  4. aragon says:

    The job guarantee is not workfare or the idea of Ed Balls or Gordon Brown, or Liam Byrne, if it is based on the Future Jobs Fund, nor is it a private sector wage subsidy.

    Setting the minimum wage to the same rate as the living wage is still opposed by the Labour leadership ?

    Although who knows how the leadership will screw it up the policies. I have no reason to contribute further ideas. They will not listen to me on economics!

    As far as, I am aware the two Ed’s plan is still a small stimulus followed by more austerity.

    You will have a long wait for new thinking from the Labour leadership as they have the same values and perspectives as the Tories, they are cyphers who could easily substitute for the Tories. A Lab/Lib collation could seamlessly follow Con?Lib collation, whitout a change in any significant policy other then changes to the NHS.

    “Miliband told the event in central London that if Labour wins the next general election it will have to find ways of achieving change while tackling a lingering deficit.”

    No analysis about the fundamentals of the housing market, a market the Tories are trying to further inflate/reflate. Just, no doubt welcome, minor regulation of Landlords but not rents!

    “Miliband admitted that New Labour was “too timid in enforcing rights and responsibilities, especially at the top, and it was too sanguine about the consequences of the rampant free markets”.”

    And Miliband is too timid to be anything but a placeholder.

  5. e says:


    Housing: maybe indicating a willingness to intervene in a market that is a cornerstone of the nation’s current economic model, which is only just holding up, is a bigger deal than it looks….And believe me, rage doesn’t do justice to how I feel about council house sales and the consequential growth in private housing rents, benefit costs and homelessness, so being mealy mouthed on the issue goes well against the grain for me.

  6. Robert says:

    Aragon rightly points out that the job guarantee is different to workfare, which involves working for benefits and not a wage. I share some of Ian’s concerns but at least Labour voted against the 1% rise in benefits. It seems to have made very little difference to voting intentions and voting for the 1% rise would have actually lost Labour votes, including mine!

  7. aragon says:

    Intervene or tinker ?

    The Housing market represents a failed economic model, one which the Tories wish to revive, and perhaps Labour too ?

    I have an analysis, but where is the Labour analysis that underpins policy ?

    And when addressing housing, why no mention of previous suggestions of increased house building by Ed Balls ?

    There are implications for the Housing Benefit bill paid to private Landlords.

  8. real labour says:

    pity those “comrades” in the 1930’s didnt protest against the real famine in the soviet union organised by their leader Stalin.

  9. e says:

    Intervene or tinker?

    Last year’s speech stated need for new economic model….

    If jobs are number 1 and need to build new housing is settled, I’ve no doubt Labour will build more than Tories; but housing that stays a local authority or housing association asset? I’ve no idea, but if they don’t then I despair…

    Have you ever watched the public accounts committee discussing housing benefit? It’s like they’ve agreed among themselves to suspend intellectual integrity in order to avoid the obvious conclusion that council housing works best and should be revived.

  10. aragon says:

    Ed keeps borrowing my rhetoric, but he is not a radical. and rejects radical proposals.

    All Ed Miliband will ever do is tinker. Ed Balls economic model is a small stimulus, followed by more austerity (but no change in the model). The Blairites simply accept austerity.

    Labours past record on housing is not good, and Ed Balls has not allocated resources to housing. Ed Balls is only committed to 100,000 houses p.a. which is not a great improvement over the current rate, or are they commit to 200,000 houses p.a. ?

    They don’t let me near Parliament. Are they going to reintroduce secure tenancies ?

    I guess we will have to wait for the manifesto.

  11. Terry Casey says:

    We all admire the Jarrow crusaders who through desperation marched to London, not sure what they achieved (at the time) other than put unemployment into the general public’s consciousness.
    With the Tories now trying to repatriate the Working time Directive. I can see no reason why they would want to do that other than to diminish the rights of workers that have been achieved over many years of struggle. The Jarrow Crusaders could only dream of the conditions workers have today especially in the area of Health and Safety, the repatriation in the hands of the Tories would take us back many years.

    The Working Time Directive 2003/88/EC is a European Union Directive, which creates the right for EU workers to a minimum number of holidays each year, paid breaks, and rest of at least 11 hours in any 24 hours; restricts excessive night work; and makes a default right to work no more than 48 hours per week. It was issued as an update on earlier versions from 22 June 2000 and 23 November 1993.[1] Excessive working time being cited as a major cause of stress, depression and illness, the stated purpose of the Directive is to protect people’s health and safety.

    As you see there is nothing in Directive that shouldn’t be there and along with other directives that protect the worker in the actual work place, by diluting these laws gives carte blanche to companies to put workers in dangerous situations and puts us back decades. we need to fight this and although I am now retired I can remember frightening times that I wouldn’t want any modern worker to go through.

Leave a Reply