Labour history uncut: TFI its Red Friday

by Pete Goddard and Atul Hatwal

“Every day they were in led us further from socialism.” Thus spake a disappointed Jimmy Maxton of the first, and brief, Labour government which had flopped out of power at the end of 1924 and was now back where it was most familiar, on the opposition benches.

Bitterness and recrimination reverberated across the Labour movement. Both the left and the right agreed that maybe it was time to replace Ramsay Macdonald as leader.

Philip Snowden, former resident of 11 Downing Street, tried to annoy his onetime prime ministerial neighbour by agitating for Arthur Henderson to challenge for the leadership, as well as mowing his lawn really early on Sundays.

Meanwhile, Jimmy Maxton and the red Clydesiders sounded out George Lansbury for similar purposes (the leadership, that is, not the lawn mowing).

The unions were busy grumbling too. The Labour government had proved just as happy to threaten them with the emergency powers act as the Tories and Ernest Bevin, leader of the T&G and one of politics’ all-time great haters, led the angry backlash from the brothers.

He had not forgiven Macdonald for the Labour government’s handling of the docks and tramway strikes in early 1924, telling all and sundry that he’d be happy with anyone but Macdonald as leader.

Bevin wasn’t alone either. They unions had shifted decisively left during the Labour government, partially as a result of their older leaders like Margaret Bondfield and dockers’ leader Harry Gosling, being made ministers in said government, clearing the way for more radical voices to take the reins.

Unfortunately for the serried ranks of the discontented though, they were to be disappointed. In line with the long PLP tradition of factional infighting, the only person each group of MPs disliked more than the current leader was the alternative favoured by the other lot.

So, after a flurry of backroom Westminster chats, whispers in corridors and plenty of ‘our guy’s better than your guy’…. nothing happened.  With no obvious alternative Macdonald retained the leadership.

As the MPs returned to Westminster at the start of 1925 and parliamentary business resumed, Stanley Baldwin’s government got cracking with their long-promised retrenchment.

In April 1925, the chancellor Winston Churchill, newly returned to the Tory fold from a twenty two year sojurn with the Liberals, put Britain back on the gold standard. This fixed the pound to a stated value of gold, which had the effect of devaluing the pound… and the British worker.

Winston Churchill always liked to be prepared for a game of giant Monopoly

In order to remain competitive in the new economic world, bosses and owners knew they would have to cut costs.

Finding new efficiencies, negotiating better prices for raw materials, increased mechanisation were all possible solutions. But they were hard.

Cutting wages, on the other hand, was easy. So they decided to do that instead.

This was a particularly favoured approach in the mining industry where, by the end of April over 60% of the mines were operating at a loss. For them, wages accounted for 70% of production costs, with pinstripe suits, monocles and comically oversized cigars making up the other 30%.

PM Stanley Baldwin “I wonder…should I tell people that the pound in their pocket is still worth the same?”

Unsurprisingly, then, the mine owners wanted to abandon the national wage agreements. The miners, equally unsurprisingly, thought this was a terrible idea. If a nasty confrontation was to be avoided, a consultative and co-operative approach was required.

Unfortunately, mine owners enjoyed co-operation  with the workers as much as Superman might enjoy a nice pair of Kryptonite cufflinks. On 30th June 1925 they simply announced that they were going to cut wages.

The miners wouldn’t stand for it. Well, you can’t in those little tunnels can you? They turned to the TUC for support.

For once, they got it.  The new left leaning general council was keen to show that direct action was an alternative to the disappointing parliamentary ways of Macdonald and Labour.

On the 10th July, the TUC pledged full support for the miners. They co-ordinated the railway, transport and seamen’s unions and declared an embargo on the transportation of coal until agreement could be reached. The deadline for some form of concession from the powers-that-be was the 31st July.

Striking dockers audition hopefully for the role of Andy Capp

It was a powerful threat – the nation was dependent on coal and, more worryingly, behind the immediate embargo lay the possibility of a devastating general strike. The country was totally unprepared for a situation where the workforce simply stayed at home, partly because nobody had yet invented daytime TV.

So, under pressure and unable to reconcile the intransigent mine owners and outraged miners, prime minister Stanley Baldwin made an offer to avert to threatened embargo. He declared a temporary subsidy to maintain wage levels for the miners, to last nine months.

In addition, he instigated a Royal Commission (like a normal commission, but with more gold leaf and fur trim).  Sir Herbert Samuel, chairman of the commission, scampered off to investigate the issues in the mining industry.

This might have prompted a bout of déjà vu in the Labour movement.

Back in 1919 the threat of action had secured the Sankey commission and all sorts of promises from a majority Tory government. At the end, the workers got next to nothing.

But never mind boring old history, it was different this time, somehow, probably.

For the unions, after years of being stuffed, it looked enough like a government backdown to declare victory: a win for direct action and a win for the workers.

They promptly dubbed 31 July 1925 “Red Friday,” demonstrating there may be power in a union, but there isn’t a great deal of imagination.

Over at Westminster, unsurprisingly, Macdonald didn’t share his comrades’ jollity.

For Labour’s leader direct action was a dead-end for socialism and, more worryingly, didn’t end with him in the top job.

“The government has simply handed over the appearance, at any rate, of victory to the very forces that sane, well-considered, thoroughly well-examined socialism feels to be probably its greatest enemy,” he said.

“Up yours Macdonald” replied the TUC, “What did you do for the unions when you were in power eh? Bugger all. We don’t need you.”

Unfortunately Macdonald was right about the appearance of victory. The government was plotting.

They didn’t see Red Friday as a defeat at all, just a delaying tactic. As Maurice Hankey, permanent secretary to the Cabinet, reported to the King: “The majority of the Cabinet regard the present moment as badly chosen for the fight, though the conditions would be more favourable nine months hence.”

Or, as Baldwin put it rather more ominously, “We were not ready…”

Pete and Atul are not historians

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3 Responses to “Labour history uncut: TFI its Red Friday”

  1. swatantra says:

    Usual story, The Left would seem to prefer Opposition to being in Govt. Less responsibility and less stress, and you can always carp and whinge from the sidelines, yaboo..
    Would appear that Churchill was in the wrong era, being a Victorian, and had no qualms about crossing the floor so he could remain a Minister.

  2. Robert the cripple says:

    History of course you have to look at what the Labour party did pre the war years, and what Blair and Brown did during their years, and what Miliband will not do, the left is dead, the right is now the power base, Cameron Miliband, not sure I care really which.

  3. David Boothroyd says:

    Philip Snowden was not, in 1925, a former resident of 11 Downing Street. He was Chancellor in the 1924 government but MacDonald insisted that J.R. Clynes reside at 11 Downing Street because he was Leader of the House of Commons, and wanted him on hand because the Parliamentary situation was so difficult.

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