From the second Labour Government to 1939

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Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! no. 120 - August/September 1994

In his previous article in this series on the labour aristocracy, ROBERT CLOUGH showed how the organisations of the labour aristocracy — the Labour Party and the trade unions — became institutionalised during the 1920s at a variety of levels, whether in administering state welfare at a local level, or being allowed to participate in governing the British Empire, as Labour was in 1924. However, the thirties were a period of transition, where the British working class was substantially re-structured in the aftermath of the slump of 1929, and where a new labour aristocracy arose, whose interests the Labour Party and trade unions sought to represent.

The start of the world slump coincided with the election of the second minority Labour government in 1929. Completely committed to the interests of banking and finance capital, the government supported the maintenance of the gold standard whilst endorsing the need for a massive rationalisation of British industry. Only as the full import of this programme became apparent in the slump of 1930-31 did any splits appear. The cuts in unemployment benefit and public sector pay proposed by the May committee in the summer of 1931 and accepted until the final moment by the majority of the Labour cabinet proved too much for the TUC General Council. The political representatives of the labour aristocracy split, and a section went over to the National Government.

However, to conclude that therefore the other section somehow returned to the working class would be quite wrong. Elsewhere, we have shown the absolute hostility of the official labour movement to the unemployed, and how the unemployed and their organisation, the National Unemployed Workers' Movement, were constantly attacked and isolated (Labour: A Party Fit for Imperialism, pp134-147). However, what is important here is to recognise how the labour aristocracy played a full part in policing the poorer sections of the working class. Much has been written on Poplarism, the short-lived support given by Poplar Labour Party to the unemployed in the immediate post-war period. But it was just that —short-lived, and nowhere else was there ever to be such a degree of unity between all sections of the working class in defence of its poorest sections. Quite the opposite: trade unionists were throughout this period to sit in judgement on the unemployed: 'On the Courts of Referees, on Local Employment Committees, on Boards of Guardians, as members of the Boards of Assessors and later on the Public Assessment Committees, local trade unionists, not the leadership, played a crucial role in the "search for the scrounger".' (K Mann: The Making of an English Underclass? p 65).

The unemployed now included hundreds of thousands of workers who had formerly counted amongst the most privileged and 'aristocratic' sections of the working class — engineers, miners and steel workers. Yet to suppose that this meant the concept of the labour aristocracy was now redundant 'would be to miss the whole essence of the labour aristocracy, to see it purely descriptively, in just one of its forms, and ignore its historical role and development: as the active process by which Labour's class organisation was purged of anti-capitalist elements and made safe for economism and spontaneity.' (John Foster: Imperialism and the Labour Aristocracy in ed J Skelley: The General Strike, 1926).

The result of the 1931 election held a few weeks after MacDonald formed the National Government in alliance with the Tory Party was a disaster for the Labour Party. The number of Labour MPs fell from 288 to 46, of whom 23 were from mining constituencies. None were returned from the West Midlands, where 25 had been elected in 1929. There were none in the South outside of London. The bulk of the votes it lost were not in the areas most hit by the recession, but in those which were relatively secure — the South and the Midlands where either the new luxury industries were concentrated, or where the expanding service sector predominated. It was the votes of the middle class and the newly affluent skilled workers in these areas who had defected to the National Government and given it a landslide majority. And it was these votes which Labour would have to win back if it was to have any hope of forming another Government.

The changing structure of the working class

This then was the driving force behind the political standpoint of the Labour Party and the trade unions throughout the 1930s: to win the allegiance of relatively affluent, relatively secure sections of the working class living in the Midlands and the South, working in industries such as chemicals, electrical goods and the rapidly expanding vehicle industry. It would be these votes which would now decide the outcome of future elections. In this respect, there is a strong parallel between the 'New Realism' of the 1980s and Labour politics in the 1930s.

Changes in the structure of the working class were no less dramatic. Between 1923 and 1938, the number of miners in employment fell by 510,000; in the cotton and woollen industries by 127,000 from 695,000. In contrast, employment in electrical engineering doubled to 111,000 and by nearly the same proportion in the motor vehicle and aircraft sector (from 173,500 to 337,000). Employment in road transport reflected this: up from 227,000 to 384,000. Most dramatic were increases in areas of completely unproductive employment: in the distributing trades (up by 835,000, nearly 50%) and 'Miscellaneous Services', from 495,000 to 856,000. As GDH Cole commented, by 1938 Britain appeared to be turning into 'a nation of shop assistants, clerks, waiters and machine attendants'. (GDH Cole and R Postgate: The Common People, p609).

Thus employment increased in unproductive sectors and in luxury production. It was also geographically localised: it was concentrated in the South and East. Thus Welsh steel workers and miners trekked to Swindon and Oxford to seek work in the new automotive industries, Scottish steel workers went to Corby. Further, the employment figures disguise the large amount of short-time working that prevailed in the textile, steel and mining industries during this whole period. Given the further need to support unemployed members of the family, it meant that working class living standards in the so-called 'depressed areas' fell dramatically. This was compounded by the differing levels of unemployment amongst skilled and unskilled workers: in 1931, 30.5 per cent of unskilled workers were out of work compared to 14.4 per cent of skilled workers. However, where workers remained in employment, and where they did not have to support the unemployed, their living standards rose considerably as prices fell.

Thus the British ruling class was able to ride out the slump without serious social disorder. Its financial position cushioned the impact of the slump more than it did in Germany or the US. Its continuing control of the raw material and food sources of the Empire enabled it to take full advantage of the shifting terms of trade. Lastly, through superprofits it could support expanding luxury and unproductive sectors, guaranteeing employment and improving living standards to an increasing middle class and a significant section of the working class. Cole again: 'The main body of the employed workers did not revolt; for the most part it left the workers in the depressed industries to fight their own battles, or gave them but sporadic help'.(p609) And no wonder Bevin could declare that 'We have been left the . . . responsibility of an Empire and we will not break it up, we will not destroy it.'

Labour's response

Labour remained indifferent to the unemployed because it recognised that their votes or the votes of the industrial North would not win elections. It was also the fact that the unemployed were mainly unskilled workers. The only time Labour showed any concern for the unemployed was when they fought back, and such concern took the form of complete hostility. Thus Labour opposed all the national hunger marches — in 1930, 1932, 1934, and the two of 1936 which included the apolitical Jarrow march. It did not even debate the problem of the distressed areas of the North, Scotland and South Wales until 1936. In so far as there were any mass struggles against cuts in unemployment benefit, they were led by the unemployed themselves, especially in 1931-32 and 1935.

 One consequence of the 1931 debacle was that the Labour Party and the trade union leadership not only maintained but consolidated their reactionary alliance — the essence of social democracy — against the mass of the working class. Key to this was the new National Joint Council initiated by Citrine and Bevin which was set up in January 1932. Rather than meet quarterly as it had done hitherto, it now met monthly, on the day before the Labour Party NEC. With seven TUC General Council members and six from the Labour Party, the Joint Council virtually handed control of Labour policy to the General Council and therefore to Bevin and Citrine.

Saville says of the Labour leaders in the 1930s that 'they gave no hope or inspiration to their own supporters, and were tough, uncompromising and energetic only when their own positions of power were threatened, hence the political and industrial expulsion and excommunications' (ed Saville Essays in Labour History 1918-39). Thus it was not just unemployment that the Labour Party offered no opposition to the National Government. It opposed action taken by dockers to boycott goods destined for Japan after it invaded Manchuria in 1931. It opposed similar action against Italy five years later. In 1936 it supported the National Government in its refusal to send arms to republican Spain. Throughout this period, it opposed any action at home against the rise of fascism. In defending the refusal of Labour work with the CPGB in a united front against fascism, Bevin made his position brutally clear: 'if you do not keep down the Communists, you cannot keep down the Fascists' he declared at the 1934 Labour Party Conference. In short, whenever or wherever there was any significant working class action, it was almost always led by the Communist Party, and almost always opposed by the Labour Party. However, the fruits of this strategy were to prove very meagre for Labour. It made only a weak recover the 1935 general election; it won seats, but none of these were in Birmingham, for instance, and only three Labour MPs were returned south of the Midlands outside of London. Recovery of union membership was also limited with the exception of skilled workers. This was hardly surprising: trade unions seemed of limited relevance when living standards were rising without any widespread working class struggle. Not that the trade union movement suffered: its funds grew from £2.05 for each of its 4.15 million member 1926 to £3.80 per head of a similar number of members in 1936. In 1918 the amount spent on 'working expenses' was six times that spent on the fighting fund; in 1938 it was fourteen times, reflecting the absence of any significant strike activity. The limited struggles that did take place were often led by Communists. as it turned out, it was to take a world war to create an electoral alliance between the labour aristocracy and the mass of the working class on the one hand, and sections of the middle class on the other, sufficient to elect majority Labour Government.

The 1930s were years of transition as far as the structure of the British working class were concerned. The old export industries on which British industrial wealth had been based — coal, iron, steel, ship-building textiles — were decimated. The aristocratic sections of the working class employed in these sectors thrown into destitution. Meanwhile new manufacturing industries had arisen alongside a burgeoning service sector. A new labour aristocracy was in the making, of skilled workers employed in industries which would only fully develop with the advent war. Until that time, Labour attempts to organise these sections and to act as their political representative was to have limited success.