Economics: The British Labour Movement

Figure 1.--Here Cardiff Boy Scouts are bringing food to the children of striking Welsh coal miners in 1912. This was part of a nation-wide coal strike ordered by the Miners Federation of Great Britain, the main trade union representing the country's coal miners. It was the first nation-wide strike by British miners. The Federation was seeking a minimum wage. The strike began at Alfreton, Derbyshire (February) and spread nationwide. At its peak nearly one million miners went out on strike. The strike resulted in disruption to train and shipping schedules because of coal shortages. After 37 days the government intervened and ended the strike (April 6) by passing a minimum wage law--the Coal Mines (Minimum Wage) Act 1912.

The British labour movement developed in a class-bound society. The Industrail Revolution began un Brutain and as might be expected, Britain's labour movement is the oldest in the world. Marxist doctrine was an important component of the the country's labor movement. From an early point the labor movement took on a political character. As a result, the history of the labor movement in Britain becomes the history of socialism in the country. The Communists unlike many other Europen contrues gnered only limited sypport. The movement;'s goals gradually went far beyond demanding higher wages and sworking conditions. The movement rejected the profit motive and the market capitalism. Rather the British Labour Party, a socialist party, aspired to nationalize basic industry incliding strel, coal, and transport and to run them as state corportations. The Labour Party finlly won a general election (1945). The Labour Government proceeded to carry out their goals of nationlizing industry. The result was economic failure. Britain had to continue World War II rationing into the post-War era. The economy lagged behinf that of theor continental neigbors which had more market based economies. State-owned industries fared pooerly and as a result were unable to pay wages as high as on the Cintinent. Britain hd been the wealthiest, most affluent European European country, fell behind Western Europe. The Germzn Economic Miracle soon offere the people of Germany rebuilding from a sea of rubble a higher living stndard than the British. The political showdown with the lsvor movement came with the election of Margaret Thatcher.

Industrial Revolution

No development in modern history has affected individuals more than the Industrial Revolution and the manufacture of textiles played a key role. Historians debate just where and when the Industrail Revolution began. We would set it at about the mid-18th century in the English Midlands. Some authors might take issue with this, but this would be the most widely accepted view. The first industry affected was the textile or clothing industry--one reason that the study of the clothing indusytry is so important. It was at this time that workers instead of weaving piece work at home, began to work in factories. Here cotton manufacture became especially important. Several inventions at this time were responsible, including the spinning jenny, flying shuttle, and a water-powered loom. This was soon followed by the key invention of our time which served as a catalyst for industrial expansion--the steam engine. John Newcomen and James Watt developed the steam engine. Watt between 1769-84 developed an efficient engine. The abundant supplies of coal in Britian combined with the technological advances by British inventors in part explain why Britain led the way in European industrial expansion. The significance was that the steam engine was an efficent source of energy that could be put to work in virtually every industry and because inexpensive energy was available, helped develop new industies. The railroad was essenially a steam engine on wheels. The railroad in turn revolutionalized the world economy. Many bulk goods like grain could not be sold at any significant distance from where it was grown or produced. The railroad allowed bulk goods to be transportd at great distance for limited costs, including ports where goods could be conducted aound the world. At at those ports awaited steam-powered boats, floating steam engines, to effiently move cargos at low cost around the world.

Child Labor

England as far as we know was the first country to address the problm of child labor. This is understandable as it was in England that the Industrial Revolution began. Child and women workers played a major role in the Industrial Revolution. Charles Dickens had a major role in prmoting the movement to limit child labor. Parlimentary investigations exposed the abuses, but influential English capitalists committed to laiisez faire government claimed that governmental restrictions were an infringement of their rights. Here Dickens and news accounts of abuses gradually swung public opinion to governmental action to protect children. Finally Parliament began limiting child labor, the initial laws were very minor restrictions.

Trade Clubs

Corresponding Societies

Chartist Movement (1838-48)

One of the major political movements in Victorian Brirain was the Chartists. The Chartists were considered radical reformers at the time. William Lovett drafted the "People's Charter" (1838). It was designed to address the remasining inequities remaining adter the passage of the Reform Act (1832). The Chartists demanded sic principal reforms: 1) universal male sufferage, 2) equal electoral districts, 3) abolition of the property requirement for Members of Parliament, 4) payment for M.P.s, 5) annual general elections, and 6) instituting a secret ballot. The Chartists collected 1.25 million signatures. This was presented to the House of Commons when ir came up for a vote (1839). It was soundly voted down by a vote of 235 to 46. The Government ordered the arrest of Chartist leaders who had threatened a general strike. Supporters marched on the prison at Newport, Monmouthshire, demanding their release. Troops called up to protect the prison killed 24 demobstrators and wounding 40 others. A second petition attracted 3 million signatures, butvwas also rejected by Parliament (1842). A third petition was also rejected (1848) ended the movement. While the Chartists failed, they had a huge impact in promoting reform.

Revolutions of 1848

As a result of these moderate conservative reforms, Britain largely escaped the chaotic Revolutions of 1848 which swept Europe. Revolution swept Europe in 1848. In Britain the Revolution of 1848 took the shape of the Chartist Movement. It looked fo a time like the Chartists might succeed in England. The struggle was conducted throughout the 1840s. But even before 1848 support for Chartism was declining. As Marx saw the differing interest of the middle class and working class would create differences that would make common action possible. The 10 Hour Act placated many. For the mass gathering on Kenington Green only 20,000 assembled. The Government preparing for the worst has assemed a security force of nearly 100,000. Even so the royal family decided it was prudent to leave London. Why did Britain prove less succetable to Revolution? Some have argued the Victorian penchant for constructive self criticism. [Wilson, pp. 113-120.] The Revolutions of 1848 did overturn some regimes, although most were soon restored. Onlt the French monarchy was permanretly overturned. The revolutions did demonstrate that that popular unrest could overthrow monarchial government.

Corn Laws

A major issue proved to be the the Corn Laws. Britain before the French Revolution imported grain from the Continent. The Industrial Revolution caused both a growth of population as well as well as expanding city populations, meaning people who did not grow their own food. The Napoleonic Wars and the Napoleonic System cut off Brirain from European grain imports. This increased grain prices and induced farmers to expand rain, primarily wheat production needed for bread. The onset of the French Revolution complicated Continental shipments, especially after Napoleon conquered much of Europe and introduced the Continental System. This cut Britain off from cheap European grain and caused price increases. British farmers responded to the higher prices by expanding wheat production. Climatic conditions meant that British wheat farmers As British wheat farmers were not as profuctive as Continental farmers. Thus they needed higher prices. Europe was the primary, but not the only source of imported grain. Aristocrats owned large areas of agricultural land. They and other land owners dominated Parliament. Thus they wanted import duries imposed on importted grain. The first Corn Law was passed (1804). (Corn at the time was a generic term for grain.) British landowners were converned that when the Napoleonic Wars ended, they would face unsustainable competition from cheap imported grain. And this is just what happened. Brirish farmers were receiving 126s/6d a quarter (8 bushels) before Napoleon's disaster in Russia (1812). After Napoleon no longer controlled the Continent, prices had dropped to 65s/7d per quarter (1815). Landowners pushed in Parliament for protection. Parliament passed a law permitting the import of foreign wheat free of duty only when the domestic price rose to 80 shillings per quarter. While pushed by landowners, the law was very unpopular in London and other cities. The Government had to call out troops to defend Parliament from London mobs. Urban residents in Britain's fast-growing indudtrial cities were harned by the higher breas prices. Workers viewed saw the the Corn Laws as an example of how Parliament favored large landowners. The Corn Laws shold not be viewed as an issue which divided the rich and poor. Britain at the time as a result of The Indistrial Revolution was shifting from an economy domibated by landowners to one doiminaed by the industrial/mercantile class. Thus manufacturers also imposed the Corn Laws because they would lead to worker demands for increased wages. Unrest over the Corn Laws intensified when the graoin harvest failed (1816). The poor harvest caused bread prices to spike up. City woirkers demanded higher wages to pay for the rising food prices. Strikes and food riots occurred. Much of the unrest centered on Manchester, the heart of the industrial Midlands being created by the Industrial Revolution. A group of middle-class moderate reformers began meeting at the home of John Potter. Working class radicals were also active. They organized a mass meetng at St. Peter's Field (August 16, 1819).


Trade Unions

Mass Party

British workers as might be expected in the ckuntry where thd Indistrial Revolution began were the first to form a mass political party--the National Charter Association. The Labour Party itself rose in the late-19th century. Trade uniinists weree disatified with the existing parties and decided they needed their own party to defend the interest of workers a rapidly increasing portion of the population which increasingly was able to vote. This caused increasing interest in political activity. Further expansion of the franchise occurred giving most male workers the tight to vote (1867 and 1885. The Liberal Party began endorsing some trade-union sponsored candidates--Lib-Lab. The first Lib–Lab candidate to stand was George Odger in the Southwark by-election (1870). Some small socialist political groups began to form at about the same time. They included the Independent Labour Party, Fabian Society (an intellectual and largely middle-class debating group), the Marxist Social Democratic Federation, and the Scottish Labour Party. The first resulkts were not encouraging. The Independent Labour Party(ILP) put up 28 candidates in a general election (1895). They ganered only about 44,000 votes. Keir Hardie, the ILP leader concluded that gain any success in parliamentary elections, labor groups had to unite. Hardie was a lay lay preacher and had a considerable influence on the developing Party. General Secretary Morgan Phillips would later say, "Socialism in Britain owed more to Methodism than Marx".

Cooperative Societies

British workers were the first to form cooperative societies. One author insists that British workers built cooperation into a national economic institution.

Public Education

Public education is a factor in the labor mivement. If children and youth are in school, they are not competing with adults for jobs. Also to the extrent that they acquire skills, they are better equipped to fill needed availanle jobs and contribute to the economy. Here Britain lagged behind America and Germany in founding a free public education systems. Here the resistance came primarily from influentual rural land owners. Within the United Kingdom, Scotland had the most advanced public education system.

Labor Unrest (1880s)

As industrialization proceeded and urban centers grew throughout Europe, we note the rise of labor unrest. Workers were drawn into the cities where slums continued to grow in aize. Some of the unrest took a violent turn, although this was more common on the Continent than Britain. The draw of people from the country side meant fundamental social change, often disoriening to the prople involved as industrial society took shape. People move from the country with family and social ties extending back centuries to anonomous city life. Advances in communications, transport, urbanization and the dissemination of news. Newspapers became cheper and more widely led. Provincial and national press grew. Lon accepred social deference weakened. Disension among workers increased. The old craft unions for skilled lorkers were often at odds with new unions for unskilled indusrial workers.

Second International (1889)

As aesult of public education, an increasing numberof workers had basic educatiins and were literate. Socialist thought had great appeal to them. The sme was true of many European intelectuals. Socialist ideology is undeniably appealing. and in the late-19th century there no socialist states so neither workers ot intelectuals had actual exampls of socialisr states and the abject failure that sovialist states would compile. The future socialist idealogues offerec was cetainly appealing--organizing society on a more collectivist, humanitarian and egalitarian plane. This ideal offered a coherent alternative economic system. Working class parties, most Marxist, were formed. throughout Europe, but most prominatly in France and Germany. French socialists organized two congresses in Paris and issued invitations to Marxist groups. One coingewss was for Marxist parties, the the second for non-Marxist parties. This was the genesis for the Second Intenational. Resolutions addressed labor issues, such as the 8-hour day. Other resolutions were more general in nature, such as the extension of the suffrage, condemning standing armies, and advocating the celebration of a May 1 as a day celebrating labor. It soon became clear that the Secind International would be largely Marxist in nature. Socialist parties steasily increased in size an importance where permitted duriung the late-19th and early-20 centuries. The largest socialist parties were in Germany. Only in America did socialist parties not develop an important political following. Socialist partie did develop in Britain, but were not as important as in the major continental powers.

Fouundation (1900s)

The Labour Party traces its origins to the turn-of-the 20th century. Working-class people became frustrated with their failure to field parliamentary candidates through the Liberal Party, at the time the most important social-reform party in Britain. Potential Liberal candidates tended to have better educations and more social status. And the British electoral law still precluded most working-class people from voting. The Trades Union Congress (the national federation of British trade unions) cooperated with the Independent Labour Party (founded in 1893) to establish a Labour Representation Committee (1900). They took the name Labour Party in 1906.

Pre-War Growth (1910-14)

The Labour Party in its earlier years lacked a nationwide mass membership or organization. They reached an informal agreement not to run candidates against each other wherever possible. To do so would have guaranteed conservarive victories. Coal miners struck unsucessfully for a minimum wage (1894). A smaler strike occured in South Wales (1911). The Miners Federation of Great Britain, the main trade union representing the country's coal miners, decide to act more forcefully (1912). It was the first nation-wide strike by British miners. The Federation was seeking a minimum wage. The strike began at Alfreton, Derbyshire (February) and spread nationwide. At its peak nearly one million miners went out on strike. The strike resulted in disruption to train and shipping schedules because of coal shortages. After 37 days the government intervened and ended the strike (April 6) by passing a minimum wage law--the Coal Mines (Minimum Wage) Act 1912.

World War I (1914-18)

One of the countries swept into the vortex of Wotlrd War I was Britain. A major element in European socialism was pacifism and opposition to war. Thus in all the World War I belligerant powers, sime socialists opposed the War, but the bulk of the parties supported the government. The Labour Party split between supporters and opponents of participation in the War. Labour opposition to the War grew as horrendous casuakties were suffered i=on the battlefield. Ramsay MacDonald was aparticular vehement anti-war activist. He resigned as leader of the Parliamentary Labour Party. Arthur Henderson replaced him as the major Labour figure. Prime Minister Asquith included him in the war cabinet. He thus was the first Labour Party member to serve in government. The mainstream Labour Party supported the coalition goverment and the War. Britain was the only major World War I bellgerant tht did not have conscription. For more than 2 years, Britain fought the War with a volunteer army. The disaster on the Somme (1916) changed this and Britain had to introduce conscription. The Independent Labour Party oppose conscription through related efforts, especially the Non-Conscription Fellowship. A Labour Party affiliate, the British Socialist Party, organised some unofficial strikes. Henderson resigned from the Cabinet as a need was seen for party unity (1917). George Barnes replaced him.

Post War Efforts (1918-19)

The Labour Party by the end of the War had matured and was becoming a major force in British politics. The Party had built a real activist base at the local level. This organisation was reflected in the election results following the war. One new porce was the cooperative movement which provided the Cooperative Party resources and support after the armistice. The Cooperative Party later reached an electoral agreement with the Labour Party. There were calls for reform after the War. Perhaps the most important reform stepvtaken immediately after the War was the Representation of the People Act (1918). Giben thevrole that working-class peoole hadvplayed in the War, precluding them from voting was no longer tenable. The Act extended the franchise to virtually all adult men (excepting only peers, criminals, and lunatics) and most women over the age of 30 years. At one stroke this nearly tripled the British electorate from 7.7 million in 1912 to 21.4 million in 1918. It could not help, but fundamentally change British politics. And the most obvious inpact was that Labour would gain a substahtial boost in the next election.

Communists and Liberals

One impact of World War I was the Russian Revolution and the Bolshecik seizure of power. Thus the Siviet Union becae the first Communist state. Labour refused to allow the Communists to affiliste (1921-23). The Liberal Party declined after the War, in part because many workers turned to Labour. In addition, partially due to their declinging appeal, the Liberals split. The Labour Party was able to gain considerble Liberals' support. Labour won 142 seats (1922), This made Labour the principal opposition to the governing Conservative government. The huge losses during the War soon turned the eurphoria of victory inti recriminations. The once disgraced anti-War figure Ramsay MacDonald was elected the first official leader of the Labour Party.

The Roaring 20s (1920s)

The Labour Party emrged as the major reform opposition to the Conservatives. Several factors were involved. First, the fomerly important Liberal Party tore itself apart as a result of factional dispute. Second, the 1918 Representation of the People Act extended the electoral franchise to all males aged 21 or older and to women aged 30 or older, adding several million potential labor voters. Third, Labour in 1918, formally identified itself as socialist party, but one with a democratic constitution and a national structure. The party’s new program was “Labour and the New Social Order”. It was drafted by the ideological leadership--the Fabian Society and its spokesmen---Sidney and Beatrice Webb. They committed Labour to the pursuit of full employment, a minimum wage, a maximum workweek, democratic control, public ownership of industry, progressive taxation, and the expansion of educational and social services. Labour replaced the Liberal Party as the official opposition to the ruling Conservative Party (1922). James Ramsay MacDonald with Liberal support, formed the first Labour government (192). McDonald's minority administration was brought down less after less than a year over questions of its sympathy for the new Soviet Goverment and alleged communist influence within the party. Labour helped launch the U.K. General Strike to support striking coalminers. It lasted 10 days (May 3-13, 1926). The General Council of the Trades Union Congress (TUC) called the strike to force the British government to prevent wage reduction and worsening conditions for 0.8 million locked-out coal miners. Some 1.7 million workers went out on strike in support. Especially affected was transport and heavy industry. The Government knew that it was coming and prepared to deal wih it. The Goverment appealed for middle class volunteers to maintain essential services. There was little violence and the TUC accepted defeat. The General Strike in the end had little impact on trade-union activity or the labor movement in general. Labour emerged from the 1929 General Electiom the largestpolitical party in Parliament, but it still lacked an overall majority and thus had to form a coalition government with the Liberals. The Labour-Liberal coalitition government was thus in power when the stock market crashed in America leading to the Great Depression.

Labour Outlook (1930s)

Labour as a result of the Depression was faced with a national crisis. Prime-Minister MacDonald faced demands to cut public expenditure as a condition for receiving loans from foreign banks. The Keysian idea of defecit spending to stimulate the economy was not yet widely accepted. MacDonald rejected the objections of most Labour leaders and formed a coalition government with Conservatives and Liberals. In the subsequent General Election, Labour’s parliamentary representation was reduced from 288 to only 52. Giving the Conservatives total control over national Government for the rest of the dacade. Labour remained out of power for the rest of the decade. Labour as a socialist party accepted Marrxist ideas like the idea that war was inevitable result of capitalism. This they believed that World War I was the result of capitalism and a huge mistake--both tragic and futile. Labour was not the only partbof the poilitcal spectrum to believe this, but they embraced the idea with particular fervor. And they were convinced that another war jad to be avoided at all cost. They opposed amilitary spending and defense programs. Many Conservatives reached a similar view from a different perspective. They saw the rise of the NAZIs as the inevitable result of legitimate German greviances arising out of the Versailles Treaty ending the War. They also were determined to avoid anoyher War and were prepared to appease Hitler and the NAZIs. The Labour Party Conference even after Hitler's appointment as chancellor endorsed total disarmament (October 1933). And they threatned another genberal strike if Britain ever went to war again. A Labour canndidate running in a bielection flipped a safe Conservative seat--East Fulham. This seams to have scared Prime-Minister Stanley Baldwin more than Hitler. As a result, Baldwin rejected calls from Churchill and others to mmatch Hitler's massive rearmament program. Baldwin and Chuchill also saw Hitler as a v=bulwarknagainsr Communism. The Conservatives retained a 200 seat majority in the next general election (1935). This gave Prime-Minister Neville Chamberlain political dominace and the ability to ignore the warnings of Churchiila nd the anti-appeasers. Ironically gikven their ideological mindset, it would be Labour that first understood the NAZI threat. Here NAZi supression of the free labor movement and socialists was a factor. Labour saw the NAZIs as a form of unbrialded capitalism and not its essentially socialist character. Labour began to embrace anti-Fascist policies even while Chamberlain memained determined to appease Hitler (1936). [Bouverie] Chamberlain on the other hand convinced himself that he he alone could prevent another war. His whole political experience meant that he had never met anyone who actually wanted another war. He thought it was inconceivable despite the growing evidence. Chanberalin's arrogance and mistaken asessment of Hitler nearly destoyed the British nation. Labour ministers finally joined a wartime coalition government headed by Winston Churchill (May 1940). Thet refused to enter a Chamberlain Goverment, but agreed to join a Churchill Govermrnt.

World War II (1939-45)

Again Britain played a major role in the next World War. The pacifist and anti-military feeling of Labour and the electorate as a whole played into Hitler's hands. Military spending was cut to the bone. and as a result the Germans came very close to defeating an unprpared Britain in the first year of the War. After Germany openly began remilitarization (1935), the Labour Party gradually began moving away from earlier socialist pacifist stance and began supporting military preparation bills in Parliament. To their credit, Labour moved away from appeasement before Prime Minister Chmberlain and the Conservatives. Ernest Bevin and Hugh Dalton who persuaded their Party to oppose Neville Chamberlain's appeasement policy (1937). Their criticism of Chamberlain was so itense that they refused to join a coalition governent with him. With Chamberlin's resignation, Winston Churchill who had also opposed appeasement, became primeminister on the say day the German offenive in the West began (May 1940). One of his first steps was to bring Labour into his war-time cabinet, similar to the World War I approach. Labour leader Clement Attlee was appointed Lord Privy Seal and a member of the War Cabinet. He would become the United Kingdom's first Deputy Prime Minister. Other senior Labour leaders were given important posts. Trade union leader Ernest Bevin, was appointed as Minister of Labour. He briliantly oversaw Britain's wartime economy and critical allocation of manpower. Under him Britain went to a total war fooring more than 2 years before the Germans and it had a major impact on the War. The NAZIs destroyed the German labor movenent and fought the War with slave labor. A free labor movemnent was a key component of the British war effort. Labour elder statesman Herbert Morrison became Home Secretary. Hugh Dalton was appointed Minister of Economic Warfare and later President of the Board of Trade. A.V. Alexander with Churchill elevated to the primeministership, replaced him as First Lord of the Admiralty, a position he held in the previous Labour Government. As Britain experienced a series of militry reverses, he came under attack in Parliament. Important Labour leaders supported him through the worst of it.

General Election (1945)

The Labour Party finlly won a general election (1945). The Labour Government proceeded to carry out their goals of nationlizing industry. The result was economic failure. Britain had to continue World War II rationing into the post-War era. The economy lagged behinf that of theor continental neigbors which had more market based economies. State-owned industries fared pooerly and as a result were unable to pay wages as high as on the Cintinent. Britain hd been the wealthiest, most affluent European European country, fell behind Western Europe. The Germzn Economic Miracle soon offere the people of Germany rebuilding from a sea of rubble a higher living stndard than the British. The political showdown with the lsvor movement came with the election of Margaret Thatcher.



Bouverie, Tim. Appeasement: Chamberlain, Hitler, Churchill, and the Road to War (Tim Duggan), 496p.

Morton, A.L. annd G.Tate. The British Labour Movement.


Navigate the Boys' Historical Clothing Web Site:
[Return to the Main Labor Movement page]
[Return to the Main English economics page]
[Return to the Main Economics page]
[Introduction] [Animals] [Biographies] [Chronology] [Climatology] [Clothing] [Disease and Health] [Economics] [Ethnicity] [Geography] [History] [Human Nature] [Law]
[Nationalism] [Presidents] [Religion] [Royalty] [Science] [Social Class]
[Bibliographies] [Contributions] [FAQs] [Glossaries] [Images] [Links] [Registration] [Tools]
[Children in History Home]

Created: 6:03 AM 11/25/2014
Last updated: 1:52 AM 9/13/2019