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Striking miners, 1926

Striking miners, 1926. Photo: Public Domain

A spectre is haunting our ruling class: the spectre of 1926, writes Sean Ledwith

The upsurge we have witnessed this summer of workers fighting back, together with the related escalation of anti-union rhetoric from the two contenders for the Tory leadership, has led to speculation in some quarters about the possibility of a general strike in the UK. Mick Lynch, the RMT general secretary who personifies the new mood of working-class combativity, has expressed support for the notion of an organised convergence of industrial disputes:

‘We need coordinated and synchronized industrial action against what they’re proposing … I would be looking for a general strike if we can bring that off, but it’s up to others.

John McDonnell has also stated this would be the best response from the labour movement to whichever Thatcher admirer emerges victorious from the Sunak v Truss contest: ‘I support coordinated action because if that results in a decent pay rise for people that protect against the cost of living crisis, I think that’s the most effective thing to do.’ Similarly, Dave Ward of the CWU states: ‘I have spoken with Mick Lynch and Gary Smith and Sharon Graham and we believe it is time now to consider calling for forms of collective action that every worker in the UK can participate in.

Turmoil

On the other side of the class divide as well, there is growing trepidation that this hitherto remote possibility might be realised. The FT recently cited one cabinet minister concerned that: ‘If we get this wrong, we risk going into a de facto general strike that will create further turmoil that risks grinding the whole economy to a halt.’

It is a powerful indicator of the scale of the current crisis facing households over the cost of living that a tactic for resistance on the left which has been dormant for decades should suddenly become feasible. This is a suitable time, therefore, to examine the dramatic events of 1926, the last time the British working class embarked on this type of struggle, and to consider what the lessons might be for a repeat in the near future.

Aftermath of 1917

One particularly important lesson is not to underestimate the ruthless planning and organisation of the ruling class in the event of a clear clash of interests between capital and labour. In the aftermath of the double impacts of World War I and the 1917 October Revolution, a wave of revolutions had shaken Europe, and elites tottered in many Western cities. In Britain, troops had to be deployed on the streets of Glasgow, Liverpool and Cardiff, as the revolutionary wave energised the trade-union movement and led to the creation of the Communist Party of Great Britain.

The most powerful section of the labour movement was the Miners Federation (MFGB), which could boast of a million members. In 1919, they used the threat of an unlimited strike to force PM Lloyd George to set up a government commission to examine the possibility of nationalising the coalfields. Two years later, however, as the post-war militancy ebbed, the government and the mine owners felt confident to go on the offensive, and they imposed a lockout in pursuit of slashing miners’ pay.

The MFGB appealed to their two biggest union allies, the rail and transport workers, to uphold the solidarity of the Triple Alliance. Unfortunately, the leaders of the NUR and TGWU were not up to the challenge and the subsequent failure to join the miners in defence of their pay and conditions became known as Black Friday (long before crazed consumerism stole that name).

From Black to Red Friday

This setback for the unions was reversed just four years later when economic mismanagement by the Tory government of Stanley Baldwin triggered another attempt to drive down wages in the name of efficiency. In July 1925, Baldwin used the sort of language we have heard frequently nearly a hundred years later, as the bosses try to persuade us to take a hit for their mess: ‘Yes. All the workers in this country have got to face a reduction in wages … to help put industry on its feet.

This time the Triple Alliance did live up to its name, as the TUC leadership recognised the collective threat, and the PM and the mine owners were forced to back down, with the promise of another commission to investigate pay and conditions in the pits. The iconic MFGB slogan, coined by its left-wing leader Arthur Cook, ‘not a penny off the pay, not a second on the day’, brilliantly articulated the mood of defiance that permeated the British working class in 1925.

Conniving Churchill

The Tory government conceded that they would subsidise miners’ wages till the end of the following April, at which point the Samuel Commission would submit its report. This climb-down was celebrated on the left as Red Friday, but the true purpose of the tactic was revealed by Baldwin’s Chancellor, Winston Churchill: ‘We therefore decided to postpone the crisis in the hope of averting it, of coping with it effectually when the time came.

Churchill and the other Tory class warriors in the cabinet used the following nine months to prepare thoroughly for a dispute which they regarded as inevitable and necessary in order to break the resistance of the labour movement. Home Secretary Joynson-Hicks established the Organisation for the Maintenance of Supplies (OMS) as an explicit scabbing network of thousands of drivers and volunteers who would aim to undermine the efficacy of the general strike when it came.

In contrast, the TUC leadership did practically nothing between Red Friday and April 1926, naively hoping that Baldwin and Samuel were acting in good faith and would deliver a reasonable deal. In spring 1926, Walter Citrine, the TUC general secretary, even poured cold water on the prospects of a militant response to Samuel in the weeks prior to publication: ‘A general strike … is a literal impossibility… In some imperfect way services essential to life must be carried on.

Green light

Arthur Cook was alert to the dangers of the complacency shown by Citrine and most of the trade-union leaders in the run-up to May 1926:

‘Ever since last July when Red Friday wiped out the stain of Black Friday and brought joy to the heart of every worker, the capitalist class of Britain, backed by a strong Tory Government, has been preparing to retrieve its position; while many of the Labour leaders, almost afraid of the growing power of Labour industrially, knowing the activities of the Government and their preparations, remained inactive.

In spring 1926, Samuel delivered his bombshell recommendation that the government subsidy of miners’ wages be scrapped and that the MFGB should swallow a 13% pay cut! Even after this provocation, the right-wingers on the TUC General Council still looked for a way out of committing themselves to the general strike they were desperate to avoid. Negotiations with Baldwin were still underway hours before the midnight deadline on 3 May when printers at the Daily Mail refused to typeset a provocative headline accusing the TUC of treason. For the government, this was the perfect pretext to call off discussions with Citrine and others in the General Council. The latter were left with no choice but to give the green light to authorising industrial action by up to two million workers the next day.

A very British strike?

The nine days of the general strike are sometimes portrayed as a typically restrained British affair, in which strikers and bobbies played football together on picket lines, Test cricket carried on regardless, and most people treated it as an extended bank holiday. In reality, the full panoply of powers of the capitalist state were mobilised to break the TUC. All military leave was cancelled, Hyde Park was turned into an armed camp, and the London docks were put under de facto martial law. Battleships dropped anchor in the Thames, the Mersey, the Clyde and other major ports to deal with potential civil unrest. Half of the capital’s power stations were also put under military control.

Churchill continued to play a nefarious role in the period by editing the anti-union British Gazette newspaper, which pumped out government-funded propaganda for the duration of the strike, with pearl-clutching drivel such as:

‘The general strike is in operation, expressing in no uncertain terms a direct challenge to ordered government. … Either the nation must be mistress in its own house or suffer the existing constitution to be fatally injured and endure the erection of a Soviet of Trade Unions.

He also wanted to take over the BBC overtly, but the wilier Baldwin calculated that preserving its supposed independence in the new era of mass media would be a more useful weapon. The broadcaster remained officially neutral, but behind the scenes Director-General Lord Reith ensured pro-strike viewpoints were never aired.

Festival of the oppressed

Despite these measures, the most conspicuous feature of the nine days was the overwhelming enthusiasm and solidarity demonstrated by the working class. The TUC fatally opted to call workers out in waves, rather than en masse from day one; this did not stop many workers trying to join the strike earlier than scheduled, however. The General Council was hard pressed to restrain sectors that were supposed to wait for waves two or three, walking out straightaway. One strike bulletin from Birmingham noted:

‘The extent of the stoppage is much greater than anyone anticipated, and all road, passenger and carrying traffic has been stopped … on the railway the stoppage is complete … in the factories the difficulty now is to keep people at work. All are anxious to be out and in the fight.

At the grassroots level across the country, many activists formed Workers Defence Corps to protect picket lines from police attack. Councils of Action were formed in many communities to ensure vulnerable people were not adversely affected, and that essential services were maintained under union supervision. The British Worker newspaper was published as a counterweight to Churchill’s anti-strike rag. Solidarity from the working class was actually escalating day by day, to the extent there were more people on strike on the last day than the first.

Defeat from the jaws of victory

So why is the 1926 general strike regarded today as a massive defeat for the TUC? Essentially because its leadership chose to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. On the fourth day, Citrine and others covertly made it known to Baldwin that they were open to renewed negotiations with Samuel, with a view to ending the strike as soon as possible. The Tory PM couldn’t believe his luck that the General Council was willing to concede from a position of strength. On the 12 May, the dispute was officially abandoned, much to the shock and surprise of millions of workers.

Trotsky, observing events from overseas, brilliantly identified how the sell-out was rooted in the contrasting strategies of the two sides:

‘We must look facts in the face: the principal efforts of the official Labour Party leaders and of a considerable number of official trade-union leaders will be directed not towards paralysing the bourgeois state by means of the strike but towards paralysing the General Strike by means of the bourgeois state. The government in the shape of its most die-hard Conservatives will without doubt want to provoke a small-scale civil war so as to gain the opportunity of applying measures of terror before the struggle has fully unfolded and so throw the movement back.

The MFGB heroically defied the return to work directive, having been cynically excluded by the TUC right wing from the secret deal with Baldwin, and stayed out for another six months until they were effectively starved into submission. The consequences for the wider movement were calamitous as the General Council had failed to secure a no-victimisation deal before ending the strike. Union membership and the number of strike days both fell off a cliff over the following years as the Tory government and the capitalist class exacted vengeance on those who had stood up to them in 1926.

Lessons of 1926

Millions today have been inspired by the radical rhetoric of Mick Lynch, Eddie Dempsey and other left-wing union leaders as they brilliantly eviscerate the hypocrisy and callousness shown by the Tories during the cost of living crisis. We should welcome unreservedly the possibility of another general strike in Britain. However, the lessons of 1926 need to be heeded if a twenty-first-century version is to avoid a similar outcome. Namely, don’t underestimate the ruthlessness of the ruling class, the ability of the working class to organise themselves, or the willingness of some union leaders to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

Trotsky again should be our guide: ‘An implacable struggle against every act of treachery or attempted treachery and the ruthless exposure of the reformists’ illusions are the main elements in the work of genuinely revolutionary participants in the general strike.

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Sean Ledwith

Sean Ledwith

Sean Ledwith is a Counterfire member and Lecturer in History at York College, where he is also UCU branch negotiator. Sean is also a regular contributor to Marx and Philosophy Review of Books and Culture Matters

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