PETER FROST looks at the build up to the 1926 General Strike.
THE British Communist Party was formed in 1920 and within five years it had well over 5,000 members.
Four members of the Communist Party of Great Britain jailed before the 1926 strike; Left to right: Mr Albert Inkpin, Wal Hannington, Allan Cobham and Harry Pollitt.
In Britain many amalgamations of small craft unions had created a number of large trade unions with over five-and-a half million members.
The Labour Party had been established at the turn of the century as the trade unions’ political wing.
There were a number of successful trade union actions after World War I: the Clydeside general strike of 1919 for a 40-hour week; the successful strike by 300,000 Lancashire cotton mill workers for a 48-hour week and a 30 per cent wage increase; and the victory of railway engineers in preventing wage cuts.
Perhaps even more significant was the action by London dockers against British intervention against the 1917 Russian Revolution.
The dockers struck to stop the export of military hardware for use against the Bolsheviks. It was a political rather than an economic strike.
However by June 1921 the ruling class was fighting back on all fronts as unemployment rocketed to two million and trade union membership fell by over two million. The bosses pressed home their offensive against all kinds of workers.
Ramsay MacDonald’s Labour government often took the side of the bosses rather than of workers engaged in struggle.
Then in 1924 the Tories under Stanley Baldwin returned to power. They soon started a massive attack on wages. Engineering, textile and railway bosses were demanding wage cuts and longer hours.
The biggest attack was on the miners. In 1914, almost one in 10 of the male labour force in Britain was employed in the coal industry, making mining the largest and most important industry in the country, and the million-strong miners’ union the Miners’ Federation of Great Britain (MFGB) a major militant force in the trade union movement.
During the war, mining had been under government control and the unions had achieved an eight-hour day, a minimum wage and national wage agreements.
When peace returned, miners demanded a 30 per cent wage increase, a six-hour working day and full nationalisation. The government and the mine owners’ backlash wasn’t long in coming. They scoffed at the miners’ demands, saying instead they would abolish the national wage agreements and set new wage levels lower than pre-war earnings. When miners refused, the employers locked them out.
With little support from the leaders of the Labour Party or the leadership of the transport and rail unions, rank-and-file miners held out against the mine owners’ lockout for three months.
Between 1920 and 1924, real wages in mining fell drastically and by 1925 miners formed the single largest group among the unemployed.
The mine owners redoubled their attack on pay and conditions. They called for savage wage cuts, an end to national bargaining and a complete return to local agreements.
The miners appealed for support to the TUC general council. The council resolved to “give the miners their complete support … and to co-operate with them wholeheartedly in their resistance to the mine owners’ proposals.”
A Coal Embargo Committee was set up by the general council, threatening to stop all movements of coal if the miners were locked out for rejecting the employers’ demands.
The government and the employers realised they were not yet ready for a fight. On July 30 1925 — Red Friday — the government played for time and announced a nine-month subsidy to the coal industry and a Royal Commission.
In reality though, the government had only climbed down for the purpose of preparing itself for confrontation in the future.
Winston Churchill spelled it out later: “We therefore decided to postpone the crisis in the hope of averting it, of coping with it effectually when the time came.”
As early as February 1919 the Cabinet had set up a special committee to break strikes. To its shame, the Labour government of 1924 maintained it in being and even discussed using it against striking dockers and tram workers.
Now Baldwin’s home secretary William Joynson-Hicks sharpened the government’s strike-breaking machinery.
A paramilitary Civil Constabulary Reserve, complete with steel helmets, was formed, eventually numbering 200,000, with 40,000 in London alone.
Plans were put in place for the navy to move supplies and troops, thus bypassing railways and by 1926 local food offices; alternative media; scabs to run London power stations and volunteer bus, train, tram and lorry drivers had all been organised. The government was getting ready for the fight.
The TUC did nothing to match these preparations. Indeed general council member JR Clynes summed it up: “I am not in fear of the capitalist class. The only class that I fear is our own.”
The Labour Party conference likewise neglected proposals for the looming general strike. Instead, its main focus was to attack, undermine and exclude the Communist Party.
Rather than prepare for the general strike, the union bureaucracy attacked those who urged such preparations.
In February 1926 the TUC warned trade unionists not to be influenced by “unauthorised and unofficial suggestions which are being made in many quarters regarding the mining problem.”
Always the key objects of attack were the Communist Party and the rank-and-file trade unionists organised by it in the National Minority Movement and the coal industry.
At the beginning of March 1926, the government’s Samuel Commission finally published its mining conclusions. Unsurprisingly, it proposed the abolition of the government subsidy and wage cuts of up to 13 per cent.
The Labour Party leaders and the TUC general council welcomed the report.
MacDonald described it as “a conspicuous landmark in the history of political thought … the stars in their courses are fighting for us.”
AJ Cook (below), the miners’ leader, voiced a more realistic response: “Not a penny off the pay, not a second on the day.”
The TUC general council denounced his words as “a mere slogan” which would “get them nowhere.”
On May 2 NATSOPA printers at the Daily Mail refused to print an editorial denouncing the imminent general strike.
The general council sent a message to Tory prime minister Baldwin disowning the actions of the heroic printers.
There would be no end to the TUC and Labour Party betrayal. With just two hours to go to midnight on May 3, Labour Party leaders MacDonald and Arthur Henderson, on behalf of the general council, met Baldwin, Churchill and the Tory Cabinet in a last-minute bid to stop the general strike.
MacDonald and Henderson seemed keener to avert the strike than the now well-prepared Tory government. The talks broke down and at midnight the general strike began.
This article first appeared 7 May 2016.