Wednesday, 13 October 2010

Labour Representation (2)

There can be no misunderstanding or doubting the early determination of pioneering trade unionists, associated with Labour Representation. We should always stop to appreciate their commitment driven in the face of a barbaric, evil and exploitative Victorian owning and controlling class.

For only a few decades in the 19th century did British manufactured goods dominated world trade. Most mass manufactured items were produced more efficiently and competitively in Britain than elsewhere. She also had the commercial, financial and political power to edge out rivals at home and abroad. In some industries, most notably textiles, massive changes took place in technology and in the organisation of production causing dramatic productivity growth. This in turn brought a steep decline in prices. In many other sectors more modest organisational improvements coupled with greater specialisation and the employment of cheap labour brought similar, though less dramatic, results. An unprecedented range and variety of products thus came within the grasp of a new mass market both within Britain and overseas. No other country could at first compete so Britain became the workshop of the world.

And it was against this background, a time that Victorians became very much obsessed with the accumulation of wealth and I suppose this explains the building of an exploitative empire hence then: Britannia rules the waves; but let’s not forget that working men, and yes, women laid down the foundations of an expanding trade union movement at this very cornerstone of industrial development.   

Economic historian Arnold Toynbee (in a lecture he gave in 1884) described his then-recent times as:

 “A darker period - a period as disastrous and as terrible as any through which a nation ever passed; disastrous and terrible, because, side by side with a great increase of wealth was seen an enormous increase of pauperism; and production on a vast scale, the result of free competition, led to a rapid alienation of classes and to the degradation of a large body of producers.”

Capitalism was still a comparatively new social system, still in its phase of expansion. By today’s standards, its technology, though immensely productive compared with what went before, was backward being based on coal and iron. On the political side too capitalism was still in its growth stage.

In the1860s working class reform organisations existed; they mushroomed-up in different industrial arrears and attracted much working class support. When I consider this historical development; and let us just travel back to our own time and consider is there not something here that we in the 21st century cannot learn from their development, not so much as seeking reforms but the drive and determination to build organisations that empower workers; organisation with an educational and political acquisition to bring about change?”

More about what short of change latter, but also just consider this: If we want a new start we must first look to the past. The present is too occupied, the future now too obscure.

The 1860s also saw developing pressure from the unions for legislation on a wider range of issues, including safety, employment contracts, the right of trade union organisation, the protection of trade union funds and the extension of the franchise. The Reform Act of 1867, which extended the franchise to sections of the male urban working class, came not from the Liberals but from Disraeli’s Tory Government. It was followed by significant social reforms. The Tories, with their main power base in the countryside, sought widen their support against the Whigs and the Liberals by introducing reforms likely to win sympathy among the working class.

Then in 1867 a number of leading trade unionists issued an appeal for the direct representation of ‘Labour in Parliament’. The appeal not only included the long-standing demands for the extension of the franchise and parliamentary reform but also put forward a programme of claims effecting working class interests. It was, however, in no sense a socialist manifesto.

In the General Election in the following year two trade unionist and a co-operator stood in support of  labour representation. None was elected. In 1868 the Trade Union Congress was formed. It was an indication of the thinking of trade union leaders at the time that the elected executive of the TUC was known as the Parliamentary Committee. It was only many years latter that the title was changed to what is now known as the General Council. And that makes me think that there are always the Generals in the Labour movement, who always hold back the country-dances of the workers.

Part Three coming soon!”

Click here for Labour Representation (1)          

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