Sunday, 18 March 2012


Announcement of first TUC Congress 1868
The first Trades Union Congress was held in the Mechanics' Institute, David Street, Manchester, from 2nd until 6th June 1868.

Amongst other things, the Congress passed a resolution "that it is highly desirable that the trades of the United Kingdom should hold an annual congress for the purpose of bringing the trades into closer alliance and to take action in all Parliamentary matters pertaining to the general interests of the working classes."

There then followed a period in which the TUC's efforts were directed - with occasional and limited success - towards influencing successive governments' to protect the trade unions as societies and to protect the worker as an individual human being.

"Notwithstanding all the teachings of political economists, all the doctrines taught by way of supply and demand, we say there is a greater doctrine overriding all those and that is the doctrine of humanity."  Sam Woods, secretary of the Parliamentary Committee of the TUC (1894 - 1904)

Of course, in the affairs of mice and men (and women) things are never simple and straightforward.  Keir Hardy, stalwart advocate of a truly independent Labour Party, correctly accused the TUC of having tepid policies and a flaccid leadership. (Not much change there, then. Muddz) Later, in 1895, the TUC excluded from Congress all local trades councils - which had previously always been there as of right - because, according to the TUC leadership, this duplicated membership.  However, many believed the real reason to be because the TUC leadership felt the trades councils were an awkwardly militant element. (A similar attempt by the TUC to exclude trades councils was made in the 1980s but defeated. Muddz)

In the first thirty years or so after its foundation, the TUC had just two major successes: the Repeal of the Criminal Law Amendment Act and the introductionof the Fair Wages Clause.

In 1888, following the successful strike by a few hundred Bryant and May match girls, a resolution was moved in Congress by Miss Black of London: "That in the opinion of this Congress it is desirable, in the interests of both men and women, that in trades where women do the same work as men, they shall receive the same payment."  And then, just a few days after the Gas Workers, led by Will Thorne, had confronted the gas companies with a demand for an eight-hour day and won, came the great dockers' strike of 1889.

The dispute began when a few labourers at the West India Dock went on strike.  Ben Tillett, secretary of the Tea Workers and General Labourers' Union and strikers' leader immediately received offers of assistance from two stalwarts: John Burns and Tom Mann.  The business of the Port of London was brought to a complete standstill and the strike went from strength to strength.  Union funds, however, were rapidly depleted. Just when an ignominious end to the strike seemed inevitable, money from Australia began to pour into the coffers of the striking dockers.  This money came from almost every Australian trade union, the warf labourers of Brisbane, and from Australian football clubs.  Ultimately, the dockers obtained the major part of what they wanted and this victory lifted the hearts of other dockers and workers in other fields - gas workers, railwayworkers, textile workers, building workers, shipbuilding and metal workers, miners and boot and shoe operatives who rallied to their own unions in response to the story of the "dockers' tanner."
(You can read about how British miners in their determined and courageous struggle against the ranged forces of the the Tory government, The State, the capitalist media, scab labour, coppers' narks, class traitors, personal back-stabbers, turncoats and a pious Labour Party under the wet leadership of Kinnock, held out for a full year (1984 - 5) and exposed the sham of so-called 'British democracy' in the book The Enemy Within by Seumas Milne.  But be careful of your blood pressure if you do so. Muddz.) 

Britain in the early part of the 19th century was firmly in the grip of the 'Landed Gentry' and the aristocracy - much to the great frustration of the rising industrial bourgeoisie who, although possessing economic power were locked out of any political power and control of the State and the only way forward for them was to bring about revolutionary change.  Imagine that - a bourgeious (capitalist class) revolution!  They needed to achieve representation in Parliament so they could carry through legislation in their own interests.  But they could not achieve this on their own - they needed assistance, and they obtained this assistance by extending the franchise (democracy) to the working class.  However, James Mill, whilst prepared to enlist the support of the working class to defeat aristocratic political power, was determined that the business of government remained firmly in the hands of the rich.  Universal education of the masses would teach the lower orders to respect the 'property of their betters'.  Hard-fought battles resulted in one million people being added to the electoral role in 1867 and, for the very first time, working class voters found themselves in the majority in some constituencies.  Capitalist social ownership concentrated power and wealth in the hands of the few and any further extension of democracy threatened this 'ownership' - it might lead "to the transfer of power from the hands of property and intelligence."  

There is not room here to go to any detail about the struggles and effort that were put into the formation of a political party to represent the interests of 'the lower orders' ie the Labour Party, but I cannot close this post without  two last pieces that I believe are of particular relevance in Britain today.

Here is Walter Bagehot, political theorist of the bourgeousie " all cases it must be remembered that a political combinationof the lower classes, as such and for their own objects, is an evil of the first magnitude; that a permanent combination of them would make them (now that so many of them have the suffrage) supreme in the country.  So long as they are not taught to act together, there is a chance of this being averted, and it can only be averted by the greatest foresight of the higher classes."  Engels remarked that with the passing of the 1867 Reform Act, the ruling class had learnt how to rule directly by means of universal suffrage.  That is, the people had the vote but economic and political power remained firmly in the hands of the ruling class.  (We are now in the year 2012 - has anything changed? Muddz.)  

And finally (honestly!) The new mass party system was moulded into the older established constitutional state system with its emphasis on the supremacy of the Parliamentary Party dominated by the parliamentary leaders.  The Parties were simply vote-catchers, their role was to serve and support the Party in Parliament.  At the beginning of the 20th century, A. L. Lowell made his now famous statement, that both parties (Conservative and Liberal) were shams: the Conservative party a transparent sham, and the Liberal an opaque sham.  And Lord Balfour saw as the outstanding genius and achievement of the British political system that the alternating Tory and Liberal Cabinets, fully supportive of the capitalist foundations of society, could safely afford to bicker.  Whatever the measures of democratic rights won, the capitalist social system remained supreme and, to all intents and purposes, unchallenged.  Bourgeois political power had mastered universal suffrage.  And what of the Labour Party?  The fundamental reason for a party of the working class is the conquest of political power and the introduction of socialism.  However, the new Labour Party had no socialist objective or programme - its sole aim was to break with the old Liberal leaders and win independent working class representation in Parliament but without being politically independent of the bourgeoisie - the seeds of class collaboration had been sown.  Indeed, it has been with the aid of the Labour Party leadership that the capitalist class has succeeded in maintaining its rule in periods of serious social crisis.  Does this ring any bells today?

So, now we have the Conservative Party, a transparent sham; the Liberal Party, an opaque sham, and the Labour Party, a semi-transparent semi-opaque sham!  That's progress?