Review: Who Raised the Standard?

Ralph Darlington, Labour Revolt in Britain, 1910-14 (Pluto Press, 2023). Reviewed by Dexter Govan.

Since the pandemic, the contradictions around us have become ever more visible. The continued decline in our living standards clashes violently with images of billionaires’ rockets racing skyward. With each day that passes, reports of soaring inflation and poor growth increase tension. But the pressure has begun to tell.

Across Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom, a welcome return to industrial militancy is both a reaction to these external circumstances and a testament to the quiet revolutions that have been happening for years in our trade unions. There is a renewed confidence in the capacity to strike and win, and public support for industrial action remains high. Yet with a crisis of confidence in parliamentary politics, another contradiction is now clear: growing success in industrial politics has not been reflected by left success within political parties or at recent elections.

Lots has been written on the subject of late. Whether one agrees with Jane McAlevey or not, her supporters have provoked resurgent interest in theories of industrial organising. Debates on the sustainability or suitably of US-style methods and tactics are now common in our unions and political action groups. Meanwhile, the collapse of the Corbyn project and the rapid retreat of the left of the Labour Party has its scholars also. The fractures here are perhaps less productive, but nonetheless, time honoured debates about how to advance a left project in the UK are now more vibrant than they have been in decades. Ralph Miliband has a popular(ish) readership once more.

But amid much reflection and self-criticism, there is also more than a whiff of presentism. The extraordinary years we have lived through and the rapid advance of technology within our workplaces has too often led us into insular thinking. The time is ripe to recontextualise our surroundings and to learn from the history of our movement. 

In Labour Revolt in Britain, 1910-14, Ralph Darlington gives us just such an opportunity by telling the story of popular industrial action in Edwardian Britain and Ireland. Conventionally referred to by historians as the years of ‘Labour unrest’, Darlington’s central conviction is that these years constituted a revolt, halted only by the onset of the First World War. In this he is convincing, and after demonstrating that the revolt represented a distinct strain of trade unionism from the New Unionism of the 1890s, he turns to narrating the widespread strikes of the period from 1910 to 1914. Here the statistics are stark: 1911 to 1913 likely saw over a million workers engage in over 1074 strikes, with almost 21 million days lost to action. This is over double the number of strikes in the preceding ten years, with more than four times as many workers involved and days lost to action. These figures dropped during the First World War, before rising again in the more famous disputes of 1919 to 1921.

While the overwhelming majority of workers in these strikes were men (reflecting the composition of organised labour in the period), Darlington does well to highlight women’s involvement in all aspects of these struggles. Beyond solidarity actions, he shows women workers as being pivotal in the Cradley Heath Chain-Makers’ Strike of 1910 and in intimidating scabs during the West Midlands Metal Workers’ Strikes of 1913, among many other examples. More might well be written on women’s battles within the movement during this period, but this is admittedly not the central concern of a book which covers much ground.

Were one minded to be critical, they might find that the book reproduces some accounts of Irish history which are beginning to show their age. Larkinism receives a glowing portrait which overlooks its legacy in the Belfast shipyards after its 1907 high-point, and the discussion of Home Rule and sectarianism in Ireland and Liverpool presents a rather reductionist class analysis. Lastly, to entitle a book substantively concerned with Ireland Labour Revolt in Britain is a case of unfortunate shorthand. But despite these criticisms, it is doubtless better to provide an abridged account of such things than to ignore them entirely. Indeed, their inclusion allows the book to touch on the political struggles which coexisted with the labour revolt, namely the advance of women’s suffrage and Irish Home Rule.

That the labour revolt did not come to absorb these struggles has often been used as evidence that the disputes of this period were narrowly-defined conflicts, concerned only with pay or terms and conditions. Perhaps the real triumph of Labour Revolt in Britain is to highlight that while these interconnected disputes did not aim to overthrow the state, they cannot be defined in terms of narrow self-interest. As Darlington writes: “Underpinning material grievances were more intractable issues related to the desire to retrieve some vestiges of self-respect and dignity, with collective mobilisation often reflecting notions of fairness and injustice rather than mere pragmatic calculation.” Behind many of our own long running recent disputes (not least the UCU Four Fights struggle) is the emotional force of a wider claim for equality and dignity at work and beyond. 

Darlington neatly sets these desires in opposition to the leaderships of many trade unions during the 1910 to 1914 disputes. Union leaders during the period largely favoured strategies of conciliation and negotiation held over from the New Unionism of the 1890s, which often had a stifling effect on the radicalism of workers. Where economism or narrow mindedness limited the extent or horizons of industrial action, Darlington is clear where the blame lies. Nevertheless, Labour Revolt in Britain charts years more of progress than of retreat. Alongside a compelling narrative, the book offers a rich vein of quantitative analysis to fall back on. Despite the eventual defeat of some high-profile disputes, of the workers striking between 1911 to 1914, 42 percent saw victories, 44 percent saw some compromise agreement with the employer and only 17 percent saw victories for those employers. Given that much of the strike action during the labour revolt was offensive rather than defensive, the statistics make for heartening reading.

Another of the book’s useful contributions is to offer examples of historic industrial action beyond those we are familiar with. The Upper Clyde Shipyard work-in and the Ford Dagenham Strike are iconic in their way, but they are over-used examples. Darlington instead gives us welcome detail of the Clydebank Singer Strike of 1911, the Dundee Jute Workers’ Strike of 1912, and many other instances of exponential private sector union expansion and direct action which resemble the rapid and contagious unionisation in companies like Amazon today.

Meanwhile, the shadow which dogged much of the labour revolt also dogs us today. Despite the success and militancy of the labour movement of the Edwardian era, it possessed a Labour Party which failed to provide political leadership at Westminster. While the Party was embryonic in this period and unable to match the Irish Parliamentary Party in successfully influencing government policy, Darlington argues reasonably that Labour might have done more to support and strengthen the revolt. With the Party’s support absent, the revolt often struggled to evolve outside of workplaces. Far from a call to organise inside today’s Labour Party, much of Labour Revolt in Britain chronicles how the Party failed to properly represent workers in struggle. But reflecting on the revolt of 1910 to 1914, its successes and its shortcomings, it is difficult to escape the conclusion that more energy might profitably have been spent in shaping the Party. 

The last year has seen a flourishing of trade union militancy. It is now not difficult to imagine that within months we might be living through our own labour revolt. It profits us, then, to consider our past that we might better our future. Labour Revolt in Britain is not a work directly concerned with the politics of 2023, and yet it is remarkably current. The book succeeds not only in informing us about a much-neglected period of history, but also in usefully recontextualising our present.

Dexter Govan is a member of the Scottish Left Review editorial committee.