The Early Days of the Labour College

Malcolm Petrie explores the rapid expansion and radical ethos of Scotland’s labour colleges more than a century ago.

The early decades of the twentieth century witnessed the emergence of a significant movement for independent working-class education. This movement was, in part, a reaction to – and rejection of – existing paternalistic efforts to expand educational provision for working-class students, such as the residential experience offered at Ruskin College, founded in Oxford in 1899, or the evening classes delivered by the Workers’ Educational Association (WEA), established in 1903. These institutions hoped, in effect, to take students from working-class backgrounds and introduce them to subjects and material that had previously been the preserve of the middle and upper classes.

The WEA, for example, aspired to replicate both the content and atmosphere of the university-style tutorial, and employed university-educated tutors. In contrast, advocates of independent working-class education insisted that there was more at stake than just the question of widening access to higher education; critical, they maintained, was the matter of what was being taught and who was responsible for teaching it. The result was a combative ethos of independence that, drawing on the influence of syndicalism within the broader labour movement, sought to create alternative educational sites that would be beyond the authority of the state, and would instead be controlled directly by the working class. Initially, this took the form of organising local study groups in which socialist activists worked through key theoretical texts, or the arranging of talks delivered by socialist speakers; by 1909, however, students at Ruskin College, frustrated by the absence of Marxism from their syllabus, had formed first the Plebs’ League, and then, with financial backing from the South Wales Miners’ Federation and the National Union of Railwaymen, the Central Labour College.

The Central Labour College, which delivered courses in economics and history from an explicitly socialist perspective, provided a model for others to follow. In Scotland, John Maclean, the Glasgow schoolteacher who had come to prominence through his public lectures in Marxian economics, was at the forefront of efforts to launch a Scottish Labour College. In early 1916, while imprisoned for his anti-war activism, Maclean issued his Plea for a Labour College in Scotland, which outlined what he believed should be the priorities of any new institution; for Maclean, at the heart of any radical curriculum should be economics and history, taught unapologetically from a ‘working-class point of view’. In the short-term, Maclean’s vision was realised, as a Scottish Labour College was established and appeared to flourish: by 1920 there were approximately 3,000 students taking courses organised by the College; by 1925, this had risen to some 6,000 students, who were enrolled in almost 250 courses at the fourteen district labour colleges that now comprised the Scottish Labour College.

This relatively rapid expansion indicated the potent attraction on the political left of the confrontational worldview that informed labour college education. In 1922, for example, Edinburgh Labour College dismissed the education offered in schools and universities as little more than a series of ideologically driven attempts to justify the social and economic status quo, and declared that the working class needed to be “as independent in education as they are in politics”. That same year, Dundee Labour College published a pamphlet stating that there was a basic ‘opposition of ideas between the owners of capital and those who own nothing but the power to labour’ that necessitated political, industrial and educational ‘independence’. This stance was also visible in the courses offered to students, which, in line with Maclean’s proposals, concentrated overwhelmingly upon economics and working-class and industrial history: the purpose was not merely to pass on practical skills for political and industrial organising, but rather to affirm and deepen a powerful sense of class identity. Critically, in the early 1920s this framing retained a broad appeal that could surmount partisan divides, especially at a local level, where it spoke to pre-existing provincial traditions of radicalism and autodidacticism. Notably, the district labour colleges were, in this period, settings in which Labour and Communist Party tutors and students could work in tandem, despite the tensions that existed between their respective parties at a national level.

Nevertheless, the labour colleges did not survive long in their original form. By the late 1920s, the National Council of Labour Colleges (NCLC), to which the Scottish Labour College had affiliated in 1921, had begun to exert firmer control over the local colleges, with individual Communist Party tutors increasingly facing dismissal. In turn, the NCLC came to be viewed more as the educational wing of a Labour Party that was, following the failure of the 1926 general strike and the collapse of the second Labour government in 1931, focussed on gaining national electoral success; the local class perspective of earlier years began to fade, and was replaced by a sharper national party loyalty. This shift was equally apparent in the curriculum, as the traditional focus on economics and history gave way to a new concern with training students in the workings of electoral politics: there was, by the 1930s, an emphasis on subjects such as public speaking, grammar, electoral law, and how to chair meetings. If the labour colleges had been founded to counter the education delivered in schools and universities, and to provide an alternative, and overtly socialist, conception of history and economics, by the close of the inter-war period this aim had been exchanged for a curriculum that complemented the education offered by the state by providing practical campaigning and administrative skills for Labour Party activists.

Yet despite its short-lived nature, the early labour college movement – and the deeply political understanding of education it bore – remains a tradition rich in lessons for the contemporary Left in Scotland. First, the labour colleges, initially at least, were not narrow party forums, but rather worked to unite left-wing activists from various traditions at a local level; at a time when the Scottish Left finds itself spread across the SNP, the Labour Party, the Greens, and beyond, this continues to be a valuable example. Second, the labour college ethos should remind us – and especially those of us who work within the formal education sector – of the limits of the academy, and of the value of creating spaces in which participants are able to educate themselves and each other; indeed, at its most radical, the movement for independent working-class education collapsed the distinction between tutor and student in favour of a collaborative method of learning in which students would become tutors. Finally, and crucially, the curriculum originally offered by the labour colleges was remarkable in its ambition, shaped as it was by a desire not merely to impart specific skills, but to help workers understand their world, how it had come into being, and how they might change it for the better. Politics, in this view, was about more than elections, or paying your membership dues to a particular party; it encompassed too the books that you read, your relationships with the people you worked with, and the debates you engaged in. That remains a viewpoint worthy of recovery.

Malcolm Petrie teaches history at the University of St Andrews.