Reform and social unrest

October 2006

The 1875 TUC Congress congratulated itself for its success in winning reform through "legislation rather than agitation". However, there was a great deal of dishonesty in this claim. Indeed, the 1875 bills marked the end of a decade of widespread agitation in the working class, which, undoubtedly had prompted Disraeli and the capitalist class to realise that getting the union machineries on the right side of the law was probably the wisest thing to do, in order to keep social and political unrest under control.

It all started with a resurgence of the Reform movement when, in 1866, a very limited extension of the existing franchise, sponsored by the Liberals in power, was defeated in Parliament. This sparked off a wave of protest, which included both the working-class dominated Reform League and the petty-bourgeois Reform Union. The workers demanded "manhood suffrage" (which did not include women nor the poorest workers, since residential qualifications were taken for granted), while the middle class agitated for a more limited "household suffrage". None of these bodies was in any way radical. They expressed the desire of a broad layer of the population for political recognition, but not an aspiration to political or social change.

There were, however, activists within the ranks of the Reform League who still stood by the tradition of the Chartist movement and argued for direct action. Evidence seems to indicate that their agitation was instrumental in mobilising working class energy. The combination of this agitation and the spontaneous explosion of anger caused by the fall of the Liberal government, in June 1866, resulted in a wave of huge demonstrations up and down the country, including the famous "Hyde Park riots", in which the police fought the masses of the London poor for three days and nights.

In May 1867, it looked as though another similar confrontation was going to take place. As Disraeli's new Conservative cabinet was introducing a very limited extension of the franchise designed to dampen the mobilisation, the Reform League announced a new rally in Hyde Park to back its demands, but also in defence of free speech. The rally was banned, but went ahead regardless. Faced with a 150,000-strong crowd marching into Hyde Park behind a red flag, the government refrained from interfering. Disraeli had backed down. Within two weeks, the Conservatives' Reform Bill was amended and the numbers of people newly enfranchised by the Bill quadrupled. Only the rural and urban poor remained outside the franchise, together with all women, of course.

Following a tradition which dates back to the English Revolution, political agitation went together with social agitation, more or less intertwined with it. Admittedly, the Reform Bill movement of 1867-68 was nothing like the Chartist movement of the 1830s and 40s, neither in terms of scale nor in terms of depth. And the social unrest which developed in parallel with the Reform Bill movement was also more limited than the Chartists' fight for the 10-hour day. Nevertheless, it took on very peculiar features which anticipated the social explosions which were to come.

Unusually, the strike wave which took off in the early 1870s, was sparked off by a successful five-month strike in which the unions had played no role whatsoever. It had taken place in the traditionally badly organised North-East, among engineering and shipbuilding workers, and had been led by the non-union Nine Hours League. One remarkable feature of this League was that it organised all trades, skilled and labourers. The local committees set up by the League had helped to spread the strike to other towns and industries. Even shop assistants had joined the strike. Eventually, the bosses caved in right across the Tyne.

In London, where the dockers were faced with the threat of wage cuts, a Labour Protection League was set up at the end of 1871, following the model of the North East Nine Hours League. The level of organisation was low among the casualised dockers, who had little, if any, link with the existing unions. Nevertheless, by organising solidarity among all sections of dockers, the League managed to win a number of small-scale strikes over wages. Within a year, the League had recruited 30,000 members with, alongside a majority of dockers, a number of engineering labourers, dustmen, etc.. who worked in and around the docks.

In the countryside, another layer of unskilled labourers was beginning to organise as well. Starting in Warwickshire, in the spring of 1872, Joseph Arch's National Agricultural Labourers Union began to spread its influence across rural areas through a long series of strikes over wages. Similar progress was being made in the organisation of mining and railway workers.

In the end, most of the gains made during this wave of social unrest were eroded with time and, despite its scale, no lasting organisation came out of it. To be sure, the existing unions did nothing to help strengthen the movement or the organisations that sprang out of it - when they did not oppose them head on, as was the case in the coal mines, for instance. But this wave of strikes and organisation had proved one thing: that joining ranks across the artificial boundaries imposed by crafts and industries, was a far more effective way of defeating the bosses than the respectable methods of the traditional craft union. This was a lesson that a whole generation was to remember in due time, when, in the late 1880s, another social explosion took place.