Labour History Review

Containing Radicalism: The Trades Union Congress Organisation Department and Trades Councils, 1928-1953

Labour History Review (1997), 62, (1), 5–21.


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See, for example, J. Redman, The Communist Party and the Labour Left, 1925-29, Hull, 1957; B. Pribicevic, The Shop Stewards' Movement and Workers' Control, 1910-22, Oxford, 1959; R. Martin, Communism and British Trade Unions, 1924-33, Oxford, 1969; J. Hinton, The First Shop Stewards' Movement, 1973; J. Hinton and R. Hyman, Trade Unions and Revolution: The Industrial Politics of the early British Communist Party, 1975; D. F. Calhoun, The United Front: The TUC and the Russians, 1923-28, Cambridge, 1976. The Communist Party and the Labour Left, 1925-29 Google Scholar

The issue of ‘rank and filism’ has been debated by a number of historians, and there are different definitions of exactly who constituted the ‘rank and file’ of trade union memberships. See, for example, A Clinton, The Trade Union Rank and File: Trades Councils in Britain, 1900-1940, Manchester, 1977, pp. vii, 1-2; V. Gore, ‘Rank and File Dissent’, C. J. Wrigley (ed.), A History of British Industrial Relations, 1875-1914, Brighton, 1982; R. Hyman, ‘Officialdom and Opposition’, in Bulletin of the Society for the Study of Labour History (BSSLH), no. 46, 1983, p. 4; T. Adams, ‘Leadership and Oligarchy: British Rail Unions, 1914-22’, in Studies in History and Politics, vol. 5, 1986, pp. 23-46; J. Zeitlin, ‘"Rank and Filism" in British Labour History: A Critique’, and ‘A Rejoinder’, in International Review of Social History (IRSH), vol. 34, 1989, pp. 42-61, 89-102, and ‘Trade Unions and Job Control’, in BSSLH, no. 46, 1983, pp. 6-7; R. Price, ‘"What's in a Name?" Workplace History and "Rank and Filism"’, in IRSH, vol. 34, 1989, pp. 62-77; J. E. Cronin, ‘The "Rank and File" in the Social History of the Working Class’, in IRSH, vol. 34, 1989, pp. 78-88. In view of the fact that trades council delegates were drawn largely from the activist layer of union memberships, this writer is inclined to accept broadly the definitions put forward by Political and Economic Planning in British Trade Unionism, 1948, pp. 5, 21-32. The Trade Union Rank and File: Trades Councils in Britain, 1900-1940 vii Google Scholar

H. M. Pelling, The British Communist Party, 1958; M. Woodhouse and B. Pearce, Essays on the History of Communism in Britain, 1975; N. Branson, History of the CPGB, 1985; R. Croucher, Engineers at War, 1982; K. Morgan, Against Fascism and War, Manchester, 1989; J. Hinton, Shop Floor Citizens, Aldershot, 1994; N. Fishman, The British Communist Party and the Trades Unions, 1933-45, Aldershot, 1995; S. Fielding, ‘British Communism: Interesting but irrelevant’, in Labour History Review (LHR), vol. 60, no. 2, 1995, pp. 120-23. Google Scholar

A high proportion of the interviewees and correspondents whose evidence has been drawn upon by the present author joined the CP at the height of the ‘class against class’ period, attracted, not repelled, by its militant, sectarian stance. Very few writers have questioned seriously the view that the CP was hamstrung by sectarianism between 1928 and 1932. Those who have are principally Fishman, British Communist Party, pp. 4-7, 31-43, 48, 55-61; A. Howkins, ‘Class against Class: the Political Culture of the Communist Party of Great Britain, 1930-35’, in F. Gloversmith (ed.), Class, Culture and Social Change: A New View of the 1930s, Brighton, 1980, pp. 243-44; and M. Squires, ‘CPGB Membership during the Class against Class Years’, Socialist History, no. 3, 1993, pp. 4-11. It might also be the case that the very lack of such a militant position in the last years of the Second World War and the early years of the Attlee government damaged the Party far more than any deepening disillusionment with the Soviet Union. Google Scholar

K. Laybourn, A History of British Trade Unionism, Stroud, 1992, p. 150; see also W. M. Citrine, Men and Work: An Autobiography, 1964, p. 253; A. Bullock, The Life and Times of Ernest Bevin, Vol. II, Minister of Labour, 1940-45, 1967, p. 98; P. Addison, The Road to 1945, 1994 ed., p. 136. A History of British Trade Unionism 150 Google Scholar

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TUC trades councils correspondence files, 1925-60, University of Warwick, Modern Records Centre (MRC), 292/72.1/1-72.31/3, 292/777/1-18, 292/78/1-81 and 292/79A/1-79Y/4 series; TUC Organisation Department minutes, 1928-53 (microfilm), TUC Library, London (also in manuscript at MRC, 292/71/1-9); TUC TCJCC minutes, 24 August 1933, 17 May, 21 June and 19 October 1934, 12 December 1938, and 1928-53, TUC Library; TUC, Annual Reports, 1928-53; Industrial Review, January 1929 to July 1933; W. M. Citrine, Two Careers, 1967, pp. 59, 155; Clinton, Trades Councils, p. 139; E. Silver, Victor Feather, TUC: A Biography, 1973, pp. 17, 65-68, 91-102. Google Scholar

J. Saville, ‘May Day 1937’ in A. Briggs and J. Saville (eds.), Essays in Labour History, 1918-39, 1977, pp. 245, 273. Google Scholar

Indeed the Organisation Department had for a number of years already acted to removed alleged Communists on these very grounds. One such example involved the removal of the secretary and treasurer of Lincoln Trades Council in 1940, after it was claimed that the treasurer was a regular seller of the Daily Worker. Lincoln Trades Council correspondence, MRC, 292/777/12, between TUC Organisation Department and various correspondents, 6 November 1939 to 3 June 1940. Google Scholar

TUC TCJCC minutes, 17 July 1939, 12 January 1943, and 1928-52; Annual Conference of Trades Councils (ACTC), Reports 1949, pp. 12, 38-41, and 1950, pp. 13-14, 41-45. Google Scholar

See, for instance, D. Hyde, I Believed, 1950, pp. 64-66, and J. Goldstein, The Government of British Trade Unions, 1952, chapters 14 and 15; R. Stevens, ‘"Disruptive Elements"? The Influence of the Communist Party in Nottingham and District Trades Council, 1929-51’, in LHR, vol. 58, no. 3, 1993, pp. 22-37. Google Scholar

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TUC TCJCC minutes, 1924-52; TUC Organisation Department minutes, 1928-42; ACTC, Reports, 1925-52; TUC, Annual Reports, 1928-52; Clinton, Trades Councils, pp. 142-46; R. M. Martin, TUC: The Growth of a Pressure Group, Oxford, 1980, p. 278. At least some of the ACTC delegates were suspicious of the motives underlying the inauguration of the registration scheme in 1948. For example, J. Busier of St Albans ‘asked the general purpose behind the Scheme. Would it mean closer control by the TUC or did the TUC wish to be more helpful to Trades Councils?’ ACTC, Report, 1948, p. 26. Google Scholar

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For CP activity in trades councils outside the south-east of England, see, for example, Clinton, Trades Councils, chapters 7 and 8; E. and R. Frow, To Make That Future - Now! A History of the Manchester and Salford Trades Council, Manchester, 1976; J. Hinton, ‘Coventry Communism’, in History Workshop Journal, no. 10, 1980, pp. 90-118; M. McCann, ‘The Trades Council and the Communist Party’ in R. Lewis (ed.), Studies to Commemorate the Centenary of Stockton and District Trades Council, Middlesbrough, 1990; Stevens, ‘Disruptive Elements’, and ‘Trades Councils in the East Midlands, 1929-51: Trade Unionism and Politics in a "Traditionally Moderate" Area’, unpublished PhD thesis, University of Nottingham, 1995. Google Scholar

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Just two examples will suffice. Southampton Trades Council was severely reprimanded by the TCJCC in 1945 following a report in the Southern Daily Echo of a conference organised by the Council, at which the district secretary of the CP spoke from the platform. Dagenham Trades Council was removed from the recognised list of trades councils in 1948 after an informant had told the Organisation Department officials that it had held a ‘Peace Conference’ with a Communist speaker. TUC TCJCC minutes, 9 January 1945 and 18 October 1948. Google Scholar

TUC TCJCC minutes, 9 April 1951, 3 March, 5 and 23 May, 8 July 1952, and 1928-53; TUC, Annual Reports, 1928-52; London Trades Council papers, 1950-53, Communist Party Archive and Library, Manchester; Silver, Victor Feather, pp. 99-101. Recognition was withdrawn from London Trades Council (which also functioned as a trades councils federation) in 1952 and a new organisation was formed. The original Council continued to function without official recognition for about a year after this. Thirteen other councils were also refused recognition in 1952. Google Scholar

E. Trory, Between the Wars, Brighton, 1974, pp. 106-7. Between the Wars 106 7 Google Scholar

TUC TCJCC minutes, 24 May and 16 July 1935, 29 September and 17 November 1936, 19 October 1937; ACTC, Report, 1937, pp. 7, 27-32. Alan and Colin Griffin have claimed that the Mond-Turner talks of 1928-29 signalled ‘the acceptance that political and industrial questions should be kept separate: that direct industrial action should not be used for political ends’. However, such a trend had been underway for some time. While the great majority of the national leadership of the trade union movement accepted this view, many trades council radicals throughout the period 1928-53 continued to reject it. Hence the efforts of TUC officials to secure the separation of functions, curb militancy and exert greater control over the movement. A. R. and C.E Griffin, ‘The Non-Political Trade Union Movement’, in Briggs and Saville, Essays in Labour History, p. 146. David Howell has commented that a significant part of the relationship between the Labour Party and the trade unions was based ‘on a belief in the feasibility of a demarcation between industrial and political affairs’. D. Howell, ‘Traditions, Myths and Legacies: The ILP and the Labour Left’, in A. McKinlay and R. J. Morris (eds.), The ILP on Clydeside, 1893-1932, Manchester, 1991, p. 209. Google Scholar

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Author details

Stevens, Richard