The Labour Manifesto & ‘the good old days’

048 Spinning Mill Interior

Not the least interesting aspect of the 2017 General Election is that Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party chose to release their election Manifesto, ‘For the many not the few’, at the University of Bradford. In his introductory remarks the Labour leader said that he was ‘pleased to be here in Bradford University where that great Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson was the first Chancellor.’ The link with the former PM is perfectly true, and Bradford has three Labour MPs today, but the relationship between the city and the labour movement long preceded Harold Wilson.

In the 1890s Manningham Mills was one of Bradford’s largest employers with 5000 ‘hands’. It specialised in spun silk and silk-based textiles like velvets and plushes. The great Manningham Mills strike began on December 9th 1890 when the company posted notices warning of pay reductions for weavers and others working in the Plush Department, reductions that would take effect on Christmas Eve. The official explanation for this course of action was that a new American tariff reduced profits, and that in any case the weavers were paid higher wages than those employed at other mills. The degree to which these statements were true dominated the ensuing debate in the press. On the strikers’ side the militancy of the employees made the action difficult for the Strike Committee (led by WH ‘Harry’ Drew) to control. Other non-essential workers came out in sympathy with the weavers, but this action placed demands on the Committee’s strike fund that ultimately broke it. The winter was a hard one and the privations endured by the strikers’ families were terrible. After nineteen weeks the strike collapsed but not before Bradford had witnessed: mass meetings, troops on the streets, threats of widespread eviction, and starvation.

Many of the questions raised by the Manningham Mills Strike are still pertinent today. The salaries of managers and the dividends of the shareholders seem to have been the main consideration of Samuel Cunliffe Lister, the mill owner, never the wages and conditions of the weavers. The labour force was largely non-unionised and the effects of the strike were, to some extent, nullified by the company’s capacity to move work to their mills at Addingham and Nuneaton without hindrance. The fact that the strike continued as long as it did resulted from the donations collected from ordinary working people in Bradford and the surrounding areas. The Yorkshire Miners were particularly generous in this respect. But ultimately Lister had more ‘brass’, as the Strike Committee said, and was prepared to spend it, to the tune of £1000 per month, to ensure that the ‘hands’ were defeated.

Harry Drew (1854-1933) had been born in Exeter but moved to the Bradford area in 1871. He was self-educated and became a weaver in 1886. He was an active organiser for the West Riding Power Looms Weavers’ Association (later the Textile Workers Association). Along with Allen Gee and Ben Turner he provided leadership for the Manningham Mills strikers. His success as a union organiser is exemplified by the refusal of SC Lister to accept him as a part of any future workers’ deputation. After the failure of the strike he was active in the formation of the Bradford Labour Union which evolved into the Independent Labour Party, of which he was an early vice-Chairman to Keir Hardie.

The Independent Labour Party was founded in January 1893 in this city. It was strong in West Yorkshire and Bradford in particular. It was affiliated to ‘the Labour Party’ in the years 1906-1932. The initial leader of the ILP was Keir Hardie who can be seen as representing the ‘religious Parliamentary right’ of the Labour movement. He was supported by George Lansbury & Ben Tillett. In the early years the ILP was separate from: the electoral committee of TUC (formed 1886), the Fabians, and the Social Democratic Federation, which had been formed in 1881. The SDF was supported financially by HM Hyndman, and consisted of orthodox Marxists. Eventually The Labour Representation Committee contained members of all these groups which was formed in 1900 to advance the cause of labour in Parliament. This body evolved into the Labour Party in 1906. The refusal of the ILP to involve itself in the Great War, and the formation of a National Government by the Labour leader Ramsay MacDonald in 1931, were two significant turning points in the troubled relationship of the ILP and the Labour Party.

In early years the ILP contained two very important figures. James Keir Hardie MP (1856-1915) had been born in Lanarkshire, Scotland in August 1856, is the best known of the founding ILP members. Keir worked from the age of seven years and at ten took the first of a series of jobs in mining, initially working as a trapper opening and closing the air doors in the mine. He eventually acted as the miners’ spokesman, a role which saw him blacklisted from working in mines. He became a career union organiser, running miners strikes in Lanarkshire and Ayrshire in the late 1870s and 1880s. As Secretary of the Scottish Labour Party from it’s formation in 1888, Hardie was involved in national politics and became MP for West Ham South in 1892. He fought for working class causes and votes for women until he lost the seat in 1895. By this time he had become a founding member of the ILP, and in 1900 formed the Labour Representation Committee and was elected MP for Merthyr Tydfil and Aberdare. In the 1906 General Election, when 29 Labour candidates including Hardie won seats, the Labour Representation Committee became the Labour Party, and Keir Hardie was its Chairman for the next two years. In a link with the current Labour leader Hardie was deeply opposed to war. As the First World War approached Hardie attempted to organise an international General Strike to prevent it, but the endeavour proved unpopular. Socialists were as divided on the support for the Great War as modern Labour supporters are on their support for Brexit

Fred Jowett (1864-1944) had been born in Bradford in January 1864, and worked from the age of eight in the same textile mill as his father. He rose to the position of overlooker, studied Weaving and Design at Bradford Technical College and became manager of William Leach’s Worsted Mill. Jowett was a Christian Socialist, supporting the Manningham Mills strikers (he knew Harry Drew well), joining the Bradford branch of the ILP, and becoming the first socialist member of the Bradford Council at the age of 28. As a councillor he initiated free school meals, council housing, and other reforms later widely introduced. He was so valued that ILP members paid him an allowance which enabled him to leave his mill job and focus on politics, resulting in three terms as MP for Bradford (West 1906-1918, East 1922-1924 & 1929-1931). Jowett was associated with Dr Eurich in legislation to reduce Woolsorters’ Disease (anthrax). He became Commissioner of Works in the first Labour Government when he famously accepted the design of the red telephone box, and added the wording to the Edith Cavell statue. It is said that Fred Jowett first suggested the name ‘Labour Party’ for the organisation whose latest Manifesto was launched this week in his home city.

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