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Emmanuelle Avril and Yann Béliard (eds.). Labour United and Divided from the 1830s to the Present

Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2018, 312 p.
Keith Dixon
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Emmanuelle Avril and Yann Béliard (eds.). Labour United and Divided from the 1830s to the Present. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2018, 312 p. ISBN: 9781526126320

Texte intégral

United we stand, divided we fall

1Recent events in the British Labour Party—i.e. the creation of a breakaway party, the Independent Group, by a handful of disgruntled M.P.s in February of this year in opposition to Jeremy Corbyn’s handling of the Brexit issue and amid claims of anti-semitism in Labour ranks—are there to remind us of the topicality of this collection of essays, edited by Emmanuelle Avril and Yann Béliard, entitled Labour United and Divided from the 1830s to the Present. As the editors point out in their conclusion, although unity and solidarity are often inscribed on trade union banners and proclaimed from political platforms, disunity, conflict and dissensus have been endemic in the labour movement since its inception. In this sense, the current turmoil around Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership could be seen as ‘business as usual.’

2Although the present volume was initiated as an academic conference, it has been effectively edited to stand alone as a coherent, if eclectic, analysis of the issues of labour unity and disunity (with a heavy emphasis on the latter). This is not least the case because of the useful re-ordering of the contributions into three historical/thematic sections with an introduction and conclusion by the editors whose intention is to underline convergence of analysis where this exists between contributors and promote a useful and productive plurality of approaches. In a stimulating conclusion, Avril and Béliard draw some general conclusions from this sweeping study of the British labour movement, concerning the centrality of the notion of class for instance, and situate the work not only as an original addition to this area of study but also as a contribution to ongoing debates within the labour movement itself, about the ways and means of overcoming and moving on from dissensus and conflict whilst registering, wherever possible, the positive fallout from what at times has seemed like lethal division.

3The first section of the book deals with the early divisions within the nascent labour movement. The first contribution is from Ophélie Siméon, on the Grand National Consolidated Trades Union which emerged briefly in the period from 1833 to 1834. Already, in Siméon’s study, we see emerging the long-standing opposition between moderate (in this case Owenite) advocates of social peace and working-class radicals, which was to irrigate labour thought and action throughout most of the period. Steven Parfitt then goes on to study the U.S.-based Knights of Labor, who unsuccessfully attempted to enter labour organizing in the United Kingdom during the last two decades of the 19th century but left a lasting mark on British conceptions of labour mobilization. Lewis H. Mates then discusses divisions within the powerful Durham Miners’ Association during the two decades leading up to the First World War, with particular emphasis on the conflict between miners’ agents and rank and file miners, as well as between the miners themselves, between Liberal supporters and the socialists of the newly founded Independent Labour Party which, as in Siméon’s study, opposed the advocates of ‘moderation’ and the supporters of strike action and grassroots agitation. This same theme emerges in Yann Béliard’s discussion of the Hull Trades Council during the same period (1872 to 1914) in which the author points to the disconnection between the Hull Trades Council and the most disenfranchised of the working/workless class which the labour aristocracy, well represented in the Council, was loath to support. This raises the question of the ‘new unionism’ which emerged during this period and was more open to workers outside the traditional crafts. This is also the topic of Anna Clark’s contribution on domestic servants, where the issue of female labour and its relationship with the wider labour movement in the late 19th and early 20th centuries is analysed. The difficulties inherent in organizing domestic labour and therefore destabilizing the intimate relationship between mistress/master and servant are stressed by Clark and serve as a reminder of the return of this issue in contemporary Britain with the new salience of domestic service workers. What was effectively a missed opportunity for the labour movement of the turn of the 19th century could well be a major challenge in new times.

4The second section of the book deals with divergences and realignments on the Left and begins with David Stewart’s detailed study of the issue of Resale Price Maintenance and the tensions this created between the Co-op movement and the Labour Party from 1918 to 1964. Stewart here reminds us that this was not just a technical issue but also revealed profound differences of appreciation between supporters of ‘state socialism’, well-represented in the ranks of Labour, and the less centralist Co-operative vision of consumer interests. Anastasia Chartomatsidi focuses on the emerging Greek civil war in the wake of anti-Nazi resistance in 1944–1945 and the contrasting reactions on the British Left, from outright hostility towards the left-wing insurgents (Ernest Bevin) to sympathy and solidarity (on and to the left of Labour). Jeremy Tranmer discusses divisions in the 1980s within the small but sometimes influential Communist Party of Great Britain, between traditionalists and eurocommunists which finally led to the party’s terminal decline. David Evans then discusses the issue of breakaway unions, insisting on their diversity according to historical and political context. In the present era of triumphant neoliberalism, breakaways have tended to promote employer-friendly and strike-less industrial relations. Anne Beauvallet’s contribution explores tensions within and between teachers’ unions in the most recent period. Although stressing high trade union density among teachers, Beauvallet is nonetheless pessimistic about the present trend towards amalgamation, which she sees as ‘little more than attempts to manage long-term decline’. (185)

5The last section covers the very recent period in Labour history and begins with a study by Nick Randall of dissent in the Parliamentary Labour Party, which he sees as a common feature of the whole period (from 1945 to 2015), although varying in intensity. Dissent may be exercised through ‘voice’ or ‘exit’: if vocal protest is most common, leaving the party was the spectacular (and deeply damaging) solution adopted by those who formed the Social Democratic Party in 1981. Eric Shaw examines the issues of party management and legitimacy breakdown in the Corbyn era (although he does refer back to the Blair-Brown days of ‘control freakery’). The political differences within the party between Blairites and ‘Corbynistas’ have hardened, and Shaw sees the probability of Corbyn edging towards a ‘majoritarian centralist’ mode of management rather than a pluralist one, thus jeopardizing present and future party cohesion. In her chapter on the Scottish Labour Party, Fiona Simpkins reminds us of the political earthquake that has been brought about by the rise of the Scottish National Party and the concomitant eclipse of Scottish Labour from a position of hegemony to a limping second or third place in Scottish elections. The loss of this Scottish labour stronghold and the unlikelihood, at least on present trends, of a comeback will continue to be a major obstacle to Labour’s eventual return to office. Emmauelle Avril’s concluding contribution examines the possible ‘movementisation’ of the Labour Party. Although initial attempts to borrow from social movement forms of horizontal organization date back to the Blair era, it has been under Corbyn and with the emergence of Momentum as a mass pressure group within the Labour Party that movementisation has been most visible (and controversial). The massive influx of new members has paradoxically called into question the ‘broad church’ view of party organization and, according to Avril, might well open rather than close the gap between Labour and its one-time social base among the most disenfranchised members of the working class, ill at ease with the social practices of the young radicals who now back Corbyn.

6Necessarily, given the vast nature of the topic, there are some gaps in the coverage, which could perhaps be addressed in a second volume. The editors themselves point to two of these: the difficult integration (to put it charitably) of female labour within the general labour movement and the vexed question of ethnicity. We could perhaps add two others. The divisions created by religious sectarianism, which have had such deleterious effects in particular (but not exclusively) in the Northern Ireland and West of Scotland labour movements surely deserve some discussion. Similarly the creation of the breakaway Social Democratic Party, although mentioned briefly, is arguably one of the major issues of the recent period, in terms of labour disunity, weakening as it did the Labour Party at a crucial moment in its history and facilitating the Thatcherite onslaught on organized labour in the United Kingdom. It no doubt deserves further exploration. This reviewer looks forward to a second volume of essays, pursuing these topics along the same stimulating lines of enquiry as the present one.

7Although this book covers almost two centuries of labour history, it is clear that the thirty to forty years leading up to the First World War are of particular importance in understanding labour disunities. This is why a substantial part of the study focuses on the late-Victorian and Edwardian era. The difficult relationship between craft and unskilled workers, the integration of female (domestic) labour into the trade unions, the preservation of a ‘broad church’ of political opinion in labour organizations, ranging from Liberal supporters to the syndicalist advocates of direct action, not to mention the tensions emerging from negative reactions to incoming migrant workers from Ireland are all features of this period and (with the already noted exception of the religious issue) are well covered. For researchers and students keen to understand the sometimes obscure antagonisms within the emerging Labour party (founded in 1906), many of which continue to dog the contemporary labour movement, this is essential reading.

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Keith Dixon, « Emmanuelle Avril and Yann Béliard (eds.). Labour United and Divided from the 1830s to the Present », Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens [En ligne], 89 Spring | 2019, mis en ligne le 01 juin 2019, consulté le 19 novembre 2019. URL :

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Keith Dixon

Université Lyon II

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Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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