In 1945-51, the support of the trade union movement to what it saw as “its” government in the massive task of reconstruction exemplified the close Labour Party–trade union relationship.
But in the “winter of discontent” of early 1979 the trade unions and strikes became a major liability for the Labour Party.
The SDF affiliated but withdrew after one year, the co-operative movement, which in most areas remained Liberal until the First World War, did not affiliate More than that, the Taff Vale Judgement of 1901, which awarded huge damages and legal costs against the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants (ASRS) and thereby set a legal precedent which undercut unions’ abilities to conduct strikes, encouraged most major trade unions to affiliate to the LRC to secure legislation to undo this legal verdict.
By 1904 all the major unions had affiliated to the TUC except most of the coal miners, who did so in 1909.
In the second half of the nineteenth century most British trade union leaders were Liberal Party supporters while most trade unionists voted Liberal, but in Lancashire, Birmingham and elsewhere many voted Conservative.
In the mid to late 1880s a younger generation of trade union leaders – such as James Keir Hardie and Robert Smillie (1857-1940), both Scottish coal-miners, Tom Mann (1856-1941), and John Burns (1858-1943), both engineers, and Ben Tillett (1860-1946), a general labourer – were socialists and were involved in organising the unskilled workers in such sectors as gasworks, docks and shipping as well as in rebuilding coal mining trade unionism, which had crumbled in some parts of Britain.While some trade unionist MPs were also ILP members, others were anti-socialist.In the case of Arthur Henderson, when, as Secretary of the Labour Party (1912-34), he was the UK link with the Second International and it was felt to be diplomatic for him to be a member of a socialist society, it was notable that in 1912 he joined not the ILP but the very moderate Fabian Society.The Marxist Social Democrat Federation (SDF) is credited with some 689 paid-up members in 1886-7, but it seems to have had more than that, albeit ones who were unable or failed to pay.The breakaway Socialist League, with William Morris (1834-96) as its charismatic leader, was smaller still.The trade unions were a reality that the British socialists could not ignore.British trade unionism was the oldest in Europe, stretching back through the eighteenth century to very early printers’ societies in the late seventeenth century.It was contentious with the pre-1914 socialists and the post-1994 New Labour Blairites as well as with Labour’s political opponents, the Conservative and Liberal parties.Yet, for the Labour Party the trade unions provided a solid bedrock of support and an ideological solidity in hard times, as in the face of National Labour in the 1930s and the break-away of the Social Democrat Party (SDP) in the 1980s.The MPs elected in the general elections of 1906, January 1910 and December 1910 were overwhelmingly working class, with 23 of all 29 of 1906 being working class and 23 of these being manual worker trade unionists.Yet, the impact of the ILP was disproportionate in the pre-1914 Parliamentary Labour Party to its membership, which ran at around 2 per cent of the trade union affiliates to the Labour Party (see Table 1B). Clynes (1869-1949), who was to be Food Controller in 1918 in David Lloyd George’s wartime coalition government.