Tony Cliff & Donny Gluckstein

Marxism & Trade Union Struggle:
The General Strike of 1926


Chapter Twenty-Three:
The end of an era

THE GENERAL STRIKE was a decisive turning point in British history. Hardly had it ended than C.T. Cramp of the NUR cried ‘Never again!’. This was to echo throughout the trade union and Labour leadership for years. The miners, abandoned, fought on alone for another six months, only to be broken. The immediate aftermath of the strike was the Trades Disputes and Trade Union Act of 1927, which aimed to curb strike action and weaken the bargaining power of trade unions.

Lack of confidence among demoralised workers increased the independence of the trade union bureaucracy from rank-and-file pressure, and both union and Labour Party leaders moved massively to the right. The sell-out brought to an end a long, although not uninterrupted, period of working-class militancy.

The change was especially marked in the case of the Miners’ Federation, which hitherto had been very much to the left in the trade union movement. Not only was the union defeated in the lock-out, it was weakened by the right-wing breakaway union run by George Spencer in the Nottingham Coalfield. At the 1927 MFGB Conference, its president, Herbert Smith, went on an offensive against the Communist Party and the Minority Movement. Turning on Arthur Horner, the leading Communist in the union, Smith said:

You are doing as much harm as Spencer ... I want to give some advice to Horner or anybody else that unless they are prepared to stand four square and carry out the policy of this federation, then you have to get out. [1]

Others sang the same tune: J. Hobson of Durham said: ‘I can tell my friends here, Mr Horner in particular, that where the Communists and Minority Movement is strongest in Durham, there we have the weakest position.’ [2]

This attack on the Communist Party took place less than a year after the end of the lock-out when the sacrifice of party members was so impressive.

The September 1927 TUC Congress witnessed the Miners’ Federation joining a witch-hunt against the Communist Party and the Minority Movement. The General Council’s Report to the Congress included the following resolution of the General Council of February 1927:

That those trades councils which are affiliated to the Minority Movement ... shall not be accorded recognition by the General Council nor allowed to participate in any work carried on under the auspices of the General Council. [3]

Herbert Smith, in supporting the resolution, said: ‘I am not going to be dictated to by Moscow through the Minority Movement.’ [4] An attempt to refer back this part of the General Council’s Report was defeated heavily: 148,000 to 3,746,000. [5] The MFGB voted with the right.

Along with the General Council’s ban on trades councils sympathetic to the Minority Movement came the Labour Party’s disaffiliation of a number of local parties which persisted in maintaining Communist connections.

Now class collaboration and not class struggle was all the rage. The miners’ lock-out ended at the end of November 1926. Less than two months later, in January 1927, Lord Weir, head of one of the largest contracting firms in the country, wrote to Ernest Bevin suggesting talks between employers and trade union leaders. A meeting followed in March which included, besides Bevin, Arthur Pugh and George Hicks – the former ‘left’ and now chairman of the TUC. [6] In his presidential address to the 1927 TUC, George Hicks called for collaboration with employers ‘in common endeavour to improve the efficiency of industry and to raise the workers’ standard of life.’

The offer of collaboration with employers was picked up in November by Sir Alfred Mond, chairman of ICI, a former Liberal MP who had joined the ranks of the Tories. Along with a group of big employers from a number of industries, including Lord Weir, he approached the TUC General Council with a proposal that they should meet and discuss a drive for ‘rationalisation of industry’ which would be carried through more smoothly if there were harmony with the trade unions. The General Council, of which Ben Turner was chairman, accepted the invitation, and in July 1928 an Interim Report was agreed and issued. It supported rationalisation and cooperation between the trade unions and their employers..

The Report proposed the establishment of a National Industrial Council, composed on the one hand of the General Council, and on the other of an equal number of employers nominated by the National Conference of Employers Organisations and the Federation of British Industries. Together they would appoint joint standing committees which would operate a system of compulsory conciliation. That is to say, the General Council would waive the workers’ right to strike if an employer applied for a case to be heard before the joint conciliation board. The agreement fitted the mood of the TUC leadership following the General Strike. After all, the only alternative they had to collaboration with the employers was to organise the defence and resistance of workers to the employers’ offensive while building up forces for a renewal of struggle.

For the next quarter of a century, the unions were dominated by an openly class-collaborationist right wing who also held absolute sway in the Labour Party.

The defeat of the strike was the result of betrayal by the leaders of the trade unions and Labour Party. They did not want a strike: at most they were willing to make a gesture in defence of the miners, hoping this would be enough to bring the government to the negotiating table. But the government did not want a compromise. It wanted to defeat the unions, so that it could impose its own terms not only on the miners but along the line. Baldwin, a shrewd politician, wanted to break the strength of the unions, while at the same time using the leaders to discipline the rank and file.

A general strike is the sharpest form of the class struggle. It is only one step from general strike to armed insurrection. In modern society no one can hold power without controlling the railways, power stations, coal and communications. In 1926 striking workers again and again showed discontent with the trade union bureaucracy, pressing against the ideological and organisational barriers of the conservative trade union apparatus. Workers groped towards the principle of workers’ control over the strike action. Alas, the General Strike did not shake the union apparatus. It was a bureaucratically regimented strike and there was little opportunity for workers to escape even temporarily from the grip of the bureaucrats.


1. Report of the Annual Conference of the Miners Federation of Great Britain, Southport, 25 July 1927, p. 111.

2. Conference of MFGB, p. 39.

3. Report of Trades Union Congress, Edinburgh, September 1927, p. 151.

4. Report of TUC, pp. 320–1.

5.  Report of TUC, p. 336.

6. Bullock, p. 392.

Last updated on 15 August 2014