Harry Pollitt

The Trades Councils Conference

Source: Labour Monthly, Vol. V, No. 5, November 1923.
Published: 162 Buckingham Palace Road, London.
Transcription/Markup: Brian Reid
Public Domain: Marxists Internet Archive (2006). You may freely copy, distribute, display and perform this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit “Marxists Internet Archive” as your source.

THE Second Annual Conference of the National Federation of Trades Councils, which is being held in Birmingham on November 17, is an event of great importance and significance. Coming so soon after the debacle at the Plymouth Trades Congress, its proceedings will be watched by millions of workers who are waiting for a lead on the many problems now confronting them.

The present failure and weakness, of which the whole movement is conscious after the Plymouth Trades Union Congress, makes it of vital importance that the earliest opportunity should be taken to retrieve the position. What is wanted is a rallying centre to face up to the mistakes that have been made and show the way to a move forward in order to reverse the present position and give a new lead to the movement.

This is what the Birmingham Trades Council Conference must attempt to do.

The Trades Councils are peculiarly well fitted at the present juncture for this task. Face to face with the local experience of every problem and struggle, they see in direct contact the working out of every mistake and weakness of the movement. Forced to deal with the domestic problems of the movement in every locality, they alone are in the best position to see what the present sectionalism and disunity and lack of policy mean in living practice. They are in a very much stronger position to voice the direct needs and demands of the workers than harassed officials amid the routine of a head office, unable to look outside the blinkers of their particular union. The opportunity is in the hands of the trades councils if they can see the position clearly and show the path ahead.

For this reason the calling of the First National Conference of Trades Councils a year ago was a very important step in the development of the movement. At this conference, called through the initiative of the Birmingham Trades Council, there were present 126 delegates from 67 trades councils, representing a total affiliated membership of over one million and a-quarter. In addition, sixty other trades councils wrote expressing agreement with the object of the conference and regretting their inability to send delegates owing to financial reasons.

The conference was very definitely given the cold shoulder both by the General Council and the Executive Committee of the Labour Party, because they saw in this conference the nucleus of an organisation that could, if it would, definitely challenge their leadership and be responsible for a big drive forward towards the greater unity and fighting power of the whole Trade Union Movement—something that the “big men” always call for, but never work for. The general criticism levelled against this attempt of the Trades Councils, the Cinderellas of the working-class movement, was that there was no need for them to take this action, as everything was satisfactorily looked after by the General Council and the Labour Party Executive.

Since then a year has passed, every event of which has gone to confirm the correctness of the need which the Trades Councils Conference was trying to fulfil. The confusion and stagnation of the movement has become patent to all, and the crowning exhibition of the Trades Union Congress has revealed the helplessness of the existing official leadership even to attempt to tackle the problem. The Back to the Unions campaign has shown that any attempt to carry out a common campaign depends for its execution on the Trades Councils. When it comes to organising a national campaign, the General Council has no machinery: everything has to be put on the Trades Councils, which are at present not organised or coordinated for their task. The General Council has, in fact, to act through the Trades Councils which are not represented either on the General Council or at the Trades Union Congress. In the same way when the threat of war arises, and the joint Council of Congress and the Labour Party calls for Councils of Action to be formed, it is the Trades Councils that constitute the rallying centre around which such councils are formed. The General Council, in fact, at present is a head without a body. Only the Trades Councils can supply the body and the life-blood.

But the task which falls on the Trades Councils at the present moment is even heavier than this. At the present moment the central organs are failing to lead. This failure throws additional burdens and problems on the local organs. Not only does it become the role of the Trades Councils to voice the immediate feelings and demands of the workers and to afford the means of carrying through the common campaigns: they are also compelled to take the initiative in endeavouring to force a lead upon the central organs.

This is the special task of the Trades Councils Conference. That conference has the opportunity to supply what is the greatest need of the movement, a rallying centre to gather up a common movement that will so increase in volume and strength as to compel a new leadership in the central organs of the movement, a facing of the problems of the working class and unification of the working-class army.

The first conference already made a start with its task. The resolution which it drew up contemplated and outlined a complete reorganisation of the trade union forces on the lines of a single industrially departmentalised trade union organisation. But the first conference did not yet succeed in getting beyond the details of a scheme of organisation to the full scope of its task in facing the immediate needs and problems of the working-class movement to-day, and in making clear its own role in relation to those problems. It will be the task of the second conference to work out this wider programme.

The issues that are facing the working class to-day are manifest and need no elaboration.

Unemployment is still the most urgent fighting issue of the working class in this country. On unemployment we have still no plan of action. The adoption even of the unemployed demands is not yet definite, still less any serious attempt to secure them. The recent controversy on the one day general strike in support of the unemployed demands, and the rapid dropping of the proposal by most sections, shows how far we are yet from any campaign that means business. A united programme and united action on unemployment is the first essential to retrieve the working-class position.

Bound up with unemployment is the whole question of common policy on wages and hours issues. At present the confusion of the whole field is at an extreme point. While some sections of the Labour army are still retreating before new reductions, others are already putting in for increases. There is no co-operation in this; and the federated employers are able to play with the situation in the same way as they did in the initial stages of their offensive. It must be obvious to all that it is no longer any good to attempt to fight on sectional lines. If we are not to continue to be beaten we must have a concerted policy on wages and hours under a common direction. A national minimum wage would undoubtedly now be a rallying cry for the whole movement.

The same applies to other issues. In particular, housing urgently needs a definite campaign and action. The Rents Campaign last year was worked out and carried through on local initiative. But a national lead is essential to secure continuous, effective, and united action.

All these are issues that concern equally and unite the whole of the working-class movement without distinction of sections. A national programme must be of such a character as to rally the whole movement, and to bring into play all the forces of the movement equally on the political and the trade union side. It is a mistake to relegate certain dominant issues so purely the concern of the Labour Party or the Trades Congress respectively: for this means to sterilise the full effectiveness of our forces. Our aim must be to bring the whole of the working-class movement into play on the issues most urgently affecting the working class. And this brings us to what must be the second part of any programme in the reorganisation of the Labour forces to meet the new demands.

On all the issues that confront the working class the central need is united action which can bring the whole power of the movement into play. For this reason any programme that is to rally the working-class movement at the present point must deal with the biggest weakness of the movement—the lack of any central direction or authority. A real General Council must be established with power to direct the whole movement, and not only with power, but under responsibility to Congress to use that power and direct the movement on the lines laid down each year by Congress.

To effect this will mean not only the extension of the powers of the General Council, but the reorganisation of the present trade unions to establish unity on the only basis on which it can be established—the industrial basis—and to prevent the present overlapping and sectionalism that bar the way to united action.

If a clear and simple programme could be drawn up at the Birmingham Conference to cover these issues, there is no question that it would awaken the support of almost every active element in trade unionism to-day; and what is more, would be the means of reviving the interest and enthusiasm of many who have let themselves fall into indifference and apathy. In addition the campaign for such a programme, going beyond sectional issues and temporary or local agitations, would in itself be the first step to unite the movement.

But to carry out such a campaign the first need is to make the Trades Councils themselves stronger, more representative, and better organised to meet the demands of local leadership responding adequately to national issues.

At present in most cases the Councils are made up of representatives from local trade union branches. This is perhaps inevitable in small places where district committees of unions are non-existent, or in very large towns where in addition to the main Trades Council, say, the London Trades Council, each separate borough has its own Trades Council. Such a position is true of most large places, and practically no means of intercommunication exist between these many Councils, so that all is left to the activity and initiative of the active members, and each locality goes ahead without regard to the lack of support they receive or otherwise from the rest of the Trades Councils.

The conference can tackle this problem of tightening up the local and district machinery of the Councils. When this is done they are in a strong position to force their demands upon the Trades Union Congress.

For example, the various boroughs round London can continue to have their Councils made up of representatives, from the trade union branches and the local unemployed committee; from this local council delegates can be elected to serve on the London Trades Council, together with representatives from all the trade union district committees, as well as from the district council of the unemployed. I am aware that something like this is supposed to exist, but owing to the number of important abstentions it does not function, and in any case the weakness of most large Trades Councils, such as Manchester, London, Glasgow, &c., is that few district committees of unions take an interest in the Trades Council activity.

Yet it is obvious that month by month the Councils are forced to play an increasingly important part in the movement. If from the conference an executive is elected that can meet, say, monthly, it is then in a position to see exactly what activities are being pursued by the Councils. It would be possible for it to work out the details of a programme such as I have indicated, and how best to get for it the fullest support, first through the district Trades Councils, secondly through the local Trades Councils, and finally right through the trade union branches. Such a body, working hand in hand with a leading General Council (on which the Trades Councils should be represented), could revitalise the movement.

If it is an amalgamation campaign, how much easier it becomes to make this possible; if instead of it being left to a few officials of the unions concerned, it has in addition the services of the people on the Trades Councils who are already working and fighting together, and who by their common experience see the value and need for amalgamation, and by pursuing active local amalgamation campaigns are able to make the campaign a success nationally. If, for example, last year when the General Council organised a few amalgamation conferences, which, because they were confined to a few full-time trade union officials, were an absolute failure, the local Trades Councils had been asked to co-operate, it would have meant that a real agitation would have been possible in the union branches, thus creating the will to amalgamation, the spirit that is necessary to overthrow the artificial barriers that exist towards amalgamation that are thrown up by the officials.

It is evident that the trend of the movement generally is towards creating a General Council with greatly increased powers. Some of the things aimed at are foreign to the average conceptions of many trade unionists. It will more and more devolve upon the Trades Council machinery to carry out the plans and campaigns of a centrally directed trade union movement, and it is because of these facts that the need for a reorganisation of the present Trades Council machinery is so necessary.

The Birmingham Trades Councils Conference can make a new page in the history of the movement if it will. By taking the lead and forcing the pace it can force the General Council itself forward. The opportunity in its hands is a great one, but the need of the moment is also great. This is no time for delay in moving forward: for the condition of the working class is too serious to be dallied with any longer.