No return to the 1930s!
Economic recession with growing unemployment, poverty and deprivation – these are some of the spectres facing working-class and young people across Britain and the world. These problems were also faced by workers and youth in the 1930s. Greg Maughan looks at the great Jarrow Crusade of the unemployed and draws out some of the lessons for fighting job cuts today.
The Jarrow Crusade is one of the most celebrated workers’ actions of the 1930s. 200 unemployed men marched from the shipbuilding town of Jarrow on Tyneside to parliament in London petitioning for assistance for those out of work. From 1930 to 1931 UK gross domestic product fell by 5.1%. Shipbuilding declined by 90% between 1929 and 1932, leading to huge levels of unemployment in areas reliant on that industry. At its peak, unemployment reached 80% in Jarrow.
Taking their lead from marches that had been organised by the National Unemployed Workers’ Movement (NUWM), a march to London in October 1936 was organised. The number on the march was limited to 200 to ensure that the marchers could be fed along the way. One man of sixty years, insisting that he was fit to march, wrote to its organisers:
“I have suffered hardships for years. Rain and cold and wind on the way will mean nothing to me after that. I have suffered all that a man may suffer. Nothing that can happen on the road between here and London can be worse.”
Unable to take part however, he died, still unemployed and living in poverty, before the marchers returned to Jarrow. Workers in Jarrow were determined to make their anger felt and there are many aspects of the Jarrow Crusade that provide lessons for today. For example, its organisers saw the march’s role as, not merely handing in a petition, but highlighting the problems unemployed workers faced in ‘forgotten’ areas like Jarrow. To do this they organised a public meeting in every town and village that the marchers stopped off in on their way to London. In many cases, these meetings were attended by hundreds.
However, as with the NUWM marches before them, the TUC and the Labour Party national executive council advised against Labour parties and trades councils along the route helping the marchers. Some TUC officials even organised to block support for the march and refused to allow public meetings in local trade union premises.
On a local level, union activists and ordinary working people were very supportive, offering food and assistance to the marchers. A cobbler who volunteered to repair the shoes of marchers summed up this spirit of solidarity: “It seems sort of queer doing your own job, just because you want to do it, and for something you want to help, instead of doing it because you’d starve if you didn’t.” The support for the marchers showed the potential that existed to build a powerful movement. Such a movement could have either forced the trade union leaders to call for mass action to win victories for workers or if necessary it could have swept them aside.
But rather than appealing for a campaign in the trade unions and emphasising the need for rank-and-file organisations to circumvent the obstructive union leadership, the organisers of the Jarrow Crusade called for a cross-class movement in response to the TUC’s attacks. They sent local Tory party officers along with Labour party representatives ahead of the march to arrange for it to be greeted by town mayors, local officials and journalists. Ellen Wilkinson, the Jarrow Labour MP at the time and one of the first female MPs in Britain, wrote in her account of the march, The Town that was Murdered: “With the blessing of bishops, priests and clergy, subscriptions from business men, the paternal interest of the Rotary Club and the unanimous vote of the town council, could anything have been more constitutional?”
Unfortunately this had the effect of watering down the message by limiting its demands to unspecific ‘assistance’ for the unemployed without explicitly criticising means testing or the poor laws as previous NUWM marches had done.
Ellen Wilkinson insisted that the marchers “were not up against a Conservative government just because it was their political colour. At least 30% of the workers of Jarrow vote Conservative pretty steadily. But all of them had seen their industries closed down by one set of capitalists, a great new project blocked by another, with open support of a government that was subjecting them to all the barbarities of the means test.” But rather than showing the need for the crusade to be ‘non-political’ as Ellen and others at the time argued, this shows how working people’s direct experiences of the day-to-day struggles of life can affect their political outlook.
When the march reached London it was greeted by a mass audience in Hyde Park, mostly of unemployed workers, before presenting its petition to parliament. Conservative prime minister Stanley Baldwin refused to meet with the marchers and although the petition was politely accepted and raised in parliament no proposals were made to help the workers of Jarrow.
The commitment to their cause of those workers who marched to London cannot be denied. Images of the march encapsulate the plight of working-class people during the ‘hungry decade’. However, because of the lack of a worked out perspective and programme on the part of the organisers of the Crusade the most it achieved was to publicise the deprivation that existed in towns like Jarrow. The march limited itself to organising workers who had already been thrown out of work, many of whom felt they had ‘nothing to lose’. Fear of losing their jobs may have made it difficult to immediately mobilise employed workers. However by raising demands, not just around unemployment support and job creation, but also calling for the sharing out of work and increased employment rights, they could have reached a layer of workers radicalised by their experiences of poverty wages and inequality.
Today, the history of the Jarrow march is still taught in some schools, in particular in the north east. The emphasis is placed on the support local business, the clergy and all of society gave to the Crusade and the protesters are represented as meekly walking to London cap-in-hand. The image of the Crusaders has even been co-opted by local business, with a statue commemorating the march standing in Jarrow Morrisons’ car park!
But now a new generation will have to learn the real lessons of the march to effectively fight for jobs, against poverty wages and for a decent standard of living. Despite the political limitations of those who led the march, the commitment to struggle by the marchers and the solidarity shown by ordinary workers across the country on the route of the Crusade remain an inspiration. Unemployment is expected to go over three million in the course of 2009, with young people among the first to be thrown on the scrapheap. New Labour is now an out and out party of big business, standing up for the interests of the rich and the super rich, willing to bail them out of their crisis while working people pay the price.
As at the time of the Jarrow march, there are still many in the leadership of the trade union movement who are unwilling to build the struggle that is so desperately needed. The right-wing of the trade union movement, tied to New Labour, are holding back the development of the sort of mass movement necessary to further workers’ interests in the face of the crisis of capitalism. Movements such as those in the 1930s, the hunger marches in particular, have a deep resonance today. Marches, protests and stunts can become an important focal point for the anger that exists in society, but what is necessary is for those movements to put forward a fighting programme for workers’ rights. This includes building support among those in work for industrial struggle to defend and improve conditions.
Crucially, it also includes fighting for a political voice for workers and youth in the form of a new mass workers’ party. Such a party could play a central role in popularising the fight for jobs and decent working conditions on a national scale, as well as giving whole new layers of workers and young people the confidence to fight back. In the course of struggle, those movements will have to discuss what sort of society is needed to provide jobs and a decent standard of living for the everyone. Through this, whole new layers could be won to the ideas of socialism and the fight for a society run on the basis of need not profit, for the millions not the millionaires.