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Labour's railway roots Time to refresh them!

12 December 2011

Paul Salveson examines how the rail unions were instrumental in establishing the Labour Party and looks with renewed hope at what might come of the relationship in the near future.

labour poster

The origins of today's Labour Party lie in the mills, mines and railway depots of industrial Britain. Many members of TSSA's predecessor, the Railway Clerks Association, were active in the Labour Party from its earliest days. As Labour reassesses its policies on rail privatisation it's worth looking back on why rail union activists saw 'politics' as being of fundamental importance in achieving their aim of a better life for railway workers and their families. The need for political involvement is probably greater now than it has ever been and I hope more TSSA members will be tempted to 'get involved' in their local Labour Party.

The Labour Party as we know it today was formed in 1900, initially called 'The Labour Representation Committee'. At first it didn't have individual membership, and the bulk of its members were the trades unions – including the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants, which became today's RMT. The Railway Clerks Association had only been formed three years earlier and was still 'finding its feet'. Political affiliation came several years later, after considerable debate.

Socialist organisations had existed well before the LRC was formed and railway workers were particularly active in the Independent Labour Party (ILP) which was founded in Bradford in 1893. Its leader was the famous Scots miner, Keir Hardie. The ILP put down deep roots in the industrial areas of Lancashire and Yorkshire, central Scotland and South Wales. Unlike the Social Democratic Federation (SDF), formed a few years earlier, it was not a Marxist organisation and promoted a strongly 'ethical' approach to socialism, influenced by Christianity.

Railway workers found the combination of an 'ethical' socialism coupled with hard-headed policies on railway nationalisation an attractive mix. It was a Doncaster signalman, Thomas Steels who moved the key motion from his branch to the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants (ASRS) Executive calling for the formation of an 'independent party of Labour'. This was accepted by the ASRS executive and James Holmes, a fulltime organiser for the ASRS, moved the decisive motion at the 1899 TUC Congress which led to the formation of the Labour Representation Committee. Steels was a member of the ILP and a leading activist in the Yorkshire ASRS. When I'm attending my Divisional Council meetings, held in Doncaster Trades Club, I always salute the plaque to Steels' memory on Doncaster station!

Socialists who were members of our forerunner union – the RCA – had to tread a very careful path. Any kind of union involvement, let alone socialist activity, amongst clerical or supervisory grades would be treated with suspicion and could easily lead to victimisation. In 1892, Stationmaster Hood of Ellesmere, Shropshire, was sacked for the temerity of speaking to a select committee of MPs on railway safety issues. Railway workers had plenty to feel aggrieved about. Hours of work were long and the railway companies' safety records were appalling. Whilst the companies refused to invest in safer equipment, they gave their shareholders lavish dividends. They refused, point blank, to recognise trades unions. It was clear that the way forward for railway workers was to bring their industry into public ownership and the way to achieve that was by political action. Yet the two main parties, Conservative and Liberal, were largely unsympathetic; many MPs of both parties were railway shareholders and very often had directorships on the railway company boards. An independent party representing working class interests was the only way to ensure success.

Many socialist activists within the RCA wanted to follow the ASRS's lead and affiliate to the Labour Representation Committee after its formation in 1900. However, it wasn't until 1910 that the decision was formally taken to affiliate to what was by then 'The Labour Party'. In the same year, the RCA committed itself to the nationalisation of the railway industry.


A.G. Walkden JP MP - General Secretary, RCA, 1906-1936

Once the key decision had been taken to affiliate to the Labour Party, the RCA's involvement grew substantially. Union members became officers of party organisations and stood as local councillors. The General Secretary – Alexander (A G) Walkden, immortalised in our 'Walkden House' – was selected to fight Wolverhampton West constituency for Labour in 1912. He spoke passionately about the need for railway nationalisation, but also in support of votes for women and 'home rule' for Ireland. However, the anticipated General Election didn't happen and the country was plunged into war. The RCA's political capacity had been bolstered by a ballot of members in 1913 to establish a political fund. A sizeable number of members voted – nearly 66 per cent of the total – and of those 91.3 per cent were in favour of keeping a political fund to support local and national contests.

After the war ended in 1918 the RCA had well and truly put its political hesitations aside and agreed a parliamentary panel of 17, including Walkden. The General Election was held in November and despite fielding the largest number of candidates in its history, Labour didn't do well, with only 57 MPs returned. None of the RCA sponsored candidates were elected, though Walkden gained a respectable 10,158 votes against his Conservative opponent's 13,329.

Labour's breakthrough came in December 1923 when the party formed a short-lived minority government. Hebert Romeril, sponsored by the RCA, won a narrow victory in the 'railway' seat of St Pancras. A few years later, in 1929, Labour won a much bigger victory and a total of seven RCA-sponsored MPs were elected. However, the party did not win an overall majority and the economic slump following the Wall Street Crash of 1929 left it seriously weakened. The Chancellor of the Exchequer, Philip Snowden, pursued a policy of financial stringency which would have made even George Osborne blush. The Government fell in 1931, with Snowden and Prime Minister Ramsay Macdonald leaving the party to join a 'National Government' with Tories and Liberals. The hopes of Labour taking the railways into public ownership vanished.

The dreams of the early RCA pioneers were finally realised in 1945 when a Labour Government was elected with a huge majority. Fifteen RCA-supported Labour MPs took their seats in the new parliament, forming part of a Government committed to a unified, publicly-owned, transport system. 'British Railways' became a reality on 1 January 1948, together with the coal mines. The RCA became 'Transport Salaried Staffs Association' in 1951 reflecting the breadth of its membership not only in rail but also other transport sectors. The union continued to punch above its weight within the Labour Party, providing successive generations of men and women to play distinguished roles in parliament and the council chamber, as well as in Party branches.

With a new progressive leadership under Ed Miliband and a serious review underway of Labour's transport policies and priorities, the opportunities for TSSA members to engage with the Labour Party has never been greater. We need more union members to become councillors, as well as take part in branch and constituency activities. There's considerable scope for TSSA nationally to encourage more political engagement through its educational activities; I suspect many members are put off from getting involved because it all seems too complicated. It isn't! And maybe we should develop a network of TSSA Labour councillors and candidates to share ideas and experience. It would be great to get the views of colleagues on this, and just 'do it' if there's enough interest. I often hear railway workers complain that the Labour Party has become 'middle class'. I don't think that's the case, but if we don't make the effort to participate, the voice of Britain's railway workers won't be heard – and we've plenty to say!

Malcolm Wallace's 'Single or return? The History of the TSSA', was an invaluable source in writing this article

Paul is a member of TSSA's Yorkshire Ridings Branch, vice-chair (campaigns) of Colne Valley Constituency Labour Party and prospective local election candidate for Golcar ward in Kirklees.

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