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The Trades Union Congress

Well before he became a TUC official, Citrine was pushing ideas for the reform of its Parliamentary Committee. The role of that committee had been primarily to lobby Parliament for legislative change, a function they were quite good at - Trade Disputes Act 1906, Trade Union Act 1913, political funding and reform of the amalgamation law - but it was coming under widespread pressure to take on an industrial coordinating role. In 1919, as an ETU delegate to the Glasgow TUC Conference, Citrine had intervened in the debate on the conduct of the prison officer and police strikes, critical of the Parliamentary Committee's failure to support them. In 1920, he put a proposal to the Daily Herald 'for endowing the TUC with greater powers' and wanted it to evolve into 'a general staff for labour '. It wasn't published, but he was later 'staggered' when 'proposals not very different from my own were featured in the Herald over the name of Ernest Bevin.' (15) Bevin was a leading member of the Daily Herald Board, but Citrine did not accuse him of plagiarizing his ideas.

(15) Citrine, Men and Work, 67.

They had met at the Glasgow Conference, when Bevin was complimentary about his speech. The interesting thing is that they were both thinking along the same lines. The difference was that it was Bevin who had the clout to bring about change. The Parliamentary Committee was replaced in 1921 by a General Council of thirty, elected annually by the affiliated unions in seventeen industrial groups, and from there until the General Strike in 1926 they were pressing for, and getting, more power from the jealously autonomous unions. The General Secretary's position was made full-time and MPs were barred from taking it on as a casual responsibility, as had been the case.

When he came to be interviewed for the Assistant General Secretary position in 1923, Citrine's pitch fitted well with the radical mood and ambition of the new left-led General Council of union leaders. (16) Bevin didn't actually take his union's place there until October 1925, which coincided with Citrine's promotion to Acting General Secretary on the death of Fred Bramley.

(16) ibid., 74-5.

As a 'new boy' in London 'from the provinces' Citrine was immediately thrown into the world of tough union leaders; 'most of them had come up the hard way' and so 'carried their directness of speech and tenacity of purpose with them'. As Citrine put it: "Ernest Bevin was one of these. He was not at the time a member of the General Council, but, early on, Fred Bramley described him as Napoleon Bevin. The description was not far out, whether it related to his features or character. Bevin's approach to a subject was always constructive and yet, side by side with this, he was the finest drawer of 'red herrings' that I ever met. It was fascinating to listen to him in argument. When he felt he had a weak case he could divert a discussion so adroitly that no one could detect where the switch had taken place.... I regarded him from the first as one of the strongest, if not the strongest, personal forces in the trade union movement." (17)

(17) ibid.,78. Praise indeed, written with fondness in 1964.

However, they did not immediately get off 'on the right foot'. They clashed openly on the General Council in 1926 when Bevin attacked Citrine's Research Officer Walter Milne Bailey, for publishing an article in an American journal about the General Strike. The staff threatened to 'down tools' until he apologized. Some chance, from Bevin! However, Citrine came into the meeting and tore into Bevin, saying he wanted to be associated with the staff's protest. Bevin reacted characteristically by storming out claiming 'I always knew the secretary had his knife in for me'. Citrine was worried that that spat had lost him the T&GWU's support when he came to be elected as substantive General Secretary the following September at Congress. In fact, it did not. On reflection Bevin respected the courage and quality of the Council's new senior officer who was able and prepared to stand up to him. (18) This incident reveals a key feature of their productive relationship over the following two decades, though they would never become close 'mates'.

(18) ibid., 235.

The ' Labour Movement'

This was a vibrant but by no means coherent or fully integrated 'movement', but they had settled with a stronger TUC rather than the failed Triple Alliance of Black Friday. At its heart was a heavily unionised industrial working class, spearheaded by the miners (MFGB) with over a million members, the rail workers (NUR/ ASLEF) around l million, the road transport, dock, general and municipal workers (T&GWU and NUGMW) in the high hundreds of thousands; and hundreds of thousands of skilled engineering, electrical and shipbuilding workers (AEU, ETU and Boilermakers). Although predominantly male and 'blue-collar', there were also sizeable female and white-collar sections - textile workers, shop assistants, clerks and others. In all, about 6 million up to 1926 in over 200 unions affiliated to the TUC. With many other small unions not in the TUC. (19)

(19) H.Pelling, A History of British Trade Unionism, (1963), 260-3.

The unions and socialist societies had also created an increasingly successful political Labour party from 1900 onwards to campaign for liberal laws which gave maximum freedom to organize and strike. As it developed, they secured the right to use a part of their considerable funds to bankroll the party for their political purposes and to support it in many other ways, using their organizational skills and the political drive of their activists at all levels. The Labour Party achieved astonishing electoral success in a relatively short time. It grew from just hundreds of thousands of votes in its breakthrough year of the 1906 general election with 29 MPs, to over four and a half million and 191 MPs in the 1923 election. Coinciding with Citrine's arrival in 1924, the Parliamentary leadership formed the first, albeit minority, Labour government.

Yet this Labour 'movement' was not at all clear, except in programmatic terms, where it was going. It had plenty of policies to change society but no detailed idea of what it wanted to do when it found itself in government, as became increasingly possible by the end of 1923. A divided Tory government fell and the Liberals were split, enabling a minority Labour Party to take office in February 1924.

The Parliamentary leadership, led by Ramsay MacDonald (1866-1937) - a former ILP left-winger who had 'been there at the creation' - just wanted to establish their credentials to govern. Despite their fragile position, the left-led TUC and union leaders such as Bevin, expected 'their' party to deliver substantial gains for their members. If not the socialist dream immediately. Their differences and social distance were to prove irreconcilable, and MacDonald kept the TUC 'at arms length'.

Citrine, who had just joined the TUC in January 1924 as the new Assistant General Secretary (AGS), was invited to address the Parliamentary Labour Party at a House of Commons dinner in place of his boss, Fred Bramley, who was ill again. He struck a critical note by openly referring to the lack of close collaboration between the government and the TUC. He went on to say that the TUC, which had a different membership and function from the Labour Party, would 'occasionally express a different view'. This declaration of independence did not go down at all well with MacDonald or his PLP colleagues, but it reflected his General Council's attitude. (20) Up to then, the Parliamentary Committee had left politics to the Labour leadership, but a different mood was now prevalent at the TUC. The following year they would separate offices formally, as Bramley and Citrine set up their own Research, Publicity and International departments to develop and promote an independent line. Whilst this was borne out of left-wing dissatisfaction on the General Council with current Labour policy, Citrine would cement the distance now established as a principle for the future. That would have enormous future significance.

(20) Citrine, Men and Work, 79.

Immediately and more seriously, Bevin, as T&GWU General Secretary, riled MacDonald and his Ministers when he authorized two major strikes - the dockers nationwide and London tram workers - soon after the Labour Government had taken office. Bevin was not prepared to defer what he described as the 'economic war' or compromise his members' claims. This may have been on account of internal unofficial militant pressures on his T&GWU leadership, but it also reflected Bevin's philosophic outlook. He had no sympathy with those, like Mac Donald, who sought 'to broaden the Labour Party's role of political agent of the trade unions into that of an independent national party'. (21) MacDonald invoked the Emergency Powers Act with the intention of bringing in troops to run the trams, a move which naturally outraged Bevin and the TUC. The dispute was settled on the union's terms, before it came to actual deployment of troops, but it hugely embarrassed the infant Labour government and started an enduring bitterness between Bevin and MacDonald, who accused him of disloyalty. (22)

(21) Bullock, Ernest Bevin – Trade Union Leader, 255.

(22) ibid., 236-43;255-7. 

Surprisingly, Citrine had little to say about that important episode of the first Labour Government and the unions, apart from his talk to the PLP, which may have reflected some unease about the unions' role in the downfall of the Labour government. The minority government fell after only eight months, triggered by the Daily Mail's publication of the fabricated 'Zinoviev Letter', which purported to incite disaffection amongst British soldiers. The return of a majority Tory government in the ensuing general election, also owed much to the unions' disaffection.