Policy Papers

Trade unions and ‘Original Labour’: an alternative to state-socialism

Alastair J. Reid |

Executive Summary

  • We can trace the origins of trade unions back before modern industry and capitalism to the medieval craft guilds.
  • This has served to embed occupational (rather than class) interests deep within the assumptions of trade-union organisation. And this applies not just to those in craft industries, but also to those in extractive industries and the public sector.
  • State-socialists are therefore wide of the mark in seeing trade unionism as a stepping stone, forming a ‘united working class’ as a basis for their ideal society of public ownership and national planning. In this way, the Old Left is simply trying to make use of the unions for its own centralising purposes.
  • In contrast, pluralists not only accept but celebrate the occupational nature of British trade unionism. They see it as one foundation of a society based on decentralised decision-making, which will produce a welcome diversity of outcomes.
  • Moreover, occupational trade unionism is compatible with a number of other forms of decentralised organisation: consumers’ and producers’ cooperatives, active participation in municipal service provision, and the voluntary associations of churches and other social groups.
  • This was the vision of social change advocated by what we might call ‘Original Labour’, from the foundation of the party in 1900 up to its adoption of state planning after 1931: a vision which it labelled not socialism but ‘The Co-operative Commonwealth’.
  • On the one hand, today’s Labour Party leadership needs to be reminded of this vision of its founders, not only because that is what huge numbers of its supporters are already engaged in, but also because it has affinities with the values of potential progressive allies, such as the Liberal Democrats and the Greens.
  • On the other hand, today’s Conservative Party leadership needs to be reminded that its claim to progressive policies, whether packaged as the ‘Big Society’ or the ‘Shared Society’, will have to allow real freedom of action for voluntary associations to pursue the interests of their members and users, not only through collective self-help, but also through political lobbying. 

Pre-industrial guilds and trade unions

The first thing to stress is that trade unions in Britain have a much longer history than we might normally think. It is true that they first achieved a degree of legitimacy in wider public opinion in the 1870s, and that they later became almost another estate of the realm during and after the Second World War, but their roots in British society are much deeper and longer than this. There was something of a debate about this issue among the first historians of the field.

Sidney and Beatrice Webb in their massive History of Trade Unionism published in 1894 emphasised the differences between guilds and unions, and denied that there had been any continuity between them. This was in deliberate opposition to the view of earlier, and apparently less thoroughly informed, books by Lujo Brentano and George Howell. State-socialists such as the Webbs, and later well-known Marxist historians such as Eric Hobsbawm and Edward Thompson, wanted to see trade unions as, at least potentially, one of the major vehicles that would bring about a socialist future … so they presented them as an expression of the distinctive interests of wage workers under capitalism, inevitably in conflict with the system which had brought them into being. However, since the research of R.A. Leeson published in his book Travelling Brothers in 1979, there can be little doubt that this is simply wrong, and that Brentano and Howell were right: trade unions in Britain had a much longer pre-industrial and pre-capitalist history.

There was already a long tradition of village guilds, officially recorded in the aftermath of the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 and probably going back to very early roots in German tribal associations. These would have been broadly speaking friendly societies, that is small local informal mutual insurance clubs: indeed, it is likely that the word ‘guild’ derives from the Anglo-Saxon ‘geld’ meaning to pay or contribute. So, they collected small subscriptions as a way of spreading the risks of illness, old age and funerals; and they also periodically held social events for their members, usually on significant saints’ days. With the movement to the towns and the development of a division of labour, it was a natural step for these clubs to reorganise themselves along trade lines, giving rise to the more high-profile urban craft guilds for groups such as masons, carpenters and painters. Of course, these were not trade unions in the modern sense as they included both the small masters/employers and their skilled men/employees; and they organised themselves to protect their common interests against the merchants and thus implicitly against the consumers, trying to keep control over the quality and the price of their products, partly by controlling the number of young people admitted as new trainees.

As time went on, a gap did open up between the small masters and the journeymen, but this earlier history gave three very important legacies to the early trade unions:

  1. a familiarity with the notion of shared interests, and the benefits of cooperation in pursuit of common goals in the economic sphere of life;
  1. a set of long-established practices for organising committees and running meetings so that, from their first appearance, Britain’s early trade unions have had chairmen, treasurers, secretaries, door stewards, and decision-making by majority vote;
  2. a long-established expectation that it was legitimate to control the entry of new workers into the locality and to take direct action against any productive activity which broke their local rules. Under the guilds, these accepted practices came under the headings of ‘the power of search’, to allow the expulsion of ‘illegal’ men and the destruction of ‘deceitful’ goods. From which it is but a short step to the trade-union methods of the closed shop and the withdrawal of labour.

It is safe to think of a process of the journeymen beginning to separate from their masters and establish recognisable unions from around the middle of the seventeenth century, and it was possible for this to take place in a fairly uninterrupted way because the state in Britain was much less interventionist in economic life than its neighbours on the European continent. Just like the craft guilds before them, the early craft unions combined the provision of friendly society benefits with collective organisation to control the level of effort and pay.

Three types of trade unionism

Something which has already been implicit in this exploration of the deep roots of trade unionism in Britain and which should now be brought into sharper focus is their occupational basis. Again, this is in marked contrast to the widely-held assumption that they are bodies which represent class interests, aiming to challenge the capitalist system in the interest of the whole class of wage workers. On the contrary, what we have seen in the early years, and what remained characteristic of more recent times, is that British trade unions became deeply embedded representatives of occupational interests within the existing economic, social and political framework. Whether or not this was and is a good thing, or a betrayal of their true role, is a matter for debate, but however we choose to evaluate the unions it is important to recognise what they really were and still are, despite the occasional rhetoric of some of their more colourful leaders.

The craft unions, which we have seen evolving out of the guilds, carried on emphasising the provision of a wide and relatively generous range of welfare benefits for their individual members. Maintaining financial solvency for this purpose was then the main basis of their calculations about which workers to admit to their ranks, and which other bodies to amalgamate with. They could often see that they had a real interest in recruiting further down the hierarchy of skill to increase their collective bargaining power, but sometimes reckoned that would not be financially sustainable. Thus, the craft unions were not intrinsically closed or elitist organisations, but were built up along pragmatic lines.

However, there were other large groups of workers for whom this skills-based, craft model of organisation was not appropriate. For, while some of the workers in ‘process’ industries such as coal and cotton did have relatively high levels of aptitude, their skills were tied to the particular sector they were trained to operate in, and indeed usually to a particular pit or mill. This crucial difference meant they could not use labour mobility as a threat or as a source of financial support during industrial disputes. Moreover, since skills in these industries were picked up simply by observation on the job, it was almost impossible to control the large numbers of potential strike breakers already in place among those juniors and assistants who had been working near them and watching them for years. Having initially tried to copy the methods of the craft unions, these process workers only really made headway with self-organisation when they began to function as pressure groups for favourable national legislation over such issues as shorter working hours and improved safety from the 1840s through to the 1880s. Indeed, once this strategy had been adopted, the stability and geographical concentration of these workforces turned out to be a positive advantage, for the miners and cotton workers were able to dominate the electorates in their parliamentary constituencies and eventually (after the electorate was widened for a third time in 1884) get significant numbers of their own MPs elected to parliament.

While this was indeed the emergence of a new sort of trade unionism, it was no more based on working-class opposition to capitalism than craft unionism was. Thus, the nationalisations of British industry which eventually came after 1945 were not the beginning of a new society, but rather the culmination of a long tradition of pressure through existing parliamentary processes on behalf of particular groups of workers. For, of course, the process workers’ unions were in their own way occupationally specific: each one separately represented the interests of coalminers, cotton operatives, and steelworkers. As a result, when those industries went into long-term decline over the course of the twentieth century the once mighty unions went with them. In 1920 there were 1.2 million coalminers and almost a million members of the Miners’ Federation of Great Britain: today there are no more deep coal mines, open-cast mines employ only a few thousand men, and the National Union of Miners has an active membership of around 100, many of whom are its paid officials. Similarly, in cotton in 1920 there were over half a million workers and the powerful spinners’ union had 50,000 members: today the Lancashire textile industry has just about disappeared, and indeed the union was formally dissolved in 1970. Even the best survivor from this era, the steel industry, grew for much of the twentieth century but only to see its terminal decline postponed: the workforce has fallen from around 300,000 in the 1970s to under 20,000 today; and the massive Iron and Steel Trades Confederation formed in 1917, and growing to over 100,000 members, has now been replaced by Community with only 20,000 members in total, including many in other occupations. This is one of the most remarkable changes in the British trade-union movement to have taken place over the course of the twentieth century; another, and quite closely linked, one being the rise in the proportion of trade union members who are women, often with a higher education.

So we now have two main historic forms of trade unionism in Britain, both based on occupational interests and loyalties: craft unions organising specific groups with clearly defined skills which could be transferred between firms involved in assembly work, such as joiners, painters, engineers, electricians; and what we might call ‘seniority’ unions (because of the way their members’ skills were picked up by progression), aiming to organise all the workers in particular process industries, such as coal mining and textiles.

But this still left large numbers of other workers unorganised, especially among those who did not so much produce things as move them around or provide the public utilities required by the new urban environment: so here we are thinking especially of carters, dockers and gasworkers. As the reserves of rural labour began to dry up in the late-nineteenth century the informal bargaining power and the prospects of trade-union organisation among these groups improved. Partly because so many of them were working in the centres of the large cities, and partly because it was a surprise to see them becoming more assertive, the ‘New Unionism’ of the late 1880s and 1890s did indeed seem like a highly dramatic departure from tradition. However, this can be highly misleading if it is taken too much at face value. The longer-term sustainability of these organisations still depended on particular occupational circumstances. Thus, those that survived the initial burst of enthusiasm tended to focus on specific groups such as the stevedores, who did the more specialised ship-board work on the docks, and to scoop up random groups of workers from their less successful rivals.

This remained characteristic of the structures of the so-called ‘general’ unions as they became better established over the twentieth century, in large part because of labour shortages during the two world wars. Actually, they did not become general unions for the whole workforce, nor even for all of the less skilled in particular industries, so it makes sense to think of them instead as ‘federal’ unions, not because they had federal constitutions, but because they recruited loose federations of different types of workers. The Transport and General Workers’ Union (TGWU), for example, in its heyday had to maintain separate ‘Trade Groups’. Then in 2007 when it merged with Amicus, already an amalgamation of mostly craft unions with the engineers as its backbone, to form ‘Unite the union’ (now the biggest of Britain’s union with almost 1.5 million members), it had to set up a very complex internal structure of committees for distinct sectors of employment. The TGWU’s main rival was the General and Municipal Workers’ Union which anticipated the formation of Unite by over twenty years when it amalgamated with the craft boilermakers and renamed itself the ‘GMB’ in 1982. Now with over half a million members, it continues with its traditional method of dealing with its highly diverse recruitment through a robust structure of regional organisation. For the sake of completeness, we should also consider the third of Britain’s massive unions, the relatively new Unison formed in 1993, now with around 1.3 million members, covering all types of workers in the public sector and divided into distinct ‘Service Groups’.

Alongside the disappearance of the seniority industries and organisations, and the rise of female membership, this is the third outstanding feature of the current trade union scene in Britain: the emergence of three massive federal conglomerates, each with a complex internal structure to cope with the diversity of its members’ interests.

Trade unions and pluralism

If the state-socialist view of British trade unions as based on class interest is so misleading, is there any alternative approach we might use in its place? Actually, there is one, not so widely appreciated but just as long-standing and much more helpful, both as a form of analysis and as a form of prescription: the approach of pluralism. This view embraces diversity in two main ways: firstly, in terms of a variety of forms of organisation and secondly, in terms of the role of those organisations in the wider society. Thus, whereas Fabians, such as the Webbs, saw an inevitable line of evolution leading towards gradualist ‘legislative enactment’, while Marxists, such as Hobsbawm and Thompson, saw a similar line of evolution leading towards a revolutionary ‘transition to socialism’; the pluralists tried to understand how different types of unions have served, and could and should, continue to serve, the interests of different groups of workers. In addition, rather than working towards a uniform society under the control of a socialist state, whether social democratic or communist, the pluralists advocated that trade unions have formed, and could and should continue to form, a permanent opposition within the sphere of employment, mainly against unilateral control by their employers but also, when necessary, against the intervention of the state. From this perspective, it becomes clear that the state-socialist intellectuals of the past and the hard left of today are both in the end simply using trade unions: however sincere they are in their pursuit of the interests of working people, their future state will require the subordination, or even the dissolution, of the unions. Pluralists on the other hand have a more direct and transparent agenda, championing collective organisation and collective bargaining as ends in themselves: accepting, and indeed hoping for, a plurality not only of types of organisation but also of centres of power within society.

The first explicit pluralist position was laid out just before and during the First World War by G.D.H. Cole, one of the leading intellectuals of ‘Guild Socialism’, advocating a counterweight to the growth of the state in the form of workers’ control of the organisation of industry. This built on the optimism of a period of rapid trade-union growth. However, as the interwar depression worsened, the wind went out of the union sails and Guild Socialism collapsed. Nevertheless, it had attracted a number of other leading public intellectuals, including R.H. Tawney, Bertrand Russell and Harold Laski, with Laski in particular continuing to have a significant influence through his role as a professor at the London School of Economics (LSE) where his pupils in the 1920s included Walter Milne-Bailey, head of the research department at the Trades Union Congress (TUC). Milne-Bailey in turn produced a book on Trade Unions and the State in 1931, not particularly high-profile but widely enough read by those who were interested in such things to have passed the pluralist torch on to a younger generation: in the form of Allan Flanders, who also worked at the TUC research department, and Hugh Clegg, who was a pupil of Cole’s at Oxford.

Flanders, Clegg and a number of other colleagues then became what was for a while known as the ‘Oxford School’ of industrial relations, founded on the core principle of pluralism rather than state control, and exercising a decisive influence on the Royal Commission on Trade Unions and Employers’ Associations under Lord Donovan which sat for three years beginning in 1965, then reporting in 1968. This Donovan Report, with its central recommendations drafted by Clegg, effectively restrained the impulses of those on the left of the Labour Party, such as Barbara Castle, who wanted more government intervention in industrial relations. The key recommendation of the Royal Commission was to leave the ‘voluntarist’ inheritance of British industrial relations intact, and indeed to strengthen it at the grass roots by recognising new forms of adversarial bargaining such as the shop stewards, then particularly powerful, and potentially disruptive, in the Midlands motor industry. Thus, the traditional jostling for position of employers and unions through collective bargaining and individual actions in the common-law courts was to be left untouched.

Of course, this was not to be a permanent settlement, as the rise to power of Margaret Thatcher in 1979 led to a gradual but relentless process of statutory legislation which added up to an unprecedented government intervention in what had for the previous three hundred years been a largely self-regulating part of British society. But the current general neglect of the pluralist tradition is highly unfortunate, for it not only overlooks a significant force in twentieth century British history but also leads to a serious misunderstanding of our present predicament. For the Donovan Report of 1968 was in effect a victory of pluralism over state-socialism. Thus, the extension of the legal restriction over union organisation which came under Margaret Thatcher ten years later was not, as she declared, a victory over ‘the enemy within’ and a rolling back of state-socialism, but just the opposite: a determined assault on the freedom of association and the deliberate destruction of a long tradition of liberalism in a central arena of British society. It is, therefore, no coincidence that an accelerating sense of unease over the collapse of participation in public life has accompanied the entrenchment of so-called ‘neo-liberalism’.

‘Original Labour’

Another of Laski’s pupils at the LSE in the interwar years was Michael Young, best known nowadays as the seminal influence behind the foundation of the Open University. But Young started out on the staff of the Labour Party’s research department and was the major draftsman of the 1945 election manifesto. Not that he decided everything that was in it but, given his closeness to the centre of the party’s policymaking, it is striking how quickly he had become disillusioned with its iconic post-war achievements already by the late 1940s. For Young was dismayed by the bureaucratic nature of the nationalisation of industries and the centralised welfare state, and he was dismayed by the refusal of Labour’s senior figures to take seriously his advocacy of consumers as an important interest group to recognise alongside the producers organised in trade unions. After he quit the research department and the party, the first of his many innovations as a multifaceted social entrepreneur was therefore to set up the Consumers' Association and its high-profile magazine Which? in 1957. Young then went on to champion families, neighbourhoods and formative learning experiences in an updated version of ethical socialism: aiming to change society from the bottom up, by changing its individual members, rather than from the top down, by passing parliamentary legislation.

This sort of ethical-socialist experimentation with small-scale communities, usually run on a shoe-string, is clearly very different from the organisation of workers in national unions with large financial reserves, capable of effective bargaining with employers and the state. But placing them alongside each other as two aspects of the British tradition of pluralism is not quite as eccentric as it might at first seem. For in the nineteenth century this was exactly how trade unionists themselves envisaged desirable progress: in the days when they formed the popular backbone of Gladstonian Liberalism their ideal society was to be organised, not by the central state, but by the unions themselves alongside consumers’ and producers’ cooperatives, and municipal reforms, decided and controlled at the local level, often by working class women activists. This indeed remained the vision of the early Labour Party even after its famous adoption of a socialist clause in the constitution of 1918, for what we can think of as ‘Original Labour’ still saw the future in traditional radical-liberal terms and labelled its vision not socialism but ‘The Co-operative Commonwealth’.

The change to what we now think of as ‘Old Labour’ came as a result of the interwar depression and the political crisis of 1931, and was consolidated by the government controls of the Second World War: so that the party and the unions came increasingly to redefine both their goals and their methods in terms of national economic policy managed by the central state, rather than local social improvement managed by the municipalities in collaboration with a network of civil society organisations.

Another very important contributory factor in this transformation of ‘Original Labour’ into ‘Old Labour’ was the decline of religious affiliation and church attendance, for in the earlier years the leaders of the various wings of ‘the labour movement’ had also been held together by their joint membership of Protestant Nonconformist denominations. There is a famous catchphrase that ‘the Labour Party owed more to Methodism than to Marxism’, attractive for its alliteration and partly true, but actually the early Labour Party owed more to Congregationalism and Presbyterianism than to Methodism. In addition to the general Christian ethic of brotherhood, the adoption of decentralisation and local democracy in these churches had a powerful influence on their working-class members. Thus, it was no coincidence that the foundation conference of the Labour Party in 1900 should have been held in Memorial Hall in London: which had been built by the Congregationalists in 1862 to commemorate the  200th anniversary of the Act of Uniformity which restored the Anglican church after the Cromwellian Commonwealth; in turn leading to the refusal of two thousand Puritan ministers to take the requisite oath and thus to the foundation of modern Protestant Nonconformity.


The trade unions in Britain are, then, the heirs of two long-standing traditions of civil liberties: the medieval liberties of the urban guilds, free to regulate their occupations without outside interference; and the insistence on freedom of conscience and local democracy, won through two hundred years of struggle by the religious Nonconformists. Looking back in a European context, it is remarkable to observe how these traditions survived what we might call the ‘three world wars’ of 1793-1815, 1914-1918 and 1939-45 in large, and increasingly larger, part because of the contributions of the unions and their members to the British war efforts. The appropriate place of trade unions today is, therefore, not to serve as stepping stones towards state-socialism, or to be stripped of all their autonomy by intrusive ‘neo-liberal’ legislation; but rather to flourish as one effective form of voluntary association alongside many others, within a free, diverse and self-governing society.

(This is an edited and shortened version of an article published in the Cheng Kung Journal of Historical Studies, 51, December 2016.)

Further Reading

  • Ackers, P., and Reid, A.J., (eds), Alternatives to State-Socialism in Britain. Other Worlds of Labour in the Twentieth Century (London, 2016).
  • Biagini, E.F., and Reid, A.J., (eds), Currents of Radicalism. Popular Radicalism, Organised Labour and Party Politics in Britain, 1850-1914 (Cambridge, 1991).
  • Leeson, R.A., Travelling Brothers. The Six Centuries’ Road from Craft Fellowship to Trade Unionism (London, 1979).
  • Milne-Bailey, W., Trade Unions and the State (London, 1934).
  • Reid, A.J., United We Stand. A History of Britain’s Trade Unions (London, 2004). 

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