The British working class movement experienced some of its darkest days in the 1930s. It had suffered three major blows to its confidence and organisation – the defeat of the 1926 General Strike, the collapse in 1931 of the second Labour government and the impact of the world economic slump that began in 1929.
But it was in this period that a powerful movement from below – the Communist-led National Unemployed Workers’ Movement (NUWM) – was born.
NUWM activists gave advice, represented the unemployed in court, fought against evictions and organised protests against means testing.
They were slandered in the press, jailed in their hundreds and banned by the union leaders, but they made a major impact on the political scene.
Initially workers had looked to the Labour government of 1929-31 to shelter them from the economic slump.
But big business was determined to make workers and the unemployed pay the price for the crisis, and sucked its money out of the country, holding the government to ransom.
Labour prime minister Ramsay MacDonald supported the capitalists’ demand for a 10 percent cut in the dole. His decision split the cabinet and he went on to form a coalition with the Tories and Liberals.
Labour suffered a catastrophic defeat in the general election that followed. The betrayals by the Labour leadership opened the way for the “baby starving” coalition national governments.
It was left to activists on the ground to fight against the cuts and hardship imposed from above, and five years of major protests followed.
In autumn 1932, there were days of rioting and police raids in Birkenhead on Merseyside and Belfast. In Belfast the police used machine guns on protesters, killing two.
But in both cases the determination of the unemployed forced local authorities to grant major increases in benefits.
From 26 September to 26 October, there was a 2,000-strong hunger march from Scotland to London. The marchers collected petitions with a million signatures opposing means testing, which the police stole.
Mass demonstrations to meet the marchers saw up to 150,000 gather in Hyde Park. Demonstrators skirmished with police. There were 12 arrests, and 19 police and 58 protesters were injured.
The new Unemployment Act of 1934 sparked a second wave of protests. The act created an Unemployment Assistance Board (UAB) to relieve all those who did not qualify for unemployment insurance.
As the UAB scales were implemented in early January 1935, hundreds of thousands faced total or partial cuts to their benefits. The greatest demonstrations against the UAB took place on 3 February.
The Manchester Guardian estimated that 300,000 took to the streets of South Wales. On the 6 February, Sheffield police tried to disperse a crowd of 40,000 and two hours of street fighting ensued.
One protester, Herbert Howarth, remembered, “There was bloody pandemonium, fighting like bloody tigers – and all the bloody town hall officials were out on the bloody balcony watching us.”
Unable to control events, the government dramatically retreated over the UAB. A mass movement from below had scored another major victory.
The activity rekindled once more in autumn 1936, the last significant phase of unemployed protest. On 10 July 1936, the government announced that new, less harsh, UAB scales were to be introduced in mid?November.
A national hunger march in 1936 and its London reception committee signalled the broadest unity in action the NUWM had ever achieved.
The Labour leadership backed the hunger march’s reception demonstration in Hyde Park, while continuing its policy of banning Labour Party and union branches backing the march itself.
The Hyde Park demonstration was massive – the Daily Herald claimed it was attended by a quarter of a million people. The national government withdrew its proposals.
Many who had cut their teeth in the NUWM, during the dark days of the downturn, went on to fight Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists, or volunteered to fight in Spain against General Franco.
Many became union shop stewards when the rank and file struggle revived in the late 1930s. The NUWM was central to the revival of working class militancy.