We have a number of organisations and individuals today who campaign for the interests of the unemployed and dispossessed. It is not disparaging their efforts, though, to recognise that we have nothing today to compare with the National Unemployed Workers’ Movement. During the interwar years, according to the historian Rick Croucher, the NUWM’s activities represented ‘a highpoint of unemployed organisation in British history’.
The NUWM is best known for organising the hunger marches, large and spectacular demonstrations that etched themselves into national memories of the 1930s. But it many other, arguably more important roles, from local lobbying and protests through to systematic support and advocacy for individual men and women who were fighting against reductions in their benefits.
Among other campaigns, the NUWM was also active in opposition to the use of work camps. It campaigned in general terms against the camps, it made a public issue of conditions within them, and – though infrequently and with limited success – it tried to organise within them. In my book on British work camps, I devote the best part of a chapter to the NUWM, so this blog simply tries to give a taste of these campaigns.
Initially, the NUWM was most active in denouncing local government camps. It was particularly hostile to the labour colonies that London County Council inherited in 1930 from the district councils. There is little doubt that the Communist Party, to which most NUWM leaders belonged, wished to target Labour-led local authorities, in keeping with Stalin’s wider attack on what the Communists called ‘social fascism’.
At this stage, most of the NUWM’s anger was directed against Labour-controlled public assistance committees who sent unemployed men to the LCC’s ‘slave colonies’. Its main criticisms were that colonies like Belmont and Hollesley Bay separated men from their families, and mingled honest workers with criminals and men with learning difficulties.
But they also attacked the Labour Government for introducing compulsory attendance at its Transfer Instructional Centres for long term unemployed young men, and for expanding the residential training centres for unemployed women. They called Margaret Bondfield, the Labour Minister of Labour, ‘the slavey queen’, while other Labour leaders such as Dr Marion Phillips and George Lansbury were denounced as ‘social fascists’ for supporting residential training schemes.
The peak of NUWM campaigning against the camps came with the furore over the 1934 Unemployment Assistance Act. One clause in the Act caused particular fury, as it restated the principle of compulsory attendance at work camps for the long term unemployed. Wal Hannington, the NUWM’s leading figure, described the new law as ‘the biggest attempt at slave labour and the introduction of slave colonies yet made’. It was, said the NUWM, a ‘fascist measure’. From 1934, with an eye on the Nazi seizure of power, the NUWM started to describe the Ministry of Labour centres as ‘concentration camps’.
This campaign was certainly not limited to a few speeches by leading figures. In Durham, for example, 54 delegates from miners’ lodges joined the local NUWM in lobbying the public assistance committee, subsequently appointing a delegation to visit the ‘slave camp’ in Hamsterley Forest. Six hundred demonstrators, led by a flute and drum band, joined an NUWM demonstration against Kirkcaldy PAC for sending men to ‘slave camps’.
By this time, as these examples suggest, the NUWM had softened its hostility towards other socialists, and was allying itself with the wider trade union and socialist movement. It also devoted some of its advocacy work to representing unemployed men who were appealing against attempts by the Unemployment Assistance Board to remove benefits from those who refused to attend a camp course.
The NUWM also tried to organise within the camps. Its greatest success came in South Wales, where it persuaded men at Brechfa Instructional Centre to down tools on at least three occasions in order to join NUWM rallies in Llanelli. Reportedly, the sight of the men in their corduroy trousers and brown jackets provoked considerable sympathy from onlookers. But this was a rare success; although there were strikes and protests among the trainees, these seem to have been self-organised, and I can’t find much evidence of NUWM activity within the camps.
Needless to say, the Ministry of Labour was well aware of these efforts. It spent a long time discussing an application from a Leeds Communist to attend a camp course in 1933, deciding in the end that refusal would provoke more trouble than he was likely to cause if accepted. It also tried to prevent Wal Hannington and Harry McShane from visiting Glenbranter Instructional Centre; they found a way around the ban.
So the NUWM saw the camps as a fruitful focus for lobbying and demonstrating; and they defended individual trainees or their families. My own judgement is that these activities had an effect: it is clear from the records that civil servants in the Ministry of Labour were very aware of the possibility of NUWM campaigning, and that this influenced their thinking. UAB officials were constantly frustrated by the Ministry of Labour when trying to implement compulsory attendance at the camps.
So the NUWM mattered, to the individuals it represented and to the wider experiences of the unemployed. I think its positive power was minor, but on the other hand it set limits to what government could do. This brief sketch of the NUWM confirms that the absence of a similar organisation organising and representing the unemployed is a really significant gap in today’s political landscape.