The Dockers Who Won

John Crossland looks at the Dock Strike that succeeded in 1889.

Far from holding high the Red Flag in its centenary year and rising to the challenge of another docks dispute, exactly 100 years to the month since the great strike which inspired Labour's anthem, the Labour Party seem to have been indifferent to, if not embarrassed by, the events of 1889.

Ron Todd quite lacks the mesmeric powers of John Burns, who swayed the milling throng of dock workers at critical moments in the dispute, resorting to fisticuffs when all else failed, and his rather petulant retort to the Docks Board was matched by the attitude of Neil Kinnock, who managed to ignore the great anniversary entirely, in his speech to the Transport and General Workers' Union conference. He was duly excoriated by delegates with a better sense of history.

For the dock strike was one of the formative influences on Keir Hardie's Independent Labour Party and of the Labour Representative Committee, twin founts of modern Democratic Socialism in Britain. It gave a focus to the growing urban discontent, nurtured on the effects of the great recession of the late nineteenth century, with its ruthless and inequitable employment selection, and the attendant slum conditions and hardship.

By the end of the 1880s dangerous pressures were building up from a largely inarticulate working class, alienated from a society which approved of trades unionists only so long as they belonged to respectable craft guilds, and voted Liberal. Labour had its champions, but unrepresented as it was in Parliament, it had to wait on the right conjunction of events for them to give voice.

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