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The miners had been faced with wage cuts in the spring of 1926 and went on strike. The TUC called a General Strike in May 1926, to an initially great show of solidarity. One and a half million people answered the call to strike. Public transport, heavy industry and printing presses were crippled, whilst docks would not take cargoes.

It turned out, however, that the Government had been preparing for this confrontation for months with some amount of anticipation. Propaganda was wheeled out by the Government on wireless and paper to depict the violent and bitter conflict as a revolution. A special constabulary consisting of young men in commerce, retired Indian Army colonels, students and unemployed salesmen took to the streets to curb 'unrest.'

That this was no revolution was evident by the confusion and lack of leadership evident from the TUC, who had no idea of the direction the strike should take. With the antipathy of the general public, the TUC felt forced to seek any kind of settlement. It was now that the TUC confirmed their earlier realisation that their main hope of securing decent conditions for their workers was through a strong Labour Party.

Though not for want of trying, as the official Opposition, the Labour Party had achieved minimal success in its attempt to wield political influence throughout the strike. With the odds so stacked against working people in centres of power, to have attempted the overthrow of the government by strikers would probably have been suicidal of the Trades Union Congress. So gradualism was established as the guiding tenet of the trade unions. After all, most of the leaders were useless revolutionaries.

With renewed vigour, effort went into winning the 1929 election. This resulted in Labour becoming the biggest single party for the first time - yet still short of an overall majority. It was from here that the Labour Party and the Independent Labour Party became increasingly detached from each other. Both Wheatley and Jowett were dropped as a world economic crisis loomed and Ramsey MacDonald headed for the middle ground of British politics. The new Cabinet included the first woman to reach Cabinet rank - Margaret Bloomfield, an outstanding trades union activist. She was given the red hot potato of the time - that of Minister of Labour.

Snowden was a Chancellor convinced of the Gold Standard and Free Trade, and the overvalued pound this implied. In 1929 unemployment was 9% - a year later it was 20%. Having depressed the British market, reduced wages and put two million on the dole, the proposed cuts in unemployment benefit in August 1931 were too much for some of the Cabinet to bear. Whilst Oswald Mosley proposed import controls and domestic reflation, MacDonald's government seemed in a state of paralysis.

The feeling in the party was such that MacDonald felt he could not continue. Acknowledging this, he collected everybody's resignation and went off to see the King. He announced the next day that he was to form a National Government with the Tories and Liberals.

To say this was a major misjudgement is an understatement. On the same day MacDonald announced his National Government, MacDonald's former cabinet colleagues, union leaders and party officers held a 'Council of War' at Transport House and declared their intention to go into opposition. A bitter election followed, with National accusing the Labour Party of left-wing extremism. Labour was smashed in the polls. Its vote fell by two million, its seats from 289 to 46. With a diminished Parliamentary force, much grassroots resistance to the effects of the Slump was to come from Communist-backed organisations such as the National Unemployed Workers Movement.

Just three ex-Cabinet Ministers survived - the senior figure of George Lansbury, with Stafford Cripps and Clement Attlee. With a truncated PLP led by Lansbury, the Labour Party was taken back into the effective control of the unions, as has happened at times of low ebb since. Ernest Bevin was to become the predominant guiding force in the labour movement. Meanwhile, the treacherous Ramsey MacDonald was soon edged out of the Conservative-National government in favour of Baldwin. He lost his seat in 1935 to the venerable Emanuel Shinwell, by a majority of over 2 to 1.

This was a terrible period for Britain's industrial heartlands, with over 60% out of work in Merthyr and over 80% in Dowlais. It was out of such desperation that the 1936 Jarrow Crusade was born. One of its marchers, dole-dependent marcher George Hill of Salem St, Jarrow summed it up well when he said 'If I was fit enough in 1914, I am fit enough now.'

In a politically tumultuous time as this, foreign affairs also demanded attention. Hitler and Mussolini's rise to power posed difficulties for a Labour Party that still remembered the First World War. Italy's invasion of Abyssinia in 1935 prompted Ernest Bevin to totally demolish the veteran pacifist George Lansbury at Party Conference. Shaken, Lansbury resigned, to be eventually succeeded by Clem Attlee.


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