A Tory government, re-elected last time on a wave of nationalism, is ousted after many years in office. Under it new legal shackles were imposed on trade unions. A soft left government comes to power: what will it do about the right to strike?
That could be the situation in a few years’ time. It was the situation in 1906, when a Liberal government led by Henry Campbell-Bannerman replaced the Tories in office. Trade unions and the new Labour Party demanded legislation to overturn the Taff Vale judgement, which made trade unions liable for costs incurred by employers during strikes.
Liberal MPs and ministers resisted. But Campbell-Bannerman, a “Radical” and a canny politician, was sensitive to the pressure from organised labour. He rebelled against his own cabinet and rallied MPs to support Labour’s demands. The resulting Trade Disputes Act was a huge victory: it “gave unions an astounding immunity”, as George Dangerfield put it in The Strange Death of Liberal England.
At a recent AWL public meeting with Maria Exall and Sacha Ismail, we discussed the contrast between 1906 and the Labour Party’s coming to power in 1997.
In contrast to Campbell-Bannerman, the "Labour" Prime Minister Blair kept all the Tory anti-union laws (and boasted about it).
Even in 1997, many Labour MPs would surely have favoured a more radical policy. But the Blairite leadership dugs its heels in — and unlike in 1906, the labour movement, or most of it, did not fight seriously to assert the right to strike.
Will Starmer be Campbell-Bannerman, restoring freedom to trade union action, or Blair, keeping the unions in chains? That will be decided by whether we can build a strong enough labour movement campaign to do what the unions and Labour did in 1906.
• More on the story of 1906: The birth of the Labour Party and the right to strike