THE SECOND WORLD WAR AND THE LABOUR GOVERNMENT 1940-50
The war dominated all activities of the Trades Council from 1940. Early issues taken up were more meat for those doing heavy work, protests at the suspension of the 1d fare on the buses and increased railway fares. At the request of Boulton Paul Aircraft workers’, mobile canteens, which became known as the Trades Council Units for use in air raids, were sponsored. During the year Alderman James Whittaker JP died after serving the Labour movement for 40 years.
As in the First World War, the Trades Council and Labour Party supported the war, but some sections again did not. The Pacifists and others resurrected the No-Conscription Fellowship; the ILP, by now much reduced, also opposed the war as did the Communist Party after initially supporting it. More important was the widespread feeling that the men of Munich who had been responsible for the war were unwilling and unable to wage the war and were only waiting for an opportunity to turn against the Soviet Union. These suspicions were increased by the ‘phony war’ of 1939-40 and the sending of war material (soon to be desperately needed) to Finland when negotiations for the exchange of territory which would have given greater security to Leningrad broke down and resulted in war. Not even Churchill becoming Prime Minister in June 1940 when the Germans attacked France and the Low Countries allayed these suspicions; after all Churchill had a deplorable record of opposition to the Labour movement ranging from strike breaking in 1911 and 1926 to implacable hostility to the Soviet Union from 1917. The result was a significant People’s Convention movement demanding the removal of Chamberlain and company together with such measures as proper air raid precautions, control of war profits etc. The main People’s Convention took place in January 1941 and, in Wolverhampton, was preceded by a packed meeting at the Civic Hall addressed by the Dean of Canterbury. The Trades Council reaction to these events was illustrated by the unanimous endorsement of the following resolution from the Midland Federation of Trades Councils:
This Trades Council requests the representatives of the working class in the Cabinet to secure the expulsion from the Cabinet of Mr. Chamberlain, Lord Lloyd, Lord Halifax and all other influences detrimental to the interests of the working class of this country and to secure the formation of a government which will lead the struggle for a true democracy to a successful conclusion.
It was not until June 1941 when Hitler attacked the Soviet Union and Churchill immediately accepted it as an ally that doubts regarding the nature of the war were at rest. The heroism of the Red Army and the incredible sacrifices of the Soviet people changed attitudes in Britain overnight and within a few weeks in the factories workers were enthusiastically producing tanks and aircraft ‘for Joe.’
By 1942 there had been a powerful development of the Shop Stewards Movement and Joint Production Committees initiated by the left and the Communist Party. In February the Wolverhampton Trades Council (Anglo-Soviet War Effort Committee) held a Productivity Conference at the Wulfrun Hall. It began with reports from the main factories in the town. The Meadows shop stewards convenor L.D.Youd told of how they had tackled the waste of industrial diamonds. They also reported that labourers in the factory were still earning only 30/- a week. Haselock from Guys talked of incentive schemes for labourers and how the staggering of hours had helped. Banbery from Hobson’s complained of the backward attitude of management who had wanted it to be called a Select Committee and viewed the trade union representatives with suspicion. Bland the convenor from Boulton Paul said they were more advanced than other factories in the area and the old attitude of master and men had gone. The women were now as strongly organised as the men and the problems of waste and idle time had been tackled.
After this, the Conference was addressed by the president of the TUC who had recently returned from Russia and spoke of vast Russian factories employing 20,000 workers equipped entirely with Russian machinery and working twenty four hours a day to defeat the Germans. Finally a resolution was passed pledging themselves to fulfill the Trade Union Anglo-Soviet Eight Point Agreement and increase the supply of arms, shells, tanks, aeroplanes and all equipment needed to defeat fascism throughout the world.
By 1943 the Communist Party was large enough and respectable enough for the question of its affiliation to the Labour Party to be an issue. A letter was read at the Trades Council asking why the chairman had ruled the matter out of order when 75 trades councils had supported affiliation. Beck said that it had been done at the request of the meeting and it was not his personal opinion.
The Trades Council was now widening its social activities. A Sports Day was organised in April with the proceeds going 75 per cent to the Aid for China Fund and 25 per cent to the Civic and Express & Star Comforts Fund for the troops. In the same month the Workers’ Music Society affiliated to the Council.
Increased production and aid to our allies completely dominated Trades Council activity. In June, a letter in the Express & Star from T.W.Williams (secretary of the Joint Production Committee) and T.B.Harris (convenor of Shop Stewards) at Boulton Paul Aircraft suggested that it was everyone’s duty to support the Aid to China Flag day organised by the Trades Council on behalf of the National Council of Labour United Aid for China Fund on July 17th; that the Shop Stewards Committee would be organising factory collections during the month and they challenged any other factory to collect as much per employee.
At the 1944 AGM J.W.Smith was presented with a cheque by Frank Clapham who said that Smith was suffering from ill-health and it was hoped that he could use the money to improve this. The report for 1943 stated that the Trades Council had been commended by the TUC for its work and concluded ‘the war must be won and the better futures shaped for our class.’ A resolution was approved by ASLEF asking for a conference of Transport Workers to discuss increased efficiency and productivity to support the Second Front.
When the allied invasion of France took place in June 1944, Boulton Paul shop stewards were quick off the mark with £400 raised in the factory towards a target of £1000 for the Civic and Express & Star Comforts Fund Second Front Appeal.
The internal event of the year was the decision to take a three year lease on premises at 23a Cleveland Street consisting of a Hall seating about 60 people with a committee room and offices as a Trades Hall. At the meeting when the Hall was approved the Trades Council heard Mrs. Hirsch of the German Trade Union Centre speak of the resistance of German trade unionists to Hitler and the plea that the post-war settlement should not put the Germans in the position of harbouring thoughts of revenge.
Early in 1945 the Trades Council protested at the continuation of British intervention in Greece to defeat the Greek resistance and a deputation was sent to the Foreign Office which was not received.
The great news of the year, however, was the surrender of Germany in May and Japan in August. Of the atomic bombs which devastated Japan the concern was with the control of these weapons by the United Nations Organisation. ‘Unsettled, this matter breeds fear and mistrust and is a great obstacle to international relations.’
Less attention to reconstruction was paid while the war continued than had been the case in World War 1, all attention this time being concentrated on winning the war. But in 1945 when it became clear that the war was nearing its end, thoughts turned to the post-war world. Housing would be one of the most urgent measures and the Trades Council formulated a policy which was unsuccessfully pressed on the town Housing Committee; education was another question demanding radical changes.
The election of 1945 returned the first Labour government with an overall majority and a massive one it was. A delegate meeting at Wulfrun Hall called primarily to get trade union branches to affiliate to the divisional Labour parties turned into a victory celebration and the Trades Council passed a resolution of support for its policies.
The annual report of J.W.Smith (never a noted left-winger) was replete with Marxist analyses. ‘We have suffered in the class war imposed in the dark past and developed in the steady change of one economic system to another until it arrives at the end of its purpose in a classless system of society. We have not yet reached the end of the road, however, and Socialism is still a distant goal.’
The war had brought renewed strength to the Council, 77 organisations were now affiliated and total income was £478. The changed political scene was mirrored by the inclusion of five Communists on the executive committee, including the vice-president, Norman Bennett.
In 1946 emphasis on production for war gave way to production for exports. But the Joint Production Committees in the factories did not long survive the war, and peace time participation in increasing production smacked too much of larger profits for the employer with nothing in it for workers. For instance an Export and Production Drive organisation had not been set up by the secretary ‘owing to other urgent matters’ and even a Science in Industry Conference organised by the Trades Council with the AScW was not a success. The Sports & Social Committee was also finding the going harder. A sports day was held in 1946 but netted a £30 loss.
The finances of the Council continued to prosper, however, with income of £556 in 1946 with a healthy balance carried over of £169.
By 1950 support for the Labour government was waning. Its abiding achievements had been the establishment of the welfare state and the nationalisation of the ‘commanding heights’ of industry. But aspects of its foreign policy strained the loyalty of the Trades Council and the weakened state of British capitalism after the war made it difficult to manage the system more satisfactorily than the Tories, once the objective of Socialism had been abandoned.
An important constitutional change in the Trades Council occurred in 1950 when Bilston Trades Council was disbanded and a Bilston Advisory Committee set up. Henceforward it was known as the Wolverhampton, Bilston and District Trades Council.