Irish Studies

The left, migrants and solidarity – a difficult relationship

Daniel Renshaw on the Labour Party, minority communities and what you can expect from his recent book Socialism and the Diasporic Other.

One of the key narratives examined in my book Socialism and the Diasporic ‘Other’ is the evolution of the attitude of the British left towards ‘difference’ at a key transitional stage for the movement. As I discuss, the role of socialism and particularly the Labour Party as the defender of minority communities, who were the targets for the opprobrium of the radical right and marginalisation by the British State, was not inevitable and was contested throughout the period.

The modern left formed in London during a period of demographic change in the capital. From 1881 onwards, following pogroms and legal discrimination against Russian and Polish Jews, mass migration from Eastern Europe to Britain took place. In London, these Yiddish-speaking migrants were now neighbours with another diasporic ‘other’ that had been living in the East End in significant numbers for a generation – a tightly knit Irish community. As Socialism and the Diasporic ‘Other’ examines, the relationship between the two communities was a complex and at times difficult one, but it was out of the interactions between the Jewish and Irish populations that the modern trade union movement emerged.

It was this Irish community, to be exact the young women of the Irish community, who took the first difficult step on the road to mass unionisation of unskilled workers in London. These were the matchwomen of Bryant and May, who in the summer of 1888 forced their employer to come to terms after a period of strike action. This was followed in the summer of 1889 by strike action in the docks and gasworks, both employing large numbers of male Irish workers, and then in the autumn of that year by male and female Jewish workers in the tailoring trade. The strikers were successful, and the events of 1888-89 marked the arrival of a ‘new unionism’ which organised not just small numbers of skilled workers but also unskilled labourers in the casual trades. In 1889 Irish and Jewish workers campaigned together, picketed together, and supported each other’s strike funds financially.

After the hopes of 1889, the 1890s was a period of retreat for trade unionism in the capital. The employers in the casual trades of the East End fought back, and many of the gains of 1889 were lost. It was also a decade in which the difficulties that the mainstream trade union movement had with ethnic and diasporic ‘difference’ were made explicit. At the TUC conferences of the mid-1890s delegates repeatedly voted for entry restrictions on migration into the UK, and Jewish workers in the clothing trade were pilloried in the socialist press as ‘natural’ ‘blacklegs’.

This designation by the labour movement of East End Jews as strike-breakers was finally jettisoned with the successful strikes of 1911-12, by which point a new form of socialism, syndicalism, was in the ascent. Just as in 1889, Jewish workers in the tailoring industry and Irish labourers on the docks found themselves involved in a conflict with the employers at the same time, and the strikes were again marked by inter-ethnic comradeship, including Jewish families in Whitechapel feeding the children of striking dockers.

The relationship between the British left and ‘difference’ continued (and continues) to be a difficult one after the period examined in my book. The First World War precipitated a split in British socialism, between those elements that supported the war effort and those committed either to pacifism or what would become the Leninist position, to transform the national conflict into a civil war between classes. Certain leading figures in British socialism including H.M Hyndman and Robert Blatchford outdid the most vitriolic right-wing ‘jingos’ in their bloodthirsty anti-German rhetoric.

The left’s role as the defender and champion of ‘subaltern’ groups under attack became explicit in the anti-fascist resistance of the 1930s. By this point the factional and divided East End left examined in my book had coalesced into the CPGB and a Labour Party which was not a party of government. Both of these groups, working alongside Jewish ex-servicemen’s organisations, took part in combating Mosley. This campaign culminated in the Battle of Cable Street on 04 October 1936, during which once again Irish and Jewish workers came together on the streets of East London, coordinated by socialist organisations. This was not the whole of the story, however. Mosley enjoyed a certain level of support amongst Irish Catholic communities in the East End, exploiting sentiments of both anti-communism and antisemitism in the community. Just as in the 1890s and 1900s, solidarity and discord existed side by side in the inter-war East End.

I wrote the conclusion to Socialism and the Diasporic ‘Other’ in the early months of 2016. I ended on a cautiously optimistic note, stressing that although both in my period and subsequently groups had emerged outside of the socialist and labour movements which attempted to exploit sentiments of resentment and suspicion of minority groups amongst Labour voters, the left had responded successfully to these challenges. However, I added the caveat that at certain points, following Enoch Powell’s ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech in 1968 for example, support for a racist platform was apparent in elements of the movement (including, in that case, East London dockers). Now I am somewhat less optimistic. In the book, I write about tensions in my period apparent within the left between a wish to champion marginalised groups and to represent the wider working class. Post the Brexit vote, a referendum on attitudes towards migration as much as membership of the EU, this tension is arguably even more apparent than it was in the 1890s. The difficulties that the left has interacting with ‘difference’ have not lessened since the conclusion of the period I look at, from the perspective of the early twenty-first century, they are more apparent than ever.


Daniel Renshaw is Lecturer in Modern History at the University of Reading.


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