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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Tara Martin López – Author Insights

This month, The Winter of Discontent by Tara Martin López is our chosen #FreeReadFriday title. Learn more about the book below through our chat with the author, before it’s available to download free this Friday (7th of October).

Tara Martin López

 Tara Martin López is Professor of Sociology at Peninsula College.*

1. What prompted you to write this book?

I first heard of the Winter of Discontent when discussing politics with a British friend who continually referred to how bad things were in 1979 when trade unions were supposedly “out of control.” According to him Margaret Thatcher intervened and brought Britain out of a socialist mire. I was amazed not only that a person born in 1980 would have such a potent memory of the event, but also that it was a touchstone of his conversations decades later. He also used this series of events as a political cudgel against the Labour movement and social democracy. My interest was immediately piqued, and I sought to work under historian Sheila Rowbotham at the University of Manchester to write my Ph.D. thesis on the topic. After finishing my Ph.D., I was awarded fellowships from both the Barry Amiel and Norman Melburn Trust and the Lipman-Miliband Trust, which allowed me to expand my research.

As I was completing this work, a series called “Studies in Labour History” appeared at Liverpool University Press. I thought my work would be a perfect match for that series. I was elated when LUP accepted my proposal because it gave me the opportunity to share research on an extremely important topic with a broader audience.

2. What is the main argument of the book?

I argue that Conservative and Labour Party politics were primarily responsible for the particular contours of the myth of the Winter of Discontent. Many politicians like Margaret Thatcher effectively used the Winter of Discontent as a symbol of the “bad old days of socialism” to warn British voters away from electing Labour for more than a decade. However, while this dominant image of the Winter of Discontent arose out of a very real sense of chaos and crisis in the late 1970s, I demonstrate that the mythical resonance of these experiences only developed after the series of strikes had been resolved. Furthermore, I assert that instead of a fratricidal act, rank-and-file activists and local trade union leaders were engaged in activism that was hoping to address declining real wages and shifts in the ideological, gender, and racial composition of the trade union movement and the Labour Party. This series of strikes must also be seen in the context of evolving social movements such as the New Left and the Women’s Movement. I contend that the memories of local trade union leaders and grassroots activists involved in the strikes challenge the grim implications of the myth of the Winter of Discontent. More specifically, among some of the female trade unionists, the strikes of 1978-79 provided a transformative inroad into broader activism in the Labour movement for years to come. Finally, I assert that the different rememberings of the Winter of Discontent have distinctly shaped participants’ political identities, which, in turn, helped to reconfigure the political landscape of the Left decades later.

3. Why do you think the roles of female and black activists during the strikes have been largely ignored in the past?

I think the primary reasons lie in traditions of historical scholarship, limitations in archival material, and the gendered nature of the myth of the Winter of Discontent.

Unfortunately, the absence of these women and black activists has been part of the long tradition of erasing the contributions of women, people of color, and especially women of color, from the historical narrative. Labour historians’ emphasis on social class, in particular, tended to sideline equally important issues of gender, race, ethnicity, and sexuality. However, I had the privilege of researching at a time where the works of people like Sheila Rowbotham, Ava Baron, and Paul Gilroy had begun to open new lines of inquiry into these areas.

Previous accounts of the time period also privileged the perspectives of politicians and male trade unionists. By relying heavily on the biographies of Conservative and Labour politicians as primary sources, for example, by and large, perspectives were limited to those of white, middle to upper class, men. Newspapers, on the other hand, provided a broader spectrum of perspectives, including those of black activists and women, but still the coverage did not explore how and why these individuals became politically active. That is why it was so important for me to conduct oral histories with both women and men involved in these strikes. These oral histories, therefore, provided essential insight into the perspectives of women and black activists that were ignored for so long.

Finally, the absence of female activists, in particular, served a political agenda. A key element of this myth was that Margaret Thatcher was the one leader tough enough to stand up to the “trade union bully boys” who had crippled Britain during the 1970s. Politically, the potency of that dichotomous image would have been undermined if the historical reality of working class women as striking trade unionists had been brought to the fore.

4. Why do you think the myths surrounding the ‘greedy’ workers during the Winter of Discontent became so embedded?

The particular nature of the strikes, and, again, politics, played a key role in perpetuating this myth of “greedy” workers during the Winter of Discontent.

With the rise of the service sector in the UK during the 1970s, which coincided with the growth of female employment in these jobs, strikes were no longer just factory stoppages. For instance, care assistants for the elderly and the disabled were tasked with taking strike action during the Winter of Discontent without hurting the people they served. The oral histories reveal the creative ways people took action, like not doing a patient’s hair one day, but still providing essential care. Nonetheless, such strikes, especially in the NHS, provoked particular ire in the media. Headlines in The Daily Mail read “Target for Today – Sick Children” or “Patients Sent Home – Some Will Die.” I think the strikes of junior doctors in the NHS this year demonstrate the continued struggle such workers have in regards to addressing issues of workplace justice while providing essential care.

I further demonstrate that both Conservative and Labour Party politicians were instrumental in embedding the negative image of workers in popular memory. The Conservative Party, along with major media outlets like The Sun, not only evoked images of the Winter of Discontent and conniving workers in the 1979 General Election, but in subsequent General Elections, as symbols of Labour incompetence. Ironically, New Labour leaders subsequently used the same images to reinvent the party by telling voters that it was no longer the “party of the Winter of Discontent” that had been besieged by so called “greedy workers” in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

You can download The Winter of Discontent ebook free on Friday 7th of October using code FreeReadFriday at the checkout. See our blog for more instructions. 


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*Photo by Emma Jones


James Owen – Author Insights

James Owen, author of this month’s #FreeReadFriday title, Labour and the Caucus gives us his insights into the book, its main arguments and highlights the theme of identity within the Labour Party. Read on to get a sense of Owen’s book and peak your interest before downloading your next free LUP ebook!

1)      What prompted you to write this book?

I’ve always been fascinated by how, thirty years before the Labour Party was officially established in 1900, there existed a group of working-class radicals who considered themselves members of a ‘Labour Party’. I wanted to uncover more about their political beliefs and motivations, and, by doing so, provide a ‘pre-history’ of the Labour Party.

2)      What is the main argument of the book?

The book challenges current orthodoxies concerning the confluence of labour activists and Liberals in the third-quarter of the nineteenth century, arguing that important fault lines existed between the two groups and, in most places, the relationship between the two groups was fluid, with ‘labour’ often able to assert itself on its own terms.

3)      How did the findings of the research differ from expectations?

I was surprised by the level of cross-organisational activity that existed between urban and rural working-class activists in the 1870s, who I assumed would have different political aims. However, through personal networks, London-based trade union leaders, republicans and agricultural labourers moved in and out of each other’s worlds, which had important implications for how labour activists conceptualised their identity.

4)      How do you think your research reflects on the Labour Party as it is today?

A running theme in my book is the contested identity of a ‘Labour Party’ during the 1870s and 1880s, and how it meant different things to different people.  A similar situation is again emerging. Given the recent outcome of the leadership contest and the massive surge in new members, it is clear that the contemporary Labour Party is being forced to reassess its identity.


You can download the ebook version of Labour and the Caucus free this Friday 1st October until midnight using code FreeReadFriday on the Liverpool University Press website.

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