Socialism, Leicester, and the History of the National Union of Boot and Shoe Operatives

In 1958 Alan Fox published the authoritative text, A History of the National Union of Boot and Shoe Operatives, 1874-1957; and from within the pages of this book much can be learnt about the early struggles of socialists organising in Leicester, a city that for many decades maintained the bulk of the Union’s membership. These determined and long-lived organising efforts were especially necessary because in 1886 a proud pro-capitalist “moderate” named William Inskip, who happened to be from Leicester, was elected as the General Secretary of the Union. “He was contemptuous of egalitarianism,” Fox observed, and had “moved easily into personal domination of the Union which was to be severely weakened but never broken, and which ended only in his death in office in 1899.” Indeed, in “the later years of his life especially he was apt to be autocratic and egotistical, with a tendency to imagine himself the sole source of Union success and wisdom.”[1]

National leaders of the National Union of Boot and Shoe Operatives, like Inskip, remained in general political agreement with the factory owners who exploited their members, and as such were perpetually seeking inventive ways of containing rank-and-file militancy exemplified by the “unofficial strikes on individual shops [that] had been growing since the late eighties”. Other than the use of straight-out repression, one new tool of the capitalist class was the institionalization of “conciliation and arbitration procedures in the settlement” of workplace disputes. And:

“Since the Union’s national leaders were also convinced that this development was desirable, the employers saw that what was necessary was for the Union leaders to maintain adequate discipline over their rank-and-file membership, for it was at unofficial local level that the militancy lay.” (p.157)

By the early 1890s the rise in unofficial strike action was “particularly marked in Leicester, London, and Bristol” where the “excitements of the New Unionism and of Socialist doctrines and Socialist organisations were inspiring a minority to a new militancy of sentiment and action, and such men were only too eager to place themselves at the head of the forces gathering among the rank and file.” In Leicester such prominent militants included “[T.F.] Richards, [Edward] Clarkmead, [George] Cores, and Barnes.” So in an early attempt to head of the influence of these militants, Inskip held a Special Delegate Conference at Leicester’s Secular Hall (on April 17, 1893) which aimed to “not only subdue the London branches by showing them they were [politically] isolated, but would also strengthen his personal position against the militants in Leicester.” In this effort Inskip was partially successful as only 9 of the 83 delegates opposed his anti-socialist organising efforts at the four-day conference, but top-down maneuvering did nothing to quell the rank-and-files thirst for socialism.[2]

“Yet another collision occurred at the end of 1893 when, after ‘a year of privation, sickness, misery, and untold suffering’, the Leicester Branch held a meeting, at which Inskip was present, to consider what steps should be taken to relieve the distress of the local unemployed. Cores, a militant on the branch executive committee, moved ‘that hundreds… are in such a state of starvation that they will be compelled and entitled to take the means of subsistence by illegal methods unless help is speedily forthcoming’.

It is difficult now to imagine the shock and alarm such language evoked in the older kind of trade union leader, with his Liberal sympathies and his vivid sense of status hardly and only recently won.

Inskip, who was present only by right of his being a branch member, rose to propose an amendment. This causes a commotion and he received an extremely rough passage. He agreed that relief works were urgently needed, but ‘the resolution was vague, dangerous, and impracticable. They were making themselves part to a conspiracy’. Richards strongly supported Cores and the resolution was carried with acclamation by a large majority. There were about 250 people present.” (p185)

Inskip however succeeding in overturning this democratic vote by taking it to a larger meeting of members where he was able to lean upon his authority and undo the previous resolution with 621 members voting in favour of rescinding the motion, and 291 voting against it. Yet despite this victory, the “militants won their victory in the field of politics” when they proved successful ensuring “that the Union should attempt to secure representation [for socialist ideas] in the House of Commons”. [3] Thus:

“As the industry moved through 1893 and into 1894 Inskip’s problem became more and more acute. The Socialists among the Leicester No. 1 Branch leadership were increasingly dominating the scene and trying to wrest initiative from Inskip and the [General] Council.”

“Early in 1894 the realities of the situation were made plain by a further attempt on the part of the Leicester Branch leadership to throw off arbitration. The branch passed, by 358 votes to 325, a resolution asking the [General] Council to take the Union vote on the advisability of dispensing with arbitration. Inskip announced that the Council would have to refuse the Leicester request on the grounds that non only the majority but also the total number of votes were small, that the resolution suggested no alternative to arbitration, and that the issue could be raised at the Union Conference which was imminent.” (p.211)

With the militancy of workers spreading beyond Inskip’s control, now the Union, as a whole, also had to deal with the Manufacturers’ Federation which was pushing for a major industrial confrontation in a desperate attempt to quell growing confidence of the Union’s rank-and-file insurgency. In response to these escalating tensions another Special Delegate Conference was held at Leicester’s Secular Hall (from January 24 until January 26, 1895), and subsequently in order “to take no risks of possible recriminations from the militants” Inskip put a vote on his proposed strategy out to the entire membership. Out of a total membership of 33,379 most did not vote, which was fairly normal at the time, and those supporting Inskip totalled 5,046 with 1,930 opposing him.

“Analysis of the anti-Executive vote is, however, revealing in that it clearly demonstrates the location of the militant movement. Of the 1,930 anti-Executive, anti-arbitration votes, no less than 1,718 were piled up in Leicester, London, and Bristol. These three centres taken together polled 1,718 votes against the Executive, and only 1.278 votes in favour.” (p.224)

Either way the bosses were rabid in their search for a confrontation with the Union, and by March 13, 1895, the Great Lock-out had begun – a national lock-out that impacted upon approximately 46,000 workers. Here it should be noted that this lock-out was primarily launched in an effort “to destroy a mood, an attitude, a spirit of militant attack and obstructiveness” and therefore aimed “to restore to manufacturers their old freedom of action.”[4] So when the Union tops finally brought this historic attack on workers’ rights to an end by settling with the bosses it was clear that many in the Union were not happy.

“Early reactions to the Settlement by the militants suggested that their mood was inflamed rather than crushed. …

“An unofficial strike on a Leicester firm in June evoked the Record comment that ‘the spirit of rebellion against constituted authority is still rife among Leicester shoe hands, the lesson of the big lock-out notwithstanding’.” (pp.235-6)

The broader national picture, however, was not so good, and from a peak membership of 44,000 in December 1894, membership “declined almost continuously to 24,000 by December, 1906.” Yet this retreat in militancy was not immediately in evidence everywhere, as “both Leicester Branches had a larger membership in December 1895, six months after the lock-out, than in December, 1894.” Likewise, the “Leeds Branch had also increased its membership.” Nevertheless after a period of generalized retreat, by 1907 trade union membership was once again booming, such that national “Membership rose sharply, from about 24,000 in December, 1906, to over 30,000 in December, 1909, and 49,000 by 1914.”[5] (Unfortunately few details are available in Fox’s book about what happened to the socialists with the Union during this period of growth, although the case of the organising efforts of Lizzie Willson in Leicester (which I had take up elsewhere, see here) are significant because in 1911 she launched a break-way union that was christened the Women’s Independent Boot & Shoe Union.)

Things then went downhill for socialist struggle after World War One, as demonstrated in 1919 with the formation of a National Joint Industrial Council between the bosses and the Union. The terms of reference of this JIC were “to secure the largest possible measure of joint action between employers and work-people for the development of the industry as part of national life and for the improvement of the conditions for all engaged in the industry.” And one direct result of such joint action was seen during the General Strike of 1926 when the “boot and shoe operatives were not called out” to join the historic nationwide strike (instead “their chief contribution lay in supplying funds.”)[6] Subsequently the Union’s conservative leadership took their anti-socialist commitment to an even greater extreme when they issued a circular, on November 28, 1928, which…

“…was sent out to all branches instructing them that no members of the M.M. [Minority Movement] or the Communist Party, or members associating with them, were to be allowed to hold office or to be nominated for office at either national or branch level. All those holding office, now and hereafter, would have to sign a declaration which ran: ‘I am not a member of the Communist Party or of the National Minority Movement or any of their subsidiary bodies, and am opposed to the methods adopted by them in connection with this Union, and agree that my appointment is made on this understanding’.”  (pp.469-70)

This early act of McCarthyism served to further undermine efforts at grassroots organising within the Union and thus “ended the second internal militant challenge to Union leadership.” That being said such conservative actions did not occur without incurring resistance; it was just that such resistance ultimately proved unsuccessful.

“Minor ripples set in motion by the Movement continued, however, to disturb the surface of every Union Conference down to 1936. Many members were never happy about the 1928 circular. At the Conferences of 1930, 1932, 1934, and 1936 attempts were made to get the circular and the declaration withdrawn. Such attempts were always made by left-wing members, but were often supported by delegates who had no personal affinities for Communism or the Minority Movement. The fact that Conservatives could hold office while Communists, who were ‘some of the best fighters’, could not, was a source of uneasiness to many.” (p.471)

[1] Fox, p.120, p.255. The early history of NUBSO is also covered in David Howell’s British Workers and the Independent Labour Party, 1888-1906 (Manchester University Press, 1983), Chapter 5.

[2] Fox, p.164, p.168, p.177, p.179

[3] Fox, p.186

[4] Fox, p.234

[5] Fox, p.239, p.242, p.306

[6] Fox, p.403. Within NUBSO there were however “unofficial stoppages” during the General Strike. Funding for the Strike mean that “The Union at once subscribed £20,000 to the General Fund and levied all male employed members 1s., all females employed, 6d. They also lent the Yorkshire miners £50,000. The total subscribed including the yield of the levy was £39,000. Later in 1926 the Union contributed another £5,000 to be spent on boots and shoes for the wives and children of miners.” (p.464)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s