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From The Socialist newspaper, 9 November 2011

1935 - when angry Welsh protests forced a government u-turn

Geoff Jones

On 4 February 1935, Ceridwen Brown of Aberdare led an army of women, some carrying babies, to Merthyr Tydfil Unemployed Assistance Board (UAB) offices. They broke into and wrecked offices, burning papers and smashing telephones despite the local Labour MP trying to dissuade them.

At the same time, there were massive demonstrations including a school students strike in Blaina in the next valley where the UAB offices were only saved by massed police baton charges. These battles followed a day of mass protest in the South Wales valleys where around 300,000 people across the area of the Welsh Coalfield had marched.

What caused this near insurrection? The 1929 crash and the ensuing slump hit industrial areas in South Wales particularly hard. The big steel works along the heads of the valleys all closed, as did most coal mines.

The town of Brynmawr claimed an unenviable record of 90% of insured men on the dole. Merthyr Tydfil had so little money to run its services that it was proposed to remove its borough status.

In the City of London, investors rushed to withdraw money and argued that only cuts in government spending could save the situation. This meant cuts in benefits to the unemployed.

A 'National Government' comprising Conservatives, Liberals and some right-wing members of the Labour Party, came to power in 1931 with a huge majority - their first action was to cut Unemployment Benefit by 8% and tighten up 'means testing' for benefits.

Anyone out of work for more than six months could have their 'assets' examined by inspectors who had the right to enter homes. Not only 'luxuries' such as cooking pots were considered but also the earnings of anyone else who lived in the house.

How did people survive? Families had to rely on Public Assistance Committees (PACs) financed and run by local councils - "taxing the poor to pay for the poor". These committees had to use the hated means test but were under the control of local councillors who in South Wales were often unemployed themselves.

In areas such as South Wales, the PACs refused to employ the means test rigorously and 'anomalies' were exploited. Nevertheless, in the Rhondda in 1935, 15% of children were malnourished according to a government report.

Huge demonstrations

But those cuts did not appease City investors. Local PACs were seen as 'too generous' and the Unemployment Benefit Act 1934 aimed to set up statutory Unemployed Assistance Boards which would have no leeway for 'generosity'. It was this final blow that sparked the huge demonstrations of 1935.

Dramatically on 5 February, the day after the eruption in South Wales, the government announced that implementation of the measures would be put off for a year and a half and much modified.

This was one of the few cases where popular movements (supported by parliamentary protests led by Aneurin Bevan, MP for Ebbw Vale) caused a government climb-down.

This climb-down was certainly not caused by the wrecking of a benefits office in a town that no government member had even set foot in. But it marked the breaking crest of a growing wave of organised people's protest.

Even in those days, the Labour Party, which then claimed the allegiance of most workers, refused to support direct action. 'Left' Labour MP, SO Davies described the Merthyr demonstrators as 'scum'. In South Wales the lead was taken by the Communist Party and the Independent Labour Party (a left-wing group which broke from the Labour Party in 1932) in the National Unemployed Workers Movement. These parties had many failings but they were prepared to lead the workers' fight.

More cuts

Although working people have today won a standard of living that their grandparents in the 1930s could only dream of, City of London investors still bay for cuts to push us back into destitution. Even worse than then, Labour presents no alternative and even supports cuts.

As in the 1930s, women and young people are in the forefront of opposition. But if, back then, a coalition with a majority of 500 could be pushed back, how much easier should it be to defeat today's shaky Con-Dems?

As well as a mass movement it is vital to build up a new leadership for working class people to rally behind, one that will point the way forward to a new mass party of the working class to deal with the City parasites and their parliamentary hangers-on.

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In The Socialist 9 November 2011:

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Workplace news in brief

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1935 - when angry Welsh protests forced a government u-turn

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