Join the Socialist Party Join us today!

Printable version Printable version

Facebook   Twitter

Link to this page: https://www.socialistparty.org.uk/issue/690/12991

From The Socialist newspaper, 19 October 2011

Hunger marches - When the unemployed fought back

Matt Dobson, Jarrow marcher

"Why all this unrest? It seems in the rebound from the anxieties from the war, we are all trying to get something for nothing. We must not ask for the impossible" - Mayoress of Southport in a speech of welcome to the TUC Congress at Southport 1922

This statement of arrogant contempt could have come from today's 'we are all in this together' Tory politicians and right wing press. The 1922 congress was organised in the aftermath of revolutions sweeping across Europe and mass strikes of miners, shipyard workers and engineers in Britain.

Delegates also heard from Wal Hannington, a Communist Party member and leader of what was to become the National Unemployed Workers Movement (NUWM) who appealed for support for the first national hunger march.

The NUWM was to be the main organisation that led the mass struggles of the unemployed throughout the inter-war years. Of these struggles the hunger marches and particularly the Jarrow Crusade are the most famous. The hunger marches, marginalised from official history, involved mass organisation of the unemployed and working class communities in support of strikes and against brutal attacks on the poor.

Without these struggles the pressure would not have existed to force the 1945 Labour government to implement welfare reforms in the form of the NHS and the social security system which is under attack once again today.

History distorted

Even the history of the hunger marches themselves has been distorted. The Jarrow Crusade of 1936 has been highlighted over other hunger marches. It has left a worthwhile legacy and should be commemorated. But out of all the hunger marches its aims were the most diluted and it made the most modest gains - which is the main reason why it was the most warmly received then by the Tories and now by their rewriters of history.

The NUWM organised national hunger marches from all corners of Britain to London in 1922, 27, 30, 32, 34 and alongside the Jarrow Crusade in 1936. Armies of the unemployed would assemble in different towns and converge in contingents on London. Often the marches would last over a month with thousands marching in bitter winter conditions.

In 1922, over one million people were unemployed and those out of work were confronted with a 19th century poor relief system. It was in these conditions that the first hunger march took place.

The coalfields of Wales and Scotland, the ship building areas of the North East and the textile towns of Yorkshire and Lancashire became 'distressed areas'. Wal Hannington's study on distressed areas in 1936 reveals epidemics of rickets and TB from malnutrition in what Tory ministers themselves were calling the 'famine areas'. Populations in these areas declined by an average of 10% and the politicians devised schemes to force people to emigrate which the NUWM were to the fore in opposing.

The hunger marches drew the public's attention to the plight of areas that the politicians and capitalists wished to ignore. Successive Tory, Labour and National Government prime ministers refused to meet deputations of the hunger marchers.

The second hunger march from the South Wales coalfield to London concluded a nine month strike following the 1926 General Strike. The march was supported by miners' leader A.J Cook and by the South Wales Miners Federation but denounced by right wing trade union leaders.

They were joined by the press which claimed that marchers would be left to starve on the road by the NUWM. Women who went door to door in the Rhondda valley to collect for the march were arrested by the police. Marchers won temporary concessions on the rate of relief.

The Great Depression

In the midst of the early 1930s Great Depression, unemployment rose to three million with hundreds of thousands even in the 'prosperous, non-distressed' south east and midlands joining the dole queues.

The 1930 hunger march was organised as unemployment was rapidly increasing in the aftermath of the 1929 economic crisis. The bosses made 'rationalisation' agreements with the union leaders that were leading to speed ups in production and many skilled workers being thrown onto the dole queues. The minority Labour government increased attacks on the unemployed.

Again the march struggled to receive support from the official trade union movement. This was partly due to the right wing in the unions but also was a result of the Communist Party and NUWM leaders' ultra-left policy of denouncing the Labour Party as 'social fascist'. The 1,000 marchers were subjected to being treated as vagrants by the workhouses en route under orders from the Labour government.

Brutal repression

Of all the hunger marches, the 1932 march, which carried a one million strong petition against the means test (to qualify for the dole), was the most brutally treated, with constant police harassment. Mass uprisings against the means test in Birkenhead and Belfast resulted in confrontations with the police and won concessions from local authorities on poor relief.

The betrayal of Labour leader Ramsay McDonald in joining a national government with the Tories added fuel to the fire. The hunger marchers were met with a police riot in London and the NUWM leadership was jailed. But the march won concessions as benefits were raised.

In 1934 a hunger march against the means test succeeded in forcing the government to give aid to the distressed areas and to suspend the brutal assessment of benefit claimants by the Unemployed Assistance Board. A women's contingent was organised and demands for maternity benefit were raised.

By 1936 the Communist Party leadership of the NUWM had abandoned the 'social fascism' attitude to the Labour Party and were working with left Labour MPs. Ellen Wilkinson, Labour MP for Jarrow, approached the NUWM for assistance in organising of a march from Jarrow to London to highlight the decimation of the town's shipping industry.

Originally the Jarrow Crusade was to be a contingent on the NUWM national hunger march but right wing councillors objected saying it should be about Jarrow only.

The Jarrow Crusade reached London before the NUWM national march. Despite more sympathetic coverage for the Jarrow Crusade in the media, the NUWM march was received by a larger demonstration in London which was the key factor in winning a delay in the attacks on benefits.

Inspiration for today

Today the austerity measures planned by the capitalist class mean the unemployed, benefit claimants, young people and the working class as a whole face a return to the conditions of the 1920s and 30s.

The ideological mission of Iain Duncan Smith's 'welfare reform' is a return to a poor relief system where only the 'deserving poor' receive assistance at the discretion of those in power who have never had to struggle against poverty.

We should take inspiration and lessons from the heroic unemployed struggles and hunger marches. Before setting off every hunger marcher on an NUWM hunger march swore an oath to support the struggles of workers and trade unions and never to be used as scab labour.

The oath stated that unemployment was caused by the failures of capitalism as a system and that the marchers would fight so future generations would never know the misery of joblessness.

Youth Fight for Jobs is taking up these traditions with the march from Jarrow to London this October that will be a key event in the building of a mass movement against the austerity cuts.

Donate to the Socialist Party

Finance appeal

The coronavirus crisis has laid bare the class character of society in numerous ways. It is making clear to many that it is the working class that keeps society running, not the CEOs of major corporations.

The results of austerity have been graphically demonstrated as public services strain to cope with the crisis.

  • The Socialist Party's material is more vital than ever, so we can continue to report from workers who are fighting for better health and safety measures, against layoffs, for adequate staffing levels, etc.
  • We must be ready for the stormy events ahead and the need to arm workers' movements with a socialist programme - one which puts the health and needs of humanity before the profits of a few.
Inevitably, during the crisis we have not been able to sell the Socialist and raise funds in the ways we normally would.
We therefore urgently appeal to all our viewers to donate to our Fighting Fund.

Please donate here.

All payments are made through a secure server.

My donation

 

Your message: 

 


In The Socialist 19 October 2011:


Socialist Party news and analysis

15 October: day of intercontinental resistance

Scandal reveals corrupt influence of big business on government

The Hardest Hit protests

Rocketing rents leave tenants facing eviction

Fast news


Socialism 2011

Come to Socialism 2011


What we think

Mass movement needed to save our NHS


Socialist Party workplace news

Support Remploy workers

Construction electricians march on Blackfriars

Workplace news in brief


Socialist Party youth and students

We are the 99% - Fighting for our future

Anti-union, low paying, bullying bosses

Birmingham youth service ravaged by cuts


Socialist Party reports and campaigns

Not guilty: Jury rejects the politically motivated charge of 'conspiracy'

Dale Farm - occupiers defiant

More London trade unionists support call for anti-cuts candidates


International socialist news and analysis

Greek workers strike back


Socialist Party review

Reclaim the Game!


Socialist history

Hunger marches - When the unemployed fought back


 

Home   |   The Socialist 19 October 2011   |   Join the Socialist Party

Subscribe   |   Donate  




Related links:

Unemployed:

triangleTen years since our 330-mile Jarrow March for Jobs

triangle1920s-30s Britain: A working-class movement fighting unemployment and capitalism

triangleBooks that inspired me: The Road to Wigan Pier

triangleThe Socialist Inbox

triangleLeicester Socialist Party: Universal Credit - Universal Misery

Jarrow:

triangleThe Socialist inbox

triangleJarrow March: an inspiring show of solidarity between workers and youth

triangleYouth Fight Austerity

triangleWhat they really think

Labour:

triangleThe 'winter of discontent' - When workers could take no more

triangleMarch to save Stratford arts jobs from Newham Labour attacks

trianglePlace Unite at the head of the anti-Tory movement

London:

triangleCamden Socialist Party: The economy - will inflation become a problem again?

triangleWest London Socialist Party: Youth demand a future

Unemployment:

triangleLessons from Poplar 100 years on

Depression:

triangleCoronavirus news in brief

Poverty:

triangleTories plunge millions further into poverty

Historic events

Historic events

13/10/21

Winter of Discontent

The 'winter of discontent' - When workers could take no more

6/10/21

Jarrow

Ten years since our 330-mile Jarrow March for Jobs

22/9/21

Occupy

10 years since Occupy

8/9/21

Terror

9/11 and the 'War on Terror' twenty years on

25/8/21

Poplar

Lessons from Poplar 100 years on

11/8/21

Soviet Union

August 1991 - The aborted military coup in the 'Soviet Union'

7/7/21

Terry Fields

Terry Fields MP, Prisoner DV 3695 - The jailing of 'poll tax' rebel and Militant

9/6/21

Clyde

The 1971 Upper Clyde Shipbuilders occupation and work-in

26/5/21

Bob Marley

Get up, stand up - don't give up the fight!

12/5/21

Northern Ireland

British state absolves itself from killings during 'the Troubles'

28/4/21

Ireland

How partition of Ireland derailed a revolutionary struggle for national and social liberation

14/4/21

Capitalism

1920s-30s Britain: A working-class movement fighting unemployment and capitalism

7/4/21

Brixton

1981 Brixton riots: Racism and poverty - the anger explodes

24/3/21

Strike

Lessons of the 2011 pensions strike: when workers showed their power

24/3/21

Commune

150th anniversary of the Paris Commune

triangleMore Historic events articles...


Join the Socialist Party
Subscribe to Socialist Party publications
Donate to the Socialist Party
Socialist Party Facebook page
Socialist Party on Twitter
Visit us on Youtube

LATEST POSTS

CONTACT US

Phone our national office on 020 8988 8777

Email: [email protected]

Locate your nearest Socialist Party branch Text your name and postcode to 07761 818 206

Regional Socialist Party organisers:

Eastern: 079 8202 1969

East Mids: 077 3797 8057

London: 075 4018 9052

North East: 078 4114 4890

North West 079 5437 6096

South West: 077 5979 6478

Southern: 078 3368 1910

Wales: 077 7221 5281

West Mids: 024 7655 5620

Yorkshire: 078 0983 9793

ABOUT US

ARCHIVE

Alphabetical listing


October 2021

September 2021

August 2021

July 2021

June 2021

May 2021

April 2021

March 2021

February 2021

January 2021

2020

2019

2018

2017

2016

2015

2014

2013

2012

2011

2010

2009

2008

2007

2006

2005

2004

2003

2002

2001

2000

1999