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Cover of The Battle of Leeds

Cover of The Battle of Leeds

The Battle of Leeds: and other episodes of workers struggles in West Yorkshire
By Iain Dalton and Manny Dominquez
Published in 2013 by Socialist Publications, £3

When as Socialists we look at the history of working class struggle in order to find inspiration, then the struggles of West Yorkshires workers in the quarter century before the First World War are important to us today, because of the question of working class representation and the nature of the leadership of the Trade Unions were as key to those struggles then as they are key to our fight today.

John Gill, Doncaster Socialist Party

The 1870’s and 1880’s saw Britain in the grip of a severe depression and many of the industries losing their markets to the newly industrialising Germany and United States. British imperialism suffered defeats in Sudan and the Liberal government had to make humiliating compromises with the Boers of South Africa and closer to home with the Irish Parliamentary Party, having to promise Home Rule, with the Tories coming back to power in 1886.

Emboldened by this, many of the capitalist class used this period to try and increase their profits by rolling back any gains in terms and conditions the working class had made and newer industries using unorganised semi and unskilled labour tried to keep wages down and hours long. This led to the rise of “New Unionism” with more general non craft unions being formed in many localities.

In the first chapter Iain begins with the story of the Leeds Gas workers victory in 1890; which saw the Liberals who dominated the city politically by posing as ‘friends of the workers’ using scab labour, the army and a vicious propaganda campaign to try and break the strike but mass action and solidarity of the working class of Leeds led to the employers defeat and raised the crucial question of independent working class political representation.

The second chapter by Manny Dominquez chronicles the struggle at Bradford’s Manningham Mills in 1890-1 where the employer, Samuel Lister imposed wage cuts on the workers to protect his shareholders profits at a time of a world economic crisis something we are very familiar with today. Despite massive support and solidarity the strike was defeated but it was the role of the Liberal party which ultimately led to the formation by local socialists and trade unionists of the Bradford Labour Union and later the Independent Labour Party.

A further two chapters analyse the struggles in Leeds of the Yeadon Textile workers and the Municipal workers of Leeds Corporation in the years immediately before 1914 where the growing strength of the working class both in political terms and in industry were tested to almost breaking point but led to further growth of working class political struggle.

This pamphlet gives an excellent analysis of the period and the lessons of those struggles, bringing those lessons forward through time to us where many working class people are questioning why the party, whom they pay to through their trade unions and expects their support in elections, uses any means to defeat their demands.

As we today build the Socialist Party and argue for the Trade Union and Socialist Coalition as a strong step to towards a new workers party we find we are criticised both by those who cling to position of supporting the Labour Party despite it becoming not much different to the Liberals of pre 1914 by taking the workers money and defending the capitalist class when elected. But also by those who denounce continued struggle to build TUSC as we have not won every election we stand in such a short time, means we should abandon our work with supportive trade unions like the RMT and form “new parties”.  To us the struggles described in this short book are important lessons and show that no struggles were won overnight and it took many years of hard work to build a working class political alternative to the capitalist parties prevalent in that period.

The Battle of Leeds can be purchased online from Socialist Books