Whilst the tradition of the workers movement celebrating May Day in Leeds dates back to 1890, Sunday 6th May 1917 was a little different than usual.
It wasn’t just that there was no formal procession around the city, instead just gathering in Victoria Square in front of the town hall took place (A small feeder march did take place though). That year, around 1,000 trade unionists and socialists took part in the rally to show their support of the overthrow of Tsardom in Russia.
It was not the first event in the city to show solidarity with the Russian revolution, the Independent Labour Party (at that point an affiliated part of the Labour Party) had done so at their conference at Easter held in the city. Indeed on the same day ‘women pacifists’ held a ‘Rally for Peace’, demanding an end to the first world war, on Woodhouse Moor.
It wouldn’t be the last either. The Leeds Convention of the labour movement drawing people from Ramsay MacDonald to Tom Mann would take place just a month later along the same lines and issuing a call for the setting up of ‘Soviets’ or workers councils throughout Britain.
But May 6th “…was a glorious day for such a meeting,” reported the Leeds Weekly Citizen, “for the sun shone from a blue sky, and there was no chill in the air, and the day lent itself to the note of hope and optimism which several speakers struck very happily.”
The key point of the resolution simultaneously moved from the three speakers platforms (after 1 ½ hours of speeches!) emphasised that “the overthrow of despotic Czarism will be a great liberating force throughout Europe, and will help forward the cause of the peoples who are struggling for political and economic freedom.”
Even the far from radical secretary of the Trades Council, local councillor Owen Connellan, contrasted the profiteering occurring through the war whilst people were being asked to use bread substitutes. He went on to say “If the Government did not step in and control the profiteers on these substitutes, it would be the duty of the people to insist upon the Government being displaced.”
But it was Harold Clay, a leading member of the British Socialist Party who also served as chairman of the Leeds Labour Party, who pointed towards the direction of future events. In his speech he commented that “Nor was the work over yet. They had overthrown Czardom, but the struggles to-day seemed to be between the militarist section, represented by Miliukoff, and the democratic section, represented by the Workers and Soldiers Committee.”
The impacts of the year ahead in Russia, where the Soviets under the leadership of the Bolsheviks would take power, would have its own impact on Leeds too. Whilst the Weekly Citizen described the 1918 Trades Council May Day rally as ‘drab’ it also gave mention to a ‘Marxian’ rally in support of the new regime which was ‘very succesful’.
By Iain Dalton
Note – information taken from Leeds Weekly Citizen 11th May 1917 & 10th May 1918, and Yorkshire Post 7th May 1917