After studying this section you should be able to:
- outline the changing role of the trade unions in political life
- assess the effects of the growth of mass media on British democracy
The trade unions
The political influence of the trade unions in the 19th century was limited. The New Model unions were mainly concerned to improve their members’ wages and conditions of work and to provide insurance against sickness and unemployment. Their main political interest was in combating legal threats to their activities. Since many of their members gained the vote in 1867, both Gladstone and Disraeli enacted legislation in their interest. A few trade unionists were elected as Lib-Lab MPs from the 1870s onwards.
The leaders of the ‘New Unions’ formed in the 1890s were more politically minded, arguing that political action was necessary to improve social conditions. As a result the trade unions played a key role in the formation of the Labour Party. The Taff Vale Case (1901) convinced many previously sceptical union leaders that it was in their interests to have a political party to represent labour. The success of the infant Labour Party in persuading the Liberals to pass the Trade Disputes Act (1906) and the Trade Union Act (1913) seemed to confirm this. The link between Labour and the unions was strengthened by the decision of the mineworkers in 1909 to give their support to the party.
The formation of a political party to represent labour and trade union interests did not prevent serious industrial trouble breaking out. There was a series of strikes in 1910–12 and further industrial trouble in 1920–21. Both sets of disputes led to violence and confrontation with the government. Some trade unionists were attracted by syndicalism (Syndicats is French for trade unions; syndicalism meant using direct action, i.e. strikes and even violence to seize power.) and argued that workers should use the strike weapon for political ends. When the miners, the transport workers and the railwaymen made an informal agreement to support each other, there seemed a danger that they could bring the country to a standstill. In 1921 this Triple Alliance broke down but in 1926, when the miners were faced with further wage cuts and longer hours, the other unions supported them in the General Strike. Baldwin’s Conservative government saw this as a threat to the democratically elected government and organised counter-measures. The TUC itself belatedly realised that the General Strike could lead to revolution and backed down. Many of its leaders had never wanted a general strike in the first place.
The failure of the General Strike weakened the trade union movement. In any case in an era of high unemployment trade union activity was difficult to sustain. Moreover, although the support of trade unionists enabled Labour to emerge as the largest party in the 1929 election, the collapse of the second Labour ministry in 1931 left both the party and the trade unions weakened throughout the 1930s.
With the election of Labour in 1945 the trade union movement at last had a government sympathetic to its aims and ideas. For much of the next 30 years the unions were at the height of their power. Under the constitution of the Labour Party they played the key role in formulating party policy. MPs sponsored by trade unions ensured that their views were heard in the Commons. Whichever party was in power, gaining their co-operation seemed to be essential for successful management of the economy. At party conferences the big unions had ‘block votes’ based on their membership.
At the same time their activities seemed increasingly, especially to Conservatives, to be one of the causes of Britain’s economic decline. Thus the Conservative victory in 1979 can be ascribed partly to the series of strikes known as the ‘winter of discontent’ in 1978–9. At party conferences the big unions had ‘block votes’ based on their membership.
KEY POINT - Mrs Thatcher abandoned the practice of consulting the unions over economic policy and curbed their activities by enacting new trade union laws.
In the mid-19th century newspaper readership was confined to the educated middle class. There was no national press but most provincial towns had their own newspapers. Most importantly The Times. The London papers were naturally the ones which had most influence but they concentrated mainly on factual reporting, e.g. detailed accounts of parliamentary proceedings.
The extension of the franchise, the expansion of elementary education and the growth of a popular press went hand in hand. The 1867 Reform Act was followed by the 1870 Education Act, which made elementary education available to all. Consequently most children attained a basic standard of literacy. This development lay behind the foundation of the Daily Mail by Alfred Harmsworth, later Lord Northcliffe, in 1896. This was the first mass-circulation newspaper and soon reached a readership of over a million – mainly lower middle class rather than working class. It was written in a style to appeal to people with limited education and it aimed to capture attention by turning the news into stories or even making news by looking for ‘scoops’. It also encouraged popular prejudices which it believed would help to sell the paper – for example, fostering hostility to the French and the Boers in the 1890s and to the Germans in the years before 1914. It was soon followed by others, notably the Daily Express (1900), the Daily Mirror (1904) and the Daily Herald (1912). The popular press became the main means by which the voters enfranchised in 1867 and 1884 gained their political knowledge and often their political opinions. Some provincial newspapers, especially the Manchester Guardian, were important for their influence on middle-class voters.
The role of the popular press as opinion formers became perhaps even more important with the creation of a mass electorate in 1918 and has remained important ever since, as shown by the claim of The Sun to have won the 1992 election for the Conservatives. Two important points should be noted. First, the majority of the mass-circulation newspapers throughout the 20th century supported the Conservatives. Second, their circulation gave their proprietors the potential to exercise great political influence and some, e.g. Beaverbrook (Proprietor of the Daily Express), exercised it to the full.
The extension of the vote to a mass electorate in 1918 almost coincided with the rise of a new medium of mass communication, radio. In 1922 the British Broadcasting Company was formed and in 1926 it became a public corporation, the BBC. By 1939, 90 per cent of households had a ‘wireless’. The BBC became an important source of news and politicians soon realised that radio provided a direct means of communication with voters in their own homes. Baldwin proved particularly adept at using it, while Lloyd George and Ramsay MacDonald, who were accustomed to addressing large meetings, were less able to adapt their style. Churchill’s use of radio to boost national morale during the Second World War was masterly. In the 1950s the rapid spread of television produced an even more powerful vehicle of mass communication. The first major politician to make effective use of it was Macmillan. From the 1960s the ability to perform effectively on television was a vital attribute for the successful politician. By the end of the period, questions were being raised about whether parliament was being devalued by the attention politicians gave to television.
KEY POINT - The rise of the mass media was essential for the development of democracy but also gave the media great power.