In the sharp recession following World War 1, hundreds of thousands of working people were thrown into unemployment, including many who had taken part in strikes and industrial unrest before and during the war. As thousands of soldiers were demobilised from the army, and the war economy was suddenly wound down, struggles over rights to relief, and facilities for the unemployed, broke out all over the UK. Initially organised through local committees of the unemployed, most federated by 1921 into the National Unemployed Workers Committee Movement (usually known as the NUWM), which was to be the main vehicle for unemployed organising for 20 years.
One of the tactics the NUWM became well-known for was organising national hunger marches. Groups of the unemployed would assemble in different towns and converge in contingents on London, to protest unemployment and the restrictions, rules and hardships those on the dole had to face. Hunger marches took place in 1922, 1927, 1930,1932, 1934 and alongside the Jarrow Crusade in 1936. Often the marches would last over a month with thousands marching in bitter winter conditions.
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.
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 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.
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. Successive governments were determined that as much as possible working people should bear the brunt of the recession, and that as little as possible be spent on benefits to those out of work and their families. Savage regulations imposed on claimants made receiving any benefits a humiliating and vicious process. The ‘Not genuinely Seeking Work’ clause was used to cut off dole from anyone deemed not to be looking hard enough for work; the Means Test forced people to sell everything they had before receiving benefits and forced the unwaged to undergo humiliating examinations to prove they were virtually destitute before they could get the benefits.
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 Labour government ordered that the 1,000 marchers were to be treated as vagrants.
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, facing constant police harassment. Mass uprisings against the means test in Birkenhead and Belfast in 1932 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 another hunger march against the means test took place, protesting cuts in unemployment benefit, the means test, and demanding decent levels of ‘relief’. A women’s contingent was also organised and demands for maternity benefit were raised.
When the marchers arrived in London, they and the NUWM leadership pressed for the government to meet them to discuss their demands, or allow them to speak in the House of Commons; the government initially refused. However, Ramsay MacDonald, then prime minster, heading a National (coalition government) suggested they lobby their MPs. The marchers decided to take them at their word, and infiltrated themselves into parliament in small groups on 28th February, singing and chanting.
The next day they returned to Parliament:
“The marchers again went to the House on Thursday 1st March. Three hundred succeeded in getting into the outer lobby and twenty-four into the public gallery. The suddenly a cry rang out from the gallery: “Meet the hunger marchers!” “We refuse to starve in silence!” “Down with the National Government!” The House was startled; police rushed to the spot from which the disturbance had come, and when they attempted to evict the marchers struggles ensued. Members of Parliament, looking up, saw what probably few of them had seen before – uniformed police being used in the public gallery in addition to plain-clothes-men. Suddenly, at the other end of the chamber in the ladies gallery, above the Speaker’s chair, a woman was heard shouting, “Don’t knock those men about!” She was removed by the police.
When the news reached the central lobby that fighting had broken out in the gallery, the 300 marchers who had succeeded in gaining admission started vigorously singing the “internationale”. Police reinforcements were rushed from all parts of the House and fighting took place in the lobby. The marchers were eventually ejected and the police thought that they had put an end to the disturn=bances, but there were still marchers in various parts of the House, and three times during the evening scenes broke out in the gallery and in the lobby.”
London was filled with marchers and their supporters; large demonstrations took place virtually daily, and massive pressure was put on the government. In the end, this had some effect: in the 1934 budget, ten per cent cuts to benefit rates were reversed, which had been one of the main demands of the march.
Some aid was also announced for some of the most distressed areas of the country, and to suspend the brutal assessment of benefit claimants by the Unemployed Assistance Board.
The hunger marches did form part of the pressure that was able to win concessions from successive governments. To some extent, however, analysing the history of the NUWM and the unemployed movement of the 1920s/30s, the hunger marches stand out the most, mobilizing thousands and receiving national attention. It is true however that the unemployed movement was more effective when its activities were concentrated locally around practical targets, as in the early 1920s. The increased centralisation of the NUWM, its domination by activists from the Communist Party (reflected in its policies) and its narrowing of focus to high profile stunts like the hunger marches, reduced its innovative early impact somewhat.
It has been speculated that the NUWM’s most important effects were not necessarily in the benefit rates or regulations altered. Bringing a collective approach to unemployment, getting people together and resisting their individual situation as a movement, counters the atomisation that signing on tends to impose. The solidarity, feeling like you are not alone, is a powerful weapon in the face of despair and hardship. NUWM leaders also said later that they believed that the movements’ domination of unemployed politics was a factor in the failure of British fascist groups to seriously recruit the unemployed on a large scale, as happened in Germany and Italy.
For more on the the unemployed struggles of the 1920s-40s, it’s worth reading Unemployed Struggles 1919-36, by Wal Hannington, and We Refuse to Starve in Silence: A History of the National Unemployed Workers’ Movement, by Richard Croucher.
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