Society, politics and the labour movement, 1875-1914
Between the 1870s and the First World War a mass labour movement was formed in Britain. Trade union membership grew from about half a million in the mid-1870s to over four million by 1914. By 1914 nearly a quarter of the occupied population belonged to trade unions, compared with a mere 4 per cent in 1880. Membership of the co-operative movement grew, in line with the unions, from about 600,000 in 1880 to over three million by 1914. Trades Councils, previously confined mainly to the larger industrial towns, spread rapidly over the whole country, reflecting a growing identification among working-class activists with a national movement, broader and more political than mere sectional trade unionism. The formation of the Labour Party in 1900 gave further expression to this sense of a working-class movement. By 1912 more than half the total trade union membership was affiliated to the Labour Party, though the co-operative movement as a whole remained aloof. The growth was impressive, but it should not be exaggerated. At one moment, in 1889-90, it had seemed possible that an alliance between socialist politics and the poorer sections of the workers who were exploding into trade union organisation, could remake the whole working-class movement. In fact the promise of New Unionism was not fulfilled. The formation of the Labour Party at the turn of the century represented, not a victory for the socialists, but the effective containment of the socialist impulse within older labourist traditions. Within the unions sectional division and conflict remained endemic. And organised labour, for all its growth, remained a minority of the working class. Paradoxically, its very expansion involved the consolidation of certain patterns of organisation and of ideology -- in the approach to women, for example, or the poor -- which tended to confine the movement within its minority position.
During the last quarter of the nineteenth century Britain lost its supremacy as the workshop of the world. While the rate of growth of