By Bob Edwards M.P.
Foreword by Leslie Jones
Bob Edwards went on an I.L.P. Guild of Youth Delegation to Russia and travelled extensively in the Soviet Union where he met Stalin, Molotov, Bela Kun and Leon Trotsky. He became an organiser and General Secretary of the Chemical Workers Union in Britain. Although employed himself he marched with and led the Lancashire Hunger Marchers to London in 1934. They followed much the same route that we took in the March for Jobs in 1981 from Liverpool to London, though of course then under much harder and more trying conditions. He later went to the U.S.A. and lectured there on World Labour Cooperation and during that time interviewed President Roosevelt, John L. Lewis and other leading figures, and took an active part in the campaign of the Congress of Industrial Organisations. For a time Bob was an elected member of the City of Liverpool Council. He was the leader of the I.L.P. Contingent that went to Spain in 1936 and served as a Captain in the International Militia and fought on the Republican side on the Aragon Front. He later became the National Chairman of the I.L.P. and Chairman of the United Socialist States of Europe Movement. Later he was elected Cooperative and Labour M.P. for Bilston, and now for many years has been the M.P. for S.E. Wolverhampton. He was Vice President of the Assembly of Europe in 1969-70. When the Chemical Workers Union amalgamated with the Transport and General Workers Union he became a National Officer of that Union from 1970-74.
Hunger Marches and Hyde Park
In 1934 the National Government, dominated by the right-wing Conservatives, proposed to introduce into Parliament a Bill that would deprive unemployed work people of social benefits unless they were willing to accept what we call 'task work'. This was resisted by the Parliamentary Labour Party which had been heavily defeated in the General Election, and was naturally opposed by the organised unemployed. The unemployed workers at that time were organised by the Unemployed Workers' Movement led by Wal Hannington and the Independent Labour Party's Unemployed Workers Rights Committees. At that time the I.L.P. was quite a force in the land and it had opened its many premises throughout the country to the unemployed workers and had formed a whole series of unemployed workers rights committees. The two organisations catering for the unemployed decided to organise a great national march on London.
In the town of Chorley where I resided at that time, we had formed a very strong unemployed workers rights committee with their headquarters at the I.L.P. Institute, and we decided to participate in the march on London as part of the Lancashire marchers. We arranged for five unemployed workers from Chorley to take part in the march. We provided them with haversacks and army boots, but at the last moment they renegaded, so although not unemployed myself, I decided to participate in the march on behalf of the Chorley unemployed. We set off from Manchester, 300 strong, and in Manchester I was elected, presumably because I was a good organiser, leader of the march. It took three weeks to march to London, and one of the marchers from Liverpool was a young Liverpool City Councillor named Jack Jones, who later became, as we all know, the General Secretary of the Transport and General Workers Union.
When we arrived at Congleton where we were to sleep in the Town Hall, the Inspector of Police informed us that the Town Hall was unsafe and we were to be housed in a workhouse some sixteen miles from Congleton. As we had already marched fifteen miles that day we refused and sat down in the main road to London, blocking the whole road for many hours. The local inhabitants made common cause with us and eventually the police arranged for buses to transport us to the workhouse and back to Congleton the next morning. At the workhouse we were informed by the Governor that as a special treat we would not be given cheese sandwiches but corned beef sandwiches, a great luxury in those days.
We assembled 4,000 marchers on London, and our campaigns during the seven days stay had the effect of influencing the withdrawal of the Slave Bill, and I negotiated with the Minister of Transport, Oliver Stanley, that if we paid ten shillings for each marcher, free railway tickets would be granted to all the marchers. During this period I interrupted Ramsay MacDonald when he was speaking in the House of Commons and I was ejected by the police.
Some of our antics in London to draw attention to the problems of the unemployed and the iniquities of the proposed Slave Bill could form an interesting chapter in a book covering this period. We organised the marchers into groups of ten, and gave them sandwiches and two pence for a cup of tea or coffee and they descended on and occupied most of the restaurants and cafes in the centre of London, just ordering a cup of tea and opening their packets of sandwiches. Some of the cafe and restaurant managers were sympathetic to the unemployed workers and refused to take payment and supplied them with cooked meals. This was particularly true of Lyons, who supplied the Lancashire Marchers with cakes and sandwiches during the whole period.
The cover photograph shows the Lancashire Marchers marching through the High Street at Walsall. Those leading the march were members of the I.L.P. and representatives of the local Trades Council. (Bob Edwards is the young man under the banner.) In this short summary it does not begin to recall this historic march. It took place in February, but fortunately the weather was mild and we had very few casualties. In Manchester we purchased a lorry for five pounds, painted it red and when we left London we left it in a street near Euston Station. The police were so glad to be rid of us that they caused no trouble and took charge of our vehicle which had served us well during this long march on London.
Other Hunger Marches started from Glasgow and Edinburgh and were swollen all the way down Britain by contingents from other towns. When they reached London 2000 of them were met by tens of thousands of supporters and 160,000 strong they marched to Hyde Park, where the crowd grew to hundreds of thousands. Lord Trenchard, then Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, mobilised 60,000 London and provincial police and 20,000 special constables against the marchers and their supporters. The leave of regiments of the Guards was stopped and they were held in readiness for action.
At Hyde Park in a scuffle a policeman's helmet was knocked off, batons were drawn, mounted police charged and many people were injured. Three times within a week hundreds of thousands of London workers massed on the streets in support of the Marchers and each time fierce clashes occurred with the police. There was a baton charge when marchers assembled in Trafalgar Square and a number of men tried to mount a red flag on the Cenotaph. A million-signature petition demanding the abolition of the means test never reached the House of Commons; it was confiscated by the police. The March frightened the Government and some small changes were made in the administration of the Means Test.
The unemployed marched again and demonstrated in Hyde Park. The Daily Herald reported: "Thousands of people had assembled in Hyde Park to see them arrive. Nobody jeered. Nobody challenged them. Nobody laughed. Because they brought with them an atmosphere of tragedy, for which the day with its grey skies and its drizzly rain, seemed made. Many of them were thin and haggard. And, when the march ended and the rain ceased they threw off their packs and rested on the wet grass munching the sandwiches sympathisers had given them. They tried to see their Members of Parliament at the House of Commons, but the police had been given instructions to turn away anyone who looked as though he were unemployed and to admit only the better dressed. Only after protests from Labour Members were the unemployed admitted to the palace of Westminster." They came from Jarrow, South Wales, Scotland, Northeast England, Northumberland, Durham, Yorkshire, Nottinghamshire, Derbyshire, Coventry, Lowestoft, and elsewhere and rallied in Hyde Park in an icy downpour. Clement Attlee voiced their demand "Work or maintenance" - a cry that had first been voiced by James Keir Hardie forty years before. The Hunger Marchers paraded their dignity, gave the country a reminder which fashioned new ways and helped to ensure the end of Toryism and awakened Britain to Socialist Ideas.
Stanzas on Freedom
By James Russell Lowell
Men! whose boast it is that ye
Is true Freedom but to break
They are slaves who fear to speak