CTU delegates arriving outside Congress House, 1 February 1926
The Inaugural Congress
The first Congress of the Trade Unions, as it soon became known, was a turning point in British history. It was here that all thoughts of Royalist reconciliation were thrown away and that the last vestiges of so-called ‘democratic liberalism’ were cast aside. Beginning on 1 February 1926, a date much publicised on pamphlets, posters and by word-of-mouth across the country since the fall of the government on 24 October 1925, the delegates from Trade Unions across the country filed into Congress House on Eccleston Square with optimism in the air. The agenda for the day was as follows:
- Apologies for absence
- Acclamation of the Union of Britain
- Election of Officers
- Any other business
While point one resulted in the most wads of paper being passed to the front of any CTU in history (the process delayed proceedings by a full two hours) point three is of most interest to the historian. As no elections among the CTU had been held until this meeting, the question of who should chair the first meeting itself had led to a bitter struggle among the organisers of the event. The chairman of the TUC (Trade Union Congress, the spiritual predecessor of the CTU), Alonzo Swales, had been elected by that body the previous year and fully expected to take up the leadership of what he considered to be an ‘extraordinary general meeting’ of the TUC. Very much representing the most reactionary segment of the Trade Union movement, he found his plan deeply unpopular and, as such, his candidacy untenable. Among the contenders for the chair were lifelong socialist and ‘candidate of conciliation’ Tom Mann and John Maclean, at this time a famously powerful speaker who had invigorated the dockers of Clydeside into some of the most explosive actions of the General Strike and Revolution. Eventually, it would be Tom Mann who was ‘elected’ as interim chair, though no election took place. Mann was simply proposed as a candidate to the assembled TUC and Revolutionary heads, and no-one raised an objection. The Congress was to be chaired by Tom Mann, and this would not be the last the Union heard of him.
When the Congress eventually came underway, the factions of the Revolution that had hardly been friends during it now turned upon one another savagely, though admittedly only verbally. There is no question that all of them wanted Socialism for Britain and had their people’s interests at heart, but there is equally no question as to how vehemently some of them disagreed over the best way to achieve this. To quote a contemporary edition of The Chartist
– then a recently established radical pamphlet rather than the state newspaper it would become:
Of the multitude of factions present on the first day of the Congress, the four largest have been established to be the following:
believe in giving local Syndicates and Trade Unions a great deal of power over local policy, similar to the local councils of the recently failed state. However, the key difference is the popular support and membership of the worker in each of these Syndicates. National policy would largely be with reference to overseas matters if these men have their way. They believe industry and all practically all domestic matters (barring the ‘Key Aims’ of each year of the Union’s life) should be decided by these local Syndicates rather than the central government. The key figures within this movement include John Maclean, GDH Cole and Philip Snowden.
are a feminist oriented group, headed by Annie Kenney. Economically they are similar to the Federationists, but believe the path to Socialism must be quickened through greater involvement of women in the Revolution. Isolationism is the core of their philosophy, believing Britain suffered enough trying to maintain an Empire and presence overseas. ‘Socialism in one country’ is their motto.
believe in further decentralising the Union, arguing for the home nations to have greater autonomy, possibly even total independence for England, Scotland and Wales. Instead of the more widely-accepted ‘Union of Britain’, they believe in establishing a Federation of the British Isles with its capital in Birmingham, while each nation would be a full and independent member of this federation. They are led by the Welsh Poet Niclas y Glais, who has described his plans as ‘the independence of the States in the United States of America combined with true Socialist freedom’.
favour an approach similar to the Commune of France's system - a strong central government and full state control of the economy. Controversially, they are also heavily nationalist, and support an immediate expansion of the military so that Britain may not only defend herself but also project and expand the Revolution. They are led by Revolutionary hero Arthur James Cook.
As the experienced student of history will notice, the factions thus remained very similar to the state they would be in by 1936. But the factions would need to form powerful voting blocs if they wanted to achieve anything at the Congress, something they immediately set about doing.
The second point on the agenda, planned by Tom Mann himself, was a very careful piece of wording. The Union of Britain itself had already been ‘proclaimed’ per se by the red-banner waving revolutionaries on top of the Houses of Parliament. The new constitution, drawn up by, among others, GDH Cole, Victor Gollancz and John Maclean, had been widely circulated as a pamphlet for the last two months. To proclaim the Union again, therefore, would be irrelevant and potentially dangerous. What Mann proposed instead was that the assembled members would, on behalf of those local people they represented, show their support for the Union of Britain through acclamation and thereby cement its status as the accepted way forward for Britain. Unsurprisingly, the motion was met with great enthusiasm. Margaret Cole wrote in her diary: ‘There were whoops and cheers and goodness knows what else. All around me were men and women stamping their feet and throwing their hands into the air. Gradually, a chant began to emerge, and as soon as I heard what it was I too felt compelled to join in. “Onwards Britain!” we cried, “Onwards Britain!”’.
This successfully set the mood for the Congress to be highly jubilant and assuaged any fears of a bitter or violent contest. Point three of the agenda could now be advanced to. The election of officers had been accepted as the turning point of the Congress already. Whichever faction got its people elected would be in de facto control of the Union already, given the Chairman and General Secretary’s power to decide the agenda of the Congress, and the simple fact that whoever won a majority in this election was likely to do the same on the matters of policy that the constitution required voting on over the coming days.
The four candidates who gained the sufficient nominations for Chairman were, unsurprisingly, all representatives of a major faction. Representing the Maximists was coal miner and union leader Arthur James Cook. The Congregationalists put forward Victor Gollancz as their candidate, apparently believing (with perhaps some accuracy) that at this stage in the Revolution a woman stood no chance of being elected. Niclas y Glais, a poet and natural orator, stood for the Autonomists. The Federationists nominated John Maclean, seen by many as the natural leader.
The candidates were each permitted to give a six-minute speech on why they sought this office. Many memoirs of those present have thought it important to note that Victor Gollancz spoke somewhat quietly and in a far more subdued manner than his opponents, with one delegate noting that ‘he could have been proposing the finest implementation of Marxist theory ever put forward by man or beast, I just couldn’t bloody well hear him’. Cook chose to give a fiery speech (he is said to have been trained in oratory by his close ally, Oswald Mosley) about the need for ‘Permanent Revolution’ and used examples from his time leading miners against the army in the Revolution. It was a strong speech, but contained few sustainable ideas, according to those present. Niclas y Glais, arguing for by far the most complex of the four factional proposals, found his audience uninterested and even appeared to detect that his views were not widely shared, declaring at the end of his speech ‘and if my message is not heeded here in the towns and cities, I shall take it to the hills and valleys, where it might be better understood!’.
The final speech came from John Maclean of the Federationists. Cutting a massive figure as he strode towards the podium, he spoke without notes for the full six minutes, promising a small central government that acted in the interets of local Syndicates and Trade Unions, the right to local autonomy for workers’ groups, and socialist reform of the armed forces. His conclusion was greeted with thunderous applause from all sides of the chamber, notably a great number of women and Congregationalist supporters. When the voting took place, there was already a clear idea of who would be the first elected Chairman.
As expected, Maclean won the Chair by ‘a clear majority’, believed to have been achieved through the support of Congregationalists who supported many of his views while sensing Gollanz’s inability to win. In his acceptance speech, he urged his assembled comrades to elect his choice of General Secretary, Philip Snowden, something they promptly did (the closest competitor was Arthur Cook, who stood again in an attempt to create a ‘balanced government’).
With the two major offices elected, the first day of the inaugural Congress drew to a close. The ‘any other business’ almost turned into a lengthy debate on the exact role of the CTU and its officers in running the country, until Tom Mann, in his final act as interim Chairman, banged his gavel and declared such discussions were for the following days of the Congress, not now. As the delegates parted ways for the first time, there was still a feeling of optimism in the air. The Federationists were arguably the least controversial choice, and Maclean was personally popular with almost all the delegates. It would remain to be seen how effective this unofficial ‘Federationist majority’ would be in deciding the major questions of the coming days – the role of the constitution, the army and the other officers (now named ‘Commissaries’) that would serve as the equivalent of ‘ministers in cabinet’ under the old regime. The only tension detectable in the atmosphere of the departing delegates was how much of a split would occur if some choices proved unpopular, or there were serious disagreements over how important the ‘federal authority’ should be. As they left, Oswald Mosley is said to have remarked to a young Eric Blair who was by his side, ‘Today we have seen the end of the beginning. Let us hope tomorrow is not the beginning of the end.’
 Margaret Cole, Living for Britain: My Diaries
(London: Penguin Publishing Cpv., 1945) p.73
 Though a poetic phrase and one he is much-remembered for, y Glais' hopes never came true. His politics were not much more popular in the valleys of Wales than they were in the town halls of England. That he and the Autonomists survived as a political entity for so long is an historical oddity that is examined later in this book in an article by Terry Pollitt.