The Great Labour Unrest

Rank-and-file movements and political change in the Durham coalfield

Lewis H. Mates
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This book analyses the ideological battle for control of the prestigious, influential and important ––regionally and nationally– Durham Miners’ Association in the fascinating "Great Labour Unrest" period before the outbreak of the Great War. In assessing the complex relations between structure and agency it recognises that the socialists of the ILP before 1910 made some progress in a particularly hostile environment, thanks to the dominance of liberal paternalism and Methodism. But the miners’ eight hour day, a socialist demand brought into effect by the Liberal government, caused tremendous strife in a coalfield, especially with the imposition of a three-shift working system that it entailed. The emergence of syndicalist activists in the coalfield, largely rejecting mainstream ‘political’ action for industrial agitation and revolutionary trade unions also threatened the ILP from the left. With the emergence of a new generation of younger, more radical and often well-schooled ILP activists after 1911, the ILP was able to harness the anger over the three-shift system to the renewed demand for a minimum wage. In doing so, these ILP activists created a mass coalfield rank-and-file movement that, after the minimum wage was won, sought to extend the struggle more firmly onto the ‘political’ plane. In deploying a militant, aggressive and class-based rhetoric they managed to outflank the syndicalist challenge and win over growing numbers of Durham miners to their cause. By 1914, these young ILP activists were beginning to reap the rewards of their labours, having forged tremendous progress since 1911.

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‘Mates claims to offer a case study which gives a new perspective on the nature and significance of the turmoil in Edwardian Britain. It is a claim that is well justified. Like every good case study, it demonstrates the complexity of events and the role of the personal and the idiosyncratic. But it also demonstrates convincingly the intertwining of the political and the industrial struggles in the early years of the twentieth century, with the consequences that are with us still.'
Quentin Outram, University of Leeds
Labour History Review, vol. 81 No. 2
July 2016

‘Naturally, the centenary of the [Great Labour] unrest brought renewed interest in the phenomenon, though not as much as one would expect in a country that once led the world in labour studies, guided by the twin towers of E. P. Thompson and Eric Hobsbawm. For that reason, among others, Lewis Mates's monograph is especially welcome'. 'Mates avoids the partisan, special pleading that has characterized much of the literature arguing for syndicalist influence on contemporary British workers and adopts a more complex and multi-faceted approach…' '… it is written clearly, researched thoroughly, objective and judicious in interpretation. It makes a substantial contribution to the debate on the Great Labour Unrest and will be of immense interest to students of the topic'.
Emmet O'Connor, Ulster University
History, 102:350, pp. 326–327
April 2017

‘The book displays an impressive grasp of sources and the text is exhaustively annotated. Mates mines the extant minutes of the DMA and its lodges (branches) and makes use of the extensive local newspaper coverage of the coal industry.'
John Tomaney
The London School of Economics and Political Science

‘The language used is never obscure, this is […] a very rigorous academic study'. 'Activists 'need to draw on material and approaches from studies like this book, presenting them primarily as examples of how historians pose and seek to clarify problems. We need to do this without crudifying the reasoning processes of the historians involved, but to do it, at the same time, in such a way as so far as possible to convince activists who are not academically trained that they too can think historically'.'
Colin Waugh
Post-16 Educator, 86, pp. 20—21
January, 2017

‘There is no other work on this topic of this quality and this will join the spine of books which constitute the definitive accounts in regional and national mining historiography.'
Stuart Howard
Social History, 42:1, pp. 121—123

‘This is a painstakingly thorough account.'
Don Watson
North East History no. 47
September 2016

‘This meticulously researched and carefully crafted book makes a significant contribution to the literature on the prospects for Edwardian Liberalism and for Labour as an independent force.'
David Howell, University of York
February 2018

‘A 'wonderful work of scholarship' that 'employs a formidable wealth of hitherto barely utilized primary evidence to evaluate even-handedly the objective and subjective constraints and opportunities at work'. It 'makes an important distinct contribution'.
Ralph Darlington, University of Salford
Economic History Review, 70, 1, pp. 342—343

‘Mates has produced an important and valuable contribution to the historiography of both the 'Great Labour Unrest' and the 'rise of Labour'. Furthermore, his exceptionally detailed and convincingly argued case study highlights the crucial importance of understanding local conditions and circumstances if we are to fully understand national changes'.
David Selway, Sussex University
Twentieth Century British History
October 2016

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