Modern British History

Palgrave master series

by Norman Lowe

Chapter 19

The 'Old' and the 'New' unionism

Study Sources A to C and then answer the questions that follow.

Source A:

Tom Mann and Ben Tillett write about the 'New' unionism in 1890.

We repeat that the real difference between the ‘new’ and the ‘old’ is that those who belong to the latter, and delight in being distinct from the policy endorsed by the 'new', do so because they do not recognise, as we do, that it is the work of the trade unionist to stamp out poverty from the land. They do not contend, as we contend, that existing unions should exert themselves to extend organisations where they as yet do not exist. They know the enormous difficulties under which hundreds of thousands labour, and how difficult it is for them to take the initial steps in genuine trades unionism and how valuable a little ‘coaching’ would be from those who have had experience in such matters; but they have not done what they might to supply this - we shall. A new enthusiasm is required, a fervent zeal that will result in the sending forth of trade union organisers through the length and breadth of the country. Clannishness in trade matters must be superseded by a cosmopolitan spirit, brotherhood must not only be talked of but practised. And that real grit exists in the ‘new’ unions is evident, not only from the manner in which they are perfecting their own organisations, but also from the substantial way in which they have contributed to the support of other trades, such as the bargebuilders, whose strike balance sheet shows that the ‘new’ unions were much more prompt in rendering monetary aid than the ‘old’ ones. Nevertheless, what we desire to see is a unification of all, a dropping of all bickerings... The cause we have at heart is too sacred to admit of time being spent quarrelling amongst ourselves... we are prepared to work unceasingly for the economic emancipation of the workers. Our ideal is a Co-operative Commonwealth.

Source: T. Mann and B. Tillett, The ‘New’ Trades Unionism, 1900.

Source B:

Comments from historian Henry Pelling

The concept of the labour aristocracy has had its value in drawing attention to the differences within the working class; but if it implies the existence in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century of a labour elite distinctly separated from lower strata and marked by political behaviour of an acquiescent type, then it is a concept that does more harm than good to historical truth. To be sure, in some industries the craftsmen did manage to perpetuate, sometimes even to extend, a tight control over entry into their trades. But the number of industries in which this was possible was constantly in decline after the onset of the industrial revolution. The growth of the factory and mining population in the nineteenth century meant the growth of a more homogeneous working class than had existed previously, and in this working class there was no aristocracy, unless we think of foremen, who, although they often appeared in wage statistics, did not normally belong to trade unions. As for politics, it is clear that Marxist historians have completely got the wrong end of the stick: militancy was much more likely to be found among the better-off than among the poorer workers....recruitment to the Communist Party, both in this country and in other countries of Europe, has been much more successful among more highly paid manual workers than among those of lesser income.

Source: H. Pelling, Popular Society and Politics in Late Victorian Britain, Macmillan, 1968.

Source C:

Professor John Savile gives his view of the ‘New’ unionism, published in 1971.

It was the special characteristics of new unionism that made it the immediate target of ruling class fury. Recent research has modified the picture of new unionism that has been generally accepted, and today it is recognised that 1889 was less of a break with the past than was formerly believed. Nevertheless, when all the necessary qualifications have been added to the traditional interpretation of old and new unionism, it is important not to underestimate the climacteric [crucial event] of 1889. The economic problems of the unskilled and semi-skilled trade unionists were very different from those of the skilled workers, and their industrial methods and tactics were also different. While the old unions were able to rely on the skill of their members as a crucial bargaining weapon, the new unions were at all times, even in the years of good trade, subject to the pressures of an overstocked labour market. Picketing, for instance, was rarely a major problem in the strike action of many sections of skilled workers.... among the cotton spinners of Lancashire, or the boilermakers on the north east coast, or the coalminers in well-organised districts, both sides to an industrial dispute knew that when work was resumed the same men would have to be taken on....The position was very different in the ports employing dock labour, where only a proportion of those applying for work on any one day would be accepted. In such circumstances, and these were familiar in many other industries, it was immensely more difficult to make a strike solid or to achieve stable unions. Outside the highly skilled trades, to win even an approximation to the closed shop or to ensure that blackleg labour did not swamp a strike, militant tactics were demanded which the older unionists had pioneered decades before but which, by the end of the 1880s, they believed they no longer needed.

Source: J. Savile, ‘Trade Unions and Free Labour: The Background to the Taff Vale Decision’, in Essays in Labour History 1886-1926, ed. A. Briggs and J. Savile, Macmillan, 1971.


  1. On the basis of the evidence in Source A, explain why there was some friction between the ‘Old’ and ‘New’ trade unions. (8 marks)
  2. Using information from Sections 19.3-19.5 and the evidence in Source B, explain why the writer of Source B, Henry Pelling, rejects the idea of the existence of a ‘labour aristocracy...marked by political behaviour of an acquiescent [non-protesting] type’. (12 marks)
  3. How useful is Source C in helping you to reach a conclusion in the debate about how deep the differences were between the ‘Old’ and ‘New’ unions? (10 marks)
(Total 30 marks)