Ernie Bevin: Labour’s Working Class Warrior

Ernest Bevin is a character who today would have more chance of winning the lottery than entering the House of Commons and rising to a great office of state. Euan Saunders looks back at his humble origins and his rise to the top.

Ernie Bevin was born in Somerset and by the age of eleven, he had finished his formal education. With no qualifications, he immediately pursued work over opportunities to study. This immediately marks him out from the route almost every great state holder has taken.

Instead, Bevin began as a labourer and later a truck driver, ultimately co-founding the Transport and General Workers’ Union and serving as General Secretary. It was here he had his real political education, not in the corridors of the colleges of Trinity or Magdalen, as was the case for many of his contemporaries within the 20th-century political class. One need only watch an episode from season 1 of The Crown to understand the archetypal British minister – a greying Oxbridge graduate of aristocratic origins – the antithesis of Bevin.

Before World War II, Bevin had little appetite for parliamentary politics and held much disdain towards the government as an institution. But when WWII broke out, and Churchill had successfully organised his national government, it was clear that organised labour was crucial to the British commitment to total war. Britain needed to ensure industrial output was as high as possible. Churchill sent for Bevin. 

A hurried by-election in June 1945 was arranged in the constituency of Wandsworth, and Ernest Bevin was duly returned as a Labour member. Interestingly, Bevin had already joined the cabinet before joining parliament in May 1940, which went against the constitutional procedure. He was the first case in history to do so – as Minister of Labour and National Service. 

Churchill personally held Bevin in high esteem, moving heaven and earth for his appointment, also claiming that he was “by far the most distinguished man that the Labour party has thrown up in my time.” This respect was mutual; Bevin wrote to Churchill in 1945, hoping that the end to their professional relationship did not dictate the end to their personal one.

In appointing Bevin as he did, for the first time in British history, Churchill had integrated the state and the trade union movement – and Bevin planned to make the most of this golden opportunity. He aimed to leave a lasting impact. Bevin quipped he would “be at the Ministry of Labour from 1940 until 1990,” akin to Gladstone’s impact on HM Treasury in the late 19thcentury, which continued through the 1900s.

Throughout the war, trade unionism grew and evolved. The beginnings of the Trade Union Congress’ regional body emerged, formally developed in 1945 and union membership increased by three million between 1939-1945. 

These developments did not stand alone. Union recognition spread like wildfire, a stark contrast to the unions’ meagre toehold in the workplace before the war. Various recognition agreements emerged throughout the war between trade unions and employers, increasing the power of collective bargaining and improving working conditions. The relationship between labour and the state did not end there. 

The Chancellor, Kingsley Wood, a liberal Conservative who understood coalition nuances better than any, developed the “Consultative Council.” This body brought together capital, labour, and government to make decisions regarding policy and provide recommendations. 

Trade unions were now at the heart of Westminster when for so long many derided them as troublemakers and vagrants. Throughout 1940-1945, Bevin remained pro-Labour, pro-unions, but interestingly also pro-Churchill and pro-coalition. He saw the fight against fascism as a collective threat to be quelled, reflected in his campaigning.

His campaigning focuses shifted from solely fighting for workers’ improvements – as he had done whilst leading the TGWU – towards the maximum output. He gave various speeches on industrial output to miners, builders, factory workers, trade bodies, businesses, and internally within government. 

Bevin best demonstrated his pro-Churchill line and ability to accept a compromise with his attitude towards workplace unrest. Unrest peaked in 1943 and again in 1944, with 12,000 TGWU bus drivers striking in Liverpool and Birkenhead, much to Bevin’s blushes. He addressed this with the introduction of the Defence Regulation 1AA, ruling incitement to strike as unlawful. 

Alongside this, the well-discussed “Bevin Boys” saw 48,000 conscripts move their resources from the military to the coal mines, supporting output and production. In doing so Bevin secured improvements in wages and conditions. These reforms seemed lifetimes away after the election of 1935. 

Whilst supporting workers, this move was also unpopular with many in the mining who held tribal feelings towards their industry – yet Bevin remained undeterred. He was determined to ensure British industry fired on all pistons. It is well documented that Germany failed to commit to total war until 1943 which cost them dearly, but what is less well documented is the British commitment total war in 1939, which paved the way for success. Bevin was crucial in this.

But Bevin’s time in the war cabinet also cultivated something else, a thirst for parliamentary success. Much like grandees Clement Attlee and Herbert Morrison, a Labour government was something the inner sanctum could now visualise, rather than a rogue pipe dream that the commentariat denounced. 

The tide of public opinion turned throughout the war towards a collective, Beveridgean society, one that valued the needs of the wider community over the individuals. The people wanted to eradicate the Five Giants, and Bevin knew it. By the end of the war, he continued to fight for labour. He sought to provide the public with a taste of the Labour government that was to come.

Bevin championed the Wage Councils Act in January 1945, which concerned the setting of minimum wages throughout industries and encouraging collective bargaining – it was central to the post-war labour laws. One could say the legislation introduced in the latter part of the war foreshadowed the subsequent Labour landslide and government that was to come. 

Bevin was a giant of the labour movement in the first instance, but like Attlee and Morrison, he grew to embody and personify the Labour party itself. His death in 1950 robbed the party and the country of a great and unique statesman. He had an unparalleled work ethic and telescopic attention to detail, which supported the nation throughout the war and in the foreign sphere after that. 

Moreover, his time in the war cabinet opened his eyes to the importance of parliamentary power. Despite his influence as General Secretary of the TGWU, it became clear that only Parliament can truly change British society. Bevin changed society, with his influence truly lasting. As Labour enters its twelfth year in opposition, Bevin’s story is more relevant than ever. 

Euan Saunders is a recent graduate from the University of Edinburgh. After reading a history degree he is now working for a Labour MP. His policy interests are in devolution, transport development, and urban planning. 

2 thoughts on “Ernie Bevin: Labour’s Working Class Warrior

  1. Thanks for a fascinating article. Is it correct that Ernie Bevin’s willingness to negotiate a way out of the General Strike set him at odds with at least part of the trade union movement and the Left of the Labour Party, or is that a little too simplistic?


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