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For what reasons and with what methods and success did a working class political consciousness develop at this time

In nineteenth-century Britain, the working class developed a political conciousness as a result of many factors, ranging from poor living and working conditions to conflicts between classes. In this essay we will be first be looking at the reasons this conciousness developed, then looking at the methods used to gain awareness for their cause. Lastly we will be looking at the success gained from these methods and whether they were effective in finally obtaining a voice for the working class. Britains working class consisted of those who often lived in poverty, selling their labour working long hours in lowly paid, unskilled jobs. They had no real rights within society, no vote and a poor quality of life. Through their surroundings and conditions, Britains working class developed a sense of self awareness and the realisation that their way of life was in fact very different from that of the middle and upper classes. They wanted more rights and parliamentary representation in order to improve the way they were living.During the industrial revolution, there was a boom in birth rates and higher life expectancy than ever before. As families grew and the population increased, living conditions worsened dramatically for the working class with people living in poorly ventilated, damp and overcrowded buildings, often having to share washing facilities and toilets. Sewage was free-flowing throughout the streets, often polluting drinking water and spreading diseases such as cholera and typhoid (http://www.historylinks.org.uk). There were a few philanthropists who tried to allievate these problems, such as Octavia Hill, who built her business around helping the working class by buying tenements for improvement and charging low rent to benefit families. In Homes of the London Poor (1875), she documents the ways in which she improved the appalling state of the houses in which families lived. She turned dirty, damp and unkempt buildings into homes in which “each family had an opportunity of doing better”, fixing the plumbing, roofs and woodwork and replacing all of the broken windows which up until then had all been lined with filthy paper and rags instead of glass (Jenkins et al, 2002).The appalling conditions did not end at the homes of the working class however, but were are also present at the workplace. Days were spent toiling hour after hour in an unsanitary environment, working hard laborious jobs, putting a strain on both the health and sanity of the worker. The wages they were paid were not nearly enough for the hours they had put in and in most cases not even enough to live from sufficiently. The Sweaters Punch, an etching in an 1888 issue of Punch, depicts the poor conditions using negative imagery suggesting themes such as exhaustion and death. The accompanying text describes the experience of so-called “sweaters”, working in the heavily overcrowded factory without the “slightest attempt at decency”. He goes on to describe the “stench and foul vapour”, the small rooms crowded with people and finishes by stating that “the conditions of these people is more deplorable than that of any body of working men in any portion of the civilised or uncivilised world” (Jenkins et al, 2002).As well as these factors, another thing that affected the lives of Britain’s working class was the conflicts between the classes. The working class were subject to discrimination in every day life, having to openly humiliate themselves in public by bowing and scraping to those of the middle class. Joseph Arch (1898), describes how women were expected to show respect by curtesying to the parsons wife in church and did so, afraid to speak out. Middle class women were often ladies of leisure, taking part in such activities as piano and embroidery whilst the working class carried out hard manual work throughout the day. The working class in Liverpool quite often lived in cellars whilst the middle class “had their suburbs on the edge of town”. It was these kind of differences which lead to conflict and the realisation that the working class needed to pull together to improve their situation.Trade Unions were groups of workers banded together to protect the integrity of their trade and campaign for rights such as higher pay and better working conditions. As of 1824 when the Combination Act was repealed, Trade Unions began to actively resume their role as representatives of working class rights. The Amalgamated Society of Engineers (ASE) formed in 1851 for the interests of skilled engineers, favouring negotiation over violence or striking as a form of campaign. Following the ASE, plenty of other unions sprang up for skilled workers, who became known as Model Unions and would go on to make a number of important gains for unionism. As a reward for the responsibility shown by this organized labour, in 1867 the second Reform Act was passed to enfranchise a substantial number of urban working class men.In 1868, the Trade Union Congress (TUC) was formed as a body representing the majority of the unions in Britain, indicating that trade unionism had become a significant national movement (Lynch, 1999, p. 181). As a result of demand for semi-skilled and unskilled workers, by the 1880’s a new movement developed to meet the needs of the unskilled working class. These were known as New Unions and saw the formation of many societies such as the Gas Workers’ Union, Dockers’ Union and Miners Federation. Unlike the Model Unions, these new groups were more open to striking as a way to get their point across.In 1888, the women workers in the Bryant and May match factory in London struck (known as the Match Girls’ Strike) in order to change their dangerous working conditions, which included being exposed to phospherous on a daily basis in the factory. This was extremely dangerous and lead to diseases such as “phossy jaw”, a disfiguring and painful disease which caused ulceration of the skin and softening of the bone (Lynch, 1999, p.182). The strike, although partially successful in securing the women a pay rise, unfortunately resulted in no change in their hazardous conditions.A year later in 1889, encouraged by the success of the gasworkers in obtaining eight hour days from their employers in the 1880’s, the dockers went on strike, lead by John Burns, Tom Mann and Ben Tillett. Their main demand was for implementation of the ‘Dockers’ Tanner’, meaning a basic pay rate of sixpence an hour. A relief scheme was set up for the strikers’ families in order for them to be able to stand by their strike without the worry of their families going hungry. After being on the verge of collapse, fresh hope was given by a sum of money being injected into the campaign by sympathetic unions, resulting in a re-opening of negotiations which eventually ended in the dockers’ demands being met. This was a huge success, with Tillett and the other strike leaders claiming it to be a major victory and proof of what new unionism could achieve (Lynch, 1999, p.182).However, optimism was premature. An economic recession in the next decade left many unskilled workers unemployed and encouraged employers to resist the demands of the union. However, this industrial unrest brought to light the new found political awareness of the new unions and the need was called upon to convince the government and Parliament take notice of their grievances, raising the question of party affiliation (Lynch, 1999, p.183). In 1868, a Parliamentary Committee was appointed by the TUC to organize representation for the trade unions in House of Commons. This was somewhat successful, resulting in a number of working class men elected as MPs by the end of the century. However, these MP’s tended to gravitate more towards the Liberal Party, which was of concern to the unions once the party had been split by the Home Rule issue in 1886.Equally as worrying was the realisation that the employers were in fact fighting back against unions by cutting wages, imposing lock-outs and employing non-union workers. It also became obvious that the law was in fact biased against the unions, undermining their right to picket and threatening their legal standing, which along with the other factors added increased pressure on finding a seperate set of MP’s to speak for the working class (Lynch, 1999, p.185). For this purpose, the Independent Labour Party was formed in 1893. In order to move forward with gaining proper political representation, much support was needed from the unions. In 1899, a TUC conference voted largely in favour of forming its own party. Although there was much support from ‘new’ unionists, it was the support from the ‘old’ unionists that was critical to their cause. However, agreement between the two did mean that from that 1899 on, the movement was fully committed to this idea.In 1901, the strike of Taff Vale staged by a group of railway workers in the Associated Society of Railway Servants (ASRS), saw failure for the union after being taken to court by the company. The court ruled in favour of the company, destroying the unions right to picket, a decision which only an act of parliament could reverse. However the Conservative party were against changing the law and the Liberals were powerless in opposition. This made the argument for a new political party stand out to the leaders of organised labour, causing 127 unions to affiliate to the already established Labour Representation Committee, reuniting the unions and eventually resulting in formation of the Labour Party in 1906 (Lynch, 1999, p.186).As a result, the nineteenth-century working class were largely successful in finding their political voice and changing their ways of life for the better through the use of trade unions. Striking was often an effective way of showing employers that they wanted change and worked for them in many cases. The Dockers’ Strike was a big success for those who campaigned for fairer wages, however it was not always so, as in the case of the Match Girls’ who did not secure any sort of changes to those life-threatening conditions in the workplace. Through the work of the unions, many changes were made such as a vote for the working class where they had no rights before. The main point is that it brought to light the need for political representation, and as a result of the Taff Vale strike ruling, this became a reality with the formation of the Labour Party which ensured that the working class finally had its place in society.In conclusion, through the appalling working and living conditions the majority of working class Britain had to endure throughout the nineteenth century, developing a political conciousness was a natural step to take in securing real rights and a better quality of life within their society. Through achieving realisation of their unacceptable treatment at work, home and in society, they were able to band together to fight for their cause. Finally achieving not only a place in Parliament, but a voice that they had never had before, was the outcome of many years of hard work to change things for the better.

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