Today, rural Norfolk may look like a natural Conservative county. It was not always so. A hundred years ago, the policies of a weak and divided Conservative austerity government were successfully challenged by Norfolk farm workers, assisted by the leader of the Labour Party.
In 1923, the Conservative government, facing an economic crisis, abolished farm subsidies and the agricultural minimum wage. Farmers responded with a proposal to cut the weekly wage for farm labourers by 10%, and increase working hours for farm labourers from 50 to 54 hours a week.
The proposal was met with strong opposition from the workers. At that time Norfolk had already been a stronghold of agricultural trades unionism for forty years, and most farm workers were members of the National Union of Agricultural Workers (NUAW).
In an attempt to resolve the dispute, the prime minister, Bonar Law, met with the National Farmers Union (NFU) and the NUAW to discuss the farmers’ proposals. After the meeting, however, he washed his hands of the issue, saying, “So far as I understand it now, we cannot be of any help.”
And a further attempt to resolve the issue by the bishop of Norwich failed to find a solution.
The NUAW then issued a strike call to members right across Norfolk, and 10,000 farm workers went on strike.
From Keir Hardie Hall in Norwich, the union issued news and appeals for funds, met the press, and sent out speakers and pickets on bicycles into villages.
The county strike committee was supported by the union’s national officers. The organising secretary, James Lunnon, arrived in Norfolk by motorbike, and at a rally in Aylsham the union’s general secretary, Robert Barrie Walker, insisted that “not a man or boy” in the union would return to work on Norfolk farms until a settlement had been reached.
Strike pay was set at 12 shillings a week for a married man with 6 pence extra for each child, and 6 shillings a week for a single man.
The strikers enjoyed a high degree of public sympathy, and there were high levels of support across Norfolk villages. The strike was generally peaceful. Although 600 summonses were issued, they were mostly for trivial offences, and the union claimed that many were attempts at harassment by police.
Police were drafted from outside, but flying pickets on bicycles (many ex-servicemen wearing medals and ribbons) and a village intelligence network ensured that strike breakers brought in from outside the county were quickly challenged.
The workers had been radicalised, both by the experience of the first world war, in which many had served, and their non-conformist Methodist background. In Norfolk, as in other rural areas, the chapel had played a powerful role in teaching literacy and self-governance. It had raised generations of preachers and leaders, and they were also supported by progressive politicians from Norwich.
A weak and divided government
A weak and sick Prime Minister presided over a government facing an economic crisis and deeply divided over personalities. Anticipating its collapse, the NUAW invited the leader of the opposition, Ramsay MacDonald, to intervene. Fearful of an imminent election, the NFU agreed to talks.
After five weeks of strike, the result of the negotiation was presented to a Union conference in Norwich. Both the working hours and the minimum wage were to be restored. When told that the farmers had accepted the deal, they voted unanimously to end the strike. The Observer commented,
Mr MacDonald has rendered signal service to the whole nation as an economic peacemaker … The socialist leader of his majesty’s principal opposition has twice appeared as a moral arbiter with an intellectual grasp.
Better than nothing, but not good
Although the proposal for cuts was abandoned, it still left most farm workers very poor, and the General Secretary of the TUC stressed that they did not regard it as the end of the matter. Before the dispute, the Morning Post had already told its readers,
It is impossible to write without emotion of the agricultural distress prevailing in Norfolk. With wages at 25 shillings a week, the labourer is worse off than he has been in the memory of living man.
The dispute had cost the union £30,000 in strike pay and it was nearly bankrupted, but Norfolk’s stand had stopped the farmers’ attack on farm workers’ terms and conditions across the country.
The parallels between 1923 and 2023 are striking. A weak and divided Conservative government was imposing austerity, led by a prime minister who was not the first choice of his party. Apparently unresolvable industrial disputes are dragging on, with the government refusing to intervene. Most people believed that the opposition would become the next government, and employers and unions were planning for a new regime.
But there are, of course, massive differences. Much of the huge agricultural workforce of 1923 has now been replaced by machinery. Government now accepts a more substantial role in farm subsidies. The power of trades unions has been severely eroded, especially in agriculture. All parties now accept the principle of a minimum wage.
Norfolk has become, in recent years, a Conservative county. But the polls suggest that some parts of Norfolk, which have voted solidly Conservative, may be changing their minds. This time, however, it will not be driven by farm workers.
Based on an article first published in Country Standard.