CLYNES, John Robert
27th March 1869 to 23rd October 1949
Clynes was a former mill worker and trades unionist who became chairman of the Labour Party and home secretary under Ramsay MacDonald.
Clynes was born in Oldham, Lancashire on 27 March 1869. His father was an Irish farm worker who had been dispossessed during the Great Famine and come to England in search of work; he made his living as a gravedigger. At age ten, Clynes went to work in a cotton mill. He left school at twelve to work full time; thereafter he attended some night school classes but was largely self-taught. A prodigious reader, he saved whatever he could from his wages to buy books. Shakespeare, Bacon, Milton and Ruskin were among his favourite authors. Clynes also earned extra money by acting as a reader for blind men, and it was one of these men who first introduced Clynes to political activism.
By the time he was sixteen Clynes had written several public letters and essays on the condition of child mill workers, and at seventeen he helped his fellow young workers set up a trades union to bargain for better wages and working conditions. In 1891 he quit the mill and joined the National Union of Gasworkers and General Labourers as an organiser. He married Mary Harper in 1893.
Clynes rose rapidly in prominence. In 1892 he was elected president of the Oldham Trades Council, and from 1894-1912 served as its secretary. He attend the first conference of the Independent Labour Party in 1893, and was also a delegate to the Zürich Socialist and Labour Congress that same year; one of his fellow delegates was Friedrich Engels. Perhaps inspired by what he heard in Zürich, Clynes represented the Gasworkers Union at several trades union congresses in the later 1890s, arguing the case for workers to become more politically active. He was one of the founders of the Labour Representation Committee in 1899. In 1904 Clynes was elected to the Committee’s national executive and, after the Committee became the Labour Party in 1906, was elected party chairman in 1908. In 1909 he travelled to Toronto to attend a conference of the American Federation of Labor. He became president of the Gasworkers Union, later the National Union of General and Municipal Workers, in 1912 and continued in that role until 1945.
In the general election of 1906, Clynes was one of twenty-nine Labour candidates to be elected, representing North-Eastern Manchester (later Manchester Platting). He retained this seat until 1931. Clynes initially opposed Labour’s entry into the coalition government of 1915, but in 1917 he accepted a post on the Food Commission and became parliamentary under-secretary to the Food Controller, Lord Rhondda. After the introduction of rationing in the same year he served as chairman of the Consumers’ Council. Clynes received honorary doctorates from the University of Durham and the University of Oxford in 1919.
After the general election of 1918 Clynes was elected vice-chairman of the Labour Party, and in 1921 became chairman for a second time. Clynes led the Labour Party during the 1922 general election when the party won 57 seats; however, he was outmanoeuvred by Ramsay MacDonald in the contest for the chair of the parliamentary Labour Party, and became vice-chairman instead. He and MacDonald remained on good terms, and in 1929 when MacDonald became prime minister for the second time, Clynes was appointed as home secretary. He introduced several electoral reforms, and also famously refused Leon Trotsky permission to settle in the UK.
In 1931 Clynes lost his seat in the general election, but he was returned again for Manchester Platting in 1935 and held the seat until he retired in 1945. His wife was badly injured in an air raid during the Second World War. After the war, Clynes and his wife lived on his meagre union pension. He died in considerable poverty in Putney on 23 October 1949.
Clynes’s personal brand of socialism was nearer the Fabians than the Marxists. He believed that workers needed to become politically active, but always felt that their activism had to be responsible and conducted within the democratic framework. He was lukewarm about participation in the First World War, but worked hard to solve some of the problems created by the war. His subsequent political career was marked by his commitment to the institutions of democracy. His early views on nationalised industries were quietly dropped in later years. He once told a colleague that most of the world’s problems could be solved by the application of a sense of humour.
Clynes’s Rowntree lecture might have come as a shock to his fellow Labour party members, for he quickly acknowledges that workers as well as employers bear responsibility for industrial unrest. He paints a picture of employers driving down pay and keeping wages at bare subsistence levels, but also of workers selfishly demanding more and more money without regard to whether this is in the national interest. High wages have to be paid for by someone, says Clynes, and the country as a whole suffers when disputes break out. He calls for greater unity: ‘I urge therefore that employers and workers have a joint interest in industry, which can be jointly shared only when they act upon lines which will prove advantageous to both, and enable both to exact from industry the utmost which their efforts can obtain.’
Pragmatically, he says that both sides should consider methods which might not meet with official approval. Profit-sharing as a means of redistributing wealth, and arbitration of disputes to prevent damaging strikes, are both officially discouraged by the trades unions but, says Clynes, both can be very useful: ‘When all conciliatory methods of settling a dispute have failed, I can think of no better plan than for the two contending parties to submit their dispute to a third unbiased party.’ Strikes and lockouts, on the other hand, result in waste and loss for all parties, and the country as a whole suffers.
Clynes pays tribute to efforts by both employees and unions to improve the well-being of workers which, he says, have made great strides in the past forty years. But, he says, more needs to be done. He notes the ‘many forms of irksome and dangerous toil, which if conducted without regard to the well-being of men engaged in them, tend to harden the natures and brutalise the minds of large numbers of workmen.’ Work, in other words, has a corrosive effect both mentally and physically, and Clynes calls for more still to be done to improve worker welfare and ensure that these brutalising effects are mitigated.
‘I want to speak now of the workman’s duty’, says Clynes, ‘and of the necessity of his fully discharging that duty in respect of output.’ Here again he is critical of some unions for failing to realise that workers are in fact creators of national wealth and prosperity: ‘Labour of hand and brain is the source of all wealth.’ He criticises policy-makers in the Soviet Union for not doing enough to stimulate production, and denounces the idea of national strikes as destructive of wealth and injurious to the health of the nation. ‘Manifestations of solidarity are admirable, but solidarity without wisdom becomes worthless.’ Good working practices, says Clynes, should aim at both properly remunerating the worker and serving the country; and it is in part down to the worker to ensure that these practices are observed.
Middleton, J.S., ‘Clynes, John Robert’, in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.