Tom Shaw, the eldest son of Ellis Shaw, a miner, and his wife, Sarah Wilkinson Shaw, was born in Colne, Lancashire, on 9th April 1872. He was educated locally at St James's elementary school, and when ten years old entered a textile factory as a half-time worker. (1)
Shaw finally at the age of twelve but later took evening and technical classes to improve his education and developed a particular skill in languages. In 1893 Shaw married Susannah Ryan, and over the next few years had four daughters. (2)
Shaw joined the Colne Weavers' Association, and subsequently became its secretary. He also tried to unite all textile workers by forming the Northern Counties' Textile Federation. In 1911 he became secretary of the International Federation of Textile Workers and in this post visited almost every country in Europe. (3)
The First World War split the labour movement. Keir Hardie made a speech on 2nd August, 1914, where he called on "the governing class... to respect the decision of the overwhelming majority of the people who will have neither part nor lot in such infamy... Down with class rule! Down with the rule of brute force! Down with war! Up with the peaceful rule of the people!" (4)
Ramsay MacDonald agreed and stated that he would not encourage his members to take part in the war. "Out of the darkness and the depth we hail our working-class comrades of every land. Across the roar of guns, we send sympathy and greeting to the German Socialists. They have laboured increasingly to promote good relations with Britain, as we with Germany. They are no enemies of ours but faithful friends." (5)
Tom Shaw disagreed with those who argued that the TUC should call a general strike in order to stop a war. "Why waste time in going round asking the rank and file if they thought it would be advisable in the event of a declaration of war to declare a General Strike? War between country and country, is a bad thing, but in case of such a war any attempt of a General Strike to prevent the people defending their country would result in civil war which was ten times worse than war between nation and nation." (6)
A member of the Labour Party, Shaw was selected in 1918 to contest the constituency of Preston. This choice was not liked by "local left-wingers on account of his enthusiasm for the war, but he was a bluff, sporting, John Bull figure whose blend of Toryism and socialism suited the constituency.. He advocated national ownership of railways, mines and canals and focused his campaign on the treatment of the ex-soldiers, arguing that they had a right to a wage rather than a pension." This programme was popular and he won the seat. (7)
Shaw continued to be active in international politics and he became joint secretary of the the Labour and Socialist International at Hamburg in 1923. Other members included Ramsay MacDonald, Arthur Henderson, Harry Gosling, Jimmy Thomas, Sidney Webb, Clifford Allen, Fenner Brockway, Fyodor Dan, Viktor Chernov, Pavel Axelrod, Victor Berger, Morris Hillquit, Karl Kautsky, Hermann Müller, Eduard Bernstein, Friedrich Adler and Rudolf Hilferding.
In the 1923 General Election, the Labour Party won 191 seats. Although the Conservative Party had 258 seats, Herbert Asquith announced that the Liberal Party would not keep the Tories in office. If a Labour Government were ever to be tried in Britain, he declared, "it could hardly be tried under safer conditions". On 22nd January, 1924 Stanley Baldwin resigned. At midday, Ramsay MacDonald went to Buckingham Palace to be appointed prime minister. MacDonald told one of his colleagues: "I want to gain the confidence of the country and shall suit my policy accordingly." (8)
Macdonald later recalled how George V complained about the singing of the Red Flag and the La Marseilles, at the Labour Party meeting in the Albert Hall a few days before. MacDonald apologized but claimed that there would have been a riot if he had tried to stop it. However, he would use "all his influence and that of his moderate and immediate friends to prevent this song being sung in the Commons" in the future. (9)
Ramsay MacDonald agreed to head a minority government, and therefore became the first member of the party to become Prime Minister. MacDonald had the problem of forming a Cabinet with colleagues who had little, or no administrative experience. MacDonald appointed Tom Shaw as Minister of Labour. In this post he introduced two measures which enhanced the benefits of the Unemployment Insurance Act. "The first established the gap of three weeks between periods of benefit... The second combined a number of administrative improvements with a substantial increase in benefits - from 75p to 90p a week for men." (10)
The Labour government made it clear that it would rule without reference to the wishes of the trade unions. Tom Shaw commented: "Parliament is the body to which the Government must submit its proposals... it would be wrong to take the line that any other body... has the right to ask consultation." (11) Ernest Bevin, the general secretary of the Transport & General Workers Union (TGWU), replied: "I only wish it had been a Tory Government in office. We would not have been frightened by their threats." (12)
Members of establishment were appalled by the idea of a Prime Minister who was a socialist. As Gill Bennett pointed out: "It was not just the intelligence community, but more precisely the community of an elite - senior officials in government departments, men in "the City", men in politics, men who controlled the Press - which was narrow, interconnected (sometimes intermarried) and mutually supportive. Many of these men... had been to the same schools and universities, and belonged to the same clubs. Feeling themselves part of a special and closed community, they exchanged confidences secure in the knowledge, as they thought, that they were protected by that community from indiscretion." (13)
The most hostile response to the new Labour government was Lord Northcliffe, the owner of several Conservative Party supporting newspapers. The Daily Mail claimed: "The British Labour Party, as it impudently calls itself, is not British at all. It has no right whatever to its name. By its humble acceptance of the domination of the Sozialistische Arbeiter Internationale's authority at Hamburg in May it has become a mere wing of the Bolshevist and Communist organisation on the Continent. It cannot act or think for itself." (14)
In September 1924 MI5 intercepted a letter signed by Grigory Zinoviev, chairman of the Comintern in the Soviet Union, and Arthur McManus, the British representative on the committee. In the letter British communists were urged to promote revolution through acts of sedition. Hugh Sinclair, head of MI6, provided "five very good reasons" why he believed the letter was genuine. However, one of these reasons, that the letter came "direct from an agent in Moscow for a long time in our service, and of proved reliability" was incorrect. (15)
Vernon Kell, the head of MI5 and Sir Basil Thomson the head of Special Branch, were also convinced that the letter was genuine. Desmond Morton, who worked for MI6, told Sir Eyre Crowe, at the Foreign Office, that an agent, Jim Finney, who worked for George Makgill, the head of the Industrial Intelligence Bureau (IIB), had penetrated Comintern and the Communist Party of Great Britain. Morton told Crowe that Finney "had reported that a recent meeting of the Party Central Committee had considered a letter from Moscow whose instructions corresponded to those in the Zinoviev letter". However, Christopher Andrew, who examined all the files concerning the matter, claims that Finney's report of the meeting does not include this information. (16)
Kell showed the letter to Ramsay MacDonald, the Labour Prime Minister. It was agreed that the letter should be kept secret until after the election. (17) Thomas Marlowe, who worked for the press baron, Alfred Harmsworth, Lord Rothermere, had a good relationship with Reginald Hall, the Conservative Party MP, for Liverpool West Derby. During the First World War he was director of Naval Intelligence Division of the Royal Navy (NID) and he leaked the letter to Marlowe, in an effort to bring an end to the Labour government. (18)
The Daily Mail published the letter on 25th October 1924, just four days before the 1924 General Election. Under the headline "Civil War Plot by Socialists Masters" it argued: "Moscow issues orders to the British Communists... the British Communists in turn give orders to the Socialist Government, which it tamely and humbly obeys... Now we can see why Mr MacDonald has done obeisance throughout the campaign to the Red Flag with its associations of murder and crime. He is a stalking horse for the Reds as Kerensky was... Everything is to be made ready for a great outbreak of the abominable class war which is civil war of the most savage kind." (19)
Ramsay MacDonald suggested he was a victim of a political conspiracy: "I am also informed that the Conservative Headquarters had been spreading abroad for some days that... a mine was going to be sprung under our feet, and that the name of Zinoviev was to be associated with mine. Another Guy Fawkes - a new Gunpowder Plot... The letter might have originated anywhere. The staff of the Foreign Office up to the end of the week thought it was authentic... I have not seen the evidence yet. All I say is this, that it is a most suspicious circumstance that a certain newspaper and the headquarters of the Conservative Association seem to have had copies of it at the same time as the Foreign Office, and if that is true how can I avoid the suspicion - I will not say the conclusion - that the whole thing is a political plot?" (20)
The rest of the Tory owned newspapers ran the story of what became known as the Zinoviev Letter over the next few days and it was no surprise when the election was a disaster for the Labour Party. The Conservatives won 412 seats and formed the next government. Lord Beaverbrook, the owner of the Daily Express and Evening Standard, told Lord Rothermere, the owner of The Daily Mail and The Times, that the "Red Letter" campaign had won the election for the Conservatives. Rothermere replied that it was probably worth a hundred seats. (21)
Tom Shaw retained his seat and in 1926 headed a delegation to investigate conditions in the Indian textile industry. According to his biographer, James Middleton, who was general secretary of the Labour Party, "Shaw had a robust constitution and a plain, blunt manner of speech, Shaw was a popular figure in his local area and more broadly." (22)
In the 1929 General Election the Conservatives won 8,664,000 votes, the Labour Party 8,360,000 and the Liberals 5,300,000. However, the bias of the system worked in Labour's favour, and in the House of Commons the party won 287 seats, the Conservatives 261 and the Liberals 59. MacDonald became Prime Minister again, but as before, he still had to rely on the support of the Liberals to hold onto power. (23)
MacDonald appointed Tom Shaw as Secretary of State for War. The election of the Labour Government coincided with an economic depression and Ramsay MacDonald was faced with the problem of growing unemployment. In January 1929, 1,433,000 people were out of work, a year later it reached 1,533,000. By March 1930, the figure was 1,731,000. In June it reached 1,946,000 and by the end of the year it reached a staggering 2,725,000. That month MacDonald invited a group of economists, including John Maynard Keynes, J. A. Hobson, George Douglas Cole and Walter Layton, to discuss this problem. However, he rejected all those ideas that involved an increase in public spending. (24)
On 24th August 1931 MacDonald agreed to form a National Government. Only Philip Snowden, Jimmy Thomas and John Sankey agreed to join the new government. Tom Shaw and the other Labour ministers resigned. They were replaced by members of the opposition. This included Stanley Baldwin (Lord President of the Council), Neville Chamberlain (Health), Samuel Hoare (Secretary of State for India), Herbert Samuel (Home Office), Philip Cunliffe-Lister (Board of Trade) and Lord Reading (Foreign Office).
The 1931 General Election was held on 27th October, 1931. MacDonald led an anti-Labour alliance made up of Conservatives and National Liberals. It was a disaster for the Labour Party with only 46 members winning their seats. Several leading Labour figures, including Tom Shaw, Arthur Henderson, John R. Clynes, Arthur Greenwood, Charles Trevelyan, Herbert Morrison, Emanuel Shinwell, Frederick Pethick-Lawrence, Hugh Dalton, Susan Lawrence, William Wedgwood Benn and Margaret Bondfield lost their seats.
After leaving the House of Commons he once again became general secretary of the International Federation of Textile Workers and in "this post visited almost every country in Europe, combining an intimate knowledge of the technicalities of the industry with a grasp of industrial politics both at home and abroad". (25)
Tom Shaw died at the Middlesex Hospital on 26th September 1938.
But why did Labour win in certain districts? The explanation lay less in structural changes than in the character of the political appeal made by some candidates in 1918. At Derby Jimmy Thomas emerged top of the poll in a two-member seat. He faced his electors flourishing letters of congratulation from assorted luminaries including Field Marshal Sir William Robertson, Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig, Andrew Bonar Law and J. L. Garvin, editor of the Observer, for his role in keeping the railways running during the war. Unusually for a Labour candidate he was endorsed by the local newspaper and even the Derby Tories thought he deserved to be included in the Cabinet! But apart from his personal attributes, Thomas understood the tactical need to appropriate the war from the Tories: `I say that Labour has won the war.",
Other successful candidates saw how to turn the patriotic argument to Labour's advantage and thereby to justify the party's social policy. John Hodge argued that "if Britain could spend so much to destroy life she could now spend to make life worth living"...
In this way some Labour candidates managed to advance beyond the party's existing territory by making a populist appeal to working-class patriots. In Lancashire Labour won several Tory working-class strongholds such as Wigan and Preston. Tom Shaw, Labour's candidate in Preston, was not liked by local left-wingers on account of his enthusiasm for the war, but he was a bluff, sporting, John Bull figure whose blend of Toryism and socialism suited the constituency. Shaw claimed that `the Germans deliberately provoked the war and that they carried it on in a way that was monstrous ... Germany must pay the bill.' His patriotic credentials enabled him to take the offensive over social policy and advocate socialism from a position of strength. He advocated 'national ownership' of railways, mines and canals and focused his campaign on the treatment of the ex-soldiers, arguing that they had a right to a wage rather than a pension: "as a debt that the nation owed them and a debt that the nation ought to be proud to honour".
Shaw joined the Colne Weavers' Association, and subsequently became its secretary. He also promoted the formation of the Northern Counties' Textile Federation, which embraced all the main sections of the cotton trade unions, and he was its first secretary. From 1911 to 1929, and again from 1931 until his death, he was secretary of the International Federation of Textile Workers and in this post visited almost every country in Europe, combining an intimate knowledge of the technicalities of the industry with a grasp of industrial politics both at home and abroad. During the First World War he was director of national service for the west midland region. He was appointed CBE in 1919.
An early and enthusiastic supporter of the Labour Party, Shaw was returned as the Labour member of parliament for Preston in 1918 and held the seat until his defeat in 1931. He was junior Labour whip in 1919, minister of labour in the first Labour government (January–October 1924), and secretary of state for war in the second Labour administration (1929–31). As minister of labour he introduced measures which enhanced the benefits of the Unemployment Insurance Acts. He became a privy councillor in 1924.
On the reconstruction of the Labour and Socialist International at Hamburg in 1923, when Arthur Henderson (1863–1935) was appointed chairman, Shaw was elected joint secretary, sharing the post with Friedrich Adler, the Austrian socialist, until 1925. In this role he visited the Ruhr and reported against its continued occupation by French troops. He stressed the impossibility of enforcing the German reparations laid down in the treaty of Versailles, and forecast the probability of another war in twenty years' time.