What Happened At Leeds – Some Background

People have been asking for more information about our piece “What Happened At Leeds” This might help

In June 1917 many in Britain were sick of war. The country had endured the previous year’s slaughter on the Somme, the introduction of conscription and draconian laws which shored up the war effort. The Russian Revolution is the perfect inspiration to a disgruntled populous. The Jingoism first seen when war was declared was now being chipped away and there were many strikes and regular acts of civil disobedience. The fight for votes for women continued, in spite of Emmeline Pankhurst’s ill conceived white feather activity.

In March there were huge rallies held in solidarity with the Russian Revolution in Britain. On May Day thousands across Britain marched in solidarity with the Russian Revolution, including 70,000 in Glasgow. 200,000 munitions workers were on strike across the UK in May. “The Revolt at the Albert Hall” in London saw an estimated 12,000 people gather, with 5,000 more unable to get in.

It is out of that Albert Hall meeting that the United Socialist Council was charged with organising a national conference of delegates from trades unions, trades councils, socialist political parties, peace campaigners and women’s organisations. Initially it was to be called “The National Labour & Socialist Convention” and, because of Leeds’ central position on the Railway network, it would meet in that city.

In late May, the four motions to be voted on at the convention were published. The first three (hailing the Russian Revolution, calling for an end to the war and defending civil liberties) fitted with demands at previous gatherings, but the fourth resolution called for something new: the establishment “in every town, urban, and rural district” of “Councils of Workmen’s and Soldiers’ Delegates”.

This radical resolution was inspired by the Soviets of revolutionary Russia and the British ruling class is clearly worried about the upcoming Leeds Convention. Some 3,500 people braved press hysteria about the event to attend the Convention in the Leeds Coliseum (now Leeds O2 Academy). The meeting had originally been scheduled to take place in the Albert Hall (now the Leeds City Museum) but after intervention by the Empire League the booking was cancelled as were many of the delegates’ hotel bookings. Some of these bookings were “uncancelled” by the police who were very unhappy about people sleeping on the streets.

On hearing of the event, Prime Minister Lloyd George considered a prohibition order under the notorious Defence of the Realm Act (DORA, was been wheeled out to stop the evening rally in Victoria Square but it quickly moved into the Coliseum). Over 3,500 people attended the Convention either as delegates or observers and the evening meeting attracted nearer 5,000.

There was some initial local opposition to the meeting taking place in Leeds from local Labour and Trade Union Figures, possibly because it was all being organised from “that London” and they felt left out. When the powers that be started banning stuff and cancelling bookings however, solidarity kicked in big style, local people rallied round to find accommodation etc. for delegates whose hotel rooms have been cancelled. A socialist bonhomie prevailed on the Aire Delta!

King George V was concerned about events in Russia and he wondered what ill might come from the meeting in Leeds. Two days before the event, a pro-war Labour MP, Will Thorne, had just come back from Russia, he made it quite clear to the king that “with the British Left in charge there is nothing to fear”.

So what happened at Leeds? What was said at the meeting? Did the delegates organise and form Worker’s and Soldier’s Councils? Did women get the vote? What did the Press say? Did delegates get sent to Stockholm to meet other European Socialists to seek a peace and an end to the war? Oh and was a communist party formed in Great Britain? (And indeed how many?)

Soviet Leeds attempts to unravel these mysteries with the speeches made at the meeting alongside music dramatic episodes and hopefully a liberal sprinkling of laughter!