Suffragette Lessons for Today

One hundred years after some women gained the vote in British parliamentary elections it is worth examining the tactics used by these courageous rebels. After all, they did achieve their main aim so perhaps progressive campaigners today can learn something from the methods employed by the suffragettes. Here the development of the suffragette movement is outlined and then some comparisons and contrasts with more recent progressive campaigns will be made.


Organised campaigning for women to get the vote had been going on since the mid-nineteenth century and some small advances had been made. Women could be elected to School Boards, Boards of Guardians and the new County Councils. In 1897 various groups came together in the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) led by Millicent Fawcett. This organisation rapidly grew in membership and was committed to legal, constitutional methods of campaigning. The NUWSS held public meetings, organised demonstrations and marches, produced a newspaper and pressurised Members of Parliament with petitions demanding votes for women. Its membership was predominantly middle and upper class although there was some working class participation especially by women factory hands, e.g. in Lancashire mills. The members and followers of the NUWSS became known as suffragists.

It should be noted that some of the campaigning methods used by the NUWSS were probably more effective then than they are now. The majority of the population did not yet read newspapers, the cinema was in its infancy and public radio broadcasting did not yet exist. Public meetings on all sorts of topics were a popular pastime and attracted large audiences. Often they were free. Printed newspapers and magazines still had some novelty value.

Although there were a large number of MPs favourable to female suffrage, bills put forward in the House of Commons all got derailed at some point because of lack of support by successive governments. A growing number of female campaigners for the vote became frustrated at the lack of progress and in 1903 Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughters Chistabel, Sylvia and Adela led the formation of a breakaway organisation from the NUWSS. This was the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) which explicitly favoured a more militant approach and was not much bothered about breaking the law. It was the Daily Mail (!) which coined the term suffragette for the new movement and the term stuck.

The suffragettes confronted politicians who opposed votes for women. They did this at the public meetings of such persons and deliberately disrupted those occasions. They confronted hostile MPs in the streets including the Liberal Prime Minister, Herbert Asquith. Also they harassed anti-suffrage MPs as they entered the House of Commons and stood up to the police protecting these MPs. Many women were arrested and tried in court for such activity. Some got sent to prison. In parliamentary by-elections the suffragettes urged the male electors to vote for the main opposition candidate to the sitting Liberal Government as a way of pressurising the Government to support votes for women. Among others, Winston Churchill lost his seat in this way. Although the WSPU were always a minority of the women who were members of suffrage organisations, their militant actions gained a lot of publicity for the cause and this boosted membership of the law-abiding NUWSS. In 1907 there were very large votes for women marches in London and elsewhere.

There were many contradictions among the campaigners for female suffrage. The WPSU was becoming increasingly militant and decided not to support any political party in elections. In 1907 some of its members formed the breakaway Women’s Freedom League (WFL) which was against violent militancy. This was more orientated towards working class women and had links with the newly formed Labour Party. The main body of the WPSU was renamed the National WPSU and took on an autocratic structure and insisted its members conformed to military type discipline. Although welcomed as supporters, men could not be members of the WPSU.

In the following year, 1908, militant actions were stepped up. Women started to chain themselves to railings outside the Houses of Parliament and elsewhere. In June the WPSU led a demonstration of around 30,000 to Hyde Park and this attracted a crowd of around one quarter of a million. In the same month the window smashing campaign began with breakages at 10 Downing Street and this spread to attacks on the windows of big stores and government offices. This campaign continued but did not become large-scale until 1913. The WSPU also began a more general campaign of arson attacks on the homes of prominent politicians and other premises. The NUWSS opposed these attacks on property as did the WFL which preferred carrying out stunts. In October 1908 a crowd of around 60,000 assembled at the House of Commons to try to “rush it” and 36 women were arrested. Later in the month members of the WFL shouted out slogans from the Ladies’ Gallery in the House of Commons and chained themselves to the grills. In June 1909 there was yet another mass rally in Hyde Park with an estimated 250,000 to 500,000 people present. This was the largest political demonstration to date in Britain and ones of this size did not occur again until the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament ones of the early nineteen eighties. But still the Liberal Government was unmoved.

Growing numbers of suffragettes were being imprisoned for taking direct actions and in July 1909 they started to employ the hunger strike tactic. The Government responded by starting to force feed the prisoners. (Later on, in 1918 Irish Republicans imprisoned by the British colonial regime took up the hunger strike weapon.) The rising tide of militancy stimulated the WFL to go to polling stations to destroy ballot papers and to start a campaign of women withholding tax payments. Although opposed to the NWPSU’s more militant tactics the NUWSS had previously given some sympathetic support to the suffragettes. Now it forthrightly condemned the WPSU’s violent behaviour and relations between the two organisations broke down.

In early 1910 a Conciliation Bill was introduced into Parliament which if passed would have given the vote to women who were householders. The suffragettes suspended their actions while they waited to see if this Bill would be passed. A majority of MPs supported the first reading but in November Parliament was dissolved pending a new general election. Prime Minister Asquith refused to guarantee that the Bill would be reintroduced in a new parliament so the suffragettes called off their truce on 18th. November. On that same day large numbers of suffragettes went to the House of Commons to protest where they were set upon and beaten by large numbers of police. Three women subsequently died as a result of the injuries they suffered. This notorious occasion came to be called ‘Black Friday’. In 1911 the WPSU and WFL organised a boycott to not fill in the National Census returns. This was quite successful and nobody was prosecuted. In June a new Conciliation Bill was introduced but by November it had been withdrawn. At a mass demonstration at the House of Commons 220 people were arrested.

Now the suffragettes escalated their campaigning. In March a major window breaking campaign began with stones being thrown at 10 Downing Street. A few days later four suffragettes were charged with conspiracy and sentenced to nine months in prison. This sparked off mass hunger strikes by imprisoned suffragettes and the authorities responded with forced feeding. This attracted a lot of public sympathy and expressions of outrage. In July suffragettes tried to set fire to a theatre in Dublin where Asquith was to speak. Two were sentenced to five years in prison. They went on hunger strike and were released after nine weeks. There were other arsonist attacks and this led to a split in the WPSU over the amount of violence against property being employed. Other actions taken included pouring noxious substances into pillar boxes and making false fire calls. Two hundred and forty women were sent prison in 1912. The contradictions among the suffragettes were intensifying and in 1913 the East London Federation of Suffragettes, led by Emmeline’s daughter Sylvia, broke from the WPSU.

In 1913 yet another bill was rejected by Parliament and Emmeline Pankhurst declared “guerilla warfare”. As well as intensifying the arson campaign, golf courses were attacked and telephone wires brought down. Chancellor of the Exchequer David Lloyd George was having a new house built but suffragettes blew it up. Although not personally responsible, Emmeline challenged the authorities to charge her with the offence. They took up the challenge and she was sentenced to three years penal servitude. It was at this time that the Government brought in the notorious “Cat and Mouse” Act. The Act specified that prisoners on hunger strike would not be force fed but when they had reached a life-threatening condition they would be released from prison. However, as soon as they had recovered they would be rearrested and taken back to prison to serve the remainder of their sentences. Emmeline went on thirst strike and was released after just three days and then went into hiding.

In July 1913 the NUWSS organised the Great Pilgrimage whereby marchers taking eight different routes converged on London for a meeting in Hyde Park of around 70,000 people. The government still ignored the demand of votes for women. Carrying over into 1914 the suffragettes escalated their attacks on property. The Britannia Pier, Great Yarmouth and the Bath Hotel, Felixstowe were destroyed by fire and there were attacks on churches. There were an average of six arson attacks per month in 1914. Then on 4th. August 1914 the Great War began and this changed everything.

Most of the suffragette leaders, including Emmeline Pankhurst, called off their militant campaigning and expressed full support for the British Government’s war policy. Not all of them did so. Sylvia Pankhurst in particular opposed the war and declared that the struggle fo female suffrage must continue. None the less, the great majority of campaigners for votes for women succumbed to patriotic fervour and threw themselves wholeheartedly into the war effort. Defence of an imperialist state had triumphed over the struggle for equality for women.

As the war ground on with enormous casualties popular support for it was diminishing while discontent with social and economic conditions, especially housing, was rising. In 1917 the Coalition Government led by Lloyd George put forward a bill to enfranchise all men – (many working class men still did not have the vote) – and women of thirty and over who were householders or the wives of householders. This was passed and became law in February 1918. Women under thirty and those who were not householders had to wait until 1928 before they got the parliamentary vote.


Many of the political activities engaged in by the suffragettes are still in use today. Campaigning organisations such as the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND), the green movement, the Stop the War Coalition and Keep Our National Health Service Public (KONP) use some of the same methods. A comparison between the methods employed by the suffragettes and those used by contemporary campaigns can be constructive.

Public meetings & rallies

Votes for women campaigners certainly successfully used these methods. Their public meetings and rallies were often very well-attended. They were also lively occasions with male opponents often trying to disrupt the proceedings. At some meetings, especially if Emmeline was speaking, the better off women present took off their jewellery and put it in the collection buckets. The suffragettes had no problem with fund-raising.

Of course, as previously mentioned, public meetings and rallies about all sorts of things were more of a draw a century ago than they are today. Now it is only on exceptional occasions, e.g. before the invasion of Iraq, that public meetings and rallies attract more than the usual suspects who already are committed to the cause at hand. They have limited utility in changing and moulding public opinion. Nevertheless many progressive campaigners persist with this dead left ritual without critically evaluating it..

Paper selling

Each of the suffrage campaigns had their own newspapers and other publications. These sold in large numbers and were a useful source of revenue. Now campaigners, especially left-wing political ones, still produce newspapers and other publications but their sales are not great. Trotskyites in particular are keen on little papers and are usually to be seen trying to flog copies. Now mainstream newspapers are in rapid decline let alone alternative ones. What is more, printed media are time consuming and expensive to produce and distribute. Websites and social media on the internet attract much larger audiences.

Petitions and promoting bills

The suffragists presented many petitions to Parliament demanding female suffrage. None of these were successful. Already back in the mid-nineteenth century there had been the two Chartist petitions to Parliament demanding male suffrage, the second of which with over three million signatures, but they did not have the desired impact. Although on a number of occasions bills to give votes to women were introduced into the House of Commons successive governments found ways to block them. This is still usually the case. Parliament has been presented with many petitions demanding legislation banning nuclear weapons, opposing British intervention in various wars and reversing measures undermining health and care services. None of these has had the desired impact on the national politicians. More successful have been petitions on environmental issues, as part of wider campaigns, to get some legislation passed by Parliament. Despite this very limited success, progressive campaigners remain keen on getting members of the public to sign petitions. This can give people the impression that they are doing something useful when usually they are not. Of course, the suffragettes came to realise the limitations of petitions and thus took up more militant methods.

Picketing and lobbying

The suffragettes picketed and lobbied MPs especially at the entrance to the House of Commons. This was very different from the same types of activities today. Now this is done in a deferential and polite way. Not for the suffragettes. They harassed MPs hostile to them and tried to forcibly enter the House of Commons. Of course they were opposed by large numbers of police who often behaved in a very violent and brutal way. Many women were arrested and sent to prison where they continued their resistance by hunger striking. In order to defend themselves some members of the WPSU trained themselves in ju-jitsu. How different from today. These women were not pacifists and were prepared to take on their male opponents by whatever means necessary. Of course, some people saw this militant behaviour as discrediting the suffragettes but others, perhaps more, came to respect these courageous women and became more sympathetic to their cause.

Today there is a pervasive pacifism among progressive campaigners which makes them easy pickings for body-armoured police. For example, there have been attempts to enter military bases, such as where military drones are controlled and directed from, and these are easily repulsed by police. We should take appropriate steps, as did the suffragettes, to protect ourselves.

Demonstrations and marches

The suffragists and suffragettes had many very large marches and demonstrations. Indeed, one at least was probably the largest ever in Britain until the Stop the War one in Britain in 2003. But these did not sway a sufficient number of MPs to support votes for women. The suffragettes learnt from this experience and turned to new, more forceful tactics. This has not been the case in Britain more recently. Back in the late nineteen fifties and early nineteen sixties and then again in the early nineteen eighties CND organised mass marches, particularly from Aldermaston to London, as a way to try to pressurise British governments to scrap their nuclear weapons. It didn’t work. Then again

from 2003 onwards the Stop the War Coalition held large demonstrations in London to pressurise the Government to pull out of Iraq. This didn’t work and the demos got progressively smaller. More recently Keep Our NHS Public and the People’s Assembly have been employing the same tactic to try to stop the running down of health and care services. It hasn’t worked but this has not prevented these people mindlessly carrying on trying on to organise yet more demos mainly in London.

There are occasions when a large public demonstration is an appropriate tactic in trying to bring pressure to bear on the state or large business organisations. But they usually don’t succeed in attaining their objectives. It’s time contemporary campaigners caught up with the suffragettes and learnt this lesson.

Intervening in elections

As previously mentioned the suffragettes urged the male electors in general and by-elections to vote against candidates of the ruling Liberal Party Government. They had some success when Winston Churchill was unseated. Also they disrupted hostile candidates’ election meetings. Not a bit of polite questioning but shouting them down. Eventually the suffragettes abstained from supporting any candidates.

Nowadays most progressive campaigners try to play the electoral game in national and local elections. The Green Party have managed to get elected one MP and three MEPs as well as quite a few seats on local councils. Trotskyist and revisionist organisations usually support Labour candidates although since the election of the Tony Blair led Labour Government in 1997 they have from time to time put up alternative candidates. Some of these groups have come together at election times and have put candidates up under names such as Socialist Alliance, Respect and Trade Union and Socialist Coalition (TUSC). These candidates usually receive derisory votes. The reality is that these Trotskyist organisations are engaging in tokenism because they do not carry out the hard work on the ground necessary to get somewhere in British elections. Rather, when an election is looming on the horizon they hastily get together an electoral front which after the event disappears as suddenly as it had arisen.

The suffragettes questioned the legitimacy of a political system which excluded half the population from voting in Parliamentary elections. In challenging it they certainly did not intend to play the game according to rules laid down by those people running and benefiting from this rotten system. They used whatever means they thought might be effective to undermine it. Our latter day progressives are very different. They basically accept the legitimacy of a state apparatus which is quite blatantly designed to serve the interests of the rich and powerful, i.e. the monopoly capitalist class, and which attempts to dupe the great mass of the people.

But things are changing. A growing proportion of the population are losing confidence in the British political system. One indication of this is fairly low turnouts in recent general elections despite all the measures which have been taken to make it easier for people to register to vote and to actually cast votes in elections. This decline in confidence in the main political parties is part of the reason why the racist UKIP managed to make some advances in national and local elections.

Since the rise of Jeremy Corbyn to be Labour Party leader the Trotskyites and revisionists are putting their efforts into trying to get a Labour Government elected, claiming that this is the way forward towards socialism. These people seem incapable of learning the lessons of history whereby we know from past experiences in Britain and elsewhere that social democratic governments get derailed by powerful elements in the capitalist class, the civil service, the judiciary and the military.

The brave struggle of the suffragettes did win the vote for women in Britain but the outcome of women being able to vote and sit in the House of Commons was a disappointment in terms of improving the position of women in society. It was the new women’s movement which arose in the nineteen sixties which brought about some real advances in terms of employment rights, personal relations and the overall position of women in society. Today a large proportion of MPs of the main political parties are women and they have shown themselves to be just as bad as the men. Women, just as much as men, will not win true freedom to control their own destinies by means of the capitalist state’s political system.

What both women and men should do is campaign to expose the essentially undemocratic character of the present political system. This involves not urging people to vote in sham elections but organising boycotts, using militant methods, to expose the whole farce.

Direct action

As more conventional campaigning proved to be ineffectual, the suffragettes increasingly turned to militant forms of direct action. During 1914 the campaign was really escalating, especially with the growing number of arson attacks. The Liberal Government got lucky with the sudden outbreak of war because this brought the suffragettes’ campaign to an abrupt halt.

The case of CND

In the mid-nineteen fifties the nuclear arms race between the USA-led bloc and the Soviet bloc was intensifying. There was growing public concern about the possibility of the outbreak of a nuclear war. In 1957 the Emergency Committee for Direct Action Against Nuclear War (later the Direct Action Committee) was formed. One of the founders was Bertrand Russell. For Easter 1958 it organised the first mass march from Aldermaston to London demanding British unilateral nuclear disarmament. In January 1958 the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament led by Canon John Collins was formed. At first the CND leaders were not very keen on the Aldermaston marches, as they became known, but as they were obviously attracting large numbers of participants CND took over the organisation of this annual Easter event and similar ones in other parts of the country. As a movement CND grew very quickly but the British Government was unmoved by the demand for nuclear disarmament and pushed ahead with its programme of building submarines armed with the Polaris nuclear missiles from America.

Some of the nuclear disarmers, especially Russell, came to realise that new tactics were needed if there was to be a greater impact on the Government. The Committee of 100 for Civil Disobedience against Nuclear Warfare was formed and its first action was to be a sit down outside the Ministry of Defence in February 1916. This went off without much interference from the authorities but a subsequent protest in Whitehall a couple of months later was banned and many participants were arrested and charged. The British state was not much bothered about people protesting about nuclear weapons by means of large but very well-behaved marches and demonstrations. But when it came to breaking the laws and directly confronting the police that was a different matter. The authority of the warfare state was being directly challenged. The Committee of 100 planned a big demonstration in Trafalgar Square on 17th. September but this was banned and many of the leaders arrested in advance. The demo went ahead but late in the evening, when most demonstrators had gone home, the police viciously attacked those left and many were arrested. The gloves had come off. On the same day there was action at the Holy Loch base in Scotland where the new American Polaris submarines were to be based.

From then on support for and participation in direct actions increased and the public attention these attracted had the effect of getting more people involved in CND in general. There were attempts at blockading and entering military bases and other government establishments. The Easter 1962 Aldermaston march was the largest held, both before and after, with around 100,000 participants converging on London from two directions. This was the largest demonstration since the big ones held by the suffragettes. Tensions arose and sharpened between the anti-direct action leaders of CND, such as Canon Collins, and the more militant Committee of 100. Basically there was a split in the anti-nuclear weapons movement. There is a parallel here with what happened in the suffrage movement with the division between the suffragists and the suffragettes. In both cases it was the more militant element who were attracting the most attention and winning more people over to the cause.

Two events helped to take some of the wind out of the sails of CND and resulted in a falling away of some support. In October 1962 the Cuban missiles crisis arose when the Soviet Union started to station ballistic missiles in Cuba as a defence against further American-backed attacks on the Castro regime. The American Government responded robustly by threatening military action unless the missiles were withdrawn. The possibility of a major nuclear war was very real and there were massive protests around the world. At the eleventh hour in the stand-off a settlement was reached between the USA and the Soviet Union and the missiles were withdrawn from Cuba. It seemed as though the inevitable nuclear war predicted by the protesters could be avoided. In 1963 the states with nuclear weapons, including Britain, signed the Partial Test Ban Treaty which banned further atmospheric, but not underground tests, of nuclear weapons. This was a cynical move by the states concerned which had no intention of getting rid of the their nuclear weapons. The British Government was able to boast that while CND had been protesting it had got on with the job and made an advance in banning nuclear weapons. Together with other developments these events brought about a considerable falling off of active CND support.

There is a parallel here with the suffragettes whose activities were sharply curtailed by the outbreak of World War One. Anti-nuclear weapons campaigning did not suddenly stop but none the less was to a considerable extent thrown off its stride by the above events. Even so, it is a reasonable assessment to say that without the direct action element CND would have been a lesser campaign than it was.

From the late nineteen seventies onwards relations between the USA and the USSR sharpened and deteriorated. Once again the possibility of nuclear war seemed to be on the horizon. When it came out that American nuclear armed cruise missiles were to be stationed in Britain CND quickly revived and once again it could bring out hundreds of thousands of people onto the streets of London. The first cruise missile base was to be at Greenham Common in Berkshire. In 1981 a protest camp was established at this site and quickly turned into a women’s protest camp. This rapidly grew around the perimeter fence of the site under construction and attracted a lot of support. There were repeated attempts to enter and occupy the missile site and some were successful. The police and troops were deployed to repel the invaders and there were many arrests and imprisonments. An interesting aspect of this direct action is the emphasis it placed on women. It was as much about asserting the right of women to protest and stand up to predominantly male authorities as it was about nuclear weapons. In a certain sense, it constituted a revival of the militant suffragette tradition. During this period there were many more instances of direct actions at military establishments and elsewhere. CND Mark 2 was not afraid to engage in direct action and this time around there were less sharp divisions in the movement between those for and against the use of this tactic.

As with the first time around, international developments brought about a weakening of support for CND and a falling off of militant actions. The Soviet Union was struggling to keep up with the challenge posed by the USA led by President Ronald Reagan in producing new, more sophisticated weapons, including nuclear ones. When Mikhail Gorbachev became the Soviet leader he sought a rapprochement with the US bloc and an end to the Cold War. Reagan was happy to respond and it was not long before treaties to reduce stockpiles of nuclear weapons were being agreed. At the same time the Soviet bloc was falling apart so once again the likelihood of nuclear war appeared to be disappearing. By 1991 the last of the cruise missiles had been sent back to the USA although American airbases with planes armed with nuclear weapons remained in Britain.

CND Mark 2 was taken seriously by the Government and the reactionary media. They put a lot of time and effort in opposing it and trying to discredit it. Also direct action tactics thrived and developed to oppose nuclear weapons. During this period there developed considerable opposition to nuclear power generation and there were direction actions against sites where nuclear power stations were situated or being built. Here there was a considerable overlap with the rapidly growing environmental movement and it was within its ranks that considerable use was being made of militant, direct action tactics.

The case of environmental activism

Starting in the late nineteen sixties, the green movement started to emerge. Various organisations have campaigned to try to protect the natural environment from damage brought about by human activity. In general its adherents are particularly concerned about climate change and trying to arrest and reverse its negative consequences. In Britain the main campaigns to become established are Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth but there are many other groups campaigning on environmental issues.

Unlike most other progressive movements in recent decades the Greens have had a significant impact on society and state policy. In doing so they have utilised most of the traditional campaigning methods mentioned above but they are notable for engaging in various types of direct action. Original and imaginative campaigning methods have been developed, e.g. Greenpeace ships intercepting whaling ships. These include occupations, sit-downs, blockades, stunts and sabotage. Particular attention has been paid to coal-fired power stations and open cast coal mining sites. The bold, provocative actions taken are reminiscent of the suffragettes. These have good news value for the media and thus wide publicity for green causes has been obtained, as was the case with the suffragettes’ actions.

Most supporters of environmental campaigns are not prepared to engage in direct action. They stick to the more conventional law-abiding campaigning methods. The same was true of the movement to gain the vote for women. But just as the suffragettes were the vanguard of that movement so are the direct action environmentalists the effective leaders of the green movement. A strength of the green movement has been the large numbers of scientists of various kinds who have produced hard evidence and analysis to show that environmental change and devastation is really happening. Together with the rise in public consciousness brought about by green campaigning it has made it difficult for governments to resist calls for relevant legislation. At the same time many of the measures introduced by governments, e.g. subsidies for wind power, have been somewhat half-hearted and sometimes cut back after a while. Of course, with the women’s suffrage movement governments kept making promises of reform and then backing off.

This is not to endorse all of the actions of some branches of the environmental movement. The campaign against genetically modified crops was unsound on scientific grounds. The claims made as to their harmful effects turned out to be unfounded. Even so the anti-GM crops lobby succeeded in getting the production and use of such plants for foodstuffs banned in Britain. The point here, however, is that this was a very successful campaign in achieving its aims and that direct action played an important role, e.g. destroying trial plantings of GM crops. More recently the movement against fracking has developed. Again the scientific and technological grounds on which opposition to fracking is based are questionable. A certain amount of direct action has been employed, e.g. blocking entrances to exploration sites, and it has achieved much media coverage for this campaign.

The truth of the matter is that in Britain and elsewhere the green movement has achieved much success in raising the profile of its demands and getting governments to pay attention and to pass a certain amount of relevant legislation. Other campaigns would do well to learn from the greens and particularly their employment of various types of direct action.

The case of the Stop the War Coalition

This was formed in September 2001 following the attack on the twin towers in New York by al Qaeda. This was responded to by the US Government and most of its NATO allies by launching attacks on the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. Subsequently it became clear that the USA and its allies, particularly Britain, were planning an invasion to overthrow the Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq. This imperialist campaign was broadened out by President George W. Bush into a “War on Terror” directed at Muslim fundamentalist movements throughout the world.

The leadership of STWC was broadly left-wing but two organisations predominated: the Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party and the revisionist Communist Party of Britain (the major fragment of the former Communist Party of Great Britain). Particularly prominent were Lindsey German and John Rees of the SWP and Andrew Murray of the CPB. Also playing an active part in the leadership were the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) and the Muslim Association of Britain. Left Labour Party figures such as Tony Benn and George Galloway had a high profile in STWC.

Given the essentially reformist, as opposed to revolutionary, character of its leadership it is hardly surprising that the campaigning methods adopted by STWC were the usual ones employed by progressive campaigns in Britain, i.e. public meetings, petitions, street stalls, lobbying, demonstrations and marches, etc. The SWP and CPB were particularly keen on holding mass protest demonstrations in London. These reached their zenith with the one held in London on 15th. February 2003, shortly before the invasion of Iraq, where over one million people turned out, almost certainly the largest political demonstration in British history. While there were a large number of MP’s opposed to the war, just as a large number of MP’s had been a favour of women’s suffrage, they only constituted a minority in the House of Commons.

These mass marches and demonstrations are comparable to the ones held by the suffragists and the suffragettes in 1907 and 1908. They too achieved historically record turnouts but they failed to have the desired impact on members of Parliament. Thus the suffragettes turned to more challenging and illegal methods of protest. The February 2003 demo failed to stop British participation in the invasion of Iraq. Even so the STWC leadership persisted with the mass demonstration as their main tactic. Over the following years, not surprisingly, the number of people turning out for such occasions more or less steadily fell with it ending up with the leaders exaggerating and lying about the numbers present. The STWC assiduously avoided the sort of direct action tactics used by the suffragettes. Surprisingly, in the early days of the campaign pacifist-inclined CND proposed blockades of military bases in Britain but this was rejected by the Trotskyist and revisionist leaders. They are far too well-behaved.

The participation of the British armed forces in the invasion of Iraq was by no means a foregone conclusion. Knowing of the strength of public opposition to it in Britain, George Bush told Prime Minister Tony Blair that it was not necessary for British forces to participate but Blair insisted on them being part of the invasion force. Perhaps if STWC had adopted more radical tactics it could have prevented this participation. On more than one occasion the suffragettes attempted to force their way into the House of Commons. If STWC had tried this tactic, especially on 13th. Feb. 2003, perhaps there would have been a different outcome. Also STWC declined to encourage members on the British armed forces to refuse to fight. Such action would have been illegal! Rather a campaign called Military Families Against the War was set up. This was mainly concerned with complaints about British troops not being adequately equipped and protected against the armed responses of those they were attacking!

Over the years following 2003 active support for STWC steadily fell away. British armed forces were eventually withdrawn from Iraq and Afghanistan, not because of the efforts of STWC but because they had been defeated on the ground. The fact of the matter is that STWC failed to achieve its main aim of preventing the British state from taking military action in the “War on Terror”. Its leaders comfort themselves by claiming that as a result of their campaigning efforts British politicians have become much more wary of participating in future military adventures overseas. Rather it was military defeat which has somewhat dampened their enthusiasm. The British Government has been intervening in Iraq and Syria by means of using drones and cruise missiles which avoids the negative consequences at home of British military personnel being injured and killed.

A very obvious and important difference between the suffragettes and the Stop the War Coalition is that when the application of conventional legal means were failing to achieve their objectives the former were willing to turn to more challenging, illegal methods of campaigning. Most of the suffragettes did not claim to be aiming at the general revolutionary transformation of society. They were focussed on obtaining the vote for women. By way of contrast the leading lights in STWC claimed to be “revolutionaries” but their history of one is of highly conventional political activity within the bounds permitted by the British state. Many young people were attracted to STWC in its early days and many of them would probably have been receptive to calls for bold, direct actions. Indeed, some of them staged protest walk-outs from colleges and schools but the STWC leaders did not take up on this initiative. The historical fact of the matter is that the suffragettes did eventually achieve their main aim while the STWC has not and is not likely to do so given its unwillingness to adopt more effective tactics.

The UK Uncut Campaign

This began in late 2010 when a small group of people having a drink in a pub in London became incensed by the revelation that Vodaphone had reached a deal with HM Revenue and Customs whereby the firm were allowed not to pay around £4 billion owed in tax. They decided to stage a protest at the Vodaphone store on Oxford Street and succeeded in shutting it down. This inspired people in many other locations across the country to take similar actions. Other firms targeted for tax dodging were Boots, the Arcadia Group and banks. The basic tactic was to shut down business premises by occupying them and thus disrupting their trade. This tactic attracted considerable media coverage. One is reminded of the suffragettes’ more drastic campaign of smashing shop windows. As a result of UK Uncut highlighting tax avoidance by large firms and rich individuals the British Government felt compelled to introduce some legislation aimed at cutting back on tax dodging. The issue remains a high profile one which the politicians cannot avoid.

UK Uncut is notable because its main tactic was a militant form of direct action successfully applied.


It is of course true that the outcomes of women winning the vote were less than many suffragists and suffragettes had hoped for. Their campaign was inspired by the desire of women not simply to have the same political rights as men but by a wish to transform the positions and roles of women in all aspects of society, e.g. in work, in domestic life, etc.. This struggle continues today and will be long and protracted and for success necessitates developing challenging and unconventional methods of struggle. Applying these will inevitably mean that some women (and men) will come up against the powers that be and must be prepared to suffer the consequences.

It has often been claimed that the main reason why some women were granted the vote in 1918 was because of women supporting the war effort in World War One. Many women filled work roles vacated by men serving in the armed forces. Also they did much supportive work in nursing and other types of voluntary services. We should note that these women were motivated by nationalist ideology: they wanted to “serve their country” and also by patriarchal ideology; they wanted to “support their men”. At the end of the war most women accepted reversion to their previous roles, particularly in the home.

Nonetheless, are we seriously to believe that the male politicians who had previously resisted women’s suffrage were simply swayed by admiration for women’s wartime endeavours? What would have happened if no concessions had been made? The dormant suffragettes would have woken up and resumed their militant actions. There had already been a lot of fire (literally) and if women’s demand for the vote continued to be ignored there would have been a veritable fire storm.

The lesson for today that the suffragettes have taught us is that to achieve any real changes on the major issues of the day we need to resort to, among other methods, militant direct action and be prepared to accept the consequences.


Harry Powell June 2018