Cotton Industry (Reorganisation) Bill.

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons on 27th March 1939.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Mr George Tomlinson Mr George Tomlinson , Farnworth

Yes, and the financial crisis which developed, as the hon. Member will suggest, as a consequence of that experience led them to the position in which their hopes were to be centred in the return of our hon. Friend. They came back. Still they were trusted by the cotton operatives. [An HON. MEMBER: "And still are."] That is a tribute, if anything, to their loyalty, so that their loyalty cannot be questioned. When you are pointing to the downfall of the cotton industry, I claim, therefore, that the workers in it can be exonerated. It is not the workers who are responsible for the position into which the industry has got. I have established that point, and the hon. and gallant Gentleman can have the rest. The admissions to-day have all been that the industry has been brought to such a state that any way out would be taken, whether it was contrary to their beliefs or not—and it is contrary to their beliefs. The operatives are asking that the Bill should be passed. It is not the Bill that we should have brought forward if we had had the opportunity. It does not go nearly so far, but it does contain the collective principle. It denies the individualism upon which the industry has been built up, and to which some Members would still cling in spite of everything. If you want an illustration of "every man for himself and devil take the hindmost," it can be found in Lancashire, and the devil has been busy. There have been a lot of hindmosts during the last few years. What are those dilapidated houses and shops and empty mills that I see week after week when I go home, but indications of where the devil has taken the hindmosts? Why have they become hindmosts? Because of that unfair competition which has been bolstered up by those who have spoken against the principle of the Bill. I have seen it in operation time and time again.

My hon. Friend who spoke from below the Gangway, the leader of the Liberal party—to-day at any rate—suggested that the merchants have made the industry. I am not seeking to deprive anyone of any credit that is due to him, but I have in mind an advertisement that I saw yesterday in which a firm in Lancashire say definitely that it is only possible for them to supply their goods through certain merchant houses. They have been manufacturing that class of goods for the last 37 years to my knowledge and yet they could not get into direct touch with their customers in other parts of the world, because of the close corporation of the merchants, it may be here in London. On Saturday morning I was looking at a sample of cloth. The name of a firm was on it and, to my surprise, it was one of the merchanting firms about which our friend spoke—a London firm. A little time ago I went to the docks to see what kind of firm this was which was busy exporting shirtings to other parts of the world, and I discovered that they were very large timber merchants. There is a little couplet which comes to my mind when I hear this talk about merchanting. I heard it as a boy at school and I wondered then what it meant: Big fleas have little fleas upon their backs to bite 'em.Little fleas have lesser fleas, and so ad infinitum." There is a redundancy problem. The hon. Member for Oldham (Mr. Dodd) asked whether we should have redundancy or not. What I think he meant was whether we should have redundancy schemes. You do not do away with redundancy by refusing to have a scheme. I believe that the redundancy that is there had better be organised and we had better set about it. If what the hon. and gallant Member for Clitheroe (Sir W. Brass) suggested had to be done and whole districts are not to go out, redundancy has got to be organised. I can see more difficulties in it for the workers, and particularly for those who are seeking to lead the workers, than for any section of the owner class. We have heard a good deal about the capital invested in the industry, and I know that there has been, and there is still a good deal of capital invested in it, but when a man has invested his capital he may have invested the whole of it, or he may not.

Every worker who has gone into the industry at 13 or 14 years of age, in my young days at 11, and in my father's days at eight years of age, has invested his life, all the capital he ever had, in the industry. He has lost everything. There is no manufacturer who has lost more than a worker who loses the opportunity of working, I care not how rich he may be. When organising I want to be in a position to say how and where redundancy shall operate in order that small municipal districts which have been set up to cater for the needs of workers in the cotton industry shall not go out altogether. If the present process of attrition goes on—some firms want it— I can see some small districts going. In the little town in which I am living there were 50 years ago 5,350 inhabitants. Ten years ago there were 8,000, but this year the population has gone back to just over 5,000. Ten years ago there were 11 mills running in the little village; there were more looms than there were population. To-day six of the mills are closed and there are only five left. There is nothing else in the village, and if redundancy continues without any organisation it is possible that this village will die altogether. Yet there are four or five firms in that village who could be brought into a scheme if there were organisation.

The principal value of the Bill to me is that it begins organisation for the first time. I think the Title of the Bill is a misnomer. It should not be a "Cotton Reorganisation Bill," but a "Cotton Organisation Bill" The industry has never been organised; and you cannot reorganise something which has never been organised. This is the beginning of organisation. Up to the present individualism has been dominant in Lancashire, but very reluctantly they have been driven to the conclusion that they must accept the collective principle in order to save themselves. It is not that they are in love with it. The workers are not in love with this particular scheme. There is nothing at all in it for them unless it will help to save the industry. The benefits which are coming to the workers through this scheme are benefits which will come as a result of the industry being improved.

Speaking of redundancy, may I suggest to hon. Members who spoke with their hands on their hearts about the merchants, that they must recognise that there are redundant merchants as there is redundant machinery. The number of merchants in operation is not less now than when the trade was three times what it is to-day. There you have a redundancy problem, and it is a question whether you are going to face it. As a matter of fact, we have 2,000 merchants and 300 spinning companies, or nearly seven merchants to every spinning company. It is not so bad if you are getting a living, but there is not going to be very much left if you continue to find a living for these big fleas. There are about 320,000 looms working, and for every 200 looms you have one merchant. From my practical experience I say that you cannot carry that load. If the dead wood is to be cut out as far as the operatives are concerned, it must be cut out at the other end if the industry is to be saved. You cannot carry the merchants in the numbers they are at the present time. If it is true that they bring trade and find markets there is something to be said for them, but if they are simply hangers-on, taking a rake-off, without doing anything constructive, nobody can defend their position in the industry. It is not often that I have the privilege of quoting the "Times," because I do not often agree with what that newspaper says, but I think the "Times," on 18th March, summed up the situation perhaps better than anyone else has done. By sales decreases and by depressing hard facts the industry has been brought to conclusions which are all the stronger evidence of conviction because they are so great a departure from its traditions. Lancashire has been traditionally individualistic. If now it has turned to collective enterprise it is only because it has been driven there. Whether the cotton industry is going of its own accord or whether it is because it is being driven, as long as I find it going in a direction which will bring some advantage to the operatives in the industry, I am going to support a Measure which will take. us along that road. For these reasons I support the Second Reading of the Bill.