Labouring Lives

This OCLW strand explores life-writing by and about the ‘labour movement’ and, more broadly, the working classes. There is a long tradition of biography and autobiography in Labour History, often animated by socialist ideology. Typical subjects include union, co-operative and Labour Party leaders and activists. The Dictionary of Labour Biography (Macmillan) first appeared in 1972. There are also diaries, memoirs and autobiographies of little-known manual working lives, mostly unpublished. Such auto-didact writing borders onto the wider world of working class fiction writing, from DH Lawrence to Alan Sillitoe.

Often prone to hagiography, as a ‘committed’ history designed to serve the socialist future, Labour History sometimes conflates the ideas and ambitions of middle or upper-class radicals – intellectuals and politicians – with the working classes, and left-wing activists with ordinary people. It has neglected the experience of women and ethnic minorities and tends to be unreflective about the methods of life writing, including issues such as literary style, the radical bias in the representation of working class lives and the use of ghost-writers. This OCLW strand offers new opportunities to re-encounter ‘the hidden from history’ lives of ordinary men and women – manual workers and their families – in their full cultural and political variety.

The strand is co-ordinated by OCLW Visiting Scholar Peter Ackers, who was Professor of Industrial Relations and Labour History at Loughborough University, UK, until 2015, where he is now a Visiting Professor. He was Joint Editor of Labour History Review from 2001-4 and is on the management committee of History & Policy: Trade Union Forum. His PhD was a biographical study of the relationship between trade union leadership and religious nonconformity. Ackers and Reid (eds) Alternatives to State-Socialism in Britain: Other Worlds of Labour in the Twentieth Century (Palgrave Macmillan) appeared in 2016.

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