From International Socialism (1st series), No.102, October 1977, pp.2-4.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.
The Labour government is feeling good. Chronic balance of payments deficits have been converted into a comfortable surplus thanks to North Sea oil. After falling drastically, sterling is now rising on the foreign exchanges. In the last month share prices reached a record high. Healey’s economic policies have been given the official seal of approval by the IMF.
Most important of all, on the wages front the government is holding the line. As the Financial Times put it recently,
‘... the great upsurge of shopfloor militancy and massive wage demands which had been feared after the end of Phase Two has not materialised ... For the moment the tide is running in the Government’s favour.’ (20 September 1977)
Any sign of economic improvement is very superficial, as we shall show in the following Note. However, it is clear that the Labour government is likely to survive into next year, propped up by the TUC leadership and the Liberal Party (whose assembly will almost certainly renew the pact). There are two major factors which account for this situation – first, the lack of ruling-class confidence in the Conservative Opposition, and, second, the vacuum on the shopfloor.
The Tory Party is in a paradoxical situation. By-elections and opinion polls all show that it would be swept to office if a general election took place now (although the Tory lead over Labour is narrowing). However, it is clear that British capitalists are not too happy at the prospect of a Thatcher government.
‘To judge by the performance of the stock market ... a fair part of the City may still prefer the prospect of a continuing Labour Government to the Tory alternative.’ (Economist 17 September 1977)
Exactly why big business does not want its own party to hold office has been shown by the split in the Tory leadership which became public in recent weeks. The occasion for the dispute was Grunwick, but the underlying issue was that of how a Tory government would handle the workers’ movement.
The row began when Keith Joseph, the Tory industry spokesman, denounced the Scarman report’s recommendation in favour of union recognition at Grunwick and declared himself in favour of using the law against the trade unions in certain cases. In doing so, he appeared to fly in the face of official Tory policy.
There have been two major strands in ruling-class strategy towards the trade unions over the last decade. Both have the same objective – to involve the trade union bureaucracy in policing their rank and file. Where the strategies differ is in the methods they use to attain this objective.
One strategy involves using the machinery of the courts to enforce conformity upon the workers’ movement. The bureaucrats are threatened with fines which eat into union funds as a way of persuading them to clamp down on their members’ militant tactics. The rank and file are directly threatened with fines and gaol sentences. The 1964-1970 Labour government made a first attempt at employing these methods through its 1969 proposals for anti-union legislation, In Place of Strife. However, the Labour Party’s links with the trade union bureaucracy proved too close for the proposals to be carried. The strategy was consistently applied by the Heath government, which introduced the Industrial Relations Act in 1971. It crumbled when rank-and-file action freed the Pentonville dockers in 1972.
The defeat of Heath by the miners in 1974 convinced the ruling class to opt for the second strategy. This was embodied in the Social Contract and involved the active collaboration of the Labour government and the trade union bureaucracy. The concessions this involved on the bosses’ side – the Employment Protection Act, participation, etc. – were well worth the price. In 1975 and 1976 the strike figures fell dramatically as the workers’ movement accepted the biggest fall in living standards this century.
The problem for the Tory party has been to convince big business that they also can deal with the trade union leadership. This involved a major policy reconstruction. Even though Thatcher’s accession to the party leadership involved a major shift to the right, the policy document approved by last year’s Tory conference marked the abandonment of Industrial Relations Act-style attempts to outlaw the closed shop. A secret report prepared for the Shadow Cabinet considered that any attempts to ban the closed shop would be ‘counter-productive’ and even proposed a deal under which pickets would be allowed to stop vehicles if mass picketing were abandoned as a tactic (the latter proposal was rejected – Sunday Times 18 September 1977).
Joseph’s speech, therefore, set the cat among the pigeons. In particular, it gave an opening for the Tory right to launch a full-scale attack on James Prior, who, as Thatcher’s employment spokesman, is closely identified with the conciliatory policy towards the trade union bureaucracy. In line with this policy, Prior gave broad support to the Scarman report.
However, Joseph and the Tory right-wing see Grunwick as a test-case. One Tory backbencher, Norman Tebbit, compared refusal to back Ward to the hilt with appeasement of Hitler and implied that Prior has the ‘morality of Laval and Petain’ (Daily Telegraph 13 September 1977). Robert Moss of the National Association for Freedom (NAFF), one of Ward’s main backers, called for Prior’s resignation.
Joseph, Tebbit and Moss are all close associates of Thatcher. Her proposal to hold a referendum if a Tory government were challenged by a major strike suggests a policy of confrontation, rather than collaboration, with the trade union bureaucracy.
Undoubtedly such a confrontationist strategy fits in closely with the economic policies of the present Tory leadership. Thatcher is committed to holding down the money supply and using the resulting sackings and bankruptcies to discipline the workers’ movement. Moreover, the Tories have been highly critical of the rescue of lame duck firms by both Labour and previous Conservative governments.
In practice, these policies would almost certainly provoke major confrontations between a Thatcher government and the workers’ movement. Whether such confrontations would provoke a U-turn similar to that under Heath, when the Selsden policies of letting lame-ducks go to the wall was abandoned under pressure from big business and in the face of mass working-class opposition, cannot be predicted.
What is clear is that, although probably a majority of the capitalist class would prefer a Labour government at the minute, the contradictions within the Tory party reflect contradictions inherent in the present situation. The ruling class needs to continue its present strategy of voluntary collaboration with the trade union bureaucracy. At the same time, it is presented with the prospect of considerable opposition to the trade union leadership from its own rank and file after two years of acquiescence in mass unemployment and falling living standards. This revival of militancy among many workers has already led to strikes like those at Leyland and Heathrow and to the use of militant mass picketing tactics at Grunwick.
The trade union bureaucracy will be in the front-line of the attempt to contain any pay revolt. But the ruling class will also resort to the use of the courts and the police (and, even, in the event of a dock strike, the army) against militant tactics by striking workers. In other words, the bourgeoisie is forced by the situation to rely both on collaboration with the trade union bureaucracy and on the forces of the state to police rank-and-file militancy.
For the time being, the Labour government is the best instrument for implementing this policy because the emphasis is still on collaboration rather than confrontation. But should collaboration fail – should the 10 per cent limit be bust – then big business may well decide that the time has come to switch to a Tory government which places the main emphasis on confrontation.
The fate of the Labour government rests on what happens to the 10 per cent limit and the 12-month rule. By now it is clear that August 1 has not been followed by a wages explosion. While there has been a wave of strikes mainly involving traditionally ill-organised workers, for example, the bread strike and the strikes in the food and drink industry, the big battalions have yet to move.
Sections like the dockers and the carworkers at Chrysler Linwood, which had adopted big wage-claims and which seemed set to fight the government, have held back. The strike at Longbridge crumbled into fiasco.
Part of the explanation lies in the decision of the TUC at Blackpool to back the 12-month rule. The vote at. Congress has been used by Jack Jones to overturn union policy, which is against the 12-month rule, in the name of TUC ‘solidarity’. But Blackpool cannot be the main explanation. The highly publicised antics of Scanlon, in invoking Carron’s law to overrule both existing policy decided by the AUEW National Committee in May and his own delegation and vote for the 12-month rule will have deprived the TUC decision of legitimacy in the eyes of many militants.
A more important factor is the state of shopfloor organisation. The years of the Labour government have seen a growing separation of leading stewards from their rank and file. As Dave Lyddon shows elsewhere in this journal in the case of British Leyland, this separation reflects both the objective situation of many senior stewards, who work in conditions closer to those of full-time officials rather than those of rank-and-file workers, and the efforts via participation schemes to incorporate them into management.
Moreover, the reformist politics of most leading stewards have been put to the test in the last three years and found wanting. During the post-war boom economic militancy did not have directly political implications. Today the gap between economics and politics on the shopfloor is rapidly closing. To fight for higher wages or redundancies is often to take on the government and perhaps to threaten the survival of the company (or so management claims). The logic of reformist politics in this situation is to hold back from fighting, to seek compromises with management and the state and even to become committed to the profitable and strike-free running of the company in an effort to make the system work rather than face the alternative of overthrowing it.
The result, in many cases, has been that shopfloor organisation has become ossified, with the senior stewards remote from the rank and file and growingly identified with management while many of even the ordinary stewards become apathetic. What this means is that when the leading stewards decide to fight, they are unable to mobilise the rank and file, both because their own conservatism and because there is no organised framework linking workers on the shop floor with their ‘leaders’.
This means that the senior stewards have in many cases become more the factory wing of the trade union bureaucracy than part of the rank and file. The Communist Party has been particularly affected by this process since many of its members built up shop floor organisation during and after the war and are now convenors and senior stewards presiding over the decay of that organisation. Derek Robinson, the CP convenor at Longbridge, signing anti-strike statements issued by management is simply the most obvious example.
Even where the leading CP stewards have been prepared to move against the Social Contract, in the West of Scotland and Sheffield, their challenge to the government has been largely confined to the rhetorical level, which has still to be translated into action. One suspects that if they tried to act many would find that, like Robinson at Longbridge, they were unable to move their rank and file.
The result is that the development of opposition to the pay policy in the workplaces will be more difficult than we perhaps anticipated. Indeed, it is the pay revolt of the last six months which has revealed the weakness of shop floor organisation.
It may be the local government workers, not traditionally seen as a militant vanguard section, who pose the biggest challenge to the government this autumn. Alan Fisher of NUPE has so committed himself to the target of a £50 minimum wage that he may find it difficult to step back from confrontation with the government, which has imposed on local authorities a cash limit intended to keep wage rises to about 5-6 per cent. Healy told the IMF that the Ford and local authority pay settlements would decide the fate of the 10 per cent limit.
The struggles which are developing pose very directly the issue of rank-and-file organisation, within the workplaces, uniting different sections and across the class as a whole. Already the toolmakers’ strike at Leyland was marked by the spontaneous emergence, albeit in sectional form and under right-wing leadership, of an authentic rank-and-file movement. Others will undoubtedly develop. What is needed is an organisation that can break down sectional barriers, uniting those committed to class struggle rather than class collaboration. The Rank and File Conference called for 26 November is a step in that direction.
One major condition for the construction of a national rank-and-file organisation is the successful intervention by revolutionary socialists in the workplace. In the climate of the last three years political militants have been isolated in the factories. The situation is now ripe for a major attempt to implant socialist politics in the workplace. Many workers, who wish to fight but run up against the obstacles represented by the full-time officials and even their own convenor, will be prepared to listen to us again and even follow our lead. The opportunity must be seized.
Last updated on 26.12.2007