From Socialist Review, No. 171, January 1994.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.
The big workers’ struggles of the early 1970s smashed anti-union laws, broke a pay freeze and brought down a government. Dave Sherry looks at the lessons for those of us trying to repeat the experience today
Next month marks 20 years since the fall of Edward Heath’s Tory government. It’s worth recalling how the Tories were toppled by the power of the working class and humiliated in the general election of 1974.
Contrary to current mythology, Heath’s Tories were every bit as nasty as their counterparts today. They won the 1970 election, not because of any great swing in popular support, but simply because by 1970 too many Labour supporters had been disillusioned by six years of right wing Labour government.
In 1970 Heath’s mission was to be even tougher towards the working class than the previous Labour government. The central preoccupation was to shackle the unions and destroy shop stewards’ organisation – a task central to the future profitability of British capitalism, and one that the Labour government had been forced to abandon in the face of a mounting political strike wave in 1969.
Initially the new Tory government was successful – certainly until the end of 1971. Unemployment was driven up sharply under the impact of the ‘No Lame Ducks’ policy, whereby ailing or unprofitable firms were allowed to go bust or were deliberately driven into liquidation. Wage controls were imposed after the government inflicted defeats upon the power workers then the postal workers.
Draconian housing legislation was introduced to sell off council housing and to force up council rents, and Margaret Thatcher, Heath’s education minister, achieved overnight notoriety by withdrawing free school milk. Home Secretary Reginald Maudling introduced imprisonment without trial in Northern Ireland and the inner cabinet was implicated in Bloody Sunday, when British army sharp shooters assassinated 13 innocent civilians on a civil rights march in Derry. Indeed the number of violent deaths in Ireland rose from 20 in 1970 to 470 by 1972.
But by late 1971 the government was running into trouble at home. Rising unemployment and wage controls had created bitterness on the shopfloor and the widespread network of shop stewards, organised around the Communist party and its Liaison Committee for the Defence of Trade Unions, were instrumental in building resistance.
Three great struggles forced the Tory government to make a ‘U-turn’. In 1971 the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders work-in caught the imagination of millions and sparked a wave of militant factory occupations against redundancies and closures up and down the country. During the work-in the Chief Constable of Glasgow telephoned Downing Street to warn the cabinet that if they attempted to use force to end it, the police could not guarantee order on the streets of the city. The Tories were forced into making concessions and ‘the right to work’ became a massively popular slogan.
Then in 1972, against all the predictions of the media, an all out national miners’ strike broke the government’s wage controls. It was a historic victory won through the mass picketing of the steelworks, major ports, power stations and coal depots – all organised by rank and file miners. The turning point in the strike – the battle between picketing miners and the police at Saltley coke depot in Birmingham – involved 100,000 local trade unionists striking in solidarity with the pickets, and 20,000 of them marching onto the Saltley picket line to close the depot down.
Afterwards Reginald Maudling wrote,
‘some of my colleagues asked me why I had not sent in troops to support our police. I remember asking them a simple question. If they had been sent in should they have gone in with rifles loaded or unloaded?’
In July of the same year the Industrial Relations Act was effectively defeated when unofficial mass strike action forced the immediate release of five dockers’ shop stewards imprisoned in Pentonville jail for picketing in defiance of the Tory law.
These battles were not isolated. They won through tremendous class wide solidarity. Indeed 1972 saw a rise in militancy unprecedented for 50 years. The number of strikes rose massively and their character became increasingly political.
In response to these dramatic events, Heath was forced to make a ‘U-turn’, but the ruling class was not yet ready to give in. In late 1972, with the compliance of the TUC, the Tories imposed a wage freeze followed by two more phases of pay restraint.
The years 1972 and 1973 were boom years for British bosses but by mid-1973 recession was returning as the Tories’ speculative property boom started to collapse spectacularly. Inflation began to soar out of control and profit rates began to shrink. When war broke out in the Middle East, the ensuing oil crisis pushed the world economy into the worst slump since the 1930s.
By Christmas 1973 the British ruling class was in a state of panic. Tory industry minister John Davies told his family, ‘We must enjoy this Christmas for it may be our last one.’ In his diary, Tony Benn recorded this entry:
‘Dinner with Wilfred Brown, head of Glacier Metals, who believes we are headed for a slump and food riots and that there must be a National Government ... At the Commons I saw John Biffen who told me Enoch Powell is waiting for the call.’
Sir William Armstrong, the chief civil servant and head of Heath’s think tank, suffered a total mental and physical collapse. Campbell Adamson, then president of the CBI, recalls:
‘We listened to a lecture about how Communists were infiltrating every thing. It was clear that the immense strain was taking its toll. And two days later, of course, he had to give up.’
Downing Street insiders talked of Armstrong as ‘being really quite mad at the end. Lying on the floor and talking about moving the red army from there and the blue army from here.’ In February Sir William Armstrong was taken out of Downing Street.
Panic and disarray led Heath and his cabinet into a wild gamble. Faced with another miners’ overtime ban in opposition to the Tory wage norm in November, and squeezed by the oil crisis which had led to a quadrupling of oil prices, Heath realised British capitalism was in dire straits. Profitability could only be restored through a savage reduction in workers’ living standards; conceding to the miners’ pay claim would unleash a tidal wave of wage militancy. Despite attempts by the TUC to get him off the hook by making the miners a special case, Heath refused to concede.
Over Christmas the Tories tried to isolate the miners from other workers by imposing a 10-day shutdown of industry, to be followed by the introduction of a three-day week. Ostensibly this was to save energy and conserve the coal stocks, but it was a ploy that ended up turning the government into a laughing stock.
The miners picked up the gauntlet and on 1 February 1974 their national ballot returned an 80 percent yes vote for all out strike. Heath reacted by calling a general election for the end of February amid growing power cuts and blackouts. ‘Who runs the country?’ was the Tory election slogan, but the real answer was being delivered before voting day.
The 1974 miners’ strike was very unlike the 1972 strike. In order to appear respectable and not harm Labour’s electoral appeal, the NUM executive kept a tight hold on the picketing and a six man limit was imposed to deliberately avoid the confrontational scenes that had characterised 1972. There was no Saltley in 1974. Yet the movement of coal was halted because other trade unionists were right behind the miners and respected even token picket lines.
In one incident ASLEF members refused to drive a coal train under a bridge that had an NUM lodge banner draped over it, with no pickets in sight. Such was the feeling of solidarity and confidence; such was the anti-Tory mood among workers.
On 28 February 1974 voters merely confirmed what the saner sections of the ruling class had already seen for themselves; Heath was finished. But there was very little enthusiasm for Labour, for although it won the election, it did so by the narrowest of margins.
With only 37 percent of the vote, the Wilson government took office under very grave circumstances for a badly divided ruling class. The Tories had been broken by the collective power of the rank and file; the law had been openly defied and the state defeated by workers’ unity in struggle. Expectations were high. During the election campaign Socialist Worker sales rose dramatically.
There was still a state of emergency and a miners’ strike. Wage settlements were climbing towards 20 percent and the oil crisis was driving up inflation which had already reached unprecedented levels. Tom Jackson, right wing leader of the postal workers, described the incoming Labour government as akin to, ‘The owner of a gigantic Las Vegas slot machine, that has suddenly got stuck in favour of the customers.’
Both the Industrial Relations Act and Heath’s formal wage restraint were scrapped. The miners’ demands were virtually met in full. Left winger Michael Foot was made employment minister – a clear gesture to the left on the TUC. But the new Labour government, the CBI and the TUC were agreed on one thing: strikes had to be curbed. Labour, as ever, was prepared to bail out the bosses and their system and the TUC was ready to police the rank and file for the government. As The Economist noted shrewdly at the time ‘Labour may well turn out to be the least bad government for business.’
In the autumn of 1974 Wilson called a second general election and this time he won an overall majority. The ground was laid for the ‘Social Contract’, with the union leaders accepting and enforcing ‘voluntary’ wage restraint which cut real wages for their members for the first time in a generation. The architects of this ‘social contrick’ were the left wing trade union leaders – Jack Jones and Hugh Scanlon.
This caused widespread confusion among many activists whose loyalty to Labour and the left officials was to become a serious block on the movement.
It was compounded by the relative weakness of the revolutionary left – which was influential but not influential enough to overcome the conservative influence of the Communist Party and its supporters in the movement.
Understandably many ordinary trade unionists were unhappy at the prospect of falling living standards, and the Social Contract did not immediately end strikes. In fact there were big strikes in the public sector with many white collar workers taking strike action for the first time ever. And in the latter part of 1974 a massive rolling unofficial strike wave shook the west of Scotland as low paid workers struck for a £10 a week rise.
In the key strike of the Glasgow dustmen in 1975 the leading trade union officials were Communist Party members. They instructed a return to work, despite the fact that the dispute was of tremendous national significance. This was underlined by the fact that the local Labour council and Labour government sent in troops to break it. The strike movement for higher wages was defeated and the Social Contract passed its first serious test. Increasingly Labour came to rely on the union officials to do its dirty work. Over the next five years solidarity was frowned upon and scabbing became respectable as far as Labour and the TUC were concerned. The way was being paved for Thatcher, just as in the 1960s Labour paved the way for Heath.
The militancy of the early 1970s is both an inspiration and a foretaste of what lies ahead of us today. It signifies the highest level to which the class struggle has risen in Britain, certainly since 1919 when Europe was ablaze with revolution. But that militancy was strangled by the incoming Labour government of 1974. That was allowed to happen because of the inherent political weakness in what was an otherwise powerful movement. Shopfloor politics, such as they were, were anti-Tory but they were also the reformist politics of the Communist Party, and the working class movement paid a terrible price for its collaboration with Labour.
Today the movement is recovering from those setbacks and bigger struggles lie ahead of us. The real lesson of 1974 is that the outcome of those future battles will be shaped by the extent to which revolutionary socialists become rooted in the working class movement as it is developing today.
Last updated: 4 March 2017