The Labour manifesto released last week spoke of “shifting the balance of power back towards workers”.
But in February 1974 Labour was elected on a manifesto that went much further—at least in words.
It promised to “bring about a fundamental and irreversible shift in the balance of power and wealth in favour of working people and their families”.
Such pledges were the result of a move left at Labour conferences and among party members. This in turn was a pale reflection of a stormy period of class struggle.
The Tory government of Edward Heath, elected in 1970, had tried to hold down wages and push new anti-union laws. Instead of deadening struggle, Heath provoked mass resistance.
Total strike days reached 10,980,000 in 1970 and 11,551,000 in 1971, climbing to 23,909,000 in 1972.
These were the highest figures since the 1920s. For comparison, the figure in 2018 was 273,000 strike days—1972’s was 88 times higher.
There were over 200 occupations of shipyards, factories, offices and workshops between 1972 and 1974. Workers won important battles over wages.
Strike days fell sharply in 1973, but the start of 1974 was dominated by a national miners’ strike.
Historian Royden Harrison wrote, “The Labour Unrest of 1970–74 was far more massive and incomparably more successful than its predecessor of 1910 to 1914.
“Millions of workers became involved. Some of them began to exhibit an ominous concern with the conditions of distribution as well as production.”
The government was forced to declare a state of emergency five times. Also fuelling the political mood was deep bitterness at the rich.
Labour MP Phillip Whitehead told the House of Commons in 1974, “I quote one commentary upon these deep divisions. ‘Who will readily forget the brazenly swollen profits of the banks, of the ghastly band of usurpers trading in second mortgages, the property speculators.’
“That is not from the Morning Star or from some Trotskyist tract distributed at factory gates. It is from the biographer of Edward Heath.”
By 1974 almost half of all workers were in unions—the figure today is less than a quarter of the workforce. Struggles were led by groups of rank and file militants, not Labour.
As Tony Cliff and Donny Gluckstein wrote, “The Labour Party as such did nothing to develop mass militancy, although a great number of Labour Party supporters were involved in the action.” So it was not surprising that Labour didn’t benefit electorally from the higher level of struggle.
Many of those involved in workplace resistance remembered how right wing and anti-union the 1964-70 Labour governments had been.
Although Labour won the general election of February 1974, its vote was lower than in 1970 by over half a million.
Compared to 1966, there had been a loss of 1,418,560—or 10 percent.
But the scale of workplace battles—and the fact that Labour was in opposition—pushed party polices left.
Labour leader Harold Wilson became prime minister at the head of a minority government that was supposed to implement a very radical set of policies.
Its manifesto had said it would enforce public ownership of “North Sea and Celtic Sea oil and gas resources”. In addition, “Land required for
development will be taken into public ownership.”
The list went on. “We shall also take shipbuilding, ship repairing and marine engineering, ports, the manufacture of airframes and aeroengines into public ownership and control.”
The list would also include “sections of pharmaceuticals, road haulage, construction, machine tools”.
Labour committed to “an annual wealth tax on the rich”. But very few of these measures were even partially carried out by Wilson.
There were some small reforms at first. And a handful of bankrupt companies gratefully accepted temporary public ownership to avoid total collapse.
But almost as soon as the government was in office, big business swung into action to make sure it knew who was really in charge.
Campbell Adamson, director-general of the bosses’ Confederation of British Industry, wrote, “I remember going through a whole list of actions that our side might have to take.
“We certainly discussed an investment strike—the possibility of industry withholding its investment.
“But we also discussed various things about not paying various taxes, and a list—I don’t know that I want to be very specific—but a list of things which in themselves would not have been legal.”
This is the same CBI that Jeremy Corbyn now speaks to and assures them that Labour is not
In fact the bosses’ threats were largely unnecessary.
Instead of implementing a radical programme Labour was consumed with dealing with a growing global economic recession and rampant inflation.
Refusing to confront capitalist priorities head on, Labour attacked workers.
Wilson, and James Callaghan who took over as prime minister in 1976, were far more effective at holding down wages than the Tories had been.
Under Heath, union leaders couldn’t argue for holding back from wage demands “in the national interest”.
Yet under Labour, the idea of what was called the Social Contract meant union leaders policed their members and persuaded them to accept cuts.
The Labour government turned the average 2 percent annual wage rises between 1948 and 1973 into a 1.6 percent average annual fall.
By 1978 fewer council houses were being built than in any year since the Second World War.
Twenty five thousand hospital beds went in the first two years of the Labour government. Prices doubled between February 1974 and December 1978.
A thousand jobs a day were lost in Labour’s first three years. Unemployment was 500,000 in 1974. It reached 1.6 million in 1976.
An economist wrote in The Observer newspaper in 1977, “The past 12 months have almost certainly seen the sharpest fall in the real living standards of Britain’s working population in any year for at least a century, including the wars.”
And a Financial Times columnist commented, “I cannot think of any reason why anyone should consider voting Conservative at the next general election. We are already served by about as good a conservative government as we are likely to get.”
But the bosses did not fully trust Labour.
In March 1976 some left wing Labour MPs defeated a government plan for spending cuts. This failure to carry out every element of the capitalists’ agenda led to swift reprisals.
Financiers began selling off the pound, and its value plunged against other currencies. It reached a record low against the dollar in June 1976.
The US Treasury Secretary and other top bankers stepped in to offer a loan to support the pound on condition that big cuts went through. The Labour cabinet agreed.
As pressure on the pound continued, the government approached the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for a massive loan in September 1976.
IMF negotiators demanded heavy cuts in public expenditure and, after some debate, Labour gave in.
The cuts in 1977 were far bigger than anything the later government of Margaret Thatcher forced though.
There were strikes as workers’ patience was exhausted.
But they were frequently defeated because union leaders undermined the action and even encouraged scabbing to protect their precious Social Contract.
Eventually a huge wave of strikes burst out in 1978. Without a stable majority in parliament Callaghan called a general election. But he had so embittered many workers that they refused to vote Labour and the Tories won.
None of this was inevitable. There could have been enough resistance to the attacks to push back against Wilson and Callaghan. The 1974-9 experience certainly does not mean that electing Corbyn’s Labour is worthless.
Booting out the Tories would boost ordinary people who have suffered a decade of austerity.
And electing someone who pledges to take on “the bankers, billionaires and the establishment” would be a kick in the teeth to those at the top.
But electing Labour, even on a left programme, won’t be the end of the struggle.
1974 sends a warning of how the ruling class seeks to constrain any left government, and of how Labour and the union leaders can compromise and retreat.