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A wall comes crashing down

This article is over 21 years, 7 months old
ALEX CALLINICOS on the shift to the left in the unions and the last time it happened
Issue 1810

A GREAT crash shook the British labour movement last week-one that sounded almost like the fall of the Berlin Wall back in November 1989. Derek Simpson’s election as general secretary of the engineering and electrical section of the giant Amicus union is more than the latest in a series of left wing union victories.

It marks the downfall of the authoritarian right wing machine that Les Cannon and Frank Chapple built up in the Electrical Trades Union back in the 1960s. Merger with the Amalgamated Union of Engineering Workers (AUEW) in the 1980s allowed this machine to extend its power.

But now, in the person of Sir Ken Jackson, it has been beaten. Such an enormous reversal invites historical comparisons. Simpson’s victory offers decisive confirmation that a real shift to the left is taking place at the top of Britain’s trade unions. The last time that this happened was at the end of the 1960s. Then two ex-members of the Communist Party, Hugh Scanlon and Jack Jones, won the leadership of the two main industrial unions.

Scanlon was elected president of the AUEW, while Jones became general secretary of the Transport and General Workers Union. Then as now, a Labour government was in office. There was rising discontent among trade unionists over prime minister Harold Wilson’s attempts to use the law to hold down wages and ban unofficial strikes.

‘In Place of Strife’-employment secretary Barbara Castle’s proposals for anti-union legislation-provoked widespread unofficial strikes organised by the Communist Party led Liaison Committee for the Defence of Trade Unions. So there are important similarities between the present situation and the circumstances in which Scanlon and Jones came to office.

Then as now, a conflict was developing between the trade union movement and a Labour government. But there are differences as well. The shift to the left in the late 1960s reflected the growing power and militancy of a shop stewards’ movement that had gradually developed during the post-war period.

Rank and file workers felt confident after nearly 30 years of full employment. The long economic boom of the 1950s and 1960s encouraged a highly fragmented form of militancy in which small groups of workers led by shop stewards could win significant wage increases.

It was the Wilson government’s efforts to improve the profitability of British capitalism by clamping down on this militancy that provoked the clash with the unions. Scanlon and Jones had emerged from the shop stewards’ movement, respectively in the Manchester engineering industry and the car factories of Coventry. Today, however, rank and file trade union organisation is much weaker than it was a generation ago.

The historic centres of working class militancy in manufacturing and mining suffered a terrible battering in the economic recessions since the mid-1970s and the employers’ offensive mounted by Margaret Thatcher. The shift to the left in the unions today is more a consequence of changing political consciousness produced by two factors in particular.

First, New Labour’s determination to continue Thatcherite policies has caused enormous resentment from top to bottom of the trade union movement. The fact that Jackson was Tony Blair’s only reliable ally among the top trade union leaders is itself a sign of how effectively the government has antagonised a union establishment that was desperate to work with it.

Secondly, the worldwide movement against capitalist globalisation is making itself felt within the British trade unions. The widespread official support for the European Social Forum in Florence in November is a sign of a broader shift in consciousness.

Political radicalisation can, of course, feed into industrial militancy, as we have seen in Italy and Spain in recent months. How the changes at the top of the unions interact with the strikes that are beginning to happen in Britain will shape the future of the labour movement for many years to come.

Here there is an important lesson from the 1960s and 1970s. Scanlon and Jones were brought to office by shop stewards’ militancy, but once elected they sought to contain it. In the mid-1970s Scanlon and Jones exerted all their power to secure trade union support for the Labour government’s ‘Social Contract’, which cut wages to increase profits.

It was in the resulting climate of confusion and despair that the pendulum began to swing right in the unions and in society more generally. Scanlon and Jones were able to get away with this because most rank and file activists remained strongly committed to the Labour Party. Today this is beginning to shift, as the widespread opposition to union funding of New Labour shows.

We need to make sure that this new opportunity to achieve real change is not wasted.

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