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Political lessons for the rank and file

This article is over 17 years, 7 months old
In the last of our series Dave Sherry looks at the cost of trade union loyalty to Labour
Issue 2015

The fall of the Edward Heath’s Tory government during the winter of 1973-4 is the most exciting period in recent British history.

In the mid 1960s, the ruling class resolved to break the power of the unions. By 1974, their strategy had collapsed in the face of a mass movement from below.

Although the number of people voting Labour had declined, the minority to the left of Labour numbered hundreds of thousands and on the issue of wages they could move millions.

The Communist Party (CP) was still the biggest organisation to the left of Labour, but it concentrated on replacing right wing union leaders with left wing leaders.

This strategy made it increasingly reluctant to clash with the officials of the two biggest unions – Jack Jones of the T&G and Hugh Scanlon of AUEW.

The contradiction between trying to lead rank and file militancy and courting left union officials reached breaking point during the early 1970s, when the CP subordinated militancy to wooing officials.

This created a space for groups such as the International Socialists (IS), forerunners of the SWP. The revolutionary left had remained marginal since the 1930s. But by 1974, it had roots inside the major factories and was the opposition in key white collar unions.

The IS had argued that a revolutionary party of 50,000 could organise most of the 300,000 union shop stewards and through them set in motion many of Britain’s 11 million union members.

The problem was that when workers toppled the Tory government in 1974, the IS had 4,000 members, not 50,000. Union leaders had a much greater influence over the shop stewards’ movement than the revolutionary left did.

This didn’t mean that in 1974 the new government could bring the turmoil to an immediate end. Labour could only contain working class militancy by first running ahead of it. Anti-union laws and wage controls were dumped. The striking miners’ demands were met in full.

As a gesture to the left on the TUC, Labour’s prime minister Harold Wilson made Michael Foot his employment secretary and brought other socialists such as Eric Heffer and Tony Benn into his cabinet.

Still there was a wave of struggle involving teachers, local government workers and health workers. Victory over a weak government signalled the arrival of shop floor trade unionism into these white collar sectors.

But as the Economist noted, “Labour may well turn out to be the least bad government for business.” As Wilson moved to placate the City, the Bank of England engineered a run on sterling.

It didn’t take long for the government to call for wage controls. Soon the bosses’ CBI organisation and the TUC were agreed on one thing – strikes had to be curbed.

In 1974, the IS initiated a national rank and file movement to link together militants in different industries and unions.

Its aim was to force the leaders to act, and to operate independently of them when necessary.

This fledgling movement failed, in part because the industrial base of the IS was too narrow compared to the influence of the CP and the Labour left. But the main reason was Labour’s “Social Contract” and the way it weakened workplace organisation.

The architects of the “Social Contract” were the left wing union leaders who had been loud critics of wage controls under Heath.

The union leaders were able to impose “voluntary” wage restraint and cut real wages for the first time in a generation. What the Tories failed to do by force, Labour achieved with the collaboration of the trade union bureaucracy.

The shop stewards’ movement, still dominated by the Labour left and the CP, shied away from a fight. When, in 1978, Labour tried to impose a fourth round of wage controls, the dam finally broke.

The “Winter of Discontent” was not a new rising tide of political militancy but a series of sectional battles – an explosion of bitterness and subsequent demoralisation that was followed by Tory leader Margaret Thatcher’s election in 1979.

Today we are witnessing the birth of a new movement that can transform the unions.

The class struggle can revive in various ways. We don’t yet have struggles on the scale of those in the early 1970s, but the general political mood is much more favourable than it was 30 years ago.

That’s why next month’s Time to Go demonstration in Manchester and the Organising for Fighting Unions’ Conference in November are so important.

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