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Winter of Discontent 1978-9: ‘We struck because Labour betrayed us’

This article is over 19 years, 11 months old
MUCH OF the media thinks there is an easy answer to threatened strikes at the moment. It is to say that they could mean a return to the Winter of Discontent of 1978-9. The argument goes that of course everyone knows the Winter of Discontent was a disastrous period when trade unionists were too strong.
Issue 1784

MUCH OF the media thinks there is an easy answer to threatened strikes at the moment. It is to say that they could mean a return to the Winter of Discontent of 1978-9. The argument goes that of course everyone knows the Winter of Discontent was a disastrous period when trade unionists were too strong.

New Labour figures argue that the only people who gained from the strikes were the Tories, who won the election in 1979. The lesson, they say, is not to strike and to keep backing the government. The harsh reality of the Winter of Discontent is that workers were forced to fight back against attacks from their own Labour government. Workers stopped being ‘loyal’ to Labour because Labour had not been loyal to them.

When Labour was elected in 1974 its manifesto promised, ‘It is our intention to bring about a fundamental and irreversible shift in the balance of power and wealth in favour of working people and their families.’ In fact the 1974-9 government imposed the greatest attacks on working class living standards since the hungry years of the 1930s.

  • Housing-by 1978 fewer council houses were being built than in any year since the Second World War.
  • Health-25,000 hospital beds went in the first two years of the Labour government.
  • Education-teachers suffered large scale redundancies for the first time in living memory.
  • Prices-doubled between February 1974 and December 1978.
  • Jobs-1,000 a day went in Labour’s first three years.
  • Unemployment was 500,000 in 1974. It reached 1.6 million in 1976.
  • Wages-a family of four on average earnings was worse off in 1979 than in 1974.

Behind those cold statistics lay the shattered lives of millions of working people.

It wasn’t the Winter of Discontent that turned people against the government. Labour’s support collapsed well before anyone went on strike. On 4 November 1976 Labour lost two ‘rock solid’ seats-Walsall North and Workington-and came within a whisker of losing Newcastle Central. In March 1977 Labour lost the Birmingham seat of Stechford on a 17.5 percent swing to the Tories.

A month later the unthinkable happened. Labour lost Ashfield to the Tories. It was a mining constituency where Labour had a 23,000 majority. The losses meant Labour, now led by James Callaghan, stayed in office only through a pact with the Liberals, and then through deals with the Welsh and Scottish nationalist parties, and even with the Ulster Unionists. With Labour reeling, the bosses piled on their own pressure. Chancellor Denis Healey cut tax on big business in November 1974, giving big companies an extra £800 million a year profit.

But they wanted more, and in the summers of 1975 and 1976 engineered a collapse in the value of the pound by shifting money abroad. The government gave them more. It was never enough for the bosses, and they stepped up their blackmail. CBI director-general Campbell Adamson later recalled: ‘We certainly discussed an investment strike. We also discussed various things about not paying various taxes, and a list of things which in themselves would not have been legal.’

The unelected governor of the Bank of England told the government on 30 June 1975 that the pound was plummeting. Labour immediately implemented harsh wage curbs. Pay was held well under the rate of inflation, so living standards fell. At first Labour introduced a £6 limit on wage rises. The £6 was about 10 percent of average wages. Inflation was roaring at 24.2 percent. A second stage of incomes policy in August 1976 brought a 4.5 percent limit on wage rises. Inflation was 16.5 percent.

Still British companies caused financial panic until, in September 1976, Denis Healey went cap in hand to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for a loan to prop up the value of the pound. The IMF demanded deep cuts in return.

But while the bankers and the employers attacked, the union leaders did their best to stop workers’ struggles breaking out. TUC leaders had forged an agreement with the Labour government in 1974 called the Social Contract. The union leaders, especially left wing ones like Hugh Scanlon of the engineers’ AEU and Jack Jones of the TGWU, often complained about the government’s assault on workers’ living standards.

But they offered no alternative to standing by the Labour government. Jones told his union’s 1975 conference, ‘We simply must help to keep this Labour government in office and stand by it during this terrible economic crisis.’

In 1976 the Seamen’s Union threatened strike action over a long overdue pay award. The general secretary of the TUC, Len Murray, told them, ‘By god, we’ll make sure no union supports you. We’ll cripple you.’

The first ever national firefighters’ strike took place the following year. The TUC voted narrowly not to back them, and the government sent in troops. Three major strikes by groups of skilled workers in 1977 collapsed after trade union leaders instructed other workers to cross their picket lines. The Winter of Discontent was the bursting of a dam, an outburst of feeling over five years of betrayal and disappointment.

Right wing propaganda of the time (endlessly repeated in Tory broadcasts for decades afterwards) was of picket lines at hospitals and of ‘the dead kept unburied’. But then and now nobody talks about the reasons for the strikes, the harsh cuts and the low pay.

As an ambulance worker told Socialist Worker in 1979, when 1.5 million public sector workers were on strike, ‘We don’t mind the patients crapping on us, but we’re not putting up with the government doing it.’ A council worker said, ‘We had to strike because Labour betrayed us.’ Throughout 1978 the feeling had grown for a battle over pay. There would have been disputes over pay by electricity supply workers and miners had it not been for the intervention of the union leaders.

The union leaders could no longer hold back the flood. Tanker drivers, council workers, water workers and others struck that winter against Labour’s 5 percent pay limit. These workers were not crazed militants. The tanker drivers, for example, wanted £65 for a 40-hour week. They were fed up with a life of long hours and low pay. They received such small allowances for overnight stops that they were forced to sleep three to a room in dirty hostels.

Such people should have been natural supporters of Labour. But Labour had let them down so sharply that they revolted. Health workers wanted a decent NHS and a proper living for themselves. Labour offered neither. Many of the strikes won.

But the experience of Labour in office, and the lack of resistance from the labour movement had taken their toll. None of the left Labour or trade union leaders turned the seething bitterness of working class people into a left wing challenge to Labour. The biggest force to the left of Labour was the Communist Party. It slammed the government’s ‘Social Contrick’. But it placed its faith in the left Labour MPs and union leaders, and would not break from them.

The far left was far too small to influence masses of workers. So the right, the Tories and, to a lesser extent, the Nazis built from the despair. The confident working class activists who had brought down the Tories five years previously were utterly demoralised.

New Labour is again creating enormous bitterness and anger through pro-business policies. The crisis at the heart of New Labour has eroded the party’s base of members and activists. We need a wave of strikes again but we also need political generalisation to the left.

There is no reason why this should not happen. There is a much broader sense of the failings of privatisation and the market than there was in 1979. There is also the experience of the anti-capitalist movement and the significant minority of people who back the anti-war protests. There are the Socialist Alliance and Scottish Socialist Party.

The challenge is to transform the general anger with New Labour on a range of different issues into a united political force with socialist ideas at its heart.

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