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Did strikes pave way for the Tories?

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Issue 1717

The winter of discontent 1978-9

Did strikes pave way for the Tories?

A JOINT public services union protest against Labour’s 5 percent wage freeze, January 1979

“IF THE trade unions fight Blair, then the Tories will get back in. Look at the strikes of 1978-9. The ‘Winter of Discontent’ paved the way for Thatcher.” That argument is coming from all quarters-the press, New Labour and key trade union leaders themselves.

It finds an echo among Labour supporters who rightly cannot bear the thought of William Hague as prime minister.

It was not trade union militancy but the lack of it that allowed the Tories to gain from the crisis of the 1974-9 Labour government.

The last Labour government imposed the greatest attacks on working class living standards since the hungry years of the 1930s. Labour inherited an economic crisis when it ousted the Tories in February 1974. A second general election in October of that year gave Labour prime minister Harold Wilson a majority of three seats.

Labour’s manifesto for February 1974 stated: “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.”

However, things got worse for working people.

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.

Teachers suffered large-scale redundancy for the first time in living memory. Prices doubled between February 1974 and December 1978. The government scrapped food subsidies and allowed nationalised industries such as electricity, gas and rail to hike prices.

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.

Behind those cold statistics lay the shattered lives of millions of working people. Support for Labour collapsed way before the 1979 general election. Labour lost election after election in its heartlands.

It lost the first by-election of the parliament, Woolwich West, in June 1975 to Margaret Thatcher’s Tories. Three by-elections took place 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. Frighteningly the Nazi National Front took one in ten votes and pushed the Liberals into fourth place.

A month later the unthinkable happened. Labour lost Ashfield to the Tories. It was a mining constituency where Labour had held a 23,000 majority. The 1977 May council elections saw Labour annihilated in Greater London and in most of the other big cities it had won control of three years earlier.

Later Labour by-election losses were not as catastrophic. But the Tories continued to win big swings against the government.

The losses meant Labour, now led by James Callaghan, could stay in office only through a pact with the Liberals and then through deals with the Welsh and Scottish nationalist parties. They even had to make a deal with the Ulster Unionists.

Labour chancellor Denis Healey flirted with redistributing wealth from the rich to the poor in 1974. The directors of big business, their friends at the top of the civil service and their allies abroad sabotaged this.

They organised an “investment strike”. Investment in 1976 was half what it was when Labour took office. Establishment papers such as the Financial Times and Sunday Times were quite open about the anti-government campaign.

Labour caved in to the bosses’ blackmail. British companies caused financial panic until in September 1976 chancellor Denis Healey had to go cap in hand to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for a loan to prop up the value of the pound.

The IMF demanded huge cuts. Labour responded by slashing 6 billion from the budget-around 25 billion at today’s prices. This is more than Thatcher managed in her 11 years in office.

THERE WERE countless local battles against closures, cuts, job losses and falling real wages. But the trade union leaders refused to mobilise total opposition to government policies, backing an alliance with Labour in the “social contract”.

The union leaders, especially the left wing ones such as Jack Jones of the TGWU and Hugh Scanlon of the AEU, often complained about the government’s assault on workers’ living standards.

But they offered no alternative to standing by the Labour government. Jones fought hard to win trade union support for the 6 limit on pay increases, imposed by the government.

He 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.” Not every union leader could hold the line. The seafarers’ union threatened strike action in September 1976 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 firefighters did strike the following year. The TUC voted narrowly not to back them and the government beat the strike with the use of troops. Three major strikes by groups of skilled workers in 1977 collapsed after trade union leaders instructed other workers to cross their picket lines.

Sickeningly, those betrayals allowed Tory newspaper columnists to feign support for “skilled British workmen” who had been let down by Labour and the union leaders.

There was disquiet inside the Labour Party and the government over the attack on workers’ living standards. The leading thinker of the Labour right wing, Anthony Crosland, bemoaned in his diaries how pro-business the government had become.

Left wing ministers such as Tony Benn, Michael Foot and Stan Orme were even more upset. Tragically they all stayed in the government rather than resigning and rallying opposition to it.

The biggest force left of Labour was the Communist Party. It slammed the government’s “social con trick”. But it placed its faith in left wing Labour and union leaders and would not break from them.

The far left was too small to influence masses of workers. So the right, the Tories and to a lesser extent the Nazis built from the despair.

The economy began to recover in 1978. But the government, under the thumb of big business, still wanted cuts and falling wages. It pushed through a wage limit of 5 percent when prices were rising at a rate of 10 percent.

The union leaders could no longer hold back the flood. Tanker drivers, council workers, water workers and others struck that winter. The TUC agreed a “concordat” with the Labour government. This encouraged workers to cross picket lines and limited the number of pickets in a strike to six.

This “concordat” prepared the ground for Thatcher’s policies in the 1980s. The “Winter of Discontent” was not a mass explosion of struggle. Rather it was a grinding series of disputes over individual issues. This meant that there was no generalised mood of opposition to the government.

The strikes won gains for workers but left activists tired. The experience of Labour in office, and the lack of resistance from the labour movement, had taken their toll.

The confident working class activists who had brought the Tories down five years previously were utterly demoralised. Their faith in a collective, just alternative to capitalism was shaken.

Labour fought the election on a programme which ceded every point of principle to Thatcher-tax cuts for the rich, more police, selling council houses, higher military spending, and less rank and file union power.

Labour Party activists in workplaces and estates were denied the arguments to counter the Tories’ propaganda. The Labour vote fell by 2 percent and Liberal support melted away to the Tories, allowing Thatcher to win.

The struggle of the winter of 1978-9 did not appear from nowhere. It was the culmination of a long period of bitterness with the betrayals of the Labour government.

There are differences between 1977 and today. But Labour is again creating bitterness through pro-business policies. Several aspects of politics in Britain today mean the chances of discontent going to the left rather than the right are greater now than then.

However, that is cold comfort unless every working class activist understands the central lesson of the fall of the last Labour government. Occasional outbursts by trade union leaders are welcome, but are not enough.

The left has to build the strongest possible support for every battle by workers and has to provide a credible socialist alternative to New Labour.

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