Tony Cliff
& Colin Barker

Incomes policy, legislation and shop stewards

Chapter Nine: The way ahead

Before going on to consider the present condition of the British working class movement, it may be useful to summarise briefly our argument so far. We began with an examination of the changing conditions under which the British capitalist class is operating today, and the way in which these conditions make them anxious to introduce an incomes policy.

In particular we pointed to their growing need to plan ahead, the increasing effects of international competition on their profit margins, and the especially acute pressures of the balance of payments problem on the growth rate of the British economy. The employers and the government, we suggested, are seeking to redistribute the wealth of the country away from wages and towards profits, as has happened in a number of other advanced capitalist countries. In the past our rulers escaped from allowing the workers’ share of the national income to rise through inflation, but conditions of international competition have made this solution more and more problematic.

We asked whether the government was seeking to introduce an incomes policy that would apply equally to all incomes, or whether their real intention was a form of wage restraint, and we attempted to show that, since profits and prices can not be controlled under capitalism, the incomes policy amounts to nothing more than wage restraint, in the interest of higher profits. It cannot, therefore, be seen as in any way a socialist measure.

Thirdly, we examined the assertion that an incomes policy would lead to economic growth in Britain. A model of the way in which incomes policy might be supposed to achieve this result was examined, and rejected as totally out of touch with reality. The inescapable conclusion was that, because of all the “leakages” in the economic system in Britain, an incomes policy would contribute almost nothing to economic growth. Nevertheless, we suggested, the economic mode that we examined and rejected lies behind most of the government’s attempts to plan, and we pointed out the difference between the sort of planning that the Wilson government is attempting and socialist planning. In the conditions of modern capitalism, it is foolish to assume that planning is necessarily an anti-capitalist measure.

Turning to the way in which workers win their wages, we showed the growing importance of local bargaining in the economy, and of the “wage drift” resulting from this. At the same time we pointed out that national negotiations have by no means lost their importance – they are still important as one of the two legs on which workers walk. We showed that the idea, still accepted by many trade unionists, that an incomes policy will lead to greater social justice by redistributing wealth from the better-off to the worse-off sections of the working class, is completely phoney – the harder the stronger workers fight for better pay and conditions, the more help they give to their weaker brothers and sisters.

We therefore concluded that there was not one decent argument in favour of an incomes policy under capitalism from a socialist point of view. Incomes policy is a capitalist measure, directed against the working class under the conditions of modern capitalism. It is clear that socialists and trade union militants must reject it, and the assumption on which it is based, without exception. It is a policy designed to weaken the labour movement. We therefore turned to a consideration of the ways in which a fight against the incomes policy could be most successfully developed, while at the same time moves towards strengthening the labour movement could be made. The trade union bureaucracy, we suggested, because of its increasing integration into the machinery of the capitalist state, does not provide a basis for fundamental opposition to the incomes policy. More and more the union leaderships are an impediment to socialist advance. But increasingly they are being superseded as the real leaders of the working class movement by the shop stewards and their organisations, and we attempted to show how important shop stewards committees and similar rank and file organisations have become today, analysing their weaknesses and strengths. Any real opposition to the incomes policy and any policy for socialist advance in Britain must look first and foremost to the shop stewards.

Finally, we looked at the proposals for trade union legislation that go hand in hand with the moves towards an incomes policy. These proposals will present the working class with more and more legal threats to its points of real strength, in particular through attempts to control and punish unofficial strikers.

In this last chapter we conclude with a few comments on the prospects for the socialist movement in Britain.

The reformist tradition

For a very long period in British history the prevailing ideology in the British working class was that of parliamentary reformism. This old-style reformism had one central feature of particular importance to socialists. As an ideology it told workers, “Leave it to your leaders – your MPs and your trade union chiefs – to win reforms for you.” This was, in other words, “reformism from above”, and its history in the working class movement is a very long one. It decisively influenced the ways in which generations of workers thought and acted.

But, like all beliefs and ways of acting, it was rooted in a particular form of society. And over the last generation a whole number of changes in the situation, of capitalism – and thus in the situation of the working class – have decisively reduced the hold of this kind of reformism. These changes may be summarised as follows – old-style reformism from above rested on a particular sort of ruling class, a particular sort of state, and a particular sort of working class. All these three have changed, and in changing they have altered the prospects for socialist politics in Britain quite fundamentally. We will look at them one at a time.

The ruling class

The position of the owners and controllers of industry and finance has changed considerably, especially as a result of the growth in the size of individual firms. All through the 19th and well into the 20th centuries the typical employer was a great deal smaller than he is today. And the market in which he sold his goods was extremely competitive. Not only were firms much smaller in size than today, but there were far more of them in any particular line of production. Being small, and being in fierce competition among themselves, these firms could not on the whole afford, individually, to pay their workers more or grant them greater concessions than their competitors. An employer who granted his workers very much more than his competitors granted to theirs ran the risk of putting himself out of business.

Also, the economy was subject to a cycle of booms and deep slumps, and the heavy unemployment characteristic of this earlier stage in the capitalist economy provided employers with a reserve army of unemployed workers. In this situation the employers felt no especially strong need to compete with each other for labour by offering their workers a little more to stay with them. And, to a greater extent than today, workers’ skills (or lack of skills) were more transferable between factories and industries. This was true of skilled and unskilled workers alike. Thus, when the employers were forced to grant reforms to the workers, they tended to do this all together and all at once, through such agencies as parliament. The 19th century and the early 20th century were the great periods of reforms won for workers through parliament. It was through national agitation and propaganda, focused on the parliamentary centre, that workers made many of their gains, through their representatives – or their misrepresentatives! When they had to, to avoid worse trouble, the employers paid out for these reforms. Reforms applied to all workers equally, and the cost of them was borne by employers equally. In this way no employer was put at a competitive disadvantage with his rivals.

The last great period of this movement of reforms from above, won through parliament, came with the Labour government after the Second World War. Whenever possible, of course, the employers made sure that the reforms that workers were granted were paid for by the workers themselves. All manner of administrative devices were developed for making sure that welfare services, etc, that were granted to the working class were paid for by charges to the workers, not to the employers. If a welfare service involved redistribution of incomes, then as far as possible this was paid for by making the better-off workers support the worse off.

But the important point is that the reforms, which undoubtedly raised the general standard of life of workers in Britain, came from the centre. To win them the working class had to look to its national representatives, in parliament and in the trade union leaderships.

But today the situation has changed, and the employers are very different. The typical employer of today is a great deal bigger, and there are far fewer employers. As firms have grown in size their monopoly control over the market has increased, and competition, in the national market at least, has become much less cut-throat. Because of their size, and because they are less afraid of their competitors than they were, they are more ready to grant reforms to their workers one at a time and on their own.

Also, with some exceptions in backward areas like Northern Ireland, the British economy since the beginning of the Second World War has had almost continuous full employment, and today there is a shortage of workers. With the virtual disappearance of the reserve army of the unemployed, labour has become a scarce commodity, and the employers are very worried about recruiting and keeping their workers. Machinery and technical processes in factories nowadays are a great deal more expensive than in the past, and also far more complicated. Because of technical changes, in many industries – and especially in the new, fast growing and technologically advanced industries – it is becoming increasingly expensive to train workers, and increasingly expensive to lose them. The employers hate labour turnover today almost as much as they hate strikes.

As a result of these changes, employers are increasingly willing to grant reforms and make changes in their own factories regardless of what their competitors are doing. There has been a decline in the reforms won from the centre, and an increase in reforms won in the big firms. This is not only true of wages, but of all kinds of fringe benefits as well. One example will do.

We are constantly being told that we live in a “welfare state”, and it might reasonably be imagined that at the heart of any welfare state provisions we would find pensions. It might be thought that if workers want to retire on decent pensions, then the place to go to ask for these would be to the MPs. In fact, today, if workers want good pensions, the place to look for them is, to a growing extent, not in parliament, not from MPs of left or right, but in the fringe benefit schemes of the large employers. Since the war there has been a phenomenal growth of private pension schemes, actively encouraged by the Tories with offers of large tax reliefs. In the mid-1950s Professor Titmuss estimated that the cost of these private occupational pension schemes to the Exchequer was between two and three times the cost of the state pension schemes, even though the private schemes covered a much smaller proportion of the population. [1] Although the lion’s share of these private pensions goes to managerial and, to a lesser extent, white collar staff, by the end of the 1950s about half the non-agricultural working population was covered by these schemes, and the numbers are growing steadily year by year. Since the return of the Conservative government in 1951 the government’s contribution to welfare services has been steadily declining. [2] Through the increasing use of flat rate contributions and many other devices, the redistributive aspects of the welfare services have been progressively reduced. The whole balance of welfare provision in Britain has turned decisively against the working class since the war. Before the war, sickness, pension and unemployment benefits were much higher, in real terms, than they are today. On the other hand, those who are better off get increased tax concessions for all the private welfare schemes they arrange for themselves, their children get far more out of the free educational services than do the children of workers, and so on. One critic asked in 1958:

The middle classes get the lion’s share of the public social services, the elephant’s share of occupational welfare privileges, and in addition can claim generous allowances to reduce their tax liability. Who has a welfare state? [3]

And Professor Titmuss provides an answer to his question: “Those who have benefited most are those who have needed it least”. [4]

Slowly but surely the welfare services in Britain have been emasculated in the period since the war. The importance of state-sponsored central reforms has been declining. Today the workers have less to gain and less to hope for from national reforms. And thus the role of their national representatives, the Labour MPs, has been declining too. There is less to be had from them today than perhaps ever before.

This is not to say that there are no reforms to be had any more. Reforms can be and are still being won, but increasingly the place in which they are won is not parliament, but the large corporate enterprise, the great business empire of modern capitalism. The employers prefer it that way.

The state

Another change that has profoundly affected the ideology of reformism from above and its hold over British workers has been the change in the role of the state.

In the last century, and well into the present century, the capitalists’ ideal role for the state was no role at all. According to the prevailing economic doctrine of the day, the state was supposed to keep out of economic life as much as possible. All it had to do in the world of business and production was to make sure that the parties to contracts kept their bargains, and no more. The idea of the state intervening directly in the sacred freedom of the market was unthinkable. And despite all the misery caused by fierce economic competition, and by recurrent heavy unemployment and poverty, the state by and large kept out of economic life. Politics and economics were kept strictly separate, as far as this was possible.

And partly because the state kept out of economic life, and because of the separation of politics and economics, it was not difficult for workers to see the state as being somehow “neutral”, above the conflict between workers and employers, and not taking sides. It was not so difficult either to believe that, if only the representatives of the working class could be elected to parliament in large enough numbers, these representatives would then legislate their way to socialism and a just society. The fact that it was possible to see the state as neutral made it that much easier to believe in reliance on parliamentary representatives to solve workers’ problems.

But today the state is very different. The state is responsible today for some 45 percent of all fixed investment in this country, and for 20 percent of output. The state is the country’s largest single employer of workers, and by no means the best employer in Britain either, as the miners and railwaymen have found out yet again already this year. And the state is deeply involved in the economic life of the country, in a way that would have been inconceivable even before the Second World War.

As we said in the first chapter, the units of capitalism are now so large and their investments are now so complex that the capitalists have, however reluctantly, had to accept the idea of planning and coordination by the state. As other countries have entered the world market and Britain’s share in the world market has continued to decline, international competition has in many ways replaced competition in the local British market, and there has been increasing concern with “the national interest” – the interests of British capitalism as a whole – an interest that only the state can properly define and push. So the state today, through NEDDY, the Department of Economic Affairs, the Prices and Incomes Board, and the many other state planning and coordinating agencies, seeks to do British capitalism’s planning job. This it does, of course, on the capitalists’ own terms, and wherever possible it draws in businessmen to help the civil servants. The state and business have thus become much more highly integrated today. Politics and economics can hardly be separated any more. And it is difficult to see the state as “neutral” outside the conflict between the classes. Tory or Labour, it makes less and less difference – the government of today is much more clearly a government of the employers, for the employers and by the employers. This is only emphasised by the declining power of parliament in relation to the cabinet and the government departments. What good is there in pinning all your hopes on a bunch of Labour MPs who can do nothing anyway, because they are powerless?

And the trade union leaders too are drawn into the state’s planning and coordinating processes. They have moved, as George Woodcock said, out of Trafalgar Square and into the committee rooms (where, as we showed, they promptly lost any power to influence the government in any significant way). Trade union leaders sit on innumerable government committees and agencies, and affect government and business policy hardly at all. For their services to “the nation”, they win knighthoods from the government and suspicion from their members. Of them and the MPs together it is hardly unfair to say, “Power corrupts, but lack of power corrupts absolutely.”

The working class

Thus the ruling class has changed and the state has changed. So too has the working class, and this is the third and most important point.

The first and most obvious feature of the working class today is that – particularly because of full employment – workers are better off than ever in the past. In the 19th century, and right up to the Great Depression of the 1930s, the lives of workers in this country were dominated by the twin facts of poverty and regular, deep unemployment every five to ten years.

In the past, when the workers acted militantly, they did so generally, as a class as a whole. Consider the strikes of the 1920s, great defensive struggles in the engineering industry, on the railways, in the mines and, finally, in the General Strike of 1926. These were general strikes, all of them, strikes that involved workers right across the country. They are a part of the British working class’s heritage of militancy. Being general strikes, they were directed from the centre, by the national trade union leaders. Here too attention was focused necessarily on the centre, and reforms depended in part on reformism from above.

It is proper that the achievements of the working class in the 1920s should be remembered with pride, but we should avoid being sentimental about the past. When the workers in the period before the last war were strong, they were often magnificent in their struggles, but a succession of bitter defeats and the return of mass unemployment left them defeated and demoralised, and working class politics went out of the window. The 1930s are often remembered as “the red 30s” because of the activities of the unemployed workers’ movements, but the 1930s were also a period of low strike activity, of the greatest Tory vote this century, of workers fighting one another for jobs or scraping before their foremen to keep their jobs, of declining union membership, of despair and demoralisation. In their poverty workers often generated a marvellous sense of solidarity, it is true, but often too this was not a fighting solidarity but the solidarity of misery and defeat.

To workers dominated by poverty and unemployment, as so many were in the decades before the last war, a solution to their problems through parliament and through their national trade union leaders often seemed the only answer, even though time and again their leaders at the centre let them down, most notably in 1926 and 1931. In the old conditions of capitalism, reforms from the centre, reformism from above, were the only solutions that seemed to make sense.

How different is the picture of the working class today! The first and most obvious thing about workers today, as we said, is that they are better off than they have ever been before. So much so, indeed, that some writers have gone so far as to suggest that many workers have been made “middle class” by “affluence”. These writers have suggested that the fact that many workers today drive their own cars, or have television sets or washing machines, has somehow made them “middle class” in the ways that they think and act, and that therefore there is no future for socialist politics in Britain any more.

This of course is plain nonsense. A rising standard of living doesn’t tell you anything about workers’ political and trade union activity, for a start. If the fact of owning a television set or a car or earning higher wages is enough to stop a worker acting like a worker, then why didn’t the rising standard of living in the second half of the 19th century stop workers joining trade unions? How is it that they joined trade unions more, not less? And why has union membership gone up since the last war? Why are there more strikes today than ten years ago? Why are there more, not less, shop stewards in the unions? Why hasn’t the number of Labour voters gone down since the 1930s, instead of being consistently higher? And why should the most “affluent” area in Britain today – the Midlands – also be the area that seems to have most strikes? It’s clear that a better explanation of what has been happening to the working class is needed.

The first change that has taken place has been widely misunderstood by the writers who assume that workers are becoming “middle class”. This is the increasing apathy that many workers feel and express about “politics” (and even, perhaps, “trade unionism”). But what does this mean? It is certainly true that individual memberships of the Labour Party have declined in number, from 1,005,000 in 1953 to 830,000 in 1963. [5] And the proportion of workers attending trade union branch meetings is also very low, as we showed. It’s also probably true that many workers today feel very apathetic about national political issues. But in view of the fact that there’s less and less to be won in the national political and trade union arenas, this isn’t really very surprising. Nor should socialists or militants feel too worried about this – they’d have more reason to be worried if workers did show deep interest in parliament, for instance, for it would mean the workers didn’t realise that next to nothing can be had from parliament these days!

What has happened, in a very important sense, is that workers have turned their attention and their militancy to the areas where real gains can be and are being made. And the most important of these areas, of course, is the shopfloor. It is here that a growing part of their wages is won, and it is here, if anywhere, that any welfare benefits can be won. It’s to shopfloor meetings that a worker is likely to go today, not to union branch meetings, and it’s in electing his shop steward that he’s more likely to be interested, not in electing a branch or a district or national union official.

Another factor of importance for the working class movement since the war has been the growing unionisation of white collar workers. As manual workers have become stronger and better organised, and have bid up their wages, the differentials between white collar and manual workers have tended to lessen, making it more and more apparent to white collar workers that if they wish to preserve their position they will have to organise. Also, with the growth of large-scale bureaucratic organisation in offices as well as in factories, their conditions of work have become more similar to those of the manual workers. And in some parts of the white collar work world office work has become as mechanised as factory work. It is among white collar workers that trade unions have made their largest membership gains since the war, especially among technical and highly skilled stall personnel in industry:

During the 11 years 1950-61, the leading non-manual unions affiliated to the Trades Union Congress chalked up these gains: Association of Supervisory Staffs, Executives and Technicians 128.9 percent; Clerical and Administrative Workers Union 92.5 percent; Draughtsmen and Allied Technicians’ Association 56.3 percent; National and Local Government Officers 44 percent; Society of Technical Civil Servants 40.7 percent; and National Union of Journalists 35.4 percent. Outside the TUC (although actively discussing the possibility of joining) is the Institution of Professional Civil Servants, which expanded by 65 percent in the same period. [6]

Despite these gains the level of white collar organisation is still quite low, but the trend is of great importance. The most successful of these white collar unions have shown great militancy in pursuing their members’ claims, and this appears undoubtedly to have been a condition of their success. Thus DATA, for instance, declares every strike by its members official, and being almost without any strike funds at all relies entirely on levies of its membership to provide full pay for DATA members on strike. The prospect of large numbers of white collar workers joining trade unions clearly worries the employers, especially as the white collar unions are becoming much more militant these days. In June 1964 a confidential report was circulated among the employers affiliated to the British Employers’ Confederation (now the Confederation of British Industry), in which the following paragraph appeared:

In spite, however, of the limited extent to which staff unionism appears to have developed up to the present time, some members of the Wages and Conditions Committee reported that there is now a growing tendency for staff workers to join trade unions and that this is making it increasingly difficult for employers to resist pressure from staff unions for the negotiation of agreements. It is recognised that staff unions, because of the type of worker they represent, are generally more articulate, more militant and more effective than the manual workers’ unions, and that any developments of staff unionism on a major scale will present serious problems for employers. [7]

Brushes with the government have also had their effect on white collar militancy. The experience of Selwyn Lloyd’s pay pause in 1962 was undoubtedly a contributing factor in NALGO’s decision to affiliate to the TUC, and in that union’s sudden increase in militancy.

With white collar workers – people who always used to look on themselves as “middle class” and a cut above the manual workers – joining unions and becoming more militant, the only way the changes in Britain can be explained, it seems, is by saying, not that workers are becoming “middle class”, but that a good section of the people who used to call themselves “middle class” are now beginning to recognise that they are workers too. Many of them come from working class homes anyway, so it’s hardly surprising. The more white collar workers organise and become militant, the more this will strengthen the labour movement as a whole.

Looking at the movement as a whole, there are two predominant features of particular importance for socialists. The first is a cause of concern, though not for pessimism, and the second is a definite cause for optimism.


In the period before the war, as we noted, when the working class acted militantly, then workers felt together as a class and acted together as a class. The “general strike” was the natural expression of this situation. Today things are different. We have a militant working class, that takes part in more strikes, of shorter duration, and that is more confident of its own strength than ever before. But as the pattern of strikes shows, struggles today are essentially local and fragmented. The whole condition of the class struggle is changing.

Today workers win gains from employers in small groups, and the relatively small, unofficial strike or go-slow is the natural expression of this.

Although in the longer run an improvement for one section becomes an improvement for all, in the short run it appears as if some workers are gaining faster than others. And in the short run the issues facing different groups appear to bear little similarity. Workers today struggle in small groups, and not very often in a general way, as a class as a whole. All the fights against employers on the shopfloor, the struggles which reveal more than anything else the strength of workers today, do not by themselves have the effect of unifying the working class, because they are seen as essentially private fights, particular to workers in one shop or one factory. They do not necessarily engage the attention or the sympathy of workers in other shops or factories, let alone other industries, even though, as we attempted to demonstrate, a victory or a defeat for one group of workers means in fact a victory or a defeat for considerably more workers than are actually engaged in that particular struggle.

The fragmentation of action goes hand in hand with the contemporary apathy towards larger political issues that so many have commented upon. Apathy has been well described as the state in which people seek private solutions to public evils. [8]

Fighting and making gains in relatively isolated groups on separate fronts, workers undoubtedly do tend to lose the sense of cohesion and class meaning that socialists see in their struggles. And because in a very real sense workers see their struggles as for themselves alone rather than for the working class as a whole, those who have neither the ability nor the power to organise on their own behalf tend to get left behind. As we showed in our chapter on the wages front, workers who are well placed to make wage gains prepare the ground for those who are not quite so well placed, and provide them with an incentive to keep up. But there are some people in the working class who have nothing at all with which they can fight, even to keep up, and they get left behind. This more than anything else explains the continuance (and growth) of poverty in post-war Britain:

In 1953-54 about 8 percent of the population – nearly 4 million people – were living at a standard no higher than the average family on National Assistance. Preliminary results for 1960 showed that the number had nearly doubled. Seven and a half million people were in households with incomes at or below the average amount allowed to similar families on National Assistance. As many as 2 million had less than the basic National Assistance scale on which, it has been officially stated, nobody is expected to live. [9]

Who are these people? Typically, the old age pensioners, the sick, the mentally deficient, the unskilled worker with a large family, and others, all of them with little or no bargaining power. These are the people to whom above all class solidarity could mean most in terms of their standard of living, and these are the people who gain least from it. They represent in all 15 percent of the population.

Again, another factor going with the fragmented condition of the struggle at present is the colour prejudice of many workers. Perhaps as many as 95 percent of manual workers are in favour of the Labour government’s reactionary white paper on immigration control. It was in a sense apt that it should have been the workers of Smethwick, in the middle of the Midlands engineering belt, who did not stop the unspeakable and very successful campaign of the Tory Peter Griffiths in the 1964 general election. If there were no more to the contemporary class struggle than the workers’ offensives against their employers for higher pay and better conditions it is difficult to see what point of unity there could be between workers in their different situations. But it is doubtful whether it is on the offensive that working class unity can be and will be rebuilt. Two things in particular in contemporary capitalism tend to unify the workers.

The first is the continuing tendency towards larger and larger units of industry. Takeovers and mergers continue at a high rate, and provide the conditions for united action in combine committees, linking workers in different factories and different regions, and emphasising their common problems. Indeed, because the typical large firm today spans a group of industries rather than being concentrated on one narrow sector of production, the conditions are created for links across industrial boundaries

The second is the attack upon the workers. However fragmented the workers’ offensives against the employers may be, their effect on the bosses is felt as a general effect. The employers and the state cannot just single out groups of workers in their counter-attack on the working class. Their incomes policy and their legislation against unofficial strikes, their deflationary budgets and their cutting back of welfare services affect all workers, and not only as Midlands engineers or London railwaymen, but as members of the working class. It is especially at the point where workers are forced to unite by the general attack that is mounted upon them that the real moves towards unity can be made [10], not at the point where offensives are prepared, but where defences are raised. These are the areas above all that socialists should emphasise in their propaganda, the points where the workers’ militancy can be unified.

“Do it yourself” reforms

We began with a discussion of the roots of reformism from above, the long and deadly tradition of reliance upon representatives that has bitten deeply into the consciousness and activity of British workers. Today this tradition is weaker than ever before. When, as today, workers do not win their best wage rises through national bargaining, or their best pension schemes from the state, when workers can gain less and less from their representatives in parliament and in the trade union leadership than once they did, then there is good reason for optimism among socialists.

The decline of reformism from above in Britain means a new possibility in British politics once again, the possibility of the rebirth of a revolutionary working class movement. For wherever workers are fighting for themselves, fighting for better wages, fighting in defence of their shop stewards and fighting for their right to control the conditions of their work, wherever they are doing things for themselves and not leaving it to their leaders, they are growing in self-confidence and growing in their ability to run things for themselves. Wherever they are doing these things, they are destroying the tradition of reformism from above. They are developing a new tradition, of “do it yourself” reforms, that expresses their growing self-reliance and self-assertiveness.

More than 100 years ago the International Working Men’s Association – the First International – was founded in London. The opening sentence of its General Rules, written by Karl Marx, stated, “The emancipation of the working classes must be conquered by the working classes themselves.”

No one can win socialism for the workers – they must do it themselves, relying on their own strength and their own organisations. Wherever “do it yourself” reforms are won, the seeds of socialism as the self-emancipation of the working class are being sown.

The working class of Britain is fragmented, it is true, but it is also the most potentially revolutionary working class in the history of Britain. The principal tasks of socialists are to do what we can to unify the working class, and to encourage the movement from below.

In the face of the massive campaign against shop stewards and against unofficial strikes, the natural abilities of the stewards must be developed and deployed to the full. In the past the stewards have shown a multitude of talents for organising their fellow workers, adopting and adapting new and ingenious methods of struggle, despite the solidarity of the employers, the state and the trade union bureaucrats. In the main, however, these struggles have, as we said, been directed only against their individual employers. Now they are faced with the task of organising their fellow stewards in other firms, in other areas and in other industries, to defend themselves against a powerful consortium of the employers, the government, the press, the law, the Tory party and the trade union brass, all of them equally determined that this time the shop stewards will be curbed, and with them, of course, the rest of the organised working class’s will to resist.

It is the general nature of the threat facing stewards that allows the opportunity for developing them into a widely based movement. And the very fact that the attack is being launched against them by a Labour government indicates the need for a political as well as an industrial response from the rank and file movement in the factories, the docks and elsewhere.

The first essential task for any worker is that of ensuring that his own immediate organisation is in fighting shape, that every factory and place of work has a joint stewards committee (including all stewards regardless of their union membership, and covering white collar workers like draughtsmen too), that every company with different factories is covered by combined stewards committees to coordinate activities and prevent “splitting” activities by the employers. More broadly, the rank and file must find forms of organisation – area rank and file committees, etc – that can do the job the trades councils used to do. Only the new organisations must be based on the factories rather than on geographical place of residence.

Most of these tendencies are in their infancy, but the threat to the shop stewards is now so acute that the implementation of these basic tasks must be accelerated and largely achieved in a relatively short time, creating the conditions for the formation of a national shop stewards’ movement – an idea which, since the First World War, has existed almost solely in the minds of some of those whom Harold Wilson calls “wreckers”, and whom we see as the potential builders of the mightiest socialist movement yet in the history of Britain.




1. R.M. Titmuss, Pension Systems and Population Change, in Essays on “The Welfare State” (London, 2nd edn. 1963), p.63.

2. See N. Harris, The Decline of Welfare, International Socialism 7 (Winter 1961).

3. B. Abel-Smith, Whose Welfare State?, Conviction (London, 1958).

4. R.M. Titmuss, The Irresponsible Society, in Essays, p.229.

5. P. Anderson, Problems of Socialist Strategy, in P. Anderson and R. Blackburn (eds.), Towards Socialism (London, 1965), p.252.

6. C. Jenkins, Tiger in a White Collar?, Penguin Survey of Business and Industry 1965, (Harmondsworth, 1965), p.60. These figures may be a little inflated, particularly in the case of ASSET.

7. Cited in C. Jenkins, Tiger, pp.55-56.

8. The phrase is Edward Thompson’s. See E.P. Thompson, At the Point of Decay, in Out of Apathy (London, 1960).

9. T. Lynes, Poverty in the Welfare State, Aspect, August 1963, cited in R. Blackburn, The New Capitalism, in Towards Socialism, p.139.

10. In this respect the present situation is far more favourable to the development of a united shop stewards’ movement than the situation in the First World War. In the latter case the government’s offensive was over the issues of dilution and conscription. Both of these had an immediately divisive effect upon the working class, setting grade against grade – dilution because, while it threatened the economic defences of the skilled men, it widened the prospects of advance for the less skilled, conscription because for a long time the skilled men were exempt. The threat of incomes policy and anti trade union legislation today affects all grades.


Last updated on 19.4.2003