Duncan Hallas

The Election Bogey

(March 1973)

Unsigned article from Notes of the Month, International Socialism, No.56, March 1973, pp.1-3.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

‘There is a considerable body of opinion, both within the government and outside party politics altogether, for whom the question is not if, but when the government will need to hold a general election, on the issue that the unions must not be allowed to pick and choose which Acts of Parliament they will obey’. So writes the hardline big business weekly the Economist.

On the face of it, only a government with a death wish would voluntarily precipitate an election in present circumstances. Heath may indeed be forced into it by successful industrial action against Phase Two; will be forced into it if that action is on a large enough scale; but that is a very different matter from voluntarily risking defeat.

Further sharp increases in prices are now inevitable. The cost of industrial raw materials and fuel rose by 7 per cent in the period from the beginning of December to the end of January – a staggering rate of increase. This will be working its way through to shop prices in the near future. In the case of the manufactured food industry the rise was even steeper – 10 per cent over the same two months. The effect of the dollar devaluation – the consequent further devaluation of around 5 per cent of the floating pound with respect to many other currencies – will give yet another upward twist to import prices. VAT at 10 per cent will, unless the government has a last minute loss of nerve and reduces the rate, add about 2 per cent to average retail prices from April 1st. And of course the rapid climb of fresh food prices continues.

All this (VAT apart) during the total wage freeze of Phase One! To rub in the lesson, the budget will (again excluding a last minute loss of nerve) make operative a present of £300 million a year to the former surtax payers and recipients of unearned income. There will be an immediate cash increase of £27.50 a week to those drawing £15,000 a year in unearned income (from shares etc). Most workers will get nothing.

Since the Tory government came to power in 1970 food prices have risen by 25 per cent, rents by 29 per cent, rates (before the current increases) by 30 per cent, fares by 42 per cent and house prices by 50 per cent. Even making the maximum allowance for the power of the media to promote a ‘Who Runs Britain’ stunt, even assuming that unemployment and the welfare cuts have been forgotten and so on, an election now is a desperate gamble for the Tories. The Labour Party has made a wretched showing in bye-elections but it stands an excellent chance of collecting a big protest vote in a general election.

‘Drifting Into a Decisive Conflict’

The fact that the question is being seriously discussed at all is an indication of the growing instability of British politics. For what has Heath to gain from an election, even if he wins? A victory like that of 1970 would merely put him back where he is now. In the unlikely event of a ‘union bashing’ campaign succeeding to the point of a Tory landslide, he would have the problem of a resurgent Powellite right wing in Parliament. And on any sober reckoning the odds, though not great, are on a Labour victory.

True, if the Tories won they would have a ‘mandate’ for not allowing the unions ‘to pick and choose which Acts of Parliament they will obey’. But what would that be worth? They had a ‘mandate’ for the Industrial Relations Act. They put it on the statute book, but they cannot enforce it against serious resistance.

The gas workers’ action and the government’s response illustrates the dilemma. On paper the government could obtain a 60-day ‘cooling off order and send the gasmen back to work. By the time the order expired, Phase Two, making the strike illegal, would be law. The only trouble is that the cooling off order would be unlikely to be generally obeyed. The GMWU leadership can be counted on to obey. Sections of the gasmen cannot. Indeed if the GMWU had been fully in control of its members in the industry, there would never have been industrial action at all.

Which takes us to the heart of the problem confronting the ruling class. Confrontation and quite substantial unemployment failed to break working class pressure on the wages front. Phase One produced a check, in spite of rising prices, but only at the cost of building up a formidable head of steam. Now with gasmen, health service workers, locomotive men. civil servants. London teachers and. above all. Ford workers committed to industrial actions ranging from purely token demonstrations to all-out struggle, the government faces the same problem with Phase Two as it faces with the Industrial Relations Act: how to enforce the law against serious collective resistance. The Pentonville strike proved that it cannot normally hope to do so if its policies – and the situation inside the unions – make it impossible for the trade union leaderships to cooperate. Many of the actions will probably peter out – or be sold out. But fresh sections are coming forward. The government cannot hope to carry on without trade union support.

That lesson has been thoroughly learned. Heath understands very well that the key problem for him – as it would be for Wilson – is to draw the trade union leaders into effective cooperation without conceeding too much of substance. And this is the point of the election bogey. The threat of an election – as bluff at the moment, as a desperate last resort in reality if the government suffers further defeats – is directed to bring the trade union leaders to heel by putting the issue of ‘the constitution’ at the centre of the stage.

The late Jimmy Thomas, general secretary of the NUR and TUC General Councillor at the time of the general strike of 1926, said after the defeat: ‘It was a struggle between the unions and the constitution – and I thank God the constitution won’. The Economist speaks of ‘both resolution and fear in the air ... At the very least, if British society is drifting into a decisive conflict it will not be in quite the casual, careless and indifferent way that seemed all too probable up to now’. In short the ruling class senses that a real crunch is near and the ‘fear in the air’ they smell is the fear of the trade union bureaucracy – right, left and centre alike – of facing a crunch. The resolution is their resolution to exploit this situation.

Gormley and the General Strike

It is not at all accidental that an incorrigible right winger like Joe Gormley should be the first top union leader to bluntly spell out the extreme solutions: on the one hand ‘a general strike to bring the Tories down’; on the other hand, collaboration with government policy and abandonment of the verbal opposition of the last two and a half years. Of course Gormley has an immediate purpose – to justify his position of postponing action on the mines wage claim; an act of direct aid and comfort to the enemy in present circumstances. But there is more to it than that. Gormley’s speeches reflect the thinking of the whole right wing of the TUC – and. indirectly, the strategy of the government. Since even a token general strike with the strictly limited aim of forcing an election is a horrifying prospect to the right, the real message is: capitulate, and hope for rewards.

After all there are all those vacant well-paid posts for trade union leaders that they are being forced to boycott because of the influence of the ‘extremists’. The government rewards its friends – George Thomson and Jack Peel were well looked after. And for the more disinterested and the venal alike, there is the real fear that the present tactics of verbal leftism and boycott can lead to an explosion that will be uncontrollable.

Yet the fact that Gormley raises the possibility of a general strike – from the worst of motives of course – gives the idea currency and focuses attention on the fact that Heath rules by the toleration of the TUC. That the government has any room for, manoeuvre at all is a result of TUC ‘generosity’. The tripartite talks, in themselves an admission of the government’s defeat in the major struggles of 1972, gave the government the necessary political breathing space to recover and launch Phase One. A general strike against Phase Two. for the right to strike, for increased pensions and welfare payments, would finish off the Tory government and transform the whole situation. Even the one-day national stoppage now being canvassed would be a huge step forward.

The situation is highly unstable and contradictory. The perspective of Vic Feather and the great bulk of the TUC remains – a new agreement with the government. ‘Let us have a thaw in the government’s thinking’, says Feather. ‘No real and lasting answer to inflation can be found until the proposals of the government and the proposals of the unions come closer together’. In plain words, give us an assured

position in the machinery of incomes policy enforcement and the appearance of real influence; or we simply cannot do the job you want us to do. And the lefts – now reduced by losses to the centre and consisting essentially of Scanlon. Briginshaw and the CP or CP-influenced leaders – while still formally committed to boycott and demonstrative opposition, moves closer to the centre. The centre in turn tries to move closer to the government.

The Special Congress and the LCDTU

On the one hand we have the policy statement Economic Policy and Collective Bargaining in 1973 – negotiable of course; on the other hand a ‘national day of action’ in defence of collective bargaining and a campaign against Phase Two. It would not be at all surprising if both were adopted at the Special Congress. What will not be adopted are the concrete, immediate, practical steps necessary to help the gasmen, the health workers. Ford workers, and the rest: financial support, total blacking where appropriate, sympathetic action in sectors where it really hurts, a concerted exposure of the fraud of incomes policy under capitalism and a real effort to coordinate claims and actions, especially in the public sector.

It goes without saying that proposals for a national one-day strike and demonstrations must be energetically supported. But they are not enough, not nearly enough. The UPW strike was beaten because, in spite of unlimited verbal support, the basic, elementary financial solidarity failed to materialise on any serious scale. Tom Jackson, whatever his motives, made the point effectively at the TUC Trafalgar Square rally against the Industrial Relations Law in 1971. ‘The movement’, he said, ‘must put its money where its mouth is’. It didn’t. The UPW went down to defeat and the government gained a fresh lease of life. The same danger exists today, especially for the sections with relatively weak industrial damage potential.

The TUC will not effectively organise solidarity, no matter how radical some of the speeches at Congress may be. It will not do so because real solidarity would seriously damage the government’s position and probably precipitate a showdown. Will the Liaison Committee attempt to do so? Its leaders now find themselves with a Conference after the Special Congress – a position of some embarrassment for them. We have no illusions that the CP-dominated leadership of the Liaison Committee has any stomach for a fight that would require a conflict with the TUC lefts. An article elsewhere in this issue examines their record on this question. Nevertheless the attempt must be made at the LCDTU Conference to develop effective solidarity for all workers fighting against the freeze and for basic trade union rights as well as support for protests, demonstrations and strikes against the Phase Two legislation. Pressure on the union leaders and the TUC by all means; reliance on them – no: that would be the road to defeat.

A mere call for solidarity unaccompanied by a development of the means to realise it will achieve little. The crucial issue is to develop the local organisations rooted in the workplaces that alone can deliver solidarity. Whether they are called local Liaison Committees. Councils of Action or whatever is of little moment. Whether they are built is decisive.

In this politically explosive situation the role of the Liaison Committee has an importance far beyond the numbers it can muster at a conference. It can give a lead that will smash Phase Two and bring down the government. Or it can finally and decisively demonstrate that it is incapable of tearing itself away from the embrace of the left union leaders and can operate only as a brake on the movement in this time of crisis.


Last updated on 19.10.2006