Duncan Hallas

Some Prospects for 1977

(January 1977)

From International Socialism (1st Series), No.94, January 1977, pp.3-4.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

CAN THE Social Contract survive through 1977? Can the government itself survive? Speculation, as such, has no value but the questions are worth putting all the same.

It is not that any great confidence can be placed on the answers that seem plausible at this month-probably no to the first question, probably yes to the second. It is rather a matter of trying to assess the likely changes in the climate of working class opinion, its interaction with the union bureaucracies and the outcome in action. For these things matter enormously and are a major factor in the development of the revolutionary socialist party.

Of course there is no such thing as working class opinion in any unified sense. If there were the whole situation would be radically different. Working class consciousness is fragmented, contradictory, heavily influenced by the mass media but also by experience and, above all, by collective activity or the lack of it. Working class opinion is a shorthand for this uneven, changing and highly fragmented consciousness.

John Deason made the point in IS93 that ‘the confidence required to not only take on one’s immediate boss, but the Labour government and the TUC as well, is considerable. Against such a background, the Seamen’s settlement could yet prove decisive in beginning the shift of rank and file consciousness ... Fringe benefits can be stretched to cover many claims-from early retirement for the miners to the Ford’s claim for the 35 hour week ...

Sure enough, the miners’ claim for retirement at 60 (by January 1977 according to 1976 NUM Conference decision!) and at 55 by 1980, is, at the time of writing, the most menacing threat to the Social Contract so far.

Ironically, the unanimous adoption of the claim (with threat of industrial action attached) was itself, in part, the consequence of the successful right-wing manoeuvre to prevent discussion of the wages question. And the Executive’s unanimous vote to ballot the membership on action is surely connected with the rash of small (and mostly unreported) disputes that flared up in the Autumn.

Whatever the outcome, and a compromise settlement is the most likely result, the effect on other groups of workers will make it harder for the unholy trinity of government, employers and TUC to hold the line. The TUC has committed itself to the view that this claim is ‘clearly’ out with the Social Contract. They are going to regret that stand.

Demonstrations and Conferences are not of the same order of importance, but they have their significance too. November 17th was by far the biggest demonstration seen in London since the TUC sponsored protest against the Industrial Relations Act. Around 80,000 workers took part.

The virtual media black-out of the demonstration, which could hardly have happened without some coordinated lobbying, is an interesting indication of ruling class nervousness. Scattered and sporadic as they are, the actions against cuts are dangerous to’ the government. Intelligently exploited, the token opposition of the public sector union chiefs to each new round of cuts provides useful opportunities for developing these actions. The Glasgow transport strike, itself a token but an important one, shows the possibilities.

The floodgates of the Social Contract are clearly beginning to creak. The ‘renegotiation’ of the wages norms this Summer is going to be a much tougher proposition for the TUC to sell than the. £6 or the 4½ per cent. And sooner or later the pressure of a 15 per cent inflation rate will show itself not only in conflicts over ‘fringe’ benefits but in a direct confrontation with the wage rise limit, very likely supported by ‘special case’ arguments.

Against this background the November 6th Right to Work Conference showed both strengths and weaknesses. 700 delegates, 360 trade union bodies represented, was impressive given the hard-line policy statement on cuts, unemployment, hours and pay. So, still more, was the presence of representatives of workers involved in practically every major dispute in progress at the time. This connection with actual struggles was a real step forward compared with the two previous Rank and File Conferences.

At the same time the ability to intervene independently, to deliver even simple solidarity action with workers involved in particular struggles, is still minimal if not altogether lacking. The conference was largely a propaganda operation, a valuable and absolutely necessary propaganda operation but not yet the organising centre of solidarity that is going to be needed.

This fact is not at all the fault of the organising committee; least of all is it due to ‘lack of a correct programme’ or ‘failure to discuss the nuts and bolts of the policies’ as various and assorted splinter groups inevitably asserted.

The problem is one of the relationship of forces, of the still embryonic state of confidence and cohesion on the militant left, of a level of consciousness that makes it difficult 4o transcend sectionalism. Successful actions by different groups of workers will ultimately transform this situation.

Meanwhile the conference decisions to organise new Right to Work marches and to put pressure on the dormant Liaison Committee for the Defence of Trade Unions and the torpid National Assembly of Labour, for united actions are the correct way forward. Whether these particular Rip Van Winkle organs of the ‘broad left’ are actually capable of awakening remains to be seen. If they are, so much the better: if not, we shall have to struggle on without them. Either way the conferences s initiative can only be beneficial.

All this is written on the assumption that something like the present economic situation will continue through the year; a pretty safe assumption if it is understood that this does not exclude variations, that what is relevant here is the combination of high inflation rate, high unemployment and pressure for cuts.

There is also, however, the political factor. If the government founders the climate will change quickly and considerably. The TUC bosses will try for ‘business as usual’, even under a Thatcherite regime, but it is hardly possible.

The rightward swing of the Tories must bring a new ‘Selsdon’ approach in government, at least for a time. That will kill the whole Social Contract approach stone dead and make life much harder for the union bureaucracies.

Given an election, the outlook for Labour is bleak. In 1964 the Labour Party scraped in with a House of Commons majority of four. In 1966, choosing the time shrewdly, Wilson swept in with a majority of around 100 – and then imposed the wage freeze and started the cuts. In 1970 he lost to Heath’s Tories because of the shrinkage of Labour’s own vote, not any great swing to the Tories. The 1964-70 Labour government presided over a marked decline of the Labour Party and the Labour vote.

February 1974 was not dissimilar to Autumn 1964 (except that Labour was weaker, lacking an overall majority). But the Autumn replay fell far short of 1966. The long-run decline of the Labour vote – from nearly half to about a third – was not reversed, not even temporarily as in 1966.

The experience of the present Labour government has certainly accelerated the long decline. By-elections and polls alike demonstrate it. Of course, the spectre of Thatcher, red in tooth and claw, will drive some Labour abstainers back to the party in a general election. But hardly enough, and in any case the rise of the SNP has put paid to the prospects of another Labour majority even if, against all the trends, Callaghan can revive his support to 1974 levels.

There has not been an elected majority of Labour MPs in England since 1945. The parliamentary party has depended heavily on its dominance in Scotland and Wales to outweigh the English Tories. Now, some 25 Scottish Labour seats are vulnerable to a 10 per cent swing to the SNP. Some are certain to be lost in any election. And under these circumstances it may well be the case that Callaghan’s is the last majority Labour government, a possibility that raises a number of questions.

An election in 1977, then, would result in a heavy defeat for Labour and most probably a right-wing Tory government. Since this is obvious, there will be no elections unless Callaghan is forced to it.

Will he be? The loss of another seat or two will not, in itself, be enough. The SNP certainly has an interest in keeping Labour in office until the devolution bill is passed (if, indeed, it is passed at all), the Liberals are likely to be slaughtered in an early election and so on. A minority government can probably stagger on a while yet.

There is the view that big business has lost confidence in Labour and will, perhaps soon, precipitate a crisis to bring the government down. A large dose of scepticism is in order here. Look at what the government has got away with for big business. Do they really want a return to confrontation? Do they really think the Tories can do as well?

Of course, if – or rather when – the Social Contract is decisively wrecked from below, big business attitudes can change very fast. But that is still in the future.

Perhaps the assessment will prove wrong; the situation is, after all, very unstable. But it still looks likely that we will be working in a situation of continuing close TUC-government collaboration in 1977, that the Labour ‘lefts’ will cling to the government, and that, therefore, the CP will not try to swing very far leftwards. On the other hand, the pressure from below will be much greater, although overwhelmingly sectional.

These are circumstances in which the prospects for putting some flesh on the skeleton of the Rank and File Movements are good – and. the prospects for the growth of the Socialist Workers Party very favourable.


Last updated on 19.10.2006