Chris Harman


Controls and conflict

(September 1994)

Thinking It Through, Socialist Review, No. 178, September 1994.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive at
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

‘Often workers show more fighting spirit when there are the first signs of recovery’

This summer’s rail strikes have pushed the industrial class struggle to the centre of British politics for the first time since the mid-1980s.

Then the government and the employers were able, through careful planning, to inflict major defeats on very powerful groups of workers – the miners, the newspaper workers and then, a couple of years later, the cross channel ferry workers and the dockers.

The signal workers’ dispute, however, has been very different. It was not provoked by the government or the employers as part of a conscious offensive. The first one day strikes took them by surprise and threw them on the defensive.

The root cause of the dispute did not lie in the intricacies of productivity or flexibility in the signal boxes. It lay, rather, in the way in which last year a divided and beleaguered government panicked into adopting a policy which its leading members had already said could not work. This was the policy of enforcing a wage freeze right across the public sector.

Less than six months earlier both the outgoing chancellor, Norman Lamont, and his successor, Kenneth Clarke, told the Financial Times that wage controls had always been counterproductive. A brief look at the record shows how right they were.

In 1966 a Labour government, led by Harold Wilson, panicked in the face of a balance of payments crisis and introduced a strict wage freeze, followed by two years in which there were tight limits on wage rises.

At first the policy seemed successful. In 1966 the government beat a strike by seafarers and in 1967 forced dockers in London and Liverpool to return to work demoralised. Wages did rise less than would otherwise have been the case for two years. But then, in January 1969, an unexpected strike by car workers at Ford broke through the limit – and was followed by a rash of other big strikes, often in sectors with no traditions of militancy. The wage controls only succeeded in giving a political edge to industrial militancy.

In 1971 it was the turn of a Tory government, led by Edward Heath, to introduce wage controls. Again there was initial success. The government succeeded in using a media witch hunt to force power workers to abandon a work to rule, and then defeated a six week long postal strike. But early in 1972 it faced the wage claim of a group of workers which had been written off as defeated and demoralised – the miners. Within weeks the Tories’ whole policy had fallen apart.

Heath returned to the fray in November 1972 with a three month pay freeze followed by tight limits on wage increases. Union leaders were unwilling to go beyond organising token protests and the government was able to enjoy success against electricians in the car firm Chrysler and firefighters in Glasgow.

Then at the end of 1973 it stumbled into a second clash with the miners – a group it could not afford to buy off lest this should serve as a signal for all other workers to fight. The outcome was the fall of Heath’s government and a collapse of wage controls in the spring and summer of 1974.

The two bouts of wage controls under Heath, like the 1966 Wilson controls, did not hold wages back for long. But they had turned the wage demands of millions of workers into a clash with the government as well as the employers – increasing the general level of class struggle.

Now in opposition, a section of the Tory leadership drew the conclusion that wage controls could never work. Instead the unions had to be taken on one at a time. This policy of the new Tory leader, Margaret Thatcher, was spelt out by a pamphlet by the rising young star of the party, Peter Lilley.

Any Tory doubts were quelled by what happened to the wage controls introduced by the Labour government in 1975, again as a panic measure in the middle of a sterling crisis. The support of union leaders enabled them to hold out for three years in the face of long strikes.

But in the autumn of 1978 a strike by Ford car workers broke through the dam. Soon unions representing millions of workers were engaged in selective strike action – the so called ‘winter of discontent’ – to recoup what they had lost.

So why did the Tories return last year to a policy they used to denounce? Part of the answer lies in their panic in the face of a growing government deficit and the need to raise taxation. Wage controls became the magic ingredient which, Clarke claimed, would enable public expenditure to be cut.

But along with the panic went overconfidence. They believed their own propaganda that the unions were finally beaten. They forgot that often the groups which first clashed with wage controls in the past were groups which had not been militant before.

They also forgot that in most strikes over the last ten years workers have shown incredible loyalty to their unions. The miners held out for another six months after the failure of the Nacods supervisors to strike destroyed the chance of a quick victory. The Wapping print workers twice voted down attempts by the union to end the strike on the employers’ terms. The defeated seafarers struggled on long after success had been thrown away by their union leaders.

Finally, there was one other thing the Tories forgot. Often workers show more fighting spirit when there are the first signs of economic ‘recovery’. Workers begin to ask why they should suffer at a time when the government and the media are telling them how wonderful things are.

A spate of small disputes in the private sector this summer have pointed to such a new mood. So have a series of unofficial (and illegal) walkouts in the post, by council workers in Sheffield and Sefton, the protracted defence of conditions and hours by further education lecturers, the one day strikes by BBC workers.

In most of these cases, workers have not had the confidence to keep up their action for long in the face of opposition from their union leaders and threats of the law. This lack of confidence means that there may well be a time lag between the signal workers’ struggle and the next conflict with the wage controls.

But by blundering unprepared into the rail dispute just as the mood among other workers has begun to shift, the Tories may have begun to fulfil all their own worst predictions about what wage controls can do to the class struggle.

Last updated on 23 April 2017