Chris Harman


Must history repeat itself?

(September 1997)

From Socialist Review, No.211, September 1997.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive at
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

There is a danger that we see all history simply in terms of people getting angry, beginning to win a few victories, getting sold out and then getting smashed. But it would be wrong to see both the last two Labour governments in this way. It was true of one of them, but not of the other.

Both governments came to power after a period of Tory rule: one after 13 years of Tory rule, the other after four years of Tory rule. Neither of them came to power as a result of a massive electoral swing to Labour – that was the difference with 1 May. They won because enough people were fed up with the Tories and voted Liberal to let Labour in on a relatively low vote. Nevertheless, the feeling was for change in the country, and Labour did promise substantial changes. When you go through the reforms Labour promised they sound almost utopian compared with anything offered by Tony Blair today.

In 1964 the government promised to end all health service charges, particularly prescription charges. It promised better old age pensions and superannuation for teachers. It promised rent controls, and cheaper borrowing for councils. It promised a five year plan with increased economic growth combined with the slogan of ‘a planned growth of incomes’. At a time when unemployment was less than 2 percent, Labour seemed to offer people a much better life.

The 1974 Labour government came to power on the basis of an election manifesto which promised an irreversible redistribution of wealth and income, with chancellor Denis Healey boasting he would ‘squeeze the rich until the pips squeak’. Along with this went a list of concrete reforms: a freezing of council rents; the promise to end the miners’ strike by allowing them a wage increase; the repeal of all anti trade union laws; to end unemployment, with one of its central slogans in the election, ‘Back to Work with Labour’; to increase spending on education and the health service; to drive private beds out of the NHS; to introduce ‘planning agreements’ which were supposed to control the behaviour of multinationals and big companies. They summed all this up in the phrase ‘social contract’, which came eventually to mean something very negative, but which initially gave the impression they would get something out of society if they went along with Labour.

Both governments came to power with these promises of reforms and found enormous hostility and suspicion in the City of London, even though they both made it absolutely clear that the government would work in partnership with the unions and big business.

They went out of their way to placate the City. So Harold Wilson in his first term had a fixation on maintaining the level of sterling at the rate it had been set 17 years before of $2.80 to the pound and in maintaining Britain’s presence East of Suez, that is in keeping the remnants of the British Empire, right through to 1968 or 1969. These were the policies the City above all stood for. Yet despite this Wilson faced enormous suspicion from the City in 1964 and again in 1974. In 1964 hardly had the government come to power than money was being moved overseas at a massive rate. Again and again over the next three years money would pour out of the country, there would be threats to the value of sterling, and the government would seem threatened.

From the middle of 1974 onwards, right through 1975 and 1976, again and again money would flow out of the country. In 1974-75 this was combined with an investment strike – a refusal by big business to invest unless the government followed policies they wanted.

On both occasions, for a period, there was what we think of now as a ‘honeymoon’ between Labour and its supporters. It was thin at times, nevertheless it was strong enough for both Labour governments to win outright majorities when they called further general elections, in March 1966 and in October 1974.

In both cases, very quickly after Labour got its clear majority it began to bend to the City of London. Its initial momentum wore out as the members of the government themselves – including the great majority of those who had come from the left of the party – began to accept the ideology of the City. Precisely because they are distrusted by big business, Labour ministers can only get its willing collaboration if they are more right wing over certain measures than a Tory government would have been. Because the City did not fully trust Wilson he had to adopt more and more right wing policies in order to placate them. Once they had their clear majorities, the Labour governments moved very quickly to policies which tore away the reforms they had begun to push through only months before and which cut very hard into the living standards of people who had elected them.

In 1966, shortly after Labour was re-elected, the seafarers went on strike – not against the government but against the shipowners – for a reduction in the working week from 60 to 44 hours. Within a couple of weeks Harold Wilson took the unprecedented step of appearing on television to denounce the strike as ‘a strike against the state’ – something Tory prime ministers Macmillan and Home had never done. When this did not end the strike he claimed the strike was the result of activities of ‘a tight knit group of politically motivated men’ – using the crudest anti-Communist witch-hunting to split the strikers.

Within weeks Wilson was doing away with the very reforms he had introduced barely a year before. He reintroduced prescription charges at a much higher level than under the Tories. He introduced a complete six months wage freeze and followed it with tight wages controls policed by a former Tory minister, Aubrey Jones. And he took the first steps in dismantling the welfare state – ending free school milk for secondary school children, postponing plans to raise the school leaving age from 15 to 16, and planning to raise council house rents. These measures saved derisory sums of money but made the City happy and laid the ground for further attacks on the welfare state by subsequent Tory and Labour governments.

After the 1966 election the honeymoon with the electorate lasted only a few months. By 1967 and 1968 it was taken for granted Labour would lose nearly every by-election. In working class localities the feeling of being abandoned by the government was immense.

It took two forms. One was electoral. In 1968 the Tories took control of Hackney, Islington and most of the other London councils; and outside London, Sheffield, Leeds, Liverpool and Glasgow. The second expression was even worse. In 1968 a leading Tory shadow cabinet member Enoch Powell made his famous racist ‘rivers of blood speech’. The Tory leader Heath sacked Powell – and dockers in London went on strike demanding Powell’s reinstatement, as did people in the meat markets and so on. The bitterness with Labour opened people up to right wing ideas.

Again, after 1974 the honeymoon with the mass of the electorate did not last all that long. By 1976 and 1977 Labour lost almost every by-election – even in a solid Labour voting mining area like Sutton in Ashfield. Again, as ten years earlier, working class people began to feel abandoned by Labour, and again the most horrific side was the rise of racism.

In 1976 the Sun began a campaign that Britain was being ‘flooded’ by Asians coming from Malawi – there were around 800 coming through Heathrow. This time it was not Enoch Powell, but the hardline Nazis of the National Front who began to build. In the 1977 Greater London elections the National Front got more than 100,000 votes, coming ahead of the Liberals. They were on their way to becoming the third force in national politics – on the basis of the bitterness with Labour. Along with this went a wave of racist murders within a few weeks in the East End of London.

The overall result of the demoralisation was the election of Thatcher in 1979. If you ask, ‘What destroyed the Labour vote between 1974 and 1979?’, it was not a decline in the size of the working class. It was that millions of workers who had put their faith in Labour, thinking we can change things somehow by acting together in 1974, had that faith destroyed by 1979.

Labour Party organisations on the ground declined precipitously after the 1966 election. In the old International Socialism early in 1967 there’s an editorial, The Loneliness of the Left, commenting on how few socialists there were around, on how most of those who had been active around the Labour Party in 1964-66 had dropped out of politics, disillusioned. In the late 1970s the feeling was very much the same. There was this enormous similarity between the two periods. But that is not the end of the story. There was also one very important difference.

On both occasions, when the elections took place in 1964 and 1974, there was a left to some degree independent of the Labour Party. In 1964 the left consisted of three groups. First there was the Communist Party. At that stage it was still a party very much in love with Russia, despite having suffered losses over the Hungarian Revolution in 1956, but nevertheless had managed to rebuild its strength. It had 30,000 or so members. They were often not very active but they had considerable influence. On most housing estates in London they would have one or two members. In most factories in London they would have one or two members. In Manchester they still had something like 13 or 14 factory branches. In Glasgow they had 3,000 members. They were the most important force in the Glasgow shipyards, in north London, Manchester and Sheffield, engineering factories in the Longbridge works in Birmingham and the London docks. And although they had internal arguments over whether they should criticise the Labour government, their paper did criticise the government.

The second force was an independent left which had developed in the late 1950s and early 1960s from people who had left the Communist Party over Hungary or who had been involved in the CND and its militant offspring, the direct action Committee of 100. It should not be exaggerated, but there was a milieu of many thousands of people, of the young people from the anti-bomb movement or the Labour youth organisation, who were independent of Labour without accepting the line of the CP.

Finally, there was third force which developed in 1967-69, of students and young people, radicalised by the Vietnam War, the fight against racism and the struggle in the colleges. These three groups were all to some extent independent of the government.

When working class disillusionment with the Labour government first set in, these groups all found it quite difficult to relate to people. When the dockers marched on parliament in support of Powell, Communist Party members in the docks simply did not know how to respond and ducked the political struggle. There was, in fact, what we called ‘a vacuum on the left’ which meant that at first it was the Tories and even the far right who benefited from disillusionment with Labour.

In 1966 the forces willing to back the seafarers were quite small. The CP backed them but the TUC refused to. But things changed in 1969-70, when a wave of strikes developed. Workers in struggle began to listen to some of what the forces to the left of Labour had to say. Students who had been completely isolated from the dockers in 1968 found they could sell socialist papers to workers involved in the wave of strikes that began only a few months later. And when the Labour government attempted to clamp down on the strikes with anti-union legislation, the people who had put across an independent line – the Communist Party, the independent left and the radicalised students – all could in one way or another connect with the new militancy.

People were looking for political answers. The Liaison Committee for the Defence of Trade Unions, based upon shop stewards and mainly made up of Communist Party supporters with some from the independent left and people from the International Socialists, our predecessors, called a political strike on May Day 1969, the first political strike in Britain since 1926.

The result was that although the 1964-70 Labour government, disillusioned its supporters, although many of the people who voted for it dropped away from politics, eventually the vacuum on the left was filled. The feeling of unity, the networks of people prepared to fight were recreated. So that when the Tories gained electorally from the disillusionment in 1970, it was far from being the end of the struggle. The Heath government came in, attempted to introduce anti-union laws to beat the miners, to close down shipyards and factories, but the forces on the ground existed to lead workers to defeat it.

With the 1974-79 government, some things were similar. There was the period of disillusionment, the swing to the right, but there were also strikes in which workers began to fight back. In fact the big strikes took place sooner than they did against the 1964 government. In 1976-77 there were brilliant displays of solidarity with the Grunwick strikers in north London. In early 1977 three huge strikes took place: of engineers who maintained British Airways planes at Heathrow, a strike of thousands of skilled engineers at Britain’s biggest car manufacturer, in Birmingham and in Oxford, and a third strike at the heart of the steel industry among electricians at Port Talbot in South Wales. These big strikes should have been a display of class power, pulling behind them all sorts of other groups of workers who were fed up with what Labour was doing. At the end of 1977 a firefighters’ strike went on for 11 weeks, was effective everywhere and had a high degree of public support. In the autumn of 1978 there was a strike at Ford followed by stoppages among lorry drivers and tanker drivers, and then a series of partial stoppages right across the public sector – the so-called ‘winter of discontent’.

The difference with the previous period of Labour government lay in the politics of forces of the left. In 1974 these were in many ways stronger and more vigorous than ten years earlier.

The Communist Party had shrunk in size, its members were older, disillusionment with Stalinism was sapping their activism, they were getting more bureaucratic. Nevertheless, party militants in the factories, mines and docks had been through a period of intense activity with a rising tide of struggle, so that potentially they should have been able to move much more than after 1964.

The independent left of the 1960s had been replaced by two groups. One was the Labour left, which had lots of people in the Parliamentary Labour Party, had ministers in the Labour government, and had connections with a layer of union officials, convenors and stewards who looked to figures like Tony Benn. The second group was the revolutionary left, which had hardly existed at all in 1964. In 1964 the International Socialists probably had about 200 members. By the end of the Heath government we had 4,000 members, with substantial numbers of manual workers including a good number of stewards. But when it came to the Labour government the politics of the Communist Party became very important. Its membership was down to about 15,000, and few of those went to meetings. Nevertheless they were embedded in industry. They were the people who would be full time convenors and shop stewards. Although they accounted for fewer than one in 50 of the total of 300,000 shop stewards, they were the people who many other shop stewards looked to for a lead.

So when Heath introduced the anti-union laws, people looked to the person they knew as ‘the red’ in the factory for a lead. But in 1974 the Communist Party, instead of seeing its responsibility as being to give a lead, looked somewhere else – towards the left leaders of the trade unions and to a lesser extent to the left wing figures in the government.

And the left wing leaders of the unions in 1974 behaved virtually the same as the right wing leaders. The government painted a picture to the union leaders that the whole world was on the edge of an abyss, capitalism was collapsing, Britain was in a terrible state. It was said, if we don’t do something inflation will get out of hand, we will have a military coup and that will be the end of it. This might sound like an imaginary story, but Jack Jones, the leader of the biggest union, the TGWU, gave an account exactly like this in 1976.

What conclusion did he draw? He made a speech saying we must support the Labour government to the end, otherwise it is the end of society as we know it. The left wing trade union leaders therefore became the praetorian guard protecting the Labour government against the workers.

So when engineers struck at Longbridge in 1977, Hugh Scanlon, the former Communist who led the engineering union from the left, opposed the strike. Thirteen unions – most led by the left – signed a statement calling upon people to scab at Heathrow. And of course the right wing leaders of the electricians opposed the strike at Port Talbot.

The Communist Party was in theory opposed to Labour’s social contract. But when it came to these three strikes, the Communist Party said these strikes are divisive, these are workers who earn more than other workers, you can’t possibly support them. No one says that today, for instance about the cabin crews at Heathrow, that you cannot support them because they earn more than those who sweep the floors at the airport. Everyone understands that if the cabin crews lose, other people will not have the confidence to fight for their demands. But in 1977 the Communist Party managed to get some of the most active fighters in the working class movement to say, ‘Don’t support these strikes’.

The result was the strikes went down to half baked defeats, and the idea that the left could provide a focus, a militant fighting alternative, disappeared. After that everything which took place smelt of division, not unity.

Against this background, Denis Healey pushed through public sector cuts of £8 billion, which would amount to about £30 billion now, much more than Thatcher ever dared attempt. The division among workers meant that when the public sector unions called huge demonstrations the engineering union had only one banner on that demonstration, because Hugh Scanlon’s line was that these are the public sector workers, we don’t support them. When the firefighters went on strike the TUC would not support them.

There was no pole to the left of Labour as a focus for workers’ disappointment. Tony Benn had been humiliated in 1975 by the Labour leadership. Wilson and Callaghan worked with the Tories to campaign for a yes vote against Benn and the left in the referendum on the Common Market. When they had won the yes vote, Wilson demoted Benn in the cabinet, from secretary of industry to secretary for energy. Yet Benn stayed in the government, giving it credibility all through the cuts of 1976. So the Labour left could not be a focus for opposition – indeed, Benn even helped impose a productivity deal which divided the Nottinghamshire miners off from the other coalfields and prepared plans to use the army against tanker drivers. Again, the question of politics, of the acceptance by both the Communist Party and the Labour left of a reformist rather than a revolutionary approach, prevented the emergence of a clear, fighting, left focus for people’s disillusionment.

The Labour left did not try to provide a focus of any sort until it was too late, after Labour’s defeat in 1979. The revolutionary left did attempt to provide a focus for opposition. We were there on all the picket lines at Grunwick and with the firefighters, we organised against the fascists – indeed, we were able to organise wider forces and stop the Nazis. But when it came to mobilising against the Labour government we just did not have the forces. We won lots of sympathy, but it was passive support. We did not have the roots and influence in industry to mobilise the large battalions.

The result was that when the government fell the situation was very different from 1970. In 1970 you could see the beginnings of hope, the mood was there to take on the Tories and win. When the 1979 government died it did so against a background of strikes, but strikes in which people felt that all that was involved were sectional issues, not generalising, not beginning to see what they were doing as part of an overall struggle to change society. And so the beneficiary of disillusion with Labour was Margaret Thatcher, who used the demoralisation as a weapon to take on and further defeat workers in the 1980s.

Today we have had the election, the government will begin to betray us, there will be fightbacks, the union leaders will try to stop them, the mood of exhilaration that was present on 2 May will die away, but whether we win or lose depends upon the political input now. The first 100 days of the Labour government show more grounds for optimism for us than the first two years of the 1964 or 1974 Labour governments. You can see already the issues over which people will break with Labour. When the notion of welfare to work becomes labour camps for 16-25-year-olds people can see this. When Bob Ayling threatens to treat cabin crews at Heathrow just as Murdoch treated the printers at Wapping, people begin to break. Not yet the majority of people, but significant numbers of activists.

At every union conference since the election people have expressed expectations which have gone far beyond what Labour has to offer. The majority of delegates are not yet ready for a complete break with Labour but they express strong doubts and listen to those who know how to articulate those doubts. As people begin to break they will be offered two alternatives. Some on the left will try to fill the vacuum by offering a different long term politics of reform, working within the system, holding out the prospect of looking to the more left wing ministers and a similar sort of politics offered so disastrously by the Labour left and the CP after 1974.

There are other people who will see the need for a left focus to stand up to the government. The challenge for us is to build on this mood. If we seize it, then the outcome need not be that experienced under the 1974 government. It can be similar to that under the 1964-70 government, but at a much higher level, with many tens of thousands of activists beginning to identify with a revolutionary alternative and providing a positive, left focus for the disillusionment of millions of others.

Last updated on 21 December 2009