Jim Higgins

The deluge after Blackpool

(September 1975)

From the Spectator, 6 September 1975, p.304.
Published here with kind permission of the Spectator.
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

George Woodcock’s dictum that what happens during the other fifty-one weeks is infinitely more important than the decisions of a five-day seaside junket receives adequate confirmation at this week’s Blackpool TUC. The vital question had already been decided in advance. The mineworkers will, for the time being, support the Government’s £6 limit. Now that is crucial. Whatever the majority for the Government’s policy might be this week, if the miners decide to get more, they will undoubtedly get what they want, and the central feature of Labour policy will be worth much less than the paper on which it is written.

It is thus the Government’s good fortune that the miners have been balloted and come down in Mr Wilson’s favour. This simple fact illuminates with great clarity the actual nature of the TUC. Mr Jack Jones with his 1,700,000 is reckoned to be something of a power in the land. Journalists, captains of industry and government ministers hang on his every word. The truth is, as you would suppose, that Mr Jones presides over an extremely ramshackle coalition of different interests. There is no way, short of revolution, that he could bring the different sections of his vast empire into coherent action. For everyone of his members who could get £60 he has ten who would be lucky to get 60 pence.

Trade union leaders’ calculations are based not on ideology but on a realistic calculation of what the relation of forces are in any prospective struggle. For the Transport and General Workers Union £6 all round is, in global figures, a great deal more than they hope to get by the vagaries of “free collective bargaining”.

It is because of this that the miner’s ballot decision in favour of the Government pay policy is of the utmost short-term importance. Messrs Gormley and Daly do not, like Mr Jones, have to calculate what will be attractive to the lowest common denominator of their members. For them, the lowest common denominator is quite the same as the highest common factor. If they say ‘out’, then the industry will stop. Not a knob of coal will be dug – not even a slice of nutty slack.

But to describe, and thank God for, the altruism of the miners is not to tell the whole story about the TUC. There are others, less devoted to their trade union perhaps, who are almost as capable of bringing industry to a halt and governments to their knees. The electricians, the tanker drivers and a host of others. Why do they not to so? The answer is not clear cut and may be less than satisfying. But it is abundantly clear that the steady drip of propaganda that equates large wage increases, with increasing unemployment has had its effect.

Great numbers of rank and file trade union members are dimly aware that their jobs are at risk. These same members require from their trade union officials that they both guard their living conditions and maintain their jobs. If that seems, and is, a contradiction, it is one that exists in life. The Joneses and Scanlons must, whatever their subjective desires, make proper obeisance to their members’ wishes. It is out of this proper respect for the rank and file that there will be an overwhelming vote in favour of the £6 limit. Any other result would signify that the trade unions are on a course that would set them directly against not only the Government but also the whole notion of parliamentary democracy. Neither Mr Jones nor Mr Scanlon, nor for that matter Reg Birch or Ken Gill, has any intention of moving beyond the confines of the system as it is. For Hugh Scanlon the very worst result of this week’s deliberations would be the success of his union’s resolution Which states, inter alia: “opposition to any incomes policy having as its aim wage regulation through intervention from any source.” He knows, as does Mr Jones after his experience with the dockers jailed under the Industrial Relations Act, that if the TUC insists on going its own way, it will inevitably face the prospect of taking state power. Trade unions have neither the will, the conscious base nor the organisation that could make that a reality.

Mr Scanlon may, because of internal pressures within his own union, oppose the Government’s policy, but he will not be disappointed if he fails. Trade unions do not wish to take on or take over the government of Britain. Their task this week, as they savour the two-star splendours of Blackpool cuisine, will be to support the efforts of Mr Wilson’s administration to hold back wage increases and at the same time distance themselves from the Government by insisting that the £6 is for all and sundry, not the outside limit. Trade union leaders, even in the NUM, do not wish to bring down governments merely to bring home such bacon as their members will accept. Their clear calculation is that their members will accept, in the short term, a slight diminution in living standards. They are almost certainly right. They undoubtedly calculate that the pressure for militant action will be mitigated by the pressure of unemployment as it rises to and beyond a million and a half. Once again they are probably right. But in a real world, that still moves, to be right is a very transitory phenomenon. Increasingly larger numbers of workers, well organised and in key sectors of the economy, will realise that they are supporting a policy whose major sanction is marginally to reduce their employers’ ability to raise prices. It is at that stage that all the fine speeches of Mr. Jones, and all the moderation of the General Council of the TUC, and a great deal more, will be required to hold to an even keel.

It is a very nice calculation about how long trade unionists will restrain themselves in the interests of lower unemployment and greater social justice when both of these commodities are manifestly in short supply and becoming scarcer by the hour. It is for this reason that the deliberations of the TUC are important, if the line is to be held. As with every serious facet of politics today, the upper reaches of trade unionism continue to exist and be reasonably effective on the basis of psychology rather than hard coherent policy. As with the voters, the members must be convinced against the evidence of their own experience that the sweet by-and-by will come if not next year the year after, that sacrifices now will be rewarded and that there is pie not just in the sky but in late 1976 or early 1977.

Now that is a trick that no trade union leader has managed to pull off to date. Contrary to prevalent myth they are not elderly devotees of a sinister conspiracy dedicated to the overthrow of capitalism nor are they idiot bureaucrats uniformly obsessed with their own grandeur. Some are one or the other and a very few are both, but most are quite talented and socially concerned human beings, limited in time, space and experience and generally doing their best.

Today’s trade union leaders and their organisations are reckoned to have more power than ever before in their history. Paradoxically they are unable to realise on that power, for to do so would be to destroy the source from which improvements aright come. At Blackpool this week they huff and puff and make much of their commitment to full employment and greater social justice. They talk about further more draconian controls on profits. In all probability they will pass resolutions calling for import controls and the institution of some kind of siege economy. But that is not serious, not a policy they expect to be adopted. It is the policy sweetener that, they hope, will make the pay limits, palatable for at least twelve months. We had better hope that they are right. The alternative is not at all nice to contemplate.


Last updated on 2.11.2003