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Workers Socialist Review

Magazine of the Workers Socialist League
Affiliated to the Trotskyist International Liaison Committee

Written: 1983.
First Published: May 1983.
Source: Published by the Workers Socialist League.
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Workers Socialist Review
No. 3, April / May 1983

Unions central to Labour Party struggles

John Lister reviews the interactions between developments in the unions and in the Labour Party.

Today’s situation in the Labour Party is the outcome of a series of interconnecting processes of development in the workers’ movement and in British capitalism since the mid 1960s.

In the context of the end of the post-war boom and the substantial decline of British capitalism on the world markets, the established reformist leadership of the British working class – in the Labour Party and in the trade union movement from shop steward level to the full-time bureaucracies – has consistently lagged behind the requirements of the situation, clinging obstinately to the methods and often the policies of the past.

Thus we saw in the 1960s the Wilson government employ a succession of ineffectual reformist and outright anti-working class policies – including wage controls, strike-breaking and attempted anti-union laws – in their efforts to manage and sustain a decaying British capitalism.

Eventually, under pressure from a powerful and militant shop floor movement which had emerged and consolidated its strength in the boom period – and on which some sections of the bureaucrats had built their power base – sections of “left” union bureaucracies of the time (TGWU, AUEW) were forced to a degree to challenge these attacks and mobilise some opposition to them in order to keep control of the movement. Yet even during their shows of protest, these same TUC lefts were seeking ways and means to compromise with their right wing colleagues and with the Labour leadership.

The strength of the shop floor movement and the radicalisation of the trade union rank and file became the main component of the industrial opposition to the Heath government of 1970-74. As Heath plunged into ill-prepared confrontations with the miners and with the trade union movement as a whole, through the Industrial Relations Act and state controls on wages, the pace of opposition was set by the left within the unions (though we should also recall the defiance of a few Labour councils – most notably Clay Cross – to Heath’s “Fair Rents” Act).

An indication of the spill-over of this radicalisation came in the Labour Party conference of 1973 which swung to the left, leaving Wilson to run for and win office on a manifesto far more militant in tone than he would ever have chosen.

But 1972-4 summed up the basic political problem for the British working class. There were huge direct-action struggles, coming close to a general strike in 1973, blocking and crippling the Tories’ attempted solution to the crisis of British capitalism, and finally forcing the Tories into an election which they lost. But insofar as the strike movement was political – i.e. had a conscious alternative at the level of the general running of society – its political expression was ‘Kick the Tories Out’, i.e. a Labour government.

And that Labour government, despite the left manifesto, was to introduce the social contract, execute cuts more drastic than the present government’s, and implement the biggest drop in real wages for decades.

The only conscious political alternative possessed by the great militant strike movement – which implicitly posed fundamental questions of class power – was a bourgeois workers’ party, operating in a period when bourgeois society allows little scope for reforms.

1974 and after posed brutally and sharply to the British workers’ movement the task of changing its politics, i.e. changing itself. Since then the movement – or at least a section of activists within it – have been attempting that task: crudely, inadequately, in a very limited way so far. This acute crisis of reformism is the basic thread running through all developments since 1974.

In a bid to head off pressure while maintaining the same basic thrust of reconstructing British capitalism, Wilson made a few initial cosmetic changes. Heffer was brought into the government, and Tony Benn was used as the figurehead for the Industry Bill through which proposals for the wholesale rationalisation of industry with government subsidies through the NEB and systematised class collaboration were to be pushed through Parliament and the trade union movement.

Concessions were made on pay to the still striking miners, to secure a return to work. Under threat of a national engineering strike, the Labour government two months later began the repeal of Heath’s Industrial Relations Act.

But Heath’s wage controls remained in force – trapping health workers and others who had looked to an increased settlement. The Shrewsbury builders’ pickets remained in jail; and the Clay Cross councillors penalised for their stand on rents remained unchanged.

As the economic crisis increasingly tightened its grip, once again the Wilson / Healey leadership resorted first to threats to use “Tory policies” and then to wage controls. In this they were now able to draw on the collaboration of a rightward-moving Jack Jones and the majority of the trade union bureaucracy who were visibly embarrassed and feeling threatened by the militancy of their members. An unholy, wage cutting alliance was formed spanning from the right wing of the PLP through both “right” and “left” of the TUC hierarchy and including the tacit acceptance of the Communist Party, reluctant to jeopardise its position with the union bureaucracies: the line permeated down to many layers of convenors.

With the full weight of the labour bureaucracy brought to bear on any section seeking a fight, it was not until the firefighters press-ganged their leadership into an all-out strike against Phase 3 of wage controls in 1977-78 that this began to crack.

But with inflation still in double figures and Healey declaring in the Summer of 1978 for another wage cutting 5% limit, the anger and resentment at the record of the Labour government- which had driven up unemployment, cut back health and education, and slashed living standards – spilled over into a movement sufficiently strong to tip the scales at the TUC Congress and find a strong echo in the Labour Party.

Wilson’s undisguised contempt for conference decisions in general and the left wing policies of the 1973 manifesto in particular had created conditions in which the question of accountability and of rank and file control over the Labour leadership gained a concrete significance for wide sections of the workers’ movement. Labour’s squalid record in its second term of government had confirmed to many trade unionists that they did not wish to subscribe to yet another reactionary Labour government.

Then the rejection of Healey’s Phase 4 by the TUC Congress and – by union block votes – at the Labour Party conference saw the union bureaucrats split on the main lines of economic policy, with sections under heavy pressure from their members to take a firm stand in defiance of the right wing PLP leadership.

As the hammer blows of the strike wave throughout the “Winter of Discontent” demonstrated the gulf between the practice of the Labour leadership and the demands of the trade union rank and file, and destroyed the government’s pay policies, the conditions were created for a Tory victory on the election and a prolonged political fight in the Labour Party.

The Labour defeat in the May 1979 election also set tile scene for the re-emergence of Tony Benn from his period obediently closeted in the Labour cabinet. He began to spell out an increasingly detailed critique of the previous Labour governments in which he had served, and championed the left wing’s demands for democracy and accountability in the Party.

Some of those bureaucrats who had been driven to vote against Healey’s Phase 4 in 1978 were aggrieved by the unresponsiveness to them of the Labour government. In parallel to the Labour rank and file, but from a different perspective, they came out for greater trade union control over the Labour leadership.

This combination created conditions in which a campaigning left acquired a real weight reaching into the unions and hope of winning victories against a previously dominant right wing leadership. This change helped stimulate a revival in the rank and file activism and recruitment in the CLPs, and encouraged those taking up Labour Party issues in the unions. The whole process was advanced by the campaign waged by Tony Benn and the fighting left wing forces grouped in the Rank and File Mobilising Committee. The left in the CLPs were in many cases inspired to go further and pursue local struggles for the removal not only of right wing MPs but also councillors, and pursue left policies at local level.

But significantly the “left” rhetoric of the union leaders was confined to the largely propagandist arena of the Labour Party in opposition. This was shown particularly sharply as the TUC leaders united to isolate and restrict the steel strike of 1980 and to duck out of any mass action to challenge Prior’s anti-union Act of 1980. They have established a completely consistent record of retreat and betrayal since the 1979 election – a record which embraces both those bureaucrats who block voted for Labour democracy and those who have consistently opposed it.

Thus – although support in the trade union rank and file for Labour Party democracy has not visibly slackened – union leaders like the TGWU’s have been able, as they desired, to limit the Labour Party democracy fight. Successive betrayals and setbacks, massive redundancies and growing demoralisation and cynicism among shop floor workers denied leadership has produced a slackening of rank and file pressure upon the bureaucrats as part of a general decline in struggles. Each successive sell-out has strengthened the bureaucracy.

At the same time the fear engendered in the union hierarchy by the signs that the Labour Party democracy question was – particularly during Benn’s campaign for Deputy – spilling over into demands for trade union democracy, began to be a powerful influence over bureaucracies – most notably the TGWU, whose inner divisions and lack of internal democracy were exposed for all to see.

In addition, a rise in Labour’s electoral popularity, coupled with Benn’s powerful showing in the Labour Party seemed to raise the spectre for some of them of a returned Labour government led or strongly influenced by Benn, in which left policies might be taken beyond the conference floor into the class struggle, with a consequent stimulus to the trade union rank and file and sharpening of conflict with the employers.

Though sufficient union support was swung in support of the Wembley “status quo” to prevent the subsequent reversal of the electoral college formula achieved by the left; the right wing began openly marshalling its forces, while the TUC “left” was alarmed by the successes of the SDP and the spread of the democracy issue into the unions.

Indeed while the split of the SDP appeared politically and numerically to deplete Labour’s right wing PLP leadership, it also piled new pressure on those who stayed behind in the PLP and on the union leaders. Committed above all to hopes of returning a new Labour government, they dreaded further losses of right wing forces – while some Labour right wingers plainly hanker after longer-term coalitions or alliances with the SDP along the lines of the Lib-Lab deal.

Hence the 1981 conference, amid a growing clamour from the right for a witch-hunt, brought the narrow defeat of the Benn campaign, and reverses for the left on the NEC, with the emergence of a centre / right wing majority in which both components were prepared to mount a witch-hunt.

By January 1982, under pressure from the right wing – in particular the trade union right – and after the defeat of the deputy leadership campaign, the left, headed by Benn, pulled back to declare support for the Bishop Stortford “truce” in which the only hostilities which ceased was the offensive of the left. While the right wing sharpened their knives daily in the Tory press, the left declared time and again their loyalty to the existing leadership and commitment to “unity”.

The dismissive response to this from the best elements of the CLP rank and file was summed up in Peter Tatchell’s joke in a Socialist Organiser interview, where he asks “who is this bloke Bishop Stortford anyway?” Despite the setbacks, the rank and file were still pressing home their fight – submitting an astounding 600 resolutions of protest at the NEC’s non-endorsement of Tatchell, deselecting some right wing MPs, replacing some retiring right wingers with left wingers, standing firm in Bradford and Hornsey, and voting solidly for left wing policies at conference.

But the flirtation of the Tribune circles with the Bishop Stortford deal was followed by increasing evidence that the Stalinist influenced elements in the LCC and Clause 4 were prepared to join a witch-hunt of the left provided they could mask this behind a suitable facade.

By the 1982 conference, the consolidation of union votes in the right wing camp appeared to have gone a long way forward on internal policy questions: it was the union vote which – with few, notable exceptions – mobilised to force the register through and install a hard right majority on the NEC. But even then the political bloc was not restored to that of the bad old days. Contradictory formulations on wage controls indicated that future attempts by Shore to enforce a new social contract will not be any simple repeat of those under Wilson. And the pressure of the rank and file could also be seen in the massive vote on unilateralism which is likely to prove a major embarrassment to the right wing PLP leaders. A gauge of the changed climate even in the unions was the episode which led to the resignation of Sid Weighell for misusing the block vote in a way that has gone on behind the scenes for decades, and now the victory of Jimmy Knapp, the candidate backed by the left, against Weighell’s man, Charlie Turnock, in the election for a new general secretary.

Though the right wing in the PLP and the unions are tightening the screws they have by no means crushed the activists, restored things to what they were or created ideal conditions for a purge.

Workers Socialist Review Index (1981-84)

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