ISJ Index | Main Newspaper Index

Encyclopedia of Trotskyism | Marxists’ Internet Archive

International Socialism, September 1977


Notes of the Month

Three Months on the Streets


From International Socialism (1st series), No. 101, September 1977, pp. 3–6.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


THE MOOD has begun to change. After three years of Social Contract workers are moving into struggle. The signs are everywhere. Consider Grunwick’s.

On the face of it, few firms could be more peripheral to the interests of British capital than a small North London sweatshop, exploiting a few hundred unorganised workers. Yet the anti-union policy of George Ward and the police thuggery on the picket line provoked on July 11 the biggest and most militant national mobilisation of the strong, highly organised sections of the British working class – miners, carworkers, dockers – since the days of the Heath government.

The July 11 demonstration was not only a gesture of support for the Asian women strikers at Grunwick. It also reflected the bitter anger of workers who have, during the three years of the present Labour government, suffered the largest fall in real wages this Century. This anger showed itself again at the TGWU Conference in July, when the delegates broke all the rules by defying Jack Jones and voting for an immediate return to collective bargaining, rather than the TUC’s formula of an ‘orderly’ (i.e. tightly policed) return.

Many of the trade unionists who were on the Grunwick picket line joined the SWP at Lewisham on August 13 to confront the Nazi National Front. The confidence acquired at Grunwick on July 11, when 5,000 pickets led by dockers forced mounted police to retreat, encouraged the anti-fascists at Lewisham to repel the police charges. They were joined by thousands of West Indian youths rebelling against the racist System which condemns them to the dole queue and police harassment.

After two years of retreat, many workers feel angry and confident enough to fight. It is in this context that the Labour government is attempting to enforce a third year of wage restraint.

The Labour government’s strategy

THE government no longer has any Programme. The Lib-Lab pact serves äs an excellent excuse for giving up any attempt to push even the smallest reforms through Parliament. Callaghan and Healey’s main aim is to survive long enough for the fabled oil boom, which they hope, will enable them to win the next general election, despite the massive swing to the Tories recorded in by-elections this last year.

Yet there are no signs of an oil boom, or any other sort of boom. Thanks to the North Sea oilfields the British balance of payments has improved dramatically. At the same time, the US balance of payments has been deteriorating, thanks largely to huge Imports of oil. The result has been a fall in the dollar and a rise in the pound on the international exchanges. Speculative money has poured into London in the hope that the pound will rise still further, boosting share prices to their highest level for four years.

None of this has affected the economy in the slightest. Industrial production actually fell between the first and second quarters of this year. Unemployment is rising fast, to 1.64 million on the official figures for July.

The Labour government’s strategy remains that of waiting for another world boom to revive the economy. But, as the Economist put it recently:

‘Nearly three years after the world’s worst post-war slump, all the big countries’ economies are still dithering, working below capacity, fighting shy of capital investment.’ (August 27 1977)

Even the US economy, which has been growing much faster than its main rivals this year, appears to be slowing down. The index of leading economic indicators has fallen for three months in succession – normally a sure sign of recession (Financial Times, August 31 1977).

Throughout the world capitalists are not investing. This is not because of any shortage of capital. The current inflow of money into the City of London is a case in point. Capital is pouring into Britain, not to be invested in industry, but in the hopes of a further rise in Sterling. The government is trying to borrow as much as possible of this money by selling vast quantities of securities. As a result, an even higher proportion of public expenditure will have to go in future on interest payments to the government’s creditors.

Capitalists are not investing in industry, partly because they are frightened of a massively inflationary boom like that in 1972-3, partly because the rate of profit is still too low to make it worth their while. To try and remedy this Situation, the Labour government is trying to force a cut in real wages on workers for the third year in succession.

The TUC and the 12-month rule

So far the government has been rebuffed in its hopes of winning the agreement of the TUC General Council for its Phase Three limit of 10 per cent on the increase in earnings. The trade union bureaucracy have found it extremely difficult to hold the line on pay restraint. Jones’s defeat – it is unheard of a TGWU General Secretary not to be obeyed by his Conference – is simply the most dramatic indication of the extent of rank-and-file Opposition to any incomes policy.

In the face of these setbacks the government’s policy has been a simple one. On the one hand, they are hoping that the TUC will at least back the 12-month rule and then stifle an immediate wage explosion. On the other hand, they mean to take a tough line in the public sector in defence of the 10 per cent limit. This tough line means fighting it out in individual disputes. The government’s refusal to compromise with the CPSA over the air traffic control assistants’ dispute has been greeted with delight by big business. Listen to the Economist:

‘The big news from Britain’s airports is not that tourists are stranded there. It is that the government has refused to budge an inch in the first major public sector challenge to its pay policy guidelines.’ (August 27 1977)

If there are more strikes against the Social Contract, especially in the public sector, they may well be bitter ones. If workers are prepared to fight it out and to use militant tactics like mass picketing, then we can expect to see more scenes like those at Grunwick. The Metropolitan Police under their new Commissioner, McNee, are grooming themselves for more

It does not follow that big grooming themselves for more aggressive tactics. Labour government and replace it with a Thatcher/Joseph ministry. The bulk of industrial capital in Britain is closely integrated with the state and committed to a policy of collaboration with the trade union bureaucracy.

The attitude on the most important sections of the ruling class to Grunwick’s confirms this. Papers like the Financial Times, the Economist, the Sunday Times have been begging Ward to cool it for months. The Scarman inquiry into Grunwicks, which concluded that union recognition ‘could in the future help the Company as well as its employees’, included Pat Lowry, Leyland’s personnel director. He should know. For the past two years especially, the Leyland management have enjoyed the collaboration of both trade union officials and senior Stewards in their efforts to remodel the workforce into obedient, hard-working robots.

A Tory government in the present climate would represent a shift towards confrontation with the trade union movement. The majority of the ruling class are not prepared to buy such a policy yet, providing Labour persuades the trade union leadership to police their members’ wage claims.

Much will depend on the outcome of the TUC Congress, which will be known after we go to press. If the Congress backs the twelve month rule, then the government can hope to prevent a wage explosion, with the help of the trade union leadership. Even though the TGWU Conference threw out the twelve month rule, Jones has promised to abide by it if a majority of the TUC go along.

In such a situation, productivity deals may become extremely important as a way of buying off the Claims of stronger sections like the miners. The NUM Conference rejected the pit incentives scheme proposed by the Executive in June, but the right-wing majority of the Executive will undoubtedly try to push it through, perhaps by putting the scheme to a ballot.

If the twelve month rule is defeated, however, then it will be very difficult for the trade union bureaucracy to prevent an avalanche of wage claims which could well bring the government down (the Liberals have made an effective incomes policy one of their conditions for keeping Labour in office). Assuming that the TUC leadership does hold the line for the government, then the strikes in the coming months will take place in the teeth of official Opposition. They will raise, quite sharply, the need for a national rank-and-file movement which can link together different sections and develop the strength to act independently of the trade union bureaucracy.

ONE of the most significant changes in the last few months has been the involvement of increasing numbers of young people. The West Indian youth who turned out in their thousands at Lewisham provide one example. Another is the involvement of hundreds of young school-leavers in the Right to Work march to the Blackpool TUC. It is the young who are bearing the brunt of the unemployment:

‘In July, some 709,000 of those out of work were under 25 – or nearly half of the total. Nearly 900,000 were under 30.’ (Economist, August 27 1977)

No wonder more and more young people are becoming rebellious. One of our main tasks must be to relate to their rebellion and channel it into the struggle against capitalism.

The Communist Party and the united front

IN BUILDING such a movement, the attitude of the Communist Party, which still possesses an industrial muscle far exceeding that of the SWP, will be very important. The CP’s Position in recent months has been equivocal. On the one hand, it has revived the moribund Liaison Committee for the Defence of Trade Unions to mobilise for the lobby of the TUC Congress on September 5 and has used its industrial strength in Sheffield to close the engineering factories that day. On the other hand, it rejected the proposals by the SWP for joint activity against unemployment, wage restraint and racism and fascism.

At the same time, even when the Communist Party decides to take action, it finds it very difficult to do so. The fiasco of the strike in support of a 47 per cent wage claim at Leyland’s Longbridge plant which was called off after a rebellion from some of the shopfloor is a case in point.

Since the introduction of workers’ participation in Leyland under the Ryder report in 1975, the Communist senior Stewards have ceased to give any sort of leadership to the rank and file within the factory. Derek Robinson, a CP member and the works convenor, sits on Leyland Cars Council and has collaborated in management’s efforts to suck the life blood out of shopfloor organisation over the last two years.

Then, quite ineptly, Robinson launched into a rhetorical militancy and tried to switch the rank and file on again. He had a first go on April 20 when he issued the call for a one-day strike against pay restraint. Then, when a section of the rank and file, the toolmakers, actually came out on strike against the Social Contract, he took fright, opposed the strike and watered down April 20 into a completely ineffective day of action.

Robinson’s second attempt at militancy was even more disastrous. What shows more contempt for the rank and file than to announce that they were voting fifty to one in favour of a strike when they hadn’t finished voting? It is hardly surprisiing that some of them rebelled. The incident, which was given huge Publicity in the press, may well discourage other sections of workers from taking action.

The CP leadership are in difficulty. They are trying to prove that they are respectable reformists who can be trusted by the Labour leadership without losing more than the Stalinist hard-core who have joined the New Communist Party founded by Sid French in July. At the same time, they are under pressure from a section of their membership and periphery to adopt a more militant stance and to collaborate with the SWP.

Take the case of Lewisham. Initially, the Morning Star, joined in the general press condemnation of the SWP’s ‘street-fighting’ tactics. However, in the Morning Star of August 26, Dave Cook, theCP national organiser, devoted a long article to explaining why the SWP were wrong. While denying any connection between Lewisham and the battle of Cable Street in the 1930s, Cook praised ‘the courage and determination of those who took part’, admitted that ‘it was impressive to see some (sic) young black people involved at Clifton Rise’ and proposed ‘a discussion in the Morning Star on these questions of strategy and tactics in the struggle against fascism in Britain’. Clearly some CP members have the same difficulty that we do in telling the difference between the tactics used by the SWP today and those used against the Blackshirts by the CP in the 1930s. Hopefully, SWP members will be permitted to contribute to the discussion.

In any case, we must press ahead with any opportunity that presents itself for joint action between the CP and the SWP. The united front is not a con-trick. Joint action by the SWP and the CP against the Social Contract and the Nazis would have an impact far beyond their own ranks, and could draw in many workers who want to fight, but retain at least residual loyalty to the Labour Party. Nor is the united front a non-aggression pact. It does not mean hiding our political differences. 1t is an agreement to collaborate in action on certain specific issues where, ostensibly there is agreement. By showing ourselves to be the most effective, consistent and militant fighters on these issues we can prove the superiority of our politics to the many workers still influenced by the Communist Party far more effectively than through the most logical argument.

Prospects for the SWP

NORMALLY, these Notes are written as if revolutionaries were forced to observe and respond to events outside their control. This is still largely true. But in the last few months, the Socialist Workers Party has become part, if only a very small part, of the larger picture. In particular because of our willingness to give a lead in the fight against the Nazis, we have had a national impact which gives us the prospect of growing very fast in the next few months. This prospect has to be treated with the greatest modesty. The major issues, above all the fate of the Labour government and its incomes policy, will be determined by the big battalions, in the trade union movement, over which we still have little influence. But the likelihood is that growing numbers of workers will be drawn into struggle in conditions – opposition from the trade union bureaucracy, bully-boy tactics by the police – which will make at least some of them receptive to our ideas. Our central task in the coming months will be to relate to these struggles in order to build out of them a party that is rooted in the workplaces, and which workers can easily become involved. Otherwise, all the gains made in the last few months could be wasted.

Top of page

ISJ Index | Main Newspaper Index

Encyclopedia of Trotskyism | Marxists’ Internet Archive

Last updated on 13 June 2018