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International Socialism, September 1997


Chris Bambery

Labour’s History of Hope and Betrayal


From International Socialism 2:76, September 1997.
Copyright © International Socialism.
Copied with thanks from the International Socialism Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


K. Laybourn
The Rise of Socialism in Britain
Sutton Publishing 1997

Daniel Weinbren
Generating Socialism: Recollections of Life in the Labour Party
Sutton Publishing 1997

Steven Fielding
The Labour Party: ‘Socialism’ and Society since 1951
Manchester University Press 1997

In the 1960s I remember that once every month someone used to call round to collect my father’s Labour Party dues. The Edinburgh East constituency was one of only two in the city held by Labour. Today Labour hold every parliamentary seat in Edinburgh, but I wonder if they have the same grass roots organisation as they did in the 1960s. Three new books about the history of Labour give some insight into how Labour won the support of workers, and how that faith in Labour can be challenged in the future.

Keith Laybourn’s The Rise of Socialism in Britain is an examination of left wing politics in Britain between 1891 and 1951. This volume aims to give a summary of various views on the development of socialist politics. But it eventually reinforces the notion that Marxism has never found a home inside the British working class.

The first Marxist organisation in Britain was the Social Democratic Federation. The SDF formally accepted Marxism in 1884 yet it drew bitter criticism from both Marx and Engels. Its autocratic leader, H.M. Hyndman, championed a mechanical Marxism combined with a strong dose of British nationalism. Engels was enraged when the SDF’s sectarianism left it incapable of seizing the opportunities open to it in the upsurge of New Unionism in the 1880s.

Indeed the SDF’s membership fell from 6,744 members organised in 40 branches in 1889, to 453 members grouped in 34 branches a year later, and this at the height of the New Unionism. [1] In 1889 SDF members were instructed to tell workers that strike pay would be better spent on socialist propaganda and that strikes were a diversion from the quest for socialism. The SDF’s nine point programme issued in 1889 made no reference to trade unions or the strikes taking place. Little wonder Engels wrote that they were ‘a mere sect because they cannot conceive that living theory of action, of working with the working classes at every possible stage of its development’. [2] Yet for all its immense faults the SDF did, against the odds, introduce a generation of working class activists to Marxist ideas. When working class struggle rose again, in the Great Unrest of 1910–1914, many of the key activists had been members of the SDF or had contact with it.

However, the failure of the SDF to orientate on the militancy of the New Unionism contributed to a political vacuum among newly radicalised workers. As the balance of forces shifted and management moved onto the offensive workers were forced to look for a political alternative. In Bradford in 1891 the management of Manningham Mills imposed a 25 percent wage cut on their workforce. The town polarised between the employers and middle classes on the one hand and the town’s working class, and indeed the working class of Yorkshire and the north, on the other. The Liberals, who ran the Watch Committee and until then had enjoyed trade union support, prevented strikers holding meetings in the town centre and, as clashes developed, drafted in police and soldiers with the Riot Act being read on 13 April. A month afterwards, in the wake of a bitter defeat, the strike leaders presided over a meeting to form the Independent Labour Party in opposition to the Liberals. The next two years saw the creation of similar parties across Yorkshire and Lancashire.

The ILP emerged as a national organisation with a membership of between 35,000 and 50,000 by 1895. In that year the Bradford ILP had 2,000 members grouped across the town in 29 ILP groups or clubs. By 1898 it had a fee paying membership of between 11,000 and 13,000. [3] The sales of Robert Blatchford’s The Clarion, which reached 80,000, give some sense of the potential audience for socialism. The paper and the associated Clarion Scouts organisation focused on the creation of a different working class social and cultural world with cycle clubs and so on.

The ILP leadership manoeuvred against unity with other socialists. Instead, Keir Hardie and those around him had a clear vision of the direction in which the ILP had to develop – by creating a new Labour alliance with the trade unions. The trade union leaders had until then been champions of working class support for the Liberals. By the 1890s their allegiance to what had been the dominant party of British capitalism was under strain. Under a Tory government there was a growing sense that British manufacturing was losing ground to its German and American rivals and that their solution was to launch an employers’ offensive. This involved placing legal shackles on the unions. In 1896 picketing was effectively made illegal once more (a view upheld in the high court three years later). The strongest union, the craft Amalgamated Society of Engineers, was defeated in the 1897–1898 lockout.

Trade union officialdom increasingly began to see that they could not rely on Liberal politicians and that they needed their own representatives in Westminster. Politically this shift towards independent working class representation did not imply a break with the assumptions underlying the old support for the Liberals. In 1889 the TUC accepted a motion to increase the number of Labour MPs in parliament but only by a narrow majority. In February 1900 the TUC hosted a meeting between those unions which supported this motion and the ILP, the SDF and the Fabians to launch the Labour Representation Committee – the forerunner of today’s Labour Party.

The LRC’s growth was spurred by the Taff Vale judgement 1901. The rail union was made liable for a South Wales rail company’s losses during a strike. Every union’s funds were now open to such an attack. In response trade union officials looked to secure their own representatives within the parliamentary system. Trade union affiliation to the LRC grew from 350,000 in early 1901 to 861,000 by 1903.

Laybourn’s book charts the development of the Labour Party through its initial breakthrough in the 1906 election when a pact with the winning Liberals gave it 30 seats. On his way he significantly downplays the Great Unrest and the shop stewards organisation which developed in the war years. The Communist Party’s failure to emerge as a serious opposition to the Labour Party during the 1930s is used as further evidence of the failure of Marxism to win popular support in Britain. Yet during the years between 1936 and 1939 the Communist Party’s popular front line meant it was in many essentials formally to the right of the Labour Party. Keith Laybourn raises criticisms of Labour’s record which many socialists could agree with, but the criticisms are accompanied by the idea that there was no possible alternative to Labourism.

When its membership was at its peak the Labour Party still had networks of local members who counted for something in their communities and workplaces. Generating Socialism gives you a real sense of that. It also shows you how Labour built its support at grassroots level in the first half of this century.

Much of Labour’s growth centred on activity. In the 1930s, for example, Labour activists interviewed in the book organised successful rent strikes among private tenants in Kingston and Norbiton. [4] A picture of how activists built Ealing North constituency in a new industrial suburb provides a fresh alternative to the Peter Mandelson approach to politics:

We used to have early morning factory-gate meetings at Hoover’s. I remember going to Hoover’s with Bill Molley at about quarter-past six in the morning so that we would meet the night-shift coming off work. There were large factories; we used to have factory-gate meetings at Lyons and in the Greenford area, on Perivale estate, lunch-time meetings ... We had a large number of trade union reps on the GMC, and they were also quite generous to the party ... The party was very sort of buoyant ... Ealing North was a thriving constituency ... The party used to have mass canvasses in those days and Sunday mornings was devoted to a given area. Probably 20 people would converge on an area and canvass, which doesn’t happen now. We used to have a lot of public meetings, a large number of public meetings at that time and always got good attendances. [5]

In Newham one member recalls, ‘You could get hold of [Councillor] Tommy [Groves] at any time of the day or night. If he was out in the street he’d talk to you. If you went to his house, no matter what he was doing, he’d take you in.’ In Ilford one woman remembers that councillors ‘were always walking around’. [6] Today many Labour councillors have no roots in the area they represent and would never be seen on the streets of their ward.

There was also a vibrant Labour press. The Co-operative’s paper, Reynolds News, had sales of over 400,000 in 1937 and climbed to a peak of 712,000 in 1951. [7] The local Labour Party branches were also often well organised. In the unlikely setting of Chichester, Sussex, the Labour Party had three full time constituency officers in 1955: an agent, a secretary and a fundraiser who organised a tote. [8] In 1959 the Faversham and Lanark Labour parties both had individual memberships of over 4,000. [9] One member, looking back to the election of the Attlee government, reminisces:

The question of recruiting members in 1945 is easy, we made hundreds of them. Now, ideally, if you take a ward and it consists of say 50 roads, you can split that up into areas and, if you’re luckier still, you take every road of those 50 and you can have a street captain. Now, that street captain knows the road and knows the people. So when you come to polling day he [sic] goes along and knocks on the doors and says ‘You know you’re Labour and it’s voting and you’ll be along there, won’t you?’ and that, of course, is the ideal basis of Labour Party organisation which, regretfully, I don’t ever see coming back again. [10]

These local networks ensured that Labour membership was carried on down through the generations. A 1958 survey of party members in Manchester showed 58 percent had a relative who was interested in politics and 77 percent were union members. [11]

Generating Socialism gives a wonderful view of working class life between the wars, one sometimes at variance with the traditional view of Britain as an island of stability. One woman recalls going as a teenager to a Labour Party rally in Ilford which was broken up by the fascists:

And my mind goes back to it now that I saw grey-haired women up there shaking the Union Jack, you know, and ‘We want Hitler! We want Hitler!’ and the fascist salute. And you know it frightened me. Not for the violence, but for people’s thoughts ... That’s when I changed my mind about Great Britain. You’re not what I thought you were. Because there were these people who were willing to co-operate with Hitler. [12]

Yet there is an important contemporary thread running through Generating Socialism. It both serves as a riposte to Blair and Mandelson, and offers hope to those who might despair of their allegiance to Labour. Tony Benn, in his introduction, argues:

But the overwhelming impression given in these recollections is of goodwill and comradeship that has characterised our co-operation together from the very beginning and of the immense amount of work that was – and still is – undertaken by local parties ... Those who read the memories contained in this book will find it impossible to believe that the Labour and trade union movement and its rank and file members are ready to fade away to make room for the pollsters and the advertising agents whose only constituents seem to be the media proprietors, editors and correspondents. [13]

For those who have heard Tony Benn respond to questions about Blair’s hold on the Labour Party this has a familiar ring. Underneath, he argues, the Labour Party remains fundamentally sound – Blair’s hold is episodic and the fundamental nature of the Labour Party will win out in the end. The bottom line, of course, is that you’ve got to stick in the Labour Party though thick and thin.

That argument rests on a simple truth. The rank and file of the Labour Party does contain some of the finest people you could meet – like the people interviewed here who fought fascism in the 1930s, supported the Spanish Republic against Franco, opposed racism, kept the torch alight in the fight against apartheid and so on. Generating Socialism is an inspiring read precisely because it expresses their experiences. Yet it is necessary to go beyond the warm glow of solidarity emanating from this volume.

For socialists critical of the Labourist tradition it is interesting that the only strikes mentioned are the 1926 General Strike and, more fleetingly, the 1984–1985 Miners’ Strike. Both were so seismic that they created a huge response among Labour’s grass roots (although in 1984 that was delayed until the European elections were out of the way). The chapter on the 1926 General Strike is excellent. One future Communist Party member remembered middle class strikebreakers being chased down Hackney’s Mare Street and dumped in a horse trough. Syd Bidwell recalls, ‘My father was on the General Strike local committee. I was very young, but I recall the workers attacking buses at the Southall bus garage ... and pushing a bus over – the crowd pushing the bus right over on its side, and it was being driven by a blackleg student’. [14] Another Kingston Labour Party member recalled:

My early political contacts occurred first of all in 1926, during the General Strike, when my eldest brother took me to Hyde Park, where the demonstrations were occurring. I have vivid memories of the rough treatment of the strikers by the police, with arms painfully twisted up behind their backs. Even at the age of 11, I could begin to see the class struggle. [15]

But what this book ignores is that the leadership of the Labour Party loathed both strikes. Similarly they opposed the mobilisations against Mosley and the unemployed marches. A Ministry of Health report noted that in Plymouth the Salvation Army had to feed that section of the 1932 march because ‘the Labour Party gave no support to the marchers, who were unable to collect a halfpenny’. [16]

The Labour Party was intimately connected to the working class through the unions. But it was always at a remove from the class struggle. Underlying that is a separation between economics and politics which itself reflects how capitalist democracy functions. We have democratic control over very limited sectors of the state, but no control or even say over the workings of the market. The Labour Party is about operating solely within the confines of that narrow political democracy while the trade unions are about defending workers’ economic position. The idea that workers might use their economic muscle to bring about political change is dismissed out of hand. This separation between economics and politics can lead to crazy situations where Labour activists find themselves wearing different hats in different situations, as a Chester Labour Party member recalls:

We had a particular item of business and a very well known and quite well revered man in the Chester labour movement, a chap called Alderman Ted Ashton, got up. I said ‘Alderman Ashton, you can’t speak on this business.’ ‘What?’ he said. ‘I can’t speak on this business? It’s got to deal with the railways,’ he said. I said, ‘Yes, I know.’ He said, ‘I’m the branch secretary of the NUR. What do you mean I can’t speak on it?’ I said, ‘Because you are here as the delegate from Broughton Ward Labour Party, you are not a delegate from the NUR here.’ ‘Oh, bloody ridiculous.’ He came to me later and said, ‘You were quite right.’ [17]

Even in the area of challenging fascism and racism, the lack of an ideological clarity comes through. In 1964 the sitting Labour MP for Southall called for ‘a complete ban on immigration to Southall’ which opened the door to the British National Party (later relaunched as the National Front) which stood against him on a platform of a complete ban on ‘coloured immigration’ and on benefits for immigrants. The Nazis won 9 percent of the vote. Jimmy Allison, who rose to become Scottish organiser of the Labour Party, recalls the racist views of Bermondsey MP Bob Mellish, who also championed the Spanish fascist dictator Franco. [18]

Similarly there was great diversity on the question of women’s role in the party. From 1918 onwards women were organised into separate Women’s Sections which had no formal power. In the 1920s Winnie Smith started one such Women’s Section. She recalls:

Men were the masters and women were left to do the soppy things... Then I found out the Women’s Sections were just expected to do the drying up, the washing up, run the raffles, but they were never involved in politics at all, and they were never given the freedom to do so. They could never come out canvassing and they were not allowed to speak. Men looked down on them as idiots or just women for the kitchen only.

The Labour Party also encourages a slavish devotion to parliament which even infects those on the left of the party. Aneurin Bevan writing in praise of the British parliament in In Place of Fear in 1952, argued the following:

The absence of a written constitution gives British politics a flexibility enjoyed by few nations. No courts can construe the power of the British parliament. It interprets its own authority, and from it there is no appeal. This gives it a revolutionary quality, and enables us to entertain the hope of bringing about social transformations, without the agony and prolonged crises experienced by other nations. [19]

Generating Socialism effectively ends with the finale of the 1945 election, the continuing support of veteran members for the party, and their pride in the welfare state. Despite its strengths, this book offers no explanation as to what happened next, and why Labour membership was to fall so dramatically.

In 1952 individual membership of the Labour Party – as opposed to the number of trade unionists who were affiliated to it – stood at just over 1 million. By the early 1980s that figure dropped to around the 250,000 mark. Today it claims 350,000. [20] The only national survey of its membership found that in 1992 Labour’s membership was 96 percent white, 61 percent male, that 65 percent were white collar and professional workers, with 62 percent of members employed in the public sector and 52 percent over the age of 45. [21] To explain this, we have to turn to Labour’s record in the 1960s and 1970s and Fielding’s book, The Labour Party: Socialism and society since 1951, provides a few pointers. Fielding brings together an interesting set of documents and memoirs covering the party’s evolution from its post-war victory up to 1995.

In the 1960s a radicalisation began among Labour’s Young Socialists, receiving an impetus from the movement against nuclear weapons. A 1965 survey of Young Socialists found that there was a continuity with earlier periods of radicalisation:

The further left a Young Socialist, the more likely he [sic] is to have actively radical, if not revolutionary parents, parents whose own politics were shaped in 1917, 1926 or 1931 ... of those who are active the great majority are merely continuing a family habit of enjoyment in public affairs. Often the critical politicising experiences that brought the family into politics lie three generations away, the Docks Strike [1889], the Revolution of 1905, the Great War. [22]

However, when that radicalisation spread under the1964–1970 Labour government led by Harold Wilson it was channelled into directions independent of the Labour Party. So 1968 is seen as the year of student protests – but it also marked the rebirth of revolutionary politics. By 1969 and 1970 there was also a mushrooming of industrial militancy which meant many groups of workers looked to their own economic power and shop stewards organisations.

The 1974–1979 Labour government spawned even greater disillusionment but industrial confidence was undermined by the recession and the effects of Labour’s Social Contract. When it came to the 1984–1985 Miners’ Strike the Labour left was still strong enough to experience a revival. While the Labour leadership stood aloof from the strike, constituency banners were there on the marches for the miners, and local Labour activists were important to building local support groups. One member in Woking reveals, ‘The party came to life: we had something practical to work on, we had a cause.’ Brighton Labour Party reported that ‘many inactive members got involved in our collections and started coming to meetings again, and new members joined’. [23]

But with the end of the strike the Labour Party began to retreat further from struggle and effective campaigning. By the 1990s the great campaigns against the poll tax, the Gulf War, the Nazis and the Criminal Justice Bill mobilised many thousands of Labour supporters but with less and less evidence of an organised Labour presence. On the contrary, revolutionaries built those campaigns in the face of hostility from the Labour leadership.

This wasn’t something entirely new. In the 1930s the Communist Party did something similar when it opposed Mosley’s fascists, organised aid for Spain and built union organisation in the ‘new industries’. The Communist Party is repeatedly mentioned in Generating Socialism but only in soft focus. The former Communists interviewed here remind us that the CP recruited the cream of the British working class in the 1930s. But the 1945 cut-off point means the Stalinist nature of that party and its slavish support of Stalin are obscured. Stalinism provided the Labour left with a degree of ideological cement. The Communist Party could provide a top down model of how ‘socialism’ could be achieved using the state. Indeed by the 1960s the Communist Party almost gloried in its portrayal of itself as providing the industrial muscle for the parliamentarians of the Labour left.

Today’s Labour leaders would no doubt discount Generating Socialism as nostalgia. Many Blairites do have a pro-Communist past (I think in particular of one defence minister speaking passionately in defence of Cuban intervention in Angola at a Scottish NUS conference). But for all of them, as with Blair’s attitude to his past membership of CND, that was then and this is now. Everyone interviewed in the book, from Tony Benn to Tony Blair, agrees on one thing: there is no alternative to the Labour Party.

To pick up the threads left by Generating Socialism, we have to return to Steven Fielding’s The Labour Party: ‘Socialism’ and Society since 1951. Looking back on the Attlee government in 1952 Richard Crossman noted, ‘Yet, after scarcely four years in office, the government had fulfilled its historic mission. The nationalisation of half a dozen major industries, the construction of an all-in system of social security and a free health service, and a tentative application of planning to the national economy – the achievement of these reforms seemed to have exhausted the content of British socialism.’

There were two responses to the defeat of the Attlee government in 1951. One was to support a policy of continuing nationalisation which crystallised round left wing rebel Aneurin Bevan. The other was to call for a profound revision of Labour’s policies, and in particular the dropping of any further nationalisation. This position was championed by the new Labour leader, Hugh Gaitskell. The right was supported by the block votes of the biggest unions at Labour’s conference. Right wingers, like the future founder of the Social Democratic Party, Bill Rogers, rejected calls for greater democracy in the party and defended the block vote he would later so bitterly denounce. [24]

By 1956 Anthony Crosland was arguing in The Future of Socialism that ‘capitalism had been transformed out of recognition’. He predicted the post-war boom would continue until any economic reasons for socialism had been eradicated. Crosland quoted former Labour premier Lord Attlee who said ‘I joined the socialist movement because I did not like the kind of society we had and I wanted something better’ but Crosland then asked, ‘Why should anyone say the same today?’ [25] The right wing Socialist Commentary explained that ‘both parties [Labour and the Tories] have gradually been pushed further towards the centre. The battle for the floating vote – which fluctuates somewhere in the centre, or in the case of non-voters is stationary there – remains as the only method of changing the parliamentary position, unsatisfactory as it is for both parties’. [26]

The left round Bevan and Tribune continued to argue that Labour could win with a bolder policy. Bevan made his peace with Gaitskell in 1956 and the following year, as shadow foreign minister, spoke out against nuclear disarmament at party conference. The internal fights became more acrimonious culminating in two great pitched battles – over Gaitskell’s attempt to drop Clause Four of the party’s constitution and then over nuclear disarmament at the 1960 and 1961 annual conferences. Gaitskell was defeated over Clause Four but, after losing at the 1960 conference, won over nuclear disarmament the following year.

In January 1963 Gaitskell suddenly died. The next month Harold Wilson, seen as the left candidate, beat the right winger George Brown to become party leader. Crossman records how Wilson was a guest at a dinner given by Barbara Castle and attended by the main figures on the left of the party. He told them, ‘You must understand that I am running a Bolshevik Revolution with a Tsarist shadow cabinet’. [27]

Wilson scraped into office in 1964 campaigning for a ‘New Britain’ which would end 13 ‘wasted years’ of Tory rule. In March 1966 he called an election which gave him a 96 seat majority. For the previous two years Wilson and his chancellor, James Callaghan, had refused to devalue sterling which was overpriced on the world money markets. Immediately after the election there was a bitter seafarers’ strike. The bosses were prepared to settle, but Wilson encouraged them to dig their heels in, and used a red smear against the strike leaders. The strike gave rise to a run on sterling. In July 1966 Wilson, still refusing to devalue, was forced to cut public spending, increase taxes and limit wages in order to reassure the markets. Wilson only secured a narrow majority in the cabinet and there was fierce battle at Labour’s national executive between Wilson and Callaghan on the one side and the union leaders on the other.

This episode marked the end of Labour’s honeymoon and heralded a rapid change of fortunes. Steven Fielding has done particularly well in selecting material which shows the process of disillusionment among Labour members. In Newton Heath, Manchester, attendances at the ward Labour Party declined from an average attendance of 30 in 1965 to 25 in the following year, 18 in 1967, and 9 in 1968 before reviving to 16 in 1969 and then slumping back to 11 in 1970 (an election year). [28] In the Northfield constituency, ‘Mr Elkington commented on the general feeling of apathy within the ward. Small attendances were being recorded at meetings, even though speakers had been arranged’. [29]

One response to Labour’s unpopularity was to look for scapegoats as working class living standards fell. The minutes for Bedford Divisional Labour Party’s October 1967 meeting show how this affected Labour members:

A member said that we might just as well ‘give the whole damn country to the blacks, as they would get it in the end anyway. Before long we would have a black king on the throne and then it would be God help us! The poor old white man might just as well emigrate and leave the place to them’ ... Mr Storrow said he was not aware that Ian Smith [the white supremacist head of Rhodesia] was present but apparently he was ...

In February 1968 the Labour government introduced the Commonwealth Immigrants Bill, an emergency measure, blocking entry to the country by Kenyan Asians holding British passports. This followed a vicious campaign whipped up by the right wing press and the Tories, in the face of which Wilson collapsed. But opposition was beginning to form on the left, independent of the Labour Party, firstly to the Vietnam War and then to a wages freeze.

This had an effect within Labour’s grass roots as the following letter to a local paper by a long-standing member of the Stalybridge and Hyde Labour Party, written in July 1968, shows:

I have been a full time agent for the Labour Party and I have conducted two parliamentary elections in my present constituency. But I can no longer work for the return of this Labour government. I have sent in my Labour Party membership card (paid up, as it was) with my resignation. What is more, I shall work within my trade union (NUPE) to secure its disaffiliation from the Labour Party. When only 23 Labour MPs can be found to oppose the penal clauses of the prices and wages legislation, what hope have we for socialism from the Parliamentary Labour Party, let alone this government? To turn the clock of history back nearly 100 years – why, I should have been surprised to find 23 Labour MPs supporting such a measure. [30]

The Labour government fell in 1970 but was returned on a big wave of working class struggle in February 1974. The party’s manifesto shows how it had to move leftwards in reaction to working class insurgency. It promised to:

  1. Bring about a fundamental and irreversible shift in the balance of power and wealth in favour of working people and their families.
  2. Eliminate poverty.
  3. Make power in industry genuinely accountable to the workers and the community at large.
  4. Achieve far greater economic equality – in income, wealth and living standards.
  5. Increase social equality by giving far greater importance to full employment, housing, education and social benefits.
  6. Improve the environment in which our people live and work and spend their leisure.

In return for such pledges the trade union leaders agreed to co-operate with the new Labour government in the Social Contract. Increasingly this centred on wage restraint and increasing productivity. Workers were called on to make sacrifices to restore British industry’s competitiveness and unemployment mounted throughout 1975 and 1976.

Yet despite the pressures from below the trade union leaders defended the Social Contract. Jack Jones of the TGWU was key to its maintenance. In April 1975 he told the Scottish TUC:

My appeal is to respect the Social Contract, and to support it. To do this would mean advancing the interests of our members and keeping a Labour government in power. Can we really afford to let this government be thrown out? The Labour government, for all its limitations, is two hundred times better than a Tory government ... How else but with unity between the trade unions and the Labour government are we going to fight rising unemployment and the redundancies that are taking place?

The Communist Party was tied to Jones and his counterpart in the engineering union, Hugh Scanlon. They were in a strong enough position to broadly contain discontent with the government by making general statements, while at a local level the Communist convenor at Leyland (now Rover) Longbridge, Derek Robinson, ordered workers to cross craft workers’ picket lines, and Jimmy Airlie, the Communist convenor at Glasgow’s Govan shipyard, was prepared to compete with a Polish shipyard by accepting conditions Newcastle ship workers refused to tolerate.

Fielding quotes the annual report of Warrington District Trades Council for 1977 which supported the Communist/Labour left ‘alternative economic strategy’ – which amounted to little more than a reheated version of the old Keynesian consensus – and had sent delegates to both the Communist initiated Liaison Committee for the Defence of Trade Unions conference in February and the National Conference for a Return to Free Collective Bargaining organised by the Leyland Combined Shop Stewards Committee in April. The former conference opposed the Social Contract but took no position on the toolroom strike at Leyland which was being attacked by their union leader, Hugh Scanlon, who backed the company locking the strikers out.

The Leyland conference was attended by 1,700 delegates including 300 Leyland stewards. A keynote speaker was the Longbridge convenor, Derek Robinson, even though he had argued for a wage rise in line with the limits set by phase two of the Social Contract. It called for an end to the Social Contract and a day of action on 20 April. But the platform attacked the toolroom strike as ‘divisive’ and ‘sectional’. The convenor at Triumph in Coventry described the strikers as a ‘sectional interest, backed by Tory newspapers, a reactionary strike’. [31] A week after the conference engineering workers at Heathrow came out over pay and were sacked. Officials of the TGWU, ASTMS and the EETPU signed a document calling on other workers to take their jobs.

The day of action on 20 April saw just 35,000 workers come out. Longbridge did not join the strike. Peter Bain from the Chrysler Linwood plant on Clydeside (the Communist Party’s strongest industrial area) reported:

I can never remember such cynicism and treachery in Communist Party politics. Their attitude is that if the trade union conferences support wage control there is nothing the rank and file can do about it ...

We got a 24 hour stoppage in Chrysler on 20 April. But in most of the other factories on Clydeside it was not fought for properly. The convenors of the shipyard actually called a separate stoppage against redundancies on the 19th, not the 20th.. [32]

The year 1977 was a turning point not just for the Labour government but for the whole pattern of class struggle. Anger against the Social Contract had broken first with a spontaneous demonstration at Longbridge against wage controls, which led the stewards committee to call the April conference. The spring saw strikes by Leyland toolroom workers, Heathrow engineers and electricians at British Steel’s Port Talbot plant. These skilled workers were all suffering from pay controls. The Labour government and the union leaders tried to portray the disputes as being about well paid workers protecting their differentials at the expense of low paid workers. The influential Communist Party echoed this. The union officials, given crucial help from the Communist Party among shop stewards, succeeded in isolating and dousing out the rank and file rebellion against wage controls.

Looking back, Michael Foot, a key figure in the Labour government, said in 1982, ‘It must also be admitted that by 1977, while there was still a large measure of support for the policy, there was also substantial opposition especially within the labour movement’. [33] That summer saw another decisive defeat – despite a massive mobilisation by the rank and file. The boss of the Grunwick photo processing plant in north west London sacked 90 Asian women after they joined a union. He was backed by the right wing bosses’ organisation, the Freedom Association. The Grunwick strike quickly attracted massive support. The numbers joining the picket line swelled, reaching a climax on 11 July 1977.

On that morning thousands of Yorkshire miners and dockers from Hull, London, Merseyside and Southampton joined a mass picket outside the plant. Cricklewood postal workers who were refusing to handle deliveries to Grunwick walked out to join 1,000 other postal workers on the picket line. Despite the riot police, sheer weight of numbers prevented the scab bus getting through. The atmosphere was like that outside Pentonville Prison and Saltley Gates in 1972.

But after the plant had been blockaded for four hours the TUC and the strikers’ union, APEX, urged people to leave the plant to join a march round the streets of north west London. A speech by the TUC deputy general secretary failed to move the determined pickets. Only after Arthur Scargill of the Yorkshire NUM asked them to leave in the interests of unity did they join the march. As workers marched off to a rally in the park the scab buses got through.

A decisive opportunity had been allowed to pass. Despite promises from the TUC of a consumers’ boycott and an effort to fight the sackings through the court, the strike was allowed to go down to defeat. The Labour home secretary, Merlyn Rees, continually denounced picket line violence and publicly backed the riot police as they gained confidence to go onto the attack. The year ended with a national strike by firefighters over pay. The Labour government was determined to hold the line and the TUC was determined to isolate the strike. Despite fantastic support the strikers fought alone and the dispute eventually ended in a compromise (though at the time this appeared to be a defeat).

The Social Contact survived 1977, but pressure from below could not be contained. Anger over pay erupted amongst the lowest paid in the Winter of Discontent of 1978–1979. Yet these strikes were bitter and sectional in the absence of any effective leadership from either the trade union leaders or from the shop stewards movement. That movement which had brought the Tories to their knees in 1972 and then driven them from office in 1974 effectively no longer existed.

Because it is a history of the Labour Party, Fielding’s book only touches on these bitter years. Yet there is enough here to give a taste of the mood. It also demonstrates why a generation of activists, faced with the disaster of Labour in office and the erosion of shop floor confidence turned their energies towards shifting the Labour Party leftwards. Fielding’s collection charts both their failure to do that and the whole process through which the right wing took control of the party, culminating in Tony Blair’s launch of New Labour.

Blair’s landslide victory of 1997 had a similarity with that of 1945 in that people were rejecting the past. In 1945 they were turning their backs on the 1930s and mass unemployment, poverty and the appeasement of fascism. In 1997 there was a massive rejection of the Tories’ market values. But 1945 brought real reforms. In 1997 no such changes are on offer. The very size of Labour’s victory has strengthened expectations and the mood for change which has existed in Britain since October 1992. Blair’s New Labour is in a far weaker position than even its 1974 predecessor in that it has less roots inside the working class and it can call on no one of the stature of Jack Jones or Hugh Scanlon to carry its message into the working class. Above all, the Communist Party, which in 1977 absorbed and diffused discontent with Labour, is now dead.

The hold of Labourist politics inside the British working class was cemented by the achievements of 1945. Yet Blair’s relentless drive to modernise the Labour Party, to take it towards the centre and to weaken its links with the unions, has thrown that allegiance into flux. Can British workers be drawn to a Marxist alternative? The common-sense answer to that question is no. International Socialism would answer that there is everything to play for.


1. K. Laybourn, The Rise of Socialism in Britain (Sutton Publishing 1997), p. 1.

2. F. Engels to L. Lafargue, 4 May 1891.

3. K. Laybourn, op. cit., p. 32.

4. D. Weinbren, Generating Socialism (Sutton Publishing 1997), p. 3.

5. Ibid., p. 169.

6. Ibid., p. 178.

7. Ibid., p. 57.

8. Ibid., p. 67.

9. Ibid., p. 185.

10. Ibid., p. 68.

11. Ibid., p. 29.

12. Ibid., p. 114.

13. Ibid., pp. iv–v.

14. Ibid., p. 81.

15. Ibid., p. 81.

16. Ibid., p. 93.

17. Ibid., pp. 47–48.

18. Ibid., pp. 124–126.

19. Quoted in S. Fielding (ed.), The Labour Party: ‘Socialism’ and Society Since 1951 (Manchester University Press), p. 34.

20. S. Fielding (ed.), op. cit., p. 11.

21. P. Seyd and P. Whiteley, Labour’s Grass Roots (Clarendon Press 1992), pp. 28–40.

22. D. Weinbren, op. cit., p. 20.

23. Ibid., p. 153.

24. S. Fielding, op. cit., p. 46.

25. Ibid., pp. 41–43.

26. Ibid., p. 32.

27. Ibid., p. 59.

28. Ibid., pp. 80–81.

29. Ibid., p. 82.

30. Ibid., p. 85.

31. Socialist Worker, 9 April 1977.

32. Socialist Worker, 30 April 1977.

33. S. Fielding, op. cit., p. 105.

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